Émile Zola

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Émile Zola Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3888

French writers seem to exhibit a need to write for the theater. It is as though seeing one’s work performed onstage were a final imprimatur of success. Among the great nineteenth century novelists, both Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac attempted to write for the stage, but only Victor Hugo managed to achieve fame as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Zola attended regular dinners in Paris with a group that included Gustave Flaubert and Alphonse Daudet. These evenings were called the “dinners of the hissed authors” because everyone present had had a play hissed off the stage.

Nevertheless, Émile Zola remains important for the history of the theater because of his innovative dramatic theories. The artistic principle informing Zola’s plays is the same as that of his novels—a desire to depict the truth. With his reformer’s zeal, Zola set out to bring a greater measure of realism to a stage that was then dominated by the well-made play. He believed that these productions too often followed a standard formula well within the polite boundaries of social convention, portraying an idealized version of life. The public controlled the stage, he thought, by refusing to support any play that was not prettier than life, with a happy, or at least a sweetly poignant, ending. The challenge Zola set for himself was to bring to the stage a measure of the stark, often sordid reality he described in his novels. As in his novels, naturalism in Zola’s plays implied a scientific precision in observation combined with the artist’s particular point of view. As always, special emphasis was placed on the effects of heredity and environment in shaping an individual destiny.

Even if Zola himself was unable to realize his vision of a new drama, he must be acknowledged as a revolutionary in theatrical history. It is his dramatic criticism and his experimentation in set design, costume, methods of acting, and subject matter that opened the way to twentieth century drama in France. It was he who had the vision to write in his 1875 preface to Thérèse Raquin, “Either drama will die, or drama will be modern and real.”


Zola’s first full-length play, Madeleine, is a good example of his desire to apply scientific theory to a literary work. The story of Madeleine Férat proceeds from the hypothesis that a woman will always bear within her the indelible imprint of her first lover: It is impossible to escape one’s past. In the play, Madeleine is a woman haunted by her questionable past. She had had a lover as a young woman in Paris, but he is presumed dead, and she is now respectably married to Francis, happy in her tranquil new life in a distant province. By malign coincidence, the lover, Jacques, returns, not for Madeleine, but to find his childhood friend Francis and to meet his friend’s wife, whom he does not suspect is Madeleine. When she confesses her past to Francis, he is able to forgive her, but they flee from Jacques to regain their peace of mind alone. Unfortunately, they arrive at the very inn and are shown to the same room where Madeleine had spent a week with Jacques. Inevitably, old memories are rekindled, and Jacques himself appears. Madeleine realizes that she cannot escape her past without the forgiveness of her husband and mother-in-law. They return to seek the blessing of Francis’s mother. Tragically, a stern and righteous family servant, seeking to punish Madeleine, convinces her that the mother will never forgive her. With her last hope of escaping the bondage of her past at an end, Madeleine poisons herself and dies. Through his portrayal of Madeleine, Zola demonstrates the force of the past in determining one’s life. The play is not without its melodramatic moments, however, nor is the outcome inevitable.

The manager of the Théâtre du Gymnase rejected the play on the grounds that contemporary audiences would find it unacceptable, even offensive, thus confirming Zola’s opinion that the theaters of his day deferred too quickly to their patrons. Indeed, Zola believed that theater management underestimated the public and that audiences were prepared to be challenged by greater realism than was then seen onstage in Paris. The fact remains, however, that Madeleine is too much a demonstration of a hypothesis to achieve dramatic success. The situations seem contrived, and the characters are too obviously subjects in an experiment whose outcome is preordained by the writer. The play did achieve a fair success in 1889 when produced by the Théâtre Libre as an example of Zola’s early work.

Thérèse Raquin

With very little change in plot and characterization, Zola expanded his play into the novel, Madeleine Férat (1868; English translation, 1880). As it happened, his first play to be staged was the dramatization of his first critically acclaimed novel, Thérèse Raquin. This novel adapted well to the stage because, unlike many of Zola’s novels, with their epic crowd scenes, Thérèse Raquin is an intense domestic drama in which the conflict between the three principal characters entangles them with greater and greater constricting force. Even the setting is dark, dismal, and oppressive.

Thérèse Raquin has been reared from childhood by her aunt and has married her frail cousin and childhood companion, Camille. At the opening of the drama, they are living in Paris, as a household of three—mother, son, and daughter-in-law—in a small apartment above Mme Raquin’s notion shop, which itself opens onto a dim enclosed passageway. The arrival of Laurent, a friend of Camille’s youth, awakens Thérèse from her tranquil but somnolent existence. She and Laurent embark on a passionate love affair even as Laurent is being welcomed into the family as a second son by the doting Mme Raquin.

Eventually, the force of their passion drives Thérèse and Laurent to plot the murder of Camille. While ostensibly on a summer picnic, they take him boating and drown him, feigning a tragic accident. Having disposed of the husband, they coolly suspend their relationship and play their parts so well that Mme Raquin and her friends actually urge the two to marry. Thus, Laurent takes Camille’s place in the home of Mme Raquin. At this point, the play takes on the inexorable force of classic tragedy as Thérèse and Laurent are haunted by the specter of Camille’s drowned corpse. As guilt increasingly poisons their relationship, Mme Raquin, who has become paralyzed and mute, comes to realize the truth about her son’s murder. Driven mad by fear and remorse, their passion turned to hate, and confronted always by the unrelenting, accusing gaze of Mme Raquin, Thérèse and Laurent at last commit suicide at the feet of Mme Raquin, the silent, avenging fury.

Instead of offering his play to any of the established theaters in Paris, Zola took it to the struggling Théâtre de la Renaissance, where the manager was willing to gamble on the new play. The support of the well-known actress Marie Laurent, who was eager to play the part of Mme Raquin, encouraged the manager, who provided an excellent supporting cast. Thérèse Raquin thus had a short but fairly successful end-of-the-season run in 1873 and later toured in German and Scandinavian countries to favorable reviews. It has been noted that Thérèse is, in many ways, a precursor of Ibsen’s strong-willed heroines, particularly in the play’s intense conflict that can end only in catastrophe. Perhaps because of its emphasis on character analysis rather than on plot, Thérèse Raquin has fascinated modern audiences more often than any of Zola’s other plays.

The Rabourdin Heirs

Zola’s next two plays were experiments in style. The first was a sardonic comedy, a sort of pastiche of Molière and Ben Jonson. In his preface to the play, Zola explains that again he wishes to set an example for modern writers of comedy and to protest the sorry state to which they have brought the proud heritage of Molière. The Rabourdin Heirs represents an attempt to return to the source of modern comedy. As ever, Zola invokes the depiction of true and living types as the proper goal of the comic playwright.

The plot of The Rabourdin Heirs turns on the situation of a ruined merchant who not only pretends that his business is thriving but also pretends that he is dying. By means of this double ruse he not only extracts valuable gifts from those who expect to inherit a fortune but also discovers their true feelings as they reveal themselves around his “deathbed.” Although the play does contain some amusing lines, Zola does not have a real gift for sustaining a comic sequence. Even when the truth is revealed, and the heirs realize that they will have to continue the ruse of Rabourdin’s wealth to maintain their own credit, the moment is not played for its full ironic effect. Some, including Zola himself, have said that the play was unfairly attacked by critics, jealous of Zola’s success as a novelist. There is some truth, though, in their main objections to the play: that it was not lively, that the characters were not sympathetic, and that the central situation never changed. These adverse reviews caused the play to close after seventeen performances.

Le Bouton de rose

With Le Bouton de rose, staged in 1878, Zola took a vacation from naturalism and wrote a light comedy at the request of the manager of the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Zola had finished the novel L’Assommoir in 1876 and took the project as a form of relaxation. The publication of L’Assommoir, however, had made Zola a prominent personage. He was now the leader of the naturalist group of writers, and critics had no intention of letting him present a bit of farcical fluff onstage. The plot was inspired by one of the stories in Balzac’s Les Contes drôlatiques (1832-1837; Droll Stories, 1874, 1891), in which a bridegroom who must leave his new wife asks his best friend to ensure his bride’s fidelity in his absence. The wife, to reproach him for his lack of confidence, concocts an amusing ruse at the expense of both her husband and his friend. Le Bouton de rose merits mention only for its complete inversion of naturalist principles. Public and critics could not forgive Zola for what appeared to them to be total inconsistency with his own philosophy of the stage, so vociferously argued in his theatrical criticism.


After the rout of Le Bouton de rose, Zola returned to his novels as the source of the one last play that would be entirely his own work. The novel he chose to dramatize was La Curée (1872; The Kill, 1886). This time he must have felt success was at hand in the form of Sarah Bernhardt, who was extremely eager to appear in what became the title role when the play was written as Renée. The play has been called a “Phaedra” in modern dress: The young wife of a wealthy Paris financier has an affair with her husband’s son by an earlier marriage. Zola considered Renée to be an excellent vehicle for bringing naturalism to the stage. In the first place, the Phaedra theme was a classic subject, much admired by the French in Jean Racine’s version, and the title role was one of Sarah Bernhardt’s most successful roles. The Second Empire setting and the exposition of fierce passion dominating the main characters and leading to inevitable destruction were familiar to readers of naturalist novels. Instead of the Greek concept of fate, it would be heredity and environment that would betray the three main characters.

The play begins with the marriage of Aristide Saccard, an ambitious speculator, to Renée, the daughter of a well-to-do Parisian family. Renée feels that she is obliged to accept Saccard as her suitor because she has a past “tainted” by an earlier seduction. In order to tone down the implications of incest in the plot, Zola made the marriage between Saccard and Renée strictly one of convenience, a pure formality. The first act sets the terms of this relationship and also reveals that Renée has a hereditary flaw transmitted by her passionate mother, who was presumed to have died many years before but who in fact deserted her family for another man.

The following four acts take place ten years later as Renée discovers her love for Maxime, struggles briefly against her passion, then gives herself to him. In the meantime Saccard, who has grown rich in the corrupt, opulent economy of the Second Empire, has fallen in love with his wife and seeks to normalize their marital relations. Renée’s passion flourishes in the sultry atmosphere of the Saccard hothouse, until, in a fury over Maxime’s proposed marriage with a wholesome young Swedish girl, she reveals to Saccard that her lover is his son. Filled with disgust for both father and son, loathing herself as well, she puts an end to the family curse by committing suicide.

The extent of Zola’s departure from established theatrical convention can be judged by the vehemence with which Renée was rejected by theater management. Phaedra was admirable; Renée was detestable. What the public would accept as a novel was intolerable onstage. In the meantime, Sarah Bernhardt had resigned from the Comédie-Française and was on tour in the United States. On her return, she felt unable to take part in such a controversial play. Renée was not staged, therefore, until 1887, when even Zola agreed that it had not been improved by the years of waiting in the wings.

The failure of Renée brought to an end Zola’s dreams of staging a successful drama of his own. His particular writing talents—the evocative descriptive passages, the panoramic sweep of the crowd scenes, the epic grandeur of his novels—did not readily adapt to the stage. His meticulous method of research, which he thought of as constructing a novel like a grand edifice, was of limited value in writing a play. Moreover, he believed that the critics of his day resented his fame as a novelist, as if unwilling to allow success in both genres. Zola’s own harsh and forthright criticisms of the theater made him especially vulnerable to attack when his own plays were produced.

William Busnach and Zola

Thus, when Zola was approached by a dramatist named William Busnach, he agreed to allow the younger writer to adapt his current best-selling novel, L’Assommoir, for the stage. Because Zola’s name appears nowhere on the scripts, the plays that Busnach created from his novels have normally not been included as part of Zola’s work. It is known, however, from correspondence between the two men that Zola offered much advice and even wrote some of the dialogue. Many of the major departures from the plots of the novels were written at Zola’s suggestion. The five plays resulting from the collaboration between Busnach and Zola are of interest, then, as examples of Zola’s naturalism brought to the stage, although Zola readily admitted that these plays represent a compromise between theatrical conventions of the time and his own notions of modern drama.

Busnach had previously been a writer of vaudeville, and he apparently had the dramatic flair necessary to appeal to contemporary audiences. He and Zola altered the plot structure of the novels to simplify and, in fact, to make them resemble typical popular melodramas. For example, L’Assommoir, the novel, is the story of Gervaise and Coupeau, their lives destroyed by the bad luck of an accidental injury to Coupeau and the subsequent disintegration of their lives as they succumb to the temptation of alcohol. In the play, however, a wicked rival of Gervaise deliberately causes Coupeau’s fall at the construction site and thereafter reappears at crucial moments to ensure the complete destruction of the Coupeau family. Thus, the tragedy of Gervaise and Coupeau appears to result less from their own character and situation than from the purely malevolent intervention of another human being.

In spite of the fact that the novels were brought to the stage in somewhat lighter form, the plots still represent a greater measure of reality than had theretofore been seen in the theater. The scenes and costumes were taken from everyday life, and the actors avoided a declamatory style in favor of lifelike conversations. Worthy of mention are the realistic innovations in set design encouraged by Zola. For example, L’Assommoir featured real soap and hot water in Gervaise’s laundry. In one riverside scene from Nana, a genuine stream flowed beneath cardboard trees bearing actual apples. Unfortunately the falling fruit distracted somewhat from the poetry of the love scene. The stage effects of Germinal, set in a coal mine, are said to have been spectacular, the gigantic machinery giving the same overpowering, menacing impression as the descriptive passages in the novel.

Germinal, however, was the last of Busnach’s adaptations. Zola had become increasingly involved in the plays, insisting, this time against Busnach’s advice, on presenting a scene of striking workers being fired on by the police. Zola had always maintained that Busnach’s adaptations did not represent the theatrical revolution he envisioned. Nevertheless, Germinal was too revolutionary in its social message for the government, which refused to license the play. Perceiving that the licensing commission was one of the blocks in the way of theatrical progress, Zola made public his difficulties with the authorities. It took three years to put Germinal onstage, but Zola had struck a resounding blow on behalf of the theater against government censorship.

Théâtre Libre

A more successful theatrical revolution was Zola’s support of and involvement in André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre, never a strictly naturalist creation, but instead a genuinely new direction in theater history. The program on opening night in 1887 included an adaptation by Léon Henneau of Zola’s short story “Jacques Damour.” Antoine always acknowledged his debt to Zola in launching and helping to establish his career as an innovative director. Thanks to Antoine and Zola, the plays of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg became known and appreciated in France.

Alfred Bruneau and Zola

The year 1893 brought to a close the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. Zola was ready for a new phase of his literary life. The novels of Zola’s postnaturalist period are filled with lyric optimism for man’s future, based on scientific progress and a rejuvenated France born out of the debacle of the Second Empire, with its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Doctor Pascal, the final volume of Les Rougon-Macquart, had ended with the birth of a child, humanity’s hope for the future. Indeed, Zola’s last novels were hymns of praise for work, truth, justice, and, above all, fecundity.

It is unsurprising then, that during the last decade of his life, Zola’s interest in the theater should have turned toward the visionary, symbolic librettos that he composed for the opera with Alfred Bruneau . Bruneau had already performed a work adapted from Le Rêve (1888; The Dream, 1888), with lyrics by Louis Gallet. This was one of the first musical dramas staged in modern dress.

Encouraged by Bruneau’s success, Zola himself wrote the libretto for a work entitled Messidor, which opened at the Paris Opera in 1897. As he had done with the novel and dramatic play, Zola introduced several innovations in the operatic form that were startling to audiences of his time. First, Messidor was written in rhythmic prose rather than in verse. Furthermore, the plot of the opera turned on a strikingly modern conflict, that between industrial capitalism and the agrarian economy it disrupts. The title is intended to recall Germinal, both being names taken from the revolutionary calendar adopted in 1793. The two stories are similar in their sympathy for the miners and the peasants who are the victims of monopolistic business. In the opera, however, the people triumph in an idyllic and optimistic portrayal of the blessing of the fertile wheat fields. The social message of progress through fertility, of the people and of the land, was Zola’s ever-present preoccupation during his last decade. Messidor enjoyed a successful run until the publication of “I Accuse” in 1898, after which riots outside the Paris opera caused performances to be discontinued.

The second libretto that Zola wrote for Bruneau was called L’Ouragan (the hurricane), for which the author had clearly drawn on the emotional turmoil of his personal life. Written just as Alexandrine was recovering from her trauma of discovering Zola’s liaison with Jeanne Rozerot, L’Ouragan is set on an isolated island inhabited by two sisters from one family and two brothers from another. Both sisters love Richard, the elder brother; both brothers love Jeanine, the younger sister. Richard, who once sacrificed his love for Jeanine by leaving the island, returns accompanied by a young girl, Lulu. He discovers that his brother has been mistreating Jeanine. The tempest of destructive passions thus unleashed is symbolized by a hurricane that strikes the island, demolishing everything, but also preventing Marianne, the jealous older sister, from murdering Richard. As the sun shines cheerfully on the calm morning after the storm, the characters face the rebuilding of their devastated lives. The emotional hurricane, too, has blown itself out. With the dawn comes the possibility of a new order. Richard, the seeker of truth, sets sail with Lulu, the personification of hope.

In L’Enfant-Roi , his third libretto for Bruneau, Zola returned to the more realistic portrayal of a Parisian family, in this case, a baker and his wife. The plot again reflects Zola’s own domestic situation, and it is also a reworking of Madeleine with a happy ending. The baker and his wife have been unable to have any children, but, unknown to the husband, the wife has had a child before her marriage by a cousin who was killed during the war. When the baker discovers his wife’s secret visits to the boy, his jealousy nearly destroys their household and even their business, as malicious employees take advantage of his distraction to seize control of the bakery. In the end, peace is restored when the baker agrees to adopt the child for the sake of his wife’s happiness. The virtues of honest labor and the joys of parenthood triumph over the darker forces of human nature. The symbolically fecund wheat fields of Messidor appear in this urban setting as the life-giving loaves of the baker’s bread.

After Zola’s death, Bruneau went on to compose music for three more lyric poems by Zola. Violaine la chevelue is a fairy-tale piece recalling the early Stories for Ninon; Lazare tells the story of a Lazarus who wishes to be left to his peaceful sleep; and Sylvanire: Ou, Paris en amour portrays a ballerina torn between her love and her art. This last work by Zola includes an elaborate symbolic ballet exalting the city of Paris.

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