History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/French Realist

< History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now

In the late 19th century, French Theatre is strongly represented in comedy by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) with "La marâtre" (The stepmother, 1848) and "Mercadet, le faiseur" (Mercadet, the speculator, 1851). Although less well known, these are worthy to be placed next to his novels.

In the late 19th century, French Theatre is strongly represented in drama by François de Curel (1854-1928) with "Les fossiles" (The fossils, 1892) and Émile Augier with "Lions et renards" (Lions and foxes, 1869. Of "The fossils", Clark (1916) wrote: "Depicting as it does the tragedy of a race, the agonies of a dying pride, the struggle between ancestral feeling and personal love and inclination, it is one of the noblest works of our time." Curel also wrote "L'envers d'une sainte" (The reverse of a saint, 1892) about a woman named Julie who loses her chance to win a man from her rival, Jeanne, is received in a convent, and, once the man dies, seeks to avenge herself against her. In "L'invitée" (The guest, 1893), Therèse discovers her husband's infidelity, leaves him with her two daughters, and sixteen years later gets invited by him as a guest to take care of them. In "La nouvelle idole" (1899), a scientist injects dying patients with a cancer-causing microbe to test a vaccine against the disease. His quest is hindered when one of his patients spontaneously recovers from the last stages of consumption.

As a reaction against the current trend in realism, Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) wrote in the neo-romantic vein, notably in "Cyrano de Bergerac" (Cyrano of Bergerac, 1897), based on the life of the 17th century writer and soldier (1619-1655).

In a different reaction against realism, Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) wrote "Ubu roi" (Ubu the king, 1888) in the manner of a violently absurd farce, a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd of the late 20th century.

Honoré de Balzac wrote two of the best comedies of the Romantic period. Portait by Maxime Dastugue after Louis Boulanger (1806-1867)


"The stepmother"Edit

"The stepmother". Time: 1829. Place: Louviers, France.

"The stepmother" text at http://www.archive.org/details/stepmothermercad00balziala

The count of Grandchamp, a retired general in Napoleon's army, and his wife, Gertrude, are thinking of the future of Pauline, his daughter of a previous marriage. In her stepmother's view, Pauline should marry a wealthy landowner, Godard. Both are surprised when Pauline rejects him, because she secretly favors Ferdinand, her father's clerk and an old love of Gertrude's. Although Ferdinand desires to marry her, he cannot, being the son of a general who abandoned Napoleon, and therefore one whom Grandchamp will never accept as son-in-law. Godard desires to discover whether Pauline loves Ferdinand. He enlists the help of Napoleon, the general's twelve-year old son, who shouts that Ferdinand has fallen downstairs, whereby Pauline swoons, confirming Godard's suspicion. He reveals this to Gertrude, who betrays to him her own feelings for Ferdinand, with whom she wishes to renew her amorous relationship begun before her present marriage. To scrutinize further into Pauline's sentiments, Gertrude lies to her by saying Ferdinand is already married, but she appears unmoved at this, as Ferdinand is when she lies a second time by saying that the general will command Pauline to marry Godard. "You hate her, and in this word "hate" there is more love for me than in anything you have said to me these two years," Pauline admits to her lover. When Gertrude sees the two together, she threatens to reveal this to her father, but Pauline is unafraid, knowing she can threaten back with the love-letters Gertrude wrote to Ferdinand which he still possesses. When Gertrude begs Ferdinand to remain hers, he refuses. She then discloses to her husband Pauline's love of Ferdinand. Pauline denies it even before her lover's face. Alone with Gertrude, Pauline reveals she has entered Ferdinand's room and obtained her love-letters. As they drink tea with the general and Godard, the latter ready to reveal Ferdinand's identity, Vernon, the family doctor, notices Gertrude pour something into Pauline's cup. Unnoticed, he takes it away from her and discovers the taste of laudanum, because of which Pauline dozes off, carried to her room with a servant's help by Gertrude, who finds the letters and burns them. Vernon confronts her with the laudanum, but she utters vaguely that four lives are now at stake concerning this matter. On awaking, Pauline suggests to Ferdinand they should elope this very night, but they are intercepted by Gertrude. Cornered, Pauline steals poison from Gertrude's room, discloses to Vernon Ferdinand's identity, and pretends to accept Godard as her husband. Gertrude enters with tea for her, into which Pauline drops the poison and drinks it. As she lays dying, the examining magistrate wonders why Vernon, knowing about the laudanum, failed to prevent Gertrude from poisoning her stepdaughter. Gertrude is astonished at being accused of poisoning, guesses the truth, but is unable to prove her innocence until Pauline reveals the choice of suicide was hers. In despair of losing her, Ferdinand also swallows the poison.

"Mercadet, the speculator"Edit

"Mercadet, the speculator". Time: 1840s. Place: Paris, France.

"Mercadet, the speculator" text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14246

Mercadet has spread rumors that his daughter, Julie, is about to marry De la Brive, a rich man. These news convince Boulard to write for him a letter in support of a delay before paying his creditors, as well as 1,000 crowns, in exchange for information relating to the 350 shares in Basse-Indre stock Boulard would do well to sell. The devious Mercadet reveals to his wife: "It is in the interest of my friend Verdelin to cause a panic in Basse-Indre stock; this stock has been for a long time very risky and has suddenly become of first-class value, through the discovery of certain beds of mineral, known only to those on the inside." Next, he obtains 6,000 francs from another creditor, Violette, as an investment for a new kind of pavement. To entertain his future son-in-law, he needs from Verdelin 1,000 crowns and his dinner service and for him to come and dine at his house with his wife. Violette at first resists giving him the money but at last yields to Julie's pleadings. However, Mercadet's plans are in danger to be upset by Julie's reciprocated love of Adolphe, a mere book-keeper. As he did with his creditors, Mercadet assures Adolphe he is a ruined man, showing him papers. "All payments are made in alphabetic order," he says of the long list of creditors. "I have not yet touched the letter A." This frightens Adolphe, but he nevertheless declares: "I will render her happy by other means than my tenderness; she shall feel grateful for all my efforts, she shall love me for my vigils and for my toils." Yet he cannot have her. "A brilliant marriage for my daughter is the only means by which I would be enabled to discharge the enormous sums I owe," Mercadet tells him, pleading not to force her to a life of poverty. Heartbroken, he accepts this. Though De La Grive also owes a great deal of money, he has lands to be exploited and so Mercadet accepts him as a son-in-law, each thinking the other richer than he is. However, Mercadet discovers in time from Pierquin, another of his creditors, about the extent of De La Grive's debts and the poor prospect of his lands and dismisses him. As a result, an angry Verdelin threatens: "Pierquin tells me that your creditors are exasperated and are to meet to-night at Goulard's house to conclude measures for united action against you tomorrow." Adolphe returns with money from a legacy of 30,000 francs, so that Mercadet, moved, consents to give him his daughter's hand in marriage. Next he proposes to De La Grive to pretend he is Godeau, a man who once robbed him, returned with the stolen money. Although De La Grive agrees at first, Mercadet's wife makes him realize the danger of that operation and so he desists. Thinking Godeau's arrival imminent, Mercadet brazens it out with his creditors, asking Adolphe to supply his 30,000 francs as if they came from Godeau. The creditors go to him and, to Mercadet's astonishment, receive the full amount owed them, for the real Godeau has actually arrived.

François de Curel wrote about people clinging desperately to old ideas, 1900s

"The fossils"Edit

"The fossils". Time: 1890s. Place: The Ardennes and Nice, France.

"The fossils" text at http://www.archive.org/details/fourplaysoffreet00clar

Robert, only son of the duke of Chantemelle, is dying of tuberculosis and wishes to see Helen, an old companion of her sister, Claire, who chased her away from their house after finding out she was the lover of both her father and her brother, unknown to either man. Robert reveals to his mother the duchess that he begot a son of Helen. The duchess is astonished. Unknown to Robert, and thinking the baby to be his, the duke has arranged for it to be nursed near the manor. The duchess announces to her husband that Robert has a son and that Helen is the mother. The duke curses Helen, but yet the thought of having an heir entices. Though she herself is "mud" to his mind, he approves of Robert marrying her and tells him he knows about his son. Robert says that the day she is made to feel inferior by his mother and sister he will take her away. With the duke's approval, Robert agrees to marry Helen. The duchess is furious at the misalliance and Claire indignant despite not knowing yet of the baby's existence. Claire hopes that the family name disappears. Ancestors gave to France entire provinces, now her father cannot get elected even as a mayor in the nearby village. What remains? A family of "revolted mummies". For his part, Robert is convinced of the value of heredity, to him their own comprise an "elite progeny". But to Claire, the present aristocracy is typically a "little marquis who knows only how to hunt and dance". When Robert tells her that the marriage was condoned by their father, she exclaims: "That surpasses in horror all that I feared." The duke brutally commands Helen to marry Robert, but there is one danger: Claire, who knows of her father's amorous relations of the past. "If she talks, farewell marriage, the family falls," affirms the duke. Wishing to save Robert from an abomination, Claire speaks to Helen alone. The father threatens Claire should she try to impede the plan, but she resists, better anything, in her view, than "to breathe in an atmosphere of shame". Yet when the duke announces that Robert has a son, at last Claire agrees to his marriage. After the marriage at Nice, Robert soon begins to feel ill. "Always the taste of blood in my mouth!" he exclaims. If he dies, Helen wishes to leave a family who scare her, the duchess and Claire being at best "heroically polite". She wants Robert's written statement that after his death she can leave the manor with her son, because with her humble and submissive character she may not hold up in such a family. Claire has other ideas. "I'll explain to him your ideas of the nobility that must remain for the country a nursery of generous hearts," she promises her brother. Helen is outraged. What, to yield her child to them! Robert regretfully yields to Helen's wish. Claire panics. What, to take away the child from them! The duke sides with his daughter. "The child is mine," affirms Robert. "Mine," cries the duke, revealing that Helen was his before she ever was Robert's. "Now, if you want me to die, I'm ready," the duke declares to his son. Lurching out, Robert counters: "One of us must die." The duchess guesses the truth. After Robert dies, Claire reads his will, stating that his parents give Helen and her son their castle in Normandy. "I promised Robert never to marry and to stay all my life with Helen and her child," Claire reveals. The duchess is sorry to lose Claire. To Helen, the duke can only say: "Farewell forever."

Emile Augier described the conflicts that arise when men act like lions or foxes. Photograph by Félix Nadar (1820-1910)

"Lions and foxes"Edit

"Lions and foxes". Time: 1860s. Place: Paris, France.

Lions and foxes text at ?

Catherine de Birague is an attractive goal of many potential suitors after inheriting a great sum of money. In that regard, aving had an illicit liaison with him many years ago during a previous marriage and still remaining friendly, the wife of Catherine's guardian, Octavia, countess of Prévenquière, speaks favorably of Raoul, Baron D'Estrigaud. Alphonse Sainte-Agathe favors instead his pupil, Viscount Adhemar, Catherine's cousin. The baron visits her first and surprises her with a mariage proposal. When she shows no interest, he insolently proposes that she become his mistress, which she vehemently rejects. Adhemar follows after with his own marriage proposal. "But I do not wish to marry," says Catherine. "Neither do I," specifies the viscount. He merely requests her not to refuse him altogether, to let the question hang in the air a little, long enough for him to amuse himself for a few weeks in Paris before returning in the provinces. Having heard rumors of his wife's indiscretions, Octavia's husband, Edward, has no wish to see the baron in his house. He is enthusiastic over the merits of his friend, Peter Champlion, who seeks to exploit a goldmine in Wadai, Africa, if he can attract enough subscriptions, and at the same time liberate a friend of his from prison in that region. The tale so inflames Edward, Alphonse, and Adhemar that they subscribe immediately for that project, along with Catherine, who provides the greatest amount of money of all. Later, a pleasant chat between Catherine and Peter is interrupted, to her annoyance, by the arrival of the baron, who subcribes with the others. He then pleads on his own behalf regarding whether he deserves pardon from an unnamed lady and asks Peter for his opinion. When Peter discovers the lady in question is Catherine and observes the baron's excessive familiarity toward him, he becomes angry to the extent of challenging him to a duel. Alarmed, Catherine attempts to prevent it by reminding him of his friend imprisoned in Africa, but this does not halt him. Equally alarmed are Octavia and Alphonse, as Peter's boldness in defending Catherine may compromise her towards a man she already shows "all too much a penchant". Alphonse would like Adhemar to fight the baron, but he cannot honorably do so as a result of owing him a gambling debt. Instead, Alphonse strikes a deal with the baron, whereby the former yields compromising letters of his regarding the use of money he once owed to several persons in return for reliquishing his pretensions towards Catherine. Moreover, by paying him Adhemar's gambling debt, he frees his pupil for the duel. However, since Adhemar does not want to marry her, the payment puts him in a compromising situation towards her. He opts instead to help Peter by quashing false rumors concerning his use of the subscription money, after which they agree to travel together to Africa.

Edmond Rostand wrote a famous biographical drama on the life of Cyrano of Bergerac. Drawing of Rostand in the magazine "l'Illustration", 1889

"Cyrano of Bergerac"Edit

"Cyrano of Bergerac". Time: 17th century. Place: Paris, France.

"Cyrano of Bergerac" text at http://www.classicbookshelf.com/library/edmond_rostand/cyrano_de_bergerac/



Old and ailing, Cyrano is visited one last time by Roxane and a friend. 1898 drawing from the magazine "L'Illustration"

Cyrano of Bergerac interrupts a stage performance because of the main actor's appearance despite his order not to do so for one month. The viscount of Valvert advances towards Cyrano for this insolence, but he beats him off with his sword. On learning that one of his friends is threatened to death by a large crowd, he beats them all off, among whom eight men die. Afterwards, he receives a summons to meet the woman he loves, Roxane, his cousin. Before her, he loses all his bravado. She reveals she loves. To his joy, Cyrano thinks he is the chosen one, but it is Christian, a cadet-officer, though she has never yet spoken to him. Unwillingly, he promises to protect him. When telling the stories of his exploits, he is taunted of his long nose at every turn by Christian. Cyrano has a hard time restraining himself, but at last reveals he is Roxane's cousin. Overjoyed, Christian shakes his hand, but is saddened to learn he must write her a letter, for as a military man he is no good at that type of thing. Cyrano agrees to write in his place. When Roxane next meets her cousin, she says she is charmed by Christian's wit, surpassing even his. De Guiche, commander of the regiment of guards, arrives to warn her that, while they lay siege to Arras, he will take vengeance on Cyrano, a man under his orders. She counters that the best way to hurt Cyrano would be to deprive him of his regiment of guards, which De Guiche considers proof of her love for him, when it is Christian she would have remain in Paris. Christian accosts her and tells her that he loves her. She closes her eyes to hear more, but he is stuck at that one sentence. Roxane replies: "That's the theme. Embroider, embroider." When he is unable to, she cries out: "Delabyrinth your feelings." When still unable to, she shuts the door in his face. In despair, Christian calls to his friend for help, who places himself under her balcony and whispers eloquence to her ravished senses, first through Christian's voice, then his. A Capuchin friar delivers a letter from De Guiche, stating he expects to see her in the convent where he is hiding, but she tells the friar it is De Guiche's wish to have her marry Christian, which she does, the commander, thanks to Cyrano, arriving too late to prevent it, but yet ordering Christian off to war against the Spaniards. During the siege of Arras, De Guiche, to avoid being an obvious target to musket-fire, drops the white scarf indicating his rank, which Cyrano, at great risk, succeeds in recovering. While half the army moves away to obtain food provisions, De Guiche forms a plan to have the Spaniards attack the company of Gascon cadets. The soldiers are suddenly surprised by the arrival of a coach and even more so when they see emerging from it Roxane, with food provisions and a pastry-cook. Christian guesses that Cyrano loves Roxane and desires him to say so to her. He is about to but then hears news that his rival has been shot to death. "It is over," says he to himself. When the enemy charges, he exclaims: "I have two deaths to avenge: Christian and my happiness." Fifteen years later, Roxane is a nun in the habit of receiving a visitor every Saturday: Cyrano, now poor with many enemies and a damaged skull resulting from a heavy piece of wood thrown by from a window by one of these. One day, he arrives slightly later than his usual time for his date with Roxane, but, though fatally weakening, does not tell her about it. Roxane wears in a locket around her neck the last letter "Christian" wrote, which Cyrano asks to read aloud, in which he tells her: "I will die. It is tonight, I think, my loved one. My soul is heavy with unexpressed love, and I die." Roxane is surprised at the fervor of his tone. As he continues reading, she asks: "How can you continue reading it now? It is night." Amazed, she suddenly discovers the answer. "It was you," she says. He denies it. She counters miserably: "Though I loved only one, I lose him twice." He senses the coming of another type of woman, a grislier one, liable to make him "booted in marble, gloved in lead". Though recognizing death takes all, there is one thing she cannot take: "My panache," he asserts.

Alfred Jarry was a 19th century precursor of the Absurd theatre

"Ubu the king"Edit

"Ubu the king". Time: 1880s. Place: Poland.

"Ubu the king" text at http://www.archive.org/details/uburoidramain5ac00jarr

Publicity drawing of the premiere of Ubu the king, 1896

Ubu is encouraged by his wife to revolt against Vencesclas, king of Poland. With Captain Border's help, they succeed in killing him, with Ubu as the new monarch. To ensure the people's loyalty to the crown, the queen suggests yielding some money to them, which he reluctantly does. To get his money back, he confiscates the fortunes of his noblemen and then kills them. Moreover, he interrogates magistrates and administrators, but, not liking what he hears, kills them as well. He next extracts money from the peasants, as the master of finance, and treacherously imprisons Border, who escapes and flees to the Russian czar, Alexis, who invades Poland. Ubu the king must war against the Russians, looking, according to the queen, "like an armed pumpkin". Meanwhile, Vencesclas' son, Bougrelas, leads an armed revolt against the Ubus, so that there is trouble both from within and without. The queen is forced to flee high up in the mountains. Though shot by the czar's troups, Ubu succeeds in tearing Border apart and escaping. He says he would have been able to kill the czar: "had not an inexplicable terror combated and annulled in us the effects of courage," he explains. Pile and Cotice, two of Ubu's paladins, attack a bear and, despite being bitten, kill it, Ubu ascribing their success to his own person: "We did not hesitate to mount this elevated rock, so that our prayers had a shorter way to go before arriving in heaven," he declares. While Ubu sleeps, the queen, afraid he might have heard of her robbing his treasury, appears in the night in the form of an angelic apparition, specifying what a wonderful wife he has, but at dawn, he recognizes her and tears her apart. Bougrelas succeeds in overthrowing the king, who escapes out of the country in a boat, hoping eventually to obtain a position in France as minister of finance.