Saintsbury Introduction, Volume XVII – Part II

Introduction [to Balzac’s Drama] by J. Walker McSpadden:
Vautrin 
The Resources of Quinola (Les Ressources de Quinola)
Pamela Giraud
The Stepmother (La Marâtre)
Mercadet

 

The greatest fame of Balzac will rest in the future, as in the past, upon his novels and short stories. These comprise the bulk of his work and his most noteworthy effort – an effort so pronounced as to hide all side-excursions. For this reason his chief side-excursion – into the realms of drama – has been almost entirely overlooked. Indeed, many of his readers are unaware that he ever wrote plays, while others have passed them by with the idea that they were slight, devoid of interest, and to be classified with the Works of Youth. Complete editions – so-called – of Balzac’s works have fostered this belief by omitting the dramas; and it has remained for the present edition to include, for the first time, this valuable material, not alone for its own sake, but also in order to show the many-sided author as he was, in all his efficiencies and occasional deficiencies.

For those readers who now make the acquaintance of the dramas, we would say briefly that the Balzac  Théâtre comprises five plays – Vautrin,  Les Ressources de Quinola, Pamela Giraud, La Marâtre, and Mercadet. These plays are in prose. They do not belong to the apprenticeship period of the Works of Youth, but were produced in the heyday of his powers, revealing the mature man and the subtle analyst of character, not at his best, but at a point far above his worst. True, their production aroused condemnation on the part of many contemporary dramatic critics, and were the source of much annoyance and little financial gain to their creator. But this is certainly no criterion for their workmanship. Balzac defied many tenets. He even had the hardihood to dispense with the claqueurs at the first night of Les Ressources de Quinola. Naturally the play proceeded coldly without the presence of professional applauders. But Balzac declared himself satisfied with the warm praise of such men as Hugo and Lamartine, who recognized the strength of the lines.

The five plays were presented at various times, at the best theatres of Paris, and by the most capable companies. One of them, Mercadet, is still revived perennially; and we are of opinion that this play would prove attractive to-day upon an American stage. The action and plots of all these dramas are quite apart from the structure of the Comédie Humaine. Vautrin and his “pals” are the only characters borrowed from that series, but his part in the titular play is new beyond the initial situation.

The Première Édition of the Théâtre Complet was published in a single duodecimo volume from the press of Giraud & Dagneau in 1853. It contained: Vautrin, Les Ressources de Quinola, Pamela Giraud, and La Marâtre. All prefaces were omitted. Mercadet was not given with them in this printing, but appeared in a separate duodecimo, under the title of Le Faiseur, from the press of Cadot, in 1853. The next edition of the Théâtre Complet, in 1855, reinstated the prefaces. It was not until 1865 that Mercadet joined the other four in a single volume published by Mme. Houssiaux.

Vautrin, a drama in five acts, was presented for the first time in the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre, March 14, 1840. The preface, dated May 1, 1840, was not ready in time for the printing of the first edition, which was a small octavo volume published by Delloye & Tresse. It appeared in the second edition, two months later. The dedication was to Laurent-Jan. [See “Jan” in Repertory.] The play was a distinct failure, but its construction and temper combine to explain this. At the same time it makes interesting reading; and it will prove especially entertaining to readers of the Comédie Humaine who have dreaded and half-admired the redoubtable law-breaker, who makes his initial entrance in Le Père Goriot and plays so important a part in Illusions Perdues, and Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes. Here we find Vautrin in a favorite situation. He becomes the powerful protector of an unknown young man – much as he picked up Lucien de Rubempré in Illusions Perdues, and attempted to aid Rastignac in Le Père Goriot – and devotes all his sinister craft to his protègè’s material interests. The playwright is careful to preserve some degree of the young man’s self-respect. Chance favors the two by providing the unknown hero with worthy parents; and Vautrin’s schemes unexpectedly work out for good. As in the story of Père Goriot again, Vautrin, after furthering matrimonial deals and other quasi-benevolent projects, ends in the clutches of the law. Of Raoul little need be said. He is the foil for his dread protector and he is saved from dishonor by a narrow margin. The scene is laid at Paris, just after the second accession of the House of Bourbon, in 1816. Titles and families are in some confusion on account of the change of dynasties. It is therefore an opportune time for Vautrin to manufacture scutcheons as occasion may demand. Since this story of Vautrin is not included in the Comédie, it will not be found among the biographical facts recorded in the Repertory.

Les Ressources de Quinola, a comedy in a prologue and five acts, was presented at the Théâtre de l’Odèon, Paris, March 19, 1842. Souverain published it in an octavo volume. Balzac was disposed to complain bitterly of the treatment this play received (note his preface), but of it may be said, as in the case of its predecessor, that it makes better reading than it must have made acting, for the scenes are loosely constructed and often illogical. Our playwright yet betrays the amateur touch. It is regrettable, too, for he chose an excellent theme and setting. The time is near the close of the sixteenth century, under the rule of Philip II of Spain and the much-dreaded Inquisition. An inventor, a pupil of Galileo, barely escapes the Holy Office because of having discovered the secret of the steamboat. Referring to the preface again, we find Balzac maintaining, in apparent candor, that he had historic authority for the statement that a boat propelled by steam-machinery had been in existence for a short time in those days. Be that as it may, one can accept the statement for dramatic purposes; and the story of the early inventor’s struggles and his servant’s “resources” is promising enough to leave but one regret – that the master-romancer did not make a novel instead of a play out of the material. Though this is called a comedy, it contains more than one element of tragedy in it, and the tone is moody and satirical. The climax, with its abortive love episode, is anything but satisfactory.

Pamela Giraud, a drama in five acts, was first presented in the Gaîté Théâtre, Paris, September 26, 1843. It was published by Marchand in a single octavo volume, in the same year. The action takes place at Paris in 1815-24, during the Napoleonic conspiracies, under Louis XVIII. The Restoration has brought its strong undertow of subdued loyalty for the Corsican – an undertow of plots, among the old soldiers particularly, which for several years were of concern to more than one throne outside of France. The hero of this play becomes involved in one of the conspiracies, and it is only by the public sacrifice of the young girl Pamela’s honor, that he is rescued. Then ensues a clash between policy and duty – a theme so congenial to Balzac, and here handled with characteristic deftness. We notice, also, a distinct improvement in workmanship. Scenes move more easily; dramatic values become coherent; characters stand out from the “chorus” on the stage. Pamela is a flesh-and-blood girl; Jules is real; Joseph is comically individual; Dupré is almost a strong creation, and nearly every one of the other principals is individual.

La Marâtre (The Stepmother) is characterized as an “intimate” drama in five acts and eight tableaux. It was first presented at the Théâtre-Historique, Paris, May 25, 1848. Its publication, by Michel Lévy in the same year, was in brochure form. The time is just a little later than that of Pamela Giraud, and one similar motif is found in the Napoleonic influence still at work for years after Waterloo. Though this influence is apparently far beneath the surface, and does not here manifest itself in open plottings, it is nevertheless vital enough to destroy the happiness of a home – when mixed in the mortar of a woman’s jealousy. The action is confined to a single château in Normandy. A considerable psychological element is introduced. The play is a genuine tragedy, built upon tense, striking lines. It is strong and modern enough to be suitable, with some changes, for our present day stage. The day of the playwright’s immaturity (noticed in the three preceding plays) is past. With this, as with all of Balzac’s work, he improved by slow, laborious plodding, gaining experience from repeated efforts until success was attained.

In his dramas he was not to succeed at the first trial, nor the second, nor the third. But here at the fourth he has nearly grasped the secret of a successful play. While at the fifth – Mercadet – we are quite ready to cry “Bravo!” Who knows, if he had lived longer (these plays were written in the last years of their author’s life), to what dramatic heights Balzac might have attained!

To Mercadet then we turn for the most striking example of the playwright’s powers. This first appeared as Le Faiseur (The Speculator), being originally written in 1838-40. Justice compels us to state, however, that another hand is present in the perfected play. In the original it was a comedy in five acts; but this was revamped and reduced to three acts by M. d’Ennery, before its presentation at the Gymnase Théâtre, August 24, 1851. It was then re-christened Mercadet, and took its place as a 12mo brochure in the “Theatrical Library” in the same year. The original five-act version was first published as Mercadet, in Le Pays, August 28, 1851 (probably called forth by the presentation of the play four days earlier), and then appeared in book form, as Le Faiseur, from the press of Cadot, in 1853. It is of interest to note that the play was not presented till over a year subsequent to Balzac’s death. The presented version in three acts has generally been regarded as the more acceptable, M. de Lovenjoul, the Balzacian commentator, recognizing its superior claims. It is the form now included in current French editions, and the one followed in the present edition.

Although Mercadet, like the others, excited the ridicule of supercilious critics, it has proven superior to them and to time. As early as the year 1869, the Comédie Francaise  -the standard French stage – added Mercadet to its repertory; and more than one company in other theatres have scored success in its representation. The play contains situations full of bubbling humor and biting satire. Its motif is not sentiment. Instead, it inveighs against that spirit of greed and lust for gain which places a money value even upon affection. But during all the arraignment, Balzac, the born speculator, cannot conceal a sympathy for the wily Mercadet while the promoter’s manœuvres to escape his creditors must have been a recollection in part of some of Balzac’s own pathetic struggles. For, like Dumas père, Balzac was never able to square the debit side of his books–be his income never so great. The author of César Birotteau and Le Maison Nucingen here allows one more view of the seamy side of business.

Structurally, too, the play is successful. With so great an element of chance in the schemes of the speculator, it would have been easy to transcend the limits of the probable. But the author is careful to maintain his balances. Situation succeeds plot, and catastrophe situation, until the final moment when the absconding partner actually arrives, to the astonishment of Mercadet more than all the rest. And with Mercadet’s joyful exclamation, “I am a creditor!” the play has reached its logical final curtain.

J. Walker McSpadden

 

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition

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