Monday, April 6, 2015


I became acquainted with the play Servir by French playwright Henri Lavedan (1859-1940) during my sabbatical in 2005.  My research project was to discover and read World War One plays.  I would find the title of a play that fit my criterion and hunt to obtain a copy of the script.  My search for many of the scripts was successful due to the diligent work of Gail Kennedy, Director of the Lucile Caudill Little Fine Arts Library at the University of Kentucky.  

Although Henri Lavedan was a prolific playwright, I was not familiar with his works.  I quickly became intrigued with the plotline in Servir since it was written in 1912 and it anticipates France entering a major war.  The story revolves around a patriotic father with strongly held militaristic   beliefs and his struggle with his youngest son, who held pacifism as his ideal. In many countries where very strong nationalistic beliefs were held, fathers believed their sons must become soldiers.  Once they were on the battlefield, they were to die courageously to bring honor to the family as well as to their country.  This was the code that sons were expected to follow.  It was unthinkable for a son to not follow this parental expectation. The major debate in Servir is based on Eulin, the father, believing his son Pierre should serve his country heroically even though Eulin’s two older sons died in battle.

Eulin also believes that Pierre, trained as a chemist, should turn over to the French government a special explosive that he created.  Pierre desires to use this weapon of mass destruction against the enemy to create peace for France rather than cause French deaths and destruction. Madame Eulin has seen the destruction of her family due to her husband’s drive to serve his country at all costs and she struggles to protect her youngest son and his invention.

This two act play was accepted for its first production by the Comédie Française.  Lavedan withdrew his accepted script when the board of the theatre requested him to submit the play to the Minister of Fine Arts for final approval. He was obviously disgruntled since he also withdrew many more of his scripts which had been successfully performed at that theatre for more than twenty years.  Servir opened in Paris at Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt on February 8, 1913. The play is set in France prior to a war that is believed to be inevitable.  The enemy is never named, but clearly it is located on France’s eastern border.

The drama surrounding the location of the play’s premier was retold in newspapers throughout Great Britain and the United States as well as France. Lavedan, whose reputation was well established beyond the borders of France, began his successful career in 1891 writing farces and comedies that were considered to be modern in their use of language and to employ a realistic style. Eventually he began to write plays that were more serious and frequently focused on the short comings of the nobility, aristocrats, public affairs, private scandals and other issues that grabbed his attention. These situations he portrayed in “vivid realism with audacity’ reported the Manchester Courier on November 25, 1895. His early plays were also considered to be too prurient for American and British tastes; therefore, they were not translated into English.

The first American production of Servir was presented in Boston by the Cercle Francais of Harvard University in May, 1916. The original French script was used. Since plays by Lavedan had been successfully produced on Broadway between1893 to 1911, the rights for Servir were purchased after the United States entered the war. William C. Taylor translated the play into English for its Broadway production at the Cohan Theatre.  It opened April 15, 1918 starring Mrs. Fiske, a leading American actress. The play closed after its sixteenth performance. The title for the English version is Service. This title seems too non-descriptive and a better translation would be to use the infinitive as Lavedan did and name it To Serve.

It is Taylor’s translation that I read.  The speeches are stilted and would be frequently impossible to come out “trippingly on the tongue”.  I do not know if there was a script doctor who reworked many of the lines because the copy of the play that I read has handwritten lines reworking many sections of dialogue.  This script belonged to an actress named Beverly Sitgreaves, who was not listed as being in the production. Despite this weak translation, the play received some positive reviews.  The Dramatic Mirror of Motion Pictures and the Stage considered it to be “…an absorbing play without depending upon technical assistance of a love interest.”  “Burns Mantle’s New York Letter” appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune on April 28, 1918 and he raved about the young French actor who played the son and then Mantle related the plot.  There was nothing negative about the script or its message.  It seems that the message of the play was not as meaningful to American audiences, who were not as wedded to the same patriotic code.

I have not found any evidence that Lavedan’s play was performed in the United Kingdom.  Please contribute information if you find Servir was performed there either in translation or in French.

A reproduction of the original published French version of Servir was printed in May, 2010 by Nabu Press and it was recently available on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rhoda-Gale, thank you for this fascinating article. The play was indeed performed and discussed in the UK in October 1914 at Cosmopolis theatre in London. Florent Fels (who was one of the actors in the performance) also lectured about the psychological conflict in the play at the French cultural institute (which was based at the time, in Marble Arch, West London).
    Charlotte Faucher (University of Manchester).