Friday, September 22, 2017


Bernstein’s first name was originally Henri, but at some point in his life—perhaps during his two years as an undergraduate student at England’s Cambridge University—he changed the spelling to Henry.  When his play L’élévation was published in Paris in 1917, he was known as Henry.
When World War One began, Bernstein was one of Paris’s most successful Boulevard Theatre playwrights. Boulevard Theatre was the term used for the large commercial theatres usually located on boulevards.  The most popular type of drama for these theatres were plays of passion involving a love triangle. This type of sexual situation was the hallmark of Bernstein style. 

Bernstein is quoted in an article in the New York Times dated July 16, 1942 verifying his service during World War One. “I enlisted in the French Army in July, 1914 a few days before the First World War broke out.” He was attached as a French soldier to a British battery and he served in Flanders. Eventually he became an aviator and an officer still in the service of France. Once again his unit was attached to British troops. This time he was sent to the Macedonian Front in order to aid Serbia. During one of his missions, his airplane was shot down. While being treated in a Saloniki hospital, he wrote part of L’élévation. The play’s title implies gaining a spiritual approach to one’s life.

An earlier New York Times article dated November 18, 1917 wrote about this period of time in Bernstein’s life and its connections to L’élévation.
     It was the ‘elevation’ which he experienced when flying above the lines at Saloniki,
     which according to his own account, gave him the inspiration for a drama based on
     the corresponding spiritual elevation which the war has effected in so many instances,
     raising men from the earth to the heights, and giving them in one tremendous sweep
     a comprehension of the spiritual landscape about their lives.

The article further reports that Bernstein was later moved to a hospital in Italy in order to complete his recuperation.  While he was there, he completed the last act of the play. The hospital in Act Three is similar to the one where he was a patient. The article further states that Bernstein endowed his character Louis De Genois, the wife’s lover, with a new spiritual understanding of life which mirrored Bernstein’s own “L’élévation.”  Whether this newspaper article is totally accurate I do not know, but it provides some interesting possibilities.

L’élévation is a play in three acts with numerous French scenes. Act One takes place in August, 1914. It is set in the beautifully decorated home of Professor André Cordelier and his wife Edith, who is twenty-three years younger than him. Edith is currently in love with Louis De Genois, who is thirty-thirty years old. He is a man about town and Edith is his current passion.

 Throughout the course of the fourteen scenes in this act, Professor Cordelier begins to suspect his wife’s infidelity and when he questions her, she confesses. André places a hold on their domestic situation when World War One is declared. Louis is immediately called to serve France.

Act Two has twelve scenes. The war is in progress. The setting is the Cordelier home. Each member of this love triangle eventually comes to the realization that the welfare of France is his/her paramount concern. Louis is seriously wounded and he requests Edith to visit him at the hospital in Rennes.  André allows Edith to go to Louis.

Act Three has three scenes. This act is set in the hospital at Rennes. Louis is in a room for officers. He is seriously wounded and he realizes that there is no hope for recovery. His feelings for Edith have evolved from mere passion. He is now imbued with a keener value of life and relationships.  He dissuades Edith from fulfilling a previous promise she made to him about taking her life after his death.  By the conclusion of the play the three major characters learned to sacrifice one’s personal desires for the larger cause of preserving one’s country, its citizenry and its freedom.

Bernstein was released from the hospital in spring of 1917 and he returned to Paris. He had completed L’élévation. This play was produced at the Comédie-Française opening on June 8, 1917.  It was reported to be “the rage in Paris” and continued to run for the rest of the year. The critics claimed L’élévation was the first drama produced in Paris to show “the uplifting influence of the war.”  L’élévation was also published in Paris by A. Fayard & cie during the same year.

L’élévation opened in New York on November 14, 1917.  It was Henry Bernstein’s ninth play to be presented in the United States. The producer was Grace George (1879-1961) who also starred in the production as the wife, however her character’s name is changed from Edith to Suzanne. The production ran for thirty-eight performances at the Playhouse Theatre.

Jules Eckert Goodman (1876-1962) a successful American playwright translated L’élévation and he gave it a different ending. Since it was the first serious war play presented in New York City following America’s entrance into the war, it may have been considered by the producer to be unsuitable to have it end with the death of a soldier. Instead Louis convinces Edith to return to her husband. His plan for himself is to return to the front and continue to fight for France’s victory. The New York Times review of the production on November 15, 1917 describes the final scene was played with “The distant accompaniment of the songs of a company of convalescent wounded, who are returning to the front.”

New York City newspapers reported that Mr. Bernstein would not sue Mr. Goodman for changing the conclusion of the play. I have not found any reference to an English translation of the play being published.

I did not find any evidence that L’élévation was ever produced in England. I read a newspaper article dated August 2, 1917 that mentioned the play was “to be staged in London by Sir George Alexander.” George Alexander (1858-1918) may have been considering Bernstein’s play for the St. James Theatre, but his failing health could have interfered with the plans. Many of Bernstein’s other plays were produced in London.

I read the 1917 French publication of the play that is available from the University of Ottawa at 

When Bernstein died in 1953, he was considered to be one of the most prolific (30 plays presented in Paris) and successful French playwrights during the first half of the 20th century.
There is another English translation of this play in the University of Adelaide,
Barr Smith Library. It is translated by Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) a British novelist.
It is in several promptbooks that belonged to Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940).
I have not found any evidence that Mrs. Campbell ever appeared in this play.
If you discover any relevant information, please contact me.

This play and several other plays by French playwrights were recommended to me
by Martin Megevand from the University of Paris, Department of French Literature. 

Photo: The Bystander. 26 February 1936.

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