History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/French Pre-WWII
- 1 Eugène Brieux
- 2 Paul Claudel
- 3 Jean Giraudoux
- 4 Jean Cocteau
- 5 Roger Vitrac
- 6 Henry de Montherlant
- 7 Jean-Paul Sartre
At the beginning of the new century, the 19th century realist tradition continued with Eugène Brieux (1858-1932), of particular note "Les avariés" (Damaged lives, more precisely Spoiled goods, 1901) about lives decimated by syphilis. "How slow our moralists move is best proved by the fact that although the great scientist Neisser had discovered, as far back as 1879, that supposedly insignificant venereal afflictions are due to a malignant micro-organism often disastrous not only to the immediate victim, but also to those who come in touch with him, the subject is still largely tabooed and must not be discussed," Goldman (1914) wrote. "Brieux is among the few who treats the question in a frank manner, showing that the most dangerous phase of venereal disease is ignorance and fear, and that if treated openly and intelligently, it is perfectly curable...But "[Spoiled] Goods" contains more than an exposé of venereal disease. It touches upon the whole of our social life. It points out the cold-blooded indifference of the rich toward those who do not belong to their class, to the poor, the workers, the disinherited whom they sacrifice without the slightest compunction on the altar of their own comforts. Moreover, the play also treats of the contemptible attitude towards love not backed by property or legal sanction. In short, it uncovers and exposes not only sexual disease but that which is even more terrible— our social disease, our social syphilis."
Time: 1900s. Place: France.
A medical doctor informs George that he has caught syphilis and writes him a prescription to mitigate the symptoms of the incurable disease. George has no need of it, because he intends to commit suicide. The doctor dissuades him of that, but, to reduce the chances of propagating the infection while the treatment lasts, advises him to wait four years before marrying. While the patient cannot promise to annul his proposed marriage, he reads from a textbook the ravages caused by the disease. Despite this appeal, George marries Henrietta after only a six-month delay, explaining to her he is undergoing medical examinations for possible consumption. Their three-month-old baby girl eventually becomes sick and, after consulting the same doctor, George's mother brings her back home with the nanny. The doctor arrives for a house-visit and is indignant on discovering George as the father. To prevent infection of the nanny, he advises the parents to bottle-feed the baby, but George's mother would rather risk the nanny's health than the baby's. Partially informed about the consequences of the baby's infection and her risk, the nanny agrees to keep breast-feeding for an extra one thousand francs. Knowing that the law forbids him to be silent, the doctor intervenes with the heartless manner of disposing of the nanny. A servant overhears the doctor's comments and fully informs the nanny about her health risks. She requests 500 francs before returning to her village, a dialogue overheard by Henrietta, who falls, cries out, and pushes her husband away. Incensed, Henrietta's father, a member of the legislative assembly, asks the doctor for a certificate stating the nature of George's disease for his daughter's divorce proceedings, but the latter refuses on the grounds he is not allowed to divulge such information. Besides, he recommends both father and daughter to forgive George. The doctor specifies that the only difference between George and other men is that he has worse luck than most. The main culprit is the lack of public information on the disease, which must be counteracted without delay.
The most important play for Paul Claudel is "L'annonce faite à Marie" (The tidings brought to Mary, 1912).
"The tidings brought to Mary"
Time: 13th century. Place: France.
Anne Vercors decides to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and leave his possessions to Jacques, at the point of marrying his eldest daughter, Violaine. Anne has a high opinion of Jacques, a man willing to work and apt to be productive. He is "like a piece of earth accepting any type of grain". However, the younger daughter, Mara, warns her mother that if Jacques marries her sister, she will commit suicide. The mother does not sympathetize with her. "Whenever you speak of your Violaine," Mara complains, "you are all sugar." Jacques accepts Anne's offer. "I take you thanks to God and will not let you go," he promises Violaine. She is equally willing to marry him and feels at one with nature and that all nature comprises God. "It is not June's sun that lightens us but His very face," she states. Yet she reveals a secret he knew nothing about: marks of leprosy on her body. On seeing this, Jacques immediately backs off from any thought of marriage. He learns from Mara that she probably caught the disease by deliberately kissing a leper, which Violaine acknowledges. After her husband's departure, the mother learns that Violaine also chooses to leave home. "Why are you treating us like lepers?" Mara asks Violaine. In spite of their protests, Violaine goes away. Some time later, Mara visits the isolated Violaine on Christmas eve to tell her that their mother is dead. Otherwise, the farm is prospering. But the main reason of her visit is that after marrying Jacques and giving birth, her baby died and she was told she will never have another. Since Violaine is considered by many as a sort of saint, Mara insists on her attempting to bring her baby-boy back to life. Violaine is unwilling to attempt such a deed, advising instead submission to one's destiny, but Mara forces the corpse into her arms. While bells ring at midnight, the baby-boy begins to move. Mara is overjoyed to find him alive, noticing that his eyes have changed to Violaine's and that his lips have milk on them. When Anne returns from Palestine, he carries back with him a woman he found at the bottom of a sand-bank, his dying daughter Violaine. Jacques approaches her, to Mara's disgust. When she attempts to block his movement towards her sister, he pushes his wife away. "He is kneeling! That Violaine who cheated him with a leper!" Mara sputters. However, Jacques is convinced she never slept with the leper, but only kissed him. He gazes for a long time on Violaine. "O my intended between flowering branches, hail!" he exclaims, ignoring his wife.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) is another prominent dramatist of the period. The most important plays for Giraudoux are "La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu" (The Trojan war will not take place, also known as Tiger at the gates, 1935) and "La folle de Chaillot" (The madwoman of Chaillot, 1945).
"The Trojan war will not take place"
Time: Antiquity. Place: Troy, Asia Minor.
Paris, a Trojan, has stolen away Helen, a Greek, from her husband, Menelaus, and there is a rumor afoot that the Greeks are ready to declare war on the city of Troy to take her back. The noble Trojan warrior, Hector, is willing to go to war at once, but his father, King Priam, is not. In Hector's view, Helen, the very emblem of beauty, should be defended at all costs, an opinion approved by priests and poets. Although Helen does not love Paris, she loves her husband even less, and so prefers to remain at Troy. Hector asks the advice of a jurist. "I want a truth which may save us," he says. Constrained to consider his own interest, the jurist suggests various options so that the Trojans may save face in the matter. The Greeks arrive to negotiate. Angered by one of Hector's comments, the powerful Grecian warrior, Ajax, hits him in the face, but Hector refuses to be goaded. Still angry, Ajax next strikes Domokos, a poet, who is also hit by the frustrated Hector, so that war seems imminent. The Grecian warrior, Ulysses, arrives to settle the matter. He says it is not enough that Helen is taken back, it must also be proven that Paris never copulated with her. The Trojans swear that she was left untouched, but this view is contradicted by sailors present in the vessel carrying her away, one of whom revealing that the two were like "baking bread that rises". A messenger of the gods, Iris, arrives to express their views. Aphrodite, goddess of love, wishes the Trojans to keep Helen, but Pallas, goddess of reason, wants them to let her go. Impatient over these contradictory opinions, Ulysses seizes Helen. With the event of war still uncertain, Hector, still frustrated at these events, knocks down Demokos. The deed is blamed on Ajax, so that war now seems inevitable.
"The madwoman of Chaillot"
Time: 1940s. Place: France.
Blackmailed by a prospector, Peter is assigned to place a bomb inside a house of a man working against his projects, but then refuses to do so. In despair, he is about to throw himself into the Seine river, except that Aurelia, the madwoman of Chaillot, prevents his desperate course by knocking him unconscious over the head. Charmed after hearing of her strange life and habits, such as reading over repeatedly the same newspaper clippings of 7 October 1896, the day her lover, Armand Bertaut, left her, he becomes reconciled to life once more. However, the prospector shows up with a different view in mind. As he tries to pull Peter over towards him, the madwoman refuses to let go of his hand. Nonplussed, the prospector eventually leaves while uttering an ominous threat. To counter such men, Aurelia has the idea of convincing business executives that there is oil beneath the district of Chaillot and then bury them alive in an underground chamber. Before her plan is put into action, she consults madwomen in other districts, such as Constance, in the habit of speaking to an invisible dog, as well as the girlishly aged Gabrielle, whose sight and hearing depend on the day of the week and who hears voices whenever the boiler is on. These women are unsure whether Aurelia has the right to murder businessmen. Constance suggests asking her father confessor. Being short on means, she is especially afraid that they would be liable to pay some type of fine because of it. Another madwoman, Josephine, joins in and rather favors the idea. "When one destroys, one should do it in large masses," she declares. A ragpicker pretends to act as the business men's lawyer and defends very badly the interests of the rich in this case. Attracted by the false rumor and all the more excited by drinking water mixed with oil given to them as proof, a large crew of chairmen of the board, prospectors, and representatives of oil companies huddle inside Aurelia's apartment along with the public press. Thinking her mad indeed, the president of several companies gives her a piece of paper to sign whereby she is to leave all her fortune to him and to his colleagues, which she promptly accepts. She also promptly signs a paper handed over by the prospector, certifying that as a madwoman she should enter an asylum. One by one, the corrupt go down below the earth to verify the presence of oil. The door is locked behind all of them. While these are sent below, others emerge, notably a large group of Adolphe Artauds, but in Aurelia's mind, her lover has arrived too late.
Though sometimes influenced by surrealism, a dramatist in the realist vein with important work prior to the end of World War II (1945) includes Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the most important being "La voix humaine" (The human voice, 1930).
"The human voice"
Time: 1930s. Place: France.
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After an amorous relation lasting over five years, a woman calls up her lover on the telephone. She is grateful that he has at least let her know gradually his intention of ending their relation. Nevertheless, she informs him that she has been for some time walking around like a sleepwalker. She is offended that he thinks she is playing a role in making light of the situation when it is untrue. She appears grateful for his consideration of her, although her words also seem an accusation. "You took care to soothe me, to anesthetize me," she points out. "I wanted to be mad and wanted a mad sort of happiness." When asked whether she found some gloves he left behind, she pretends not to have found them while putting one of them against her cheek. She asks that he burn her letters, but yet would like to receive the ashes. Her state of mind is wavering. "We think we are dead," she says. "We hear and are unable to be heard." Much still depends on his attitude. "If you didn't love me and were clever, the telephone would become a formidable weapon," she tells him. She then confesses she lied at the start of their conversation: she is not at a friend's house but all alone, not with her pink dress but with a shabbier one. A few days ago, she consumed twelve pills, but a doctor came and now she is all right. She slept with the phone in bed. Their conversation is interrupted by technical difficulties. "We aren't trying to be interesting," she cries out in frustration to the telephone operator trying to arrange the matter. He begins to worry about her state of mind. She assures him that "one doesn't commit suicide twice", with the phone line hanging around her neck.
Surrealist plays of the 20s bridge the gap between Alfred Jarry's plays and the French Theatre of the Absurd. One of the main exponents of surrealism is Roger Vitrac (1899-1952), who wrote "Victor, ou les enfants au pouvoir" (Victor, or the children come to power, 1928). Derived from surrealism are the theories of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), expressed in "Heliogabale" (Heliogabalus, 1934), a story on the 3rd century Roman emperor of Syrian origin, as well as in the tract "Le théâtre et son double" (The theatre and its double, 1938). By "double" is meant the power between the word and gesture whereby myths are formed.
"Victor, or the children come to power"
Time: 1920s. Place: France.
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Victor, a 9-year-old boy but big for his age, indulges on his birthday in sexual innuendos with a house servant, who slaps his face. Annoyed by the blow, he deliberately breaks a precious vase, then accuses his 6-year-old friend, Estelle, of the deed. On hearing of the broken vase, Theresa, Estelle's mother, slaps her with two hands. Theresa's husband, Antony, insinuates he knows about the adulterous relation existing between his wife and Charles, Victor's father. When the families contemplate a possible marriage between Victor and Estelle, they are considerably upset when Victor plays out with Estelle the adulterous relation between Charles and Theresa, their being a suspicion of incest should that marriage occur. Later, Victor surprises Charles and Theresa during a suspicious rendez-vous and becomes insolent, at which Charles slaps his face. Charles and his wife, Emily, quarrel about Victor's future, during which Charles, exasperated, breaks a vase. An old friend of Emily's, Ida, sudenly appears. She lenghtily explains how at last she was able to find her long-lost friend. As she does so, she farts, explaining it is a recurrent trouble of hers. When Victor is alone with her, he kisses her neck and asks her to fart for him. Worried about his mounting excitement, she abruptly leaves him. More worries accrue when Estelle is found with torn clothes, bloody, and frothing. That evening, Emily weeps about the state of her marriage while Charles calmly reads the paper. Without warning, Charles takes out a gun but then throws it out the window. Meanwhile, Victor reports having an upset stomach. Exasperated, Charles takes him out and whips him till the blood runs. At last, Charles reveals to his wife his adulterous relation. Though calm at first, Emily suddenly slaps him. Theresa enters to announce that Estelle has disappeared, but they find her in the company of Victor. Then they receive news that Antony has hanged himself. When Emily tries to soothe Victor, still in bed with a stomach-ache, she becomes exasperated by his constant moaning and slaps the boy hard. Victor suddenly dies. In grief over this event, his parents shoot themselves to death.
Henry de Montherlant
The most important play for Henry de Montherlant (1875-1972) is "La reine morte" (The dead queen, 1942).
"The dead queen"
Time: 14th century. Place: Portugal.
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Ferrante, king of Portugal, has invited Bianca, infanta of Navarre, to marry his son, Pedro, who resists this plan. Unknown to the king, Pedro is already married to Ines of Castro, a Spanish noblewoman. The king confronts the prince on learning that he refused Bianca's hand. Despite his father's anger, the prince reiterates his refusal to submit. However, he later admits to Ines that, weakening before his father, he failed to reveal their marriage and her pregnancy. While they speak, Ferrante enters abruptly to speak to Ines alone. She also refuses to submit and, moreover, reveals she is married to his son. However, like her husband before, she does not reveal her pregnancy, so that the king still cherishes hopes of changing his son's mind and obtaining a dispensation from the pope to annul the marriage. For this purpose, he orders Pedro's arrest. When the king meets his counselors, they propose to execute the bishop who married the recalcitrant couple as well as Ines. The king agrees with the first proposal but not the second. He meets Ines a second time, asking her to convince her husband of the need to annul the marriage without revealing his counselors' advice concerning her. Before the castle of Santarem where he is held, Pedro is allowed to speak with his wife, both still firm in wishing to maintain their relation. They are interrupted by Bianca, who discloses to Ines the counselors' fatal intentions, information obtained from one of the king's pages, and proposes to take her safely away to Navarre. But Ines declines the offer, preferring to remain near her husband. Ferrante meets Ines a third time. He is sick and feels himself to be near death. At night, his heart seems to stop beating. "When it starts to beat again, I am very surprised to be alive, and a little disappointed," he confides. They are interrupted by a note from one of his counsellors, Alvaro Gonçalves, "a man," reveals the king, "who wants you assassinated." The king learns that the pope would consider the bishop's death an outrage and now would no doubt refuse the annulment of the marriage. Ines at last admits she is pregnant. "Another spring to start over, and to start over less well," he cynically comments. No longer believing in the good of the state but yet pretending to, he thereby orders Ines' condemnation to death. At her imminent execution and near death himself, he falters in his intentions, to the extreme fear of the counselors. One of these begs him to write a countermand, but, before that can be done, the king dies.
The most important play for Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is "Huis-Clos" (No exit, 1942). For Gassner (1954), the play presents the "view that average human beings tend to lack both integrity and self-knowledge. Two women, a demoniacal lesbian and a spoiled society woman, and a cowardly pseudo-idealistic journalist find themselves after their death in hell. They are held in a chamber in which they must always torment each other with awareness of their delusions or failure as human beings and with their dependency upon each other’s opinion. Their dependency is the result of their lack of character and self-respect. Hell, therefore, as one of them remarks, is 'other people'.” (p 715)
Time: 1940s. Place: Hell.
Joseph Garcin is led into a room without a bed, indicating he is never to sleep, a painful thought, he considers. Essentially he is left with "a life with no interruption". There are no mirrors either. Admitted in the same room, Ines Serrano immediately asks: "Where is Florence?" Joseph has no idea. She assumes incorrectly that Joseph is her assigned torturer. A third occupant, Estelle Rigault, is introduced next. To pass the time, they compare their life-histories. Estelle died as a result of pneumonia, Ines of gas exposure, Joseph of "twelve bullets in the flesh". Feeling warm in this unknown place, Joseph begins to take his coat off, but is prevented by Estelle, who detests to see men in their shirts. In his life-time, Joseph ran a pacifist journal, but was gunned down as a result of his political views. He is tormented about the circumstances of his death, wondering whether he did not act as a coward in the end. Moreover, he fears his adulteries are responsible for his wife's death. Ines died when her girl-friend, Florence, turned on the gas while both were sleeping together, in the aftermath of the accidental death of Florence's boy-friend. Estelle was at least partially responsible for the death of her lover, Roger, who committed suicide when she drowned their baby girl. While conversing together, Ines shows signs of being sexually attracted to Estelle, who, uninterested in the love of women, rejects her in favor of Joseph, indifferent to both. In Ines' view, the trio seem like "wooden horses on a merry-go-round". In Estelle's view, it is irrelevant whether Joseph is a coward or not, the important thing is whether he kisses well. "You think too much," she specifies. "What else is there to do?" he asks despondently. All three gaze on the doings of their life-companions still alive, only to find their existence on earth soon forgotten. Ines concludes there is no need of torturers in this place, since each for the other is one, at which Joseph agrees. "Hell is other people," he declares. Pursued by Ines' demands to an extreme breaking-point, Estelle raises a knife to her. After realizing where she is, she laughs. "Well, let us go on," Joseph resolutely affirms.