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Tempering Feydeau: Twisting and Guilty Pleasures on the London Stage (1893-1897)

Assagir Feydeau : torsions et précautions de la scène londonienne (1893-1897)
Violaine Heyraud


À partir de 1892, Feydeau s’impose en France comme le nouveau maître de la comédie-vaudeville. Les théâtres londoniens cèdent à la contagion de son rire en produisant entre 1892 et 1897 quelques-unes de ses pièces, certes soigneusement sélectionnées : The Sportsman, adapté de Monsieur chasse !, The Other Man d’après Champignol malgré lui, His Little Dodge (Le Système Ribadier), A Night Out (L’Hôtel du Libre-Échange) et A Night Session (Séance de nuit). À partir de l’examen des manuscrits soumis au bureau du Lord Chamberlain, notre article se propose d’interroger les stratégies qui permettent aux directeurs et producteurs londoniens de monter des comédies légères qui affichent, avec le nom de Feydeau, leur origine française et leur nature frivole, alors même que ce choix s’avère nécessairement risqué. Comment ne pas heurter, par ces pièces souvent fondées sur un comique grivois et subversif, un Lord Chamberlain hostile à tout signe d’immoralité ? Les manuscrits soumis à sa censure révèlent surtout, dans les textes proposés, une auto-censure préalable, perceptible aux choix des pièces présentées, et aux contorsions des adaptateurs et traducteurs : transpositions de situations, coupes, infléchissements de répliques visent à gommer ou à édulcorer les effets comiques portant sur la sexualité, mais aussi sur les clivages sociaux. Même les traductions les plus fidèles opèrent un décentrement de la situation de départ, modifiant en profondeur la réflexion menée par Feydeau sur les relations amoureuses et les rapports sociaux. Pourquoi monter ces pièces quand même et se confronter sciemment à de tels obstacles ? Peut-être l’inventivité dramatique et rythmique des pièces de Feydeau séduit-elle irrésistiblement les gens de théâtre et le public, comme l’étude de la réception le révèle. Si les adaptateurs sont souvent contraints de réduire le texte de Feydeau, ils y trouvent aussi des moyens d’insérer facilement des numéros clownesques susceptibles de plaire au public britannique.

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Texte intégral

  • 1Vaudeville’ in English connotes a spectacle close to the music hall. The French word refers to a l (...)
  • 2 In the period studied, this was Edward Pigott, succeeded by George Redford in 1895 (Stevens 35).

1In 1892, Feydeau became the new master in France of vaudeville-comedy. The London theatres, nourished with French ‘vaudevilles’ (French farces1), succumbed to the contagion of his laughter, while producing, between 1893 and 1897, adaptations of Monsieur chasse! [The Huntsman!], Champignol malgré lui [Champignol in spite of himself], Le Système Ribadier [The Ribadier System], L’Hôtel du Libre-Échange [Free Exchange Hotel] and Séance de nuit [Night Session]. The commercial successes of these plays in Paris, and then on Broadway, are promising. However, staging the plays of Feydeau, often based on adultery and a saucy and subversive comedy, is to knowingly expose oneself to the accusations of immorality often levelled at French light comedies. Thus, adapters and translators modify the original texts with skilful contortions, to mollify the official preventive censorshipthe Lord Chamberlain’s Office and of the Examiner of Plays2and to ward off the reluctance of the public and of the critics. Why choose the work of Feydeau if it is absolutely necessary to contort its meaning? The policy of importing French comedies supposes a strong confidence in the possibility of bringing together French and English spectators in the same liberating laughter. However, to constantly insist on the necessity of tempering these plays, at the price of great technical efforts, has the contrary effect of opposing the two publics and, from an English perspective, highlighting the coarseness of French comedy and the people who love it. Feydeau illustrates the paradoxes of the theatre of this period. His plays attract and scare off London theatre directors. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office authorizes their performance, but wants to protect the public from the ideas they convey: questionable moral values, disturbing views of society. This duality can also be observed in the press, often severe, in which Ignacio Ramos Gay has identified the participation of the theatre censor (Ramos-Gay 109−19): the public, warned by the newspapers of the subversive potential of these plays, attend them with fear and curiosity. The question of whether the London public is laughing with the French, or at them, is therefore something to be gotten past. The pleasure aroused seems more uneasy: the expurgation of a play cannot completely erase the memory of its dangerousness. We must first of all acknowledge the presence, unquestionable but moderate, of the plays of Feydeau in Victorian London. The adapted manuscripts of Feydeau submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office reveal the strategies employed to present these plays, at the price of losing a certain humour and deforming the content. The London public thus fails to perceive that Feydeau, with the modest means of vaudeville, engages in real reflections on couples and social relationships. It is ultimately his technical virtuosity that these English versions bring out. Are the plays of Feydeau any more reassuring for all this? In its critical discourse, the press does not completely escape ambiguity: by opposing French obscenity and English decency, it reveals to the spectators what the adaptations had sought to conceal.

Economic and Practical Stakes

  • 3 A margin of error subsists: the titles are sometimes far from the original, and the author’s name d (...)
  • 4 See for instance Washington Post, 6 June 1897.

2Unless I am mistaken,3 only five of Feydeau’s plays were presented in London in the English language between 1893 and 1901. With the exception of His Little Dodge,4 most of these had first conquered the American audience, a few months or a few days earlier, as shown by the table below:

  • 5 According to J. P. Wearing (1976), as well as to a number of press articles.
  • 6 According to J. P. Wearing (2013).


of the

of the

mance in the
United States

in England

Number of Perfor-
when First

Monsieur chasse!
(3 acts), Théâtre
du Palais-Royal,
23 April 1892



The Sportsman,
Columbia Theatre,

17 October 1892

21 January 1893


Champignol malgré
(3 acts), with Maurice
Desvallières, Théâtre des
Nouveautés, 5 November

The Other


The Other Man,
New National Theatre,
29 August 1893

Court, London,
9 September 1893,
then Strand, London,
18 November 1893


L’Hôtel du Libre-
échange, (3 acts) with
Desvallières, Théâtre des
Nouveautés, 5 December

A Night Out

(Charles H.

The Gay Parisians,
Hoyt’s Theater,
New York,
23 September 1895

A Night in Paris,
Theatre Royal,
13 April 1896 then
A Night Out Vaudeville,
London, 29 April 1896.


Le Système Ribadier
(3 acts), with Maurice
Hennequin, Théâtre
du Palais-Royal,
30 November 1892

His Little


Columbia Theater,
7 June 1897

24 October 1896


Séance de nuit (1 act),
Théâtre du Palais-
Royal, 29 March 1897

A Night


Manhattan Theater,
New York,
5 October 1897

Globe, London
1 November 1897.


  • 7 His name is also absent in the manuscript of His Little Dodge.
  • 8 On the role of these correspondents who sense the French plays likely to be performed in London, vi (...)
  • 9 For instance, Era (25 December 1886): ‘Tailleur pour Dames is certain to obtain a great success in (...)
  • 10 Vid. The Era, 30 April 1892, and Jules Lemaître in Le Journal des Débats, 2 May 1892.
  • 11 We note the success of Pink Dominos (Criterion, 1877) adapted from Les Dominos roses (1876) by Alfr (...)
  • 12 ‘Charles Frohman, l’inspirateur du Syndicate, dont l’appétit commercial était légendaire, est aussi (...)
  • 13 Except for His Little Dodge, bought by Edward Rice.
  • 14 Seymour Hicks had a minor role as a young man in love in The Other Fellow in 1893.

3The name of Feydeau is rather well displayed; although it does not appear on the manuscript of The Other Fellow,7 Fred Horner acclaimed it as his [Feydeau’s] creation (Morning Post, 11 September 1893). Feydeau, performed in the theatres fond of French comedies, is not over-performed there: of the 24 plays that he wrote before 1901, only 5 were performed in London during this period, one of which, A Night Out, was a colossal success. As in France, Feydeau compels recognition slowly. English press correspondents in Paris8 reported his first success, Tailleur pour dames9 [Ladies’ Tailor] (1886), then the failures of Chat en poche [Cat in the Pocket] (1888) or of Mariage de Barillon [Barillon’s Marriage] (1890). Monsieur chasse! in 1892 finally achieves unanimous success, for the liveliness of its pace and its comedic inventions;10 a first adaptation of the play, despite a story found lacking in originality by The Times (23 January 1893) which sees in The Sportsman ‘the usual story’ inherited from Hennequin11 and from Bisson. Champignol malgré lui, a big success, was adapted immediately. However, the London theatres shied away from other triumphs, which featured daring déshabillé (Un fil à la patte [Strings Attached], 1894) or beds (Le Dindon [The Fall Guy], 1896; La Dame de chez Maxim [The Lady from Maxim’s], 1899), which an adapter would have difficulty conjuring away. By importing these plays, England also seems to expose itself to the influence of America, which the critic for The Era regrets, when writing about A Night Session: ‘“Winti, weather, and tide permitting” would seem to be a necessary condition of our theatrical announcements, so entirely dependent on the arrival of steamers from America are the productions of . . . the Globe on Monday’ (30 October 1897). The powerful producer Charles Frohman12 accelerated the Anglo-Saxon diffusion of Feydeau’s plays, nearly all of which he presented across the Atlantic.13 With A Night Out, his second British production (Marcosson and Frohman 436), he inaugurated his long collaboration with George Edwardes (Marcosson and Frohman 232−33), thanks to the English comic actor Seymour Hicks, who was familiar with the theatre of Feydeau14 and persuaded by the qualities of the adaptation of L’Hôtel du Libre-échange:

While in New York on this visit I saw the farce A Night Out, which had been refused by all the English managers. I begged Mr Frohman to let me take it back to London, which he did. I produced it at the Vaudeville for Mssrs Gatti and George Edwardes, and running 600 nights in London it cleared in town and provinces £ 32,000 profit. (Hicks 210)

  • 15 The Court Theatre opened the season with The Other Fellow after summer 1893.

4We emphasize the strong commercial potential of these plays15 based on deception and misunderstanding. In Monsieur chasse!, a husband lies to his wife and pretends to go hunting to indulge in his passions. In Champignol malgré lui, the wife of the painter Champignol receives a surprise visit from some cousins while in the company of a suitor, who passes for the legitimate husband; the army is deceived, too, and the irksome individual, now ‘reservist Champignol’, ends up in Clermont performing various military chores. However, it took more than 14 months to bring to the stage the twirling Hôtel du Libre-échange, in which Marcelle, abandoned by an indifferent husband, spends the evening with Pinglet, a sympathising neighbour, and does not get caught. The latter’s success would explain the retroactive interest for a 4-year-old play, Le Système Ribadier [The Ribadier System], in which a seducer hypnotises his wife so he can stray from home with impunity. This Feydeau vogue explains, finally, the rather rapid stagingscarcely 7 months after Parisof A Night Session, an openly scabrous play: two friends bring along a masked beauty to a private room in a restaurant, who turns out to be an ugly duckling. The horrifying reception reserved for this play put a halt to the adaptation of Feydeau before 1901, whose plays concentrated more on loose women and fickle husbands, in intrigues too immoral for the English stage.

The Challenge of Bawdiness

5Feydeau’s plays are often based on the temptation of adultery. Discovered seducers, forced to lie, are harassed by complications, one after another, intermingled with cases of mistaken identity. Despite these punitive set-ups, morality hardly interests Feydeau: at the end of his plays, the fickle husband, unmasked (Monsieur chasse!, Le Système Ribadier) or fatigued (L’Hôtel du Libre-échange), may go off in search of another adventure. It is necessary to make acceptable the perspective on love and on sexuality given by the French vaudevilles like The Other Fellow:

On the horizon of their limited vision looms constantly and inevitably the figure of the eternal feminine, supported on one side by the deluded husband and on the other by the favoured lover.  . . . Variations there may and must necessarily be, in short, development of the subsequent intrigue; the origin remains as firmly fixed as the genesis of the human race . . . (St James Gazette, 11 September 1893)

  • 16 Houste is a common word of command, and means hurry up—pronounced like the English word who(...)

6Is it possible to excuse such subject matter by advertising the French origin of the play? Except for The Sportsman, an ‘adaptation’ (S) that transposes the action to London, the staged plays rather faithfully translate the original texts and production, and locate the action in France. The military context of The Other Fellow imposes this choice: the characters keep their names and count money in francs (OF, Act I, 6); a soldier cries ‘houste’, a word which Horner16 annotates out of a concern for interpretation. The program for the play also contains a note on the French system of conscription and reserves (Bury and Norwich Post, 10 October 1893), and the butler recalls:

Joseph. You see, madame, master is in the Reserves, and he has been called out for the annual drill. . . . Madame knows that every Frenchman is forced to do a certain amount each yeareven myself am liable to it. (OF, Act I, 8)

  • 17 In the manuscript, the title A Night in Paris replaces: Oh! What a Night.

7However, the French context above all justifies frivolities that would be inconceivable on English soil. A Night Session therefore occurs in Paris, ‘the night of the opera ball’ (ANS, 4). The critics are uncomfortable with ambiguity. In A Night Out the ‘gay Parisians’ meet at l’hôtel Mascotte, ‘220 Princess Street’ (ANO, Act I, 26): ‘The adaptation of the farce is curiously inconsistent as regards the nationality of the characters and locale of the action’ (London Evening Standard, 30 April 1896). The title that was initially planned, A Night in Paris,17 was clearer.

  • 18 Anne étienne shows the permanence of this suspicion in the 20th century (étienne 19−26).

8However, Paris is not authorization for just anything. The board of censors keeps an eye on the potentially immoral depiction of amorous relations.18 In the manuscripts of the English versions submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, the self-censorship of the adapters of Feydeau is obvious. How to deflect the thorny question of adultery? First of all, we can deny the possibility. The following table compares the behaviour of the radical Sportsman with that of Monsieur chasse!.

Monsieur chasse!

The Sportsman

Act I

Léontine Duchotel repulses Moricet: she will not give in to him unless her husband deceives her. Moricet dreams of attracting her to his bachelor apartment, 40 rue d’Athènes, the address where Duchotel’s nephew, Gontran, meets his mistress, a tart. Under the pretext of going hunting with his friend Cassagne, Duchotel goes to meet his mistressthe wife of that very same Cassagne. He runs off to meet her at 40 rue d’Athènes.

Cassagne appears suddenly; he confides in Léontine that his wife has a lover and that he is going to have them ‘nabbed’ by the police. Léontine, enlightened and furious, follows Moricet.

Briscoe pretends to go hunting with Perkins, and goes instead to a gambling club: he had promised his wife Kitty he would give up this vice. Dr Holroyd, Kitty’s first fiancé, doubts the sincerity of his rival. He is told some personal secrets by Briscoe’s nephew, Bob, who has secretly married a young actress.

Kitty understands she’s being lied to when Perkins appears suddenly; he is looking for his daughter, who had gone to London to seek glory on the theatre stage.

Act II

Moricet welcomes Léontine in his apartment, prepared by an attentive concierge. After some resistance, Léontine is about to give in to Moricet, but the concierge convinces her that Duchotel’s pretence was a trap to ‘nab’ her with her lover.

Léontine wants to leave but Duchotel arrives unexpectedly; Moricet hides her in the bathroom; then she hides, standing under a blanket in front of her husband, who finally leaves. Moricet undresses and lies down, Léontine will sleep in the room next door. Gontran suddenly appears and gets into bed next to Moricet, who he mistakes for his mistress; the two men fight, Gontran hides in a broom closet.

The police enter by mistake; Moricet introduces Léontine as his wife. Duchotel, pursued by the police, enters from the balcony in boxer shorts without seeing them and puts on Moricet’s pants. The police find Moricet in his underwear and arrest him. Gontran sees Léontine.

Dr Holroyd enters his apartment, previously rented to a young couple. Kitty, in a panic, comes to him for help. Holroyd comforts her but advises her to leave. The concierge, who initially suspected Kitty’s virtue, thinks that Briscoe’s deception is a trap to ‘nab’ his wife with her lover.

Briscoe appears suddenlythe club is upstairs; Holroyd hides Kitty in the bathroom; then she hides, standing under a blanket. The doctor hears some noise and pretends to sleep; it’s Bob, who enters and joins him on the sofa; the two men fight, Bob hides in a broom closet.

The police raid the gambling club, and think that Kitty is the young actress they’re looking for. Briscoe, in flight, has lost his jacket; he runs away with a jacket taken from Holroyd, whom the police arrest. Bob sees Kitty.


Léontine, home again, contemplates divorce. Moricet, panicked, reminds her that a compromising letter that she sent him is in the pocket of the pants that Duchotel took away.

Duchotel is confused by his wife: the game that he brought her from his hunting trip is not convincingthe grocer gave him charcuterie.

Cassagne looks for Moricet, who he thinks is his wife’s lover. Gontran, dressed in pants similar to Duchotel’s, is finally arrested by the police. Léontine and Moricet have bought his silence. Duchotel finds the letter, but thinks it is addressed to him. He resolves to stop cheating on his wife.

Kitty is furious: Holroyd has denounced Briscoe to the police, who now faces six months in prison. Kitty asks Holroyd to sacrifice himself for Briscoe.

Briscoe is confused by his wife, who received a parcel of charcuterie.

Perkins thinks that the woman under the cover was his daughter; the police take Holroyd, then Briscoe, for the husband of the young Perkins. Finally, the police realize Bob is the husband, but also the man hunted at the clubhe has a suit similar to Briscoe’s. Briscoe swears off gambling.

9The Sportsman avoided scandal. Only the demon of gambling tempts a Briscoe without much libido, ‘mendacious’ (Reynolds’s Newspaper, 22 January 1893) and ‘imperturbable’ (St James Gazette, 23 January 1893) in the interpretation by Charles Hawtrey himself, director of the Comedy. The heroes put their clothes back on; the young reveller marries. Once trapped by appearances, the mettlesome Kitty thinks only of protecting her husband; while the deceitful Léontine protects, to the very end, the secret of her escapade. Despite the similarities, the English version amends the effronteries of the original text, the object of a continuous distortion which the logic of the sequence of events can only aggravate.

10Adultery can also pass for true, while being false. Innocent characters freeze in a compromising situationa process often used by Feydeau himself. In the two versions, the man who passes for the husband of Mrs Champignol is simply shown to be gentlemanly. However, in The Other Fellow, Saint Fontaine, like Dr Holroyd of The Sportsman, not long ago had a claim to the heart of the young woman:

Saint Fontaine. . . . If she hadn’t jilted me, she wouldn’t rush away like that. But because she married someone else, some idiot of an artist called Champignol, and only met me again last week, that’s how she treats me. (OF, Act I, 3)

  • 19 The hotel is not suitable for married couples, either: in The Other Fellow, Champignol, overjoyed a (...)

11Certain women also, as a ruse, attach themselves to a man to make their husband jealousan expedient which Feydeau, this time, uses only in his first play, Par la fenêtre [Through the Window] (1882): in A Night Out, Mrs Pinglet no longer advises Marcelle to take a lover, but to pretend to do so (ANO, Act I, 23). The adapters, too, aware that they are playing with fire, also keep up appearances. They slightly displace the scene of the action; the hotel Mascotte in Act II of A Night Outno doubt a wink at the operetta that opened the Comedy Theatre in 1881 (Vid. Mander and Mitchenson 47)does not give its name to the play, and people go there often to dine after the theatre, of course in private rooms with narrow partitions. The hotel, a frequent setting for fin de siècle comedy (Vid. Powell and Raby 170), is still a dangerous place which must be neutralised.19 Although it attracts the police, what it hidesthe trick in the Sportsmana gambling club. Like the characters caught in some misdeed, the adapters, in a difficult situation, recycle the same pirouettes to give the intrigue an appearance of respectability.

12And finally, there is conjuring. McCarthy, in His Little Dodge, strengthens the references to hypnosis, to allay the public’s distrust. Hercules Little’s interest in magnetism is well known; since the latter puts Miranda to sleep before holding forth on his gift:

Hercules. I am a Hypnotist. That’s all there is to it. You know I was always interested in the occult, the mysterious sides of Science. I studied Hypnotism out of curiosity; found that I had strong suggestive power, experimented on my wife without her knowledge, and found that I could send her to sleep when and where I pleased. . . . I employed my power to purchase a little peace and freedom. (HLD, Act I, 26)

13The number, prepared, then rationalised, contrasts with the brutal and unexplained power of Feydeau’s Ribadier, a hypnotist at once empirical, savage and disturbing. Mesmerism makes Little’s private meetings innocent, simple ‘electrical experiments’ (HLD, Act III, 5). In Feydeau, the baffled husband exclaims:

C’est vous qui étiez tout à l’heure chez madame Savinet quand je suis arrivé inopinément! Vous qui, en m’entendant, vous êtes revêtu à la hâte! Et vous êtes enfui par le salon pendant que j’entrais par le couloir!... Mais pas assez vite pour que je ne puisse m’élancer sur vos traces! (Feydeau and Hennequin, Act II, scene 3, 48)

Which in the English version emerges as:

Did I, or did I not find you in my drawing room just now when I returned unexpectedly. Did I, or did I not find my wife asleep upon a sofa. Did you, or did you not beat a hasty and ludicrous retreat through the French window? Did you or did you not endeavor to outstrip me upon the road? (HLD, Act II, 7)

14Now the hero made innocent, re-clothed, does not renounce women at the end of the play, but hypnotism (HLD, Act III, 18). The adapter confuses the public, which is completely ready to let itself be taken advantage of.

  • 20 Seymour Hicks may have modified A Night Out: ‘Mr. Seymour Hicks assumed responsibility for [the ada (...)
  • 21 We plan to confirm this hypothesis soon by consulting the archives in New York.
  • 22 In the catalog of the New York Public Library, the play The Other Man, signed Fred Horner, is prese (...)
  • 23 In 1909, at any rate, Frohman will put the idea of immorality in perspective and oppose censorship (...)
  • 24 The watering down of The Gay Parisians was in response to the fears of the American audience (New Y (...)

15Regarding these revisions of ensemble, let us add that everything leads us to think that, barring specific alterations,20 the texts presented in London were very close to the versions broken in the USA.21 The synopses of the intrigues given in the American press show the same divergences: ‘the Sportsman’ is already a gambler (New York Times, 18 October 1892); in The Gay Parisians, Marcelle, too, did not intend to extend her evening with Pinglet (New York Times, 24 September 1895). Without a doubt, the British adapters22 (and perhaps the American ones for A Night Out and A Night Session) prepared a version intended for the entire English-speaking world, and already watered down; Frohman’s moral tolerance in comedy23 was at any rate not always shared by his compatriots.24

16The authors are also on the lookout for details that are too raw. The Other Fellow contains correcting additions. Agnes warns her provincial maid: ‘You must be on your guard in this city, there are many temptations for a simple-minded girl like you’ (OF, Act I, 11). Captain Camaret still unveils, by error, the portrait of a nude woman; however, the presence of women in the scene requires a prudish gesture: ‘Camel follows and draws drapery over painting’ (OF, Act I, 33). The action, completed and distorted, is pleasing to the audience (Bury and Norwich Post, 10 October 1893). It is often simpler to cut out embarrassing words and actions. In Act II of A Night Out, Pinglet no longer embraces Marcelle. The hotel clerk, seeing Mathieu and his four daughters, no longer says: ‘Il n’y a que les lapins pour en avoir tant que ça!’ (Feydeau and Desvallières, [1894] 399). The body remains taboo: the puns permitted by Mathieu’s stuttering, scatological with Feydeau, remain inoffensive here.

17Despite everything, these texts were disturbing to the censor’s office. In His Little Dodge, the censor underlines the vindication of the seduction by Little, ridiculous as it is: ‘I mean romance, nothing but romance. I like to meet a pretty woman, to scrape an acquaintance, to pursue the butterfly of flirtation through the rose gardens of sentiment’ (HLD, Act I, 9). The short play A Night Session is covered in blue pencil marks. And yet, the adapter had already corrected himself, had crossed out all the ‘damned’ (ANS, 8, 40, 44) and softened certain images: ‘She unbosomed herself to me’ becomes ‘She confided in me’ (ANS, 20). However, the censor adds multiple exclamation marks, crosses out the passage where the man caresses his friend’s hand, thinking he is touching the hand of the masked woman. When the pals disagree on who will accompany the ugly ducklingand be alone with herthe text is crossed out in several places: ‘It’s your turn to take her home’; ‘I have to do everythingpay for the supperfind the companyand take it home after’; ‘We were quarrelling over which of us should have the honour of escorting you home’; ‘you shall take Madame home’ (ANS, 37-38). A tart, an adulterer, a meeting of men with a masked woman: nothing could save this play; the press was astonished it had been staged, and that it had made people laugh (Globe, 2 November 1897). The press, in effect, adopted for itself the role of watchman. It approves of A Night Out, but deplores the passage where the young girls in night gowns pass for ghosts: ‘Perhaps there is not much harm in the episode beyond the vulgarity of some of its details; but such vulgarity is a needless mistake, even if it be nothing worse’ (London Evening Standard, 30 April 1896); ‘This last is . . .  more racy than is usual on the London stage. No one seemed to mind, however, and as the Examiner of Plays did not object there is no more to be said on the subject’ (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 2 May 1896). The press intends to maintain its right of review over French plays.

Beautiful Empty Machines?

18Why, expurgated as they are, are the plays of Feydeau enjoyable? We admire the turns of events, distorted, but retained, above all in the third act, so difficult to bring to life: the misunderstandings at the end of The Sportsman (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 28 January 1893), the reversal of situation in A Night Out (Times, 30 April 1896) when the guilty accuse their innocent spouses in their stead. The science of movement we see in Feydeau fascinates. In The Sportsman, ‘the scene is filled with whimsical personages, acting in the most eccentric manner, but there is method in their madness. One surprise follows another until the spectator becomes bewildered, but all the time has perfect confidence that the author knows his business’ (Morning Post, 23 January 1893). Did the adapters give in to the temptation of the rhythm?

  • 25 It is under this veil that she is represented in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 11 Feb (...)
  • 26 In Feydeau’s play, Chamel mentions a teapot in Act III, scene 13.
  • 27 We take the liberty of referring to our own study of this phenomenon in Feydeau, la machine à verti (...)
  • 28 Certain voices, more uncommon, deplore the emptiness of the intrigues. Shaw, for example, finds His (...)

19Because the scenic movement softens the portrait of mores and marriages. The press knows this, and thus hopes for more nimbleness when the wife in His Little Dodge, to avenge herself, says she was raped during her hypnotic sleep, a scene judged too serious (Pall Mall Gazette, 26 October 1896). The Sportsman accomplishes a feat of prowess, visible in our table: maintaining the exact sequence of events, but changing all its meaning. The comic gags are reproduced faithfully: Lottie Venne, upright under the blanket,25 makes us laugh (Times, 23 January 1893); the fight between the men on the sofa, on the other hand, is ‘less defensible’ (Globe, 23 January 1893). However, the intrigue accentuates the value of the magnanimous wife while Feydeau, himself, is interested in the appetites of the two sexes in a universe of scenery ruled by trickery. Often, the adapters attenuate the battle of the sexes and the social conflicts. The Other Fellow dodges the disturbing subjects, such as the social role of women: Adrienne, the captain’s niece, is less virile than her French counterpart. The barracks allows the mingling of social milieus; indeed, with Horner, we find a prince soldier who seduces the maids, but he no longer has to do chores peeling potatoes, and the carnivalesque comedy disappears. On the other hand, Horner accentuates the alienation felt by Saint Fontaine, a prisoner of his false identity, who cries out every other minute: ‘I’m not a coffee-pot!’ (OF, Act III, 20-22).26 A Night Out also exaggerates Feydeau’s own tendency to repetition:27 the hotel clerk more than once forces Pinglet’s door. The insertion of this clowning action illustrates the importance of rhythm. A Night Out, ‘a sustained pantomime rally’ (Athenaeum, 2 May 1896), seems written by the Hanlon-Lees (Globe, 30 April 1896), according to Feydeau’s own aesthetic of rhythm, revealed in the French creation: the action, ‘if not very classical, is highly artistic’ (Era, 8 December 1894). The press sees very well that, scenically, Feydeau creates nightmares, and elsewhere it demands, for The Other Fellow, a more rapid rhythm. The physical play should be in service of a metaphysical vertigo; however, these plays circumvent the reflection on love and society that Feydeau wants to deepen.28 The refusals of Un fil à la patte and of La Dame de chez Maxim are understandable: these plays in which a kept woman, undressed, sewed chaos among the aristocracy, were sexually and socially scandalous. The rhythmic racing wanted by Feydeau, here planes down the disturbing subjects. These amputations, without a doubt, accentuate the reputation for superficiality of French vaudeville on the London stage.

Game of Hide-and-seek

20Do the self-censorship of the adapters and the official filtering protect the public from the diffusion of dangerous ideas? The critical reception of Feydeau in London is paradoxical. Quite often, the press discloses what the stage conceals. The newspapers comment incessantly on the strategies of the adaptors and recall the scandalous situations in the original text, like in The Sportsman:

  • 29 See also Morning Post, 23 January 1893.

the adapter, while he has preserved the spirit of the original, has, with happy ingenuity, contrived to divert it of much that would have been unacceptable to English tastes . . . . The consuming passion of Mr Briscoe for the gaming-table, which impels him to deceive his loving wife by so many shameless fictions and subtle artifices, is found to be quite as convenient for the playwright’s purposes as the more serious breaches of marital fidelity which M. Georges Feydeau has imagined . . . . (Graphic, 28 January 1893)29

21Of course, it is necessary to contrast French bad taste with British decency. However, in singing the praises of this art of ‘emasculation’ (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 28 January 1893), the reports on the plays seem like strange anamorphoses: without discussing outright the carnal motivations of the characters, they invite the spectators to decipher them, and draw their curiosity to the Parisian creations. The Era clearly explains the vengeance of Marcelle in L’Hôtel du Libre-échange (8 December 1894) or the scene in which Mrs Champignol compromises herself with her suitor: ‘In bidding him an eternal good-bye, she is again imprudent enough to allow him to kiss her on the cheek’ (12 November 1892). A collector of press articles could smile at the farewell kiss shown in The Other Fellow:

Agnes. Ah! My bracelet! . . .  You can place it on my wrist and then you may embrace

St. Fontaine. Ah!

Agnes, continuing. The tips of my fingers. (OF, Act I, 12-13)

22The account shows what the stage hides, in a quasi-erotic play which arouses the desire of the spectators. Even the plays refused in England are well known. The Times recommends La Dame de chez Maxim to ‘English travellers . . . who are eager to know, when in Paris, where to laugh in public’ even if ‘the piece, bien entendu, is often enough a little leste (19 January 1899). Besides, it would be imitating the royal family. On 4 April 1894, the Prince of Wales made the right choice between the two plays by Feydeau showing in Paris; by ignoring the reasonable comedy Le Ruban [The Ribbon] at the Odéon, he escaped being near to the terrorist attack at Foyot’s restaurant; he was happily in attendance at the sulphurous Un fil à la patte at the Palais-Royal (Pall Mall Gazette, 7 April 1894). The correspondents in Paris summarize in detail Le Dindon (for instance, The Era, 15 February 1896), which could tempt London (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 22 February 1896). On 26 April 1897, the Morning Post announces the upcoming adaptation of that play by Seymour Hicks and Justin Huntley McCarthy. The correspondents, enthusiastic about the ‘wonderful caricature of the English couple’ (Era, 15 February 1896) in this play, arouse expectations. But later, the press will also vindicate the impossibility of its adaptation (Stage, 19 July 1900). The articles reveal a difficult dialogue among the journalists themselves, by turns curious and horrified.

23This internal contradiction tends to disappear behind the affirmation of a nearly impossible dialogue, this time between French and English on the subject of laughter. The disagreements are posted on both sides of the Channel. The French correspondents in London denounce the prudish ‘tripatouillages’ (T. Johnson, Le Figaro, 25 January 1893) in The Sportsman. Feydeau himself, in an open letter to the Figaro, revolts against the welcome accorded to his plays in London:

La Dame de chez Maxim va être reprise aux Nouveautés.
Le Dindon va être redonné au Palais-Royal; ces deux pièces ont été interdites à Londres comme immorales! (En quoi, mon Dieu?)
N’importe! puisqu’ ‘immoral’ il y a, ce qui l’est d’un côté de la Manche, l’est également de l’autre, je crois de mon devoir d’avertir MM. les Anglais, afin que, s’il prend fantaisie à quelques-uns d’assister à l’un de ces deux spectacles, ils ne puissent pas se plaindre de s’être fourvoyés et que s’ils y vont ce soit au moins en connaissance de cause.
Ces observations ne s’appliquent pas, bien entendu, aux autres étrangers, car dans leurs différents pays elles ont été traduites et jouées avec un succès que je n’osais espérer, ces pièces qui ne sont immorales qu’en Angleterre. (Feydeau, the
Figaro, 11 July 1900)

  • 30 Act I substantially differs in the American version.

24Feydeau exaggerates. Other cities, such as Cologne, have refused to welcome La Dame de chez Maxim which, besides, is not one of the ‘Unlicensed Lord Chamberlain’s plays’. Theatre directors doubtless simply gave up on producing such a risqué play, despite its triumph at the Universal Exhibition in 1900 and its New York success beginning 29 August 1899. The London public discovered it in 1902, scandalised despite the re-writes that had been imposed.30 Feydeau’s letter earned him an immediate fulminating attack from The Stage:

Like the average Frenchman, M. Feydeau appears altogether ignorant of the habits of every city but Paris otherwise, he would not need reminding that in England the theatres live by the patronage of entire families, the younger members of which are not excluded from the playhouse as they are obliged to be in France. And it is in the interest of the general playgoer that the Examiner of Plays refuses to license the production of the coarser kind of sexual plays of French origin. There is an enormous difference in the customs of the two races, for in France a man will take his wife to see a play that, as the saying goes, would make a grenadier blush, whereas the Englishman, when he takes his wife, likes to take his daughters too. And even M. Feydeau would hardly suggest that Palais Royal’s plays are fit entertainment for delicate-minded girls. (Stage, 19 July 1900)

25In condemning jointly the very French immorality both of the play and of the man, this specialist theatre journal dismisses French comedy for its fundamental coarseness.

26The plays of Feydeau prudently gained the Victorian stages, and the more daring ones entered Purgatory. Self-censorship gave in to distortion and the watering down of intrigues, sometimes emptied of part of their substance, but still attractive for their liveliness. The adapters, finally, resemble Feydeau’s characters, always preoccupied with cheating the authorities and repressing their effrontery. The press provokes the fears and arouses the desires of the audience, as if cast into the guilty pleasures of laughing in spite of oneself. However, these contradictions tend to be erased insofar as it appears necessary, in the current official discourse, to affirm the impossibility of the dialogue of two cultures, the irreducible difference between the French and English audiences, and the failure of unifying laughter.

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Censorship and Licensing (Joint Select Committee). London: The Stage, 1910.

Charle, Christophe. Théâtres en capitales. Naissance de la société du spectacle à Paris, Berlin, Londres et Vienne 1860-1914. Paris: Albin Michel, 2008.

étienne, Anne. ‘Les non-dits de la scène anglaise, xviiie-xxe siècles’. Ethnologie française 36 (2006): 19−26.

Faivre, Bernard. ‘Farce’. Dictionnaire encyclopédique du théâtre à travers le monde. Ed., Michel Corvin. Paris: Bordas, 2008.

Feydeau, Georges. The Sportsman (Monsieur chasse!). Trans. William Lestocq. Manuscript. British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Plays. Date of Licence: 1 October 1892. Add MS 53509 I. [S]

Feydeau, Georges. His Little Dodge (Le Système Ribadier). Trans. Justin, H. McCarthy. Manuscript. British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Plays. Date of Licence: 18 November 1896. Add MS 53612 O. [HLD]

Feydeau, Georges. A Night Session. Trans. Unknown. Manuscript. British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Plays. Date of Licence: 30 November 1897. Add MS 53644 O. [ANS]

Feydeau, Georges, and Maurice Desvallières. The Other Fellow (Champignol malgré lui). Trans. Fred Horner. Manuscript. British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Plays. Date of Licence: 8 September 1893. Add MS 53533 J. [OF]

Feydeau, Georges, and Maurice Desvallières. L’Hôtel du Libre-échange [1894]. In Feydeau, Georges. Théâtre complet. Vol. II. Ed. Henry Gidel. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1988.

Feydeau, Georges, and Maurice Desvallières. A Night Out (L’Hôtel du Libre-échange). Trans. Unknown. Manuscript. British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Plays. Date of Licence: 20 May 1896. Add MS 53600 J. [ANO]

Feydeau, Georges and Maurice Hennequin. Le Système Ribadier [1892]. In Feydeau, Georges. Théâtre complet. Vol. II. Ed. Henry Gidel. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1988.

Heyraud, Violaine. Feydeau, la machine à vertiges. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2012.

Hicks, Seymour. Twenty-Four Years of an Actor’s Life. London: Coliseum, 1910.

Leveratto, Jean-Marc. ‘Le théâtre français à New York (1880-1917)’. Le Théâtre français à l’étranger au xixe siècle. Histoire d’une suprématie culturelle. Ed. Jean-Claude Yon. Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2008.

Mander, Raymond, and John Mitchenson. The Theatres of London. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.

Marcosson, Isaac F., and Daniel Frohman. Charles Frohman: Manager and Man. London: The Bodley Head, 1916.

Powell, Kerry, and Peter Raby. Oscar Wilde in Context. Cambridge: CUP, 2013.

Ramos-Gay, Ignacio. ‘“He had French immorality on the brain”: adaptation et censure du théâtre français à Londres (1837-1901)’. Romantisme 147 (2010): 109−19.

Shaw, George B. Our Theatres in the Nineties. Vol. II. London: Constable & Co., 1948.

Stevens, John Russel. The Censorship of English Drama 1824-1901. Cambridge: CUP, 1980.

Wearing, J. P. The London Stage, 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers and Personnel. London: Scarecrow Press, 1976. 2nd Edition: 2013.

‘Drama the Week’, Athenaeum. 2 May 1896: 593.

‘The Other Fellow, at the Court Theatre’. Bury and Norwich Post. 10 October 1893: 3.

‘The Drama in Paris’. Era. 25 December 1886: 15.

‘The Drama in Paris. From our own correspondent’. Era. 30 April 1892: 7.

‘From Our Parisian Correspondent’. Era. 12 November 1892: 9.

‘The Drama in Paris. From Our Own Correspondent’. Era. 8 December 1894: 11.

‘The Drama in Paris’. Era. 15 February 1896: 13.

‘Theatrical Gossip’. Era. 30 October 1897: 12.

‘Correspondance anglaise’, T. Johnson, Le Figaro. 25 January 1893: 3.

‘Courrier des théâtres’, open letter, Feydeau, Le Figaro. 11 July 1900: 4.

‘The Sportsman’. Globe. 23 January 1893: 6-7.

‘A Night Out’. Globe. 30 April 1896: 3.

‘The First Born’. Globe. 2 November 1897: 6.

‘New Pieces at the Theatres’. The Graphic. 28 January 1893: 20.

‘Comedy Theatre’. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 28 January 1893: 10.

‘Our Captious Critic. The Sportsman’. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 11 February 1893: 23.

‘Drama’. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 22 February 1896: 23.

‘Vaudeville Theatre’, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. 2 May 1896: 34.

Le Journal des Débats, Jules Lemaître, “La Semaine dramatique”. 2 May 1892: 2.

‘Vaudeville Theatre’, London Evening Standard. 30 April 1896: 3.

‘Comedy Theatre’, Morning Post. 23 January 1893: 2.

‘Court Theatre’, Morning Post. 11 September 1893: 6.

‘Theatrical and Musical Notes’. Morning Post. 26 April 1897: 6.

The Sporstman pleases Boston’. New York Times. 18 October 1892: 5.

Gay Parisians at Hoyt’s’. New York Times. 24 September 1895: 5.

‘Theaters: This Week’s New Bills’. New York Times. 10 October 1897: 5.

‘The Anarchist Outrage in Paris’. Pall Mall Gazette. 7 April 1894: 7.

His Little Dodge, At the Royalty’. Pall Mall Gazette. 26 October 1896: 3.

Comedy Theatre’. Reynold’s Newspaper. 22 January 1893: 8.

‘Comedy Theatre’. St James Gazette. 23 January 1893: 12.

‘Court Theatre’. St James Gazette. 11 September 1893: 5.

‘The Paris Stage’. Stage. 19 July 1900: 14.

‘Comedy Theatre’. Times. 23 January 1893: 14.

Vaudeville Theatre’. Times. 30 April 1896: 6.

‘The French Stage’. Times. 19 January 1899: 6.

‘Settled for a Season’. Washington Post. 6 June 1897: 22.

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1Vaudeville’ in English connotes a spectacle close to the music hall. The French word refers to a light comedy, with or without sung verses. The translation, ‘farce’, is a false friend; in French ‘la farce’ is a ‘short play, based on the humorous confrontation of popular characters, who usually seek to dupe or dominate each other’ (Faivre, in Corvin 535), using a transgressive, physical and sometimes coarse comedy, from which vaudeville can borrow without being reduced to it.

2 In the period studied, this was Edward Pigott, succeeded by George Redford in 1895 (Stevens 35).

3 A margin of error subsists: the titles are sometimes far from the original, and the author’s name does not always appear.

4 See for instance Washington Post, 6 June 1897.

5 According to J. P. Wearing (1976), as well as to a number of press articles.

6 According to J. P. Wearing (2013).

7 His name is also absent in the manuscript of His Little Dodge.

8 On the role of these correspondents who sense the French plays likely to be performed in London, vid. Charle, 328.

9 For instance, Era (25 December 1886): ‘Tailleur pour Dames is certain to obtain a great success in Paris; whether it would be suited for adaptation into English question, however, there is so very little stuff in its plot, and the airy lightness of the details might evaporate under the operation. Besides, the subject, such as it is, cannot be called new; it is the sauce that gives it such relish.’

10 Vid. The Era, 30 April 1892, and Jules Lemaître in Le Journal des Débats, 2 May 1892.

11 We note the success of Pink Dominos (Criterion, 1877) adapted from Les Dominos roses (1876) by Alfred Hennequin.

12 ‘Charles Frohman, l’inspirateur du Syndicate, dont l’appétit commercial était légendaire, est aussi le producteur qui a le plus d’adaptations françaises à son actif dans la période considérée’ (Leveratto 236).

13 Except for His Little Dodge, bought by Edward Rice.

14 Seymour Hicks had a minor role as a young man in love in The Other Fellow in 1893.

15 The Court Theatre opened the season with The Other Fellow after summer 1893.

16 Houste is a common word of command, and means hurry up—pronounced like the English word whowith st on end of it’ (OF, Act II, 15).

17 In the manuscript, the title A Night in Paris replaces: Oh! What a Night.

18 Anne étienne shows the permanence of this suspicion in the 20th century (étienne 19−26).

19 The hotel is not suitable for married couples, either: in The Other Fellow, Champignol, overjoyed at finding his wife at the camp in Clermont, no longer takes her to the hotel, as with Feydeau, but to the restaurant.

20 Seymour Hicks may have modified A Night Out: ‘Mr. Seymour Hicks assumed responsibility for [the adaptation of the farce] by acknowledging the call for the author at the final fall of the curtain’ (London Evening Standard, 30 April 1896).

21 We plan to confirm this hypothesis soon by consulting the archives in New York.

22 In the catalog of the New York Public Library, the play The Other Man, signed Fred Horner, is presented as ‘an English version of Champignol malgré lui’.

23 In 1909, at any rate, Frohman will put the idea of immorality in perspective and oppose censorship (Censorship and Licensing, 204).

24 The watering down of The Gay Parisians was in response to the fears of the American audience (New York Times, 24 September 1895). On the other hand, there was very little that was shocking in the New York staging of A Night Session (New York Times, 10 October 1897).

25 It is under this veil that she is represented in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 11 February 1893.

26 In Feydeau’s play, Chamel mentions a teapot in Act III, scene 13.

27 We take the liberty of referring to our own study of this phenomenon in Feydeau, la machine à vertiges.

28 Certain voices, more uncommon, deplore the emptiness of the intrigues. Shaw, for example, finds His Little Dodge deceitful: ‘The moment it became apparent that all these interesting and promising people were only puppets in a piece of farcical clockwork, the old disappointment, the old worry, the old rather peevish impatience with the remaining turns of the mechanism set in’ (231).

29 See also Morning Post, 23 January 1893.

30 Act I substantially differs in the American version.

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Référence électronique

Violaine Heyraud, « Tempering Feydeau: Twisting and Guilty Pleasures on the London Stage (1893-1897) », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 20 avril 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3335

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Violaine Heyraud

Violaine Heyraud is Associate Professor in French literature at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle–Paris 3, and a member of the Centre de Recherche sur les Poétiques du xixe siècle (CRP19). After publishing her doctoral dissertation—Feydeau, la machine à vertiges (Classiques Garnier, 2012)—she has conducted research on theatre studies, particularly on the poetics, dramaturgy and staging of comedy, vaudeville and boulevard plays in the nineteenth and twentieth century, as well as on the connections between theatre and medical sciences.
Violaine Heyraud est maître de conférences en littérature française du xixe siècle à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 et membre du Centre de Recherche sur les Poétiques du xixe siècle (CRP19). Après la publication de sa thèse Feydeau, la machine à vertiges (Classiques Garnier, 2012), elle poursuit ses travaux sur la littérature dramatique, et particulièrement sur la poétique, la dramaturgie et la mise en scène de la comédie, du vaudeville et du boulevard du xixe et du xxe siècles, ainsi que sur les rapports du théâtre aux sciences et à la médecine.

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