This year’s fall show – Le Noir d’Arthur – is a film noir adaptation of the Arthurian legends – Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson – our 11th grade students read. Humanities teacher Sam Koenen, having taught the story multiple times, observed that Arthurian legend would make great film noir, as all the thematic ingredients are there: an obsessive quest/case, femme fatales on both sides of the law, and a group of men who come together for a common cause but end up turning on each other. Someone just had to write it.
Enter Elsa Bentz, a current senior and a student in the class in which Mr. Koenen made his observation (not to mention an aficionado of all things 1940s). Over the summer, Elsa and I wrote the script for Le Noir d’Arthur, going through several drafts and revisions before submitting a finished copy to Mr. Dunham and Mr. Koenen for approval. Because the source material and thematic mood is very different from any other show that we have produced before, let me give you some background as you consider joining us for Le Noir d’Arthur.
Historically, film noir is considered an aesthetic type of film originally made in the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. The term was coined by French film critics to describe a film that was bleak, dark, or cynical both in style and thematic mood. Many of the American-made films after World War II fit this description, capitalizing on the tension and distrust that followed the war. Source material included hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s and ‘40s, with Raymond Chandler’s stories about Philip Marlowe becoming archetypes of the genre.
Cinematically, many of the films were influenced by German expressionism from the 1910s and ‘20s, including the use of gloomy gray colors, bleak city scapes, and dimly lit interiors. Stories typically revolved around a disillusioned male protagonist who is characterized by a pessimistic, gloomy, or melancholy disposition due to a past mistake, regret, or grudge. He would come into contact with a femme fatale, who would then lead him into a deepening web of deceit or trickery that would ultimately lead to their downfall. Thus, film noir was a counter-balance to the popular (but unrealistic) musical genre of films that solved every “problem like Maria” with a song.
The real question for us in writing the show was, how do we take a bleak, pessimistic film style from the ‘40s and a medieval legend about common human failures and turn it into a quality production? At Petra, our staff and students read books that point us toward truth – the truth of Christ and the truth of living in a fallen world – and our goal is to tell stories onstage that do the same thing for the audience and the actors. This play is no different, but the hard truth of Arthurian legend and film noir is that the unredeemed world is bleak and full of sin, no matter how hard we fight it. But that doesn’t make the fighting any easier or any less important; on the contrary, it makes it even more so!
In our plays, we don’t glorify sinful attitudes, behaviors, or actions onstage, so we do our best to balance the tension of maintaining integrity to the source material and play style with putting on a production Petra families will want to attend. Some aspects – like the presence of tobacco and alcohol (both of which are just props) or the death of several characters – may be off-putting to some, but to keep from glorifying these elements of the story, we’ve made specific directorial choices so the audience knows what is happening without exploiting it, much the way film noir masters Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles did. While these aspects of the show are hardly the primary focus of the play, we felt it important to make sure families are aware of them in order to make decisions about younger students attending.
Our drama program continues to grow with each passing year, and this show represents two big firsts:
1) It’s our first-ever fall play. By adding a second show to the school year, more students get to be a part of what we’re doing during a different time (and sports season) of the year than our spring show.
2) It’s our first (but hopefully not last!) show created in-house by/for Petra, as it was written and co-directed by one of our very own students. This has been one of my goals as a drama director/teacher from the beginning.
Buy your tickets now and come out in November for the world premiere of Le Noir d’Arthur!