George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 10
PLAYS AND LATER NOVELS.
There are few eminent novelists that have not tried their hands at writing for the stage; and Madame Sand had additional inducements to do so, beyond those of ambition satiated with literary success, and tempted by the charm of making fresh conquest of the public in a more direct and personal fashion.
From early childhood she had shown a strong liking for the theatre. The rare performances given by travelling acting-companies at La Châtre had been her greatest delight when a girl. At the convent-school she had arranged Molière from memory for representation by herself and her schoolfellows, careful so to modify the piece as to avoid all possibility of shocking the nuns. Thus the Sisters applauded Le Malade Imaginaire without any suspicion that the author was one whose works, for them, were placed under a ban, and whose very name they held in devout abhorrence. She inherited from her father a taste for acting, which she transmitted to her children. We have seen her, during her literary novitiate in Paris, a studious observer at all theatres, from the classic boards of the Français, down to the lowliest of popular stages, the Funambules, where reigned at that time a real artist in pantomime, Débureau. His Pierrot, a sort of modified Pulcinello, was renowned, and attracted more fastidious critics to his audience than the Paris artisans whose idol he was. Since then Madame Sand had numbered among her personal friends such leading dramatic celebrities as Madame Dorval, Bocage, and Pauline Garcia. "I like actors," she says playfully, "which has scandalised some austere people. I have also been found fault with for liking the peasantry. Among these I have passed my life, and as I found them so have I described them. As these, in the light of the sun, give us our daily bread for our bodies, so those, by gaslight, give us our daily bread of fiction, so needful to the wearied spirit, troubled by realities." Peasants and players seem to be the types of humanity farthest removed from each other, and it is worthy of remark that George Sand was equally successful in her presentation of both.
Her preference for originality and spontaneity before all other qualities in a dramatic artist, was characteristic of herself, though not of her nation. Thus it was that Madame Dorval, the heroine of Antony and Marion Delorme, won her unbounded admiration. Even in Racine she clearly preferred her to Mdlle. Mars, as being a less studied actress, and one who abandoned herself more to the inspiration of the moment. The effect produced, as described by Madame Sand, will be understood by all keenly alive, like herself, to the enjoyment of dramatic art. "She" (Madame Dorval) "seemed to me to be myself, more expansive, and to express in action and emotion all that I seek to express in writing." And compared with such an art, in which conception and expression are simultaneous, her own art of words and phrases would at such moments appear to her as but a pale reflection.
Bocage, the great character actor of his time, was another who likewise appealed particularly to her sympathies, as the personation, on the boards, of the protest of the romantic school against the slavery of convention and tradition. Her acquaintance with him dated from the first representation of Hugo's Lucrèce Borgia, February 1833, when Bocage and the author of Indiana, then strangers to each other, chanced to sit side by side. In their joint enthusiasm over the play they made the beginning of a thirty years' friendship, terminated only by Bocage's death in 1862. "It was difficult not to quarrel with him," she says of this popular favourite, "he was susceptible and violent; it was impossible not to be reconciled with him quickly. He was faithful and magnanimous. He forgave you admirably for wrongs you had never done him, and it was as good and real as though the pardon had been actual and well-founded, so strong was his imagination, so complete his good faith."
The assistance of Madame Dorval, added to the strength of the Comédie Française company, did not however save from failure Madame Sand's first drama, Cosima, produced, as will be remembered, in 1840. She allowed nearly a decade to elapse before again seriously competing for theatrical honours, by a second effort in a different style, and more satisfactory in its results.
This, a dramatic adaptation by herself of her novel, François le Champi, was produced at the Odéon in the winter of 1849. Generally speaking, to make a good play out of a good novel, the playwright must begin by murdering the novel; and here, as in all George Sand's dramatic versions of her romances, we seem to miss the best part of the original. However, the curious simplicity of the piece, the rustic scenes and personages, here faithfully copied from reality, unlike the conventional village and villager of opera comique, and the pleasing sentiment that runs through the tale, were found refreshing by audiences upon whom the sensational incidents and harrowing emotions of their modern drama were already beginning to pall. The result was a little stage triumph for Madame Sand. It helped to draw to her pastoral tales the attention they deserved, but had not instantly won in all quarters. Théophile Gautier writes playfully of this piece: "The success of François le Champi has given all our vaudeville writers an appetite for rusticity. Only let this go on a little, and we shall be inundated by what has humorously been called the 'ruro-drama.' Morvan hats and Berrichon head-dresses will invade the scenes, and no language be spoken but in dialect."
Madame Sand was naturally encouraged to repeat the experiment. This was done in Claudie (1851) and Le Pressoir (1853), ruro-dramas both, and most favourably received. The first-named has a simple and pathetic story, and, as usual with Madame Sand's plays, it was strengthened at its first production by the support of some of the best acting talent in Paris—Fechter, then a rising jeune premier and the veteran Bocage ably representing, respectively, youth and age. Old Berrichon airs were introduced with effect, as also such picturesque rustic festival customs as the ancient harvest-home ceremony, in which the last sheaf is brought on in a waggon, gaily decked out with poppies, cornflowers, and ribbons, and receives a libation of wine poured by the hand of the oldest or the youngest person present.
"But what the theatre can never reproduce," laments Madame Sand, "is the majesty of the frame—the mountain of sheaves solemnly approaching, drawn by three pair of enormous oxen, the whole adorned with flowers, with fruit, and with fine little children perched upon the top of the last sheaves."
Henceforward a good deal of her time and interest continued to be absorbed by these dramatic compositions. But though mostly eliciting during her lifetime a gratifying amount of public favour and applause, the best of them cannot for an instant be placed in the same high rank as her novels. For with all her wide grasp of the value of dramatic art and her exact appreciation of the strength and the weakness of the acting world, her plays remain, to great expectations, uniformly disappointing. Her speciality in fiction lies in her favourite art of analysing and putting before us, with extreme clearness, the subtlest ramifications, the most delicate intricacies of feeling and thought. A stage audience has its eyes and ears too busy to give its full attention to the finer complications of sentiment and motive; or, at least, in order to keep its interest alive and its understanding clear, an accentuation of outline is needed, which she neglects even to seek.
Her assertion, that the niceties of emotion are sufficient to found a good play upon, no one now will dream of disputing. But for this an art of execution is needed of which she had not the instinct. The action is insufficient, or rather the sense of action is not conveyed. The slightness of plot—a mere thread in most instances—requires that the thread shall at least be never allowed to drop. But she cuts or slackens it perpetually, long arguments and digressions intervening, and the dialogue, whose monotony is unrelieved by wit, nowhere compensates for the limited interest of the action. Awkward treatment is but half felt when subject and situations are dramatically strong; but plays with so airy and impalpable a basis as these need to be sustained by the utmost perfection of construction, concision, and polish of dialogue.
Her novel Mauprat has many dramatic points, and she received a score of applications for leave to adapt it to the stage. She preferred to prepare the version herself, and it was played in the winter of 1853–4, with moderate success. But it suffers fatally from comparison with its original. An extreme instance is Flaminio (1854), a protracted drama, drawn by Madame Sand from her novelette Teverino. This is a fantasy-piece whose audacity is redeemed, as are certain other blemishes, by the poetic suggestiveness of the figure of Madeleine the bird-charmer; whilst the picturesque sketch of Teverino, the idealized Italian bohemian, too indolent to turn his high natural gifts to any account, has proved invaluable to the race of novelists, who are not yet tired of reproducing it in large. The work is one addressed mainly to the imagination.
In the play we come down from the clouds—the poetry is gone, taste is shocked, fancy uncharmed, the improbabilities become grotesque, and the whole is distorted and tedious. Madame Sand's personages are never weary of analysing their sentiments. Her flowing style, so pleasant to read, carries us swiftly and easily through her dissertations in print, before we have time to tire of them. On the stage such colloquies soon appear lengthy and unnatural. The climax of absurdity is reached in Flaminio, where we find the adventurer expatiating to the man of the world on "the divinity of his essence."
There is scarcely a department of theatrical literature in which Madame Sand does not appear as an aspirant. She was a worshipper of Shakespeare, acknowledging him as the king of dramatic writers. For her attempt to adapt "As You Like It" to suit the tastes of a Parisian audience, she disarms criticism by a preface in the form of a letter to M. Régnier, of the Comédie Française, prefixed to the printed play. Here she says plainly that to resolve to alter Shakspeare is to resolve to murder, and that she aims at nothing more than at giving the French public some idea of the original. In "As You Like It," the license of fancy taken is too wide for the piece to be safely represented to her countrymen, since it must jar terribly on "that French reason which," remarks Madame Sand, "we are so vain of, and which deprives us of so many originalities quite as precious as itself." The fantastic, which had so much attraction for her (possibly a result of her part German origin), is a growth that has hard work to flourish on French soil. The reader will remember the fate of Weber's Freischütz, outrageously hissed when first produced at Paris in its original form. Nine days later it was reproduced, having been taken to pieces and put together again by M. Castil-Blaze, and thus as Robin des Bois it ran for 357 nights. The reckless imagination that distinguishes the Shakespearian comedy and does not shrink before the introduction of a lion and a serpent into the forest of Arden, and the miraculous and instantaneous conversion of the wretch Oliver into a worthy suitor for Celia, needed to be toned down for acceptance by the Parisians. But Madame Sand was less fortunate than M. Castil-Blaze. Her version, produced at the Théâtre Français in 1856, failed to please, although supported by such actors as Delaunay, Arnold-Plessy, and Favart. Macready, who had made Madame Sand's acquaintance in 1845 when he was giving Shakespearian performances in Paris, and whom she greatly admired, dedicating to him her little theatrical romance Le Château des Désertes, was present at this representation and records it as a failure. But of her works for the stage, which number over a score, few like her Comme il vous plaira missed making some mark at the time, the prestige of her name and the exceptionally favourable circumstances under which they were produced securing more than justice for their intrinsic merit. It was natural that she should over-estimate their value and continue to add to their number. These pieces would be carefully rehearsed on the little stage in the house at Nohant, often with the aid of leading professional actors; and there, at least, the success was unqualified.
Her ingenious novel Les Beaux Messieurs de Bois Doré, dramatised with the aid of Paul Meurice and acted in 1862, was a triumph for Madame Sand and her friend Bocage. The form and spirit of this novel seem inspired by Sir Walter Scott, and though far from perfect, it is a striking instance of the versatility of her imaginative powers. The leading character of the septuagenarian Marquis, with his many amiable virtues, and his one amiable weakness, a longing to preserve intact his youthfulness of appearance as he has really preserved his youthfulness of heart, is both natural and original, comic and half pathetic withal. The part in the play seemed made for Bocage, and his heart was set upon undertaking it. But his health was failing at the time, and the manager hesitated about giving him the rôle. "Take care, my friend," wrote Bocage to Madame Sand, "perhaps I shall die if I play the part; but if I play it not, I shall die of that, to a certainty." She insisted, and play it he did, to perfection, she tells us. "He did not act the Marquis de Bois Doré, he was the personage himself, as the author had dreamt him." It was to be his last achievement, and he knew it. "It is my end," he said to her one night, "but I shall die like a soldier on the field of honour." And so he did, continuing to play the rôle up till a few days before his death.
More lasting success has attended Madame Sand in two of the lightest of society comedies, Le Mariage de Victorine and Le Marquis de Villemer, which seem likely to take a permanent place in the répertoire of the French stage. The first, a continuation that had suggested itself to her of Sedaine's century-old comedy, Le Philosophe sans le savoir, escapes the ill fate that seems to attend sequels in general. It is of the slightest materials, but holds together, and is gracefully conceived and executed. First produced at the Gymnase in 1851, it was revived during the last year of Madame Sand's life in a manner very gratifying to her, being brought out with great applause at the Comédie Française, preceded on each occasion by Sedaine's play, and the same artists appearing in both.
The excellent dramatic version of her popular novel Le Marquis de Villemer, first acted in 1864, is free from the defects that weaken most of her stage compositions. It is said that in preparing it she accepted some hints from Alexandre Dumas the younger. Whatever the cause, the result is a play where characters, composition, and dialogue leave little to be desired.
L'Autre, her latest notable stage success, brings us down to 1870, when it was acted at the Gymnase, Madame Sarah Bernhardt impersonating the heroine. This not very agreeable play is derived, with material alterations, from Madame Sand's agreeable novel La Confession d'une jeune Fille, published in 1864.
If, however, her works for the stage, which fill four volumes, added but little, in proportion to their quantity, to her permanent fame, her dramatic studies added fresh interest and variety to her experience, which brought forth excellent fruit in her novels. Actors, their art, and way of life have fared notoriously badly in fiction. Such pictures have almost invariably fallen into the extreme of unreality or that of caricature, whether for want of information or want of sympathy in those who have drawn them.
The subject, always attractive for Madame Sand, is one in which she is always happy. Already in the first year of her literary career her keen appreciation of the art and its higher influences had prompted her clever novelette La Marquise. Here she illustrates the power of the stage as a means of expression—of the truly inspired actor, though his greatness be but momentary, and his heroism a semblance, to strike a like chord in the heart of the spectator—and, in a corrupt and artificial age, to keep alive some latent faith in the ideal. Since then the stage and players had figured repeatedly in her works. Sometimes she portrays a perfected type, such as Consuelo, or Impéria in Pierre qui roule, but always side by side with more earthly and faulty representatives such as Gorilla and Anzoleto, or Julia and Albany, in Narcisse, incarnations of the vanity and instability that are the chief dangers of the profession, drawn with unsparing realism. In Le Château des Désertes we find further many admirable theories and suggestive ideas on the subject of the regeneration of the theatre. But it fared with her theatrical as with her political philosophy; she failed in its application, not because her theories were false, but for want of practical aptitude for the craft whose principles she understood so well.
It is impossible here to do more than cast a rapid glance over the literary work accomplished by George Sand during the first decade of the empire. It includes more than a dozen novels, of unequal merit, but of merit for the most part very high. The Histoire de ma Vie was published in 1855. It is a study of chosen passages out of her life, rather than a connected autobiography. One out of the four volumes is devoted to the story of her father's life before her birth; two more to the story of her childhood and girlhood. The fourth rather indicates than fully narrates the facts of her existence from the time of her marriage till the Revolution of 1848. It offers to her admirers invaluable glimpses into her life and mind, and is a highly interesting and characteristic composition, if a most irregular chronicle. It has given rise to two most incompatible-sounding criticisms Some have been chiefly struck by its amazing unreserve, and denounced the over-frankness of the author in revealing herself to the public. Others complain that she keeps on a mask throughout, and never allows us to see into the recesses of her mind. Her passion for the analysis of sentiment has doubtless led her here, as in her romances, to give very free expression to truths usually better left unspoken. But her silence on many points about which her readers, whether from mere curiosity or some more honourable motive, would gladly have been informed, was then inevitable. It could not have been broken without wounding the susceptibilities of living persons, which she did right in respecting, at the cost of disappointment to an inquisitive public.
In January 1855, a terrible domestic sorrow befell her in the loss of her six years old grandchild, Jeanne Clésinger, to whom she was devoted. It affected her profoundly. "Is there a more mortal grief," she exclaims, "than to outlive, yourself, those who should have bloomed upon your grave?" The blow told upon her mentally and physically; she could not rally from its effects, till persuaded to seek a restorative in change of air and scene, which happily did their work.
"I was ill," she says, when writing of these events to a lady-correspondent, later in the same year, "my son took me away to Italy . . . I have seen Rome, revisited Florence, Genoa, Frascati, Spezia, Marseilles. I have walked a great deal, been out in the sun, the rain, the wind, for whole days out of doors. This, for me, is a certain remedy, and I have come back cured."
Those who care to follow the mind of George Sand on this Italian journey may safely infer from La Daniella, a novel written after this tour, and the scene of which is laid in Rome and the Campagna, that the author's strongest impression of the Eternal City was one of disillusion. Her hero, a Berrichon artist on his travels, confesses to a feeling of uneasiness and regret rather than of surprise and admiration. The ancient ruins, stupendous in themselves, seemed to her spoilt for effect by their situation in the centre of a modern town. "Of the Rome of the past not enough exists to overwhelm me with its majesty; of the Rome of the present not enough to make me forget the first, and much too much to allow me to see her."
But the Baths of Caracalla, where the picture is not set in a frame of hideous houses, awakened her native enthusiasm. "A grandiose ruin," she exclaims, "of colossal proportions; it is shut away, isolated, silent and respected. There you feel the terrific power of the Cæsars, and the opulence of a nation intoxicated with its royalty over the world."
So in the Appian Way, the road of tombs, the fascination of desolation—a desolation there unbroken and undisfigured by modern buildings or otherwise—she felt to the full. But whatever came under her notice she looked on with the eye of the poet and artist, not of the archæologist, and approved or disapproved or passed over it accordingly.
The beauties of nature, at Tivoli and Frascati, appealed much more surely to her sympathies. But of certain sites in the Campagna much vaunted by tourists and hand-books she remarks pertinently: "If you were to pass this village" (Marino) "on the railway within a hundred miles of Paris, you would not pay it the slightest attention." Such places had their individuality, but she upheld that there is not a corner in the universe, "however common-place it may appear, but has a character of its own, unique in this world, for anyone who is disposed to feel or comprehend it." In one of her village tales, a sagacious peasant professes his profound contempt for the man who cannot like the place he belongs to.
Neither the grottoes and cascades of Tivoli, the cypress and ilex gardens of Frascati and Albano, nor the ruins of Tusculum, were ever so pleasant to her eyes as the poplar-fringed banks of the Indre, the cornlands and hedgerows of Berry, and the rocky borders of the Creuse at Crozant and Argenton. She had not ceased making fresh picturesque discoveries in her own neighbourhood. Of these she records an instance in her pleasant Promenades autour d'un village, a lively sketch of a few days' walking-tour on the banks of the Creuse, undertaken by herself and some naturalist friends in June 1857. In studying the interesting and secluded village of Gargilesse, with its tenth-century church and crypt with ancient frescoes, its simple and independent-minded population, in following the course of a river whose natural wild beauties, equal to those of the Wye, are as yet undisfigured here by railroad or the hand of man, lingering on its banks full of summer flowers and butterflies, exploring the castles of Châteaubrun and La Prugne au Pot, George Sand is happier, more herself, more communicative than in Rome, "the museum of the universe."
The years 1858 to 1861 show her to us in the fullest conservation of her powers and in the heyday of activity. The group of novels belonging to this period, the climax of what may be called her second career, is sufficiently remarkable for a novelist who was almost a sexagenarian, including Elle et Lui, L'Homme de Neige, La Ville Noire, Constance Verrier, Le Marquis de Villemer, and Valvèdre. Elle et Lui, in which George Sand at last broke silence in her own defence on the subject of her rupture with Alfred de Musset, first appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes, 1859. Though many of the details are fictitious, the author here told the history of her relations with the deceased poet much too powerfully for her intention to be mistaken or to escape severe blame. That a magnanimous silence would have been the nobler course on her part towards the child of genius whose good genius she had so signally failed to be, need not be disputed. It must be remembered, however, that De Musset on his side had not refrained during his lifetime from denouncing in eloquent verse the friend he had quarrelled with, and satirizing her in pungent prose. Making every possible allowance for poetical figures of speech, he had said enough to provoke her to retaliate. It is impossible to suppose that there was not another side to such a question. But Madame Sand could not defend herself without accusing her lost lover. She often proved herself a generous adversary—too generous, indeed, for her own advantage—and in this instance it was clearly not for her own sake that she deferred her apology.
It is even conceivable that the poet, when in a just frame of mind, and not seeking inspiration for his Nuit de Mai, or Histoire d'un Merle blanc, would not have seen in Elle et Lui a falsification of the spirit of their history. The theorising of the outside world in such matters is of little worth; but the novel bears, conspicuously among Madame Sand's productions, the stamp of a study from real life, true in its leading features. And the conduct of the heroine, Therèse, though accounted for and eloquently defended, is by no means, as related, ideally blameless. After an attachment so strong as to induce a seriously-minded person, such as she is represented, to throw aside for it all other considerations, the hastiness with which, on discovering her mistake, she entertains the idea of bestowing her hand, if not her heart, on another, is an exhibition of feminine inconsequence which no amount of previous misconduct on the part other lover, Laurent, can justify. Further Therèse is self-deceived in supposing her passion to have died out with her esteem. She breaks with the culprit, and engages her word to a worthier man. But enough remains over of the past to prevent her from keeping the promise she ought never to have made. When she sacrifices her unselfish friend to return to the lover who has made her miserable, she is sincere, but not heroic. She is too weak to shake off the influence of the fatal infatuation and shut out Laurent from her life, nor yet can she accept her heart's choice for better or worse, even when experience has left her little to learn with regard to Laurent. Clearly both friend and lover, out of a novel, would feel wronged. Therèse's excuse lies in the extremely trying character of her companion, whose vagaries may be supposed to have driven her beside herself at times, just as her airs of superiority and mute reproach may have driven him not a little mad. Those who wish to know in what spirit Madame Sand met the attacks upon her provoked by this book, will find her reply in a very few words at the conclusion of her preface to Jean de la Roche, published the same year.
Most readers of Elle et Lui have been so preoccupied with the question of the rights and wrongs of the originals in their behaviour to each other, so inclined to judge of the book according to its supposed accuracy or inaccuracy as a matter of history, that its force, as a study of the attraction that so often leads two exceptional but hopelessly irreconcilable spirits to seek in each other a refuge from the isolation in which their superiority places them, has been somewhat overlooked. Laurent, whether a true portrait or not, is only too true to nature; excessive in his admirable powers and in his despicable weakness. Therèse is an equally faithful picture of a woman not quite up to the level of her own principles, which are so high that any lapse from them on her part brings down more disasters on herself and on others than the misdemeanours of avowedly unscrupulous persons.
Within a few months of Elle et Lui had appeared L'Homme de Neige, a work of a totally different but equally characteristic cast. The author's imagination had still all its old zest and activity, and readers for whom fancy has any charm will find this Scandinavian romance thoroughly enjoyable. The subject of the Marionnette theatre, here introduced with such brilliant and ingenious effect, she had studied both historically and practically. She and her son found it so fascinating that, years before this time, a miniature stage had been constructed by the latter at Nohant, over which he presided, and which they and their friends found an endless source of amusement. Madame Sand wrote little dramas expressly for such representations, and would sit up all night making dresses for the puppets. In an agreeable little article she has devoted to the subject, she describes how from the crudest beginnings they succeeded in elaborating their art to a high pitch; the répertoire of their lilliputian theatre including more than twenty plays, their "company" over a hundred marionnettes.
To the next year, 1860, belong the pleasant tale of artisan life, La Ville Noire, and the well-known and popular Marquis de Villemer, notable as a decided success in a genre seldom adopted by her, that of the purely society novel.
Already Madame Sand had outlived the period of which she was so brilliant a representative. After the Romantic movement had spent its force, a reaction had set in that was influencing the younger school of writers, and that has continued to give the direction to successful talent until the present day. Of the so-called "realism," Madame Sand said that it was nothing new. She saw there merely another form of the same revolt of nature against affectation and convention which had prompted the Romantic movement, whose disciples had now become guilty of affectation in their turn. Madame Bovary she pronounced with truth to be but concentrated Balzac. She was ready to perceive and do justice to the great ability of the author, as to original genius in any school; thus of Tourguénief she speaks with enthusiasm: "Realist to see all, poet to beautify all, great heart to pity and understand all." But she deplored the increasing tendency among artists to give the preference among realities to the ugliest and the most painful. Her personal leanings avowedly were towards the other extreme; but she was too large-minded not to recognise that truth in one form or another must always be the prime object of the artist's search. The manner of its presentation will vary with the age.
Let the realists, if they like, go on proclaiming that all is prose, and the idealists that all is poesy. The last will have their rainy days, the first their days of sunshine. In all arts the victory remains with a privileged few, who go their own ways; and the discussions of the "schools" will pass away like old fashions.
On the generation of writers that George Sand saw growing up, any opinion pronounced must be premature. But with regard to herself, it should now be possible to regard her work in a true perspective. As with Byron, Dickens, and other popular celebrities, a phase of infinite enthusiasm for her writings was duly succeeded by a phase of determined depreciation. The public opinion that survives when blind friendship and blind enmity have done their worst is likely to be the judgment of posterity.