Translating Octave Mirbeau

Initially, it wasn’t my intention to make an adaptation of Mirbeau’s work for the Crouch End Festival. As usual, hunting for something to put on, I began my search in the London Library. I had a vague idea of what I was looking for. The effort (and expense) involved in working on a piece still in copyright dissuaded me from consulting any author who had croaked pretty much after the war. Also, after the bitter humour of Huis Clos I was looking for something that was more of an outright comedy. And having adapted a succesion of male writers I was looking for something by a woman to get a different perspective on the world.

In this I was unsuccessful. To my shame my roll call of female French writers for the theatre at the time extended to two: Olympe de Gouges and George Sand. Olympe didn’t really have anything comic to offer (her body of work is slim) and Sand, while having short plays in her locker, was too close to Musset (and from a brief perusal, not as original as him).

After consulting the (very short) list of French women writers for theatre of the nineteenth century on Wikipedia I was back to scouring through prospective male writers I was familiar with. Feydeau and Guitry seemed possible but their short stuff was too conventional, as was a whole bunch of plays by other more obscure writers. I guess there’s a reason why their stuff doesn’t get put on very often, at least over here.

Octave Mirbeau, Man of the Day in 1908

Then serendipity took a hand. We went to the superb Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy, where apart from enjoying his art (especially the prints) I was intrigued to read that he’d written for the stage and put on an evening of short plays by himself and his fellow anarchist, Octave Mirbeau. I took a day in the library to hunt up their stuff. Vallotton hadn’t really left a literary trail but I soon discovered that Mirbeau was a substantial figure, not just as a writer but as a political activist. Most famous as a writer for Diary of a Chambermaid and Torture Garden, he’d also been a prominent Dreyfusard and a supporter of Oscar Wilde in his Parisian exile.

An edition of Contes, Farces et Moralités from 1935 with illustrations by Mirbeau with illustrations by Dignimont

What really excited me though was that he’d produced a book called Contes, Farces et Moralités. This contained some short stories and a sequence of six short, in fact very short, plays which satirised contemporary French society and artistic life. The most striking play initially was one in which a town council discusses how to cope with a mysterious new disease afflicting the soldiers in the local barracks. At first they treat the deaths of the soldiers as a trivial affair which could safely be left to the army to deal with. However, on learning that the plague has spread to the middle class area of their town they start to take it altogether more seriously. In fact, they start to panic. Well, if it was this time last year I would have done that as a standalone piece but being thoroughly sick of C***d I didn’t want to do that.

Interview, interesting that Mirbeau didn’t call it Entretien

The two pieces I chose to adapt were Interview and Les Amants. Interview concerns a venal barman who is persecuted by a yellow press reporter who accuses him of beating his wife.

Chapuzot and the Interviewer as imagined by Dignimont

Mirbeau here satirised the scientific methods of Cesare Lombroso, who believed that there was a criminal ‘type’ who could be identified by his or her physical characteristics. This theory also shifted the blame for their immiseration onto the poor themselves, whose bestiality must somehow be inherited rather than being a consequence of an unjust society.

Chappy attacks his wife, or does he?

Lombroso is a bit obscure for non-specialists nowadays so I updated Interview to reflect the power of social media rather than print media in our own time with the right-wing ideologue Jordan Petersen standing in for Lombroso. The menacing comic tone of Mirbeau’s original foreshadows Pinter and I hope we’ve kept something of that vibe in our production.

Les Amants, a saynète or playlet.

I didn’t need such a radical rewriting of Les Amants (Lovers in our version), which is the most easily accessible of the six plays, being a satire of love and its treatment on the stage. However, we have flipped the genders of the two protagonists to give it a modern twist. The original is strikingly ahead of its time in breaking the fourth wall and playing with ambiguity about whether the audience is intended to enter the world of the characters or see them as actors re-enacting a ritualistic piece of hackneyed performance as a metaphor for love itself.

The Lovers – Dignimont echoes Vallotton and foreshadows Kobyluch

In a fairly extensive trawl through the archive I could find no evidence for either of the plays being performed in English by a professional company in this country so it could be that have a première of sorts on our hands!

Une lecture au Comité du Comédie Française en 1886, huile sur toile d’Adolphe Laissement, 1886. I think Mirbeau is 3rd from left.

Mirbeau wrote for the Comédie Française and had a hit with a couple of his full length plays in France and on this side of the Channel but these squibs, called ‘Cruel Comedy’ by Le Figaro, had a brief run in Paris before falling into obscurity until Les Amants was picked up again by the Comédie Française in 1999.

I’d still quite like to find Vallotton’s theatrical contribution but that might have to wait for a trip to Paris (well, it’s an excuse to go at least!) but we have kept an element of his work in the show.

L’Assassinat by Félix Vallotton
L’Age de Papier by Félix Vallotton

Our artwork was once more produced by Nick Kobyluch working to a VERY sketchy brief to pastiche two Vallotton prints to illustrate each of the shows. And Nick did us proud with an outstanding image for our poster and flyers. We’ll be flyering in Crouch End over the next week or two, if you see us say hello and then book a ticket.

A Kobyluch original, informed by Vallotton and Dignimont

Cruel Comedy, a double bill of short plays by Octave Mirbeau will be playing at the Great Northern Railway Tavern on Friday 8th July at 6 p.m., on Saturday 9th July at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and on Sunday 10th July at 6 p.m.

FREE tickets are available from crouchendplayers.co.uk.

France Theatre Writing

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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