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From Dumas fils’s Étrangère to Wilde’s Aventurière: French Theatrical Forerunners of the Wildean Female Dandy

Ignacio Ramos Gay
p. 83-98

Résumé

The aim of this paper is to acknowledge the influence of French dramatical stererotypes in Oscar Wilde’s creation of the female dandy. I will particularly focus on two society comedies, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895) so as to unearth French female forerunners of his aventurière throughout a series of plays written by boulevard authors such as Victorien Sardou, Emile Augier and Dumas fils. My aim is thus twofold: first to recognize the debt British playwrights contracted towards French drama and, secondly, to state that French theatrical stereotypes, even when being the main cause of native playwrights’ drowsiness, were also the first step towards the renaissance of English drama, as it can be observed throughout Oscar Wilde’s, Pinero’s, Gilbert’s and Jones’s dramaturgies.

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  • 1 The Speaker, 27 February 1892, vol. V, p. 257–258.
  • 2 Cf. Donald Mullin, Victorian Plays. A Record of Significant Productions on the London Stage, 1837-1 (...)
  • 3 Cf. Zeinab M. Raafat, The Influence of Scribe and Sardou upon English Dramatists in the 19th Centur (...)
  • 4 Denunciations of plagiarism filled the newspapers. For instance, in a letter to Truth, January 2nd  (...)
  • 5 Florina Tufescu, Oscar Wilde’s Plagiarism. The Triumph of Art over Ego, Dublin, Portland, O.R., Iri (...)
  • 6 Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of the Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteen (...)

1A week after London’s première of Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St James’s Theatre, Arthur Bingham Walkley concluded an article in The Speaker, February 27th, 1892, with the categorical statement: “Anything for a change”. Throughout his article, Walkley described Wilde’s play as a compendium of “half a dozen familiar French plays,”1 the originality of which laid in its ability to subvert literary conventions. Significantly, some weeks later, a caricature of Oscar Wilde appeared in the satiric review Punch in which he was represented leaning on a pedestal with his elbow propped upon volumes of Odette, Francillon, and Le Supplice d’une Femme, to make room for which a bust of Shakespeare had been dethroned. The French play constitutes a fair background for the British playwrights throughout the nineteenth century, as Nicoll’s, Wearing’s, Raafat’s and de Mullin’s list of plays have stated.2 Authors such as Victorien Sardou, Eugène Scribe, Alexandre Dumas fils, Alfred Hennequin or Emile Augier, were continually translated, adapted and even plagiarised by native playwrights.3 As for Wilde, the influence of French dramatists upon his plays was repeatedly noticed by his contemporaries, as shown by the numerous accusations of plagiarism in reviews and caricatures.4 Such anxiety of influence has divided scholars since the publication of Wilde’s poems. For many, Wilde was a mere plagiarist whose œuvre was purely derivative. Accordingly, an anonymous critic in The Spectator would regard his poetry as “the trash of a man of a certain amount of mimetic ability, and trash the trashiness of which the author is much too cultivated not to recognise quite clearly”.5 For others, his art resided in the skilled polishing of previous patterns, the result of which was the emergence of an original style. In Holbrook Jackson’s words, “he mixed pure wine, as it were, and created a new complex beverage, not perhaps for quaffing, but rather a liqueur, with a piquant and quite original flavour which still acknowledged the flavours of its constituents”.6

  • 7 Cf. E. H. Mikhail, “The French Influences on Wilde’s Comedies,” Revue de littérature comparée, no42 (...)
  • 8 Such a veneration of French authors led in no few cases to blatant and shameless textual appropriat (...)
  • 9 In a letter to Wilde scholar Kelver Hartley, Alfred Douglas declared that “I think Wilde did study (...)
  • 10 Cf. Josephine M. Guy & Ian Small, Oscar Wilde’s Profession. Writing and the Culture Industry in the (...)

2This understanding of amalgamation as the source for novelty in literary composition aligns with modern scholarship that regards Wilde as a genius of re-creation. In this sense, contemporary criticism has undertaken the task of tracking down Wilde’s sources, both from an archeologic and a theoretical standpoint. As for the former, a myriad of critics7 have stated that Wilde’s plays are the result of the assimilation of French plots and motifs, ranging from Scribe and Sardou’s pièces bien faites, to Eugène Labiche and George Feydeau’s vaudevilles, via Augier’s and Dumas fils’s pièces à thèse. Wilde’s resorting to stereotyped and well-known characters and situations represents his consideration of French drama as a model to be followed by modern playwrights—his veneration of French dramatists was constantly acknowledged by Wilde himself,8 as well as noted by his friends and reviewers9—, but also an instrument of commodification within a mass culture led by the rampant theatre industrialisation and consumerism.10 Therefore, on a pragmatic and a professional level, Wilde’s perennial resorting to familiar and popular plots mirrors a swing between his need, on the one hand, to yield to the pressures of the consuming Philistine audience so as to achieve social and economic success and, on the other, to proclaim his personal aesthetics of literary subversion.

  • 11 Robert Macfarlane, Original Copy. Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Oxfo (...)
  • 12 Oscar Wilde, Selected Journalism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 114.
  • 13 Lady Windermere’s Fan, in Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p. 411.

3This hypothesis contends that Wilde’s original philosophy of composition should be less regarded as a creation ex nihilo than a subtle jewel-setting founded on blatant borrowing and rewriting. In Robert Macfarlane's words, “for Wilde, reuse was intrinsic, not inimical, to creativity,”11 and as Wilde himself would claim in his literary reviews, “true originality is to be found rather in the use made of a model than in the rejection of all models and masters. Dans l’art comme dans la nature on est toujours fils de quelqu’un, and we should not quarrel with the reed if it whispers to us the music of the lyre.”12 In this sense, I will display here how Wilde oscillated between creation and re-creation of French sources when composing his pieces by means of the study of the character of the aventurière. My aim is to analyse the means Wilde used in portraying his characters to overthrow the Victorian establishment associated with the traditional melodramatic tactics. Wilde’s originality lays in his subtle application of a new code of positive values to the personage deplored by the Victorian society. Mrs Erlynne, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, represents the best exponent of how the “unmotherly mother” displays better qualities than the once-lily-white and priggish Margaret Windermere, after discovering that the former “is better than I am”.13 In subverting the established social customs, Wilde proposes a new state of affairs based upon his aesthetic postulates, supporting sheer individualism as the key of dandyism and the regeneration of society.

  • 14 J. Dubois, H. Mitterrand & A. Dauzat, Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français, Paris, L (...)
  • 15 According to Eltis, the dramatic stereotype of the “fallen woman” had three main realizations—the “ (...)

4Forerunners of Wilde’s aventurière may be found in the French cocotte, or, as is euphemistically defined by the dictionary, “femme de mœurs légères”.14 As two other pieces combining the structures of melodrama and the problem play will reveal later in the century, The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Arthur Wing Pinero (1893) and Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw (1894), the character of the adventuress constitutes the evolution of the classical prostitute within a bourgeois society towards a refined aestheticism dominated by elegance, taste and manners. The adventuress is divided between two worlds and contexts: the humility of her origins, and the gallant universe of the demi-monde. This cleavage entails the shifted perception of her role within the aristocratic society: on the one hand she is the focus of male attention while, on the other, she is constantly deplored by her female counterpart. Her only presence implies the shadow of unfaithfulness and thus, provokes the unbalancing of home stability. Precedents of the aventurière, also called “fallen woman,”15 “woman with a past” or “courtisane,” can be traced in numerous French plays of the 1850s and the 1860s. The novelist and journalist Jerome K. Jerome, best known for his timeless comic novel, Three Men in a Boat (1889), wrote a satiric essay in which he described the stagnation of British dramatic formulae. With the title Stage-land. Curious Habits and Customs of its Inhabitants, he revised the stereotyped characterization of the theatrical universe, composed by the hero, the villain, the heroine, the comic man, the lawyer, the adventuress, the servant girl, the child, the comic lovers, the peasants, the good old man, the Irishman, the detective, the sailor, etc. As for the adventuress, Jerome significantly pointed at some of her most outstanding devices that can be perfectly recognized in Wilde’s female personages, among which was her French origin:

  • 16 Jerome K. Jerome, Stage-land. Curious Habits and Customs of its Inhabitants, London, Chatto & Windu (...)

She sits on a table and smokes a cigarette. A cigarette on the stage is always the badge of infamy . . . . The adventuress is generally of foreign extraction. They do not make bad women in England, the article is entirely of continental manufacture, and has to be imported. She speaks English with a charming little French accent, and she makes up for this by speaking French with a good sound English one . . . she has not got a Stage child—if she ever had one, she has left it on somebody else’s doorstep, which, presuming there was no water handy to drown it, seems to be about the most sensible thing she could have done with it.16

5The archetype of the “fallen woman” implies her being a bad wife and, indeed, a bad mother. That is, the woman who is to be reviled by society is she who does not subjugate to the patriarchal predicament. Many a French author has dealt with this sort of social outcast in previous plays and novels. The nineteenth-century British adventuress represents the last link of a long lineage inaugurated by Fanny Hill and Moll Flanders, most likely to have been inspired by Manon Lescaut of Prévost and the French archetype of the “jeune veuve” popularised during the 17th and 18th centuries. Contemporaries of Wilde, the pièces à thèse of Dumas filsLa Dame aux camélias (1852), L’Étrangère (1876), Le demi-monde (1855)—and Augier’s—Les lionnes pauvres (1858), L’aventurière (1848), Le mariage d’Olympe (1855)—and the comédies-vaudevilles of Eugène Labiche—Si jamais je te pince! (1856)—and Victorien Sardou—Odette (1881)—, continue this tradition and display the breeding ground upon which Wilde will raise his perversion of conventional drama. All these plays reflect the contemporary debate between sexes by means of staging guileless young brides who, after discovering their husbands’ unfaithfulness with fallen women, believe and intend to establish an equal law of fidelity for both husband and wife. Wilde’s strategy consists in using common characters and situations drawn from numerous and well-known French plays, so as to create two different levels of interpretation. First, a conventionalised dramatic universe, easily recognizable by his contemporary London play-goer, by means of resorting to stereotyped characters such as fallen women, prudish wives, heroic husbands, and raisonneurs. And, secondly, some touches of personal wit applied both to characters’ discourse and to the situational structure that provoke a new shaping of the stereotypes he resorts to.

6One of the most important French forerunners of Wilde’s adventuress is Dumas filss demi-mondaine, Mrs Clarkson, in L’Étrangère. The play, which was a complete success in its Parisian première and was constantly performed throughout the last quarter of the century, was also popularised in the London theatres by the Comédie Française during its second visit to England. The impact of the performance upon the British audience is easily perceived in the 1879 dramatic reviews. The moral bias makes the critic of the Saturday Review, March 29th 1879, consider the play useless, and its main feminine character, the aventurière, “a vicious lunatic, given to unintelligible rhapsody”.

7Mrs Clarkson, as Wilde’s Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan and Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband, appears first indirectly described by those who witness her presence and her past. The essence of her existence is purely linguistic, and resides in the discourse of otherness. She needs to be talked about and visually noticed, for society is essentially discourse and physical appearance. Her past configures her present and the words resulting from the impact on both the male and the female members of society create her identity:

  • 17 Alexandre Dumas fils, L’étrangère, Paris, C. Lévy, 1877, p. 27.

Guy des Haltes: Je ne sais et je ne répète que ce que j’ai entendu dire; que c’est tout bonnement une aventurière ayant plus d’audace, plus de bonheur et peut-être plus d’originalité que ses semblables. Elle a beaucoup voyagé; elle a habité New York, Petersbourg, Varsovie, Florence, Rome, Naples, Londres et partout où elle a passé, on a raconté un scandale ou un drame auquel son nom était mêlé. Il y a eu en Amérique un procès, dont elle était l’héroïne: deux frères dont l’un avait tué l’autre pour elle. On parle d’un grand seigneur russe qu’elle avait rendu fou après l’avoir ruiné, et d’un diplomate fameux qui se serait brûlé la cervelle parce qu’elle aurait vendu des secrets d’État qu’il aurait eu l’imprudence de lui confier!17

  • 18 Elaine Aston, Sarah Bernhardt. A French Actress on the English Stage, Oxford, New York, Munich, Ber (...)

8The adventuress’s existence is always related to men, for men are her most important source of income and her origins are mostly humble, if not disreputable. She breaks with the traditional feminine standard obligating women to be a sort of appendix to their husbands. Mrs Clarkson, on the contrary, like Mrs Erlynne, claims her autonomy adopting a defiant attitude which, on the stage, was perfectly embodied by Sarah Bernhardt. The French actress’s performance of the aventurière during the Comédie Française’s trip to London in 1879 was unanimously praised by critics, despite (or, maybe, thanks to) her physical problems that obliged her to act “drugged with opium” and in “a trance-like state”.18 Accordingly, the reviewer for the Daily Telegraph praised her mysterious interpretation, highlighting her seductive and sensual motion:

  • 19 Sensuality and female acting were closely related during the Victorian era as a means for female pe (...)

What is there in this most graceful and elegant figure, in these thin expressive features, and in the snake-like movement of the artist, that causes such a glow of satisfaction and pleasure? Is it the voice so exquisitely musical? Is it the marvellous expression of the eyes that soften and penetrate at one glance? Is it the admirable composure and faultless elegance as this artistic mystery commands the scene? Or what is it that makes the surrounding picture fade into mist at the approach of this calm and slow-moving figure?19

9Bernhardt was well known in London since her tours with the Comédie Française in 1871 and 1879, and enthusiastically admired by Wilde. His creations of rebellious and resistant women were undoubtedly influenced by his perception of the French actress.

  • 20 As for the aesthetic and moral connections between dandyism—as embodied in Max Beerbohm, Wilde and (...)

10Moreover, Wilde and Dumas fils share the doubtful origins of their aventurières. Their numerous voyages around the world have broken with the domestic sphere traditionally associated with women, especially wives and mothers. Since they are not specifically rooted to any country, home or distinguished society, their identity is eclectically moulded, challenging a homogeneous and monosemic understanding of it. The result is their being typified as “fallen women,” losing their names for a mere nickname such as l’étrangère. Stranger in her origins but also to society’s servitudes and yieldings. Dumas fils presents a woman who incarnates the archetype of the “new woman”20 avant la lettre, as it would later be depicted in defiant and provoking plays by Ibsen—A Doll’s House (1879), Hedda Gabler (1890)—and Strindberg—Miss Julie (1888)—; a woman epicureanly claiming for her rights for pleasure and her social autonomy, expressed through her denial to become neither a wife nor a mother and her hatred of the patriarchal establishment. In other words, a woman who attempted to implode the established culture:

  • 21 Alexandre Dumas fils, op. cit., p. 88.

Oui, étrangère, sans famille, sans amis, sans patrie; étrangère à toutes vos traditions, à toutes vos joies, mais aussi à toutes vos servitudes, n’ayant pour règle que ma fantaisie de la Haine plein le cœur, plein l’esprit et plein l’âme contre cet être qu’on appelle l’homme, et que je ne voyais s’approcher de moi que comme il s’était approché de ma mère, pour dégrader et avilir la femme au profit de son orgueil et de son plaisir. Ah! Je le haïssais bien, ce roi de la création qui se proclame notre maître, à nous autres femmes.21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 427.
  • 23 Stuart Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, London, T. Werner & Laurie, 1914, p. 440.

11Mrs Clarkson’s rejection of man’s attributes reflects a metonymic apprehension of maleness as a derogatory synonym of patriarchal western culture. Even the wronged wife in the play, Catherine, when discovering her husband’s infidelity, does not hesitate to assume Mrs Clarkson’s preaching by stating “quant aux lois qu’ont établies les hommes, elles m’ont déjà fait assez souffrir pour que je ne me soucie plus d’elles,”22 and fly into her devoted lover’s arms. Wilde would later repeat Catherine’s exhortation in an interview entitled “A Talk with Mr Oscar Wilde,” declaring “several plays have been written lately that deal with the monstrous injustice of the social code of morality at the present time. It is indeed a burning shame that there should be one law for men and another law for women. I think . . . I think there should be no law for anybody.”23 Catherine aligns with Margaret Windermere in demanding a new and righteous moral establishment for women, yet their egalitarian claims seemed to be silenced by the similarity with all the previous wronged wives in the vaudeville tradition who, victims of their passion, like Léontine in George Feydeau’s masterpiece Monsieur Chasse! (1892), felt ephemerously tempted to leave their conjugal duties and meet their admirers, just to reestablish the initial status quo at the end of the last act. Consequently the audiences were more subverted by those women who, like Mrs. Clarkson and Mrs Erlynne, proffered such statements not as the victims of their husbands’ unfaithfulness, which lead to a sudden and impulsive eruption of anger on the stage, but as a result of long and thoughtful meditation, triggering an everlasting attitude towards masculinity.

12Thus both characters in Wilde’s and Dumas’s plays reveal the gap between sexes and the schism between the private and the public sphere. The marital failure that is associated with the presence of the aventurière within the married couple implies a social scandal. Society configures private conjugal happiness, therefore the tragedy resides in the public perception of a failed marriage. The dialogue between Margaret Windermere and the Duchess of Berwick, the character who reveals the unfaithfulness of the husband, shows how public opinion determines the couple’s stability, for the adventuress is essentially a social projection:

  • 24 Oscar Wilde, Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p. 372.

Duchess of Berwick: . . .  But I really am so sorry for you, Margaret.
Lady Windermere (smiling): Why, Duchess?
Duchess of Berwick: Oh, on account of that horrid woman. She dresses so well, too, which makes it much worse, sets a dreadful example. Augustus—you know, my disreputable brother—such a trial to us all—well, Augustus is completely infatuated with her. It is quite scandalous, for she is absolutely inadmissible into society. Many a woman has a past, but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit.24

  • 25 The female denial of her “inherent” and “natural” role was regarded as a sign of distorted sexualit (...)
  • 26 Alexandre Dumas fils, op. cit., p. 31.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 30.
  • 28 Alexandre Dumas fils, Les idées de Madame Aubray, Paris, C. Lévy, 1868, p. 48.
  • 29 For a more profound analysis of the similitudes between the discourse of both playwrights, cf. H. S (...)
  • 30 These connections between French boulevardiers’ wit and Wilde’s may be extended to numerous vaudevi (...)

13As stated above, the adventuress shapes her identity by means of her impact on the others. Dumas fils and Wilde coincide in creating a character defined by her witty discourse and her physical condition. Both Mrs Clarkson and Mrs Erlynne are the most masculine characters in the plays, since both behave as men do.25 Dumas’s étrangère incarnates a Wildean dandy avant la lettre. Her aristocratic indolence mingled with her being uprooted comes out into a language split between different levels of meaning. First, one applying to society and, secondly, another one referring to the individual, which deals with moral and conventions. The subject matters are largely the same, chiefly women, the enmity between sexes, towards marriage, standards of morality and love. Assertions such as “aimer n’est rien mon cher; se faire aimer est tout;”26“on m’assure que vous dites quelquefois du mal de moi, monsieur des Haltes. Je le regrette d’autant plus que, d’après tout ce que j’ai entendu dire sur votre compte, je ne peux penser que du bien de vous,”27 or Madame Aubray’s modern cynicism in Dumas filss homonymous play when declaring “il n’y a pas de coupables, il n’y a pas de méchants, il n’y a pas d’ingrats; il y a des malades, des aveugles et des fous. Quand on fait le mal, ce n’est pas par préméditation, c’est par entraînement,”28 set a precedent to the Lord Illingworths and Lord Darlingtons that pepper Wilde’s society comedies, and show that the wit of Dumas fils and Wilde is essentially the same. By means of a brilliant speech, made up of epigrams, aphorisms and paradoxes29, both authors demythify through their female characters the whole set of conventions applied traditionally to women30 and propose an implosion of the moral establishment by means of a linguistic renovation.

  • 31 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990 (...)

14Lastly, not only does Wilde revert the rule of practice by creating women who refuse to yield to the law of marriage, but also by moulding female characters who decline their responsibility as mothers. Victorien Sardou’s play, Odette (1881), first performed in London at the Haymarket Theatre, April 22, 1882, reproduces the archetype of the “unmotherly mother,”31 i.e., the mother who, like Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, turns down her duty towards her children and deserts her family. The dramatic fate of such undutiful and unfaithful characters—unfaithful to their traditional female roles—, was homogeneous: either they were physically dead by means of a tragical—as well as expiatory—disease; or, symbolically dead, secluded from society, confined in a convent or exiled in a foreign country. Dumas fils's La Dame aux camélias (1852), Augier’s Le mariage d’Olympe (1855), Madame Girardin’s Le supplice d’une femme (1865) and Meilhac and Halévy’s masterpiece Frou-frou (1869) reflect this destiny. Wilde subverts the rule and, instead of condemning the mother’s attitude and subjugating to convention, invents a character proud of her detachment from her daughter. Even when acknowledging in the last act her sudden outburst of maternal feeling towards Margaret, for whose marital stability she sacrifices her social image, Mrs Erlynne resorts to silence and never does she reveal her actual identity to her daughter. In 1881 Sardou’s Odette also made use of silence so as not to tell her daughter who she was, choosing death thus avoiding her daughter’s disapproval. Wilde, on the contrary, turns to epicurean concerns in order to justify the aventurière’s speechless departure. As Mrs Erlynne sarcastically points out,

  • 32 Oscar Wilde, op. cit., p. 407.

Oh, don’t imagine I am going to have a pathetic scene with her, weep on her neck and tell her who I am, and all that kind of thing. I have no ambition to play the part of a mother. Only once in my life have I known a mother’s feelings. That was last night. They were terrible—they made me suffer—they made me suffer too much. For twenty years, as you say, I have lived childless—I want to live childless still. Besides, my dear Windermere, how on earth could I pose as a mother with a grown-up daughter? Margaret is twenty-one, and I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, or thirty at the most . . . I suppose, Windermere, you would like me to retire into a convent, or become a hospital nurse, or something of that kind, as people do in silly modern novels. That is stupid of you, Arthur; in real life we don’t do such things—not as long as we have any good looks left, at any rate. No—what consoles one nowadays is not repentance, but pleasure. Repentance is quite out of date.32

  • 33 Henry Gaillard de Champris, Émile Augier et la comédie sociale, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1910, p. 11 (...)

15Mrs Erlynne’s discourse parodies the attitude of all the dramatic heroines who, like Marguerite Gautier, Gilberte, Olympe or Odette, had to die in order to regain social respect. On the contrary, Wilde’s character may have been inspired by Augier’s Séraphine in Les lionnes pauvres (1858), who was also most annoyed by the presence of any offspring in her life, and was consequently described by Augier’s contemporaries as a character with a “vanité frivole, son besoin de paraître et de jouir, son imprudence cynique, sa rouerie maladroite, surtout sa séchéresse de cœur. Pour la peindre mauvaise fille, mauvaise mère, mauvaise épouse”.33 The following dialogue with Thérèse, previous to her fleeing her husband and the conjugal sphere, seems to prognosticate Wilde’s Mrs Erlynne:

  • 34 Émile Augier, Théâtre Complet, Paris, Michel Lévy Frères, 1858, p. 11–12.

Séraphine: J’avais deux ou trois bijoux de ma mère qui m’embarrassaient . . . des antiquailles, et je les ai . . .
Thérèse: Vendus?
Séraphine: Au poids . . . J’ai eu raison, n’est-ce pas? . . . de méchantes pierres montées à faire pitié . . .
Thérèse: Ces méchantes pierres venaient de votre mère . . .
Séraphine: Sans doute puisqu’elles n’étaient plus à la mode [. . .]
Thérèse: Vous admettriez donc, vous étant morte, que vos enfants? . . .
Séraphine: Je n’en sais rien . . . Je n’ai pas d’enfants, moi!
Thérèse: Il n’y a point prescription; n’en désirez-vous pas?
Séraphine: Dieu m’en garde, c’est trop assujettissant!34

  • 35 Arthur Matthison, A False Step. The prohibited play. Freely adapted from Les Lionnes Pauvres. With (...)

16Les lionnes pauvres was adapted and edited in English in 1879 by Arthur Matthison under the title A False Step. The Prohibited Play, and after some performances the Lord Chamberlain’s office banned the licence to represent due to its profound immorality. As the correspondence between Mathison and the Daily Telegraph critic Clement Scott reveals, the Examiner of Plays considered that “the public and their critical guides would exclaim at the situations and say that the moral of the piece was only fit to be taught in the Divorce Court”.35

  • 36 Oscar Wilde, op. cit., p. 897.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 905.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 407.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 407.
  • 40 Ibid., p. 922.
  • 41 Arthur B. Walkley, op. cit., p. 123.

17Such moral was that of sheer individualism, and sheer individualism also constitutes the key to understanding Mrs Erlynne’s behaviour, as it is described in Wilde’s essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. Since duty towards otherness represents a subtle mutilation of the self, the author deplores self-sacrifice and regards socialism as the perfect means to “relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things presses so hardly upon almost everybody”.36 Wilde creates female characters who break out from the literary prison—and, consequently, their constrictive Victorian literary decorum—by emphasizing their disobedience as a sign of social rebellion for “he who would be free . . . must not conform”.37 Wilde proposes Art as the ultimate manifestation of man’s individualism. Mrs Erlynne’s aesthetical concern (“I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, thirty at most”)38 shows Wilde’s rupture with the classical platonic triad good, beauty and truth, displayed by Keats, among others, in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Art and moral are dissociated, for “what consoles one nowadays is not repentance, but pleasure. Repentance is quite out of date”.39 The rule of pleasure, considered nature’s “sign of approval”40 dictates Mrs Erlynne’s attitude, and the final laugh with which she exits the stage in the last scene endorses the mixture of wisdom and wit that have characterized her behaviour throughout the play, and confirms her being, as Walkley puts it in the article quoted at the beginning of this essay, “a true demi-mondaine to the last”.41

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Bibliographie

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Dumas fils Alexandre, L’Étrangère, Paris, C. Lévy, 1877.

Ellmann Richard, Oscar Wilde, London, Hamilton, 1987.

Eltis Sos, “The Fallen Woman on Stage: Maidens, Magdalens, and the Emancipated Female”, in Powell K. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 222–235.

Eltis Sos, Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.

Feydeau George, Théâtre complet de Georges Feydeau, Gidel H (Ed.), Paris, Garnier, 1988, 4 vols.

Gaillard de Champris Henry, Emile Augier et la comédie sociale, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1910.

Guy Josephine M. & Small Ian, Oscar Wilde’s Profession. Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Jackson Holbrook, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of the Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, London, Grant Richards, 1913.

Jerome Jerome K., Stage-land. Curious Habits and Customs of its Inhabitants, London, Chatto & Windus, 1889.

Lewes George H., On the Actors and the Art of Acting, New York, Grove, 1957.

Macfarlane Robert, Original Copy. Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mason Stuart, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, London, T. Werner & Laurie, 1914.

Matthison Arthur, A False Step. The Prohibited Play. Freely Adapted from Les lionnes pauvres. With a Copy of Correspondence between Arthur Matthison and Clement Scott Respecting its Prohibition, London, Lacy’s Acting Edition of Plays, no113, 1879.

Mikhail E. H., “The French Influences on Wilde’s Comedies”, Revue de littérature comparée, no42, 1968, p. 220–233.

Mullin Donald de, Victorian Plays. A Record of Significant Productions on the London Stage, 1837-1901, London, Greenwood, 1987.

Nicoll A., A History of English Drama 1660-1900, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1959, 5 vol.

Powell Kerry, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Powell Kerry,Women and Victorian Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Powell Kerry, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rowell George, “Sardou on the English Stage”, Theatre Research International, October 1976, p. 33–45.

Raafat Zeinab M., The Influence of Scribe and Sardou upon English Dramatists in the 19th Century, with Special Reference to Pinero, Jones and Wilde, PhD. Dissertation, University of London, 1970.

Raafat Zeinab M., “Scribe’s Plays and their English Versions in the Nineteenth Century”, Revue de littérature comparée, no45, 1971, p. 237–255.

Ramos Gay Ignacio, Oscar Wilde y el teatro de boulevard francés, Valencia, Universidad de Valencia, 2007.

Sardou Victorien, Les pattes de mouche, W. O. Farnsworth (Ed.), Boston, New York, Chicago, D. C. Heath & Co., 1911.

Schwarz H. S., “The Influence of Dumas fils on Oscar Wilde”, The French Review, vol. 7, no1, nov. 1933, p. 5–25.

Stanton Stephen S., “Ibsen, Gilbert and Scribe’s Bataille de dames”, Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 17, no1, march 1965, p. 24–30.

Stanton Stephen S., English Drama and the French Well-Made Play, Columbia University, 1955.

Stanton Stephen S., “Shaw’s Debt to Scribe”, PMLA, vol 76, no5, December 1961, p. 575–585.

Tufescu Florina, Oscar Wilde’s Plagiarism. The Triumph of Art over Ego, Dublin, Portland, OR., Irish Academic Press, 2007.

Wearing J. P., The London Stage 1890-1900: A Calendar of Plays and Players. Metuchen, N.J., The Scarecrow Press, 1976, 2 vols.

Wilde Oscar, Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware, Wordsworth Editions, 1997.

Wilde Oscar, Selected Journalism. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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Notes

1 The Speaker, 27 February 1892, vol. V, p. 257–258.

2 Cf. Donald Mullin, Victorian Plays. A Record of Significant Productions on the London Stage, 1837-1901, New York, London, Greenwood Press, 1987; J. P. Wearing, The London Stage 1890-1900: A Calendar of Plays and Players, Metuchen, N.J., The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976, 2 vol.; Allardyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama 1660-1900, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1959, 5 vol.

3 Cf. Zeinab M. Raafat, The Influence of Scribe and Sardou upon English Dramatists in the 19th Century, with Special reference to Pinero, Jones and Wilde, PhD. Dissertation, University of London, 1970; Zeinab M. Raafat, “Scribe’s Plays and their English Versions in the Nineteenth Century,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, no45, 1971, p. 237–255; George Rowell, “Sardou on the English Stage,” Theatre Research International, October 1976, p. 33–45; Stephen S. Stanton, “Ibsen, Gilbert and Scribe’s Bataille de Dames,” Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 17, no1, march 1965, p. 24–30; Stephen S. Stanton, English Drama and the French Well-Made Play, Columbia University, 1955; Stephen S. Stanton, “Shaw’s Debt to Scribe,” PMLA, vol. 76, no5, December 1961, p. 575–585.

4 Denunciations of plagiarism filled the newspapers. For instance, in a letter to Truth, January 2nd 1890, painter and former friend of Oscar Wilde, James Abbott McNeill Whistler accused the Irishman as follows: “Most Valiant Truth—Among your ruthless exposures of the shams of to-day, nothing, I confess, have I enjoyed with keener relish than your late tilt at that arch-imposter and pest of the period—the all pervading plagiarist! I learn, by the way, that in America he may, under the ‘Law of 84’, as it is called, be criminally prosecuted, incarcerated, and made to pick oakum, as he has hitherto picked brains—and pockets! How was it that, in your list of culprits, you omitted the fattest of offenders—our own Oscar?,” Karl Beckson, Oscar Wilde. The Critical Heritage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, p. 63.

5 Florina Tufescu, Oscar Wilde’s Plagiarism. The Triumph of Art over Ego, Dublin, Portland, O.R., Irish Academic Press, 2007, p. 46.

6 Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of the Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, London, Grant Richards, 1913, p. 104.

7 Cf. E. H. Mikhail, “The French Influences on Wilde’s Comedies,” Revue de littérature comparée, no42, 1968, p. 220–233; Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990; Sos Eltis, Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996; Ignacio Ramos Gay, Oscar Wilde y el teatro de boulevard francés, Valencia, Universidad de Valencia, 2007.

8 Such a veneration of French authors led in no few cases to blatant and shameless textual appropriation. Max Beerbohm recalls an episode where Wilde boasted about his predilection to usurp other writers’ texts: “Speaking of plagiarism the other day, Oscar said: ‘Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read [Gustave] Flaubert’s Tentation de St Antoine without signing my name at the end of it. Que voulez-vous? All the Best Hundred Books bear my signature in this manner’” (apud Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, London, Penguin, 1987, p. 355). Similarly, leading actor Squire Bancroft recollects a resembling statement when discussing the performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan: “He was talking with us about one of his comedies, just produced, when my wife remarked that the leading situation rather reminded her of the great scene in a play by Scribe, to which Wilde unblushingly replied: ‘Taken bodily from it, dear lady. Why not? Nobody reads nowadays’” (M. E. Bancroft & Sir Squire Bancroft, Empty chairs, London, John Murray, 1925, p. 112).

9 In a letter to Wilde scholar Kelver Hartley, Alfred Douglas declared that “I think Wilde did study the theatre technique of Sardou and Dumas fils” (apud Mikhail, op. cit., p. 220) and in his autobiography Oscar Wilde and Myself, Douglas would complete his former statement affirming that “[Wilde] told me that from Pinero and Dumas fils he had learnt all he knew of stagecraft and that he considered The Magistrate to be the best of all modern comedies. It is certain that for the plays, as for everything else he did, Wilde had to model himself on somebody” (Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde and Myself, New York, Duffield & Company, 1914, p. 221–222). Wilde, however, contradicted both Douglas’s words and his own aesthetic postulates when claiming romantic originality in his writings by asserting, in reference to some similarities between the use of stage props in An Ideal Husband (1895) and in Sardou’s vaudeville Dora (1877), that he had been “considerably amused by so many of the critics suggesting that the incident of the diamond bracelet in Act III of my new play was suggested by Sardou. It does not occur in any of Sardou’s plays and it was not in my play until ten days before production. Nobody else’s work gives me any suggestion.” Gilbert Burgess, “An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket Theatre,” The Sketch, 9 January 1895, p. 495 (apud Mikhail, op. cit., p. 230).

10 Cf. Josephine M. Guy & Ian Small, Oscar Wilde’s Profession. Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

11 Robert Macfarlane, Original Copy. Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 169.

12 Oscar Wilde, Selected Journalism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 114.

13 Lady Windermere’s Fan, in Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p. 411.

14 J. Dubois, H. Mitterrand & A. Dauzat, Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français, Paris, Larousse, 1964/1994, p. 163.

15 According to Eltis, the dramatic stereotype of the “fallen woman” had three main realizations—the “seduced maiden,” the “wicked seductress” and the “repentant magdalen”—whose theatrical destiny was essentially their seclusion from society, either by a sudden physical death or by “social death” as expressed by her exile or her confinement in a religious institution. (Sos Eltis, “The Fallen Woman on Stage: Maidens, Magdalens, and the Emancipated Female,” in K. Powell (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 223.

16 Jerome K. Jerome, Stage-land. Curious Habits and Customs of its Inhabitants, London, Chatto & Windus, 1889, p. 1.

17 Alexandre Dumas fils, L’étrangère, Paris, C. Lévy, 1877, p. 27.

18 Elaine Aston, Sarah Bernhardt. A French Actress on the English Stage, Oxford, New York, Munich, Berg Publishers, 1989, p. 27-28.

19 Sensuality and female acting were closely related during the Victorian era as a means for female performers to obtain the voice and physicality they had been deprived of by the patriarchal system. Bernhardt’s case was therefore not a rare exception, and a myriad of actresses enjoyed the same engouement when staging seductive personae that permitted them to reformulate their female role and contest male social control. In this sense, French actress Rachel’s animality on the stage was publicly eulogized by critics and playgoers, who described her as “a panther on the stage”; an actress who was “endowed with a panther’s terrible beauty and undulating grace [with which] she moved and stood, glared and sprang. There always seemed something not human about her . . . Scorn, triumph, rage, lust, and merciless malignity she could represent in symbols of irresistible power; but she had little tenderness, no womanly caressing softness, no gaiety, no heartiness” (George H. Lewes, On the Actors and the Art of Acting, New York, Grove, 1957, p. 32). On the Victorian actress and her male audience, cf. Kerry Powell, Women and Victorian Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

20 As for the aesthetic and moral connections between dandyism—as embodied in Max Beerbohm, Wilde and Beardsley—and the “New Woman,” and the former’s progressive displacement at the end of the century by a new kind of womanhood, cf. J. Stein, “The New Woman and the Decadent Dandy,” The Dalhousie Review, vol. 55, no1, Spring 1975, p. 54-62. A similar analysis is carried out by Linda Dowling, who regards the decadent and the new woman as “twin apostles of social apocalypse” in their efforts to “transcend established notions of sexual consciousness and behaviour” (Linda Dowling, “The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890’s,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, no33, March 1979, p. 434–453).

21 Alexandre Dumas fils, op. cit., p. 88.

22 Ibid., p. 427.

23 Stuart Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, London, T. Werner & Laurie, 1914, p. 440.

24 Oscar Wilde, Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p. 372.

25 The female denial of her “inherent” and “natural” role was regarded as a sign of distorted sexuality associated with new womanhood. Such a confusion of sexual identities was the result of a progression towards education, democratic participation, and economic autonomy. Therefore the “decline” of “female” attributes (passivity, abnegation, social invisibility, etc.), rather than a substantial loss, constituted a realignment with man’s privileges (Jean Chothia, The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. ix).

26 Alexandre Dumas fils, op. cit., p. 31.

27 Ibid., p. 30.

28 Alexandre Dumas fils, Les idées de Madame Aubray, Paris, C. Lévy, 1868, p. 48.

29 For a more profound analysis of the similitudes between the discourse of both playwrights, cf. H. S. Schwarz, “The Influence of Dumas Fils on Oscar Wilde,” The French Review, vol. 7, no1, 1933, p. 5–25.

30 These connections between French boulevardiers’ wit and Wilde’s may be extended to numerous vaudevillistes whose plays were attended by Wilde not only in Paris but also in London when adapted for the English stage. For instance, Victorien Sardou’s ironic aphorism “la véritable recette du bonheur, c’est de jeter par la fenêtre celui qu’on aime, pour épouser celui qu’on n’aime pas” (Victorien Sardou, Les pattes de mouche, p. 25), uttered by Prosper in his vaudeville Les pattes de mouche (1860)—a play sucessfully adapted by J. Palgrave Simpson with the title A Scrap of Paper; or, the Adventures of a Love Letter (1889) and revived on numerous occasions on the London stage—, has its own correlation in Wildean terms in Lord Illingworth’s statement “the happiness of a married man (. . .) depends on the people he has not married” (A Woman of No Importance, op. cit., p. 447), as well as in Algernon’s provoking statement “in married life, three is company and two is none” (The Importance of Being Earnest, op. cit., p. 552). In this sense, such requestioning of marriage values through irony and sarcasm is also found in the wittiest fin de siècle and belle époque’s vaudevilliste: Georges Feydeau. Throughout his plays, Feydeau demolishes the pillars of bourgeois society, with particular reference to fidelity in marriage. In Monsieur Chasse! (1892), a play adapted by William Lestocq in 1893 with the title The Sportsman, the tempter Moricet claims that “le vrai mari, c’est l’amant; l’époux n’est que le mari que la société vous donne, tandis que l’amant, c’est le mari que le cœur choisit!” In a similar tone, in La main passe (1904), Francine, a romantic young woman, naively speaks her mind when asserting “si les maris pouvaient laisser leurs femmes avoir un ou deux amants pour leur permettre de comparer, il y aurait beaucoup plus de femmes fidèles”. Later on, in the same play, Belgence remarks “on donne un tas d’idées fausses aux jeunes filles dans les familles: on leur parle de la fidélité conjugale. . . alors, elles s’imaginent que c’est fait pour le mari”.

31 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 14.

32 Oscar Wilde, op. cit., p. 407.

33 Henry Gaillard de Champris, Émile Augier et la comédie sociale, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1910, p. 115–116.

34 Émile Augier, Théâtre Complet, Paris, Michel Lévy Frères, 1858, p. 11–12.

35 Arthur Matthison, A False Step. The prohibited play. Freely adapted from Les Lionnes Pauvres. With a Copy of Correspondence between Arthur Matthison and Clement Scott respecting its Prohibition, London, Lacy’s Acting Edition of Plays, no113, 1879, p. 3.

36 Oscar Wilde, op. cit., p. 897.

37 Ibid., p. 905.

38 Ibid., p. 407.

39 Ibid., p. 407.

40 Ibid., p. 922.

41 Arthur B. Walkley, op. cit., p. 123.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ignacio Ramos Gay, « From Dumas fils’s Étrangère to Wilde’s Aventurière: French Theatrical Forerunners of the Wildean Female Dandy », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 83-98.

Référence électronique

Ignacio Ramos Gay, « From Dumas fils’s Étrangère to Wilde’s Aventurière: French Theatrical Forerunners of the Wildean Female Dandy », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 juin 2016, consulté le 22 juin 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2724 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2724

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Auteur

Ignacio Ramos Gay

Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha.
Ignacio Ramos Gay is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Modern Languages of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain. His research areas include contemporary comparative drama and the aesthetics of dramatic reception. His doctoral research centred on the theatrical cross-currents between France and England in the nineteenth century, and he is the author of a monograph on the impact of French boulevard drama on Oscar Wilde’s dramaturgy (University of Valencia, 2007). He has published a number of articles examining the influence of French playwrights on the renaissance of English drama at the end of the nineteenth century, and he is currently preparing a book on Victorian adaptations of the French play.

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