By James Mills
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, France was slowly recovering from its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war (1870) and from the bitter civil strife caused by the conflict between the national government and certain city governments, in particular the Paris Commune (1871). The abdication of Napoleon III and the end of the Second Empire gave birth to the Third Republic with its accompanying instability and uncertainty. Although the construction of the Sacré Coeur cathedral (1876-1910) on the summit of Montmartre in Paris was designed to restore a sense of pride to the nation, the intervening Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), in which blatant anti-semitism reared its ugly head when a Jewish officer was falsely accused of treason and imprisoned, became a cause célèbre that sharply divided France between conservatives and liberals.
The fin de siècle era saw Daudet and the realists and Zola and the naturalists being replaced by the decadent poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and the symbolists, including Mallarmé and Valéry, who revolted against the detailed, scientific approach to literature in favor of the mystical, the subconscious, and the search for absolute truth through symbols of material phenomena. Similarly, the Parnassian poets’ obsession with form and objectivity was giving way to the neoplatonic search for a verity that lay beyond reality (May Daniels, The French Drama of the Unspoken [Edinburgh: University Press, 1953], 17-45).
Meanwhile Edmond Rostand sought to give France a new hero in his Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), and another playwright, Georges Feydeau, endeavored to make France laugh through his vaudevillian farces and, in the process, dominated the genre well into la belle époque of the nascent twentieth century. Yet, as Leonard Pronko has suggested, “lurking beneath the frenetically joyous surface [of Feydeau’s farces] is a vision of the world in explosion,” one which, in fact, anticipated the bloody wars of the twentieth century (Georges Feydeau [New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1975], 5).
Born in Paris on December 8, 1862 (some claim 1863), to Ernest Feydeau, a renowned writer and scholar, and Lodzia Zelewska or Slewska, a Polish woman, Feydeau was rumored to really be the son of the duke of Morney or Napoleon III.
The young man was exposed to the theatre in a city which, at the turn of the century, was the intellectual and artistic capital of the western world. He began by writing drawing room monologues; and after his first work, Through the Window (Par la fenêtre, 1882), written at age twenty, he composed Love and Piano (Amour et piano, 1883) and Gallows-Bird (Gibier de potence, 1883), two single-act plays which received un succès d’estime (praise from critics, but poor sales). His first major theatrical success was a three-act work titled, Ladies’ Dressmaker (Tailleur pour dames, 1886), which he wrote at age twenty-four. This was followed by seven years of failures and only partial successes. Meanwhile, he married the daughter of Carolus-Duran, a well known portrait painter, who was quite rich and who took care of Feydeau’s immediate money problems.
Feydeau stopped writing in 1890 in order to study authors who had succeeded in farce, including Eugène Labiche, Henri Meilhac, and Alfred Hennequin. The result was Champignol in Spite of Himself (Champignol malgré lui, 1892) and Monsieur Has Gone Hunting (Monsieur chasse!, 1892), the first of which became a major success at the Nouveautés after having been rejected by the Palais-Royal. His career continued to blossom as he became the most popular playwright of the boulevard theatre and a great success abroad as well. Sometimes his plays were performed in foreign language translation before they were performed in France. While some consider The Lady from Maxim’s (La Dame de chez Maxim, 1899) to be his greatest success, A Flea in Her Ear (La Puce à l’oreille, 1907) went on to become his most popular play in English-speaking countries.
Feydeau had somewhat of an existentialist view of an absurd universe where men and women confront a hostile world in which the innocent suffer with no hope of comic resolution. His work had an undercurrent of pessimism, with many of the characters bringing suffering upon themselves by their affectation, their over-ambition, and their romantic and idealistic notions (Norman R. Shapiro, “Suffering and Punishment in the Theatre of Georges Feydeau” [The Tulane Review, Sept. 1960], 5:126). Shapiro has suggested that, “the playwright, like a master puppeteer, assumes a god-like role, creating around his helpless characters a universe of seeming absurdity in which their efforts to resist their destiny are frantic but fruitless,” and that Feydeau’s theatre is “eminently cruel,” and his characters “are often the victims of relentless whimsy which delights in recreating, in a comical dramatic fiction, the absurdity and inexplicability of real life (117).
Peter Glenville argues that Feydeau’s plays concentrate on the appetites and follies of the average human being caught in a net devised by his or her own foolishness, that virtue does not triumph, and that the dramatist “is not interested in what people should be, or even, on occasion, aspire to be, but rather with what they almost inevitably, and amusingly, are” (“Feydeau; Father of Pure Farce,” [Theatre Arts, April 1957], 66,86). He also points out that every detail is logical and plausible and engineered by the characters themselves. Richard Hayes contends that “the world of Feydeau is alien to the ethical, romantic [spectator] . . . for it is a world indifferent to sentiment or morality or psychological nuance” (“The Mathematics of Farce,” [Commonweal, May, 10, 1957], 154).
While Feydeau’s basic premise may be founded in reality, the characters and plot are quickly pushed into the realm of the irrational. He was not an experimenter or an innovator, but an exploiter of the farcical possibilities inherent in the dramatic conventions that he adopted (Stuart Baker, (Georges Feydeau and the Aesthetics of Farce [Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981], 108, 25). His characters are ordinary people who are aggressive and, at times, cruel. While his plays are known for their nonsense, fantasy, and bedroom farce, they are also known for their sense of madness and their geometric precision (9). His is a popular theatre that may not always appeal to cultured audiences.
In 1909, Feydeau left his wife, Marianne, to spend the next ten years in the Hôtel Terminus, where he surrounded himself with his paintings, his books, and some 250 perfumes. His later works were better, and often emphasized domestic themes. He divorced his wife in 1916 after an unhappy marriage that is perhaps reflected in his last five short plays (1908 1916) where the wife is a vixen of the sort who persecutes her husband almost to the point of madness (Pronko, 10).
As his work evolved, he continued to adhere strictly to an immaculate construction and geometry and a preoccupation with mechanical form and verbal wit and titillation, a combination that Hayes calls the “mathematics of theater” (154). He likewise moved toward more verisimilitude and a more intense and almost savage comic vision (Baker, 27 28).
Sadness dominated Feydeau’s life. He wanted solitude, but needed company. He also owed millions of francs. His final full-length play, I Don’t Cheat on My Husband (Je ne trompe pas mon mari, 1914), was done in collaboration with René Peter, while another play had to be finished by Yves Mirande, and yet another had its first act written by Sacha Guitry. Feydeau suffered from melancholia and moved to a sanatorium in 1919 to be treated, but remained only partially lucid, dying insane in 1921.
In 1941, his play, Madam’s Late Mother (Feu la mère de madame), entered the repertory of the Comédie-Française, soon to be followed by some of his other plays, thus establishing him as a modern “classic.”
Some have seen in Feydeau a precursor of Dadaism, surrealism, and the absurd. Perhaps Shapiro best sums up his contributions when he speaks of the grandeur that is to be found in Feydeau’s compositions in spite of their levity and seeming triviality, and in his ultimate canonical designation of the dramatist as “the Bach of his genre” (“Forms of Shock Treatment for a World Out of Plumb,” [Times Literary Supplement, June 18, 1971], 689).