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Translating French Drama for English Audiences: Adolphe Belot’s L’Article 47

Traduire du théâtre français pour un auditoire anglais : L’Article 47 de Belot sur la scène londonienne
Barbara T. Cooper


« L’extraordinaire pagaille que deux auteurs anglais expérimentés, tels que MM. [William Gorman] Wills et Frank Marshall, ont provoqué en transformant le titre de la pièce de M. [Adolphe] Belot, L’Article 47, en Cora, actuellement jouée au Globe, est une claire démonstration, s’il en est, que le système d’emprunt de la scène française de la part des directeurs de théâtre anglais est une mauvaise politique ». C’est ce qu’exprime la phrase d’ouverture d’une analyse anonyme publiée dans The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art (3 mars 1877). Invoquée par une femme de couleur américaine abandonnée par son amoureux français qui avait promis de l’épouser dès leur arrivée en France, la loi française qui donne son titre à la pièce d’origine sert à compliquer une histoire de passions et de châtiments qui se déroule sur une période de plusieurs années. Comment Cora, dont les codes juridiques et dramatiques français se distinguaient ou étaient même parfois en contradiction avec leurs propres attentes et standards nationaux, fut-elle reçue par les critiques et auditoires anglais ? Que pouvons-nous apprendre, le cas échéant, sur la culture anglaise et les stéréotypes raciaux à partir de l’analyse de cette pièce qui fit sensation ? Voici quelques-unes des questions auxquelles cette étude s’efforcera de répondre.

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  • 1 See Belot’s Le Drame de la rue de la Paix as both novel and play. See, too, the articles on ‘The “j (...)
  • 2L’Article 47, qui avait grandement réussi dans le feuilleton du Peuple français, s’est fait chaleu (...)

1In 1870, Adolphe Belot’s L’Article 47—a novel written to denounce the French law requiring convicted criminals to reside in specified locales upon their release from prison—was published in book form after having appeared in serial instalments in the newspaper Le Peuple français. Belot then set about transforming his roman judiciaire into a play.1 The resulting drama premiered to wide acclaim in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique on 20 October 1871.2 Within a week, correspondents for the London press were telling their readers about the new production garnering praise in the French capital:

. . . The story in its dramatic shape is as follows. Georges Duhamel has, in a moment of rage caused by the infidelities of his mistress, discharged at her a pistol, the result of which has been to spoil for life her attractions [i.e., her beautiful face]. Cora, who is a vain woman and a Creole, swears a deadly vengeance against the man who has ruined her future. She accuses him of robbery, as well as an attempted assassination.  . . . Georges is acquitted of theft, but sentenced for the assault to five years in the galleys. At his return, the wrath of Cora is still unslaked. When Georges accordingly marries a young girl who loves him, the ex-mistress appears on the scene and compels him, under threat of revealing the past, to desert his domestic hearth and spend all his evenings in her salons. The jealousy of the wife is aroused, and she detects her husband in the house of Cora. Pushed beyond what he can endure, Georges confesses the whole truth, and obtains his wife’s forgiveness. One only means of punishment remains available to Cora. After failing to set Article 47 in operation against Georges, Cora goes mad, leaving the reunited lovers to enjoy hymeneal felicity. Mlle. Rousseil played the part of Cora with great power, obtaining through it one of those triumphs in which an actress springs to the top of her profession. Especially fine was the scene in which she struggled against and finally succumbed to the attack of madness. (The Athenaeum, 28 Oct. 1871: 569)

  • 3 Richon also submitted his translation to the Lord Chamberlain, no doubt in anticipation of an event (...)

2By December 1871, Victor Richon, an Edinburgh-based French tutor, had produced a nearly exact English translation of Belot’s play under the title The Article 47 of the French Criminal Code for the Contemporary French Drama collection, which he edited. Having registered both the original piece and his translation at Stationers’ Hall,3 Richon claimed exclusive copyright to Belot’s play ‘throughout the whole of the United Kingdom’, whether it be performed in French or in English (n. p.). Nonetheless, just one year later, a notice published in The Era informed readers of that periodical that the actress

Miss Lucy Rushton is prepared to arrange with managers for the production of the great drama, Cora, the Creole, adapted from L’Article 47. The drama has been entirely rewritten and adapted for the stage expressly for her, and managers are hereby cautioned against allowing the above title to be used or the effects therein, which have been duly copyrighted at Stationers’ Hall (The Era, 3 Nov. 1872: 1).

A week later, the same paper announced that the actor

  • 4 For background on Wills as a dramatist see Stottlar, Bradley, and F. Wills.

Mr. Hermann Vezin, having purchased the entire printing, publishing and acting copyright in Great Britain of Adolphe Belot’s French drama L’Article 47, managers and others are cautioned against producing any translation, adaptation or colourable imitation of the same.
The play has been entirely rewritten and adapted for the English stage by W. G. Wills, author of
The Man o’ Airlie, Medea, Charles the First, &c., &c. (The Era, 10 Nov. 1872: 9)4

3This was followed, in the same issue of The Era, by a warning from Vezin’s solicitors that they would take legal action against any performance of Belot’s play not authorized by their client.

  • 5 This list of cities may be incomplete. See The Era, 8 Mar. 1874: ‘From time to time the Theatre Roy (...)

4Following the submission of Wills’s reworking of L’Article 47 to the Lord Chamberlain’s office in February 1874, Vezin and his wife toured Cora, or Love and Passion, as the piece was retitled, from March to September 1874. Their travels took them to Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sunderland and Brighton, as well as to Dublin and Glasgow.5 Meanwhile, in June 1874, a troupe of actors from Paris performed Belot’s original play in French at London’s Princess’s Theatre with Mme Pasca in the role of Cora. Three years later, from late February through April 1877, the Vezins presented Cora, as further revised by Wills with the assistance of Frank Marshall, at the Globe Theatre in London.

5How was the adaptation of Belot’s play received by theatre audiences in Britain in the 1870s, and what might that (now forgotten) drama tell us about the relationship between French and English theatre in the Victorian era? Elements of an answer to these questions can perhaps be found in an Article entitled ‘From the French’, which appeared in the 17 April 1875 issue of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. That Article begins with the observation that,

It seems strange that in England, the country of the greatest dramatist that ever lived, the transferring of foreign plays to the national stage should be so entirely a matter of course that the mention of an adaptation from the French should at once suggest the adaptation of a drama; that while our novels, our poetry, our political and scientific works are nearly all original . . . our plays should (during the last thirty years, at all events) in so immense a percentage of cases owe their origin to Parisian authors.

[...W]e . . . have reproduced on the London stage almost every successful Parisian play not too entirely opposed to English tastes. But this entire opposition in our national likings is so frequent that it makes the task of selecting for translation and of afterwards modifying or adapting French plays—comic, melodramatic, or extravagant—extremely difficult and risky. The taste of the classes which in England frequent the theatre is, perhaps, somewhat namby-pamby, over-prudish in some ways (though lax enough in others), and impatient of anything approaching abstract thought or theoretical discussions altogether . . . ; while the French palate is thoroughly vitiated . . . , loving to sup full of horrors, and with a curious liking for the most substantive immorality, garnished and wreathed with long abstract disquisitions on right and wrong, freedom and law, and with metaphysic subtleties equally showy, daring, and poor. These differences, with the many points of utter opposition in our manners and morals, make adaptation from the French by no means the easy larceny many think it. (63)

  • 6 J. Kenney’s adaptation of Hugo’s play, however, was performed at the Drury Lane Theatre on 8 Apr. 1 (...)
  • 7 For a journalist writing in The Graphic, 29 Aug. 1874: 211 the psychological studies found in conte (...)

6The author of the Article then goes on to describe what he sees as three types of French dramas. First, there are works like Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830), which, the writer contends, ‘cannot be adapted in any way whatever for the English stage: [it] entirely oversteps the border-line between those dramas whose power atones for their repulsive subjects and those altogether too barbarous for British tastes.’6 A second class of dramas identified by the journalist is comprised of works like Tom Taylor’s Ticket-of-Leave Man (1863)—a play adapted from Brisebarre and Nus’s Léonard (1862). Such works, he claims, ‘can be made to seem like pictures of our own life rather than sketches from abroad.’ This class also includes historical and other dramas ‘ . . . whose broad and simple outlines belong to no age nor country, and may be filled in with ideas and diction in accordance with any.’ The third category defined by the essayist is composed of works that are ‘ . . . thoroughly French, but have enough power, enough which appeals to the sympathies common to all men, to make them acceptable, if their points of difference are excused by the presentation of the characters as avowed French men and women, and the omission of any too unmistakable words and deeds[.]’ That said, the journalist insists, ‘Where a mainstay of the plot is some incident or character entirely unfamiliar to us, the failure of the whole play is almost inevitable’ (all quotes, Ibid.).7 To understand which of these categories might best describe Cora, we must first examine the text as Wills rewrote it for a British audience.

Taking Liberties with Belot’s Play

  • 8 I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Roberta Barker who located and photographed thi (...)
  • 9 See, too, the announcement of Cora’s premiere in Sunderland published in Shields Gazette, 8 Sept. 1 (...)

7Despite the relative success of Belot’s L’Article 47 on the London and provincial stage, neither W. G. Wills’s nor Wills and Marshall’s adaptation of that drama was ever published. A draft manuscript copy of Wills’s 1874 text can, however, be found in the Lord Chamberlain’s files in the British Library8. Reviews of the play and other traces of its performance supplement and contextualize the information contained in the manuscript and provide additional clues to the ways in which the original French play had been modified to appeal to British theatregoers. For example, a review of Cora, or Love and Passion printed in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 3 March 1874 states that, ‘In order to condense the interest and otherwise adapt the play to the English stage, considerable liberty has been taken with the original text by Mr. Wills. The trial scene [with which Belot’s drama opened] is omitted altogether, and the action of the drama brought thereby closer together. The opening scene is on board the ship Zurich, from New Orleans to Havre’ (5).9

8A journalist writing in the Birmingham Daily Post on 8 May 1874 noted that,

although the drama is intensely French, there is no touch of immorality about it, not a word or a scene which can shock the most sensitive; and, as a dramatic work, powerful, pathetic, intense, well conceived, and well developed, played with fire, and force, and finish, Cora deserves to draw crowded houses every night, as it has already done wherever it has been played. (8)

9A review of the play in the Manchester Weekly Times (13 June 1874) offers a somewhat more detailed account of its transformation. According to the critic,

The primary object of the translated and rehabilitated French play, which has been rendered into English under the title of Cora; or Love and Passion, may have been mainly political. It was directed against the operation of Article 47 in the French Penal Code, which gave to a private individual animated by malignant motives very similar powers of persecution to those which Mr. Tom Taylor, in his well known and still popular play, has assumed to exist in England under an abuse of the ticket-of-leave system. In the English version of the play, which has been prepared by Mr. Wills, and particularly in Mrs Hermann Vezin’s admirable representation of the heroine, we can scarcely fail to discern a deeper philosophic purpose. It exposes the operation of laws and prejudices in European society not less powerful or mischievous than the revolting separation of caste, based on the accidents of birth and blood, which at one time [were] established in the slave-holding States of America, and to some extent still exists, and the inevitable failure and hurtful power of all attempts to fetter by artificial restrictions the innocent development of human nature. (5)

10Having thus asserted that racial and social biases are the primary source of conflict in the revised play, the critic goes on to suggest that Article 47 of the French penal code has become an ‘underplot’ in Wills’s drama rather than its primary focus.

  • 10 According to The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 20 June 1874: ‘It would be difficult to co (...)
  • 11 The term ‘Englished’ is borrowed from Morley (313). It suggests that the locus of a play’s action h (...)
  • 12 For an example of English racial bias at this time, see the review of Cora in The Victoria Magazine(...)

11These comments make it clear that Wills’s revisions to and emendations of Belot’s drama could and did make L’Article 47 appealing to British audiences, despite the original work’s unmistakable ‘Frenchness.’10 Although the precise legal grounds for Cora’s revenge against her former lover are absent from British criminal law, the play seems to have reminded some critics and audience members of Tom Taylor’s highly successful Ticket-of-Leave Man which likewise portrayed the difficulties faced by a former convict who wished to begin life anew after having served his sentence. Taylor’s adaptation of a French drama had, however, ‘Englished’11 its source text, as had John Oxenford and Horace Wigan’s A Life Chase (1869), based on Belot’s dramatization of his novel Le Drame de la rue de la Paix (1868). Wills’s Cora instead retains the original nationality of Belot’s dramatis personae so as to lend credence to and ‘excuse’ behaviours that English audiences might (rightly or wrongly) deem implausible or unacceptable if attributed to their countrymen. Moreover, the title of Wills’s play directs attention away from the French penal code and instead names a woman from New Orleans—Cora is variously described as a ‘coloured woman’ or a woman of ‘slave blood’—whose ‘nature’, experiences, and disappointed love for a Frenchman spark her unrelenting desire for revenge against him.12 To be sure, the titular character’s psychology was already clearly defined in Belot’s play. Wills however apparently believed that Cora’s planned denunciation of her former lover and the madness to which she succumbs at the play’s end could only be made acceptable if her ‘otherness’ and the prejudices espoused by certain ‘French’ protagonists were made central to the evolution of the plot rather than the law Belot evoked. A closer look at the manuscript text of Wills’s play should help to make the differences between Belot’s drama and its English adaptation clearer.

Comparing L’Article 47 and Cora

12Belot’s L’Article 47 begins in Rouen, during the courtroom trial of Georges du Hamel. The Frenchman stands accused of having shot at and thereby disfigured his erstwhile fiancée Cora in a fit of jealous rage. He is also charged with stealing a considerable sum of money from her. The solemnity of the setting and the characters present at the judicial proceedings (judges, lawyers, jury members, witnesses, etc.) immediately underscore the play’s relationship to the law. At the same time, the first act, which ends with the sensational announcement of du Hamel’s conviction and remand to prison, allows for the narrative exposition of the background to the action and for the indirect introduction of the protagonists whose story will unfold in subsequent acts. Cora’s status as ‘une fille de couleur’ of once exceptional beauty is noted, as is her unsavoury character (she is said to have seduced Georges and then ‘enslaved’ him by means of sex). However, in Belot’s drama, Cora’s personal (social and racial) history, beauty and control over her lover are seemingly less important than her vengeful nature and her willingness to listen to proposals made by men like Victor Mazilier, the son of ship-owner in Le Havre who indulges in womanizing and gambling. What is more, Cora, Georges, and his mother play only a minor part in Belot’s first act. The widowed Mme du Hamel testifies briefly to her son’s character and shows herself to be a tender, devoted parent ready to sacrifice all for her son. Cora’s few short interventions highlight her implacable desire to make Georges suffer for the harm he has done to her.

  • 13 Belot’s drama is in five acts; Wills’s is in four. An American translation by Williams has three ac (...)
  • 14 Wills anglicizes the spelling of Georges’s name in his play and refers to Le Havre as Havre. To dif (...)
  • 15 ‘Me – a woman of colour! You know what that means? – A mark of insult, a woman whom no chivalry cou (...)

13Everything changes in the opening Act of Wills’s play.13 In place of the retrospective narration found in Belot’s piece, there is concrete action and straightforward depiction of the main protagonists. None of the characters presented in the first act—nor indeed in the rest of the drama—has any professional relationship to the law or to legal proceedings. The action in Wills’s play begins on board the ship that brings George and Cora from New Orleans to Le Havre.14 As in Belot’s opening act, there are some moments of comedy—Mazilier’s constant companion, Potain, has been suffering from seasickness during the voyage—but the discussion quickly turns to Cora, a woman of beauty and mystery whom Mazilier believes would enhance the success of a gambling venue he wishes to establish in Paris. Her secret, Mazilier has guessed, is that ‘she has the slightest drop of black blood in her veins’ (16), something he knows would have put her at a considerable disadvantage in New Orleans society. He therefore suspects Cora dreams of ‘ris[ing] in the social scale’ (16) upon arrival in France. Meanwhile, George has not yet informed his aristocratic and prideful mother that he is returning to France with Cora, ‘the illegitimate daughter of a slave’ (25), to whom he is engaged. Fearing her disapproval, he decides to write her a letter. Cora, for her part, is thrilled to see the coast of France come into view. She believes that she will be free there and no longer suffer the slights and indignities to which she had been subject in New Orleans.15 George wonders at her definition of the ‘liberty’ she hopes to enjoy in her new homeland. ‘ . . . Does it [he asks] include the privilege to this enthusiast [Cora] to smile on whom she pleases? . . . Has a betrothed woman in France the heritage of infidelity, the liberty to betray?’ (31). Cora understands that George is jealous of Mazilier’s attentions to her during the crossing and chides him: ‘My dear George, my poor, weak, jealous white slave!’ (31). The couple’s subsequent encounter with Mazilier and Potain, who suggest that they prolong their shipboard acquaintance on land, heightens George’s feelings of suspicion and mistrust of Cora. Although he briefly leaves Cora with the two men, George soon returns to order that she prepare at once to disembark with him. After she leaves the deck, George asks the men what they mean ‘ . . . by forcing their attentions on a lady who is under [his] exclusive protection’ (41). They have no sooner apologized (with outward but superficial sincerity) than Mme du Hamel unexpectedly arrives on board the ship (George thought he would see her in Paris and his letter has not yet been sent). George tells his mother that Cora is merely a ‘fellow passenger’ and then he tells his fiancée that he cannot introduce her now but must go ashore with his mother. Feeling herself ‘ . . a butt for insult and from him I love!’ (43), the devastated Cora wonders if she is in France or still in New Orleans. Sensing an opportunity to detach Cora from George, Mazilier offers to escort her to shore. She has not yet agreed to accept his offer when George returns to ask that she look after their luggage and to say that he still cannot present her to his mother. He insists he will return for her later and book her into another hotel and then leaves. Cora thereupon accepts Mazilier’s assistance, and the curtain falls on Act I.

14One can easily imagine the heightened appeal and effectiveness the opening Act of Wills’s drama would have held for English audiences. Belot’s first act, locating the action in modern-day France and concretely depicting the workings of a French court, nonetheless draws upon the expository conventions used by dramatists in the French neoclassical tradition. It is largely static. Wills’s rewritten introductory Act is far more dynamic. It gives immediate life to the principal characters and builds the tensions that will set them at odds with one another. It presents, in somewhat exotic terms, the familiar story of a jealous lover, a spurned woman, and an unscrupulous rogue. It suggests the likelihood of family opposition to a relationship deemed unsuitable in ‘polite’ French society. In contrast to Belot’s piece, the disfigurement that Cora will suffer at George’s hand is neither evoked nor shown on stage in the first Act of Wills’s drama. At the same time, the relationship between Cora and Mazilier is rendered somewhat more ‘respectable’ in Wills’s play by attributing its origins to the promiscuity of shipboard life. The audience’s sensitivities are thus temporarily spared the moral insult they might have perceived in the French play.

  • 16 Although mentioned here, Cora is entirely absent from this act.

15Given these very different beginnings, it is not surprising that the second acts of the French and English dramas also diverge in significant ways. Act II of Belot’s play takes place eight years later and is set in Dr. Paul Combes’s consulting rooms in Paris. That setting facilitates and lends credibility to the comings and goings of various characters. First among the doctor’s visitors is Mazilier; for the past eight years, he has been playing cards every night at Cora’s Parisian home.16 In explaining his ill health to the doctor, Mazilier refers back to du Hamel’s trial for the attempt on Cora’s life. He then explains that the disfigured woman’s current circumstances and mentions that the Count de Rives, Combes’s neighbour and a gambling addict, frequents Cora’s residence. As Mazilier leaves, de Rives arrives to consult the doctor about the health of his daughter Marcelle, who is Combes’s goddaughter. Marcelle appears to be dying, and the doctor suspects she may be suffering from the same heart disease that killed her late mother. He also believes that she is in love with a young man, Georges Gérard, who lives a secluded existence with his mother on the other side of the courtyard of the de Rives’s residence. Reciprocated love, the doctor suggests, might restore her health. De Rives is unconvinced, but Marcelle’s arrival in the doctor’s offices, and the subsequent visit Georges and his mother pay to Combes after two months away from Paris, make it clear that Marcelle is indeed in love with Georges and that he returns her affection. The question then becomes what to do. In clear violation of Article 47 of the French penal code, Georges Gérard (formerly du Hamel) has been illegally residing in Paris following his release from prison in Toulon. He cannot reveal his past without jeopardizing his freedom and risking de Rives’s rejection of his suit. Does he have the right to happiness and a new life? His mother wishes she could consult someone on the matter. As it happens, Combes’s next patient had been Georges’s trial advocate in Rouen eight years earlier. Maître de Lille firmly believes that his erstwhile client was guilty of no more than a crime of passion and should not have been sent to the galleys. After a discussion on the change of surnames from du Hamel to Gérard (it marks a return to the family’s legal patronymic), de Lille agrees that Georges can keep his past secret and take a chance on marriage as long as he continues to live out of public view.

  • 17 A hotel setting was featured in Belot’s novel, but not in his play.
  • 18 Contemporary reviews indicate that George shoots Cora at the end of this act but the manuscript doe (...)

16In contrast, the second Act of Wills’s drama takes place in the courtyard of a hotel in Le Havre with only a brief interval of time separating it from the first Act.17 Like the doctor’s offices in Belot’s play, the hotel setting facilitates the comings and goings of multiple characters. Mazilier and Potain order lunch to be served there at 2 p.m. Mazilier expects Cora will join them, although she had earlier declined the invitation to do so. After they leave, George and his mother arrive to discuss the future. She wants him to live with her in Paris and to marry a young woman she has chosen for him. George is forced to admit that he is betrothed. Mme du Hamel is pleased and imagines his fiancée to be ‘gentle, good, pious, domestic, and of fitting rank’ (47). George says that she is none of those things but rather ‘a woman of colour and consequently born in shame’ (47). When his mother objects to their marriage, he says he is under the power of a fatal ‘fascination’ (48). With Cora listening in (unbeknownst to them), George says that he was first her champion and then her slave. He calls Cora ‘faithless, born in the dregs of humanity, a stray’ (48) but insists nothing can overcome his passion. Cora then interrupts them and requests a private conversation with Mme du Hamel. Mme du Hamel accuses Cora of winning her son’s affections by means of cunning and ‘witchcraft’ and says that she will never consent to their marriage. Cora is still outraged that George abandoned her on board the ship and suggests that his apparent disavowal of her puts feelings of love and hate in perilous proximity in her heart and mind. There is a prolonged and bitter exchange of views between Mme du Hamel and Cora. The words ‘waif’, ‘stray’, ‘woman of colour’, and ‘born in shame’ are repeated, and Cora bemoans the fact that prejudice takes the same shape in France as it had in New Orleans. French women, she asserts, are even more pitiless than French men (56). Cora then declares that she no longer loves George and wants to end their engagement. Thereupon Mazilier and Potain return. Cora says she will join them for lunch and asks them to show her around Le Havre before the meal is served. While they are away, George reappears to enquire about the conversation between his mother and Cora. Mme du Hamel says that she tried to judge Cora without prejudice but was shocked by the young woman’s words. She claims that Cora told her George was her slave but that she had tired of his worship and then went off with Mazilier and Potain. George is livid and shows his mother the pistol he carries in his pocket. When Mazilier, Potain, and Cora return, he tells the men that their attention to Cora is an insult to her (63). George and Cora then quarrel. George insists that she must come with him to Paris. She refuses and George denounces the treachery in Cora’s blood, the ‘baseness of her slavish origins’ (71), and says he will drag her to the train if necessary. ‘Convulsed with agitation’ (72), George declares that Cora, although unworthy, is his, dead or alive, and leaves with his mother. Mazilier applauds Cora’s courage in breaking with George, but she says she loves him and must follow him. She faints (72).18

17By now it should be clear that, in contrast to Belot’s play, the first two acts of Wills’s drama have recast Cora as the work’s principal character, the one whose future is uncertain because of an inescapable crime of passion in her past. That ‘crime’ (the racial mixing that led to her birth) means that Wills’s Cora is inherently corrupt (born in shame, the dregs of humanity, faithless, and a stray) and corrupting—the antithesis of the ideal wife and helpmate, who should be gentle, good, pious, domestic, and of fitting rank. Both Belot’s and Wills’s plays portray intense passions and raise questions about (self) possession and new beginnings. However, the terms translation and adaptation as they are normally understood seem scarcely to apply to the modifications Wills has made so far to Belot’s text. Wills was no doubt inspired by Belot’s play and detected something in that piece that could form the basis of an effective drama on the English stage, but to this point he has so greatly transformed the original work as to make it almost unrecognizable. The roles of Mme du Hamel, George, and Cora have been greatly expanded; they also exchange words that give greater prominence to racial and social prejudice than had been apparent in the first two acts of Belot’s drama. In Wills’s piece, however, no reference has yet been made to the law, nor has George harmed Cora, though the threat of violence is clearly present, given the references to the pistol and ‘dead or alive’. Then, suddenly, in Act III, Wills begins to hew more closely to his source text.

18Act III of Belot’s L’Article 47 is set at Cora’s residence on the rue de Neuilly in Paris. It is evening, and while some men are already gambling, Cora—now known as Mme de Champs—converses with one of the habitués of her salon. She learns from him that Count de Rives’s daughter, although ill, has been happily married for a year to a man named Georges and is content to live in relative seclusion with her husband. His first name—Georges—and the description of him that Cora is provided cause her to wonder if he might be du Hamel, the object of her continued obsession for the past eight years. Cora sends her interlocutor off to the gaming tables and then discusses with Mazilier their trip to the galleys in Toulon four years earlier. (Cora had wanted to assure herself that Georges was serving out his sentence and was suffering.) Although Mazilier believes Georges could now be living in Paris (his prison term would have ended three years ago), Cora tells him that, according to Article 47, released convicts are not allowed to reside in Paris. She summons another of her guests, a former solicitor general, to tell Mazilier about the terms of Article 47. After doing so, he also explains why he believes the law ought to be repealed. Nonetheless, the law is still in force, he says, and must be respected. Soon de Rives arrives to play cards. He expects his son-in-law to appear shortly to tell him how his daughter is faring. Georges enters but does not wish to show himself in Cora’s apartments. When he does so, he is obliged to meet his hostess. They recognise each other. Mazilier soon recognises Georges as well. Cora tells Mazilier that knowing Georges’s secret gives her a power over him that she will exercise with pleasure. She insists that Georges meet her in her garden to discuss the consequences of their unexpected meeting. The scene changes to the garden. In a lengthy monologue, she explains that Georges has never really understood her character—‘[J’]ai du sang d’esclave dans les veines!’ (93)—nor has he grasped the intense and volatile nature of her feelings for him (94). Now that she has him in her power, Cora says, she is unwilling to let him enjoy his wife’s love in peace. He must either agree to come to her home regularly or she will tell his wife that she has married a convicted criminal (95‒96).

  • 19 Other than by means of descriptive accounts, Marcelle is entirely absent from Wills’s third Act. Mm (...)

19The third Act of Wills’s drama combines parts of Belot’s second and third acts and evolves along similar lines. The cast of characters is, however, much condensed and events from Act two of the French drama are greatly abridged in Wills’s play.19 As in Belot’s piece, the scene is set in Cora’s residence on the rue de Neuilly. The action begins, rather implausibly, with Dr. Combes and Mazilier discussing the latter’s health. By way of explanation for his physical condition, Mazilier tells the doctor about Cora and the events that transpired eight years ago—the length of time that separates acts two and three in Wills’s play. Combes is then introduced to Cora (Mme de Champs), whom he has not previously met, and they discuss de Rives, his daughter, and her betrothed. The doctor tells Cora about the mysterious man named George Gerard who is engaged to de Rives’s daughter, Marcelle. Cora and Mazilier then discuss their visit to Toulon four years earlier and the possibility that du Hamel might now be living in Paris. After Cora tells Mazilier that Article 47 forbids residence in Paris for released prisoners, Dr. Combes (improbably) explains to Mazilier that he deplores that law (92). Yet since the law is still in effect, a former prisoner found living in Paris would be returned to the galleys, he tells the gambler (96). Shortly thereafter, George arrives at Cora’s seeking to reassure de Rives about his daughter’s health. George and Cora recognise each other; she insists that they must talk. (Mazilier also recognises George.) Cora’s knowledge of George’s past puts him in her power. She is still outraged that, upon arriving in France where she had hoped to begin life anew, George revealed the stigma of her birth (‘slave blood’); she is also furious that he disfigured and abandoned her (104‒06). While she still loves him, she is unwilling to share him with his betrothed. He must come to her home every night or she threatens to reveal his secret to his fiancée and her father, a man proud of his name and rank (108).

20Interestingly, the description of the décor is identical in both the French and English adumbrations of Act III. The manuscript of Wills’s play even includes a drawing of the setting with words written in French. Who traced it? For which play? The words ‘premier tableau chez Cora’ seem to suggest that the image refers to Belot’s play, as his third Act includes a mid-Act scene change absent from Wills’s play. In Belot’s text, however, the tableaux in Act III are numbered three and four, not one and two. In any event, the inclusion of this document in Wills’s manuscript points to the changed relationship between the French source and its English adaptation. The two texts are now more closely aligned. In Act III, both plays evoke the law that grants Cora new power over her former lover. In Belot’s text, the allusion to Article 47 is part of a series of references to the legal system that run throughout the play. In Wills’s drama, however, there are no earlier mentions of any (European) laws or punishments. Instead, in the English adaptation, regular references to race replace references to the law. Thus, for example, George’s disclosure of Cora’s racial heritage (in Act II) becomes as unforgiveable and unforgotten a crime as the disfiguring wound he inflicted on her. Race does of course have a place in Belot’s play, but not to the same extent.

  • 20 Act V in Belot’s work has a different set and includes some characters absent from Wills’s final ac (...)

21Act IV is the final Act in Wills’s piece. It shares its setting with its counterpart in Belot’s drama but combines the events of acts IV and V in the French author’s play.20 In both works, under Cora’s obsessive gaze and the threat of denunciation to legal authorities, George(s) suffers moral and emotional pain as a result of his constant presence at Cora’s gaming tables. (He has not explained the reason for his absence to his wife/fiancée and worries she will learn about his past.) Meanwhile, Mazilier and Potain, financially ruined and physically diminished after eight years of gambling at Cora’s, decide the time has come to return to Le Havre. Mazilier warns Cora that her unrelenting jealousy and preoccupation with George(s) could unsettle her mind. She fears going mad and being locked away for life but does not believe that will happen. She loves George(s) and wants him to remember their past, but he refuses. She tells George(s) he is free to leave and then says he cannot.

22In Belot’s play, Marcelle then arrives and accuses Georges of being Cora’s lover. He denies it, but Cora will not disavow having been his mistress. Marcelle says she is dying and that she could forgive Georges a crime but not his betrayal. Georges tells her he is Cora’s slave, a former convict whom she has forced to do her bidding under threat of denunciation. He then escorts his wife out the door, looking daggers at Cora as he departs and calling her mad. Cora wants to punish Georges but momentarily loses her mind. She thinks about revealing his past crime to his wife but realises that he has already confessed it to her. Cora realizes that Article 47 is the only means she has left to harm him. She recovers her sanity long enough to write a letter informing the authorities of Georges’s illegal presence in Paris and then succumbs to madness. Act V in Belot’s play announces Cora’s total decline into madness and highlights Georges and Marcelle’s fear that her letter will nonetheless be delivered to the authorities. In the end there is salvation for the du Hamel-de Rives family. Mazilier tells Georges he has burned Cora’s letter and that they are free from any future legal trouble.

23In Wills’s fourth act, the arrival of Marcelle (at times called Madeleine) and all subsequent events unfold more or less as in Belot’s work. Cora writes her letter of denunciation as madness overcomes her and cries ‘help, help’ (125). Dr. Combes, who has just returned to Cora’s at Mazilier’s request, rushes in, announcing that Cora is suffering ‘a nervous collapse of the worst kind’ (126) and declaring that nothing can be done. Marcelle and George, who had just left Cora’s, come back, and Marcelle tells her fiancé that she will love him even more if he is kind to Cora. Cora’s mind clears long enough for her to tell the doctor not to send the letter she wrote, but to burn it. He does so, and Cora’s mind is eased. As she dies, she asks for the company of a ‘sister’, someone who will not scorn her as other women have done. Marcelle takes pity on her. She covers Cora’s face so that no one can see or touch her scar; Cora dies at peace, knowing that, in the final moments of her life, she rejected vindictiveness and hate.

24The endings of these plays, like their beginnings, highlight some of the important differences between the French and English dramas. Belot’s piece focuses on Georges du Hamel/Gérard and the legal system. Indeed, references to the criminal justice system and to those charged with administering it are present in every Act of Belot’s drama—a motif underscored by the work’s very title. The play’s conclusion offers Georges both freedom of movement and freedom from his past. That it comes at the cost of Cora’s sanity and removal to a psychiatric hospital is seemingly of little consequence to society. Her mental alienation and imprisonment are necessary to the play’s ‘happy ending’—an ending that offers ‘justice’ to the long-suffering and beleaguered aristocratic hero and his family.

  • 21 In both plays, marriage and family stability are crucial; Cora must be destroyed to preserve it.

25In Wills’s play, the ending focuses on Cora, the titular figure and, for much of the drama, an object of vilification, scorn, and social exclusion, despite her exceptional beauty. Her ‘crime’ is tied (by prejudice) to her racially ‘tainted’ origins and illegitimacy. Both ‘explain’ her obsessions, promiscuity, and emotional volatility in Wills’s drama. The play’s initial settings (a ship at sea, a hotel) further underscore the young woman’s lack of solid attachment to family or place, her in-betweenness. Even when she is finally anchored to a residence in Paris, her marginal position among the (transient and somewhat clandestine) circle of men who frequent her gaming tables sets her apart from society and offers room for brooding resentment and thoughts of revenge. The contrast between Cora and Marcelle—the first presented as a harlot, the second as an angel—was already present in Act II of Wills’s drama. It returns again in the final Act of his play. Marcelle pardons George and then comforts and consoles Cora as she dies. That death and Cora’s renunciation of her planned retaliation against George offer him freedom but also grant Cora herself redemption and release. At the curtain’s fall, her villainy undone, she is shrouded, for a moment, in pathos.21


  • 22 Although there is, to our knowledge, no extant manuscript of this revised version of the play, nume (...)

26The differences between Belot’s L’Article 47 and Wills’s Cora no doubt reveal a good deal about the playwrights’ dissimilar cultural, commercial, and aesthetic circumstances and goals. While germane to the reworking of French dramas for British audiences, addressing those matters in depth would require more space than is available here. So, too, would a study of the many reviews of the 1877 version of Cora produced at London’s Globe Theatre.22 Instead, it might be useful to consider the words of Frank Marshall, himself a dramatist and Wills’s collaborator, on the 1877 revision of Cora. Marshall writes in an essay titled ‘The Drama of the Day in Its Relation to Literature’, published in The Theatre (1 Aug. 1878):

Mr. Wills has certainly, in three cases, been very successful in obtaining public recognition of his work when he has aimed at a high standard; I mean in Charles I, Jane Shore, and Olivia. But how many other plays has he given us which are full of the highest dramatic merit, and yet are comparatively unknown? (25)

  • 23 Cora was not the only adaptation Wills wrote. Olivia was based on a Goldsmith novel and Jane Shore (...)

27Might we not include Cora among those of Wills’s plays denied literary recognition, although they are endowed with a measure of dramatic merit? To be sure, Cora is not an original work; it is based on a French model.23 It is also true that changes Wills made to his source text at times seem gauche or implausible (e.g., Mazilier’s consultation with Dr. Combes about his health at Cora’s residence). Nonetheless, as this study has attempted to show, there is a degree of coherence and creativity in Wills’s adaptation of Belot’s play. If the English playwright shifts attention from matters of French law, he does not abandon that subject altogether. Instead, he condenses the action and modifies the play’s focus, tying the conflict between Cora and George instead to matters of more universal interest (social and racial prejudice). In light of this transformation, perhaps we ought to consider translation and adaptation a source of, rather than an impediment to, creativity and declare the concept of national literature an aesthetic construct as artificial and as mutable as the boundary lines drawn on maps.

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Belot, Adolphe. L’Article 47. Paris: Dentu, 1870.

Belot, Adolphe. L’Article 47, drame en cinq actes et six tableaux. Paris: Dentu, 1871.

Belot, Adolphe. Le Drame de la rue de la Paix. Paris: Michel Lévy frères, 1867.

Belot, Adolphe. Le Drame de la rue de la Paix, drame en cinq actes. Paris: Michel Lévy frères, 1869

Belot, Adolphe. The Article 47 of the French Criminal Code, a drama in five acts. Trad. and ed. Victor Richon. Edinburgh: H. Robinson, etc., 1871. (Contemporary French Drama collection.)

Bradley, Laurel. ‘Olivia: A Case in “Queen Anne” Revival’. Source: Notes in the History of Art 11.3/4 (1992): 19-25. [Re: an adaptation by Wills of Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield.]

Brisebarre, Édouard, and Eugène Nus. Léonard. Paris: E. Dentu, 1863.

Kenney, James. The Pledge; or Castilian Honour. London: C. Chapple, 1830.

Manganelli, Kimberly Snyder. Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers UP, 2012.

Marshall, Frank. ‘The Drama of the Day in Its Relation to Literature’, The Theatre, 1 Aug. 1878: 23‒26.

Morley, Henry. The Journal of a London Playgoer from 1851 to 1866, London: George Routledge, 1866.

Oswald, François. ‘Théâtres’. Le Gaulois, 22 Oct. 1874: 3.

Oxenford, John, and Horace Wigan. A Life Chase. London: T. H. Lacy, 1869.

Stottlar, James F. ‘A Victorian Stage Adapter at Work: W. G. Wills “Rehabilitates” the Classics’. Victorian Studies 16.4 (1973): 401‒32.

Taylor. Tom. Ticket-of-Leave Man. London: T. H. Lacy, 1863.

Vitu, Auguste. ‘Premières Représentations’. Le Figaro, 23 Oct. 1871: 3.

Waters, Hazel. Racism on the Victorian Stage. Cambridge: CUP, 2007.

Williams, Henry L. L’Article 47, or Breaking the Ban. New York: De Witt, 1872.

Wills, Freeman. W. G. Wills, Dramatist and Painter. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898.

Wills, W. G. Cora. Manuscript, British Library, Feb. 1874. LCP [Lord Chamberlain’s Plays], BL Add MS 53134 L.

[Advertisements and Notices], The Era, 3 Nov. 1872: [1].

[Advertisements and Notices], The Era, 10 Nov. 1872: 9.

[Advertisement, Theatre Royal, Sunderland], Shields Gazette, 8 Sept. 1874: 4.

‘The Drama’, New Monthly Magazine, May 1831: 216 [Re: an adaptation of Hugo’s Hernani by J. Kenney.]

‘The “Judicial Drama” in France’, Pall Mall Gazette, 16 and 18 Oct. 1869: 12 (same page both dates).

‘Drama. Théâtre de l’Ambigu Comique’, The Athenaeum, 28 Oct. 1871: 569.

‘French Plays’, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 20 June 1874: 387.

‘From The French’, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 17 Apr. 1875: 63.

‘Holborn Theatre’, The Morning Post [London], 17 Jan. 1873: 3.

‘Leeds. Theatre Royal’, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 7 Mar. 1874: 31.

‘Mr. W. G. Will’s New Drama Cora’, The Era, 8 Mar. 1874: 7.

‘Mrs. Hermann Vezin as Cora’, The Victorian Magazine, Apr. 1877: 540‒41.

‘Prince of Wales Theatre’, Birmingham Daily Post, 8 May 1874: 8.

‘The Prince’s Theatre’, Manchester Weekly Times, 13 June 1874: 5.

‘The Theatre Royal’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 3 Mar. 1874: 5.

‘Theatres’, The Graphic, 29 Aug. 1874: 211.

‘The Theatres’, The Saturday Review, 3 Mar. 1877: 263‒64.

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1 See Belot’s Le Drame de la rue de la Paix as both novel and play. See, too, the articles on ‘The “judicial drama” in France’, Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 1869. The word ‘drama’ in the title notwithstanding, those articles deal with novels rather than plays.

2L’Article 47, qui avait grandement réussi dans le feuilleton du Peuple français, s’est fait chaleureusement applaudir hier au soir sur la scène de l’Ambigu’ (Vitu). See, too, Oswald.

3 Richon also submitted his translation to the Lord Chamberlain, no doubt in anticipation of an eventual performance.

4 For background on Wills as a dramatist see Stottlar, Bradley, and F. Wills.

5 This list of cities may be incomplete. See The Era, 8 Mar. 1874: ‘From time to time the Theatre Royal, Leeds, has been selected by various eminent authors for the first production of new dramas, with a view, we imagine, to submit their works to the crucial test of a Yorkshire audience, before appealing to the Metropolitan critics. . . . Cora; or Love and Passion, is an adaptation of a remarkable piece by M. Belot entitled L’Article 47. . . . . A sympathising audience followed Mrs Vezin with absorbed interest throughout, and testified their admiration by the most enthusiastic outbursts of approbation.  . . The scenery, appointments, and stage furnishings were of the newest and best description, and the costumes were superb’ (7).

6 J. Kenney’s adaptation of Hugo’s play, however, was performed at the Drury Lane Theatre on 8 Apr. 1831. It was positively reviewed in the New Monthly Magazine (May 1831) and elsewhere.

7 For a journalist writing in The Graphic, 29 Aug. 1874: 211 the psychological studies found in contemporary French drama and the existence of French actors skilled in depicting ‘perilous moral states’ constitute a major difference between the two nations’ dramatic traditions.

8 I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Roberta Barker who located and photographed this ms. for me and answered my questions about it. My thanks, too, to Dr. Roger Little for his close reading of my text. All references to the manuscript will be by page number.

9 See, too, the announcement of Cora’s premiere in Sunderland published in Shields Gazette, 8 Sept. 1874: 4. It includes short descriptions of the play’s four sets and briefly indicates the tenor of each act.

10 According to The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 20 June 1874: ‘It would be difficult to conceive a story more essentially French in tone and sentiment than that of L’Article 47’ (387).

11 The term ‘Englished’ is borrowed from Morley (313). It suggests that the locus of a play’s action has been moved to England and that its characters have been made English. For a side-by-side comparison of the texts, see

12 For an example of English racial bias at this time, see the review of Cora in The Victoria Magazine, Apr. 1877: ‘Cora . . . is a perfectly faithful type of her unfortunate race . . . . Such a phase of human nature is not easily portrayed, because hardly comprehended by the more reasoning white races, who may well find it difficult to understand a love that can turn in a moment into fierce hate . . . or rather, that, still worshipping, can hate at the same time . . . ’ (540). See, too, Waters, ch. 6, passim.

13 Belot’s drama is in five acts; Wills’s is in four. An American translation by Williams has three acts.

14 Wills anglicizes the spelling of Georges’s name in his play and refers to Le Havre as Havre. To differentiate between the two texts, we have adopted the first change but not the second.

15 ‘Me – a woman of colour! You know what that means? – A mark of insult, a woman whom no chivalry could reach, no courtesy could assist. Hustled from the theatre, pointed at in the street, insulted without redress.  . . There you stooped to love me. – Here, dear George, I am your equal: one drop of colour does not poison all’ (29-30; emphasis in the original).

16 Although mentioned here, Cora is entirely absent from this act.

17 A hotel setting was featured in Belot’s novel, but not in his play.

18 Contemporary reviews indicate that George shoots Cora at the end of this act but the manuscript does not show that. Manganelli writes that, ‘Once discovered, [a] mixed-race heroine’s bloodline jeopardizes her position in the domestic sphere’ (79). That is certainly true here, and, in this instance, there can be no possibility of a return to that sphere. In Wills’s play, as in Belot’s, the threat of what Waters calls the ‘shameful, transgressive nature of miscegenation’ (143) must be removed for good.

19 Other than by means of descriptive accounts, Marcelle is entirely absent from Wills’s third Act. Mme du Hamel is not even mentioned and will not appear again in his play.

20 Act V in Belot’s work has a different set and includes some characters absent from Wills’s final act (Mme du Hamel and a police officer, among others). A title page for act IV is included in the Wills ms. (109) and is signed by W. G. Wills and Alfred Kempe, an author whose collaboration is never mentioned in reviews or announcements of the play. Kempe had written Lady Isabel, a dramatisation of Mrs. Henry Ward’s famous novel East Lynne, specifically for Mrs. Vezin, who performed the title role at a benefit for herself at the Holborn Theatre on 16 Jan. 1873. For a review of that unpublished piece, see ‘Holborn Theatre’, The Morning Post, 17 Jan. 1873: 3. The lead character in that play is likewise a woman of intense emotions and great suffering who is pardoned in the end.

21 In both plays, marriage and family stability are crucial; Cora must be destroyed to preserve it.

22 Although there is, to our knowledge, no extant manuscript of this revised version of the play, numerous reviews published in 1877 do give some sense of the changes made.

23 Cora was not the only adaptation Wills wrote. Olivia was based on a Goldsmith novel and Jane Shore on Rowe’s play of that name.

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Référence électronique

Barbara T. Cooper, « Translating French Drama for English Audiences: Adolphe Belot’s L’Article 47 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 22 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3323

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Barbara T. Cooper

Barbara T. Cooper is Professor Emeritus of French at the University of New Hampshire (USA) and a widely published specialist in nineteenth-century French theatre and drama. In addition to her studies on and editions of major authors such as Alexandre Dumas père, René-Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt and Alfred de Musset, she has also edited works by lesser-known French playwrights who have written about characters of African descent (viz., Le Planteur by Henri de Saint-Georges et Hipp. Monpou, Éds. L’Harmattan, coll. “Autrement Mêmes,” 2015). She co-edited, with Olivier Bara, a special issue of Revue d’Histoire du théâtre on the topic L’autre théâtre romantique (2013) and most recently collaborated with others in the publication of Trois Années de critique dramatique (1836-1838), Cahiers Alexandre Dumas, no 42, sous la dir. de Julie Anselmini (Éds. Classiques-Garnier, 2015).
Barbara T. Cooper est professeur émérite de français à l’université du New Hampshire (USA). C’est une spécialiste très publiée du théâtre et de la dramaturgie française du xixe siècle. Outre ses essais et ses publications sur des auteurs majeurs tels qu’Alexandre Dumas père, René-Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt et Alfred de Musset, elle a également édité des œuvres de dramaturges moins connus qui ont écrit sur des personnages d’origine africaine (à savoir, Le Planteur d’Henri de Saint-Georges et Hipp. Monpou, Éditions L’Harmattan, coll. « Autrement Mêmes », 2015). Elle a co-édité, aux côtés d’Olivier Bara, un numéro spécial de la Revue d’Histoire du théâtre sur le thème de L’autre théâtre romantique (2013) et a plus récemment collaboré à la publication des Trois Années de critique dramatique (1836-1838), Cahiers Alexandre Dumas, no 42, sous la dir. de Julie Anselmini (Éditions Classiques-Garnier, 2015).

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