Words of wisdom and wit
23 February 2023
Mr Marcel Pagnol, having been elected by the Académie française, came to the meeting on Thursday, March 27, 1947 and delivered the following speech.
Source: official website of the Académie Française.
The rules, and above all gratitude, oblige me to begin this speech with a deep and sincere thanks; but my presence among you seems so unusual that I owe you an explanation: not of your choice, of which you alone are masters, but of the circumstances which led me to solicit your votes.
Of course, I will not tell you my great astonishment at hearing me speak in this Chamber, I will not feign surprise, I will not say “how is it possible that you thought of me? I know that I thought of it first, and I remember writing a very explicit letter to Monsieur le Secrétaire perpétuel, in which I deliberately offered myself to your choice. It is this decision, at least premature, that I ask your permission to justify.
We were on the day after the surrender of Germany, that is to say, at the end of our real misfortunes.
During the five years that the war lasted, the Academy had decided not to repair its losses; because it feared the interference of the powerful of the day, it refused to make a choice which would not have been entirely free.
However, Providence did not want to take into account the dignity of this attitude; in five years, fifteen members of the Company left for a world that is said to be better, but which, at that time, could not be worse.
When the Permanent Secretary finally opened the gates, he saw, lined up along the walls of the courtyard of honor, a hundred people who applauded his arrival without losing any of their dignity and came forward in close ranks. Frightened by the numbers, he closed the gates and summoned the wisest members of the Academy to deliberate.
I was passing by chance, gentlemen. I saw this long line – and I thought – from a distance, that I was approaching one of these shadow theaters that were once called cinematographs, that we call cinemas, that our children call cine, and that our grandsons will call God knows what if the Academy does not put it in order.
In a few steps, I was disabused of the idea, for I recognized in this queue a good number of people of great merit, generally too busy with their inner dreams to buy ready-made ones that would not be worth their own.
With a falsely indifferent air, I made two or three comings and goings, greeting in passing those whom I had the honor to know, scrutinizing on the sly the faces which were new to me. And I tried to estimate the weight of the literary baggage that each of them carried under his arm.
I was about to leave, discouraged, when a voice said in my ear:
– There is no playwright here.
I made a new review of the imposing troop. I saw some writers who had achieved brilliant success in the theater, but whose literary work was the main merit.
Then I thought that, in the bosom of the Academy itself, there was no author left whose theatrical glory was not surpassed by his literary glory…
At that moment, the voice said to me again:
– The Academy has always had at least four men of the theater in its ranks, and has had as many as seven.
This remark made me think. I then remembered that my colleagues had just done me a great honor by entrusting me with the Presidency of the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers.
Thirty-seven of our presidents had sat under the dome, and Maurice Donnay, who had just left us, had himself been one of them. This idea, I confess, tempted me. However, I hesitated for a long time, and false modesty, natural to all men, and much more powerful than true modesty, might have triumphed, when I was suddenly thrown forward by an invincible force, the same one whose existence I had just learned by reading a small philosophical work which dealt with the psychology of crowds. This work stated, among other things, that Newton’s law applied to men as to stars, and that any isolated individual, passing near one of these queues, which are called queues, felt an attraction proportional to the length of the queue, and to the magnetism of the people in it.
The length of the line was considerable, its magnetism irresistible: moreover, I did not have the courage to deny a law which so clearly justified my ambition: without making a noise, and with lowered eyes, I took my place which was the last. Your indulgence did the rest; it put me in the place where I am today, and from which I have the honor to thank you.
I now ask your permission to devote a few words to the memory of two great playwrights; I want to speak about Jean Giraudoux and Édouard Bourdet. I owe to both of them a gratitude equal to my admiration: it is because they had carried so high the glory of the French stage that the Academy judged indispensable to elect a playwright: it was their way of voting for me.
I also know that if death had not called them, at the peak of their career and talent, they would be sitting among you today, and that my presence under this Dome is only the proof of their absence. I add, finally, Gentlemen, that an undeserved reward is the sweetest of injustices, at least for the one who is the lucky victim. But it imposes duties. I will not ignore them: be assured that, as far as I can, but with all the strength of gratitude, I will try to justify your choice.
When you entrusted me with the honor of delivering the eulogy of Maurice Donnay, several ordinary people, and even two immortals, said to me:
– You are lucky. He had so much spirit. It will be easy for you to compose the most spiritual eulogy in the world…
I was naively of this opinion, until I began this panegyric. I then realized that it was not he who wrote it, and that I had to rely, not on his mind, but on mine.
This discovery threw me into a real confusion. It immediately occurred to me to reread everything he had written in his life, even the newspaper articles; but unlike some authors, in whose works it would be possible to find their praise ready-made, Maurice Donnay never spoke of himself, except to criticize the productions of his talent, and to say that he was only an “inventor of entertainments” : so that of all literary works, his panegyric is the only one I am sure to do better than he did.
Maurice Donnay was born in Paris, on October 12, 1859, in a modest house of the passage Sandrié.
His father, who came from Le Mans, had done all his studies in the capital. After graduating from the Ecole Centrale in a good rank, he was an engineer of the Chemins de fer du Nord.
His mother, Pauline Béga, was born in Paris.
Our author is thus a Parisian of almost pure race.
This species is quite rare, especially among dramatic authors, without it being possible to explain why.
Until his adolescence, he made very brilliant studies. They were, however, interrupted by the siege of Paris, and by the tragedy of the Commune. He had begun his studies in private boarding schools, and continued them in the high schools of the past, where the discipline was of a military severity.
Already his vocation was asserting itself. He tells us, in his memories: “To write verses, plays, novels, even articles, to write, to write in a word, nothing seemed to me more enviable and more noble”. And here is that a Principal, perspicacious as well as well informed, adds, at the end of a quarterly bulletin, this note: “Dreamy child. His classmates call him “The Poet”.
Despite this disturbing revelation, his parents took him to the Comédie Française for the first time. There he saw Jean de Thommeray, by Emile Augier. This performance made a deep impression on the teenager: he immediately bought the portrait of Mlle Croisette, then that of Mlle Baretta, and from then on kept them in his wallet preciously clutched to his heart. Six months later, a performance of theÉcole des Femmes, revealing to him the genius of Molière, touched his mind more directly.
He tells us: “I was transported into another world… From that evening I took with me an unforgettable sensation, and perhaps the vague, obscure desire to write plays one day…”
It was at this time that his father, leaving the Compagnie du Nord, bought an important mechanical workshop, where machine tools were made, and proclaimed his intention to burden his son with them. Consequently, he decided that young Maurice would give up the Letters, to devote himself entirely to the sciences. In the language of a railroad engineer, he called this departure a “bifurcation. The young student did not dare to protest. He had been taught from the cradle, and as a first truth, that there was nothing more beautiful than to enter the École Centrale, and to come out an engineer.
Moreover, this father valued only Iron, soft Bronze, hardened Steel. For him, a sage leaf was a file, a milling cutter was a sharp router, and even taps were only tools…
Maurice Donnay confesses: “If I had told my father that I wanted to write, he would have asked me “To whom”.
He adds: “I was destined for industry, and from the very first contacts, industry seemed unattractive to me.
I was like a young man to whom his parents had destined a young girl whom, from the first interview, he would find unattractive… Was it a presentiment of the excesses of machinism, of overproduction, of Americanization, of Taylorization, of all the evils from which the civilized world is dying? I hated industry… “
This is why his scientific studies at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand were not successful. He explains his failure with this precious confidence: “No, I have no taste for mathematics. It is not that I am completely unintelligent, nor do I have a total lack of understanding. But I have only an emotional memory, I remember only what reaches my sensitivity.
The mathematics did not reach him, and the student Donnay, rejected in the July session, obtained his baccalaureate only in October, after two months of cramming.
For two years, in order to obey his father, he prepares to take the entrance exam to the École Centrale. He is not admitted. The same day, his father receives a gold medal for having built a machine to cut strawberries.
A year later, he was rejected again, and joined the army to do his voluntary service. When he left the army, his father dressed him in a blue mechanic’s suit and put him in front of a lathe… His performance was so poor that he was soon put in the drawing office. He made some progress there, so much so that in 1882, his father had the joy of seeing him enter the École Centrale, when he was no longer expected. He spent the three statutory years there: this is why, twenty years later, Maurice Donnay was charged with writing the history of the great École, on whose threshold he had waited five years.
After graduating as an engineer, he returned to the drawing office and prepared machine plans. He might have stayed there all his life if he had not met, during a military period, a certain Gabriel Bonnet, a chemist in civilian life, but who was also a humorist, and familiar with a famous cabaret, the “Chat Noir”.
We must open a parenthesis here.
There are details that strike the general public much more strongly than a monument would. These details, because they are picturesque or colorful, appear like a relief on a whole: they manage to hide it from those who do not take, like an actor playing a painter, three or four steps backwards to widen the field of their vision.
Thus, for the great mass, our ancestors the Gauls spent their whole life throwing arrows against the sky. Napoleon is only a Little Hat pressing his hand on his stomach; Denis Papin is the Marmite, and our valiant general Cambronne would never have said a single word. In the same way, for many young people of our time – a time not very favourable to erudition, and even to knowledge – Maurice Donnay is the “Black Cat”.
Well, no, it’s not the “Black Cat”.
We will however speak about this famous cabaret, not to denigrate it, nor to deny the influence it had on the Author ofPrince’s Education, but to put back in its true place, and reduce to its true importance this famous episode of his life.
The “Chat Noir” cabaret seems to have been quite different from the ones that are famous in Montmartre today. Satire had less place, and more poems were said than songs were sung… Moreover, the literary pretensions of these chansonniers were so great that they were served by waiters who wore, with charming elegance, the costume of the Academy; finally, they published a literary review which was also called the Chat Noir, and which had the honor to print the first verses of Maurice Donnay.
He had a great joy, suddenly obscured by the misfortunes of his family.
Indeed, his father’s business was failing. This skilled mechanic was not a good businessman. After fourteen years of struggle, the workshop in the rue de l’Atlas passed into the hands of a creditor who in turn came to dip his strawberries in it; Maurice Donnay had to leave his family and look for work.
He put himself at the service of a friend’s company, which assembled metal frames; this is how he collaborated, within his means, to the reconstruction of the “Folies-Bergères”.
This work allowed him, according to his awful expression, to “support himself”.
But he had become a regular at the “Chat Noir”.
One evening, this cabaret, whose fame was growing, gave the general rehearsal of a revue which was called – we don’t know why, but we don’t need to know – The Conquest of Algeria.
Rodolphe Salis, a gentleman cabaret owner, pushed Maurice Donnay on the stage. The iron carpenter had to recite two poems, one of which was entitled Quatorze Juillet, and the other very kindly Ta Gorge; they obtained a great success. The next day, Francisque Sarcey and Jules Lemaître praised Maurice Donnay’s talent for the first time in major newspapers.
This achievement may seem modest from a distance. But he himself told us that this day, which freed him from the iron frame, was one of the most important in his life.
On the threshold of the writer’s brilliant career, one can ask oneself, out of legitimate curiosity, what were the causes that determined such a tenacious vocation. Maurice Donnay told us, as if in a low voice, that he had already asked himself this question: “For me, mechanics did not exist, there were only poets. I only loved poetry. This inclination must have had deep roots in me, and distant causes…”
We will perhaps be allowed to hazard a rather unscientific hypothesis, but one that is not without interest.
Maurice Donnay, a man of perfectly sound mind and body, had only one habit, but it was quite singular. When he had decided to devote an afternoon to reflection, he would have a large piece of bread crumb brought to his desk. He would tear off pieces of it and roll them into balls between his thumb and forefinger.
This exercise was not unlike that of the oriental thinkers; they make the amber grains of a rosary flow between their fingers for hours, which has no religious significance, but they say that this practice calms the nerves and helps them to think.
Now, Maurice Donnay was one day extremely surprised by the reading of a small book which told the life of Béranger. The author stated that in order to celebrate the charms of his Lisette or the glory of Napoleon, Béranger could not work unless he had a pound of breadcrumbs at hand.
Maurice Donnay was as surprised as we are right now. He was even more surprised than we are, because he knew certain details that I am going to tell you about right now.
He knew, for example, that Béranger had been his grandfather’s intimate friend and household companion for many years. He knew that Béranger had seriously taken care of the education and training of the little Pauline Béga, who was later to be the mother of Maurice Donnay; he knew that in gratitude, Pauline Béga, who became Mme Donnay, had given the name of Bérangère to the writer’s older sister. Recognition, it seems, deserved: one does not often meet such friends.
And, from then on, gentlemen, everything becomes clearer, and we have the truth. It is certain that in the course of such a lasting and affectionate friendship, Maurice Donnay’s grandmother must have been in frequent contact with the poet.
It is probable that before giving birth to the charming Pauline Béga, she was able to see, one winter evening, under the lamp, Béranger rolling pellets, that is to say in full inspiration; that this spectacle impressed her so strongly that she bequeathed this innocent mania to her daughter; that she never had to use it, because women, thanks to their intuition, rarely need to think, that she was thus able to pass on to her son a mania that she did not know herself; and this is why young Maurice, as soon as he was twenty years old, began to roll pellets and to make songs.
To those who will not believe me, I will say, with the approval of the greatest physicians of this time, that embryology is only a science in formation, like its object; that it has not yet been able to explain the origin of the cherries, strawberries and raspberries which sometimes brighten up (without embellishing) the faces of children; that the charming mystery of these “boulettes chansonnières” is only one more mystery, and that it seems reasonable to us to admit that, literarily speaking, Maurice Donnay was the grandson of Béranger.
It is true that he made rather few songs and that his poetic work, for the extent and the richness, cannot be compared with his work of dramatic author: but these songs announced his comedies as surely as a bud announces a fruit, if the tree has the strength to carry it to maturity.
Indeed, a song is nothing else than a sung fable, and our fathers had even invented the word “chante-fable”, which has almost disappeared, and it’s a pity.
Now, every song, like every fable, contains the material of a dramatic work, with its theme, its characters, its action divided into acts. The song, which is undoubtedly older, has even preserved the ancient chorus, in the form of the refrain which laments, rejoices; states maxims or repeats advice.
If this is true, why didn’t Béranger, prince of songwriters, write for the theater?
Because his father was not a mechanic.
Critics often speak of construction and architecture in connection with the Art dramatique: it seems that these comparisons are not accurate.
Architecture orders and builds masses that must not change their place, nor even tremble. We know that an earthquake, that is to say, a shudder of the earth’s crust, is enough to destroy entire cities, like Lisbon or San Francisco.
However, the true dramatic works are not immobile monuments, nor mineral architectures.
These are machines that move before our eyes and those who speak of them competently are forced to choose mechanical comparisons.
They say of a comedy “that it doesn’t run smoothly”, they examine the “springs” of the plot, the “workings of the action”, its start, its speed, or its slowness.
In short, they do not use the language of the architect, but that of the engineer.
It is perhaps in this office where he drew, so reluctantly, so many connecting rods, cams, ratchets and shoulders, where he organized, with a dreary sadness, the marriage of cycloids, the alignment of shafts, and the contentment of bearings, that he learned, without thinking about it, through the rigor of mechanics, the secrets of dramaturgy, and that he was able to enlarge his songs to the dimensions of comedy.
Of course, we don’t mean that it would be enough for a songwriter-mechanic to do an internship at Citroën to write Asmodeus, or The Satin Shoe. We want to say that a chansonnier-mécanicien, if he is first a great poet, and if he loves the men and women of his country, can become Maurice Donnay.
From the famous evening of the “Chat Noir”, it is no longer necessary to separate the life of the writer from his work
We will say that after a youth which knew the storms of the passion, the writer found peace near a worthy companion of him; that he divided his time between his dear apartment of the street of Florence, and his property of the Priory of Gaillonnet, where he was accustomed to spend the beautiful season and that the principal events of his life were his dramatic works, and his election to the Academy.
Here is the last trait of his character, a trait of a rare delicacy.
We have already said that at the “Chat Noir”, the boys who served drinks wore the costume of the Institute.
Thus, the unlettered bourgeois and the songwriters whose names have not reached us could give themselves the pleasure, by clapping their hands, of seeing one of these caricatures of the academician come up.
If I report this detail here, it is for the greater glory of the Academy: with perfect serenity, with an overwhelming indulgence, it welcomed, in 1910, the chansonnier of Montmartre who had become a great writer; it thus granted him the right to wear, in the most noble ceremonies, the habit of the waiters of the “Chat Noir”.
It seems that Maurice Donnay, with his worried and scrupulous conscience, forgave himself less easily than the Academy did: it is perhaps to repair, in a secret but solemn way, this impertinence of his youth, that he wanted to leave for eternity in his Académicien costume.
He started the stage with a one-act comedy, which was played at the “Casino de la Bourboule”, and which was entitled Eux. It does not seem that this playlet made much noise in the world of the theater. However, the small success that it obtained was enough to encourage the beginner, and to confirm his vocation
He resolutely set to work; on December 22, 1892, the curtain of the “Grand Théâtre”, which Porel was directing at the time, rose on Lysistrata, a comedy in four acts, after Aristophanes. It was indeed a rather free adaptation in all senses of the word of the famous Greek comedy.
The sumptuous director had treated the beginner with effective generosity. He had given him for interpreters : Réjane, Aimée Tessandier, Napier-kowska, Lucien Guitry, Lugné Poé. They preceded a troupe of thirty actors of the boulevard, pleasantly completed by the “hundred most beautiful girls of Paris”.
It is certain that such a show was similar to the “Folies-Bergères” rather than the “Comédie Française”, that one tastes there the Parisian spirit more often than the comedy of Molière, that one hears there from time to time the purr of the “Chat Noir”, and that to make of it the most graceful of the operettas, it would have been necessary only to have verses.
It was the time of Ibsen, symbolism, darkness, the eight blind sisters, and the hunt for the Wild Duck in the photographers’ attic.
The critics, as a whole, were not very kind. Some only saw the show. Others, after a long look at The Hundred Most Beautiful Girls of Paris, had the ingratitude to blame the job.
Others examined the text as if Maurice. Donnay had intended to propose a new version, with a glossary and notes, to the severity of the scholars.
But Jules Lemaire did not sulk his pleasure, and he wrote very clearly: “I like this fantasy with attic honey, where Parisian peppercorns crackle”.
The public agreed: in a few months the triumph of Lysistrata brought the beginner fortune and fame.
However, despite the approval and praise of Jules Lemaître, the criticisms addressed to his work had made on the mind of the author a rather sharp impression. He decided to send the Hundred Most Beautiful Girls of Paris backstage, to repudiate the spirit of the “Black Cat”, and to compose a real comedy, a painting of modern manners. This was Pension de Famille, which was performed two years later.
The advice given by the critics to this too docile beginner produced its usual effect: the play collapsed.
This was a great disappointment for the author, and left a secret wound in this sensitive soul: thirty-one years later, he wanted to remake this Pension de Famille under the title Un homme léger. The success was not greater. Let us admire in passing the measure and prudence of this refined Parisian: he was to encounter two failures in his career but he had the tact and skill to deserve them with the same comedy.
After having greeted this double beginning we will not follow step by step the brilliant career of Maurice Donnay.
To do him full justice, it is necessary to go beyond it in time; and since we have the sad advantage of knowing that his work is finished, we will look at it as a whole, as we could do for Marivaux or Beaumarchais, and from the top of this tribune, which remains the first literary court of the world, we will speak of him as of a classic. And because his cover is still alive, we will be allowed to say his weaknesses, and to speak first of his worst, which would be today our best.
Maurice Donnay composed two comedies of ideas; two social plays. The first is La Clairière, written with the collaboration of the generous Lucien Descaves.
The idea behind the piece is presented to us through a very simple story.
It is a group of honest people who try to live together according to the famous motto: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. They don’t succeed any better than we do, and are forced, in the end, to split up, because of the imperfection – well known – of human nature.
The play was a great success, but it does not seem that the public supported it for a long time.
The second idea piece is called The Girl Scouts.
It is a comedy of great scope, very skillfully done, written with great verve. But it deals with feminism.
We see on the stage twenty-two characters. They discuss very spiritually about the dimensions of the skull of the woman compared to that of the man, and appeal to the formula of Dubois, which allows, it seems, to calculate the weight of a brain on feet. They also establish the account of the inventions due to our companions, they are astonished while quoting the jurisconsult Gaius, that the married woman is in guardianship.
These questions seem very interesting to us, but they have no dramatic value. On the other hand, the demands of the main characters have been met since that time, and the story of the suffragettes is now only of documentary interest. This is why Maurice Donnay’s play, which certainly helped the cause of feminism, died from its success, like the hornet from the nuptial flight; thus the Avariés, by the admirable Brieux, faded away in the wings at the first sting of arseno-benzol.
On the other hand, in the plays of ideas, the characters are never very alive. The thesis seems to lead them, and to impose, at the right time, their actions, and sometimes their feelings. It is there the danger of the demonstrative theater. It can provide excellent demonstrations, but it does so, in general, in front of empty seats, because the theater is not a night school.
Let’s say right away that La Clairière and Les Éclaireuses do not hold a great place in Maurice Donnay’s work, and let’s come to the Comedies of manners.
Here are the words in which he was praised the day after his comedy Paraître, in April 1906.
“In his first plays, with that mixture of Parisian joke and human pity which is the personal mark of his talent, he was content to paint the conflicts, the contradictions, and the bitterness of love. Little by little, the field of his observation widened; he began to study our modern society and the new forms that it imposes on the foibles, vices, and passions that are the eternal prerogative of Humanity.”
We will not entirely agree with this critic who, in short, congratulates Maurice Donnay for having momentarily abandoned the great themes to write topical comedies.
Moreover, these same critics, after having said all the pleasure of the new work, after having admired, once more, the verve and the grace of the author, made rather serious reservations.
Paul Souday tells us:
“It is certain that Paraître is not a rigorously composed play. There are not one or two main characters: there are seven or eight.”
The subject of the piece is Paraître and an infinitive is not a real subject.
As in the plays of ideas, one feels that the author did not start from a living character, but that he had the intention to put on stage a particular cross of his time.
Thus the dramatic action is not born of the characters themselves; it is the characters that the author has created from scratch to illustrate his action: and we know that an illustration cannot claim the rank of a master painting.
This is why La Clairière, Les Éclaireuses, Paraître, l’Affranchie, La Chasse à l’Homme, which would have been enough for the glory of a first-rate playwright, are not the masterpieces of Maurice Donnay.
Here are now the works which do not want to prove anything, which have no ambition of any kind, and which seem to have been written, for pleasure, by the most spiritual of the French poets.
We have already spoken about Lysistrata.
We will not find this vigor in the comic nor this greenness in the Marriage of Télémaque, which he wrote with the collaboration of Jules Lemaître.
It seems even possible to criticize its too perfect elegance. Rather than a popular work, it is an entertainment for the educated.
But the speed of the action, its classical simplicity, the charm and ease of the length make this musical comedy the masterpiece of the comedy bouffe, and perhaps the only one that can be compared toMolière’s Amphitryon.
Now comes Prince’s Education.
The author himself told us that it was only a fantasy, and that he had written it to rest, after La Clairière, a serious work.
It should be noted, however, that he first wrote this fantasy in 1893, for the “Variétés” theater.
The critics praised him, and the public made him a great success.
However, six years later, Maurice Donnay, during a short retreat in the country, wrote the whole play again. Why did he do it? He told us himself, “Because I liked it,” and he adds, “It’s my favorite play.”
This confidence is worth considering, for Donnay was an excellent critic of himself, and if we are not entirely convinced that this comedy is his highest achievement, it seems to us, however, that this Education of a Prince is by no means a work of actuality, that masterpieces are not always severe, nor even serious, and that this “fantasy” is one of the most lasting titles of glory of our author.
Here is a judgment which is already forty years old, and which honors the talent of M. Camille de Sainte-Croix: “There will come a time when the language of these pretty scenes will not be the language of the day; but then instead of showing themselves faded, crumpled, dull, as appear to us certain artificial successes, one will find another charm, one less precious, of right evocations, and of painting of time… It is one of these comedies that do not pass, because under their modern varnish, they are above all comedies of character, solid, natural, and that they contain ideas and thoughts under the lightness of words. “
Here are finally the noblest and most solid works of his theater, and which are also the most remarkable of the dramatic art, in the first half of our century.
The Return from Jerusalem is a real play.
It seems that the author lived it himself in his youth. He let us understand, in his memoirs, that he had had a kind of romance with a young Israelite woman: it is this passion that he staged, with a lot of tenderness, spirit and tact: it is these rare qualities that we will find in the Oiseaux de Passage, that he wrote later with the collaboration of Lucien Descaves, and it is not without reason that we will speak of these two plays at the same time.
These Birds of Passage are Russians, two women and a man. They are extremely mysterious and endearing characters, like all Russians, and before our eyes, they sacrifice their personal happiness to the sacred cause they defend. However, the play has no political color. The authors do not tell us if they approve of this cause, or if they find it condemnable: they have not even exposed it.
We said earlier, in connection with the Glade or the Girl Scouts, that the thesis seemed to drive the characters and that the work had a demonstrative purpose.
Here, nothing of the kind. Lucien Descaves and Maurice Donnay remained in their role as playwrights, which is to paint characters, with their character, their temperament, their passions.
They succeeded so well that on the one hand these Russians were given a hallucinatory life; the action is born of their very life; the work has no other cause or goal than itself; and on the other hand this play, which announces the immense Russian revolution, could be performed today under all regimes, and in all countries.
Similarly, it cannot be said that Return from Jerusalem is either anti-Semitic or pro-Semitic. The author has painted characters, he has noted with scrupulous impartiality their actions and reactions. The work contains no theories, no panegyrics, no biased criticism; it is only a play, spiritual, brilliant, tender and profound.
A third masterpiece is The Other Danger.
It is very surprising to note that this comedy was played in 1902, and on the stage of the “Comédie Française”.
It is, indeed, a bourgeois woman who has a lover, which is not very extraordinary.
But this bourgeois woman also has an eighteen year old daughter.
The lover, whose delicacy is not extreme, makes himself loved by the young person, and gives his leave to the distraught mother. He is going to withdraw from the game. He is besides of a perfect bad faith, because he knows that the young girl adores him, and that he will be recalled.
Indeed, the innocent girl falls ill, her very life is in danger. The mother, who has understood everything, offers her daughter’s hand to her lover.
This situation, Maurice Donnay has treated it without sparing, and without false modesty, but with a lot of tenderness, true emotion, and a very noble pity.
He showed us that low and miserable actions can be the result of pure and generous feelings.
This guilty mother, who sacrifices her last love for the happiness of her daughter, who sacrifices at the same time her modesty, her delicacy of woman, and who accepts a shameful situation that she will have to undergo for a long time while smiling, this mother is, at times, a true heroine; she reminds us of Phaedra, and her pitiful courage moves us deeply.
Finally, here are Lovers.
The destiny of dramatic authors is quite singular. While the genius of the novelist, the poet or the philosopher is completed, enriched, and asserts itself as youth recedes, it seems that the playwright cannot give his measure from the beginning.
His masterpiece is rarely his first play, as was the case for Dumas with the Lady of the Camellias, but often the third or fourth. Thus, Œdipe-Roi, the Cid, Andromaque, Cyrano, Amants.
It is remarkable – and indeed logical – that these masterpieces have a family resemblance.
They were written in the enthusiasm of youth, at the moment when their authors, having already faced the public once or twice, were beginning to guess the laws of dramatic art, but did not yet know the ropes, at the very moment when these young men were reaching the age of the most beautiful and generous passions.
It is in the years following our thirties that women hold the greatest place in our lives: we know them well enough to adore them, badly enough to idealize them; and it is at this moment that a kind of natural poetry, perhaps more perceptive and sure than intelligence, comes to give to the genius of the writer its magnitude and its brightness.
These youthful masterpieces are almost always written against the rules, never against the laws; against common sense, propriety, conformism, but not against reason; almost always realized by chance, without much research in the plan, nor in the style. At a time when the author had hardly thought about it, these works suddenly burst out like the storms of the tropics. They spring from the heart of a young man, and make the hearts of women blossom, who do not need to understand anything to know everything. These works show at the same time the safety of the instinct, and the happy clumsiness of the nascent genius; they appear most often without valid reason, i.e. by ephemeral causes, very unworthy of their durable effects. They are definitive improvisations, the natural children of the dramatic art, which had no right to any inheritance, but which will have heirs.
So Maurice Donnay told us why he wrote Lovers.
Mrs. Sarah Bernhardt, director of the “Renaissance”, had to leave for a long tour. Lucien Guitry came to tell his friend Maurice that this theater was going to remain closed for a year and that there was a place to take.
It is to make this “interim”, and to “take advantage” of the “occasion” that Maurice Donnay wrote in three weeks his youthful masterpiece, which is perhaps the masterpiece of his whole life, and certainly a masterpiece in itself.
The theme is wonderfully simple.
A young woman, from the demi-monde, but who lives like an honest bourgeois, meets a man of thirty-five years, a blasé. It’s love at first sight. Let us note in passing that in all the masterpieces of youth, the man “who has lived” is thirty-five years old, and that the old man, like Arnolphe; the venerable Father Duval, or the Count of Ruyseux is already rolling towards the grave on the slope of fifty.
After some hesitation, the two lovers run away together, without thinking of the pain of the others, because their love must be eternal. They go, as they should, on the edge of the Italian lakes, to rock their mutual passion to the romances of the boatmen.
And then, life calls them back.
She thinks of her daughter, of her lover, this good old man who is almost a husband.
After great cries of despair, they separate.
A year later, a distracted – or mischievous – hostess invites them to the same party. They are going to find themselves face to face… All the guests are waiting with a certain sadistic anxiety for the pathetic scene which cannot fail to take place.
They meet indeed; they exchange only banal words, and they announce, with a calmness which is not simulated, that they are going – each one on his side – to get married.
The morality of the play, it is Donnay who took care to summarize it in this sad and cheerful sentence: “If one died of all the adventures of love, there would be nobody left to tell them.”
The success was very great, and the critics recognized with good grace that it was an exceptional work. Jules Lemaître, who had a difficult taste, compared the play to Berenice. It was a great praise; but even today, it does not seem to us undeserved.
Certainly, we do not find in Lovers the great political interests which are the spring of Racine’s tragedy. But we hear the voice of Racine’s passion and tenderness, and while the tragic poet leaves us with the impression of an irreparable despair, Maurice Donnay, in a fifth act which contains the author’s secret, admits to us that this pain is not eternal, that love is only rarely a fatal passion and that time is often enough to calm the storms of the heart and senses. But he tells us this with a smile so strange and even so mysterious, that we cannot decide if his denouement, optimistic in appearance, is not more bitter than Racine’s.
On the other hand, the plot takes place in a very particular milieu. It is a demi-monde so correct and so charming that these courtesans would appear today as honest women, they raise their children with fervor, they blush to deceive their lovers, they chase away a maid who has been kind to the gardener. In a tasteful but old-fashioned setting, we hear of fearsome businessmen who commit suicide for an unpaid draft… (One shudders to think of the havoc that such a disastrous practice would wreak in today’s offices). Thus the author has left us a picture of a great delicacy of tones which represents a generous, smiling, spiritual time which will perhaps never return.
We said earlier that the comedies of manners were not the most important works of our author. We now say that he was an unequalled painter of the customs of his time: but the plays which left us a living image of this time are not those which expressly described it. It is in Education of a Prince, in Georgette Lemonnier, in theEscalade, in the Other Danger, in Lovers, that we find the charming society which preceded the time of the massacres; because, occupied to paint eternal feelings, he painted them with the color of time, and he created, as if without thinking about it, characters of his time and his country. And because this painting was not his main purpose, it is wonderfully and freely successful. One can say that the great works of Maurice Donnay are bourgeois tragedies denounced as comedies, and that they are at the same time authentic masterpieces of the comedy of manners.
Here a pragmatist might say: “You proclaim the greatness and excellence of these works, but they are not performed very often.
We never even play them.
We will explain this momentary abandonment by the current state of our Comédie Française, of which he was so long the titular author. The noble House, indeed, tried to reproduce itself by splitting, like the marine hydra. This parturition is long and painful. It seems that it takes away momentarily the power to serve the French dramatic art. But we know that it is only a crisis, and that the Comédie will soon resume its place, which is the first one.
For the other theaters of the capital, crushed by taxes, they no longer have the means to bring to the stage the plays that require the presence of a large number of actors.
Our directors are blaming the genius of Aeschylus, who invented the second character, and cursing Sophocles who had the idea of the third role; and they dream of those economical dramatists who wrote in the year 600 B.C., plays in which a single hero, without any change of costume, ensured the representation in a single setting.
Now, Donnay’s pieces were born in a happy and generous time: let me quote some figures because they are quite surprising.
Around 1900, the cashier of the Variétés used to hand over a small grey canvas bag, weighed down with three or four hundred gold coins, to her charmed director every evening. Today, in the first rank theaters, the real revenue, in case of success, does not exceed the market value of forty seats of the past. It is therefore impossible to put Lysistrata, Paraître, or even the Other Danger back on stage.
Moreover, apart from this despicable but inescapable question of money, another reason would perhaps suffice to explain the unjust oblivion of this repertoire of masterpieces; it is that Maurice Donnay underwent the fatal eclipse which obscures all literary glories the day after, and often even on the eve of the writer’s death. This eclipse lasts about twenty years. It can be explained by the fact that the work is already out of date, without being yet old enough to rise to the rank of the classics.
Fortunately, a new art was born: cinematographic art.
Certainly, it is only a minor art: the machines and processes it employs are only precious tools, and sensitive chemical reactions. It cannot create works, but it can express by a technique whose perfection touches the miracle, the works, old or new, of the novelist, the composer, the dramatist, that is to say the works of the creative artists.
Of course, the people who deal with cinema, and who call themselves “filmmakers”, began by formally denying that film, even talking film, needed dramatic art.
Many of these “filmmakers” were in good faith, since they were unaware of the existence of this major art form. Others were less sincere. One might have thought that they wanted to keep writers out of a rich and powerful medium, in order to keep the glory and profits for themselves; they openly based their claim on the possession of their tools, which by malice or ignorance they considered to be creative craftsmen. Others, finally – and they were generally writers whom the Dramatic Art had not wanted – assigned to the cinema the limits that they knew they could not exceed.
That’s why, instead of using real writers, they tried, by all means, to keep them out of the studios.
However, Maurice Donnay, while rolling dumplings and smiling by the fire, was following with great interest the first steps of the new art. Indeed, in 1891, he had written two long dramatic works, Phryné and Ailleurs, which were played, with great success, not on the stage, but on the screen of the Théâtre d’Ombres, at the Chat Noir.
Here is the description he gave us of these performances:
“We were in the process of performing real plays in the shadow theater.
While the paintings, landscapes, characters, multitudes, appeared on the screen, standing next to the accompanying piano, a narrator said the text.
In a square meter of luminous canvas, white auroras on pink mountains, sunsets in skies of topaz and copper, clear blue moons on a gently agitated sea, Henri Rivière has made the greatest landscapes fit… “.
It is quite obvious, gentlemen, that the representations of this theater, followed by the best poets and the greatest critics of this time, were nothing else than the prefiguration, and undoubtedly the origin of the speaking cinema in colors, which has just made, in a few years, the conquest of the world.
But Maurice Donnay, as soon as he had known the real theater, had abandoned the shadow theater; it was a crippled art, whose movement was only a series of immobilities, and whose dialogue was only a monologue.
Silent films did not attract him. He loved the word too much, and he believed, like the Bible, that the word is the beginning of everything.
But, in 1937, when the talking film, satiated with nonsense, demanded more solid food, an intelligent producer discovered Rue de Florence, and Maurice Donnay, who was waiting for him peacefully, entrusted him with a favorite work: Education of a Prince.
It is certain that, according to the custom of that time, the work of the master was deformed, under the pretext of adaptation to the rules of a new art, and that the author protested with his usual vivacity, against such a treatment.
The technicians replied that an academician could not know anything about cinema, that his complaints were impertinent, and that they had done their best. I believe they were sincere. However, in spite of their efforts, and their perfect good will, there remained in the film some parts of Maurice Donnay’s work. Masterpieces have a long life and this one, despite the arrangements, was a great success.
It was, I do not hesitate to say, a blessing for the author, and for French cinema.
First of all, Prince’s Education would never have been performed on the stage in the tiny towns where the cinema sends its little round boxes, which contain a first-rate cast, luxurious sets, and an orchestra of a hundred musicians. If figures are needed, I would say that in fifty years none of the great writer’s works has been performed on the stage more than five hundred times, while the film Education of Prince has passed its twenty thousandth showing.
Moreover, I say it in a low voice, but with great joy, we will soon see on the screens his masterpiece Lovers. Not the American film which has just borrowed the title, but the play itself by Maurice Donnay. I would add that today’s producers, educated by experience, no longer have a superstitious respect for technique; they have admitted that the talking picture can speak, provided it has something to say. They have noticed that a masterpiece of dramatic art, once installed on the screen, only comes down again to change interpreters, they also know that the success of the film is proportionate to the fidelity of the adaptation, and that it is better to choose the adapter among people familiar with the French language and even with the dramatic art.
This is how a school was formed little by little, the school of Paris. Of course, it was not satisfied with bringing old works to the screen: an art can only live on new works, conceived and produced with a view to using all the riches, all the power of the new medium of expression. But it is certain that the old masterpieces will take their place, one after the other, in the cinematheque which is completed each year: it is thanks to this new form of shadow theater that the work of Maurice Donnay will not undergo the fatal eclipse. If the stage forgets him for a few years, the cinema offers him, all over the world, a hundred thousand screens to reflect the shadows and lights, the words, the sounds and the music that make up his work.
Thus, in Paris or in Béthune, in Lisbon or in Cairo, in Shangaï or in Quebec, thousands of men and women will go to see and hear the dramatic works of the great late writer. Some will wear burnous, others kimonos; some will be dressed in white cloth, others in sheepskin. And the simplest of them will believe that the story is true, and that the author is still alive: and they will not be mistaken.
And now, gentlemen, this eulogy is almost over, and I have not yet quoted a single one of his bon mots, those authorial words which made such an effect on the stage, which the spectators repeated to each other as they left, and with which the critics enlivened their accounts. Well, gentlemen, these good words, which are innumerable, I ask your permission to quote none of them. Certainly, they have done much for his popularity: they have done even more for his glory.
It is because he wrote Les Vieux Messieurs, or the infinitely sad story of this pessimistic infant, that the new generations seem not to have understood the greatness of the playwright we have just lost. I think that this is the day, I think that it is the hour to say clearly who Maurice Donnay was. And the sentences I am going to pronounce are not words of circumstance, nor of those words that friendship throws like flowers on a grave; I did not have the honor of knowing him, and I speak with the honesty of the academic that I am.
The measure of a writer’s worth is not only his success with the literati and the public, but above all his influence on the literature of the following era.
Well, gentlemen, it is certain thatAmants, in 1895, resembled nothing except the great classics by the purity of its dramatic line. It is equally certain that after this date we will find the tone and color ofAmants in a large number of comedies, and in particular in the works of Henri Bataille, whose style has aged, but whose theatrical vigor remains admirable.
It is certain thatEducation of a Prince in 1893 did not resemble anything, except the most brilliant successes of Flers and Caillavet, who were to triumph fifteen years later. On the other hand, it does not seem absurd to us to say that the so brilliant theater of Giraudoux owes something, if only its perfume, to Lysistrata and to the Marriage of Telemachus; finally the Other danger, work of a disturbing audacity, and Paraître, biting and picturesque comedy, had, without any doubt, an influence on the undeniable genius of Édouard Bourdet.
Bataille, Flers and Caillavet, Giraudoux, Bourdet… Of course, I am not saying that these real playwrights had decided, each one for himself, to imitate and extend one of Maurice Donnay’s works. But I am saying that the paths in which they have engaged, and which lead them so far, it is Maurice Donnay who had opened them and that his works live to testify to it.
One will say: “It is quite difficult to admit that such different writers could have chosen the same model”.
It is that this model was at each moment different from itself.
He left us three musicals, an opera, three light comedies, six comedies of manners, eight character comedies, six dramatic comedies, two reviews, a large number of small works that the Society of Authors calls monologues, but I prefer to call “poems”, two books of memories and a hundred speeches. He did everything, because he knew how to do everything, and he left, in each genre, often a masterpiece, always a model.
Thus we will end this too brief study of such a considerable work by affirming that he was the prince of the chansonniers, because he was the most Parisian of the French; but that he was at the same time the most French of the Parisians, and that he will remain, in the history of letters, as the father and the source of almost all contemporary theater.Download the PDF document
23 February 2023