Henry Bernstein Essay - Critical Essays


Henry Bernstein was presented in the 1960’s as an example of what French theater ought not to be. The French playwrights in vogue in the 1960’s viewed the theater of Bernstein and other “popular” playwrights as anti-intellectual; writers such as Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jean Anouilh saw theater as a vehicle for ideas, political statements, and philosophy. However, Bernstein’s plays have much more substance than these writers—and critics since the 1960’s—have been willing to admit.

Bernstein’s theater entertains, even in the twenty-first century. His plays almost always contain some comic element—amusing characters, witty dialogue, comic situations. The real essence of his drama, however, lies in the manner in which he presents an era in French society—or at least certain elements of French society—in the first half of the twentieth century. The society he depicts is a microcosm: upper-middle-class characters and members of the hereditary nobility, as diluted as the nobility was in France at the turn of the twentieth century. The only representatives of the rest of French society are maids and valets, who for the most part perform their appointed tasks (although a maid in Samson takes it on herself, benevolently, to warn a mother of her daughter’s misbehavior).

The upper levels of turn-of-the-twentieth-century French society, as Bernstein sees things, are materialistic, ever conscious of social status, generally superficial in any sense of appreciation of culture. This society, often referred to by Bernstein’s characters as “the world,” thrives on hypocrisy: It is the face one presents publicly, not one’s inner passions, longings, or lusts, that matters. Therefore, when for some reason one’s real identity is exposed, the individual is in peril. However, in Bernstein’s best plays there is always a hero or heroine—or occasionally, both, as in Samson—who has the courage to transcend the crowd mentality and do what is right.

The Whirlwind

The world of The Whirlwind, like that of most of Bernstein’s plays, is tightly circumscribed in more than one sense. Bernstein sets his plays for the most part in Paris, the center of French society, which, in turn, consists of a number of inner circles. The Whirlwind deals with insiders and outsiders (the play opens with a conversation about whether a certain man ought to be voted into an exclusive club). There is a clearly recognized distinction between those who trace their ancestry through several generations of nobility, on one hand, and those who have risen to the apex of this society on the basis of their forebears’ work and have climbed the social ladder from humble origins, on the other.

At one point, Baron Lebourg, for example, is called a parvenu, a man who has “succeeded.” This expression is usually used negatively in eighteenth and nineteenth century France. Here, the Baron accepts the characterization because his interlocutor means that the Baron has an energy for life, a joy for challenge that the old nobility no longer has. It is Robert de Chacéroy who is talking with Lebourg in this scene. Chacéroy is, in contrast to the Baron, titled but impoverished nobility, a young man driven to pay for his elegant lifestyle by gambling. He has even learned to enjoy gambling. However, Chacéroy’s luck has run out. Early in the play, it is revealed that he has lost a great sum of money, and worse, he has covered his debts through embezzlement. Still, it is Chacéroy who is the focus of the love of Lebourg’s daughter, Hélène. She was forced into a loveless but socially useful marriage with a boor. This, too, is a long tradition in French society, in which fathers have complete control of their families.

When the scandal of Chacéroy’s dilemma becomes known in the Lebourg family, the Baron tries to buy Chacéroy off. However, Chacéroy truly loves Hélène and turns down the offer. What is more important perhaps, and the point that constitutes the last act’s surprise twist, is that Robert has lost his nerve for gambling. Facing scandal, meaninglessness, and the loss of Hélène, Robert nobly kills himself—rather than ruin Hélène, who was all too willing to run away with him.

The Thief

The Thief is a thriller, a comedy, a love story (indeed, several love stories), and perhaps what one critic called a “comedy of character.” The first two acts carry several surprises, including an exposed disguise,...

(The entire section is 1865 words.)