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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

II. The Critic

French Playwrights. Dumas, Augier, Sardou, Rostand

Texte intégral

  • 1 Transatlantic Sketches, p. 99.

An acted play is a novel intensified; it realizes what the novel suggests, and, by paying a liberal tribute to the senses, anticipates your possible complaint that your entertainment is of the meagre sort styled “intellectual.”1

1James’s permanent interest in the theatre, closely linked with his concern for form and his desire to render life in the best possible way, accounts for his having written so much on writers whose names are almost completely forgotten nowadays. With its appeal to the senses, with its actors and actresses to bridge the gap between life and art, the theatre appeared to James as endowed with a reality to which the novel, however good, could never attain. James soon became a regular attendant at the Théâtre Français and could no longer remain indifferent to the drama as a literary genre. His enthusiasm grew stronger and stronger until he himself tried his hand at the genre, convinced that it constituted a further enlargement upon the novel and that there was nothing like an acted play to give a feeling of life. His failure as a dramatist was to teach him that the genre required a simplification which he could not afford. But his efforts were not entirely lost. Just as the would-be painter had learned from the visual arts the sense of composition, so the would-be dramatist absorbed the art of dramatizing his material: in the late novels perfectly done scenes alternate with perfectly composed pictures.

  • 2 Notes and Reviews, p. 227.
  • 3 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 117.

2One of the great representatives of the French theatre in James’s lifetime was Alexandre Dumas the Younger. As appears from an 1866 review in the Nation, James had been interested in Dumas’ productions—other than plays—at a very early age. In this review the young James called Dumas’ Affaire Clemenceau: Mémoire de l’Accusé a serious novel and agreed with its author that a work of art cannot be great unless it lifts up the reader’s heart. At that time James was still convinced that art must be edifying and that if a subject is morally hideous the writer must react in favour of moral beauty. “Since the taste of the age is for realism,” James wrote, “all thanks for such realism as this. It fortifies and enlarges the mind; it disciplines the fancy.”2 James’s next review dealing with Dumas, “Dumas and Goethe,” appeared in the Nation in 1873. Alexandre Dumas had written a preface to the translation, by H. Bacharach, of Goethe’s Faust and this explains why the two names are associated in the title. Though of small value and perverted with national prejudices the preface strikes James as having a really historic value because it presents a characteristic Gallic mind “treating itself to a wholesome effusion of spleen against a peculiarly Germanic one.”3 Though Dumas is clever and an excellent dramatist with a sound judgment, a lively imagination, and a sense of form, he is much inferior to Goethe, whom he treats badly because of his irresistible desire to point a moral. Convinced as Dumas is—though James doubts his sincerity—that we must amend our morals, he condemns Goethe for his licentiousness and depravity. But if he were asked to choose, James would not hesitate, and in spite of his admiration for Le Demi-Monde he advises his reader to refresh his memory of Faust and read Dumas’ play afterwards:

  • 4 Ibid., pp. 117-118.

The reader will find it all form, compactness, roundness, smoothness, polish, art; but he will not find in it, without a rare amount of good will, a single word that echoes in the soul, that provokes the shadow of a reverie. “Faust”is another affair: it is slow reading for its very suggestive-ness and intellectual resources.4

3It was not until his stay in Paris in 1875-1876 that James began to write on Dumas the dramatist. He was in Paris for the première of L’Etrangère on 14 February 1876. Though it was the event of the season James was disappointed both with the play and with its author, whom he had so far considered as clever. Not only is the foreigner who gives its title to the play an incredible error of taste, but L’Etrangère as a whole is a complete failure:

  • 5 Parisian Sketches, p. 90.

It hangs very loosely together, and the story is both extremely improbable and profoundly disagreeable. Disagreeable, above all, for there is not a person in the play who is not, in one way or another, misbehaving grossly. Everyone is in the wrong, and the author most of all. And then his drama is saturated with that aroma of bad company and loose living which is the distinctive sign of M. Dumas’ muse.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 97.
  • 7 Loc. cit.

4L’Etrangère is the first play Dumas wrote after his election to the French Academy, and mentioning the fact in one of his letters to the New York Tribune, James does not conceal his disapproval of Dumas’ admission to this institution. The playwright, he says, has “as much business in the Academy as in the Cabinet of the Emperor of China.”6 For once, forgetting his usually more moderate tone, James adds: “If the Academy were an intellectual asylum, with wards, cells, and keepers, M. Dumas might very well appeal to its hospitality; but as it is, there is something grotesque in his presence there.”7

5It is easy to see that James’s view of Dumas has changed since the time of his first review, and that he now sees the writer in a truer light, which does not prevent him from always seeing his plays with the greatest pleasure. One of them is Le Demi-Monde, but it is linked in his mind with so many memories and old charms that he is afraid, in 1896, lest his judgment should be distorted by his prepossessions:

  • 8 The Scenic Art. Notes on Acting and the Drama, 1872-1901, ed. A. Wade (London, 1949), p. 274.

In the light of the admirable acting of ancient days, of the faded image of the exquisite Desclée, of a dim recollection of the prehistoric Rose Chéri and of Mademoiselle Delaporte, it represents too many of the reasons why I saw him always ideally triumphant.8

  • 9 Notebooks, p. 128.
  • 10 The Scenic Art, p. 266.

6James was greatly interested in the play and he often alludes to it in his work, which does not mean that he had no objection against it. When he saw it once again in the autumn of 1877 with Croizette in the part of Suzanne and Delaunay in that of Olivier de Jalin he found it more difficult than ever to accept the latter’s denunciation of Madame d’Ange. He did not like the way Dumas solved the hero’s dilemma. He tried to imagine an Olivier of his own race and his own creation. He wondered how a “real gentleman” would have acted in such a situation. Examining the problem from every possible viewpoint, he felt that Dumas had not asked himself enough questions: prompted by the need to draw a moral, he had created Olivier de Jalin from outside without trying to penetrate the motives of his conduct. He had made him act as he wanted him to in order to have his lesson made clear. James wondered whether the situation of the three persons concerned might not be shown as taking quite another turn, and this was the germ of The Siege of London, his own version of Dumas’ situation. He did not intend to write something serious and refers to the story in the Notebooks as to a tale “with its little picture of an innocent adventuress and its vague rappel of the ‘situation’ in Dumas’ Demi-Monde—the situation of a man of honour who has to testify about the antecedents of a woman he has known in the past.”9 But he wanted to create characters with whom he and his fellow-beings had more in common. His Olivier de Jalin becomes Littlemore, a New Yorker who has grown sufficiently familiar with Paris to tell at first sight whether a woman is “respectable ”or not and who has travelled westwards far enough to meet adventuresses of Mrs. Headway’s kind. If James finds Dumas “bricked up in his hard Parisianism”10 he himself does not run the risk of incurring the same reproach.

  • 11 The Siege of London was first published in Cornhill Magazine, XLVII (January-February, 1883).

7The Siege of London11 opens at the Théâtre Français, where Littlemore attends a performance of Emile Augier’s L’Aventurière with his friend Rupert Waterville. There Littlemore comes across Mrs. Headway, a woman he has known before in the South-West and who is not, he tells his friend, “respectable.” Between the acts they speak with her and she is curious to know what will become of Dona Clorinde:

  • 12 The Siege o[ London, Complete Tales, V, 21.

“Dona Clorinde? Oh, I suppose they’ll shoot her; they generally shoot the women in French plays,” Littlemore said. “It will remind me of San Diego!” cried Mrs. Headway. “Ah, at San Diego the women did the shooting.”12

8Apparently they still do once they have a chance and have set their minds on conquering the higher spheres. Far from trying to conceal the fact that he borrows the subject from Dumas James clearly draws a parallel between the latter’s situation (or Augier’s, which is the same) and his own. He even uses his hero as a spokesman to show how displeased he is with the way the French writers have treated the theme:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 29.

He had seen Le Demi-Monde a few nights before, and had been told that L’Aventurière would show him a particular treatment of the same subject—the justice to be meted out to unscrupulous women who attempt to thrust themselves into honorable families. It seemed to him that in both of these cases the ladies had deserved their fate, but he wished it might have been brought about by a little less lying on the part of the representatives of honor.13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 24.
  • 15 Le Demi-Monde (Paris, s.d.), p. 99.
  • 16 The Siege of London, op. cit., p. 47.
  • 17 James’s memory of Dumas’ play is incorrect when he makes Littlemore say of Raymond de Nanjac that (...)

9If Dona Clorinde and Suzanne d’Ange deserve their fate, so does Mrs. Headway. Yet unlike her French sisters she is impudently triumphant. True, she is very different from them. We guess that it must have been difficult for James to find an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Suzanne d’Ange. The “demi-monde ”to which the baroness belonged was a typically Parisian product and though James states that the French capital could have no more surprises for Littlemore we doubt if it had not quite a few for himself since he dared not choose one of its natives for his heroine. He gives her his own nationality but feels obliged to have her come from the South-West. In more than one respect she resembles Mrs. Clarkson, Dumas’ étrangère, still more than Suzanne d’Ange. Her vague connexions with New Mexico, her innumerable marriages and still more innumerable divorces make of her something unique but not always very convincing. She is “a genuine product of the Far West—a flower of the Pacific slope.”14 She is very different from the astute demi-mondaine whom Olivier de Jalin somewhere compares to the peaches à quinze sous which seem as beautiful as those of the other basket but are half cheaper because of the little spot on them. They are closely pressed against each other in order that the stain should pass unnoticed. Contrary to them, Mrs. Headway is alone. She belongs to no world at all. Not one respectable woman has ever received her either in New York or in Paris. She is too independent to be harboured in this demi-monde “qui vogue comme une île flottante sur l’océan parisien, et qui appelle, qui recueille, qui admet tout ce qui tombe, tout ce qui émigré, tout ce qui se sauve de la terre ferme, sans compter les naufragés de rencontre et qui viennent on ne sait d’où.”15 They would never recognize her as one of their sort because she refuses to resemble them. When she arrives in London she faces society alone and follows her own line. She does not try to imitate the British gentry. She remains foreign, provincial, and terribly un-British. Lord Arthur— who cannot be said to be particularly clever—has never known a lady of her ambiguous quality and does not know by what standard to measure her. For him she is “like an Hungarian or a Pole, with the difference that he could almost understand her language.”16 Mrs. Headway knows exactly what she wants: she wants to marry Sir Arthur Demesne and, as Littlemore knows more about her than anybody else, she asks him not to prevent her. He thus finds himself in the position of Olivier de Jalin in Le Demi-Monde and of Don Fabrice in L’Aventurière. He is quite at a loss as to what course to follow, all the more as in reality he does not care, nothing having ever passed between him and Mrs. Headway and Sir Arthur being nothing to him.17

10He had told Waterville in Paris that a man must be ready to commit perjury when a woman’s honour is at stake but fortunately he is not obliged to do so since Sir Arthur, in spite of his intense desire to know, does not ask any question. When Lady Demesne, Sir Arthur’s mother, asks him whether Mrs. Headway is respectable he tells her the truth because he knows that it no longer matters, that his friend has succeeded and will not be stopped in her triumphant course.

  • 18 The Scenic Art, pp. 261-262.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 263.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 262.

11James’s last and longest article on Dumas the Younger was written on the occasion of the latter’s death in 1895. James confesses in it that he would have “to go back absurdly far” for the beginning of his “old-time sentiment” towards the French dramatist.18 His name will remain for ever associated with La Dame aux Camélias, the successful play he had written when only twenty-five and which is “all champagne and tears—fresh perversity, fresh credulity, fresh passion, fresh pain.”19 Rarely did knowledge and naïvety coexist in such a beautiful way, he says, which shows that the young playwright had not yet had time to part with his illusions but had already mastered the most difficult of the arts. It is for this play that James’s young American cousins in Paris made a provision of handkerchiefs and he remembers how, as a boy walking with them in the Palais Royal, he heard them “relate how many times (they lived in Paris) they had seen Madame Doche in La Dame aux Camélias and what floods of tears she had made them weep.”20 He himself was to see it acted not only in Paris but in different places and in the most barbarous tongues, and he remembers particularly an American version of it given in Boston, in which Armand Duval and Marguerite Gautier were represented as “engaged.”

12According to James the balance that can be found in Dumas’ work is the result of his extraordinary limitation:

  • 21 Ibid., p. 267.

Nothing contributes more to the prompt fortune of an artist than some such positive and exclusive temper, the courage of his convictions, as we usually call it, the power to neglect something thoroughly, to abound aggressively in his own sense and express without reserve his own saturation.21

  • 22 Loc. cit.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 217.

13Dumas’ imagination was as contracted as his father’s was boundless. He was saturated in Paris, “as native to Paris as a nectarine to a south wall.”22 In the limited horizon of Paris he further contracted by limiting himself to the study of passions and, among these, to the relation between man and woman. His exclusive subject was “what we of English race call the sexes and what they in France call the sex.”23 But Dumas studied the passions, not for themselves, not for the picture, the poetry they offer, but for something outside of them, as illustrations of the idea of right and wrong. He observed the manners of his time, not with the eye of the artist but with that of the professional moralist. His very seriousness is a hindrance to his art and his constant habit of demonstrating accounts for his failure with the Anglo-Saxons:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 269.

There are, as I have hinted, several reasons for the circumstance already noted, the failure of the attempt to domesticate him on the English-speaking stage; but one states the case fairly, I think, in saying that what accounts for half of it is our passion, in the presence of a work of art, for confounding the object, as the philosophers have it, with the subject, for losing sight of the idea in the vehicle, of the intention in the fable.24

14Anglo-Saxon readers feel that Dumas simplifies almost absurdly and that there are too many cases he doesn’t provide for. His creations are fed on observation, not on imagination, for Dumas is by no means “of the great plastic sort.”As a consequence his characters are never real beings of flesh and blood:

  • 25 Ibid., p. 273.

not one of them has known the little invisible push that, even when shyly and awkwardly administered, makes the puppet, in spite of the string, walk off by himself and quite “cut,” if the mood take him, that distant relation [with] his creator.25

  • 26 Ibid., p. 278.
  • 27 The Siege of London, op. cit., p. 37.

15Dumas was splendid, in his way, because he was never vague: “his concentration, all confidence and doctrine and epigram, is the explanation of his extraordinary force.”26 But as a moralist he was not very convincing. James ironically remarks that the French writer’s idea of duty is that the seducer should marry the seduced girl, while in the Anglo-Saxon tradition the girl should under no circumstances be seduced. In The Siege of London, Littlemore does not believe, any more than his creator, in women’s rising again: “He believed in their not going down; thought it perfectly possible and eminently desirable, but held it was much better for society that they should not endeavour, as the French say, to mêler les genres.27 James obviously rejects conventional morality in his own treatment of the subject by turning Dumas’ serious play into a light and ironical tale in which he does not pretend to say what is good or not for society. Neither does he want Littlemore to be personally concerned:

  • 28 Loc. cit.

Nancy Beck going in for the great prizes, that spectacle might be entertaining for a simple spectator; but it would be a nuisance, an embarrassment, from the moment anything more than contemplation should be expected of him. He had no wish to be rough, but it might be well to show her that he was not to be humbugged.28

  • 29 Ibid., p. 99.

16James lets the reader draw his own conclusions. Mrs. Headway may not be “respectable,” but the man she wants to marry is after all a great bore. “He’s a nonentity, and she at least is somebody,”29 Littlemore rightly observes. James does not work in a pre-established convention. He does not intend to show what happens to fallen women who want to rise again, he does not want to demonstrate a proposition nor to illustrate general rules of conduct. He simply wants to give an image of life and to show what happens, in this particular case, to Mrs. Headway. Under the disguise of Littlemore, he attends, with benevolent amusement, the successful ascension of his adventuress. True, Mrs. Headway ought not to have “passed.” But she has, and James has his tongue in his cheek as he relates the trick played on the after all not so unspotted British gentry.

  • 30 The Scenic Art, pp. 116-117.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 117.
  • 32 See “M. Emile Augier,”in The Scenic Art, p. 116.
  • 33 O. Cargill, The Novels of Henry fames (New York, 1961), p. 43.

17Emile Augier is another dramatist whose characters are often mere puppets because of his inveterate tendency to moralize, to demonstrate, and consequently to simplify and distort life. Like Dumas, Augier was a member of the French Academy and a would-be moralist, and in the seventies there was “scarcely any event so important as the appearance of a new play by one of these gentlemen, unless it be the production of a piece by the other.”30 If Dumas’ only subject was the battle of the sexes Augier’s was the sanctity of the family: “the most earnest effort of his muse,” James ironically remarks,“may be said to be to keep the family well together.”31 This is what he does in Les Fourchambault, which James read and reviewed for the Nation in 1878. The publication of this play, he writes,32 forms a worthy supplement to the collection of Augier’s works which had been published the year before, in seven volumes, by Calmann-Lévy. If James’s remoteness from the Maison de Molière prevented him from seeing Les Fourchambault in 1878, this does not mean that he knew Augier from reading only. He saw other plays by Augier and mentions them here and there in his articles and reviews dealing with the theatre in general. He saw Post-Scriptum and L’Aventurière (the performance of which Mrs. Headway attends at the beginning of The Siege of London); he saw Paul Forestier and Le Gendre de M. Poirier, Lions et Renards, Les Lionnes Pauvres, Maître Guerin and Le Mariage d’Olympe, which, according to Oscar Cargill,33 was to provide him with models for his Bellegardes.

  • 34 The Scenic Art, p. 117.

18The 1878 review—a very short one—mainly consists of James’s reflections on the discrepancy between the high finish of the play and its moral thinness. In Les Fourchambault the cohesion of the family which is in danger of falling apart is finally restored thanks to the good example of M. Fourchambault’s former mistress and of her son, who is also M. Fourchambault’s. Like Dumas, Augier believes that “to take a high attitude one must have done something very improper.”34 James’s reflections on the didactic properties of Augier’s productions echo those of English readers who

  • 35 Loc. cit.

think it strange to see so much pleading of causes which, among themselves, are not in the way of being lost. They reflect, too, doubtless, upon some of their other properties— their finish and shapeliness, their neat, artistic, scientific form. Only, if on one side they feel no need of learning the lesson, on the other, too often, they seem unable to apply it.35

  • 36 Ibid., p. 48.

19In the winter of 1875-1876, which James spent in Paris as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, he went regularly to the theatre, and for him the most successful play of the season was Sardou’s Ferréol, performed and admirably acted at the Gymnase. The play, James writes in his note for the Tribune, “literally palpitates with interest,”36 and the spectator is under the charm from beginning to end. But here again there is more cleverness than real talent and a greater sense of arrangement than of moral complexities:

  • 37 Loc. cit.

The charm with M. Sardou is not of a very high quality; he makes a play very much as he would make a pudding; he has his well-tested recipe and his little stores of sugar and spice, from which he extracts with an unimpassioned hand exactly the proper quantity of each. The pudding is capital, but I can think of no writer of equal talent who puts so little of himself into his writing. Search M. Sardou’s plays through and you will not find a trace of a personal conviction, of a moral emotion, of an intellectual temperament, of anything that makes the “atmosphere” of a work. They seem to have been produced in a sort of mental vacuum.37

20James does not expatiate on the plot because he is convinced that sooner or later the play will be “adapted”for the English-speaking public. What it became if it ever was can be inferred from the adaptation of another play by Sardou, Nos Intimes. This was acted in London in 1877 under the title Peril, and James notes:

  • 38 Ibid., p. 108.

It is the usual hybrid drama of the contemporary English stage—a firm, neat French skeleton, around which the drapery of English conversation has been adjusted in awkward and inharmonious folds. The usual feat has been attempted—to extirpate “impropriety” and at the same time to save interest.38

21Since all the charm of the French plays was in their verbal virtuosity and formal arrangement, their savour could only evaporate in translations, and, once the savour was gone, there remained very little to taste.

  • 39 Letters, I, 60.
  • 40 Mora Montravers, Complete Tales, XII, 275.

22In 1878 James wrote to his brother: “I have thoroughly mastered Dumas, Augier and Sardou (whom it is greatly lacking to Howells—by the way—to have studied: ) and I know all they know and a great deal more besides.”39 But if he admired the French playwrights’ virtuosity and even considered that he had learned a great deal from their works James continued to deplore their pre-established conception of good and bad behaviour and the sameness of the situations they presented. They make us think of Sidney Trafle in Mora Montravers who, alluding to their niece’s elopement with a painter, remarks to his wife: “For us only one kind of irregularity is possible—for them, no doubt, twenty kinds.”40 Like the old couple of the respectable Wimbledon world, Dumas, Augier and Sardou moralize but they have no moral imagination. Instead of exploring the grounds and sanctions of their characters’ choices and moral decisions they make them conform to a pre-established notion of behaviour which serves for all of them and obliterates individual differences. Their morality consists in a set of fixed rules imposed from outside, and Alice James’s ironical remark on Dumas’ Chastity might perfectly apply to it:

  • 41 The Diary of Alice fames, ed. Leon Edel (London, 1965), p. 62.

He talks of it as if it were some Social Lotion (for outward application only, evidently) for the extermination of all evil, and stands awe-struck at his marvellous discovery, like a naif infant.41

23For Dumas, Augier, and Sardou, morality, like chastity, was a Social Lotion “for outward application only.”

  • 42 The Scenic Art, p. 304.
  • 43 Loc. cit.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 305.

24Having mastered the art of the best-known contemporary French dramatists and knowing “a great deal more besides” James never for a moment doubted that he himself could become a playwright. His painful contact with the stage obliged him to reconsider his views on the theatre and on himself. It is significant that, after his own unsuccessful venture in the scenic art James should have chosen to write on the most successful French playwright of his time, on “a colossal writer” who broke in the critic’s garden “in the manner of an escaped elephant from the nearest circus.”42 The article on Rostand, written in 1901 for the Cornhill Magazine. opens with a long digression on the importance of “success” in the modern world. In four hundred and ninety-nine cases out of five hundred the production so universally acclaimed has no literary value, but there still remains the five hundredth case to account for, and because of this one case James refuses to generalize and to conclude. In spite of the sound of drum and trumpet that accompany him round the globe, Edmond Rostand is “a fine and complex talent”43 whose success testifies to “the residuum of sensibility in publics capable of consuming ‘quality’ with such appetite.”44 His case is similar to that of Rudyard Kipling in England: both have become favourites of the public for having sounded the note of patriotism, of the militant and triumphant race. Yet Cyrano and L’Aiglon, ardent expressions of the French consciousness though they are, have been enjoyed everywhere and have been enthusiastically received in the Anglo-Saxon world. The case of Rostand is indeed different from that of Dumas, Augier, and Sardou, whose plays did not resist translation. Even with the virtuosity left out, there remains a great deal to taste in Rostand’s plays because what made him successful everywhere was that he was inordinately romantic:

  • 45 Ibid., pp. 307-308.

Virtuosity is a matter of expression, and M. Rostand would still be romantic without his expression. This circumstance has helped him prodigiously; it always helps where masses of men are involved; it is the charm, the spell, the golden key, operating en gros as nothing else does. The beauty of M. Rostand is that he is a sincere and consistent, and therefore a precious example of the character; and the refinements of extravagance that he adds to it give it a freshness where freshness might otherwise seem decidedly to fail.45

25It is not enough, however, to be romantic, and Victor Hugo had never had the large and foreign audiences that now acclaim Rostand. The secret of the latter’s success is that he is perfectly adapted to an age of journalism and vulgarization. He is a Victor Hugo “reduced to the terms of contemporary journalism,” a Victor Hugo made portable and even exportable:

  • 46 Ibid., pp. 312-313.

We see how far the great mantle of Victor Hugo has, all these years, trailed, and how, out of a mere corner of it, the cleverest of his grandsons can cut a complete suit. The form of M. Rostand’s style, is it not, broadly speaking, Victor Hugo’s style brought down to date, attuned to the age of the interview, the automobile and the decennial exhibition, the age of the American campaign and Madame Sarah Bernhardt? 46

26This, James hastens to add, is not said in mockery for he admires Rostand and the extraordinary suppleness of his mind, and after all, is it not better to have a portable Victor Hugo than no Victor Hugo at all?

  • 47 Ibid., p. 313.

If we have Victor Hugo at all, we must have a Victor Hugo who will go round the globe and be back in Paris by a date. Dates are everything; they are the numbers on that great ubiquitous clock-face which—however outside the matter in the given case—has at present so much more to say to any production of the mind than any principle within.... Victor Hugo adapted, adjusted, scheduled and expositionised, Victor Hugo, in short, newspaperised, may be less august and mysterious, but the medium that absorbs him, the great diffusive, assimilative idiom, is unmistakably enriched. Happy an age, certainly, in which the vulgarisers are of M. Rostand’s pattern.47

27Rostand is a great vulgarizer and this accounts for his having made a popular success with such a beautiful subject as that of L’Aiglon.

28James, in his place, would have seen so much in it, the “inward” would have weighed so much more than the “outward” that he would have spoiled it altogether. But then James never succeeded in writing a popular play. His general remarks on the theatre throw light on what must have been his main problem:

  • 48 Ibid., pp. 315-316.

To combine as much as possible of the theatric with as much of the universal as the theatric will take—that is the constant problem, and one in which the maximum and minimum of effect are separated from each other by a hair-line. The theatric is so apt to be the outward, and the universal to be the inward, that, in spite of their enjoying scarce more common ground than fish and fowl, they often manage to peck at each other with fatal results. The outward insists on the inward’s becoming of its own substance, and the inward resists, struggles, bites, kicks, tries at least to drag the outward down. The disagreement may be a very pretty quarrel and an interesting literary case; it is only not likely to be a successful play.48

  • 49 Ibid., p. 315.

29James knew what he was talking about and nobody was in a better position than he was to know that “a subject may strike a dramatist as so fine that the theatre must have the benefit of it, and yet may, on experiment, no matter how ingeniously conducted, show itself only as of a fineness by which the theatre is unable to profit.”49

  • 50 Ibid., 319.
  • 51 Loc. cit.

30In spite of his popularity Rostand has succeeded in saving a fair amount of poetry from his adventure. The fact is that he “sees... romantic or fantastic, just as certain persons before certain objects see blue or yellow or red. That is how he gets at sensibility—by enlarging the scale.”50 James wouldn’t stop him for all the world, on the contrary. He wouldn’t, for all the world, part “with an inch of Cyrano’s nose.”51 Cyrano’s nose epitomizes Rostand’s general aggressiveness. It is the short cut of antithesis, the typically romantic formula. There might have been many other ways to show that Cyrano, a sensitive, conscious nature was physically displeasing. But the romantic mind goes from one extreme to another and will have none of the links and transitions, none of the shades and gradations:

  • 52 Ibid., p. 320.

That is the romantic formula, which obviously deals in a different poetry from the poetry of the ’ quiet, ’ and which is extremely dependent for success on a certain aggressiveness of style. M. Rostand’s vehicle is half his victory: it performs such prodigies on its own account—by which I mean is so perpetually ingenious and amusing that we never quite focus, nor even want to, what he asks us to accept as his human truth.52

  • 53 Ibid., p. 321.

31The art of romance is an art that constantly surpasses itself. Cyrano could have no counterpart in real life but the intensifications have the right colour. Without his extraordinary eloquence Rostand’s idea would have gone to pieces; fortunately his verse has “legs of abnormal agility, legs that fly about in a manner to forbid our calling it pedestrian.53 Comparing Cyrano with Gautier’s Capitaine Fracasse James says that the latter work, though less eloquent, was more exquisite. What we find in Rostand is not the exquisite—which cannot do without the shades of truth— but the picturesque—which can perfectly triumph without them:

  • 54 Ibid., p. 322.

The picturesque may abound, may triumph, without it, may cover the subject as with an embroidered mantle, and so bedrape and costume it that its anatomy doesn’t in the least matter.54

32What matters then is no longer the truth but the density. The subject may be false provided it is rich and thick, provided we get a sufficient quantity of atmosphere.

  • 55 Ibid., p. 325.
  • 56 Ibid., p. 328.

33James ends his article with a few remarks on the difference between the real and the romantic which remind us of those he makes in the Preface to The American. With the romantic the critic is always anxious because he never knows where the author and the system will come out. With the real he has no apprehension because they will come out where life does. James has not too much apprehension concerning Rostand because this writer strikes him as “having talent as thoroughly as you have small-pox.”55 He couldn’t write like Paul Hervieu, who follows the line of life in La Course au Flambeau, and besides, James does not want him to write otherwise than he does. He concludes his article by saying that he wants everything: “I want the line of life, and I want the bamboozlement too.”56

  • 57 Ibid., p. 314.

34Rostand was certainly at the antipodes of James’s personality and he succeeded where James had not. Yet the tone of James’s article is that of the sympathetic critic whom no experiment in his craft finds indifferent provided it is made in good faith. James is quite willing to sit and watch Rostand on his “acrobatic tightrope,”57 and he even enjoys it although for himself he chooses the line of life. The passions of his youth are now far behind him and he no longer minds if a romantic fish slips through the wide meshes of his theoretical net.


1 Transatlantic Sketches, p. 99.

2 Notes and Reviews, p. 227.

3 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 117.

4 Ibid., pp. 117-118.

5 Parisian Sketches, p. 90.

6 Ibid., p. 97.

7 Loc. cit.

8 The Scenic Art. Notes on Acting and the Drama, 1872-1901, ed. A. Wade (London, 1949), p. 274.

9 Notebooks, p. 128.

10 The Scenic Art, p. 266.

11 The Siege of London was first published in Cornhill Magazine, XLVII (January-February, 1883).

12 The Siege o[ London, Complete Tales, V, 21.

13 Ibid., p. 29.

14 Ibid., p. 24.

15 Le Demi-Monde (Paris, s.d.), p. 99.

16 The Siege of London, op. cit., p. 47.

17 James’s memory of Dumas’ play is incorrect when he makes Littlemore say of Raymond de Nanjac that he was “the intimate friend”of Olivier de Jalin. He was not and it is even one of Suzanne’s grounds for complaint: “Si M. de Nanjac était un vieil ami à vous, un camarade d’enfance, un frère, passe encore; mais non, vous le connaissez depuis huit ou dix jours.”Le Demi-Monde, pp. 151-152.

18 The Scenic Art, pp. 261-262.

19 Ibid., p. 263.

20 Ibid., p. 262.

21 Ibid., p. 267.

22 Loc. cit.

23 Ibid., p. 217.

24 Ibid., p. 269.

25 Ibid., p. 273.

26 Ibid., p. 278.

27 The Siege of London, op. cit., p. 37.

28 Loc. cit.

29 Ibid., p. 99.

30 The Scenic Art, pp. 116-117.

31 Ibid., p. 117.

32 See “M. Emile Augier,”in The Scenic Art, p. 116.

33 O. Cargill, The Novels of Henry fames (New York, 1961), p. 43.

34 The Scenic Art, p. 117.

35 Loc. cit.

36 Ibid., p. 48.

37 Loc. cit.

38 Ibid., p. 108.

39 Letters, I, 60.

40 Mora Montravers, Complete Tales, XII, 275.

41 The Diary of Alice fames, ed. Leon Edel (London, 1965), p. 62.

42 The Scenic Art, p. 304.

43 Loc. cit.

44 Ibid., p. 305.

45 Ibid., pp. 307-308.

46 Ibid., pp. 312-313.

47 Ibid., p. 313.

48 Ibid., pp. 315-316.

49 Ibid., p. 315.

50 Ibid., 319.

51 Loc. cit.

52 Ibid., p. 320.

53 Ibid., p. 321.

54 Ibid., p. 322.

55 Ibid., p. 325.

56 Ibid., p. 328.

57 Ibid., p. 314.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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