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...
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- Critical Essays