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Canine Actors and Melodramatic Effects: The Dog of Montargis Arrives on the English Stage

Acteurs canins et effets mélodramatiques : Le chien de Montargis sur la scène anglaise
Claudia Alonso Recarte

Résumés

Cette étude porte sur la manière dont, à travers l’adaptation du mélodrame Le chien de Montargis abondamment joué sur les planches britanniques, la société victorienne a exploré et tenté de définir sa propre relation et conceptualisation culturelle du chien. Issu d’une légende médiévale, Le chien fut d’abord écrit pour la scène parisienne par Guilbert de Pixerécourt en 1814, attirant immédiatement l’attention des businessmen du théâtre londonien. Les adaptations anglaises allaient bientôt suivre, des traductions de sources variées étaient présentées devant un public fasciné par les prouesses de Dragon, le mémorable protagoniste canin. Qu’il provienne d’une traduction anonyme ou de la probable adaptation de William Barrymore et de Thomas Dibdin, The Dog of Montargis serait copieusement exposé au cours de la plus grande partie du siècle. De telles adaptations intervinrent à un moment très significatif de l’Histoire anglaise en ce qui concerne la reconsidération de la cause animale et de l’autrui domestique non-humain. En conséquence des avancées scientifiques et d’une sensibilité accrue à l’égard des comportements « cruels », l’Angleterre du dix-neuvième siècle serait le témoin de l’impact culturel du darwinisme, d’une réaction contre la physiologie expérimentale continentale (un domaine particulièrement investi par les Français et par les Allemands), et de l’émergence de sociétés de protection des humains et des animaux. Dans un tel contexte de complexité, où la société victorienne consolidait son assise dans la dernière partie du siècle, la création d’un mélodrame canin revêt une dimension toute particulière. Cet article étudie les choix qui guidèrent les adaptations de la pièce, et analyse de quelle manière ces choix esthétiques (aux répercussions sur la mise en scène, l’intrigue et le texte, entre autres aspects), montrant une conception de l’autrui non-humain (en l’occurrence une espèce aussi significative que le chien), sont révélateurs d’un intérêt en pleine mutation concernant le sort réservé aux animaux, leur traitement humain, et la place qu’ils occupaient dans le sentiment national et l’omniprésente « anglicité ». Partant de l’analyse des adaptations anglaises qui choisissent de maintenir le chien en vie (contrairement à son sort tragique dans la version française), à celle d’un Dragon revisité et vu par le prisme de l’éthique domestique de la gentillesse, cet article explore des questions fondamentales en lien avec les idéaux victoriens sur la cause canine, et leur immersion dans des discours autour de la loyauté, du courage, de la race et de la capacité au deuil. Étudiant à la fois la manière dont le chien participe des conventions mélodramatiques et absorbe les tensions scientifiques et sociales naissantes relatives à la définition de la « chiennitude », l’étude vise à mieux faire comprendre à quel point certains aspects des représentations (notamment la manière idiosyncratique dont le chien exprime ses sentiments) expliquent comment les conceptions modernes de l’autrui non-humain ont été façonnées.

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1René-Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt’s The Dog of Montargis or the Forest of Bondy, which first premiered at the Théâtre de la Gaîté on June 18, 1814, is traditionally remembered by theatre historians as the epitome of the ‘dog (melo)dramas’. Inspired by an eponymous medieval French legend, Pixerécourt thrilled Parisian and provincial audiences with the short, yet memorable performance of a canine hero, which was incorporated into a melodramatic formula. The play was an immediate hit that ignited a word-of-mouth craze—Charles Nodier enthusiastically recollected how, for several weeks, Parisian social discourse would open with the question ‘avez-vous vu le Chien?’ (108).

2Surprisingly, little scholarly attention has been paid to the fact that English adaptations of the play for the most part drastically magnified the role of Dragon (the dog to which the title pays tribute), which strengthened the melodramatic emotional tension. In this article, I examine the historical and transcultural metamorphosis of the dog at the heart of the legend, from its original medieval, mythical origin to Pixerécourt’s reinvention of it in his celebrated melodrama, until it is finally transformed into a symbol of maturing Victorian sensibilities in English adaptations of the play. I aim to show how the meaning of the dog is ‘rewritten’ and negotiated to better reflect developing Victorian conceptions of the domestic canine.

From the Legend of Le chien to Pixerécourt

3Pixérecourt was not the first to revisit the symbol of the devoted canine companion who succeeds in avenging crimes against his master. As often noted by cultural historians, this universal motif has consistently developed into ‘anecdotes [that] attest the retentive memory of the dog for the assassin of his master, and the vengeance he takes on him’ (‘History of the Dog’ 273). Such a compendium resurrects what is believed to be the mythopoetic source, Plutarch’s account of how King Pyrrhus brought a vengeful dog that was mourning his master before a review of his army, frightening the murderers into confession. According to Cohen, the western medieval version of this narrative incorporated the retaliation of the dog into the setting of a ‘formal judicial duel with the murderer’ (22). The tale appears in a twelfth-century chanson de geste, ‘La Reine Sibile’, set in Charlemagne’s court. What in time would be regarded as the legend of le chien de Montargis is but a refinement and re-contextualization of the same story during the year 1371 under the reign of Charles V. From Montaigne’s apocryphal handwritten references in a Bordeaux copy of his ‘Apology for Raimond Sebond’ to late Victorian relations of the story in numerous periodicals, the tale transcended and resisted philosophical contingencies that could have impoverished, challenged, or altogether extinguished the universal quality of the fidelity and perseverance of the dog.

4Slight variations notwithstanding, recapitulations of the narrative mostly followed the same pattern: a man by the name of Aubri (or Aubry) de Montdidier, conceived as a courtier, a knight or a gentleman, is murdered in the forest. His dog stands over the spot where Aubri is buried in tragic affliction until, on the verge of starvation, he finds his way to Paris where he seeks the home of a friend of his master. Upon recognizing the emaciated animal, the man follows the alarmed dog to the grave of the victim. Later, the dog encounters the murderer, Chevalier Macaire, in the streets of Paris and viciously attacks him. City talk of a dog that held a grudge against a particular individual soon reaches the king, who resolves to hold a trial by combat, a practice based on the belief that divine judgement would prevent the innocent from succumbing in the fight. Exhausted by the attacks of the animal, Macaire lets his guard down and the dog grips his throat in his jaws. Either by his own accord or in answer to the king’s demand for a confession, the terrified Macaire finally admits to the murder and is sentenced to death in the Isle of Notre Dame.

5Pixerécourt called his play a ‘mélodrame historique’. Aside from summarizing the medieval legend, his ‘Historical Note’ (which was distributed among the audience and featured in the printed version) appears to dwell on the possible historical accuracy behind the account. Melodrama is strongly dependent on ‘creating cosmos out of chaos’ by repeating the same theme with slight variations: the peace and innocence of a community are temporarily violated or disturbed by an external force until justice prevails and order is restored through the punishment of the villain. Brooks identified in the socio-political tumults of the French Revolution an obvious reason for the success and continuous demand of the genre, as it showcased ‘incessant struggle against enemies, without and within, branded as villains, suborners of morality, who must be confronted and expunged, over and over, to assure the triumph of virtue’ (Brooks 1995, 15).

6However, what seems paradoxical, is that in attending to his own self-imposed ‘moral goal’ (‘Historical Note’, 92) and in celebrating the richness of French history/mythology, Pixerécourt would choose to alter and diminish the courageous feats of the legendary dog. Marcoux (97‒98) hypothesizes that the evident changes between the source material and the play may have been due to a reinforcement of the unity of action and that it was not uncommon for Pixerécourt to take such creative liberties. Nonetheless, I further speculate as to plausible reasons underlying the melodramatist’s variations of the narrative.

7Pixerécourt’s vision does indeed resist an excessively quixotic portrayal of Dragon, the dog. Mostly set in an inn in the village of Bondy, the three-act play strategically accentuated all the genre’s representative ingredients to deliver an emotionally ridden performance. The community is first presented as a joyous place: Madame Gertrude, the innkeeper, prepares the lodgings for Chevalier Gontran’s company of king soldiers. Gleefully assisting in the arrangements are Ursule (her goddaughter), Eloi (a mute porter and Ursule’s love interest) and Bertrand (the archetypal servant employed for comic relief). Upon celebrating the victories of the company, it soon becomes clear that Aubri stands out amongst the rest, for his deeds are lauded and compensated through his appointment to lieutenant and the promise of a marriage to Gontran’s daughter, Clotilde. Torn by jealousy, Macaire, also a king’s soldier, later challenges Aubri to a duel. Despite cheating by Landry, Macaire’s more cerebral sidekick, Aubri succeeds in winning the first shot. His pardoning of his enemy only enrages Macaire even more, and fatal revenge is sworn before Aubri leaves to deliver a letter for Gontran.

8The second act opens with Dragon racing to the inn late at night and ringing the bell for help. Alarmed, Gertrude follows him into the forest to the place where his master is buried, and Macaire and Landry return to the inn. Through their dialogue, the audience learns that they have disposed of Aubri in the forest, and as luck would have it, all suspicions eventually lead to Eloi as the murderer, who is to be executed. Yet when Dragon reveals his profound animosity against Macaire (the second and last scene in which the dog appears onstage), Gertrude attempts to convince Gontran and the Seneschal that they were misled and that Macaire’s contempt against Aubri could well be his motive for killing him. At the insistence of Gertrude, who claims Dragon to be a ‘témoin incorruptible . . . qu’il ne se trompera pas’ (1814, 55), Gontran resolves to celebrate a trial of sorts in the public square, whereupon both Eloi and Macaire would face Dragon, whose reaction to each of them would bring forth further evidence. Unfortunately, confrontation never occurs, as Landry has, in the meantime, killed Dragon. The conflict is ultimately resolved through a combination of material evidence (a sash that Macaire had accidentally left in the forest) and the villain’s own logorrhea, as his guilt compulsively pushes him to confess, much to the dismay of Landry, who is also arrested. Eloi’s innocence is honoured, and so the community regains its original order.

9To return to Pixerécourt’s creative choices, it is intriguing, to say the least, that the playwright would venture to take such liberties with the central role that the dog originally played in the legend. To narrate the tale through a ‘Historical Note’ only to eliminate the most climactic aspect (the trial by combat) and having the dog killed seems to be a baffling choice. This is not to say that Dragon is stripped of all hints of heroism, for his loyalty is ever emphasized in the characters’ dialogue. However, in resolving the conflict differently, Dragon is ultimately encaged within the confines of his role as a messenger, as a performer of visual semiotics the signs of whom must be correctly mediated and interpreted by the characters. Even his last dying effort seems to be of a semiotic nature. As Gertrude infers after having found Dragon dead, ‘Les scélérats ont redouté l’épreuve; ils ont tué ce pauvre Dragon. Je viens de le voir expirant sur le seuil de la porte. . . . Il s’est traîné jusque-là comme pour indiquer en mourant le lieu qui recèle l’assassin de son maître’ (Pixerécourt 1814, 59‒60). Thus Dragon may be a symbol of virtue, but he cannot truly be the melodramatic hero incarnate, as his actions only suggest, as opposed to verify.

10Even more telling is that in the play it is an inanimate object that provides conclusive evidence. The significance of the sash, carelessly left in the forest by Macaire, is consistent with the melodramatic leitmotif of ‘accidents’ that ‘work in favour of the virtuous and to the detriment of the vile’ (Dye 12). Pixerécourt’s resolution to resort to a sash as the indisputable proof of Macaire’s deeds may contribute to the credibility of the action, but it pauperizes the dog’s epic involvement in bringing justice and consummating his destiny as an avenger. The lifelessness of a sash, an object that is oblivious to human moral affairs, privileges material fact and logic over animal instinct. By depriving Dragon of his heroic finale, Pixerécourt seems to insinuate that to have kept him as the subject that elicits Macaire’s confession would not only have pushed the play to the fringes of believability, but would also have dangerously championed a type of social order whose rules and sense of cohesion were perilously dependent on (or at least, reliant on) animal impulse.

11Therefore, the pervading question remains: what is it about Dragon that, in the view of Pixerécourt, in the end rendered him undeserving of staying true to the medieval legend as the sole hero? Nemesvari ascertains that the melodramatic hero ‘tends toward either honest straight talk or tongue-tied silence’ (103). Dragon would have, in a way, even been able to exemplify both and avoid neither-norism: his straightforwardness in the triple correspondence between sign, signifier and signified coupled with his lack of (human) language empower the hero within the rules of melodrama. However, his ‘honest straight talk’ in the shape of canine communicative codes is hampered by Gontran and the Seneschal’s reluctance to regard his message as pure evidence until plausibly argued for by Gertrude. Dragon’s actions are also misinterpreted by the community when he sniffs out Aubri’s belongings in Eloi’s pocket, a discovery that accidentally incriminates the latter. Once more, material evidence seems to prevail, although this time it leads to a wrongful accusation. It is up to Gertrude, ever the female interpreter of the mute figures (for she also translates Eloi’s pantomimic efforts to defend himself), to reason out the situation.

12Meanwhile, the genre’s leitmotif of muteness further solidifies the link between Dragon and Eloi. Brooks states that ‘this dramaturgy of the nonhuman already suggests the importance of the unspoken, nonverbal indicators of plot and meaning in the play. But more important than the dog is the mute, young Eloi’ (1974, 550). Because Brooks’s study is indeed very illuminating in its analysis of the aesthetic associations between the historically based melodramatic preference for visuals, pantomime, dumb shows and muteness, it is rather unfortunate that so little attention is paid to the relevance of the dog as a double to Eloi. Indeed, the moulding of heroic characters through ‘plastic representability’ (1974, 553) and the crafting of pantomime as ‘a language of verbs’ (1974, 556) are in stark contrast to the villain’s excessive loquaciousness and are skills that are as well mastered by Dragon as by Eloi. Both may be credited as active agents in the guaranteeing of the visual splendour that, alongside the dance routines, demonstrated Pixerécourt’s ‘impressive mastery of theatrical effects’ (Brocket 1959a, 155). Both characters also fail, to a wide extent, in their antics, for neither convinces Gontran and the Seneschal of their version of the story. Yet, while Eloi’s endeavour backfires because of the incoherence of his message (for his mimicry and the limited facts surrounding the murder do not amount to conclusive evidence of his innocence), Dragon is doubted because he is, after all, a dog. As a creature of the domain of the beastly, the passions that he operates upon may proffer a hypothesis, but not fully determine the expected restoration of order.

13Speculation as to Pixerécourt’s inhibition of the dog’s heroism may also bring into consideration the playwright’s possible qualms about having a canine actor bear so much responsibility onstage. True, some canine appearances had already been brought to minor theatres, and more notably, the species had slowly gained prominence in street performances doing tricks (as opposed to being used as circumstantial by-standers). Jean-Baptiste Nicolet had, by the 1760s, a permanent troupe of acrobats and performing animals showcased at the Boulevard du Temple (Taylor 23). Other popular contemporary acts featuring animals were the ‘accusing horse’ at the Cirque Olympique and the melodrama celebrities, Baba, an elephant, and Coco, a stag (Marcoux 97). To this we may add the popularity of the dog-hero that probably inspired Pixerécourt to write his own canine melodrama: Frederic Reynolds had, in 1803, thrilled English theatre-goers with The Caravan, in which a large dog rescued a boy from drowning. Yet Pixerécourt would keep the action simple: the only two scenes in which Dragon appears before the audience (to ring the bell at the inn and to chase Macaire) seem to have been elementary tricks that posed little threat to the performance. If indeed the dramatist hesitated to provide the dog with more protagonism because of possible errors, such a fear may have been grounded on his well-known work ethic that pushed him to unify all production aspects under the vision of a single man to excel in visual cohesion (Brockett 1959b).

14The dog’s scarce appearance in Pixerécourt’s play was of no consequence, for it did little to curtail its massive success, attracting throngs of audiences from all social backgrounds, from the popular classes to the fashionable circles. It soon became evident that the business of melodrama could capitalize on canines, who became seasonal celebrities. As stated by Marcoux, ‘the original Dragon was put under long-term contract and was well insured. The Gaîté was taking no chances’ (1992, 98).

‘Victorianizing’ Dragon on the English Stage

15If Pixerécourt’s play signified the reinvention of the dog from the legendary to the melodramatic, the English translations and adaptations of the piece, I argue, further intensified the role of Dragon both to accommodate and to build upon the nation’s continuous examinations of the social meaning of canines. The nineteenth century’s movement towards a culture of the middle classes, of gendered spheres, industrial development and commodities, went hand in hand with a public reassessment of the place that nonhuman others (and, in particular, domestic animals) should occupy both in the emotional, collective imagination and in actual (urban) geographies.

  • 1 The 1816 version, republished by Gerould and Carlson (2002) as anonymous, is indicated by the Hathi (...)

16In this section, I analyse the significance of Dragon in English adaptations of the play at a textual and socio-historical level. According to Gray (16), the play first premiered in English in London at the Theatre Royal, at Covent Garden, in 1814. Although it is likely that there existed numerous other English versions of the text, I will be working with three adaptations of The Dog of Montargis: an anonymous version from 1816, an 1825 version attributed to William Barrymore, and what would appear to be a later version attributed to Thomas Dibdin. This last piece was published in 1871 in the collection of Dicks’ Standard Plays. However, if indeed translated and adapted by Dibdin, it must have been available before his death in 1841.1 The overwhelming amount of announcements publicizing productions in British periodicals attests to the play’s success throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. It could be argued that within the Victorian scenario, Dragon was resurrected as an emblem that unified canine mythic qualities and British cultural expectations whilst it continued to nurture melodramatic dynamics.

Dragon Lives!

17Howell’s recent work on the domestic dog in Victorian society provides some enlightening insight as to the underlying cultural and geographic structures of what he intuitively refers to as Britain’s ‘trope of “a nation of dog lovers”’ (3). Though Howell rightfully questions the hyperbolic pretensions and historical inaccuracies of the trope, he does credit Victorian Britain for having ‘invented’ the modern dog, by which he means the canine companion that has been assimilated within modern capitalist culture in such a way that it has become domesticated in a new sense, within the dualism of the private and the public spheres. For Howell, the Victorian domestication of the dog, its integration within the household and the delimitations as to which public spaces it could occupy and how, reveal how profoundly urban geographies affect and determine the contemporary negotiated coexistence between humans and nonhuman others. Yet this phenomenon whereupon dogs were not only literally invited into the average, middle-class home but also symbolically ‘granted a national home . . . a sort of homeland’ (Howell 177) was not without a price, one that was nurtured by the ideological dichotomies inherent to the Victorian mentality and that was to materialize through dualisms (the good versus the bad dog, the pet versus the pest, the wild versus the domestic, etc.).

18To approach the English adaptations of The Dog of Montargis under the scope of Victorian mentality is to question the underlying reasons for the changes from the original version and to hypothesize as to how they accommodated Dragon into the British ‘homeland’. If Pixerécourt surprises audiences with a reinvention of the legend whereupon the dog is deprived of his duelling destiny, already in the 1816 English adaptation of the text we encounter a most telling change, one that would remain in Barrymore’s and Dibdin’s versions: the dog would have a greater presence onstage and would not be killed by Landry.

19Such a change may be regarded as an early indication of a shared discomfort with the idea of an innocent dog being killed. As Turner (1980) suggests, Victorian phobia and fascination with the physical, moral and existential implications of pain and suffering were the result of a collective processing of eighteenth-century ideology. Whether materialized in the engravings of William Hogarth or verbalized by the likes of Jeremy Bentham, these approaches reassessed the moral reasons for compassion towards nonhuman others as creatures entitled to an existence free from pain, cruelty and suffering. As nineteenth-century Britain continued to explore the inevitability of fostering the natural (that is, animals) within the urban, unprecedented legislative and social measures addressing the subject of cruelty and suffering began to be developed. In 1822, the law commonly known as Martin’s Act became one of the first pieces of animal welfare legislation by punishing the cruel treatment of cattle. Two years later, the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (which received the Queen’s patronage in 1840, thus adopting the prefix ‘Royal’) advocated a humanitarian, care-taking approach to animals, and in 1835 bull baiting was outlawed. Subsequent efforts to organize, legislate and operate upon animal protectionist principles would expand in the following decades, as Victorian culture strove to cope with Darwinism and the contagiousness of vivisection as the established method for scientific research.

20We must note that the production of the adaptations of The Dog of Montargis came at a time when France was perceived as a contemptible nation by anti-vivisectionist circles in Britain, leading to a highly public and heated debate as to the moral path that science was taking. Victorian Britain, in a somewhat self-congratulating gesture, made its antivivisectionist stance a hallmark of national identity. Though the practice of vivisection ultimately became established in British academia, the resistance endorsed by early welfarists, abolitionists and feminists polarized Britain from continental Europe (namely France and Germany) at an ideological level. France, being the nation in which experimental physiology was first standardized as the preferential method of research at an institutional level, soon came to epitomize moral deviation within the British collective imagination. The entire literature of articles, pamphlets, essays, letters and proceedings that compounded the body of antivivisectionist publications frequently conjured practices condoned in France—from the torture of horses at the Alfort Veterinary School by performing procedures without anaesthesia, to quoting the studies carried out by a tradition of acknowledged men of science that stretched from Claude Bernard and François Magendie to Louis Pasteur, these reports surfaced repeatedly until the First World War to not only elaborate an argument against the alleged usefulness of vivisection and to expose its cruelty but also to frame and polish a uniquely British sense of identity as one antithetical to French aspirations.

21Though I have found no evidence to directly link the adaptors’ decision to keep Dragon alive as a response to French vivisectionist attitudes, it does stand to reason that one should interpret the decision within the wider framework of the controversy and Anglo-French relations. Dragon’s virtues did, on the other hand, prove useful to tease out an antivivisectionist appeal. As an 1883 letter to The London Globe stated after having recounted the legend of le chien, vivisectionists ‘have never paused to think of the agony they are inflicting on the animals who are . . . the most faithful companions of man’ (‘The Dog of Montargis: Paris Letter to The London Globe’ 9).

22These sorts of allegations, whereupon the experimenter was portrayed as a vicious inflictor of pain, furthermore echoed the very formulas that structured melodrama. The innumerable recollections and quotes of what French physiologists were capable of were retold befitting a narrative that emphasized the innocence and helplessness of the research subject against the villainous passions of the sadistic scientist. These Manichean perceptions became even more accentuated when the experimental subject was of the canine species: Magendie’s London demonstration of the mutilation of a live greyhound in 1824, and Brachet’s progressive maiming of another specimen were, for instance, recurrently reproduced in antivivisectionist literature. When in 1904 a statue commemorating a terrier that had been used for multiple painful procedures at the London School of Medicine for Women was erected in Battersea Park, the hostility of the scientific community became apparent. The ensuing riots, which ultimately led to the removal of the piece altogether in 1910 (it would be replaced by a new statue in 1985), were to be known as ‘the Brown Dog Affair’.

23Furthermore, during the mid-nineteenth century, the underground business of ‘dog-knapping’ that flourished in Whitechapel fuelled the fear of having one’s dog stolen and sold to a vivisector. As Howell argues, ‘dog stealing reconnected the geographies of sentiment and economy that Victorian bourgeois ideology attempted, through its public/private and masculine/feminine distinctions, to hold apart’ (66). In other words, dog-knapping traded in the affections associated to the domestic ethos of kindness, in which the dog was a fundamental enactor. Grier (2006) connects the emergence of the modern pet (best incarnated by a dog) to the exercising of such ethos, whereupon benevolence, stewardship, and gentility defined the operational value of domesticity, itself symbolized through the ideal of the home. Dogs only became pets ‘as long as they were attached to a home, owned by humans, and generally integrated into domestic life’ (Brantz 79).

24In this light, in which the domestic dog becomes a bearer of so many values and aspirations concomitant with Victorianism, Dragon’s life acquires a significance that is in harmony with the spirit of the times. His death (and what is more, the extent to which he is disregarded in Pixerécourt’s closing scene in which only Eloi is lauded by the community) would have been incompatible with a society that not only proved its public concern for the suffering of animals, but that also seemed inclined to reproduce the trials and tribulations of the dog-as-victim within melodramatic paradigms that reaffirmed their own sense of domesticity.

Dragon’s Tricks

25The ‘new life’ that Dragon was gifted with in the English adaptations was to additionally serve to push the theatre into new terrains where the performative abilities of dogs were to be assimilated and capitalized on. Not that dogs had not been featured onstage before: Dobson (2000) traces the emergence of the canine actor back to the Elizabethan era, when canines were brought onto the stage to either visually embellish the scene or to act as ‘props’ that incited the characters into either dialogue or action. However, these dogs were used more as extras or as mute accessories at best, up until the mid-eighteenth century. As in France, dogs in time acquired performative presence in fairgrounds and were slowly made their way onto the minor theatres, to the point at which celebrity dog biographies and autobiographies became a fairly profitable literary genre.

26As the performative abilities of canines were recognized, expectations escalated and viewers became more critical. In 1835, a reviewer of a melodrama called The Poacher and His Dog lambasted how ‘there is a great dog introduced very needlessly; and as he acts his part reluctantly, his docility does not compensate for the absurdity of giving a poacher a large mastiff as his companion, or justify the introduction of the four-footed actor’ (The Spectator 1835, 1129). Only one year later, the reviewer of another melodrama titled The Hindoo Robber noted with amusement the uncooperative behaviour of the canine actors: ‘[The dogs] became refractory, and refused to seize the murderer by the throat; and when one of them only was shot, both took it into their heads to die’ (The Spectator 1836, 939). Yet foreshadowing Dragon’s prominence in Britain was, as mentioned earlier, the four-legged hero of Reynolds’s The Caravan, who alone packed Drury Lane for forty consecutive nights in 1803 (Dobson 121). Carlo, the dog, may hence be credited as the unassuming ‘founder’ of dog dramas and melodramas, inspiring not just Pixerécourt but also launching a highly lucrative theatrical genre that would result in hundreds of original plays written in response to the demands of a tireless Anglo-Saxon audience, and in the professionalization of trainers such as Barkham Cony and William Blanchard.

27Within this nineteenth-century fad of dog dramas, The Dog of Montargis would, even to the present day, remain the epitomizing referent of the genre, a fact that was in great part due to the tricks performed by the canine actor. The 1816 version seemed to establish the foundation that subsequent adaptations would have to build upon, offering Dragon more dramatic space, whether through actual stage presence or through reported actions. The first time Dragon actually appears on stage is in the first scene of the second act, just as in the French original. What is interesting about this entrance is that, unlike in Pixerécourt’s text, there are no textual indications regarding a possible contingency plan in case no trained dog was available or the animal failed to perform his act. Pixerécourt had envisioned three fundamental tricks for the dog to perform: Dragon, returning to the inn in search of help, scratches the door, tries the latch with his paws and finally pulls the bell handle, awakening Gertrude. Contrary to the scene in which he chases Macaire, this opening of the second act is purely reliant upon the actions of a dog on the stage alone. The absence of any other actor onstage to handle and subtly redirect the animal in case he were to miss his cue must certainly have been reason enough for Pixérecourt to consider alternative options, just as he did in case no dog was supplied:

Dans les villes où on n’aura pu se procurer un chien, on se contentera de sonner à plusieurs reprises, en dehors, à droite, derrière le petit bâtiment où est censée être la porte d’entrée. Dame Gertrude sortira de l’auberge et dira : Qui peut sonner à cette heure? Puis elle ira vers la droite, comme pour ouvrir. Elle disparaitra un moment. En revenant en scène, elle prendra le commencement du monologue, c’est Dragon, etc. (Pixerécourt 1814, 32).

28Observations such as these certainly foreshadowed today’s routine considerations of a ‘plan B’ in animal performances. For Pixerécourt, soundscapes indicative of the dog’s actions would have to fill in for the actual visuals that so enriched the melodramatic genre.

29The fact that, already in the 1816 English version, such stage directions are absent is suggestive of the extent to which an alternative to the dog’s performance was not contemplated. Evidently, one must approach this change with care, as the lack of textual evidence does not firmly signify that the director did not think of back-up arrangements. What it does convey, nonetheless, is that a hypothetical inability to produce a trained dog was at least unlikely and discouraged. In other words, English adaptations acknowledged, to a wider extent than Pixerécourt did, that the dog’s presence was absolutely crucial and that a great part of the success of the play rested on his performance alone. Furthermore, stage directions for the 1816 version extend and refine the dog’s visual tricks. Whereas in the French original the dog only had to pull Gertrude by the skirt to get her to follow him, in the English text he follows the action by taking the lantern in his mouth, running off with it and finally ‘looking behind to invite [Gertrude] to follow him’ (1816/2002, 115). The consecutive execution of these actions not only required a more versatile trained animal, but they also deepened the anthropomorphism that made Dragon a more relatable creature, as one who mastered the communicative codes employed through the language of the eyes.

30The 1816 version also magnified the dog’s role as a conduit for the senses by requiring him to first bark offstage before marshalling into the scene. As a ‘mute’ figure, Dragon does not merely adhere to expression through visual body language, he complements the visual with his idiosyncratic signifying sounds, thus coming full circle in enacting ‘dumb eloquence’ (an oxymoron that was recurrently applied in Victorian newspaper descriptions of the legend). Such signifying sounds acquire ominous tones in an additional, final scene in the 1816 version. Rather than Macaire and Landry being arrested after the former’s confession, the English text procures a final chase of Macaire in front of the greatly evocative landscape of waterfalls. Again Dragon appears chasing him over a bridge, and before the villain’s final death leap into the waters, the dog barks offstage as if to en-voice the power of justice with sound.

31If the anonymous 1816 version visibly and audibly projected the character of Dragon, Barrymore’s 1825 adaptation, paradoxically, appears more ambiguous in regard to the dog. On one hand, he makes his first appearance crossing the stage in an additional scene at the end of the first act (the murder of Aubri). On the other hand, his presence lessened considerably on other levels: his tricks in the opening of the second act are somewhat simplified and he is removed altogether in the final scene at the bridge. Moreover, he is deprived of a name and is only referred to as ‘the dog’. While in the 1816 version Gertrude speaks directly to Dragon, in Barrymore’s adaptation she merely verbalizes, as if translating for the audience, what the dog must be indicating. Despite the notable attenuation of the dog as a character, the adaptation was played for decades and maintained its success amongst audiences. It would be staged in 1838 at Sadler’s Wells in 1840 at Victoria, in 1847 at the Olympic and in 1853 at the Grecian (Mullin 115), among other venues.

32The version attributed to Dibdin would fundamentally restore Dragon as a key figure in the melodrama. Reduced to two acts, Dragon makes his first entrance by merely accompanying Aubri prior to his departure to the forest, soon followed by his presence during the murder. No actual struggle between Dragon and the villains is yet visible, but through the animal’s crossing back and forth and his offstage barks, his nature as a courageous creature is implied. In addition, this version of the play notably intensifies the final scenes with a race against time to save Eloi from being executed under Macaire’s orders. A grand finale is in store for Dragon, who is recruited by Bertrand to sniff out the assassin. Once Macaire has confessed and stabbed himself, Dragon is unleashed upon Landry, who is attempting to escape. The play closes with the double guarantee of a happy ending: the dog combats the villain in a ‘desperate struggle’ (1871, 300) until finally dragging him down, while Eloi and Ursule embrace in the face of salvation and the promise of a future matrimony. The play has definitely come a long way from Pixerécourt’s vision, where, in full forgetfulness of Dragon, the curtain closed over a communal celebration of the innocence of Eloi.

  • 2 In 1817, Goethe bitterly protested against the production of the play at the Theatre of Weimar. ‘He (...)

33The Dog of Montargis certainly made an impression on English nineteenth-century theatre-goers, even those who, echoing Goethe’s dislike for animals on the stage, were sceptical of canines’ place in the theatre.2 As stated by a critic when the play was performed in Covent Garden, ‘quadruped performers are a disgrace to the stage, but the dog of this piece must be exempt from the general censure, the whole plot turning on the sagacity of that animal’ (Qtd. Morning Post 1875, 3). Younger members of the audience seemed to have been particularly mesmerized by Dragon. Charles Dickens, for instance, recreated children’s fascination with the play in both the short story ‘A Christmas Tree’ (1850) and in his essay ‘Our School’ (1851), recalling how boys modelled a white mouse to play out the memorable role. As Gray notes, Dickens ‘retained a particular affection for old melodramas—especially those with canine heroes . . . . None charmed him more than The Dog of Montargis’ (Gray 18). William Gilbert also alluded to the play in his novel Shirley Hall Asylum (1863), in which the narrator relates how his boyish absorption with Dragon inspired him to make a hero out of his own dog. His enthusiasm to have Rover trained to ring bells and attack criminals cost him a few shillings along with the disheartening revelation that Dragon was purely motivated by the smelly sausages attached to the props and costumes.

Dogs Playing Dogs

34The layers of signification articulated through the very dynamics of the theatre functioned under the illusion that a dog actor was brought onto the stage to perform that which was natural to it. In this era, which brought the domestication of the dog into the spatial structures of Victorianism, the desire to anthropomorphize to comprehend and justify such domestication certainly contributed to the audiences’ assimilation and naturalization of Dragon’s behaviour as an instinctive inevitability. It is my contention, nonetheless, that part of the success of Dragon as a theatrical sensation in Victorian times had to do with the contemporary referents that the character had at its disposal and which were very much alive in the collective imagination of the audience.

35As indicated earlier, Victorianism marked a very clear distinction between the domestic and the homeless dog, a cultural move that intensified the meaning of the private sphere of the home and the subsequent development of a pet fancy. Meanwhile, nature roaming free and wild within the public urban space was to be closely monitored. Scavenging and rabid dogs posed an imminent threat to order—they represented the chaos and irrationality that Victorian values sought to quell. The rise of incidents concerning hydrophobic dogs in the 1840s and 1850s contributed to the banning of dogcarts (itself already an activity highly suspicious of fomenting animal cruelty) at a nation-wide scale in 1854 (Pemberton and Worboys 53). Persistent uneasiness about rabies outbreaks also led to the passing of the 1871 Dogs Act, which restored the jurisdiction of authorities to destroy stray dogs.

36The issue surrounding the dog’s domesticity cannot be stressed enough, for it is only because of Dragon’s objectification as property to a master that his affection, his loyalty and his sense of mourning are meaningful within the Victorian context. Faithful, loving dogs were only so if such fidelity was manifested towards the master or members of the family to whom he belonged. There was dignity to the dog’s status as a secondary, yet cherished sidekick, and as if some interspecies oath had been officiated, the dog was to live up to all expectations concerning his service. True, Dragon does not incarnate the household lapdog, which was increasingly assuming its position as a useless object of female endearment. As his very name connotes, Dragon cannot be but the dog of a warrior, a knight or a soldier of sorts. His owner must be a masculine figure. He is self-sufficient in regard to his vital needs, and useful as a weapon and as a messenger. However, he is a domestic creature insofar as he is the property of a man—otherwise his sagaciousness and his instincts are of no consequence.

37The domestic dog was additionally submerged in the discourse of breed fancy. If, indeed, man’s domestication of dogs had for centuries been practiced through selective breeding, a Victorian culture now high on Darwinism exacerbated the potential of these primitive forms of genetic manipulation. Increasingly, pedigree became associated with social cache, and more work tracing a breed’s historical roots was occurring, as Ritvo (1987) explains. In 1874, the first Kennel Club Stud Book attested to the prominence of such research, and clubs and societies sought to display in dog shows prototypes of purebred physical attributes and temperament. Dog fancying must additionally be interpreted against the backdrop of the fields of phrenology, which had, for the most part, supplanted physiognomy as a scientific method by the 1820s and 1830s (Smith 199). In much the same way that skull measurements and facial features gained political ground in the justification of racist imperialism, different breeds were allotted to different spaces for the exercise of specific, servile functions.

38The Dog of Montargis’s inclusion of remarks pertaining to the highly expressive countenance of Macaire have to do with the influence of physiognomy in the melodramatic obviousness of portrayals. Interestingly, physicality, much like breed, emerges as a visible, idiosyncratic sign of character. Dragon’s breed itself is not overtly referred to in either Pixerécourt’s text or in the English translations. Nonetheless, in recalling the legend of Le chien, newspapers vouched for the hero’s breeding heritage. As early as 1764 (if not before), the popular claim that the legendary dog had been a greyhound was challenged because of the believed limitations of the breed: ‘This I question, the scent being the mobile of sentiment in dogs, and this greyhounds have not’ (‘Formal Combat’ 235). By the 1810s, periodical reports in Britain and in America were proclaiming the breed to have been ‘an English dog’, and by the Victorian era the more specific ‘English bloodhound’ was preferred.

39The bloodhound was very popular during the Victorian era, particularly due to Edwin Brough’s revival of the breed. Their appeal lay mostly in their acute sense of smell, a skill that went hand in hand with the modernization of criminal detection through the refinement of police efforts. As Watson (2011) notes, within bestselling detective literature ranging from Wilkie Collins to Arthur Conan Doyle, dogs became a recurrent motif, and bloodhounds held a particular place in the collective imagination precisely because of their collaboration in real-life urban crime-solving. Pemberton suggests that Brough’s restoration of the breed constituted an effort to arouse national sentiment, as ‘in the fancier’s imagination, the bloodhound, in possession of an innate instinct to protect property and the home from hostile and dangerous threats, had played a role in defeating England’s enemies and unifying the nation as one’ (Pemberton 74). His particular physiognomy, moreover, garnered it with a ‘trademark appearance’ that branded the tone of crime-related images. The sensationalism behind these newspaper depictions traded in ‘melodramatic discourse’ and ‘showed handlers with their bloodhounds at work in streets cloaked in darkness, where unimaginable danger and horror lurked’ (Pemberton 75).

40Countless newspaper advertisements publicize the names of Hector and Bruin, both owned by ‘dog star’ Barkham Cony, as part of the cast of productions of The Dog of Montargis. If indeed played by the original Hector and Bruin, Dragon was clothed for these performances in the skin of a Newfoundland. Nonetheless, bloodhounds do seem to have been used in a number of productions. An 1885 article for the Edinburgh Evening News reflected an actor’s reluctance to play the villain in The Dog of Montargis because ‘this bloodhound was a fierce beast’ (‘Stage Trickery’ 3). Regardless of the actual breed that went onstage, the connection between Dragon and bloodhounds was also narrowed down by the public familiarity with the plot of the play. In 1864, for instance, a reporter describing the multiplicity of breeds in a Nottingham dog show, somewhat mockingly deliberated on how ‘the feudal bloodhound, with its noble countenance . . . may be ready to take the chief part of that melodrama, “The dog [sic] of Montargis”’ (‘The Dog Show’ 8).

41What must be additionally noted is that, particularly in Dibdin’s version, Dragon’s instincts for detection emerge much more powerfully as a motif than in Pixerécourt’s piece or in the other adaptations, thus suggesting that as the nineteenth century went on, bloodhound detection became a greater topic of interest. The text champions Dragon by reinventing the storyline: Dragon’s heroism is refashioned by his passivity in the developments that lead to the incrimination of Eloi. While in the French and other English versions it had been Dragon who had accidentally brought suspicion upon Eloi’s innocence by sniffing out Aubri’s belongings in his pockets, in this version the evidence is to fortuitously slip out as Eloi kneels down to soothe Dragon’s sorrow. Insignificant as this detail may initially appear, one could plausibly argue that such a change may have been effected with the purpose of releasing the dog from inadvertently assisting the villains. The dog, it seems, cannot lead to any misunderstanding through his acts and gestures, for his sense of smell must always reveal, and never mislead. Bertrand’s idea to lead him to the scent of the murderer had, necessarily, to climax in Dragon’s final attack of Landry.

42A final, no less relevant feature that reinstated the cultural expectations surrounding Victorian ‘dog-hood’ was Dragon’s capacity for mourning. A true canine companion manifested his sense of loss in a highly expressive and poignant manner, drenching the hearts of those within earshot with his howls of lament, and staying close to his master’s grave. These acts, heavily dosed in sentimentalism, exacerbated dogs’ faithfulness and perfected melodramatic conventions. Within the context of the Victorian era, the notion of a common heaven where pets and family could be reunited in domestic sanctity was unsurprisingly fathomed. Suffering in the form of grief was mutual—while it would be more usual for the family or master to outlive his companion, circumstances could very well lead to the opposite order, transforming the dog into a creature consumed by love-filled memories.

43Although this motif, as illustrated by the legend of le chien, is deeply rooted in much earlier mythological and legendary material, it was to again excite popular imagination during the nineteenth century. Edwin Landseer’s 1837 painting, The Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, in which a dog rests his head over his master’s coffin, set the tone for more ‘mourning dogs’, culminating with the story of Greyfriars Bobby, who was said to have kept by his master’s grave for fourteen years in Edinburgh, until his own death in 1872. Bobby was himself mourned by those touched by his story, inspiring poetic laments, the rhetoric of humane associations, and a commemorative statue by William Brodie. Greyfriars Bobby, in other words, has continued to live on in the Scottish and the British collective imagination as both mourner and as the object of mourning, thus totalizing the reciprocal nature of Victorian grief. Contributing to this notion was also the notable increase in the writing and publication of pet elegies, in which dogs emerged as the central figures in the subgenre. As Moine suggests, ‘the mourning dog poem conveys personal reflections, whether memorialisation be a pretext for the construction of national identity or for speculation about the nature of animal grief’ (205).

44Given the widespread practice of Victorian pet mourning, we may only speculate how Dragon would have been remembered by the characters were he to have maintained the same fate as in the French version. Pixerécourt certainly refrained from making Dragon’s death the cause of collective lament—his perishing comes off as merely functional, as a final expression of the messenger signalling the murderer, and his name is never mentioned again. However, more important is the emphasis placed upon Dragon as the mourning agent in both Pixerécourt’s and the English versions. While they all attempt to evoke melodramatic sentimental intensity through Gertrude’s reports of how nothing could be done to remove the sorrowful Dragon from Aubri’s buried body, it is most likely that for English audiences such manifestations of heart-breaking misery were read within the shared assimilation of the dog as a vital part of their domestic geographies. True, the French nineteenth-century middle class was also exploring its own ‘discourse on canine fidelity’ whose ‘content was organized mainly around the issue of death and dying’ (Kete 27). However, it was not a phenomenon that was attached to national sentiment to the extent that it was in Britain, where under the auspices of the discourse of humane organizations and anti-vivisectionists, society was consciously coming to terms with its status as ‘the homeland’ (Howell 3) of domestic dogs, where they could reach a symbolic type of citizenship that distinguished the nation’s moral grandeur.

Conclusion

45In a way, interpreters of the legend of Le chien are invited to conceive of the dog’s nineteenth-century journey into French melodrama and his subsequent transformation on the English stage as a historical path of mythic proportions, in which the canine hero travels to times and lands afar, undergoing trials and tribulations in search of the ‘grail’ that will restore him to his rightful ‘place’. Nineteenth-century English adaptations (and especially the text attributed to Dibdin), represent the apogee of the hero’s monomythical cycle, his recovery of the heroic presence that had been considerably attenuated by Pixerécourt, however successful the play had been in France. Just as Dragon is ‘victorianized’ on the English stage, so does his epic potential confirm the cultural values that were being explored in the nineteenth century. Ever to remain within the confines of his symbolism, we are to remember that Dragon was never meant to be an individual but an example of canine excellence that did nothing but obey its own innate nature as a creature domesticated into Victorian ideals.

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Notes

1 The 1816 version, republished by Gerould and Carlson (2002) as anonymous, is indicated by the Hathi Trust Digital Library to be ascribed to one Henry Harris. The British Library catalogues the 1825 and 1871 pieces as being attributed to Barrymore and Dibdin, respectively. The British Library also holds an adaptation published in 1860 ascribed to Dibdin (though I will be working with the 1871 text). Nonetheless, it should be clarified that the texts themselves offer no actual information about the identity of the translators and adaptors.

2 In 1817, Goethe bitterly protested against the production of the play at the Theatre of Weimar. ‘He, who detested dogs, to hear of a dog performing on all the stages of Germany with greater success than the best of actors!’ (Lewes 2011, 227) The disagreement was ultimately settled with the Duke’s dismissal of Goethe as intendant.

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Référence électronique

Claudia Alonso Recarte, « Canine Actors and Melodramatic Effects: The Dog of Montargis Arrives on the English Stage », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 27 avril 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3345 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3345

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Auteur

Claudia Alonso Recarte

Claudia Alonso Recarte is Assistant Professor at the Department of English and German Studies at the University of Valencia (Spain). Her research interests span the field of Animal Studies. Among other topics, she has published papers on the cultural tensions between Britain and France owing to the nineteenth-century vivisection controversy. She has also worked on the theatrical dimensions inherent to Victorian experimental physiology, an exegetical exercise that helps partially explain the transcultural critique between Britain, Germany, and France. She has published in journals such as Atlantis, Gender, Place and Culture, L’Atalante, Miscelánea, and Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, among others.
Claudia Alonso Recarte est maître assistant du département d’études anglaises et germaniques à l’université de Valencia (Espagne). Ses recherches sont axées sur les études animales. Entre autres thèmes, elle a publié des articles sur les tensions culturelles entre le Royaume-Uni et la France du dix-neuvième siècle au sujet des controverses sur la vivisection. Elle a également travaillé sur les dimensions théâtrales inhérentes à la physiologie expérimentale victorienne, un exercice exégétique qui permet d’expliquer en partie la critique transculturelle entre la Grande-Bretagne, l’Allemagne et la France. Elle a publié dans des revues telles que Atlantis, Gender, Place et Culture, L’Atalante, Miscelánea, et Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, entre autres.

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