Victorien Sardou’s plays blend the foreseeable and the unforeseeable. If his characters are often too entirely predictable, the same cannot be said of the situations in which they find themselves. The pleasure derived from a Sardou work, and indeed the key to the playwright’s skill and talent, lies in the game of wits played out between author and audience as Sardou unravels a seemingly impossible situation into a logical but unpredictable resolution. Although most of Sardou’s serious plays seem overly melodramatic and hence outmoded today, his ingenious plots can still prove absorbing, and his portraits of society as well as the humor of his comic pieces can still be appreciated. In sum, Sardou will continue to be esteemed as a skilled practitioner of the well-made play, a master of plot with a fine instinct for theatrical effect.
A Scrap of Paper
A Scrap of Paper illustrates procedures, situations, character types, and themes commonly found in Sardou’s comedies. The first scenes are typically expository. Many Sardou plays begin with a group of minor characters who are chatting with one another. A servants’ conversation supplies the necessary background. The house has been closed for three years. The former owner died suddenly, shortly after the marriage of her older daughter, Clarisse. This daughter has now returned, accompanied by her husband and her sister. As the servants clean the parlor, the housekeeper warns them not to touch a certain porcelain statue; only the mistresses of the house may dust it. The characters appear one by one as the first act progresses.
Sardou unites a diverse group on the common ground of marriage, a favorite theme both for him and his period. Prosper is seeking to marry in order to inherit from a rich uncle. Clarisse’s sister Marthe has caught his eye, and he asks for her hand; she has also caught Paul’s eye. Paul’s awkward attempts at courtship are favorably received, but Madame Thirion, his tutor’s wife, priggishly disapproves and tries to disrupt his advances to Marthe. Clarisse’s cousin Suzanne, in her thirties and attractive, has never married. She prefers her independence, one suspects, because she has never found a man whom she could consider her equal. Clarisse and Vanhove seem to have settled into a comfortable marriage. She did not marry him for love, but she does not give any sign of disliking him after three years of wedlock. Vanhove is cold and aloof, but beneath lies a jealous, suspicious man, as he eventually reveals. The Thirions and another neighbor, Busonier, represent still other possibilities in the range of marital experience: Madame Thirion, belying her dovish name of Colomba, more resembles a harpy, while Busonier’s wife, to his undisguised joy, has just run off with a lover.
When Clarisse and Prosper discuss his proposal to marry her sister Marthe, it is clear that their relationship is far from casual. The audience discovers that three years earlier, Clarisse and Prosper had been passionately in love with each other; the courtship came to an abrupt end when she was whisked off to Paris for a marriage of convenience with Vanhove. Clarisse had written a letter to Prosper imploring him to elope with her, but he had failed to respond. Now Clarisse maintains that she is quite happy, but when she mentions the letter, Prosper informs her that he never received it—indeed, that he could not have, for he was feverish in bed as the result of a duel he had fought for her honor on that fatal night when they last saw each other. Thunderstruck, Clarisse realizes that her letter must still be in its secret place—under the porcelain statue mentioned in the opening scene.
What follows is highly amusing as both Clarisse and Prosper attempt to remove the letter without anyone else becoming aware of its existence. Eventually he gains possession of it. From his first appearance, Prosper impresses the audience with his wit and spirit. It seems a foregone conclusion, therefore, that the mousy Clarisse will lose in any confrontation with him. Indeed, one wonders what attraction she had held for him. The situation becomes more interesting, then, when Suzanne appears. Prior to her entrance, she has been discussed in very complimentary terms, and when she appears, it is on the action-stopping exclamation, “I’m here!” Struck by the curious movements and remarks of both her cousin and Prosper, it does not take Suzanne long to fathom most of the truth. She joins the struggle on Clarisse’s behalf, declaring war on Prosper as he amicably escorts her offstage at the end of act 1, under Vanhove’s puzzled and somewhat suspicious gaze. If Clarisse was not a suitable match for Prosper, Suzanne gives all indications that she is.
In act 2, the situations outlined in act 1 begin to unfold. Paul challenges Prosper to a duel. Prosper accepts but specifies that he will elect the Japanese style of dueling, harakiri. The older man employs poise and address to dissuade his young rival and thereby seems to assume the lead in the contest for Marthe’s hand. Paul then falls into another comical situation, as he scuttles back and forth between Marthe and Madame Thirion, attempting to carry out orders from one that countermands what the other has just asked of him. Finally, Paul leaves, and Marthe exits a few moments later, indicating in an aside her interest in following him. The balance in the Prosper-Marthe-Paul triangle has shifted; Prosper has lost favor.
Suzanne and Prosper confront each other. He refuses to relinquish the letter, promising instead to burn it only if and when he renounces his courtship of Marthe, adding that, actually, he would have burned the letter of his own accord if Suzanne’s declaration of war had not piqued his gaming spirit. Suzanne accepts his challenge to discover the letter’s hiding place and promises in her turn to make Prosper burn the letter before her eyes. He retorts that if she can succeed in doing that, he will renounce his claim to Marthe and leave immediately. Such witty verbal sparring as that contained in this scene prompted some critics to compare Sardou to Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
Prosper leaves, and Clarisse appears. The events that follow underline the difference between Clarisse and Suzanne: Clarisse, distraught in a stereotypically feminine fashion, loses her head; Suzanne, reasoning calmly, not only finds the letter but also manages to allay the jealous suspicions of Vanhove, who appears unexpectedly. With Suzanne’s strength of character completely confirmed at this point, the action is dominated by her for the remainder of the act. Instead of destroying the letter, she rolls it up and arranges it conspicuously on the fireplace grate, where it can readily be used as tinder.
Prosper returns and discovers Suzanne in his study, apparently asleep. The scene that follows is highly entertaining. Prosper becomes visibly more and more enamored of Suzanne; it is obvious that he is preparing to propose marriage to her. Intent on getting him to burn the letter, Suzanne fends off his advances (without entirely discouraging them) as she keeps inventing excuses for him to light the lamp. Frustrated by her reticence and eager to prove his sincerity, Prosper snatches what he believes to be the letter and impulsively burns it. In fact, it is not the letter, and at the critical moment the elusive note once again escapes destruction. As Suzanne begins to explain to Prosper that he is holding the real letter in his hand without realizing what it is, Vanhove again arrives suddenly. Prosper, fearing that Suzanne will be compromised by being found alone in a darkened room with him, lights a candle with the scrap of paper in his hand. Still unaware of what it is, he tosses the burning paper out the window, but the flame is extinguished in the fall, and someone outside picks up what remains of it. The ensuing explanation places Prosper entirely at the mercy of the woman he loves. His reversal of attitude lends greatly to the humor of the situation. Suzanne commands Prosper to find what is left of the letter. His former composure now shattered by his newly discovered feelings, he hurries off to do her bidding. The shawl that she places over his shoulders to ward off the evening chill and her own shaken demeanor suggest, however, that this beautiful lady is not without mercy for her apparent victim.
Earlier, Prosper had chosen a deliberately obvious “hiding place” for the letter—he left it on his desk among other letters. Similarly, Suzanne placed the letter in plain sight on the fireplace. Sardou repeats this stratagem a third time when the letter reappears in the barrel of Thirion’s hunting rifle as a container for a beetle. The paper thus remains tantalizingly in plain sight until Paul decides to write to Marthe and seizes the scrap without noticing that it already contains a message.
The finest humorous...
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