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November 21, 2018 9:02 am

Bernard-Henri Lévy: ‘Looking for Europe’ Off Broadway

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French philosopher, writer and director Bernard-Henri Levy. Photo: Reuters / Benoit Tessier.

The East Village, November 5, 2018.

It’s the eve of the midterm elections, with such a lot at stake for the United States.

It’s also my birthday. I have to pinch myself to believe it, but the unimaginable has indeed come to pass: this is the day I turn 70.

And I am about to take the stage of the Public Theater, one of the most daunting stages in New York, the one that launched “Hair” in 1967 and “Chorus Line” in 1975; the one on which I discovered, over the years, the most daring productions of Shakespeare; the theater of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams — and the one on which, in a few minutes, I will perform a play of my own, “Looking for Europe.”

What goes through one’s head at such a moment?

At this stage of life — 70 years, you have to admit, even if you believe, with Mauriac the younger or Roger Vaillant’s Don Juan, in time standing still, 70 is not nothing — why take to the stage? Is it to ignore the rendezvous? To dodge it, defy it, or put it to the test? Is it flippancy? Irreverence? Impiety? A flirtation with the devil?

And who, for that matter, chose the date? Was it my doing? Or that of Oskar Eustis, the Public’s legendary artistic director? Or was the decision the work of Chance, that god who plays dice with our lives and is, as we all know, the most pitiless and facetious of all the gods?

Unfortunately, I can’t dwell on these questions.

Because for the moment the only thing that counts is the terrifyingly dark house that I can see from the wings.

Nothing matters except the faces, unseen but imagined, of my New York friends who have come to support me in this strange adventure.

And the faces of the others, neither friends nor foes, who make up the real audience, a crowd as cruel in New York as in Paris or anywhere else. I was so delighted when the performance sold out an hour after being posted on the Public’s web site — and now, suddenly, I am so afraid.

And the two-hour monologue, inspired by the script of “Hôtel Europe,” which I mounted a few years ago in Paris but almost completely rewrote for tonight’s show, working feverishly day and night like the playwrights of the Elizabethan era, who, up to the very last minute, would incorporate into their scripts the rumors coursing through the city, echoing in the taverns — or like Meyerhold, who, in the Moscow of the 1920s, would introduce “news from the front” and, in so doing, transform staid choreography into passionate encounters.

The monologue, the disheveled monologue, in English, of a writer closeted in a hotel room where he is working on a long speech about Europe to be delivered two hours hence but that slips through his fingers and falls to pieces as soon as he thinks he has a hold on it. In principle, I know that monologue. I wrote it, I’ve memorized it…but how can I be sure? And even if that’s the case, even if I’m making only occasional use of the teleprompter placed, as a precaution, at the edge of the stage, will my body remember what it has to do? And my voice? Not to mention the sacred space under my feet — will that space work its magic?

Bosnia, the Spanish Civil War of my generation, haunts the play.

As does the death of Ambassador Pamela Harriman in the pool of the Ritz in Paris, an event to which I was a chance witness, one that I have never really recounted.

As does a meeting with the young Barack Obama four years before his election, and the mystery of the man who would become, fifteen years later, a producer for Netflix.

As does Shalom de Shalom, my shepherd grandfather from the Libyan hills, who believed, like Nachman de Breslov, that it was forbidden to be old and that one must live for 120 years. And who died the death of a saint in the middle of the desert, his flesh immediately mineralized and his glorious bones brought immediately in contact with the infinite — though well before his 120th birthday.

As do other friendly ghosts, heavenly defectors, and guardian angels who come to the rescue at the end of the play to reinvent Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty; to form a Euramerican government to counter the “Eurasian” ambitions of Mr. Putin; to call forth a government in which George Soros and Mother Teresa might jointly hold the Ministry of Finance, in which Jan Karski and Woodrow Wilson might hold Foreign Affairs, Sartre and Jeff Koons might share being and nothingness; and, in short, to summon up a metaphysical Atlanticism whose magnificent and melodious voice might carry from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Pont Mirabeau and, unless the British do, in fact, exit, to the banks of the Thames.

As does, in imitation of the Elizabethans, the news of the day: the rise of populisms in Europe; the victory of a racist in Brazil; the solitude of an Emmanuel Macron left to shoulder, nearly alone, the values of an affirmative Europe; Trump and the alt-right; the slaughter in Pittsburgh and the litany of the names of its victims; the Pakistani mobs that I know only too well howling for the death of Christian prisoner Asia Bibi; and the mad wind whistling over US campuses, which from boycotts of Israel to calls to rewrite literary treasures deemed insufficiently respectful, after the fact, of the taboos of identity politics, is giving rise to the world’s most idiotic left.

A melding of times and places.

A profusion of conflicting feelings.

And, when it’s over, when the house rises and, in one voice, intones “Happy Birthday” — one of the most baffling, and happy, moments of this writer’s life.

Thank you, New York.

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