Félix-Henry Bataille’s work resembles, in subject matter and setting, the work of his contemporary and fellow playwright of the Paris Theater of the Boulevard, Henry Bernstein. Naturally enough, the plays of both writers appealed to the same audience—a bourgeois public looking for titillating entertainment and, perhaps, some intellectual stimulation as well. However, Bernstein’s career lasted much longer than that of Bataille, who died relatively young. Even so, by some accounts, he outlived his reputation, as the French say.
Bataille called his plays comédies, but he used the term in its traditional French sense, inherited from seventeenth century French theater. In this tradition, a comédie, unlike a tragedy, has a happy ending, a positive resolution of some kind. Therefore, Bataille’s plays were not necessarily lighthearted but had resolutions that were basically positive although sometimes somewhat heavy-handed or ambiguous.
Bataille’s most interesting characters are women, who are his protagonists for the most part, even if they are unstable, selfish, and even cruel. His women are the catalysts of the plays’ action; in some cases (in L’Enchantement, and La Femme nue, for example), the plot features a struggle between two strongly motivated women. Moreover, Bataille’s plays have to do with love or passion—and focus very often on the extent to which people cannot control their feelings and the fragility of human relationships. The fundamental impact of Bataille’s drama is bittersweet.
Bataille’s L’Enchantement sets the tone for much of his early work and presents the first two of his unconventional—even unbalanced—female characters. The “enchantment” to which the play’s title refers is the strange hold that young Jeannine exerts over her doting older sister. As the play begins, Isabelle Dessandes has just married Georges, an old friend. She makes it clear to Georges and her circle of friends that this marriage simply seals a friendship—neither love nor passion has any role in the union. In fact, Isabelle confides in a close friend that she finds conjugal sex demeaning, shameful, and debasing. Her primary goal in life is the upbringing of her younger sister, something she had promised her late mother she would take care of. In contrast, Georges loves and lusts after Isabelle. However, his amorous caresses and even their nighttime lovemaking are inhibited and interrupted by Jeannine—because she has conceived a consuming passion for Georges.
Eventually, even Isabelle has had enough of her sister, whom she now rightly sees as her rival. After Jeannine succeeds in breaking Georges’s resistance, luring him into a love-anger embrace—which is witnessed by Isabelle’s former suitor, Pierre—the family begins to collapse. Georges is immediately crushed by his own shame and threatens to leave the home—and Isabelle, after Pierre tells her what he saw, pulls a pistol from a desk drawer. It is unclear whether she plans to shoot Georges, herself or both. Meanwhile, Jeannine threatens to kill herself.
Georges finally asserts himself in order to put an end to this madness, as he calls it. He suggests that all three of the family members—he, Isabelle, and Jeannine—separate for a time, until they can be reasonable about the relationships among them. With the help of Pierre, who seemed treacherous only moments before, Jeannine agrees to a year of travel. Georges delivers the play’s final words of reason. He attributes the chaos that he, Isabelle, and Jeannine have experienced to Isabelle’s expecting too much drama from life—in effect, taking life too seriously. Georges is happy with what good things come, without overanalyzing emotions and relationships.
Unfortunately, the resolution of L’Enchantement seems forced. The turmoil that has driven Isabelle and Jeannine dissolves too easily with the prompting of Georges and Pierre—the latter of whom was seen early in the play not to be a real friend of Georges and Isabelle. As the play closes, however, he becomes the experienced sage.
The main character of this play, the Baronne Irène de Rysbergue, constitutes a major problem for most of the other characters. Bataille presents Irène early in the play as a very sympathetic wife and mother, respected by her husband and friends and adored by her children. Her sons, Richard and Paulot, have given their mother an affectionate...
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