History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Boulevard of the 19th
Boulevard theatre is by definition popular art, separate and below major plays of either romantic or realist movements, with no outstanding dramatist to be speak of. Yet some interesting plays live on, mostly comedies, because of popular enthusiasm for the theatre in Paris throughout the 19th century. A basic element in all farce is fear, which motivates character movements (Parshall, 1981 p 358).
- 1 Georges Feydeau
- 2 Eugène Labiche
- 3 Georges Courteline
- 4 Alfred Capus
- 5 Henry Becque
- 6 Alexandre Dumas the Younger
- 7 Victorien Sardou
One of the most often played comic playwright of Boulevard Theatre is Georges Feydeau (1862-1922), whose most famous farces include "L'Hôtel du libre échange" (The Free Exchange Hotel, 1894), "Le dindon" (Sauce for the goose, more precisely The turkey 1896), and "La dame de chez Maxim" (The lady from Maxim's, 1899).
“More than any other French writer of the turn of the century, Georges Feydeau typifies that period of gaiety, optimism and high living known as ‘la belle époque’” (Pronko, 1975 p 5). “The picture that emerges from his Paris of the ‘belle époque’ is one of great prosperity...[where] Feydeau gives the first glimpses of the dominant flaws of his contemporaries: vanity, selfishness, egocentricity, materialism, emotional vacuity...Whether aristocrats, bourgeois, or members of the working classes, few characters in Feydeau can be said to adhere to strict moral principles...Characters are fastidious...about appearances...Friends are forever betrayed, and betrayed without compunction...If the plays that Feydeau wrote were not so hilarious, his theater could easily be referred to as the theater of cruelty...Few are the characters who do not display it, and few are those not victimized by it” (Esteban, 1983 pp 30-70). "Although his plots, like this, are far from moral, they are so evidently capers of the imagination removed from the actual that they bear no ethical import" (Chandler, 1920 p 163).
“Situational comedy...at which Feydeau excelled...is placed...below the level of the comedy of character. The reason for this is given by Bergson [Laughter, 1940]. The purpose of laughter...is to correct behavior that is dehumanized or antisocial...a character...fails to adapt to changing circumstances...betrays his mania...Situational comedy, on the other had, reveals a distraction in things, life is seen as a mechanism with interchangeable pieces and reversible effects...Unlike the comic of character, says Bergson, situational comedy corrects nothing...In the last half of the 20th century, life has become so dehumanized that Feydeau’s plays stand today almost like a revelation of the threatening universe in which we live...Everything allows us to concur, for life seen...through the perspectives of the Theater of the Absurd...suggests that there is indeed a natural stiffness of things...Writers like Beckett and Ionesco have suggested that [situational comedy] has metaphysical implications” (Pronko, 1975 pp 48-50).
In "The Free Exchange Hotel", the hilarity of the situation into which [Feydeau] plunges the characters underscores some rather serious observations about people in general and about certain social institutions” (Esteban, 1983 p 112). The play “is more than a clever concatenation of absurdities. It reveals the author’s disabused views on marriage, friendship, and the morals of the middle classes...Frigid husbands, shrewish wives, ill-assorted spouses make of marriage...an unbearable state. Illicit love is no better- unless one is young and just learning the pleasures of the flesh, as Maxime does...Whether it is a question of money or of morals, the rule is ‘an eye for an eye’...Mathieu stutters when it rains and is reduced to silence by a storm...Like Ionesco...Feydeau treats the unbearable as comical, suggesting through humor a vision which is far from amusing” (Pronko, 1975 p 121).
In "The turkey", “Feydeau reveals...the fundamental egotism of all men, whether the thoughtless playboy (Rédillon), faithless husband (Pontagnac), or cool businessman (Soldignac). In the pathetic and sometimes touching portrait of the Pinchards, she deaf, he something of a satyr, we see what the future holds in store even for those couples who stick together...Vatelin is cruelly satirized as the typical nouveau riche bourgeois- an unimaginative mediocrity with neither taste nor style...[Mme Pinchard’s] nightmare existence is only one indication in this masterly play of the profoundly pessimistic view of life underlying Feydeau’s baroque frivolities” (Pronko, 1975, pp 130-131). "In this play, Feydeau succeeded in amplifying to near-perfection all his qualities, fusing quite naturally aspects of the comedy of manners and the typically delirious rhythm of vaudeville” (Esteban, 1983 p 120).
In "The lady from Maxim's", "this reminiscence of Massuccio's well-known Italian novella Feydeau combines with the more usual confusion of an uncle who mistakes the dancer for the wife of the physi- cian, and insists that both shall accompany him to his chateau in Touraine. Here the dancer passes to another lover, and is presently supposed by a third person to be the wife of the uncle. So errors accumulate, and the laughter grows, the first act alone keeping the audience convulsed for an hour" (Chandler, 1920 pp 163-164). “Many are the innocents who suffer the 'slings and arrows' brand of 'outrageous fortune'. Perhaps the prototype is Petypon in "The lady from Maxim’s". The sedate doctor awakes one morning to find that after a night of unaccustomed revelry, he had unwittingly brought home the entertainer, 'Môme Crevette’. Petypon is horrified, realizing that he will never be able to convince his wife that the whole affair was a terrible mistake, and that his relations with "La Môme" have been wholly honorable. Consequently, he tries his best to remedy the situation before his wife can discover it. Feydeau, however, does not let him escape so easily. Complications accumulate around the poor doctor as his every effort leads only to more involvement” (Shapiro, 1960 pp 117-118). Though mostly a peak of the boulevard type, "The lady from Maxim's" has elements of the higher comedy of manners. “Crevette and Gabrielle stand out as individuals. The latter...suggests the pathetic side of the human comedy...The outrageous behavior of Crevette at the general’s chateau...derives...from...an old tradition...to the days of Molière: the spoofing of the bourgeois who aspires to nobility, or the provincial who aspires to city-bred status, and thereby reveals his foolishness by imitating unworthy models. The dexterity with which Feydeau manipulates the several dozen characters in Act 2 is matched only by his skill in leading them through the maze of complexities which arise throughout the play” (Pronko, 1975, pp 141-143). The ecstatic chair “permits Feydeau to dabble in psychoanalysis. While asleep, the subconscious of all characters takes over...In the case of the Petypons, for instance, they reveal unfulfilled desires, frustrations, and even deep dissatisfaction with life. Surprisingly, Gabrielle, in all appearances a prudish woman who divides her time between being a model wife, an exceptional hostess, and doing many good deeds, dreams of love and passion, as does Emile, their servant who, still not totally awake, embraces Gabrielle passionately...Petypon is...rather cowardly, much too self-interested, and too fearful of losing his uncle’s inheritance to be truthful...In the second act, Feydeau takes the opportunity to present a tableau of provincial manners. Their insatiable thirst for anything Parisian renders them utterly blind and makes them behave in a ludicrous manner which borders on the pathetic...Crevette is...seductive, disarmingly innocent, affectionate, caressing, rebellious, impulsive, ladylike, and vulgar” (Esteban, 1983 pp 149-151).
"The Free Exchange Hotel"
Time: 1890s. Place: Passy, France.
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Pinglet and and his wife, Angélique, receive the visit of their friend, Mathieu, for one month, a man who stutters whenever it rains. To their surprise, he arrives accompanied by four daughters, recently removed from a convent. Husband and wife are unable to lodge all these. In secret, Pinglet assigns a rendez-vous at night with Marcelle, the wife of a friend of his, Paillardin, at the Free Exchange Hotel, where Mathieu understands he is to stay. Since Angélique intends to visit her sister, Pinglet decides to eat at a restaurant. This angers her. She slaps his face and keeps the key of the main-door to the house. To escape, he places a rope against the window ledge and climbs down. At the hotel, Paillardin, as the man designated by a commercial commission, is given by the hotel manager a room rumored to be haunted. When Pinglet and Marcelle enter their room, he first feels amorous then ill, suspecting a too heavy dinner combined with champagne and a cigar as the cause. Bulot, a hotel employee liking the looks of Marcelle, lewdly pierces a hole on the wall of their room to peep inside. As he does so, Pinglet feels a stabbing pain in the back. Bulot removes his tool, and, seeing it red at the tip, assumes he hit wet brick. By chance, Mathieu enters the lobby of the same hotel along with his daughters. Boulot gives them the haunted room. When Mathieu encounters Marcelle meet on the landing, he and his daughters invade her room. Now feeling better, Pinglet re-enters the room and is surprised to find Mathieu's family. He and Marcelle pretend to be surprised at seeing each other. In his hotel room but also Paillardin's by mistake, Mathieu uses Paillardin's toilet articles and smokes his cigar, presumed to be a courtesy of the hotel management, then retires for the night. When Paillardin enters his room, he finds his possessions unaccountably shifted about. New visitors arrive in the lobby: Maxime, Paillardin's nephew, together with Pinglet's servant-girl, Victoire. In their room, Mathieu's girls fight and by mistake extinguish the candle. They find colored lamps, producing a spooky effect on the walls, and eerily chant on their beds in their white night-clothes, awakening the frightened Paillardin, who, in turn, frightens the girls. Mathieu enters to find out what is happening and is told by the girls that there is a man in their room. He looks about and finds Victoire on the landing, then, more worrisome, Maxime. He asks Boulot what this can mean, who divulges that the room is haunted. The girls yell and run off, scaring Paillardin all the more, who precede them on the way out, looking very lively. Marcelle sees her husband running down the stairs and quickly re-enters her room. In great fear, Paillardin knocks at their door, but Pinglet refuses to let him in. As a result, Paillardin forces his way inside, propulsing Pinglet down to the chimney corner, while Marcelle, to hide from her husband, puts his hat down to her neck. As Pinglet emerges in a sooty state, Paillardin takes him for a chimney-sweeper. He tries to get his hat back but Marcelle screams for help and Pinglet kicks him out. As Marcello removes her hat and sees the sooty Pinglet, she cries out: "O God, a nigger!" before recognizing her lover. Suddenly, the vice squad charges in, asking Pinglet and Marcelle separately their names, the latter declaring "Mrs Pinglet" and the former "Mr Paillardin". The next morning, Pinglet, after paying 5,000 francs in bail-money, advises Marcelle to get rid of her compromising dress, the only thing her husband managed to see of her during their escapade. He receives a letter from his sister-in-law, stating that she is worried over the fact that his wife never arrived. His face lights up on considering how she may have been kidnapped, but soon his wife returns, explaining she had a road accident when the carriage-horse ran out of control. Angélique reads her letters, one of which surprises her, stating she was arrested in a police raid at the Free Exchange Hotel in the company of Paillardin. Pinglet pretends to be angry at her and interrogates Paillardin: "Where were you last night?" he asks. "At the Free Exchange Hotel," the other answers. Angélique starts to believe she is losing her senses. Pinglet proceeds to accuse his friend of adultery with his wife. Paillardin laughs at this until he receives a letter from the police in the same vein. When Marcelle enters, Pinglet perseveres in his accusations, so that she begins to feel faint. More worrisome for both her and Pinglet, Mathieu comes in, but is pushed out of sight by Pinglet before he can divulge anything. By then the police commissioner arrives, who recognizes from last night both Paillardin and Marcelle, the latter despite her veil, though mostly remembers the dress she wore. Paillardin asks for the list of the other arrested persons and finds Mathieu on it, now called in to be interrogated. When asked who he saw at the hotel, thunder strikes and he starts to stutter as he usually does in bad weather, but seeing Maxime walk in, he points at him. When asked with whom he went to the hotel, Maxime answers "Victoire", who, when called in while wearing Marcelle's dress, is falsely recognized by the commissioner as the woman who was there. Pretending anger, Pinglet fires Victoria, while the commissioner gives Maxime Pinglet's 5,000 francs in bail-money.
Time: 1890s. Place: Paris, France.
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Lucienne is pursued by a man who has been following her in the street, Pontagnac, and trying to seduce her. He follows her inside her house. Unfortunately for him, the house belongs to a friend of his, Vatelin, and Lucienne is his wife. Pontagnac is surprised at seeing him. "Since you are in my house," Vatelin comments, "you must have expected to see me." Lucienne coolly informs him that a man has been following her in the streets. Reluctantly, Pontagnac is forced to admit it is he, knowing of course who she was. Lucienne is surprised to learn from her husband that Pontagnac is married. "Yes," Pontagnac admits, "a little." His wife is afflicted with rheumatism, he says, preventing her to go out. While the two friends examine pictures in another room, Rédillon arrives, another would-be lover of hers, "like a man always being served a cocktail, never dining," he complains. To Pontagnac's horror, his wife is then announced. After always hearing her husband mention the Vatelins, she decided to come over. Knowing about her so-called rheumatism, the Vatelins are surprised at hearing this. Vatelin is even more surprised on learning that he himself suffers from rheumatism. Each wife swears an oath that, should they catch their husbands straying, they will accept Rédillon as their lover. As his guests leave, Vautelin next receives the unwelcome visit of Maggy, his London mistress. He refuses to come to her apartment, so that, in despair, she reads to him a letter addressed to her husband, confessing she loves her Vatelin, with his address included, and after that she intends to kill herself. He yields. Yet another person is announced: Maggy's husband, Soldignac, at which Maggy escapes in the adjoining room. Soldignac has found out his wife has a secret rendez-vous and plans to catch her with her lover and then divorce her, so that he requests Vautelin as his lawyer to prepare the necessary papers. Alone with Pontagnac, Vatelin asks him for a good place to meet a woman at night. He suggests the Ultimus Hotel. Vatelin will send the woman a telegraphed message to meet him there. Armed with these news and hoping to get her on the rebound, Pontagnac informs Lucienne of her husband's illicit rendez-vous at the Ultimus Hotel, so that Luciennne and Mrs Pontagnac reaffirm their oath. A client at the Ultimus Hotel, Armandine, advises the manager that she would like to change rooms. She receives the visit of Rédillon, a stranger to whom she left a note at the theatre. He kisses her, fervently calling her "Lucienne", but she is not available tonight because of her rendez-vous with Soldignac. He convinces her to leave a note to Soldignac to say she is sick. Vautelin is announced to take over her room, but, as a result of an administrative error, it is another client, Pinchard, who enters instead along with his deaf wife. On his way out, Rédillon takes Pinchard's bag by mistake. As husband and wife leave their room, Pontagnac shows Lucienne her husband's den of sin. To catch the adulterous lovers, he places electric bells underneath the mattress on each side of the bed. They go to an adjacent room as Maggy enters to meet Vautelin. When Maggy modestly takes off her clothes in the next room, her husband, Soldignac, enters. He first came to the hotel for his rendez-vous with Armandine, but was told she is sick and that Vatelin is here. Vatelin is very worried as he sees Soldignac gawking at a pretty arm in the next room, not knowing that it belongs to his wife. A knock at the door reveals the presence of Rédillon, who comes back to return the wrong bag. Vatelin precipitously sends Soldignac away with Rédillon, the latter taking Maggy's bag by mistake, so that she is unable to dress. She hides as Pinchard enters with his wife. With both bells ringing at once, Lucienne angrily comes in with Pontagnac following, only to discover the two Pinchards in bed. The two men rapidly disappear. After Pinchard leaves to prepare a cataplasm for his wife, Vatelin returns and notices a woman on the bed, admiring British phlegm. After taking laudanum meant for Mrs Pinchard, he falls asleep next to her. Pinchard returns with the cataplasm and administers it on Vatelin's stomach, who cries out in pain. "A man in bed with my wife!" exclaims Pinchard. Incensed, he tries to choke the culprit. Thinking to catch her husband in the act, Lucienne charges in a second time. "Heavens, my wife!" Vatelin cries out and flees. Pontagnac triumphs, expecting his reward. Instead, according to her oath, Lucienne intends to take Rédillon as her lover. As Pontagnac grieves over this situation, a police commissionner, having tailed Maggy to the hotel, enters along with Soldignac, discovers Pontagnac with the almost naked Maggy, followed by Mrs Pontagnac and her own commissioner. After lying with Armandine all night in his bedroom, Rédillon feels tired. She flees on hearing a woman's voice. It is Lucienne's, come to keep her oath. But he is unable to please her at the moment. He asks her for a delay of one day. "Impossible," she retorts, "my husband is coming, and, when he arrives, I want my vengeance consummated." "Your husband here!" Rédillon exclaims, jumping in fear. They hear another woman's voice, Mrs Pontagnac's, also to keep her oath. Since Rédillon is at present unavailable, Lucienne is willing to use Pontagnac for her purpose when he is announced. Mrs Pontagnac agrees to this. It is because of her that he has two charges leveled against him, for he was "caught by a man he does not know with a woman he does not know" and with divorce proceedings pending, appearing as the goose of all these goings-on. As Lucienne strips to her underclothes and encourages her friend to do the same, Vatelin enters with the police commissionner, who, looking at Pontagnac, exclaims: "You again, sir!" When Rédillon and Mrs Pontagnac enter, she lies by saying Rédillon is her lover. Rédillon consoles Vatelin by saying surely all this is merely Lucienne's plot to make him jealous. Vatelin is consoled and even more so when forgiven by Lucienne.
"The lady from Maxim's"
Time: 1890s. Place: France.
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After a wild night spent at Maxim's restaurant, Dr Mongicourt discovers his fellow surgeon, Dr Petypon, under the sofa, yet the latter's wife, Gabrielle, tells him she kissed him in bed this morning. As the doctors ponder over this mystery, they find a girl under the bed covers. Petypon has no idea who she is. She is Crevette, a dancer from the Moulin Rouge, whom Petypon brought home last night and had forgotten. They hide her as Gabrielle returns, only finding a woman's dress on the chair. Thinking it is her dressmaker's most recent invention, she goes away with it. Despite receiving a hefty sum of money, Crevette refuses to leave without her dress, so that, when Gabrielle returns, she is forced to hide. The doctors chortle silently as the pious Gabrielle describes a vision of St Catherine she has experienced, announcing that a seraphim will appear to reveal her mission. To tease her, Crevette calls out: "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Gabrielle is stunned on seeing a bright celestial-like figure appear, actually Crevette rising under the bed-sheets with a light reflector. "The seraphim!" exclaims the amazed Gabrielle, while the profane doctors kneel but pretend to see nothing. She is commanded to go to the obelisk at Concorde square and hear a man speak, for from his words a son will be born, whom all of France awaits: "Go, for your son, for your king, for your country," the vision announces. After the departure of her hosts, Crevette must hide again as a general enters, baron Petypon du Grêlé, Petypon's uncle, recently arrived from Africa. Nevertheless, he finds her but mistakes her for his nephew's wife. He asks her to take care of his niece, Clementine for a few days, who is to marry lieutenant Corignon, a man Crevette knows well. As Petypon's wife, she is invited to play the hostess' role at Clementine's wedding, which she accepts, to the astonishment of Petypon and Mongicourt, who have returned with Gabrielle, having accomplished her mission, whom the general takes for Mongicourt's wife. When the others leave, Petypon shows Mongicourt his new armchair, Dr Tunékunc's latest invention called the ecstatic seat, capable of anesthetizing any patient without the aid of ether, which works well on Mongicourt. Two men are announced on the subject of last night's business. A man has insulted Petypon and has challenged him to a duel. Provoked, Petypon pushes one of them on the ecstatic seat to quiet him, and learns in astonishment from the other that the dueller is Corignon, his nephew, who then enters, Petypon making himself small before him. But knowing now the insulted man as his uncle, Corignon asks to be forgiven for the misunderstanding. Gabrielle returns bearing a letter, an invitation to Clementine's wedding. She then accidently falls on the ecstatic seat. When the general re-enters, Petypon hides her by throwing a rug over her body. A street-sweeper then comes in, who was invited to dinner the previous night by a drunk Petypon, who allows him a meal in the kitchen and, in return, asks him to press a seat button as he leaves with his uncle for the wedding in Touraine. He presses the button. Thinking she has gone blind with the rug still over her face, Gabrielle screams, then, taking it off, screams again on hearing the sweeper say: "I am the sweeper you are expecting for dinner." At the castle in Touraine, the provincial guests are impressed by Crevette's Parisian manners and expressions. Mrs Vidauban, who sets the tone and imposes fashions in dress and behavior among them all, is led to believe Crevette as a model to be followed, laughing and slapping her thigh, gestures imitated by all the others. On hearing her cry out with legs astride over a chair: "He ain't my father," the women are shocked, but Petypon explains this is the latest Parisian craze, first made fashionable by the princess of Waterloo and baroness Sussemann. Vidauban agrees, crying out with legs astride over a chair: "He's not my father," gestures imitated by the others, including one whose husband would have her learn such manners to promote his career. More mischief follows when Crevette flirts with the wealthy young duke of Valmonté and invites him to sit on her thighs. Fearing to be exposed, Petypon scolds and pushes her out of sight as his real wife approaches. Nevertheless, Crevette returns and is mistaken by Gabrielle as the general's new wife. Crevette is invited to sing a song concerning a kitchen-pot, which few of the guests understand, then dances a can-can ended by lifting her skirt and showing her buttocks. The women are shocked at this, but cheerfully go off dancing a farandole. Corignon is welcomed by Clementine, much changed in her manners since being instructed by Crevette. After Clementine leaves, Corignon has second thoughts about his marriage. Instead, he and Crevette agree to go off together. After being locked inside a room by her husband, Gabrielle escapes only to find the lights out. Petypon plays the piano while hiding underneath it, confirming his wife's opinion that the castle is haunted, then, hearing what she believes to be an angel's voice, she is advised to leave at once. Petypon crosses the Corignon-Crevette couple as they are about to leave, but does not recognize her because of her old woman's disguise. Corignon gives Petypon a letter for the general, informing him of his decision not to marry his niece. When the general receives this, he is incensed, and, learning from a servant that the traitor left with Mrs Petypon, happy news to the deceived Petypon, decides to pursue them. When the general returns, too late to catch them, he cries out in frustration: "Mrs Petypon is a hussy," confusing her with Crevette in Gabrielle's presence, because of which she slaps his face. In vengeful spite, he slaps in turn Mongicourt's face in retribution of his supposed wife's insolence. Back at his house, Petypon is alarmed on learning that his wife received flowers and a note from Valmonté, who also has confused her with Crevette. Petypon pretends to be angry with his wife. He then receives a visit from Mongicourt, who expects him to fight a duel with the general for insulting Gabrielle. The general has caught up with Crevette and brings her to Petypon's house with news that as the offended husband he must fight a duel with Corignon. The general asks for Mrs Petypon as the real one arrives. In a panic at being found out, Petypon presses the button of the ecstatic seat while the general is behind it, freezing him into place, as well as Gabrielle who touches him, followed by Petypon who touches her by mistake, a servant, and another man seeking to help. When the spell is broken, Petypon hurries everyone away to face the general. At this time, Crevette also sits on the ecstatic seat and is frozen beside the general while he goes to find Petypon. The love-smitten Valmonté enters, a bouquet of flowers in his hand for Crevette. When he kisses her hand, he is frozen, too, until Petypon presses the button to free both. When the general encourages husband and wife to kiss, they do so as Gabrielle enters, joyful to find Crevette again and as the general's wife takes her away to chat. While the general and Valmonté discuss Petypon's impending duel with Corignon's two witnesses, Gabrielle bursts in, fearful of the talk of a duel. The general now thinks he has discovered Gabrielle is Petypon's mistress and Crevette his wife. In distress, Petypon sits on the ecstatic seat and accidentally presses the button again. Gabrielle angrily confronts her husband lying in a trance for passing Crevette off as his wife, slapping his face several times with the safety gloves on and announcing her intention to divorce him. When Petypon leaves, Valmonté re-enters and hears Gabrielle say as a result of his letter she thought was addressed to her instead of Crevette: "Take me. I'm yours," at which he flees. Then Gabrielle hears again the same angel's voice, and, to convince the general of its reality, approaches the bed with a drawn sword until hearing her husband cry out in fear, who explains that he lied to her only on learning that Crevette is Corignon's mistress and by such means avoid a scandal. The way is now free for the general to unite with Crevette.
Another high note of Boulevard comedic talent appears in Eugène Labiche (1815-1888) with "Un chapeau de paille d'Italie" (An Italian straw hat, 1851), written in collaboration with Marc-Michel (1812-1868), "Le prix Martin" (The Martin prize, 1876), in collaboration with Émile Augier (1820-1889), and “Le plus heureux des trois” (The happiest among the three, 1870). Labiche also wrote "Mister Perrichon's voyage" (1860) concerning the rivalry between Armand and Daniel for Perrichon's daughter, Henriette. Although Armand saves Perrichon from falling from a horse, the latter prefers Daniel, who pretended to fall down a crevice knowing that Perrichon's vanity prevents him from being grateful. But on hearing Daniel boast of his plan to Armand, Perrichon's vanity turns against him so that Henriette obtains her preferred intended.
"In all [Labiche's] work, in the weakest as well as in the best, the dominant note is gayety: they are filled full of frank, hearty, joyous laughter. In reading his plays, as in seeing them on the stage, you have rarely that quiet smile of intellectual appreciation which is called forth by Sheridan in English, and by Beaumarchais, and M Augier, and M Dumas, in French... There is rather the rush of broad and tumultuous humor than the thrust of wit and the clash of repartee... The laughter is evoked by a humorous situation, from which, with great knowledge of comic effect, and with unfailing ingenuity, the author extracts all the fun possible...None of his men are as weak as his women. Some of his peasants are drawn with great and amusing accuracy. Most of his minor characters are vigorously outlined, and well contrasted one with another; and one character, repeated with but little alteration as the central figure in perhaps two dozen plays, is drawn with a marvellous insight into the inner nature of the bourgeois of Paris. Although grotesque almost in its humor, the caricature is vital; for it is a personification of the exact facts of bourgeois life. M. Perrichon and Celimare and Champbourcy (in the 'Cagnotte'), and their fellows in many another play, are not unlike Mr Matthew Arnold's 'homme sensuel moyen'; and with a master hand M Labiche lays bare the selfish foibles and petty vanity of the average sensual man...Not that there is any pandering to sensuality in M Labiche's plays: on the contrary, the ultimate moral of his work is always wholesome" (Matthews, 1881 p. 228-239). "Eugène Labiche, like Scribe, developed the comédie vaudeville, laughing good-naturedly at the avarice, affectations, and ignorance of the bourgeoisie. He relied upon farcical situations and simple ideas sharply defined. Though his folk were caricatures, they exaggerated actual whimsies of character, his men proving more vital than his women. He employed mistakes and complications that exemplify Bergson's conception of the comic as arising when the free human spirit is cramped by that which is automatic. Thus he delighted in mechanical repetitions and inversions: an irascible captain warned by a handbell whenever his temper threatens to run away with him; a youth slapping his future father-in-law and consenting to be slapped in turn, yet, on feeling the blow, instinctively slapping back with such vigor as to set up a renewed series of slapping. In each of his pieces, Labiche was wont, also, to stress a central idea. In 'Le Misanthrope et l'Auvergnat' (1852), the hero, disgusted with the world's deceits, takes into service a peasant who will always tell him the truth, but drives the fellow off within a day, unable to face facts unadorned. In 'Le Voyage de M Perrichon' (1860), one suitor for the hand of Perrichon's daughter rests his claim to acceptance upon having saved Perrichon from peril, whereas the other, who is wiser, argues that Perrichon will avoid the man who has benefited him and prefer the one whom he has benefited. Accordingly, the rogue feigns for himself a situation of danger, from which Perrichon may rescue him. Throughout, he who accepts favors is played off with symmetrical regularity against the rival who confers them" (Chandler, 1920 pp 16-17).
"An Italian straw hat"
Time: 1850s. Place: Paris, France.
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On Fadinard's wedding day with his bride, Helen, his horse eats part of Anais' Italian straw hat suspended from a tree. Anais' cousin Emil, an army lieutenant, rushes with her at Fadinard's house to insist he apologize to her for losing the hat. Fadinard reluctantly acquiesces, but is all the more distraught after learning that he must replace it at once, because Anais' chamber woman, Virginia, recognized the hat in his lodgings, and might reveal this compromising information to Anais' husband, Beauperthuis. On entering a milliner's shop, Fadinard is disagreeably surprised to find a shopkeeper, Clara, with whom he broke up but who is still expecting marriage from him. "You said to me: I'll go get an umbrella. I wait, and here you are 6 months later without an umbrella," she complains. Nonetheless, she agrees to get him a similar hat provided he eats out with her. "What a good idea! Just by chance I have a free night," he says in despair. Soon, Helen, Nonancourt, her father, and Bobin, her cousin, enter the milliner's shop, mistaking it for city hall, where Nonancourt discovers the prospective bridegroom kissing Clara. Caught, Fadinard tries to explain the situation by lying that Clara is his cousin who cannot come to the wedding. "She is in mourning," Fadinard explains. "In a pink dress?" Nonancourt sarcastically queries. While the family members sign what they think to be the attendance register, Clara discloses that no one owns such a hat except the baroness of Champigny. After the wedding ceremony, Fadinard is mistaken at the baroness' house for an Italian tenor invited to entertain the guests, while his own wedding group invades the baroness', mistaking her house for the restaurant where the wedding party is supposed to be held. In return for singing, Fadinard requests an Italian straw hat, but her chamber woman reveals that it was handed over as a gift to the baroness' godchild, Anais. At Anais' house, Fadinard asks her husband, Beauperthuis, for the Italian straw hat, the wedding guests following him. Thinking that they are at Fadinard's house, Nonancourt invites his daughter to "penetrate with no childish fear into the conjugal domicile", yet she trembles. To him, this behavior is "part of the program of the situation". He pronounces a solemn speech on marriage as an institution, but Fadinard is unavailable to listen, still in search of the hat. Taking him for a robber, Beauperthuis threatens him with two pistols, but Fadinard retrieves them from his pockets. "The hat or you life!" he shouts. "What is happening to me now is perhaps unique in the annals of humanity," the astounded Beauperthuis declares. But when Fadinard sees Virginia, he recognizes there is no further need to search. Knowing there is a woman (Anais) in Fadinard's house, a disgusted Nonancourt and the others remove Helen's trousseau and the wedding gifts, including to Fadinard's astonished delight the same style of Italian straw hat, by chance his uncle's wedding gift to Helen, but as he enters his house, he sees that his father-in-law had removed it from the box. Meanwhile, all the wedding guests are taken to the police station for loitering without identity papers, only Fadinard standing before Anais and Emil with an empty box. While Emil rushes out to find the missing hat, Beauperthuis arrives to look for his wife. Emil recovers the hat and throws it to Fadinard from a height, but it lands on a street lamp. At last, Anais retrieves the hat and scolds her husband for being out at such a late hour.
“The Martin prize”
Time: 1870s. Place: Paris, France, and Chamounix and Handegg, Switzerland.
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While playing bezique, Ferdinand Martin envies Agenor’s success with married women. “It’s the regret of my life,” Ferdinand says. “O adultery! Adultery, that is to say voluptuousness seasoned with crime! Do you understand crime, Agenor? Me, I understand it. Some days I feel in me the stuff of a great criminal.” Ferdinand and his wife, Loisa, welcome the newly married Bartavelle couple, Edmund and Bathilda, on their rounds of visits before the honeymoon, Agenor having warned them that when Bathilda is bored, she waves her handkerchief. Very early during the friendly visit, Bathilda waves her handkerchief, Edmund specifying that they are heading for Chamounix in the Mont-Blanc region and then to the Handegg waterfall, the latter described as a “beautiful horror”. While Ferdinand leads out the Bartavelles, Agenor tells Loisa that he now feels scruples about committing adultery with his best friend’s wife. She responds by threatening to suck poison from her ring-finger. They agree to meet at a secret place. After Agenor leaves, Ferdinand’s cousin, Hernandez, is announced, who shows her a photograph of his wife, a queen of the Cichimecas tribe in Mexico. After she leaves, Hernandez tells Ferdinand that he spent the night at a cabaret where adulteries were discussed, in particular a man signaling messages to a man’s wife by writing chalk-marks on her husband’s back, horizontal when the meeting is on, vertical when the meeting is off. Ferdinand considers the story impossible until he turns his back and Hernandez sees a horizontal line on his. Ferdinand calls his servant to brush off the mark, who informs that for several days he always has chalk marks on his back. When Agenor returns, Ferdinand observes him mark his back from the mirror and plans to be revenged by offering his wife and Agenor a trip to the Handegg waterfall. Agenor accepts provided he pay his own costs. In a chalet at Chamounix, Agenor develops intestinal troubles. Hernandez complains about Ferdinand attending to his former friend when he should prepare to kill him. “When a man is condemned,” Ferdinand assures him, “he gets whatever his fancies dictate: chicken, tobacco, brandy…” Irate, he yells for the neighbors to stop their noise when to his surprise he discovers the Bartavelles, frolicking on their honeymoon. When they leave, Hernandez proposes that Ferdinand uses the doctor’s prescription of laudanum to kill Agenor, but he prefers to do it at the waterfall. Irate, Hernandez pours a lethal dose in a cup but then hesitates to offer it to the adulterer, instead leaving the matter to God’s judgment by simply laying the cup on the table. When they leave, Agenor’s servant, Pionceux, enters with a cup of chicken broth stolen from the kitchen followed by a thirsty Agenor, who dislikes the smell of the cup left to him and takes Pionceux’ cup instead. Pionceux dislikes that one, too, and leaves with the poison. Agenor suddenly feels better, so that Loisa takes the opportunity of offering to leave her husband for his sake. But Agenor does not want to. When threatening to kill herself again produces no effect, she threatens to reveal their relation to her husband, so that Agenor requests a day’s delay to reflect on the matter. He tells Ferdinand he feels better but, thinking he may die, he sent his last will and testament to his notary to leave all his money to his friend. A conscience-stricken Ferdinand pleads with him to write to the notary and cancel the will, then, aghast, observes the empty cup. It is now Agenor’s turn to attend to his apparently sick friend until Hernandez smells broth inside the cup and Agenor confesses he only drank from that one. In a chalet at Handegg, Bathilda weeps from boredom about a Switzerland in the company of the Martins instead of her husband. Hernandez also has a romantic interest: Ferdinand’s wife, and is encouraged in his pursuit after he saves her, in her view, from being attacked by a bull, actually only a cow. She is all the more grateful to him after witnessing Agenor step in front of her husband, not her, and the latter blanch in fear. Ferdinand enters with a loose tie and in a great agitation, speaks to Hernandez of the deed being done and to both of hurrying back to Meyringen, where he forgot his wallet. But to Hernandez’ surprise and Ferdinand’s disappointment, Agenor enters. As Loisia prepares to pack, Ferdinand confesses that the wallet he left behind is empty. To Hernandez’ disgust, Agenor voices thanks about Ferdinand’s warning of being careful when he became dizzy at the suspended bridge over the falls. He offers Ferdinand a napkin ring with the word “friendship” inscribed. An irritated Ferdinand at last reveals he knows about his supposed friend’s treachery, but at a loss about what to do, he proposes to set up a Martin prize at the academy, “a prize to the author of the best thesis on the infamy of turning one’s wife away from one’s best friend,” he announces, with an annual prize worth Agenor’s fortune. He forgives his friend, but the prejudices of the world prevent him from their seeing each other ever again. On seeing Hernandez, Agenor insults him for denouncing him. An angry Hernandez challenges him to an American-style duel, where the first man who spots the other can shoot him with a rifle. Agenor accepts. On seeing Loisa, he says “never” to their going away together, but she no longer cares for him, preferring her newly found braver man, but is frightened after discovering from Hernandez that Ferdinand knows about her adultery. “He is brooding over a vengeance in the manner of the Borgias,” Hernandez says to frighten her even more and offer her his heart in America, throwing himself at her feet, where Ferdinand discovers them, takes up Hernandez’ rifle while Loisa flees and aims it at him, after which Agenor arrives and aims his own rifle at Hernandez. “Enough bloodshed!” Ferdinand cries out. “You will take away the former Mrs Martin to your pampas of the New World so that the Old World will no longer be troubled with this modern Helen.” Hernandez accepts the harsh sentence. A contrite Agenor offers again his napkin ring which Ferdinand now accepts, offering in return a snuff-box. They sit to play bezique.
"The happiest among the three"
Time: 1870s. Place: Lorraine region, France.
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Because their house-servant, Petunia, flirts with a fireman boyfriend in the kitchen, Alphonse Marjavel wants to fire her and hire instead a couple from Alsatia, Krampach and Lisbeth. His wife, Hermance, agrees until led to believe falsely that Petunia has discovered the hiding place where she deposits the letters exchanged with her husband’s friend and her lover, Ernest Jobelin. By chance, the hollow space behind the stuffed deer mounted on the wall was also the hiding place where Ernest’s uncle exchanged letters with Melanie, Alphonse’s first wife. When Uncle Jobelin nostalgically puts his hand in the hollow space, he discovers a note stating that the driver of hackney cab number 2114 recognized the guilty couple and mistakenly thinks it is Melanie’s to him, not Hermance’s to Ernest. Hermance nervously tells Ernest that she forgot a fan inside a hackney cab they took while together. Ernest reassures her: he found her husband’s gift but left it in his overcoat at his uncle’s house. While Jobelin and Ernest offer identical bottles of rhum to Alphonse on his birthday, Jobelin’s niece, Bertha, hands over the overcoat from which the fan drops out. Uncle Jobelin recognizes it as once belonging to Melanie, but keeps silent. Alphonse does not recognize it, to the relief of Hermance and Ernest, the latter explaining it as an intended gift to his cousin, Bertha. A worse fear assails the guilty couple when Alphonse notices the deer’s head has been displaced and discovers the hollow place. But, fortunately for them, it is now empty since Hemance’s note to Ernest was removed by Jobelin. They are nevertheless as startled as Jobelin when Petunia announces that hackney cab number 2114 is downstairs to take the entire company to dinner at a restaurant. All three of the guilty parties leave by covering their faces in fear that the driver will recognize them. On their return, Alphonse, feeling unwell, opens a window, the sign agreed on by Hermance and Ernest that the latter may safely enter the house. As Hermance proposes that her husband rest in his room, Ernest’s head appears on the balcony. He is holding a gutter pipe broken off while climbing the lattice which he hides inside the living room couch. When Alphonse calls out her name, Ernest jumps inside the couch, where he spends some anxious moments with the metal pipe pressed against his side until the cuckold asks for his friend and he can safely quit his hiding place and re-enter through the door. He and Hermance dearly comfort Alphonse who begins to feel better. The next day, in the Marjavels’ garden pavilion, as Jobelin and Bertha look over the sleeping Ernest with the metal pipe still pressed against his side, she reveals her conviction that her cousin loves her. To her joy, Jobelin promises to speak on her behalf when he is startled to see Krampach enter with a note from the driver of cab number 2114. Fearing to be discovered, Jobelin grabs the note, a request for 500 francs as hush money for adultery on the part of an unnamed couple. Lacking cash, Jobelin breaks open a desk where he knows money is kept and hands over 500 francs to Krampach, who, out of greed, hands over to the driver only 25 cents. Thinking that her uncle has spoken on her behalf, Bertha reveals her love to Ernest, overjoyed at the opportunity of breaking with Hermance. But when she comes up to him in a kneeling position, they are surprised by Alphonse and pretend to look around for her supposedly missing diamond ring. After Alphonse leaves, the guilty couple receive a note from the irate driver of cab number 2114 delivered once again by Krampach, now asking for 1,000 francs in hush money. But when Ernest opens the desk, he discovers that his money is missing. To his shame, Alphonse, thinking that the matter concerns a tailor’s bill, offers to pay the 1,000 francs. But once again, Krampach keeps the money for himself. While Hermance and Ernest continue to pretend to look for the ring, Jobelin hands over the 500 francs he borrowed to Ernest, who promptly hands over half his dept to Alphonse. Tired of looking for a non-missing object, Hermance pretends to have lost it in the garden. Assailed by curiosity, Krampach asks his master to discover the name of the man who slept with Lisbeth before they married, to which he agrees in his desire to flirt with her. Interrogated by her master, she reveals that she gave herself to him after receiving a gift of two oranges without naming the man. After abandoning her, he sent her a watch, which her husband still carries. Alphonse promises her another one and reminds himself to look for oranges. When Ernest re-enters, an overjoyed Lisbeth jumps into his arms. “You have conquered Alsace, when will Lorraine be next?” Alphonse mockingly asks a distraught Ernest. More trouble arises when Krampach announces to Ernest that an unidentified man has been spotted to climb at night Marjavel’s lattice. To keep the servant from talking, Ernest locks him inside the wine cellar with permission to help himself to the bottles. He re-enters drunk but nevertheless reveals that he found a watch on the lattice work, which his master recognizes as Ernest’s, who pretends to have climbed up to Lisbeth’s window. An angry Krampach leaps at him but is held in check by Alphonse. That evening in the garden, Ernest disguises himself as the gardener to speak with Hermance, who, out of fear, wants to break off their relation. Ernest pretends to be sad but declares his willingness to marry Bertha, whom she finds too pretty for her taste. Still looking for the ring, Alphonse rudely sends the supposed gardener away. Krampach announces to his master that he intends to fight a duel with Ernest, all the more so after finding in the garden grounds a compromising letter, on which Alphonse recognizes his friend’s handwriting. Wishing to keep Ernest as a close friend and thinking the letter is meant for Lisbeth, Alphonse decides that he should interfere with his plan to marry Bertha. Krampach frowns on seeing Lisbeth eating an orange until she says that their master gave it to her. Convinced by his master that he should forgive, Krampach shows him the watch he sent his wife, somewhat too slow. Ernest promises him a new one. As Jobelin prepares to announce his nephew’s engagement, Alphonse interrupts. ”The marriage is impossible,” he declares. “He has a liaison never to be constrained, one that chains up an entire existence.” To his wife, he hands over Ernest’s letter to read aloud. Jobelin agrees that the marriage is impossible. Meanwhile, Lisbeth has discovered her husband’s ploy of keeping the money from the cab driver and reveals that the blackmailer has written a letter to Alphonse. Terrorized, Jobelin and Ernest inadvertently discover to each other that they cuckolded Alphonse with two different wives. Krampach arrives with yet another letter. It reads: “if you do not give me 3,000 francs, I will tell your wife that you were in my cab with a tart”. Jobelin and Ernest joyfully discover that they are off the hook and Alphonse caught. He begs his wife to consider that the letter is not meant for him but for Ernest. But by mistake Jobelin swallowed the letter, not the envelope as his master bid him, on which his name clearly appears and at which Hermance promises revenge, a man no longer the happiest among the three.
Also of interest in the comic vein is Georges Courteline (1858-1929) and his harassed "Boubouroche" (1893).
"As a creator of character, his most successful tempt was made in Boubouroche...the essence of its fun the ease with which a jealous lover is made to overlook his lady's infidelity by her plausible indignation at being suspected" (Chandler, 1920 p 163).
“Courteline and Feydeau both satirize the institutions of marriage, the army, and the courts, and both reveal a basic truth in character and situation presented comically. But Courteline keeps truth much closer to the surface, so that it is always apparent, even when the situation is exaggerated. Treating only simple situations (all his plays but two are in a single act), Courteline never allows plot to overwhelm character, or structural violence to outstrip the picture of reality. Eschewing the metaphysical overtones suggested by Feydeau, Courteline is, like other naturalist dramatists, fundamentally a writer of social plays. He shows us the ordinary citizen, the witless recruit, the naïve lover or husband, and the unimaginative civil servant as victims of the law, the military, heartless women, or sadistic civil servants. Although his disabused optic seems to allow for no comforting solution to the dilemma of most of his victims, Courteline views them with an indulgence that contrasts with Feydeau’s more objective and cruel view...Simplicity, realism and social awareness give him an air of seriousness which contrasts with Feydeau’s apparent frivolity” (Prinko, 1975 p 65).
Time: 1890s. Place: France.
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Boubouroche learns from a neighbor that his girl-friend, Adele, has been cheating on him for several years, but he refuses to believe it. In the apartment he is paying for her, the lover, Andrew, complains of always having to hide in a small room whenever Boubouroche comes over. He must do so again as Boubouroche confronts her with the neighbor's story, all the more plausible in that he saw from the street two shadows against the window-pane. Adele denies she has a lover other than Boubouroche and dares him to search the apartment. He hesitates, begins to back down. "He's there," Adele announces defiantly, pointing towards the small room. When Boubouroche's lamp is accidently extinguished, Andrew is revealed next to his candle in the darkness. Knowing the game is up, he gives Boubouroche his card, at his disposal should the misled man insist on a duel. Before leaving, he wants Boubouroche to swear he will not harm Adele. Boubouroche swears. "Who is this man?" Boubouroche asks her. "How do I know!" exclaims Adele. Despite his promise, as soon as Andrew leaves, he starts to strangle her, then, weakening, desists from his wavering purpose. She eventually reveals that the man's presence is a "family secret" and because Boubouroche evidently lacks confidence in her, they now must part company. Weakening all the more, Boubouroche steadies himself to pardon her. "You need not pardon a fault I did not commit," she affirms stoutly, blaming him for his lack of confidence in her. "The worm is on the fruit: throw it away," she recommends. Miserably, Boubouroche begs her to stay. She finally relents. He then heads towards the neighbor's apartment to browbeat him for spreading lies against her.
Alfred Capus (1857-1922) claims some degree of fame with "Petites folles" (Little fools, 1897). He also wrote "Brignol and his daughter" (1894), which concerns a father and daughter as partners in crime, cheating friends and acquaintances. "Although 'Brignol et sa fille' excited little comment when first produced, it revealed Capus' peculiar talents,— his easy optimism, adroitness in dramatic composition, and ability to convey character in very few words...Lemaître has called Capus a realist in a classic manner, meaning thereby that his art presents life with tranquillity, avoiding the ugliness and violence of naturalism on the one hand, and the undue emphasis of propagandism on the other" (Chandler, 1920 pp 123-130). He also wrote "The adversary" (1902) in which a woman is driven to adultery through her husband's lack of ambition, and "Mister Piégois" (1905) about the owner of a casino rejected by high society because of the nature of his source of income. The overall impression is that, as Mrs Bréneuil tells Le Hautois in "The two schools" (1902), "everything can be arranged". "'Woman,' says the heroine's mother, "should never seek to know whether she is deceived. We are too superior in general to our husbands to trouble ourselves with such details. And the men do not merit our attaching such importance to their faults. Let them deceive us if it gives them pleasure. As for us, we should remain, not only in doubt, but in disdainful ignorance.' Indeed, why all the fuss?
In "Little fools", "two frivolous wives who, out of mischief, would deceive their husbands, stop short only when the jealousy of one arouses sympathy, and when the other is likely to lose his life in a duel. But the husbands have not been impeccable. In a whisper one admits to the other that, although he never seeks temptation, yet he never avoids it. He and his wife are a good couple, separated only by marriage" (Chandler, 1920 p 125).
In the view of Spence (1910), there "is that the tendency of the stage, broadly speaking, is to preach a kind of conventional morality somewhat below the standard considered admissible by serious people; one may go further, and say that plays have been produced, particularly French plays, such as the clever works of M Capus, in which the accepted ideas of the sanctity of marriage are treated with contempt" (pp 160-161). "Capus is known as the dramatist of the French bourgeoisie, and that may be restricted to the bourgeois of Paris. As you become familiar with his plays, by repeated reading, you find that the first conviction of those gradually forming in your mind is: this man is no moralist. He takes humanity as he finds it, attempting no judgment for either motive or action. He shows a great indulgence for those who have slipped and fallen by the wayside, but who are trying to raise themselves and struggle forward again. His realism has no bitterness, no hardness about it. When the act of a human being has been explained by an innate tendency, by an overpowering temptation, by a brain storm, Capus considers enough said; he does not arraign his victim before a tribunal of conventional usage or a skimp morality which is tradition in many cases. The general conclusion to be deduced from the author's work is that man is innately selfish, and that in the struggle for existence success is the most powerful argument in self-defence. Capus studies man's selfishness under various forms: in his private family, in his relations to a previous life, in his business relations. Self-absorption is a weakness that is dear to so many that the subject finds an interested and indulgent audience in every case. The author shows that this failing always brings with it a consequent, although this truth does not always take the form of a tangible moral lesson. This is another assertion of the detachment of Capus. He is blandly indifferent to moral values" (Ogden 1920 p 7).
Time: 1890s. Place: Paris, France.
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Adolph and his mother-in-law, Eudoxia, quarrel because he did so little to defend her when she was bumped by a man while looking at a nude painting in a picture gallery. He, on his part, is distraught at her choice of dinner guests when obscenities are commonly heard. Eudoxia retorts that she wants to amuse himself after having undergone a sad marriage for many years. Miffed at this comment, her husband, August, declares that he considers himself quite gay. “With others, not with me,” she accuses. “You have not made me laugh since our wedding night.” She welcomes her nephew, Edgard, who informs her that he caught his mistress late last night with two men at her house. He suspects that one of them at least is a friend of his because he shook his hand in the dark before leaving. The other man managed to pull down his hat over his face before being recognized. To help raise the standard of her dinner parties, Edgard promises to bring over the baron of Encolure, at which she is pleased until discovering that the baron is the man who insulted her at the picture gallery. Nevertheless, she wants to keep him as a dinner guest, encouraging her nephew to settle the matter one way or the other. She next welcomes her stock broker, Edmund, who informs Edgard that he is courting Adolph’s wife, Lucy. At the same time, Eudoxia’s other daughter, Estelle, is also courted by a would-be adulterer, Albert. Adolph is so fearful of the temptations surrounding Lucy at her mother’s dinner parties that he decides to move to an apartment above her own. An enraged Eudoxia counters this by writing a letter to the owner of the building to annul any such intent, a move approved by Lucy who proposes to deliver it. Their talk is interrupted by Estelle, worried because her husband, Leverquin, discovered she and Albert suspiciously eating together at a pastry house. Eudoxia considers her daughter’s complaints about their husbands of small importance, at the worst a subject of divorce. “Divorce is the only thing the least bit poetical an honest woman may do nowadays,” she declares. Although to her surprise Leverquin blandly dismisses the incident, Estelle, in mortal fright, announces to an angry Albert that she wishes to end their relation. Still worried over his wife’s fidelity, Adolph asks her to follow him to Spain where he has business interests. Lucy refuses and has only seven words to say to a delighted Edmund: “Tomorrow at three o’clock at your place.” Despite overhearing these words, Adolph tells Leverquin he has no intention of interfering but rather will ask for a divorce if she commits adultery. Meanwhile, Edgard has arranged for a meeting between the baron’s two witnesses and himself along with another man so that formal excuses may be expressed on Adolph’s part for insulting the baron. However, to his horror, Edgard discovers that the two witnesses were the two men at his mistress’ house. In ill humor, he refuses to offer the expected apology on Adolph’s part so that a duel must now ensue at three o’clock on the following day. When an astonished Adolph learns of these proceedings, he nevertheless accepts the challenge. “At three o’clock,” Adolph informs Lucy. “How romanesque, how exciting!” Lucy does not think so and instead cancels her rendez-vous. When Adolph returns with only a mild wound on his arm, Lucy informs him she did not go to Edmund’s house. Unimpressed, he nevertheless calls her a depraved coquette and still wishes for a divorce until learning that she arranged matters so that their servant, Louisette, will leave their employ to marry Edmund.
One of the principal dramatic comedies of the period is "La Parisienne" (The Parisian woman, 1885) by Henry Becque (1837-1899). Becque also wrote "The prodigal son" (1868) about a father unable to get his son to return back home away from Paris until he encounters his son's mistress. He next wrote "Michael Pauper" (1870) in which Helen has a choice between casting her lot with Michael Pauper, an industrious young man willing to marry her, or the count of Rivailles, a profilgate with no intention of marrying her. On her wedding night, she admits to Michael her attachement to his rival and rushes off to him, only to repent. Stronger fare than these, "The crows" (1882) concerns a widow with three daughters and a son assailed by her husband's business associate, her notary, and the architect in charge of building on her property, all after her inheritance.
In "The Parisian woman", "Paris and its cynical view of the relations of the sexes is embodied in this diabolically adroit and disconcerting comedy...Clotilde du Mesnil and Lafont are quarrelling over a letter when the curtain rises. He adjures her to resist temptation. 'Resist, Clotilde; that is the only honourable course, and the only course worthy of you.' She must remain dignified, honourable, the pride of her husband. Suddenly, in the midst of this ignoble squabble, she cries: 'Look out, here is mu husband"'Up to this moment the audience fancies that it has been witnessing a marital row. The shock is tremendous when the truth is learned...Throughout, these lovers quarrel like married folk. The social balance is upset, domestic virtues topsy-turvied" (Huneker, 1905 pp 176-178). The play "is Becque at his artistic best. The play avoids all surplusage, its rigorous form comporting with its anti-romantic spirit. The grim humor of the situation proceeds from the heroine's character. Pious and methodical, Clotilde nevertheless engages in an intrigue, but she insists that 'it would be terrible for a man to have a mistress lacking in religion'. A capital scene at the start presents her in a quarrel with a jealous man whom we suppose to be her husband, until she interjects a warning that the latter is approaching. From the succeeding action, we infer that a husband's des- potism is less to be feared than a lover's, and that a wife will tend to order her free love as she would her regular household. Clotilde, having turned for the moment from her Lafont to a stupid sportsman, wearies of him, and yearns for her former menage a trois. Even her husband prefers Lafont, who is fairly honorable in dishonor, and who, when she is thinking to yield to a rival, warns her to resist, because that is the only conduct worthy of her" (Chandler, 1920 pp 63-64). For Gassner (1954a) the play is "a merciless anatomy of a conscienceless woman. Clotilde is a perfect wife. In order to advance her husband’s interests she dismisses one lover and turns to another. The same practicality finally makes her return to her first lover, because a 'ménage à trois' for her must be a settled and respectable affair! The bitter irony of such a slice of life is a more effective exposure of baseness than any number of moralizing denunciations, and the playwright’s objectivity possesses the sharpness of a scalpel. Clotilde is perfectly unconscious of her vileness; she even complains that her lover that he does not care enough for her husband, although actually the two men are on excellent terms with each other. She declares herself a 'downright conservative' and a believer in 'sound principles'. Upbraiding her lover she says in perfect innocence, 'You are a freethinker. I believe you would even get along with a mistress who had no religion'” (pp 401-402).
"The unity of place is maintained and the movement is both swift and nimble. Here the dramatist's whole art is concentrated upon the ironic self-revelation of a single character. Clotilde is the woman who is respectably adulterous, sentimentally vicious. She amuses herself with her lovers and is concerned to better her husband's position. She is utterly unaware of her own corruption and makes speech after speech that is memorable for its incisive moral irony" (Lewisohn, 1915 p 43). The relation between Clotilde and Lafont “consists in the spectacle of two people carrying on irregular relations with precisely the same set of feelings and prejudices which would be operative were their relations regular...Lafont is exigent, querulous, jealous, and tiresome. He is even prudish. He forbids Clotilde to visit in a household of somewhat doubtful reputation...And Clotilde, with all her irregularity of conduct, is entirely conventional in her ideas. She declares herself a conservative in politics, because she inclines to the party of social 'order'. She is indignant at the thought that her lover might leave her for another mistress who is 'without religious principles'" (Walkley, 1908 p 284-285). Likewise, Lamm (1952) viewed Clotilde as a conventional woman lacking any sense of conscience whatsoever and Du Mesnil as a “complaisant ass” content as long as there is peace in the house. Such goings on led Mann (1935) to conclude that "there could not well be a more amoral play than 'The Parisian woman', though there are many plays that are more immoral" (p 126).
"Dispassionate in attitude, even indifferent, Becque regards in the dry light of reason situations that others had portrayed in rosy tints. He renders small souls to perfection. His realm is the world of the commonplace, the drab,the sombre. Although he may use a plot that the conventional dramatist might not have disdained, he subordinates it to the painting of manners and character. He conceals the art with which he develops his expositions and denouements, concentrating yet softening his transitions, and reducing mechanics to their lowest terms. Molière is his master, though he knows none of that master's gaiety. If in comedy he is neither hilarious nor sentimental, in serious drama he is neither pathetic nor tragic. He keeps an even middle course. Setting life before you, he withdraws, refraining from didacticism as well as from heroics, compelling attention by his veracity, but fatiguing it, too, by his lack of 'esprit' (wit) and charm. It was Becque who in practice pointed the way to stage naturalism, achieving far more for that cause than did Zola" (Chandler, 1920 p 64).
"The Parisian woman"
Time: 1880s. Place: Paris.
Clotilde has had an elegant, comfortable life with her husband, Du Mesnil, not into the habit of looking closely at what she does. Her lover, Lafont, suspecting she has a second lover, demands to know the contents of a letter he saw her hide in a drawer and what she did all afternoon. Instead, she shows the letter to her husband. It concerns visits to Mrs Simpson, a woman of the world of bad repute, whom both he and her lover consider deplorable for her to know. On learning that Du Mesnil is scolded by his uncle for having failed to gain an important social position and that by his means he may obtain one in the government, she proposes to help him by contacting her women friends, including Mrs Simpson. He responds by saying that if all else fails they should try that. When left alone with Lafont, she complains that his troublesomeness started January 15, a date she has particular reasons to remember. As to where she went, at one point she says her milliner, at another her tailor, because of which he is tormented all over again. Days later, Lafont returns to harass her further, still complaining about Mrs Simpson's bad reputation. "Too bad for the men who gave it to her!" she cries out. "When a man sees part of a woman's shirt, that woman is sacred to him, sacred." Du Mesnil enters in a terrible mood, having been told he will not obtain the position he sought. She immediately writes to Mrs Simpson, expecting her husband to get further ahead with her help than with his ineffective uncle's, which is what occurs. Despite swearing never to come back, Lafont does so, certain now that Clotilde has a lover, a man named Mercier. He hesitantly breaks off their relation. Clotilde receives Mrs Simpson's son, with whom she has had amorous relations since January 15. But now the man wishes to leave Paris and she is beginning to be bored with his idle talk of hunting guns, despite shedding a few tears at this announcement. When he asks why, she answers: "Does one know? There is a little of everything in a woman's tears." As soon as Simpson leaves, Lafont returns again and their amorous relation is renewed. She announces, to Lafont's approval, that she will no longer see Mrs Simpson. When her husband arrives, they explain to him that Lafont's absence was due to an unhappy love affair. "Confidence is the only system that works with us," she declares to Lafont. Du Mesnil agrees.
Alexandre Dumas the Younger
"La dame aux camélias" (The lady of the camellias, 1852) by Alexandre Dumas the Younger (1824-1895) is one of the finest melodramas. The "striking first play of the little-known novelist, had, for its heroine, a prostitute. Strangely enough, no cry of protest was raised by the morally scrupulous, perhaps because they saw in it another of the 'rehabilitation' dramas familiar to the romantic stage" (Weinberg, 1940 p 301).
Puritan-minded critics such as Hamilton (1920) criticized the entire conception of the play in that "the thesis is immoral, because we are asked to sympathize with an erring woman by reason of the unrelated fact that she happens to be afflicted with tuberculosis. In the famous 'big scene' between the heroine and the elder Duval, the old man is absolutely right; yet the sympathy of every spectator is immorally seduced against him, as if his justified position were preposterous and cruel" (p 72). Lewes (1896) likewise objected to the basic premise of the play. "I do not place much faith in the 'danger' of love-stories teaching how to sin, according to Ovid, 'peccare docentes', but I do believe that the false education men receive, in the direction of the sexual sentiment, is pandered to by stories such as this of the consumptive courtesan and her ignoble lover" (p 242).
“Through the Duvals we get a glimpse of the life of a prosperous bourgeois family of the provinces. Armand comes into Marguerite’s salon, talking about his dead mother...Dumas’ heroes from the country…express their innocence by speaking, at the most unsuitable moment, of their mothers…In contrast to those noble stage courtesans of earlier days, the lady of the camellias does not indulge in the rhetoric of pathos. She does not accuse society or her fellow beings...She is tortured by the emptiness, and the lack of human feeling which she finds in her world...It is Armand’s heart, not his name, which she wants” (Lamm, 1952 pp 20-21). This critic criticized one aspect of Marguerite’s character in that “it is difficult to understand how or why the diffident, melancholy Marguerite came to adopt this way of life and why she has to lead such a hectic and extravagant existence”. One can counter that life’s bitter experience has tamed some of her courtesan manner without affecting old habits of extravagance. This draws more pity to her plight than if she were hardened in the toils of prostitution.
From the political viewpoint, "it is the bourgeois who demands the abdication of man's most legitimate and vital urge- for the sake of the good reputation without which he would lose face and his highest values. Love must fall a victim to respectability... Old M Duval is his full rights when he persuades Marguerite to give up her lover. He can afford to be the perfectly understanding, fair-minded that he is, because his argument is irresistible; the desire has to be stifled so that a righteous and unquestioned social system can be upheld. Who could possibly revolt against so sensible a demand except one who is blinded by a misguided passion? Love's freedom turned into 'free love' which, just because it is so irresponsible, must give way to the austere responsibilities to which the bourgeoisie heir in its conquest of power" (Seidlin, 1954 pp 127-128).
"In technique, the dramas of Dumas were marked by their stress upon will even more than by their stress upon observation. Herein he resembled Corneille. He preferred to develop a thesis with close-knit logic, and to choose his subjects, not for the sake of some single per- son or scene, but rather for their confirmation of an idea to be impressed upon his audience" (Chandler, 1920 pp 13-14).
"The lady of the camellias"
Time: 1850s. Place: Paris, France.
Marguerite Gautier has been leading a restless life of worldly activities and incurred heavy debts. Her revenues derive in part from a duke's benevolence, whose daughter died and and whom she resembled as a child. She obtains only half of the sum she might have received because, though considering her his daughter, he is only half pleased with her life style as a famous courtesan, receiving money, jewels, and camellias from a series of men. One year ago, Marguerite lay in bed for three months and a man anonymously asked about her every day. In the company of her friends, Marguerite starts to dance but suddenly stops, being easily tired. After being silent through a long conversation among the company, Armand Duval is the only one worried about her condition. He admits being the anonymous man. She does not encourage his love, specifying she is unworthy and speaking of herself as "a woman nervous, ill, sad, or of a type of gaiety sadder than grief". She proposes instead that they remain friends, but this is insufficient for him. Soon she accepts him as a lover and plans to rent a summer house outside of Paris to live with him, but for this idyll to be possible, she must pay her many debts and has recourse to one of her lovers, the count of Giray, who accepts to pay them. When Armand sees the count enter her house, he refuses to condone such behavior, so that she renounces to receive any money from the count. Instead she sells her coach and horses, cashmere linen, and diamonds to live with Armand at Auteuil. Aware of her debts, he intends to sacrifice money received on his mother's death, his only source of income. Informed of this, Armand's father begs Marguerite to release her hold on his son. In addition to ruining his son, she will ruin his daughter's marriage prospect to a man born in a conservative family who would never accept even a former courtesan as a family member. Marguerite first rejects but then accepts his proposal, returning to her hectic life. She pretends to tire of Armand, who, unaware of his father's visit and her sacrifice, challenges one of her lovers, Varville, to a duel, from which the latter emerges with a slight wound. Recognizing the nobility of Marguerite's character, the father informs his son of their agreement, but it is too late: she dies of consumption.
"La Tosca" (1887) by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) also figures as a notable example of melodrama.
Chandler (1920) considered "La Tosca" as "a fresh twist...to the Measure for Measure (1604) story...This play, unlike Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna, propounds no problem as to woman's duty to aid others at the expense of her honor. The situations are devised simply for dramatic effect...In reviewing the work of Sardou, one is impressed by his skill, wit, imagination, superabundance of energy, and versatility. Equally at home in the past or the present, an archeologist and a student of modern manners, he composed fifty-seven pieces ranging from farce to operetta and extravaganza, from satirical comedy to historical tragedy and spectacular melodrama. If he lacked the moral earnestness of a Dumas fits or the sobriety of an Augier, he carried the qualities of a Scribe to their highest power, and combined with them some of the more solid virtues of the best of his contemporaries. He could be pathetic, tragic, and humorous. He could provoke laughter by his comedy of character, or set leaping the blood by his representation of passions in deadly conflict. Above all, be possessed acute theatrical sense, being ever conscious of the audience as a crowd to be moved and entertained" (pp 28-33).
Time: 1800s. Place: Rome, Italy.
Text at http://www.toscasprism.com/
Inside a church, Mario paints a picture of Marquis Attavanti's wife as Mary Magdalene when surprised by the arrival of Cesare, Attavanti's brother-in-law, recently escaped from prison for his liberal opinions, who hides as Floria Tosca, Mario's lover, enters, expressing jealousy of the model in the portrait, to the extent of asking him to change the color of her eyes. At the Fernese palace where Floria is to sing, Baron Scarpia, head agent of the police force and responsible for recapturing Cesare, attempting to find out what she knows about his whereabouts, shows her a fan found in the church, belonging to Attavanti's wife. Although she knows nothing, Scarpia notes her jealousy and thinks he may use her to trap Cesare. She confronts Mario with another fit of jealousy. "The first bold one robs me of him and I am so cowardly that I love him still, and I feel that, though I detest him, I'll always love him," she says. Floria discovers that Cesare is hiding in Mario's house They are surprised by the arrival of Scarpia and Attavanti. When shown the fan, Mario explains its presence by saying Marquise Attavanti is serving as the model for his picture, but Scarpia arrests him in any case to interrogate him as to Cesare's whereabouts. Although police agents torture Mario in the room adjacent to the one where Scarpia and Floria are, he reveals nothing. However, Floria is unable to bear the strain of the procedure and reveals the secret hiding place, but before the agents get to him, Cesare commits suicide. Scarpia arrests Mario for harboring an escaped prisoner and he is condemned to be shot. Yet Scarpia offers Floria one way out to save her lover. He will order a fake execution provided she agrees to sleep with him. Floria pretends to acquiesce, then finds a knife and stabs her tormentor to death. She visits Mario in his prison cell to inform him of the fake execution, but after he is led out to the firing squad, she discovers too late that the executioners used real bullets. After police agents discover Scarpia's murder, she jumps from the prison turret down to her death.