Return of the cad

The Vicomte de Valmont is one of literature's most irresistible scoundrels. Now he's back in the West End in 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'. What are his origins, asks Laura Thompson. And why do we still love him and the company of rascals who travelled in his wake?

When, in around 1780, the French soldier Choderlos de Laclos wrote his one work of fiction - Les Liaisons Dangereuses - he created a magnificent artistic monster. He had told a friend that he wanted to write "something that would resound around the world even after I had left it". But he would have surely been amazed at the afterlife of his epistolary novel. In 1985 it was transformed by Christopher Hampton into a theatrical phenomenon: the play has enthralled audiences in Stratford, London and New York, been twice filmed, and now opens this week in a new West End production with the deliciously promising cast of Jared Harris, Polly Walker and Emilia Fox.

To what can one attribute this unquenchable life? It lies, surely, in Laclos' two central characters: the femme fatale Marquise de Merteuil, and the arch-seducer Vicomte de Valmont. They are utterly creatures of their time, pre-revolutionary in every sense, decadent French aristocrats of serpentine sensuality and crystalline intelligence who are about to get the literal chop. And yet they continue to fascinate: why? Is it because the sexual realities that they embodied are not quite so dead as all that?

Merteuil is an extraordinary creation, an ice bitch who knows it, and who - without stooping to ask for sympathy - defends herself with compelling cogency. Her desire for control, as she explains in Christopher Hampton's play, derives from her belief that in life, as in love, men "hold every ace in the pack".

The play itself appears to confirm this belief, since Valmont commands a degree of sympathy that Merteuil does not. Yet he is really just as bad as she is. Alan Rickman - the original stage Valmont - has said that he went close to the edge after two years in this rapacious role. Jared Harris takes a more robust view, saying that despite feeling "some level of disgust with yourself" after playing certain scenes, "it's part of the fun to play someone who is so sexually predatory and politically incorrect". And Valmont is fun. He has charm. He is that irresistible force, the sexy villain: the devil who doesn't just get all the best tunes but all the best women too.

So in a sense he is an archetype: a Don Juan. "Don Juan est la séduction comme Vénus est la beauté" ("Don Juan is to seduction what Venus is to beauty") as André Malraux put it in his 1939 introduction to Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The Don - in real-life a womanising Spanish nobleman - had been frequently represented in drama since Tirso de Molina first took him on in 1630. Molière's 1665 Dom Juan was the third French play on the subject in just six years; Thomas Shadwell's 1676 play The Libertine was still wowing London audiences in 1740. These treatments tended toward the comic, although Molière's play had a firm grasp upon the dark realities within the archetype.

Then, in the first novel to take on the Don Juan figure - Samuel Richardson's 1748 Clarissa - his grim psychology began to acquire true substance. Lovelace conducts his sustained assault upon Clarissa's doomed virtue and the true smell of brimstone rises from the character. In the play of Les Liaisons, the saintly Madame de Tourvel - Valmont's chief victim - has a copy of Richardson's novel beside her bed; the point would be hard to miss.

For Valmont wreaks a similar havoc to Lovelace. He has a demonic force comparable with that of Mozart's Don Giovanni who appeared in 1787. Indeed when one considers Valmont in the midst of these other Don Juans one realises just what a remarkable creation he is: light of touch as a feather, destructive as a volcano. Perhaps the key to him, as with Merteuil, is his self-knowledge. It makes him funny and it makes him terrible. With him, as André Malraux says, Laclos "peint Don Juan et vend la mèche", in other words he "spills the beans" about what it is like to be such a man. This is why Valmont is such a modern creation.

Certainly he speaks to us a good deal more directly than the hero of Byron's 1818 epic poem (who according to Shaw - yet another interpreter of the myth - "is dumb"). But then of course the point about Byron's Don Juan is Byron himself. Byron is his own myth: a Valmont brought to flagrant, intelligent, self-mocking life. And it is he, perhaps more than anyone, who has helped to shape the image of the sexy devil.

"What Manfred said of Astarte ("I loved her, and destroy'd her"), what Byron wished to be able to say of Augusta and Annabella, was to become the motto of the 'fatal' heroes of Romantic literature," wrote Mario Praz, in his thrillingly lurid study The Romantic Agony, a book which shows just how much the romantic poets have to answer for. Once lit in the popular imagination, the flame of the Byronic image flickered within Heathcliff, within Count Dracula, within Mr Rochester, all the way through to the rock stars of the Altamont era ("if you're a middle-class girl and you've read your Byron - well...", said Marianne Faithfull, explaining her inability to resist the dark force that was Keith Richard). And so it goes on.

But does the irresistible bastard still have the dominating force of old? Surely the missing element is that of straightforward power: the elemental power of a Heathcliff, the aristocratic power of a Valmont? Or both, in the case of Dracula? Nowadays we consider this notion to be an aberration, and think thereby to reduce the sexy bastard to nothing more than his Byronic image: smouldering like Rufus Sewell but with, you know, total respect for female autonomy. Yet if one translates the concept of power into truly modern terms, and considers Premier League footballers to be the new aristocrats - marching at any hour they choose into the Grosvenor Hotel, clicking their fingers at waiters and women alike - then the whole question of droit de seigneur is not quite so comfortably dead.

There is, though, a more fundamental difference between "then" and "now", and it lies in the shifting morality of the sexual act. Valmont, Don Giovanni, Alec d'Urberville - they are all "fatal" heroes because their acts have an innate magnitude, and they are sinning against a code that they nonetheless acknowledge. "I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself", Valmont says of Madame de Tourvel. This may seem melodramatic, just as it does when Alec d'Urberville pushes strawberries between Tess's lips and puffs his cigar at her in the dark. Yet these men are often setting in motion events that will kill themselves, and the women they violate.

Even when the tone is more comic, the serious realities are not denied. In Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, the seductive Lord Illingworth may lightly accede to the general opinion that he is a "wicked man" ("It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays, saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true"). Yet he knows that this is not an entirely laughing matter. For the woman whom he impregnated and abandoned "there is no joy, no peace, no atonement"; for him, there is a lifetime of emptiness. He does not go down to the gates of hell but, in the context of 1893 and a less absolute morality, he faces and accepts an irrevocable judgment.

Now, of course, our even more complicated sexual morality means that the whole notion of "seduction" has changed forever. And we tend to think that this has brought sexual identity within our control. Men no longer "hold every ace in the pack", so how can they still be the same kind of sexy villain? In real life Lord Illingworth and the Vicomte de Valmont would probably both be up on multiple charges of date rape. So we watch them both on the London stage and delight in their safely-contained charm; while contemporary culture gives us stuttering, squirming Rob Fleming and William Thacker, and an arch-seducer like Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones's Diary gets satisfyingly humiliated and thrown over for the good guy. All very nice, all very post-feminist.

And yet: to judge by the sub-porn magazines read by a good many young men, they still rather go for the idea of being a Valmont. Great suits, limitless dough, access to every chaise-longue in town. Whey-hey! Might it be that sexual identity is a little more resistant to change than we would like to believe? After all we have Phil Mitchell, hollering his way into every bed in E20, and Sex and the City's Mr Big, smooching his way into every bed in Manhattan. "Don Juan", snaps the betrayed wife in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, "they should have cut his fucking dick off". A temptation which still resonates, on occasion.

No doubt Madame de Merteuil would have a good many thoughts about all this. Most of all though, she would probably be amused by how Don Juan never dies; he simply changes his angle of attack.

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses': Playhouse Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1785) now previewing, opens on Friday