Sunday, February 9, 2020


Henri-Rene Lenormand (1882-1951) was born in Paris, France. He began writing The Coward in 1914 and completed it in 1918. He was a soldier during the early years of World War One, however he received a medical discharge. Lenormand spent the remainder of the war in a Swiss sanatorium. The Coward is considered by some scholars to be a personal work in which Lenormand attempted to “exorcize his own problems.” It was believed that Lenormand was a malingerer.

                                                         HENRI-RENE LENORMAND

The Coward is a play in four acts and ten tableaux (scenes). The first six tableaux are set in a Swiss mountain resort that is being used as a convalescent facility. The play takes place during the years of World War One.  Lenormand’s protagonist’s (Jacques) behavior is subconsciously motivated by his guilt for being a coward. The Coward is one of France’s earliest psychological dramas.

Act One, tableau 1 takes place on the sun-terrace of a hotel in Selvas, Switzerland. There is a lot of snow on the ground; however, the invalids, in fur bags, are lying in the open air on deck chairs. Jacques enters with his wife Therese. He is a French artist, thirty-two years old, who believes he is suffering with consumption. He did not pass his army medical examination.  Therese spends time with him every day. The patients discuss their doctors, each other and the war.

Tableau 2 is set on a different sun terrace.  It is four o’clock on a January afternoon. The patients are considering when “America is going to declare war on Germany.” (This could denote that it is 1917, it was in April of that year when the USA declared war on Germany.) The Professor (a German, aged fifty) who is also staying at the hotel, begins to discuss Jacques with some of the other patients. They snub Jacques when he arrives.  Therese tries to convince Jacque to change hotels, but he will not.

Tableau 3 takes place on “A snow covered mound at an altitude of 2,000 meters.” Jacques and Therese are alone and dressed in furs. They are lying on a rug.  Jacques shares his recurring nightmare of being threatened by a French soldier.

 Act Two, tableau 4 is set in a small three-cornered salon of the hotel.  The characters discuss Jacques, the weather and various remedies.

Tableau 5 is in the same salon. The original occupants leave the room after discussing the fête planned for that evening as well as each other. Therese and Jacques enter the empty room. Jacques shares with Therese that he is afraid to attend the fête.

Tableau 6 is in a windowless drawing-room with crimson hangings in a different Selvas hotel. It is the fête and all the guests are dressed in formal attire. The time is near dawn. Most of the guests of various nationalities including Jacques and Therese leave. Charlier from Paris is a twenty-eight year old patient, who is really a malingerer.  He is a recruiter of spies for France. Charlier meets with “The Individual” when everyone else leaves the room. The Individual is interested in Jacques and he wants Charlier to recruit him for a secret mission. 

Act III, tableau 7 is set in Jacques’s bedroom. It is ten o’clock on a gray morning and Jacques is reading in bed. Therese arrives and they discuss that consumption is “practically unknown” in this region. Jacques finally consents to consult a doctor.

Tableau 8. Same bedroom at nine o’clock in the evening. Guns of war can be heard from afar. A new Doctor examines Jacques and confirms his illness is consumption. He suggests that Jacques move to his sanatorium. After both the Doctor and Therese have left for the evening, Charlier comes to visit Jacques.  The purpose of his visit is to recruit Jacques to spy on “The Professor”.

Tableau 9 takes place in The Professor’s room in the same facility. Jacques is there to steal some documents. The Professor suspects Jacques intentions and confronts him after Jacques pockets several papers. Jacques is afraid and agrees to collaborate with him for the Germans.

Act IV, tableau 10.  The promenade by the lake in front of the villa where Jacque and Therese are currently living. Charlier meets “The Man in Gray”, who was disguised as “The Individual” in an earlier scene. The Man in Gray is here to nab Jacques because he collaborated with the Professor. The results of Jacques German collaboration caused two French agents to be caught and secret documents to be seized. Jacques meets these two men and leaves his villa with them unaware of his fate.

The Coward premiered December 1, 1925 at Le Théâtre des Arts in Paris and played for eight performances before it was cancelled.  Paris audiences took umbrage with the play’s premise that some young Frenchmen were cowardly. However, The Coward gained an international reputation as it was staged in Berlin, Vienna as well as opening in London on July 26, 1926. It was staged at the Scala Theatre for a one week run.

The Theatre Guild in New York City purchased the rights to stage The Coward in the summer of 1929. Several years earlier the Theatre Guild had produced another play by Lenormand, titled The Failures. The Coward was eventually staged at the Westport Country Playhouse in July, 1935. This regional summer theatre in Westport, Connecticut was founded by Lawrence Langner (1890-1962) who was also the founder of the Theatre Guild. The summer production was directed by Worthington Miner (1900-1982) and featured Frances Fuller (1907-1980) as Therese.

I read several reviews of this summer theatre production that were particularly favorable to the play. It was thought that the play was not Broadway material, but it was considered “an interesting play.” The basis for this opinion is that The Coward is more than a spy thriller and more than a psychological study of a single individual. The Coward also portrays several of the behind the scenes war activities that were practiced by French, German and British nationals in neutral Switzerland during WWI. 

NOTE: The English translation that I read of this play is in TWENTIETH CENTURY PLAYS.
             Edited by Chandler, Frank W. and Cordell, Richard A.  
             New York: Thomas Nelson &  Sons, 1934.

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