French Melodrama

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 5, 1910

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. “Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe.—Hamlet to Guildenstern.

Bisson’s Past Performances

Alexandre Bisson, the French author of “Madame X,” which is on view in Baltimore this week, will be 63 next April and has been (to borrow an outrageous but useful phrase) one of the best bad dramatists of France for a generation. But it was as a writer of boulevard farces and not as a manufacturer of melodramas that he first came to fame. His “Surprises du Divorce” has long been a favorite in France and Germany, and many of his other confections have been done into English. Of Bissonic origin, for example, were “The Chill Widow,” “Settled Out of Court,” “The Masked Ball,” “The Lottery of Love” and “On and Off,” and so was William Gillette’s farce, “Mr. Wilkinson’s Widow.” “The Marriage of a Star,” in which Clara Lipman is now appearing, is from Bisson’s pen. He has also done plays in collaboration with other dramatic artisans, notably “Les Plumes du Paon” (“Peacock Feathers”), in which he was helped by a dramatist with the fantastic name of Berr de Turique, and “La Marriage de L’Etoile,” in which his helper was Georges Thurner, his nephew.

No doubt it was the great success of young Henry Bernstein that inspired the veteran Bisson to turn from unclean farce to the drama of shocks and thrills. Three or four years ago Bernstein was carrying all things before him in Paris. His “The Thief” had revived the melodrama of the early eighties (of which “A Parisian Romance” is the example most familiar to Americans), and the farces which Bisson had been writing were in little demand. So he sat down and manufactured “Madame X” (“La Femme X” is the original), and then enjoyed the unexpected and unfamiliar sensation of hunting hard, and apparently in vain, for someone to produce it.

Sarah Bernhardt declined the play on the cryptic ground that it was not suitable for her theatre. Rejane found that it was not Parisian enough for the Theatre Rejane. Coquelin, at the Porte St. Martin, was impatiently awaiting the manuscript of “Chantecler” and had no appetite, at the moment, for melodramas. Two or three other stars gave Bisson the cold shoulder, and then, in despair, he sold all rights to the play, save that of performance in France, to a man named Slivinski, a play broker of Berlin. Slivinski thought that the piece would please the Germans and prepared to produce it in Berlin. But before he could do so Bisson ensnared Jane Hading, who was sorely pressed for a new play, and she made a quick and slipshod production at the Porte St. Martin, in Paris, hired from Coquelin for the purpose.

Played By Jane Hading

Mme. Hading had no faith in the play, but she had scored nothing but failures in Paris for three years and was ready to grasp at a straw. The piece was put on with the house scenery and a second-rate company and no one expected it to run more than a few weeks. But it made a sensational success. That success, it must be said, was one of francs more than of esteem. The critics, in the main, laughed at the piece, and the more intelligent Parisians found it tediously old-fashioned. But the Durands and Duponts—the great masses of the common people—turned out by the thousands to weep over poor Jacqueline. The average receipts for the first four months were $1,600 a night. Hading, who had agreed to take 10 per cent of the takings in lieu of a fixed salary, recovered her fortunes, and Bisson, getting another 10 percent, grew opulent. Until late in the spring of 1908 “La Femme X” was the reigning success of Paris.

Charles Frohman’s London representative galloped to Paris as soon as the news of the play’s great hit reached him, but he was too late, for Henry W. Savage had already bought the American rights from Slivinski. Savage employed a man named John Raphael, an experienced translator of French plays, to claw “La Femme X” into English, and William Henry Wright gave it the touches which fitted it for the American stage. It had its first production in English at the Chicago Opera House on September 19, 1909. In Chicago, as in Paris, it made a great success. Then it went to New York, making another success, and after that it took to the road. Even in Boston it played to capacity houses.

Thus the American stage continues to appropriate the worst stuff produced in France, and to neglect the best. The melodramas of Bernstein and Bisson—he has lately dramatized “Nick Carter” and we are to have it—are eagerly welcomed to our stage, and we find delight in denaturized versions of the current boulevard farces, but the fine and serious dramas of Hervieu, Bataille and Brieux are almost unknown among us. It is as if the French, borrowing from us, were to take the cheap topical stuff of Charles Klein and the melodramas of Theodore Kramer and pass over the plays of Eugene Walter—as if they were to choose “The Lion and the Mouse” and “Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model” and neglect “Paid in Full” and “The Easiest Way” –as if, borrowing from the English, they were to swallow the Drury Lane melodramas and then gag at Pinero, Jones, Shaw, Galsworthy, Barker, Sutro and Maugham.

How They Are Made

All French melodramas are cut to a pattern. They are, as a rule, nothing more than one-act plays that have been expanded, by unmerciful stuffing, to symphonic dimensions. There is one “grand” scene of 10,000 horsepower—and all the scenes that go before merely prepare the way for it. It was so in “The Thief” and in “Israel”—two melodramas of the very highest quality, if a melodrama may be said to have quality at all—and it is so in “Madame X.” The first act in such a play is always hopelessly stupid and tedious. The subsidiary characters simply hold a mass meeting for the purpose of explaining the plot. The trousers of the men are elegantly creased; they carry shiny silk hats; they twirl walking sticks; they shake hands every few minutes: they laugh loudly at their own feeble jokes. Do you remember the first act of “Israel”—that scene in the club? Do you remember the first set of “The Thief?” The same stuff is in “Madame X.”

Between the end of the first act and the beginning of the “grand scne” the padding becomes desperate. New characters are introduced to kill time. There is usually a love passage between juvenile and ingénue in the best Bronson Howard manner. Comedians cavort. There are fiery speeches and affecting soliloquies. The scenes are being set. Drama impends.

Who says the French have wit? Who says they are skilled dramatic mechanics? Let him study an English melodrama.

(Source: University of North Texas microfilm collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.