Navigation – Plan du site

Introduction: Performing, Translating, and Adapting from the French in Victorian Britain

Ignacio Ramos-Gay

Texte intégral

1In an article published in The Theatre on July 1st, 1897, suggestively titled ‘The French Invasion’, British author Edward Morton denounced the relentless importation of French plays and actors, decrying how ‘at half a dozen theatres, English translations, versions or perversions of French plays are now being performed, to say nothing of the French comedians in possession of the Adelphi and the Lyric’. The openly belligerent tone of the article voiced the hostility of opinionated critics who looked upon the incursion with contempt. Such perceptions represented the culmination of sentiments penned decades earlier: in 1859 the dramatist Edward Fitzball protested against the current state of the theatre, for it was ‘nearly all composed of translations’ (I, 1), and Punch honoured its signature style of humour by describing the English dramatist as ‘a French dictionary on legs’ (Rowell 33). As indicated by the French critic Augustin Filon, it was even being rumoured that ‘le directeur du Princess’s tient sous séquestre un malheureux qui traduit pour lui du français sans relâche. On ne desserre sa chaîne et on ne lui donne à manger que quand il a fini sa lugubre tâche’ (41).

2The most recent scholarly approaches to the Victorian theatre have confronted the somewhat detrimental image perpetuated by traditional literary histories, according to which the drama of the period was characterized by a spell of creative dormancy. Indeed, the recommendations made by the 1832 Select Committee to revitalize the British theatre are proof of the period’s own awareness of an impending decline in its drama. However, a number of current analyses have challenged such notions, suggesting instead that far from being eclipsed by the novel, the short story or poetry, Victorian theatre merits a fairer, more objective consideration. Encrypted within its structures and its organic developments lies a scenario that reveals the dynamics of the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, of the underlying entrepreneurship, and of a growing public in search of new dramatic formulas. Dramatic texts absorbed and responded to the issues troubling and attracting the collectivity—as metaphorical thermometers of sorts, they measured the concerns and the spirit of civil masses. As Katherine Newey asserts, ‘the Victorian theatre was innovative, adaptative and, most of all, contemporary’ (126).

3In line with Newey’s observation, we may say that the stigmas on Victorian theatre were the result of the persistence in representing conventional, classical forms such as the five-act tragedy or the three-act high comedy, themselves reminiscent of the palmy days of Jacobean theatre and of eighteenth-century drama. Contributing to such creative barrenness was the willpower to educate and elevate the taste of the public, thus helplessly handcuffing theatre to class-based criteria. The alleged inevitable impoverishment of the genre only made the assimilation of foreign models (namely the French) all the more viable, thus ultimately diluting any semblance of national identity associated to the theatre. It is precisely this necessity to reinstate a collective sense of a national identity within the theatre industry that should serve the current critic as a starting point.

4Traditionally, literary critics have explained the massive importation of French plays and actors in terms of economic and aesthetic dependency. Beyond the wider framework of the protectionism of English theatre, the phenomenon is symptomatic of an age of cultural permeability in which the very public interest in Frenchness should not be undermined. The liberalisation of theatres in 1843 brought forth new productions that answered to the demands of an increasingly heterogeneous audience. New theatres were constructed, and a broader repertoire of genres was offered to spectators flocking to London thanks to improved transportation systems. The art of staging adaptations by Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, Meilhac and Halévy, Émile Augier, Eugène Labiche or Alexandre Dumas fils is not merely an allowance of the British; it is something that is encouraged on account of profitability. According to Dion Boucicault, it is the ‘commercial manager’ who is to blame for the ‘low state of the drama’, as it is he who is responsible for introducing minor genres such as burlesque, opéra bouffe and buffoonery. More importantly, ‘we owe him the deluge of French plays that set in with 1842, and swamped the English drama of that period’ (242). The celerity and expediency with which French plays were produced in Britain certainly contributed to optimizing costs and ensuring financial benefits, and the business epitomized the epoch’s obsessiveness with productivity (Bédarida 254). The investment was certainly worth it; while the expenses for translating and adapting a play were rather modest, the final profit was impressive. Translators and adaptors worked agilely and quickly: W. S. Gilbert claimed to have translated Eugène Labiche’s vaudeville Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (1851) into The Wedding March (1873) in merely two days. Aside from Gilbert, other renowned authors such as Sydney Grundy, Dion Boucicault, James Albery and Tom Taylor put their talents to use and took on the lucrative task of translating and adapting French plays into the English language. Thus in such ways did the imperatives of the laws of supply and demand, along with artistic exigencies, influence an increasingly self-aware cultural industry of the masses. In the words of the actor-manager George Alexander, director of the St. James’s Theatre, ‘there was the magic of the French art […] and it was to be got cheap’ (Mason 5).

5In his study of the four epicentres of theatrical activity (London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna), Christophe Charle characterizes the English capital as the cityscape of ‘show business et l’entertainment, le spectacle de masse dans toutes ses variétés, destiné à plaire, à être rentable’ (247). The reviews published in the press drew more crowds into the city, eager to secure a seat at the latest premieres. Further coetaneous symbols of progress such as the telegraph (and later on the telephone) enabled the immediate printing of news relating to what was being staged, and it also entertained its readership with gossip about the theatre business. The fact that there prospered newspaper columns exclusively dedicated to reporting the premieres taking place in continental Europe, and particularly in Paris, goes to show the extent to which public taste for alternative, extra-British forms of theatre was expanding. Sections such as ‘In Paris’ (The Theatre), ‘The Stage in France’ and ‘French Literature’ (The Saturday Review), ‘Notes from Paris’ (The Athenaeum), ‘The Drama in Paris’ (The Era), ‘Theatre Abroad’ (The Illustrated Review), ‘The Parisian Stage’ and ‘The Paris Theatres’ (Pall Mall Gazette) evince how leading Victorian publications (both of general readership and specialized in the theatre) acknowledged the exclusivity of French cultural life. These sections enthusiastically revealed the details behind the plays being staged and rehearsed in the French capital at the time: from the storylines and the theatres to the actors and impresarios, and from stagecraft to audience response. Sometimes excerpts from the original dialogues in French were put to use as ‘trailers’ or ‘teasers’ advertising a particular play, thus exploring the many possibilities of what in time would be established as the science of publicity through the media. And indeed such publications were instrumental for those British adaptors who could not afford to travel to Paris on a regular basis, and so had to rely on the valuable, printed information to select a play worthy of a producer’s investment. The average London theatre-goer was also thrilled when learning that a play that had not long ago been staged at the Palais Royal was now being performed in his very own city. All in all, the press forged a sense of the Parisian theatrical experience, making the more affordable, English adaptations all the more valuable for both professionals in the field and the lay public.

6Needless to say, estimating the number of plays that were translated, adapted or plagiarised from the French has proven to be an arduous (if not impossible) task. The overwhelming quantity of imported plays is further complicated by the fact that often enough adaptors would attempt to hide the source material and credit their work as original. It is important to understand not only that the hallmark of Frenchness was, as suggested earlier, a guarantee of ticket-sales but also that what defined a piece as ‘adapted’ or ‘original’ was still a very arbitrary and subjective classification. Since 1852, intellectual property laws had protected French authors from having their works translated within a period of five years. Exempt from such legislation were ‘fair imitations or adaptations to the English stage’ (Alexander 226), which were indeed authorised. Yet the lack of concrete provisions specifying what constituted a legitimate, ‘fair’ adaptation warranted multiple interpretations and disparate takes on the issue, ultimately exposing the insubstantiality of the law. For instance, the dramatist and adaptor Tom Taylor attempted to categorise the different types of techniques and approaches to adaptation. In a series of letters published in The Athenaeum between April and May, 1871, he theorised that the subtitle ‘a play’ signified a translation, whereas ‘a new play’ conflated the influence of other source material with the personal touches and vision of the adaptor. Lastly, ‘a new and original play’ indicated that the author was the sole creator and that no other (foreign) material had served as inspiration (Purnell 110-23). Unsurprisingly, adaptors would refrain from submitting to such guidelines, opting instead to almost randomly assigning some sort of subtitle such as ‘an original play’, ‘a new play’, ‘a new and original play’, ‘a translation from’, ‘adapted from’, ‘freely adapted from’ or ‘founded upon’, among others.

7Part of the reason behind the prejudice against British plays dubiously inspired by French works was the widespread notion that all things plundered were but impoverished, adulterated versions of an original ideal. Reproductions through adaptations were synonymous with degeneration, a sentiment that is still greatly shared today in popular culture. Consequent upon such reasoning were the multiple opinions deprecating the ‘cacophonous’ English versions of ‘melodic’ French texts. Henry James himself would refer to the ‘“mysterious” process of adaptation’ thanks to which ‘nine-tenths of the plays performed upon [English theatres] are French originals’. The result was a product that was ‘neither English nor a drama’ (93-94). So commonplace would the intellectual pillage become that quite a considerable number of critics took on the mission of exposing where the true source material was to be found, and ensuring that the public knew this by publishing their discoveries in the press. These ‘plagiarism hunters’ found in publications dedicated to the theatre the adequate means in which to disclose and broadcast their exposés. Much to the dismay of many dramatists, and within the cultural frame of the ‘veneration of originality’ and the ‘denigration of literary resemblance’ (Macfarlane 42) of the mid-nineteenth century, these ‘detectives of the theatre’ would face the difficult task of tracing unacknowledged references, allusions, and appropriations back to their original (foreign) source. Illustrative of the difficulty of the process was an article published in The Graphic on July 12th, 1890, which referred to the quest to identify the original source of C. Vernon’s Sowing and Reaping, featured at the Criterion: ‘a French original of this ingenious and briskly written piece is suspected; but as the critics and literary detectives have, as yet, searched in vain among the productions of Labiche and other acknowledged masters in this field, Mr. C. Vernon, or the playwright who conceals himself under that signature, must needs enjoy the whole credit’. The smug and ironic tones accompanying the revelations were aimed at embarrassing the adaptor for his plagiarism. For example, the reviewer of A Professional Beauty, an English version of Un mari qui lance sa femme, which was staged in the Imperial Theatre in 1880, stated that the author beneath the pseudonym of Vincent Ambrose ‘has forgotten to acknowledge that he is under considerable obligations to M. Eugène Labiche and Raymond Deslandes’ (Daily News, 8 June 1880). Another telling account was the publication of an article entitled ‘English Plagiarisms’ in multiple local periodicals in which a prominent list of plays was included. In this way did many minor critics earn their living, reinventing themselves as ‘guardians’ that ‘patrolled the unstable boundary between legitimate and illegitimate literary resemblance’ (Macfarlane 42).

8The pervasive influence of French theatre in the Victorian era cannot escape the nationalistic prism that affects all cultural products of the period. France represents ‘the other’—it who redirects the gaze towards the very nation of the observer, it who is paradoxically both praised and repudiated. Drenched in ambivalence, the allusions to France on the part of drama critics, Francophiles and Gallophobes all merge into a transcultural dialogue set to explore what to make of ‘the other’. And, as ‘otherness’ so often leads to, mechanisms are fortified through which those seek to cohesively consolidate a sense of national sentiment (in our case, within the theatre). In her comprehensive analysis of the emergence of a national, British identity, Linda Colley argues that ‘Britishness’ is a cultural construct developed through the ensuing warfare with France since the 17th century. ‘It was an invention forged above all by war. Time and time again, war with France brought Britons . . . into confrontation with an obviously hostile Other and encouraged them to define themselves collectively against it’ (5). The seepage of French texts and actors would often enough be conceived as an updated, re-contextualisation of the Napoleonic wars within the aesthetic terrain of the theatre. Their presence forces a search for the quintessentially English in the art of Thalia, a quest that goes hand in hand with the assimilation of a collective sense of national identity in direct opposition to that represented by ‘the other’ (Ramos-Gay 10-11).

9Following this train of thought, French theatre emerges as a plasticised cultural construct that has a precise function in the reactionary, British imagination. ‘The notion of “French” drama helped critics define an “English” dramatic domain and police its borders’, explains John Bishop, ‘highlighting at once the virtues and deficiencies of domestic genius’ (5). Perhaps the most blatant result of ‘othering’ France is the stain of immorality (Eltis 2013), recurrently epitomised by the oft-used stereotype of marital unfaithfulness. The association between Frenchness and moral corruption inevitably made its way into the theatre, infesting the discourse of both the defenders and the detractors of French drama. Exposing the inequality between English social classes, West End audiences proved to be the more tolerant spectators, as opposed to the conservative stance of the East End (Booth 163). George Bernard Shaw’s accusation that the Examiner of Plays, E. F. S. Pigott had ‘French immorality on the brain’ (I, 49) illustrated the extent to which such obsessions were shared by those implicated in productions and by a considerable amount of theatre-goers. Antinomies as these not only glorified the English national theatre for its allegedly exemplary morality; they furthermore operated upon syllogisms that combined aesthetic and moral criteria, thus solidifying the exclusiveness of Englishness. As Bishop has ascertained, ‘weak structure marked a piece as English, while Englishness in turn ensured moral purpose and “feeling for humanity”’ (11).

10The reprehension of adaptations of French texts went hand in hand with the widespread animadversion against French actors. Their influential presence in Britain has been duly depicted since practically the Medieval Period (Lawrence, 1909; Avery, 1937). Within the nineteenth-century context, the situation of French actors paralleled that of the plays, and accusations of their lurking immorality were closely associated to their image as intruders threatening to pervert the national theatre. Perhaps the most memorable instance of the rivalry between both countries is the affair that took place in London concerning the Théâtre Historique company in 1848. The so-called ‘Monte Cristo riots’ (in allusion to the theatre adaptation of the novel by Dumas that the company was set to perform) evinced the hostility against French actors when, within the walls of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, they were booed and insulted by an enraged audience. Tensions soon escalated into tussles, shoves and the energetic throwing of objects onto the stage. The protest both coincided and was conceptually blurred with the chartist protests (Emeljanov, 2003): if indeed the national theatre was in a state of decline—as Tracy Davis states, Drury Lane ‘was no longer a home of the national dramatic repertoire, yet symbolically represented its lack’ (57)—it made sense to naturalise the grievances of the working class as a related problem. The French company practised the free movement of labour, an exercise that jeopardised the work of British professionals who advocated the protection of their theatre. ‘Fair trade was linked to nationalism […] justifying invocations of the national interest on linguistic grounds in a traditional temple of native prerogative’ (57), Davis elucidates. The French intrusion must therefore be approached not only as an aesthetic, but as a commercial circumstance as well that was bound to raise anxieties regarding the safekeeping of national identity. ‘The seedy, ill-informed, and half-educated actor of those days growled about the foreigner as coming over here to “take the bread out of the mouth of the poor actor”’, Clement Scott explains, ‘and free trade was “scouted as heresy’” (5).

11Scott goes on to describe how French players were ‘tolerated in a hole-and-corner way’ (140), a perfect demonstration of the so-called ‘French seasons’. The proliferation of seasons during which the leading London theatres staged French plays performed by French actors in their native language before an essentially upper-class, Anglophone audience, attests to the reverence that many in the business felt towards the artistry and expertise of French actors. Hustled by a rapidly growing circle of theatre producers specialised in the ‘importation’ of foreign comedians and by a public anxious to attend an original French play (whether on account of their familiarisation with the narrative on which it was based or with the English adaptation), performers and companies continued to flock to England throughout the Victorian era. So pervasive was their presence that eventually many theatres came to specialise in the staging of plays in French: the St. James’s Theatre, under the direction of John Mitchell since 1842, would reinvent itself as ‘The French Theatre à King Street’, in which actresses such as Rachel, Déjazet, Vestris, Doche and Rose Chéri, and actors such as Perlet, Bouffé and Lemaître, exhibited their talents. The Royalty Theatre, the Holborn, the Gaiety, the Princess’s and occasionally the New Club Theatre and the Opéra Comique Theatre would, as indicated earlier, also succumb to the ‘French seasons’. These commercial cycles became the perfect platform for a number of French actors to acquire popularity, and their success was met with hefty salaries. French permanent residents in the capital certainly contributed to their prosperity, applauding the manifestation of that part of their collective identity that they had attempted to preserve through organisations such as the French National Society (an endeavour also undertaken in other cities, as evidenced by the establishment of the French Literary Club in Glasgow). Connotations associated with class also played a decisive role: the attendance of royalty, in the figure of Queen Victoria, would legitimise theatrical representations, construing them as fashionable expressions of the respectable classes who were assumed to be the perfect recipients of such high tastes. The ‘French seasons’ complied with the spectator’s desire for a taste of true, untainted French culture. After all, and in the words of Scottish critic William Archer, France embodied ‘the fountainhead of the world’s drama’ (2).

12John Stokes’s The French Actress and Her English Audience (2006) is in all likelihood the most comprehensive study on the topic of French players in Britain to date. Stokes focuses primarily on Mademoiselle Mars, Rachel, Déjazet, Madame Plessy, Aimée Desclée, Réjane, Edwige Feuillière and Bernhardt, all of whom are central to the forging of the ‘myth of a golden age of acting’ (5). Undoubtedly it is Sarah Bernhardt who has been lauded as the greatest of the muses, inspiring many scholarly approaches, amongst which Elaine Aston’s study of her ventures in England (1989) is worthy of mention. Bernhardt’s idiosyncrasies as an actress and as a public persona represent the apogee of the woman upon the Victorian stage, while also consecrating the ‘star system’ that would become part and parcel of the (global) entertainment industry. The French critic Francisque Sarcey expressed the enthusiasm and excitement that a London premiere of the actress stirred in the public, hinting at an obsessiveness behind the veneration for the nineteenth-century celebrity:

Rien ne peut donner une idée de l’engouement qu’excite Mlle Sarah Bernhardt. C’est de la folie. Lorsqu’elle va paraître, c’est un frémissement dans tout l’auditoire […] on écoute avec une extraordinaire attention, le corps penché en avant, la lorgnette vissée aux yeux ; on n’en veut pas perdre une note; on éclate en applaudissements furieux quand elle a fini. (366)

13Thus, the ambivalence with which French plays were received in Britain also affected the reception of French actors. Far from being exclusively regarded as invaders by their English counterparts, they presented the opportunity to mutually learn techniques, strategies and approaches to their craft. This transcultural enrichment of the art of acting was best summarized by Matthew Arnold in his article ‘The French Play in London’, published in The Nineteenth Century on August 6th, 1879, which has inspired the title of this special issue. His war cry ‘Organise the theatre!’ (85) stood as a call for an intervention of the state in the management of a national theatre. The idea was modelled on the Comédie-Française, whose troupe had visited London that same year, and through his words Arnold professed the admiration that English actors felt towards their colleagues on the other side of the Channel. Indeed, the memoirs of actors such as the Bancrofts (1891, 1911) or the Kendals (1890) illustrate the impression that French performers made within actors’ circles, a process of apprenticeship that not infrequently culminated in friendship.

14It is through the lens of these historical and aesthetic factors that the present issue attempts to revisit the influence of French plays and actors on British theatre in the last third of the nineteenth century. The aim of this special issue of Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens is to venture a reinterpretation of the phenomenon as the key momentum of cultural imperialism that it represented, through a conception of the influence of French theatre as a fascinating, regenerative power for the English. In vindicating the essential role that French theatre had in articulating Englishness within the theatre and within the social spectrum at large, activities such as plagiarism and adaptation are regarded as mechanisms enabling commercial, communicative and creative interaction (Johns 5), while the actors travelling to Britain emerge as bearers of aesthetic transnationality. In short, all agents involved in one way or another in the theatre industry—impresarios, actors, playwrights, adaptors, audiences, institutions, editors, etc.—play a role in the undeniable ‘supremacy’ of French culture (Yon 8).

15The research undertaken by the different authors stems from a research project financed by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, titled ‘The French Theatre in Great Britain (1843-1914): Adaptation, the Theatre Industry and Cultural Imperialism’ (Ref. FFI2013-47961-R). Some of the articles comprising the issue undertake a comparative approach to analysing the original plays and their English adaptations, while others examine the imprint of the signature style of French acting. In both cases, issues of authorship and authenticity remain capital matters through which to address and challenge the notions of originality and artistic quality that are indispensable for a full comprehension of the cultural rivalry between both nations.

16The first six articles revolve around the translation and adaptation of French plays into English, reconstructing the path from the theatres in which they first came into being to the London stages that swallowed them deep into Victorian culture. The variety of genres, authors and epochs that were borrowed and recycled for English spectators attests to the endeavour to explore every inch of French theatrical heritage. Whether it was Molière’s Dom Juan or the dramas of Adolphe Bélot, the vaudevilles of Georges Feydeau, the melodramas of Pixérécourt, or the didactic plays of Madame de Genlis, English adaptors reached into the hearts of the French productions, ultimately lending weight to Linda Hutcheon’s claim that ‘the Victorians had the habit of adapting just about everything—and in just about every possible way’ (xi).

17Rocío Sumillera delineates the geographic and timeless journey of Tirso de Molina’s mythical archetype, Don Juan, from the Spanish play El burlador de Sevilla o El convidado de piedra (1630) up to the nineteenth-century London stage. The figure of Don Juan sojourned on French soil in the versions envisioned by Claude La Rose, Sieur de Rosimond, Dorimon, Villiers and Molière, thence travelling across the Channel to rise in The Libertine by Thomas Shadwell, performed in Dorset Garden in 1675. Immersed in literary archaeology, Sumillera exhumes the many faces of the mythical figure in nineteenth-century France and Britain (the appendixes will, in fact, prove of great value to theatre historians) and demonstrates the gradual disappearance of the classic, tragic undertones in favour of a levity more attuned to vaudevilles, ballet-pantomimes, burlesques and revues than complying to the demands of a different type of audience in the industry.

18Ana Fernández-Caparrós follows a similar path, this time focusing on the cycle of French history plays by the dramatist and Member of Parliament Edward Bulwer-Lytton. She traces the significance of works such as The Duchess de la Vallière (1837), The Lady of Lyons, or Love and Pride (1838), and Richelieu, or The Conspiracy (1839), with a particular interest in the last two works, given the lack of scholarly and critical response they have so far excited. Fernández-Caparrós contends that Bulwer-Lytton rewrote several episodes of French cultural history using Madame de Genlis’s writings as his fundamental source, and with the aim of moulding an image of France as an exotic geography permeated by the type of modernity and liberty that the dramatist sought to implement in Britain. Rather than reductively dismiss the process as mere rewriting, Fernández-Caparrós reconstructs Bulwer-Lytton’s work as struggle to articulate an ideal of freedom. In his plays, France comes to embody a fascinating sort of otherness, a cultural model that assimilates the unification of politics and romance, to the point that romantic love is revealed as the one true power to render equality possible, the one true force that channels the political vindications of a growing middle class.

19And it is precisely the literary work of Madame de Genlis that cohesively brings this issue’s theme to the research by Juan Ibeas on her pedagogical treatises and plays. Madame de Genlis attracted the interest of renowned writers and adaptors in the line of W. S. Gilbert, and her authority as an influential figure was sanctioned by the young Queen Victoria’s attendance at productions of her plays. This seemingly merely anecdotal detail goes to show the extent to which Madame de Genlis’s values and those emblematised by British royalty were one and the same. Ibeas portrays the French author as an ambassadress of old France, so historically distant and safe from revolutionary excesses. Ever moderate in her tone and her storylines, her Anglophilia befitted the coming together of the two nations. Unsurprisingly, Victorian adaptors regarded her craft as the expression of Enlightenment ideals tempered by morality. Hers was a tamed France, of which she gracefully surrendered the memory to the British.

20The next three articles by Cooper, Heyraud and Alonso offer telling insights into the textual transitions and transformations carried out in the process of adapting French plays into English. In not a few cases have critics pointed to what they perceive to have been a degenerative distortion of the original French pieces when in the hands of English adaptors. Rather than substantiate such a claim, these articles undertake a comparative and analytical approach to the textual metamorphosis to challenge those sceptical assumptions. The three pieces come together in their vindication of the element of originality inherent to the adaptation process; they examine how textual intricacies are merely symptomatic of a wider, cultural reinvention that must attend, reproduce and respond to the political and moral values of the society it seeks to address.

21Barbara Cooper finds in the adaptation of Adolphe Bélot’s L’article 47 (1871), a play based on a homonymous ‘roman judiciaire’ by the same author, the starting point from which to explore the problematics of authorship in (English) adaptations, and the concomitant complexities of publishing and performing rights. She then turns to contrasting the original French text with the manuscript kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection of Plays. Cooper’s probing of the thematic and structural variants serves as evidence of the overall argument: that adaptive changes and choices answer to more universal concerns such as class and racial prejudice, concerns that trouble the Victorian mindset. The exercise of rewriting does not only present the adaptation process as one involving creativity and efficiency; it also measures and calibrates the taste of the audience, who are the ones that offer a final verdict on the quality of the product, regardless of literary criteria.

22Violaine Heyraud, meanwhile, explores the transposition of Georges Feydeau’s vaudevilles onto the English stage. Her extensive reading of the press of the time helps in identifying the English adaptations (whose titles often differ considerably from the original French ones), and her examination of the manuscripts held in the British Library leads her to conclusive observations on the changes made to the original French text. Whether such changes were rooted in an exercise of self-censorship on the part of the adaptors or were the result of ‘the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil’, what is evident is that the stigma of morality was to plague an author whose work oscillated between the themes of (inhibited) temptation and adultery. Nonetheless, and despite the purging efforts in the adaptations of Fred Horner, William Lestocq or Justin Huntley, the theatrical press took the liberty of commenting on (and in a way reinstating) the original meanings. In this manner, the adaptation process exhibits its most formidable powers to distort, mangle and obliterate any hint of immorality susceptible of perverting or offending normative society. Yet the plays’ success certainly attests, at the same time, to the public’s appreciation of the vertiginous rhythm, the vivacity and the technical expertise that enlivened the performances.

23Offering an alternative viewpoint on adaptation in the nineteenth century, Claudia Alonso puts the field of critical animal studies to use by analysing the figure of the dog in the adaptations of Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s celebrated canine melodrama, Le chien de Montargis, ou La forêt de Bondy (first staged in Paris in 1814). Alonso uses three English adaptations of the text to expand the discussion into the wider spectrum of the growing sensibilities towards nonhuman others (and the domestic dog in particular) that Victorian culture was experiencing. Through the revitalisation of the role of Dragon, the dog, the adaptations not only paradoxically invest the character with the heroic attributes that he had displayed in the original, medieval French legend (on which Pixérécourt based his play); they also lead to nineteenth-century Britain’s reconnaissance of what to make of the dog in an increasingly urbanised, industrialised and class-conscious societal space.

24All in all, the opening section of the issue strives to show how, despite the hostility of a considerable number of critics and theatre professionals towards the inclusion of French farces and melodramas in British entertainment (the term ‘Sardoodledom’, coined by Shaw, in fact pejoratively alludes to the fad of ‘pièces bien-faites’ in the line of Victorien Sardou, in which the lack of verisimilitude is clumsily disguised within a chain reaction of situations), the art of adaptation merits the appointment of ‘originality’. Feydeau, Pixérécourt, Bélot, Madame de Genlis and Molière are just some of the names on a long list of French authors whose work should be elucidated in the light of adaptation studies.

25The second part of this special issue is dedicated to the figure of the French actor and the methods of their craft as visibly seen in their corporeal techniques and audibly discerned in the vocal skills. Beyond their discipline, also of interest is the study of how the travelling companies to which they belonged were organised internally. If in the previous section the discussion centred on the text itself, the remaining articles confront Frenchness as a phenomenon that is literally fleshed out through the actors. In a way, the alluring qualities of the actor reside in the fact that he or she stands as a direct, tangible and consumable symbol of that visionary France, that land that occupies the Victorian imagination, that geography of the exotic, the decadent and the artistically superior—as regards aesthetic personification and the formation of a national theatre—that serves as an inspiration for British professionals.

26And who better to incarnate the amalgamation of both nations than the Franco-British actor Charles Fechter. In her article, Catherine Quirk conceptualizes him as the human materialisation of the ambivalent relation between the two countries. Born in London to an English mother and a French father, Fechter at age twelve moved with his family to France, where he would go on to begin his stage career. His life reflects the difficulty of separating two national forms of understanding art that nonetheless appear irreparably interlocked. To his condition as a Frenchman in Britain he owed much of his popularity, one of his exceptional talents being his oratory and articulateness in English, always embellished with his French accent. Fechter would in fact become the first Frenchman to bring as quintessentially Shakespearean a character as Hamlet to life in English. Perceived by many as an impostor interfering with national tradition, he nonetheless balanced realism and romanticism in his performance of the character in an unprecedented way. It is this methodological crucible that Quirk considers a sign of the English theatre’s stylistic progress towards naturalism in the nineteenth century.

27As discussed earlier, the presence of French companies in Britain was conceived by many in the professional spheres of the theatre as a learning opportunity. In my own study, I review the cultural reception of the Maison de Molière in its three final visits to London (1871, 1879, 1893). I aim to connect the responses from critics, audiences and British actors to give shape to the heated debate caused by the intercultural experience. I argue that the fascination with the Comédie-Française was at heart a class-based phenomenon that sought to transform the ideal of true theatre (associated with the French) into a consumable commodity for an aristocracy that was not necessarily equipped with the perspicacity to appreciate the subtleties of the art form. Still, those who did embrace the Comédie-Française as mentors persisted in their conviction that onstage speech in French enhanced the quality of acting. For many, the fact that the company actors had developed and perfected their technique through a learning process was further proof that acting had to be mediated and managed by an Academy. By regulating techniques through established procedures of training and study, acting would cease to be considered an instinct of a select group of gifted individuals, and would rise instead as a proficiency acquired at a school where the subject could contribute to the ensemble. The Conservatory was the institution that stood at the epicentre of France’s caretaking of its theatres, a model praised by many British circles of the theatre.

28The Comédie-Française took the idea that French was the language par excellence in the theatre and made it a maxim for British professionals. However, as Erin Dunbar shows, French was also the vehicle to which playwrights resorted to avoid censorship and express resistance. The choice of Oscar Wilde’s censured drama Salomé (1893) as subject matter allows Dunbar to describe the connotative and rhetorical powers of the French language, thus re-empowering Wilde’s deliberate compositional strategy. Adding to the sonority, the resonances, the ambiguities, the plays on words and the nuances ingrained deep within an apparent discursive simplicity was the striking visual potency of the text, one which exacerbated the connections between the French soundscapes and the imagery of decadence. In this manner does the French language also come to represent for Victorians the mystery and secrecy of forbidden pleasures—it is the dialect of beauty, of sex, of death. Dunbar contends that the French language is as unacceptably debauched for fin-de-siècle Britain as Salomé itself. Wilde makes voluptuousness and carnality out of the language; and as if delineating the naked body through its voice, he makes a voyeur out of the reader.

29French lends itself to musicality, although some critics such as George Bernard Shaw refused to see the language as anything more than an artifice empty of any political potential. He must have heard little more than a well-orchestrated melody in French opera when, under the nom de plume Corno di Bassetto, he repeatedly decried the works of Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, Léo Delibes, Jules Massenet, Charles Gounod and Georges Bizet. Shaw’s critical writings on opera are examined by Eduardo Valls in the closing essay of this issue. For the Irish playwright, each and every French composer paled in comparison to the paradigmatic, illustrious Richard Wagner. Valls contends that French composers failed to comply with the standards set by Shaw on the consideration of art as a teleological entity aimed at the social affirmation of the individual. For Shaw, all artistic creation had to serve a political end while at the same time translating an organic experience of life.

30The ten articles in this issue do justice to the claim that the transformation and conversion of a piece is not merely ‘a question of translating the text, but of conveying its meaning and adapting it to its new cultural environment to create new meanings’ (Scolnicov 1). The process of transposition—whether textual, corporeal or musical—involves an act of creativity that begets a new, distinctive work whose lineage is both shared and plural. Admittedly, for many in the nineteenth century, the practice was no more than a bothersome mongrelisation that was ‘neither French nor English’ and that ‘tend[ed] to undermine the tidy and polemically useful English-French dichotomy’ (Bishop 14). Notwithstanding this ‘neither-norism’, such hybridity was always subject to the new criteria regarding shifting aesthetic, economic, nationalist and social premises. The French ‘invasion’ of Victorian England resists myopic interpretations that simplify its significance to the theatre, and in fact to seek a conclusive, definitive and global set of unequivocal characteristics would lead us to generalisations that would impoverish half a century of rich cultural ambiguities and ambivalence. The French theatre had no choice but to bear the cross of being regarded by many as poorly written (in literary terms), intrusive (in economic terms), invasive (in political terms) and immoral (in ethical terms). Yet it also confronted its opponents with due resistance, and rose as an emblem of technical expertise, social progress, and economic advancement. In short, it fleshed out modernity. Understandably, its presence was maintained throughout decades, projecting itself well into the twentieth century, at the service of British authors and plays pursuing a regeneration of a national theatre. What better way to demonstrate aesthetic timelessness than to acknowledge the omnipresence of French theatre as a vital, organic force that withstood the rigidity of nationalistic boundaries only to reinvent them? And so a new exegesis of the phenomenon of French plays and actors in London and of their reception—defined by Stokes as one of ‘mutual admiration, mutual envy, mutual disgust’ (1)—must assume the responsibility of understanding the fertility of its subject matter, a site of symbiosis between two nations irremediably fraternised by their art.

Haut de page


Alexander, Isabella. Copyright Law and the Public Interest in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Hart, 2010.

Archer, William. English Dramatists of Today. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle and Revington, 1882.

Arnold, Matthew. ‘The French Play in London’. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed. R. H. Super. Vol. IX. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1973. 64–85.

Aston, Elaine. Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage. Oxford, New York: Berg, 1989.

Avery, Emmett L. ‘Foreign Performers in the London Theaters in the Early Eighteenth Century’. Philological Quarterly, 16 (April 1937): 105–23.

Bancroft, Lady Marie Effie & Sir Squire Bancroft. Mr. And Mrs Bancroft on and off Stage. Written by Themselves. With Portraits. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1891.

Bancroft, Lady Marie Effie & Sir Squire Bancroft. The Bancrofts. Recollections of Sixty Years. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1911.

Bédarida, François. A Social History of England, 1851-1990. London: Routledge, 1991.

Bishop, John. ‘“They manage things better in France”: French Plays and English Critics, 1850-1855’. Nineteenth-Century Theatre 22.1 (Summer 1994): 5–29.

Booth, Michael R. Theatre in the Victorian Age. Cambridge: CUP, 1991.

Boucicault, Dion. ‘The Decline of the drama. An epistle to C*****s R***e From Dion Boucicault’. The North American Review 125 (Sept.-Oct. 1877): 235–45.

Charle, Christophe. Théâtres en capitales: naissance de la société du spectacle. Paris, Berlin, Londres et Vienne (1860-1914). Paris: A. Michel, 2008.

Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837. London: Pimlico, 2003.

Davis, Tracy C. The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Eltis, Sos. Acts of Desire. Women and Sex on Stage 1800-1900. Oxford: OUP, 2013.

Emeljanov, Victor. ‘The Events of June 1848 : the “Monte Cristo” Riots and the Politics of Protest’. New Theatre Quarterly 19.1 (Feb. 2003): 23–32.

Filon, Augustin. Le théâtre anglais. Hier, aujourd’hui, demain. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1896.

Fitzball, Edward. Thrity-Five Years of a Dramatic Author’s Life. Vol. I. London: T. C. Newby, 1859.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

James, Henry. The Scenic Art. Ed. E. Wade. London: Hart-Davis, 1949.

Johns, Adrian. Piracy. The Intellectual Property Wars from Guttenberg to Gates. Chicago & London: The U of Chicago P, 2009.

Kendal, Madge. Dramatic Opinions. Boston: Little Brown, 1890.

Lawrence, W. J. ‘Early French Players in England’. Anglia 32 (1909): 61–89.

Macfarlane, Robert. Original Copy. Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2006.

Mason, Alfred Edward Woodley. Sir George Alexander & the St. James’s Theatre. New York: Blom, 1935.

Morton, Edward. ‘The French Invasion’. The Theatre. 1 July 1897: 27–29.

Newey, Katherine. ‘Theatre’. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture. Ed. Francis O’Gorman. Cambridge: CUP, 2015. 119–33.

Purnell, Thomas. Dramatists of the Present Day, by ‘Q’. Reprinted from The Athenaeum. London: Chapman & Hall, 1871.

Ramos-Gay, Ignacio. ‘A Sensible Country’. Curious About France : Visions littéraires victoriennes. Ed. I. Ramos-Gay. Bern: Peter Lang, 2015. 11–25.

Rowell, George. ‘Sardou on the English Stage’. Theatre Research International 2.1 (Oct. 1976): 33–44.

Sarcey, Francisque. Quarante ans de théâtre. Vol. I. Paris: Bibliothèque des Annales, 1900.

Scolnicov, Hannah. ‘Introduction’. The Play out of Context. Transferring Plays from Culture to Culture. Ed. H. Scolnicov and P. Holland. Cambridge: CUP, 1989. 1–6

Scott, Clement. Thirty Years at the Play and Dramatic Table-Talk. London: Railway and General Automatic Library, 1891.

Shaw, George Bernard. Our Theatres in the Nineties. Vol. I. London: Constable, 1934.

Stokes, John. The French Actress and Her English Audience. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Yon, Jean-Claude. Le théâtre français à l’étranger au XIXe siècle. Histoire d’une suprématie culturelle. Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2008.

‘Drama’. The Daily News 8 June 1880: 3.

English Plagiarisms’. Gravesend and Dartford Reporter. 14 August 1869: 3.

‘English Plagiarisms’. North Devon Gazette. 17 August 1869: 2.

‘English Plagiarisms’. Buxton Advertiser. 14 August 1869: 8.

‘Theatres’. The Graphic. 12 July 1890: 17.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Ignacio Ramos-Gay, « Introduction: Performing, Translating, and Adapting from the French in Victorian Britain », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 22 janvier 2018. URL :

Haut de page


Ignacio Ramos-Gay

University of Valencia

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • OpenEdition Journals