Friday, August 7, 2020



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.



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 His ban was revoked in 1916 due to pressure from British military officials since syphilis was rapidly spreading throughout the armed services.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.

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