Friday, April 29, 2016


Marie Lenéru (1875-1918) was born in France and while she is not a recognized name today, she began to gain major notice as a playwright in Paris during 1910. Her reputation grew with each new play and it spread to English speaking countries as well. Her death in September of 1918 resulted from the Spanish influenza pandemic, but it did not deter the spread of her reputation since several of her dramas were performed in major theatres of Paris after the war and her journal was published posthumously. 
Marie Lenéru was a remarkable individual who surmounted major medical problems during her youth. Sometime between ten to eighteen years old, she contracted scarlet fever that left her deaf and nearly blind. These afflictions plagued her for the remainder of her life.  She was frequently referred to as France’s Helen Keller (1880-1968).

Marie and her mother, her father died when she was an infant, moved to Paris in 1902.  Within a few years, Marie’s writings began to attract attention.  Her first play La Vivante (The Awakening) won the literary prize, La Vie Heureuse, in 1908. The prize included publication by Hachette, an established publisher. La Vivante was produced in 1910 by the Odéon theatre.  Her second play La Redoutable was produced on the same stage in 1912, but due to negative responses it was withdrawn after a few performances.   

When Lenéru submitted her third play, La Triomphatrice (Woman Triumphant), to the Comedie-Française in 1914, it was reported in many American and British newspapers that this distinguished French theatre was considering it for production.  The Comedie-Française had not produced a new play by a women since the nineteenth century when works of George Sand (1804-1876) and Delphine de Girardin (1804-1855) had been staged.  Lenéru’s play was accepted for production by the Comedie-Française, but the war interrupted its production schedule and the play eventually premiered in January, 1918.

World War One changed Lenéru’s focus and she became an avid, deeply thoughtful pacifist who was against all wars.  She advocated for the need to ensure a lasting peace through the establishment of a council of international leaders. She was a follower of the ideas espoused by both H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who was President of the United States during the war.

Inspired by her strong political feelings, she wrote her next play La Prix (Peace). She completed the writing in 1917, but the action of the play takes place after the war is won by the Allies. The Odeon theatre presented this play commencing on February 12, 1921.

Peace is a play in four acts with five to nine French scenes in each act. It takes place in the autumn of 1918 during the Paris Peace Conference and all the scenes in Acts One through Three are set in the salon of a chateau. The owner of the chateau died in the war as had two of his three sons. The wife is grieving and keeps herself fairly removed from her guests. The older generation in this play is aged forty-two to fifty five years. Their children are eighteen to twenty-two years and the house-guest from England, Lady Mabel Stanley, is thirty-three years old.  The ages were specified by the playwright on the characters list.   Lenéru wanted audiences to identify with the age ranges and to realize that anyone in these age groups could be involved in another horrific war during their lifetimes. 

Lady Mabel strongly supports the idea that the Paris Peace Conference do more than merely provide a truce document.  She states her vision during Act One, Scene 4:
 . . . a league composed of men of all parties, who have finally been able to organize themselves into concern, who are agreed on a program, a sort of “copybook” of peace, which will impose on their representatives, on Parliament to begin with and through that as an intermediary to the world leaders at the Congress.

Mabel believes that “War must never happen again.” This is her position throughout the play and she has an ally in Graham Moore, who is a British representative at the Paris Conference and a visitor at the chateau.  The other men in the play are French as well as professional soldiers who believe in the nobility of their profession.  This is a play not based on action, but on a thorough discussion of the state of peace once a truce has been written and accepted.  

 Act Four is set in Mable’s guest-room in the chateau, Jean Gestel, the youngest son and only surviving heir of the chateau owner, has just resigned his military position to join the soldier for peace movement that Mabel supports. Moore returns to the chateau to tell Mabel that their idea failed to be ratified at the conference. Mabel knows she will continue to press for her ideas, but the play concludes with her final thought “Where are those who only want to live to make peace?”

Lenéru truly understood the tenuous circumstances and political ambitions surrounding any peace truce made at the conclusion of World War One.  She believed, without a doubt, that there would be another horrific war within the lifetime of her characters. She wrote an essay that supported her reasoning.  It is titled “Le Temoin” (The Witness) and it was published in The Book of France (1915). The Spectator reported in its 31 July 1915 issue that The Book of France was the idea of a British committee who desired to include “contributions by some first minds of France.”  The profits from the book were “to assist French sufferers from German barbarity.”  The Spectator also mentions that the authors and translators gave their work without compensation.

La Paix was published in French on January 1, 1922 by Grasset. I read the English translation by Claire Tylee that appears in War Plays by Women: An International Anthology (published by Routledge, 1999). 

The early years of the 1920’s marked continuing interest in Marie Lenéru since several of her plays received productions in Paris. The Journal of Marie Lenéru was published in France in 1923 and it was a great success.  It was translated into English and published in January, 1924 by Macmillan and Company.  Announcements about the English publication of “The Journal” were printed in many newspapers across Great Britain and the United States. Lenéru was widely known for her literary talents as well as her courage to persevere despite being nearly blind and deaf.

NOTE: I have briefly discussed the major theme of Peace, but there are other significant ideas
 beyond the one I outlined.  There is a detailed article about this play on-line titled
      “Women, War, and H.G. Wells: The Pacifism of French Playwright Marie Lenéru.”
      The author is Nancy Sloan Goldberg. The article appeared in “War Literature, 
       and the Arts” 2002.  

            Photo: Modern Drama by Women 1880s-1930s. Katherine E. Kelly, editor. London:
            Routledge, 1996.

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