With the exception of a few early plays—Bernard Palissy and La Fille de Duramé as well as False Gods, a later play set in ancient Egypt—all Eugène Brieux’s more than thirty plays have contemporary settings, and each one focuses on a different social question. Believing in the perfectibility of humanity, Brieux attempted, through dramatization, to eradicate every social evil he encountered. As a result, the initial impulse for each of his plays was a thesis. The better works successfully dramatize the thesis by placing sympathetic and believable characters who are the victims of a particular evil in an intriguing, sometimes comic, but always highly dramatic situation. The least successful artistically are the works that remain leadenly didactic, in which the situation does not stem from characters but instead provides a platform for the espousal of an idea. Brieux’s righteous indignation often overwhelms an otherwise entertaining, frequently moving drama, the point of which might have been more effective if made with greater subtlety.
Among Brieux’s least didactic plays is his first critical and popular success, Blanchette, but its three variant endings pinpoint the dramatist’s recurring weakness. That the play can end in any of three ways underscores its arbitrary structure. The characters are well drawn, with delicacy and affection, but their actions ultimately do not dictate their fates. Blanchette may end up miserably as a prostitute, may return home a wealthy man’s mistress, or may remain undefiled to become the bride of a local wheelwright. Brieux’s attempt to win popular success, rather than to create a sense of logic in his heroine’s inherent traits, seems to have dictated the eventual course of the play.
Blanchette affectionately depicts the lives of the Rousset family, who barely make a living from the rural tavern they run and the small tract of land they farm. They have sacrificed to send their only child, Blanchette, to school to earn a teaching certificate, but their daughter is low on the list of those waiting to be hired. The state, it seems, trains more teachers than it can use, and the waiting period may last more than a year. In the meantime, Blanchette, now educated above her station, has come to loathe the peasants among whom she lives and is even embarrassed by her parents. She spends her days reading romantic novels and dreaming about marrying a wealthy young man who will allow her to turn his elegant home into a fashionable salon. Until her daydreams come true, she plans at least to turn the tavern into a more suitable café. When her father strikes her in the midst of an angry argument over her gross miscalculation with a fertilizer that has burned their land and her deliberate breaking of a lamp, Blanchette decides that her existence has become intolerable. She goes off to make a new life for herself.
Blanchette’s leavetaking, which takes place at the end of the second act, makes a suitable ending for the play. Brieux makes his point, that education ought to have some practical end, without belaboring it. Neither Antoine, who presented the work at his Théâtre Libre, nor the author himself was particularly pleased with any of the three third acts that Brieux eventually provided for the play; indeed, Antoine frequently presented only the first two acts of the play. The original third act, the most pessimistic, with Blanchette ending up a prostitute, is out of keeping with the tone of the rest, but Brieux considered it to be in line with the pessimistic view of most of the plays at Antoine’s theater. His own earlier play there, Artists’ Families, had also ended on a negative note with the unprepared-for and unlikely suicide of its protagonist. Blanchette, however, despite an earnest thesis, is a play of charm and humor. No audience would care to see the Roussets suffer, for they are sympathetic and sensible, good-hearted peasants, if somewhat bewildered by their moody daughter. Blanchette is at times an infuriating and unfeeling young lady, but an audience understands her frustrations and winces along with her as her father embarrasses her in front of others. Yet the play’s final and best-known version, in which Blanchette accepts the marriage proposal of a young worker of equal class, is overly sentimental.
Brieux veered from an ending as dark as that of the usual comédie rosse of the Théâtre Libre to an ending light enough to have been dictated by a boulevard audience. The revised Blanchette kept playgoers happy but enabled them to overlook the very point of the play. Brieux would not make that mistake again. After Blanchette‘s success, he had no need ever again to cater to an audience’s whim.
The Three Daughters of M. Dupont
The Three Daughters of M. Dupont and The Red Robe represent Brieux at his best, successfully mingling satiric comedy with effective melodrama to argue a worthy thesis. A shifting focus of attention is a weakness of both plays, but intriguing character and situation hold an audience’s interest throughout.
The first act of The Three Daughters of M. Dupont reveals Brieux as a skillful comic satirist as two sets of parents settle the terms of a dowry. The Duponts’ youngest daughter, Julie, is to marry Antonin, the son of M. and Mme Mairaut. While the parents of the one pretend to know little of the financial situation of the other, the truth of the matter is that all concerned have done their homework, and each family knows exactly how much the other is worth. When M. Dupont, a printer in a provincial town, offers to add his country home to his daughter’s dowry, Mme Mairaut, the wife of the local banker, immediately points out that the house in question is flooded for two months each year. M. Dupont makes outrageous statements that startle even his wife, while poor, henpecked M. Mairaut is hardly permitted by his domineering wife to enter the conversation. Brieux at first creates amusing situations at the expense of the one-dimensionally drawn parents. Both the Duponts and the Mairauts are thoroughly convinced that they have effectively swindled each other. As the play’s tone changes from farce to serious drama, however, the audience is made aware that the real victim is Julie, who is being bartered as a commodity and condemned to a life of misery.
The practice of arranged marriages based on financial settlements was Brieux’s target. A sensitive and intelligent twenty-four-year-old young woman is locked into marriage with an insensitive and materialistic boor who can never know her worth. Julie and Antonin share no common ground and cannot even communicate with each other. Neither makes any fruitful attempt to come to know, to understand, the other. Julie realizes that she will never love her husband, whereas Antonin confuses love with his sexual desire for his attractive bride. In the play’s most extraordinary and powerful scene, one which rivals in impact the final scene of Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), husband and wife finally speak openly to each other and admit the failure of their marriage. With daring honesty, Brieux has Julie express her revulsion at her husband’s sexual advances, which gives way to revulsion with herself for accepting those advances, which in turn awaken her own animal desires. Julie’s wish for children of her own has kept her at her husband’s side. When Antonin, however, reveals his determination to remain childless, Julie prepares to leave...
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