The term “drama of ideas” provides a convenient starting point for understanding François de Curel’s work. Curel’s interests ranged over most of the burning issues of his day: science versus morality (La Nouvelle Idole), capital versus labor (The Lion’s Meal), savagery versus civilization (La Fille sauvage), love versus war (Terre inhumaine), patriotism and the pursuit of glory (The Beat of the Wing), the springs of artistic achievement (La Comédie du génie), and the nature and power of love (several plays).
Behind all this miscellany, however, is a strong singleness of purpose. Just as Curel became an artist to justify his existence, so the art he created strives to achieve the same aim. The issues about which Curel chose to write generally bore some relationship to his personal circumstances, and he did not so much empathize with the characters he created as create characters to express some aspect of his personality. In itself, the wide range of issues on which he focused represents the attempt of an outmoded aristocrat to cope with change, to join the life of his time, yet he did not so much join it as fight it. At heart he remained a first-class reactionary, using a since-perfected technique: While seeming to accept the new ideas, he coopted them to serve the old order.
What enabled Curel to absorb new ideas but maintain an essentially reactionary stance was his acceptance of the theory of vitalism, which was gaining ascendancy in his time over the impotent and outmoded Victorian fashion of moralizing. Encouraged by such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson, reflected in the drama of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, vitalism was an amalgam of Romanticism and the new science that proved to be consistent with literary naturalism. Instead of God, vitalism posited some vague “life force” at work in the universe. In human beings, the life force expressed itself through the instincts, which were the real mainsprings of human behavior beneath all the polite and effete forms. Living right meant discovering one’s real nature and being true to it (as does Nora in Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem, pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). Thus, Curel’s version of true love is rough-and-ready procreation; romance is a hindrance that delays, distracts, and dissipates the life force (sometimes fatally). More important, being true to one’s own nature means that a savage will return to savagery, that civilized beings will recognize the French flag as their greatest symbol, and that the cream of society—that is, the aristocracy—will rise to the top (and peasants will be peasants).
In technique, also, Curel was not as avant-garde as his initial association with the Théâtre Libre suggests. He does not indulge in the naturalistic excesses of the “slice of life” (tranche de vie); instead, his technique is a mix of the old and new that is again reminiscent of Ibsen. Like Ibsen, Curel offers a realism that is propelled by the well-oiled devices of the well-made play. In attempting to appeal to audiences who preferred not to be taxed intellectually, Curel continued to use the current tricks of the trade while aiming at raising the moral and intellectual standards of the day.
A False Saint
A False Saint was Curel’s first play to be produced. One of the three plays that the aspiring playwright submitted to Antoine at the Théâtre Libre, its 1892 production favorably impressed the critics in the audience but not the audience itself, which stamped and tried to interrupt the performance. The audience’s displeasure is understandable, because A False Saint is dominated by the powerfully negative figure of Julie Renaudin, whose character could be considered a precursor to the Nazi mentality. The play, however, did not serve as a warning of the dangers inherent in amoral vitalism when it is thwarted and perverted; instead, Julie’s destructive instincts are merely a negative testimony to the elemental power of the life force. It is a force not to be denied, one way or another.
The play begins when Julie leaves the Order of the Sacred Heart and returns home after eighteen years. A conversation between Julie and her old confidante, Aunt Noémie, reveals that Julie can now safely return, since Henri, Julie’s cousin and onetime fiancé, died three months before. Henri had jilted her and married a smart Parisian, Jeanne. In retaliation, Julie had pushed Jeanne into a ravine, causing her to give birth prematurely and almost causing the death of both mother and daughter. Still, Jeanne had not blamed Julie, nor had she betrayed her. Thereupon, Julie had entered the convent, ostensibly to expiate her guilt but in actuality, through her symbolic act of self-immolation, to stir Henri’s guilt. She succeeded, as Jeanne now tells her. Julie is pleased, but not for long. Left unable to bear another child, Jeanne told Henri of Julie’s criminal behavior. Maddened to learn this, Julie returns to her quest for revenge, this time picking on Christine, Jeanne and Henri’s daughter. Gaining the admiring girl’s confidence, Julie tries to destroy Christine’s engagement to young Georges Piérrard. Julie runs Georges off, persuades Christine that the fellow is unworthy, and causes Christine to enter the convent. Only when Christine discloses that her father’s deathbed thoughts had been full of Julie, to whom he had urged Christine to be kind, like a daughter, does Julie relent. Confessing her vengeful aims, Julie determines to reenter the convent, and Christine and Georges are left to patch things up.
Curel also patches things up somewhat with the ending of A False Saint. Combined with the play’s title and some pointed comments of young Piérrard, the perfunctory ending finally makes a muted moral judgment on Julie’s behavior. Otherwise, the play focuses too sympathetically on Julie’s bitter destructiveness, still improbably strong after eighteen years of convent life. Perhaps Curel embodied some of his own bitterness in Julie. He was also no doubt enlightened by his audience’s reception of Julie, whose essential nastiness is symbolized at the end when she squeezes a baby bird to death onstage.
(The entire section is 2614 words.)