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´╗┐Title: Introduction to the Dramas of Balzac
Author: McSpadden, J. Walker (Joseph Walker), 1874-1960, Wilson, Epiphanius, 1845-1916
Language: English
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                          EPIPHANIUS WILSON
                         J. WALKER MCSPADDEN


  Balzac as a Dramatist
  By Epiphanius Wilson

  By J. Walker McSpadden

                        BALZAC AS A DRAMATIST


                          EPIPHANIUS WILSON

Honore de Balzac is known to the world in general as a novel-writer, a
producer of romances, in which begin the reign of realism in French
fiction. His _Comedie Humaine_ is a description of French society, as
it existed from the time of the Revolution to that of the Restoration.
In this series of stories we find the author engaged in analyzing the
manners, motives and external life of the French man and woman in all
grades of society. When we open these volumes, we enter a gallery of
striking and varied pictures, which glow with all the color,
chiaroscuro and life-like detail of a Dutch panel. The power of Balzac
is unique as a descriptive writer; his knowledge of the female heart
is more profound, and covers a far wider range than anything exhibited
by a provincial author, such as Richardson. But he has also the
marvelous faculty of suggesting spiritual facts in the life and
consciousness of his characters, by the picturesque touches with which
he brings before us their external surroundings--the towns, streets
and houses in which they dwell; the furniture, ornaments and
arrangement of their rooms, and the clothes they wear. He depends upon
these details for throwing into relief such a portrait as that of Pons
or Madame Hulot. He himself was individualized by his knobbed cane
abroad, and his Benedictine habit and statuette of Napoleon at home;
but every single one of his creations seems to have in some shape or
other a cane, a robe or a decorative attribute, which distinguishes
each individual, as if by a badge, from every other member of the
company in the Comedy of Life.

The art of characterization exhibited by the author fascinates us; we
gaze and examine as if we were face to face with real personages,
whose passions are laid bare, whose life is traced, whose countenance
is portrayed with miraculousness, distinctness and verisimilitude. All
the phenomena of life in the camp, the court, the boudoir, the low
faubourg, or the country chateau are ranged in order, and catalogued.
This is done with relentless audacity, often with a touch of grotesque
exaggeration, but always with almost wearying minuteness. Sometimes
this great writer finds that a description of actuality fails to give
the true spiritual key to a situation, and he overflows into allegory,
or Swendenborgian mysticism, just as Bastien-Lepage resorts to a
coating of actual gilt, in depicting that radiant light in his Jeanne
d'Arc which flat pigment could not adequately represent.

But this very effort of Balzac to attain realistic characterization
has resulted in producing what the ordinary reader will look upon as a
defect in his stories. When we compared above the stories of this
writer to a painting, we had been as near the truth, if we had likened
them to a reflection or photograph of a scene. For in a painting, the
artist at his own will arranges the light and shade and groups, and
combines according to his own fancy the figures and objects which he
finds in nature. He represents not what is, but what might be, an
actual scene. He aims at a specific effect. To this effect everything
is sacrificed, for his work is a synthesis, not a mere analysis.
Balzac does not aim at an effect, above and independent of his
analysis. His sole effort is to emphasize the facts which his analysis
brings to light, and when he has succeeded in this, the sole end he
aims at is attained. Thus action is less important in his estimation
than impression. His stories are therefore often quite unsymmetrical,
even anecdotic, in construction; some of them are mere episodes, in
which the action is irrelevant, and sometimes he boldly ends an
elaborate romance without any dramatic denouement at all. We believe
that Honore de Balzac was the first of European writers to inaugurate
the novel without denouement, and to give the world examples of the
literary torso whose beauty and charm consist not in its completeness,
but in the vigor and life-like animation of the lines, features, and
contours of a detached trunk.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when we come to study the dramas
of Balzac we find that the very qualities that give effectiveness to a
stage representation are wanting in them. For the qualities which make
a realistic tale impressive render a play intolerable. Thus Balzac's
stage pieces are interesting, exciting and vivid in many passages, but
they cannot stand the searching glare of the footlights. Balzac, in
the first place, looked upon the drama as a department of literature
inferior to that of romance, and somewhat cavalierly condescended to
the stage without reckoning on either its possibilities or its
limitations. He did not take to play-writing because he had exhausted
his vein of fiction, but because he was in need of money. This was
during the last years of his life. In this period he wrote the five
plays which are included in the authorized edition of his works.

Balzac's first play was _Vautrin_, and Vautrin appears as the name of
the most astonishing and most original character which Balzac has
created and introduced in the five or six greatest novels of the
Comedy. So transcendent, super-human and satanic is Vautrin, Herrera,
or Jacques Collin, as he is indifferently called, that a French critic
has interpreted this personage as a mere allegorical embodiment of the
seductions of Parisian life, as they exist side by side with the
potency and resourcefulness of crime in the French metropolis.

Vautrin is described in the _Comedie Humaine_ as the tempter and
benefactor of Lucien de Rubempre, whom he loves with an intense
devotion, and would exploit as a power and influence in the social,
literary and political world. The deep-dyed criminal seems to live a
life of pleasure, fashion and social rank in the person of this
protege. The abnormal, and in some degree quixotic, nature of this
attachment is a purely Balzacian conception, and the contradictions
involved in this character, with all the intellectual and physical
endowments which pertain to it, are sometimes such as to bring the
sublime in perilous proximity to the ridiculous. How such a fantastic
creation can be so treated as to do less violence to the laws of
artistic harmony and reserve may be seen in Hugo's Valjean, which was
undoubtedly suggested by Balzac's Vautrin. In the play of _Vautrin_,
the main character, instead of appearing sublime, becomes absurd, and
the action is utterly destitute of that plausibility and coherence
which should make the most improbable incidents of a play hang
together with logical sequence.

Balzac in the _Resources of Quinola_ merely reproduces David Sechard,
though he places him in the reign of Philip the Second of Spain. He
went far out of his way to make Fontanares the first inventor of the
steamboat; the improbability of such a supposition quite forfeits the
interest of the spectators and, in attempting to effect a love
denouement, he disgusts us by uniting the noble discoverer with the
vile Faustine. Even the element of humor is wanting in his portrayal
of Quinola--who is a combination of the slave in a Latin comedy and
the fool, or Touchstone of Shakespeare. This play is, however,
ingenious, powerful and interesting in many passages.

_Pamela Giraud_ is fantastic and painful in its plot. Balzac's ideal
woman, the Pauline of the _Peau de Chagrin_, is here placed in a
situation revolting even to a Parisian audience; but the selfish
worldliness of the rich and noble is contrasted with the pure
disinterestedness of a poor working girl in all of Balzac's strongest,
most searching style. The denouement is well brought about and
satisfactory, but scarcely atones for the outrageous nature of the
principal situation.

Balzac was especially a novelist of his own period, and the life of
his romances is the life he saw going on around him. The principal
character in _The Stepmother_ is a Napoleonist general typical of many
who must have lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. The
ruling passion of General de Grandchamp is hatred for those who
deserted the cause or forsook the standard of the First Consul. This
antipathy is exaggerated by Balzac into murderous hatred, and is the
indirect cause of death to the General's daughter, Pauline, and her
lover, the son of a soldier of the First Empire, who, by deserting
Napoleon, had fallen under the Comte de Grandchamp's ban. The
situation is, however, complicated by the guilty passion which
Gertrude, the stepmother of Pauline and wife of the General's old age,
feels for the lover of Pauline. The main interest of the drama lies in
the struggle between these two women, every detail of which is
elaborated with true Balzacian gusto and insight. We expect to see
virtue triumphant, and Pauline united to the excellent Ferdinand. When
they both die of poison, and Gertrude becomes repentant, we feel that
the denouement is not satisfactory. The jealousy of the woman and the
hatred of the man have not blended properly.

But there can be no doubt at all that if Balzac had lived, he might
have turned out a successful playwright. When he began his career as a
dramatic writer he was like a musician taking up an unfamiliar
instrument, an organist who was trying the violin, or a painter
working in an unknown medium. His last written play was his best.
Fortunately, the plot did not deal with any of those desperate love
passions which Balzac in his novels has analyzed and described with
such relentless and even brutal frankness. It is filled throughout
with a genial humanity, as bright and as expressive as that which
fills the atmosphere of _She Stoops to Conquer_ or _A School for
Scandal_. The characters are neither demons, like Cousin Betty, nor
reckless debauchees, like Gertrude in _The Stepmother_. The whole
motif is comic. Moliere himself might have lent a touch of his refined
and fragrant wit to the composition; and the situation is one which
the author could realize from experience, but had only learned to
regard from a humorous standpoint in the ripeness of his premature old
age. Balzac makes money rule in his stories, as the most potent factor
of social life. He describes poverty as the supreme evil, and wealth
as the object of universal aspiration. In line with this attitude
comes _Mercadet_ with his trials and schemes. Scenes of ridiculous
surprises succeed each other till by the return of the absconder with
a large fortune, the greedy, usurious creditors are at last paid in
full, and poetic justice is satisfied by the marriage of Julie to the
poor man of her choice.




                         J. WALKER MCSPADDEN

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 _Theatre_ comprises five plays
--_Vautrin_, _Les Ressources de Quinola_, _Pamela Giraud_, _La Maratre_,
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
_Comedie 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 _Premiere Edition_ of the _Theatre 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 Maratre_. 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 _Theatre 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 _Comedie Humaine_ who have
dreaded and half-admired the redoubtable law-breaker, who makes his
initial entrance in _Le Pere Goriot_ and plays so important a part in
_Illusions Perdues_, and _Splendeurs et Miseres 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
Rubempre in _Illusions Perdues_, and attempted to aid Rastignac in _Le
Pere Goriot_--and devotes all his sinister craft to his protege'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 _Pere 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 _Comedie_, 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 Theatre de l'Odeon, 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

_Pamela Giraud_, a drama in five acts, was first presented in the
Gaite Theatre, 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; Dupre is almost a strong creation, and nearly every one of
the other principals is individual.

_La Maratre_ (The Stepmother) is characterized as an "intimate" drama
in five acts and eight tableaux. It was first presented at the
Theatre-Historique, Paris, May 25, 1848. Its publication, by Michel
Levy 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 chateau 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 Theatre, 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 Comedie 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 manoeuvres to escape his creditors must have been a
recollection in part of some of Balzac's own pathetic struggles. For,
like Dumas pere, Balzac was never able to square the debit side of his
books--be his income never so great. The author of _Cesar 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.


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