Friday, August 7, 2020

EUGENE BRIEUX’S DAMAGED GOODS (LES AVARIES)

 

In 1901, French playwright Eugene Brieux wrote “Les Avaries.”  I had not planned to discuss any play on this blog written more than three years before the start of World War One, but “Les Avaries” gained recognition as a significant work of drama in the early years of the war. It suddenly became an important play to read, to see in theatres as well as on movie screens.

 

EUGENE BRIEUX

When “Les Avaries” was initially submitted to the censor, it was banned from appearing on the Paris stage.  “Damaged Goods” discusses the medical and social ramifications of syphilis. This disease was not considered to be an appropriate topic to discuss on a public stage.  In 1902 Brieux was granted permission to present a private reading of the play in Paris’s Theatre Antoine.  This could easily have been the end of the story had not John Pollock (1878-1963) translated “Les Avaries” into English in 1905 under the title of “Damaged Goods.”

In 1906-07 Mrs. George Bernard Shaw (Charlotte F. Shaw:1857-1943) became acquainted with Brieux’s play titled Maternite that was written in 1904 (the English title is “Maternity”). Charlotte Shaw wanted to translate this drama into English. She knew John Pollack wanted to have his translation of “Damaged Goods” published.  She secured Brieux’s permission to have three of his plays published in English—the third play is titled “The Three Daughters of M. Dupont.” 

After Eugene Brieux was made a member of the French Academy in 1910, Charlotte Shaw increased her pursuit to have Brieux’s plays published for English language readers.  In May 1911, the book titled “Three Plays by Brieux” was published and simultaneously released in London (publisher: A.C. Fifield) and New York (publisher: Brentano’s).  Mrs. Shaw wrote the Forward for the book and George Bernard Shaw wrote the Preface that focused on the significance of “Damaged Goods” since be believed this play was an essential educational tool to lessen the spread and tragic effects of syphilis.  The book was an instant success in both countries. Two editions quickly sold so a third edition was published in 1914 as was a fourth one in 1917.  

By this time, an earlier ban issued by the British Censor preventing the play from being staged in England had been lifted.  “Damaged Goods” was playing in theatres all over England as well as appearing on movie screens.  The censor originally had written: “This play will never be licensed.” His ban was revoked in 1916 due to pressure from British military officials since syphilis was rapidly spreading throughout the armed services. The British government believed this play provided significant educational information for the troops and sent theatre companies to perform "Damaged Goods” at military installations.

Act One is set in the doctor’s consulting room. “The room is sumptuously furnished and literally encumbered with works of art.” George Dupont, twenty-six years old, awaits the doctor.  The Doctor, forty years old, wears the ribbon of the Legion of Honor in the buttonhole of his frock coat. He informs George that there is no doubt about his “case.” He explains to George that at least one man in seven has the same “condition.” George proclaims he will kill himself, but eventually the doctor convinces him to take the medicine instead. Brieux wanted to illustrate that this disease is usually met with ignorance and fear.

George’s immediate situation is complicated by the fact that he is to marry and there is a monetary issue connected to the marriage. The doctor emphatically tells George that he cannot marry for three or four years since that is how long it will take for him to be cured.

Act Two takes place in George’s study about eighteen months after Act One.  George has been married to Henriette, twenty-two years old, for the past twelve months. They have a baby girl, three months old, who was taken to the countryside by George’s Mother. Mother Dupont suddenly returns to George’s home with the baby who is ill. She has also brought a wet nurse from the country with her. Mother Dupont consulted a country doctor and he believed the baby must be bottle fed since she is suffering from a condition that might become “very serious.” Mother Dupont has also stopped to see a Paris specialist before coming to George’s home. This is the doctor George had seen in Act One.  Doctor arrives at George’s home and eventually the cause of child’s illness is related to George and the entire situation is revealed to his wife, who has become infected with syphilis. Mother Dupont and George show little regard for the health of the others involved with the baby and they only care about maintaining their status and reputation while avoiding “a horrible scandal.” This play’s secondary focus illustrates the total indifference of the wealthy toward those who do not belong to their social class.

Act Three is “The doctor’s room in the hospital where he is chief physician.” Doctor enters with a medical student. There is a Monsieur Loches, Henriette’s father, waiting to see Doctor.  The doctor educates the irate Monsieur Loches about how he could have saved Henriette from her misfortune. While Loches inquired about all aspects of Dupont’s character and monetary standing, he never questioned Dupont’s health. Doctor is an advocate for requiring a health certificate with every marriage as a means of decreasing the rate at which syphilis was being passed to innocent women and their newborn children. He also educates Loches, who is a Deputy in France’s Chamber of Deputies, regarding the need to inform people about the disease as well as to have laws that help to curb it. To summarized what this play teaches: 1. It tells what syphilis is.  2. How the disease is acquired. 3. How it may affect a future child.

“Damaged Goods” was first presented on stage in the United States on March 14, 1913 at the Fulton Theatre, New York City. This was a special matinee for the members of the Sociological Fund. This production was created by Richard Bennett (1870-1944) who also played the role of George Dupont. He was very careful to develop approval for this play before it was presented to the public. The next performance was given at the National Theatre in Washington, DC on April 6,1913. It was a Sunday afternoon performance attended by the highest officials in the United States government. To add to this distinguished audience were the most renown Washington clergymen. This esteem audience’s endorsement of the play led the way for Mr. Bennett to stage the play in New York City for the public. The play officially opened in New York on May 14, 1913 at the Fulton Theatre. It was scheduled to play fourteen performances, but a $10,000 advance sale of tickets lengthened the engagement to sixty-six performances.  Bennett also took “Damaged Goods” on a tour of the United States. The play was staged in each large city under the auspices of the principal medical society of that community. It created a national sensation for the remainder of the war years.

“Damaged Goods” was restaged on Broadway in May 1937 at the 48th Street Theatre.  It was staged by Henry Herbert (1879-1947) a well-known Broadway actor and producer. Herbert had modernized John Pollock’s translation and the newspaper reviews claimed that the drama failed to please.  It played for eight performances. 

In 1913, Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) an American activist writer, novelized “Damaged Goods” with the approval of Eugene Brieux. “Damaged Goods” appealed to Sinclair’s concern with social injustice as well as its educational value related to the most dreaded social disease of its time. Sinclair strived to include most of the play’s dialogue, description of settings and character development.  This novelized version is still available.

The first performance of Brieux’s “Damaged Goods” in England was given at London’s Little Theatre on February 16, 1914. This performance was arranged by an association named the Authors’ Producing Society.  The play was banned in England from public performances until 1917, when it was produced at St. Martin’s Theatre where it ran for nearly a year. Theatre companies toured “Damaged Goods” all over the country for several years.

“Damaged Goods” was revived in London at Whitehall Theatre in latter part of 1943. It was a slightly reworked updated version. It did not have a long run since films had also been made from the original script.

In September 1914 “Damaged Goods” was released as a silent film that basically used Brieux’s script. It played for years in the United States and American World War One military members were invited to see it free of charge. Their uniforms served as their ticket of admission. Richard Bennett starred as George Dupont so this film version must have been relatively true to the original stage  script.                                                          

There was also a 1937 film version of “Damaged Goods” that basically used Brieux’s script as it appears in Sinclair’s novel. The release of this film coincided with the Broadway revival of the play.

“Damaged Goods” is still a worthwhile play to read.

Monday, June 22, 2020

AUGUST STRAMM’S AWAKENING (ERWACHEN)


August Stramm (1874-1915) was born in Munster,Westphalia. In 1896-97, he fulfilled his year of compulsory military service in the German army.  It was this prior military service that resulted in Stramm being conscripted as an officer into the German army in August,1914 although he was nearly forty years old.

                                                          
                                                                AUGUST STRAMM (1915)

Stramm had begun writing both poetry and plays in 1902. His writing style became more experimental and in 1913 several of his expressionistic poems were published in Der Strum (The Storm) an avant-garde journal founded in 1910 by Herwarth Walden (1879-1941).

It was during Stramm’s military service that he wrote the one-act play Awakening (1914). Throughout World War I, Stramm’s poems did not reflect patriotism as did the work of many other German poets.  Instead he expressed his hatred of the war and “this great awareness of the terrible.” Stramm’s truest feelings about the war were expressed in some of his letters to his wife, Else Krafft (1877-1947) who was a journalist and novelist, as well as to his editor and friend Herwarth Walden.  Awakening does not express the realities of war as did Stramm’s poems.

Awakening is set in a hotel room furnished with two single beds side by side. Valises and articles of clothing are scattered over chairs and bed-side tables. On the wall opposite the beds are double doors. HE and SHE are the guests, SHE is awake. They are lovers. SHE is distraught but when HE awakens, SHE will not explain why. Part of the scenery collapses about HE as he rages at SHE.

There is knocking on the door. The door quickly gives way to the blows from the people trying to gain access to the room. The MANAGER bursts into the room. Everything is in a state of chaos. The situation outside the window quickly supersedes the dispute between the MANAGER and HE. A storm has created a torrent of river water that is starting to flood the city. A crowd rushes into this hotel room. SHE is recognized as the wife of a local businessman. Chaos takes over the situation with the crowd both against SHE as well as fearful of the flooding river.

This short play contains threats, a craving for money, sudden death as well as a confrontation between a male and female. Suddenly as the city is about to be destroyed, HE solves the problem by telling the people to “Let the water in! Open the dam.” The city is saved from destruction and HE tells the crowd “Rebuild!” Everyone rushes away, except GIRL, who is left in the room with HE. GIRL is SHE’s younger sister. HE is proclaimed by the returning crowd as “Our master builder.” HE and GIRL proclaim their love for each other. “THE STAR (a scenic element) flares up brilliantly.” It announces a new future to be created by HE as the couple embrace.

Awakening was published in Strum’s book series number 5, November/December 1915. This play was written in an evolving style of Expressionist drama. Stramm had previously written lyrical plays as well as one that was naturalism. Awakening was a totally new approach for Stramm. The most unusual aspect of Awakening was the stylized use of language. There are numerous one, two, or three-word sentences plus exclamations. It reminded people of the style of writing used in telegrams—short and to the point with a staccato effect. Perhaps this occurred to the public since Stramm’s commenced his long career in 1893 with the German Post Office administration. His new style of writing associated with Awakening is labelled Telegrammstil. Language had become one of the main elements used in experimental ways and this new telegram style fit with the other elements of drama that became labelled as Expressionism.

Awakening incorporates another new feature labelled “New Man.” This visionary character would later become used exclusively in expressionistic drama. In Awakening, HE is the savior of this town and his vision will create its future. THE STAR proclaims that promise.

HE also has a new life ahead of him with his true love. GIRL in one English translation that I read is named IT.   GIRL neither incurs the wrath of the local citizenry nor does she inflame their bourgeois values. Thus, there is a sense that a new level of morality has been reached among this town’s population. Awakening moves from chaos and discontentment to a brighter future. It is possibly Stramm’s vision for when the war concluded.

Another expressionist trait Stramm employed in Awakening is labelling his characters instead of giving each one a Christian name. This element became exclusively identified with theatrical expressionism. 

Stramm, was awarded the Iron Cross for his bravery on the French Front in January 1915. He was soon transferred to the Russian Front where he died in combat on September 15,1915.

 Stramm’s legacy was that his poetry and drama influenced writers for the following two decades.  The poetry appears to be the best remembered of his writings currently, but his plays are also of significance. His 1914 one-act play titled Sancta Susanna was the basis for the 1921opera by the same titled composed by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963).  Awakening was of importance to later German Expressionist playwrights since it introduced and refined several signature elements that further defined the style.

Two Resources for more consideration of this playwright and his work:
1.      Wasserman, Martin.  Poets of Crisis: August Stramm and Maria Berl-Lee. Xlibris, 2020.
    (This book includes some of Stramm’s thoughts regarding the war and many of
      his poems.)

2.      Richie, J.M. & Garten, H.F. Seven Expressionist Plays. London: Calder and Boyars, 1968.

Monday, May 4, 2020

PEACE by GEORGE CALDERON


George Calderon (1868-1915) was born in London, but his father’s family was descended from one of Spain’s foremost dramatist Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681). George’s father was an artist. George was a capable visual artist, talented as a theatre director and playwright as well as an expert on Slavonic languages. George Calderon was the first person to translate Anton Chekhov’s plays into English. It was his translations of The Cherry Orchard (first published in 1912 with its London premier performance in 1925) and The Seagull that introduced the English-speaking world to this Russian master.

                                                               GEORGE CALDERON 

When Great Britain entered World War I, Calderon was 45 years old. He was too old to join the military, but he was determined to become a soldier. As a result, he worked diligently to fill every requirement to become a military interpreter. He succeeded in qualifying for this position with the Royal Horse Guards and was sent to Flanders in October 1914.  His desire to be a soldier was fulfilled in January 1915, when he transferred to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and was promoted to Temporary Second Lieutenant. (This battalion was commonly referred to as the Ox and Bucks.) In May 1915, Calderon was reassigned to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.) Infantry. His battalion landed in Gallipoli on June 4,1915. Many British, American, and Canadian newspapers reported during the second week of July,1915 that Calderon had been seen severely wounded during the first assault on Gallipoli and he was listed as missing in action. On May17,1919 the London Times officially reported George Calderon was presumed dead following a long investigation on whether “he might prove to be a prisoner in Turkey.”

PEACE, A Farce in One Act, was written prior to Calderon’s departure for the battlefields of World War One. The scene takes place in the evening at the residence of Sir Blennerhassett Postlethwaite, who is a Member of Parliament. Sir Postlethwaite is at home preparing his speech for the following day when he expects to be “called upon to take the chair at the Meeting of the Peace Society.” Postlethwaite is widely recognized for his preaching about universal peace.

Burglar enters Postlethwaite’s room by the window and pulls up his ladder which he leans against the bookcase. He is surprised to see Postlethwaite there. Postlethwaite immediately tells  Burglar to “Get away from here or I’ll shoot you.” When Burglar recognizes who he is confronting, their antagonistic political relationship commences. After Burglar gains control of Postlethwaite’s pistol, these two men engage in a debate about war and peace from each man’s point of view.  While Burglar intends to escape with some of Postlethwaite’s treasures, he also obtains a check from the politician for The Navy League. Still not satisfied, Burglar also pushes Postlethwaite to admit “that violence will beget violence,” a position that the politician opposes. Eventually a Policeman arrives, but Postlethwaite decides not to expose the real intensions of  Burglar. As Burglar is about to leave with his loot, Postlethwaite demands to know his name so he may curse him. Burglar: “Oh, my name’s Peace. Charlie Peace.”

Obviously, this play is character centered and it creates an exaggerated, humorous situation   with deliberate absurdity. While this play is meant to be entertaining, it clearly illustrates an immediate clash of the two different positions regarding how England should be preparing for the possibility of war with Germany. Unfortunately, there is little of the comedic essence of this play in my short recount of the plot. PEACE is worth reading. The script is included in “Eight One-Act Plays” by George Calderon. It was originally published by Grant Richards LTD. London:1922. This book is currently available as a Scholar SELECT reprint through Amazon.

I have not found any information regarding a staged production of PEACE; however, there was a radio production aired on May 7,1925 presented by The London Radio Repertory.  Ashton Pearse played SIR BLENNERHASSETT POSTLETHWAITE and Raymond Trafford was BURGLAR. George Skillan (1893-1975) was POLICEMAN.

Calderon was a prolific author/playwright but many of his works remained unpublished during his lifetime. Throughout the 1920s many of his unpublished plays and books were published. Starting in 1921 his book titled Tahiti was published. It related to Calderon’s 1906 trip to the island and contains his observations about the culture he encountered. Percy Lubbock in his book titled: George Calderon: a sketch from memory, published in London 1921, claims that Calderon was affected very deeply by his days in Tahiti. “They gave him perhaps the most penetrating experience he ever had till the war.”  Tahiti was highly praised in the Pall Mall Gazette on August 5, 1921 as “the best story of a Polynesian people that has been given us.”
  
Two volumes of Calderon’s one-acts and full-length plays were published in 1922 followed in 1924 by his translations of Two Plays by Anton Chekhov and One by Alfred de Musset. This publication led to the London productions of the two Russian plays. Calderon’s translations were credited with introducing Chekhov as a new force to English theatre. During George Calderon’s forty-six years of life, he demonstrated his amazing versatility and accomplishment. His plays were frequently produced in England throughout the 1920s.

Percy Lubbock states in George Calderon: a sketch from memory:
     He seemed to be just as much of a poet, a maker, a creator, whether he was
     championing a political cause or writing a comedy or learning the songs of a
     South sea islander—and not less so, it was very clear to see, when he fought
     and fell in the war.