Jules Romains Drama Analysis
Although Jules Romains gained widespread popularity through the theater, his ultimate fame rests with his prose and poetry. Cromedeyre-le-vieil is powerful and evocative, Dr. Knock and Donogoo are delightful and cleverly plotted. Yet in all three—although they are frequently considered his best plays—plot takes precedence over character, the group dominates the individual, and the play is a didactic vehicle for a philosophy.
L’Armée dans la ville
Romains began his dramatic career in 1911 with L’Armée dans la ville, a dramatization in verse of the conflicts between a town and the army that occupies it. Like most of his early work, L’Armée dans la ville was a vehicle designed to illustrate unanimism.
The same year, he began writing his second and far greater drama, Cromedeyre-le-vieil. Said by some critics to be his masterpiece, Romains admitted that it was perhaps his favorite play. Written between 1911 and 1918, Cromedeyre-le-vieil was produced in 1920 at the Vieux-Colombier by Jacques Copeau. Like L’Armée dans la ville, Cromedeyre-le-vieil is a didactic drama in verse. The setting is Romains’s native Velay region, and although many of the villages named in the play are real, Cromedeyre is, according to Romains, a synthesis of villages. Cromedeyre is also, despite realistic touches, a fantasy, with its houses linked together to form one single house and its streets interconnecting. The physical aspects of the town, such as its lack of individual homes and streets, are symbolic of the unity of its citizens, a group that, glorying in its uniqueness and solidarity, forms an ideal unanimism. The plot links two sources: One is literary, the rape of the Sabine women, and one historic, a schism within the Church caused when the village of Monedeyre decided to have and build its own church over the protest of ecclesiastic authorities. Though an unlikely combination of events, in the play both contribute to the glory of Cromedeyre.
In the first act, which is primarily exposition, Cromedeyre is described by outsiders. The village is labeled the vieil because of its antiquity, yet it retains a young and restless spirit. Just as the village differs physically from the others of the region, so do the inhabitants: Their relatively long legs and short torsos give them a peculiar gait that makes them recognizable at a distance. In the second act, Emmanuel, the young man who had been chosen by the village elders to go to the seminary and train to become the priest of the new church at Cromedeyre, returns to the village, dissatisfied with the teachings of the seminary. Emmanuel realizes that the god of Rome is not the god of Cromedeyre because, being a unique people, the citizens of Cromedeyre would not have sprung from the same god who created others. Despite Cromedeyre’s strength and solidarity, the community is threatened, as far more males than females are born. The crisis will be solved as in the past—through the kidnapping of young women from another village. The kidnapping is described in the fourth act by the visionary Mother Agatha, an elderly woman who was carried off years before in the earlier kidnapping. The young men of the village, led by Emmanuel, return victorious. When they are followed by the young men of Lausonne, who attempt to free the captives, the Cromedeyrians set their dogs on them. In the fifth act, the couples are married in a new church with an ancient ritual recalled by Mother Agatha. She also explains to Emmanuel that, having rejected the god of others, he must now rediscover the god of Cromedeyre. In the final scenes, three emissaries from Lausonne come to persuade the women to return to their native village. Emmanuel holds sway over them, the emissaries flee, and the women remain in Cromedeyre.
As a vehicle for unanimism, the play is in many respects successful. The intertwined houses and streets of the village symbolize the unity of the group, a unity so binding that Emmanuel describes the village as being one flesh, one man, yet self-perpetuating. From this unity the villagers derive strength, pride, and a belief in their racial superiority. The play clearly demonstrates the superiority of the group to the individual. Emmanuel’s name is symbolic, as is his coming to the village, and lest the comparison to Christ be overlooked, he even heals a dying child. Like Christ, Emmanuel is the young man who will lead his people to a new religion. He will be the new priest of the god of Cromedeyre, a god, like the village, both ancient and new. In its glorification of the village, Cromedeyre-le-vieil seems a dramatic illustration of Romains’s Manuel de déification.
There are, however, unsettling aspects of unanimism revealed in the play. The villagers’ pride in their racial superiority and their disdain for other villages can scarcely be condoned. Equally troubling is the violence. The citizens of Cromedeyre feel justified in their periodic kidnapping of women, for they are, they believe, bringing them into a superior society. Their stoning of the villagers who try to regain their women in like manner seems to them justified. They view these acts as necessary for the perpetuation of their race, and they glory in their vitality and in their triumph. The reader, however, is likely to see in the overwhelming racial pride of Cromedeyre a cause of social catastrophe, not a...
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