Outer Space, Inner Rhythms: The Concurrences of Jules Verne and Jacques Offenbach

Article excerpt

Why are certain plays chosen for anthologies? Popularity in their own times is rarely the reason. John Fletcher, August von Kotzebue, Eugène Scribe, and Eduardo de Filippo are among the most performed playwrights in the history of European theatre. Try to find anything by them in a collection meant for classroom use. No space can be spared in textbooks for such influential works as Guarini's Il Pastor fido, Voltaire's Mahomet, or Schiller's Die Räuber. Aiken's dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin has just recently been admitted to the canon, primarily for sociological reasons, but not perennial audience pleasers like Charley's Aunt or The Odd Couple whose mass appeal is unsuitable to a curriculum shaped by imperatives other than the pleasure principle. Yet, the plays I have named have held the stage longer and made a greater impress on the collective consciousness of their audiences than did many of the darlings of anthologists and literary arbiters.

The doyen of French dramatic critics of the Third Republic, Francisque Sarcey, was well aware of this paradox. In an essay of 1884, he noted that plays which endured were seldom engendered by manifestos. Revolutions in art, he declared, were accomplished not by the fiat of ideologues and theorists, but almost accidentally by exceptional talents. To prove his point, he declared the three seminal works of nineteenth-century drama to be Le Chapeau de paille d'Italie, La Dame aux camélias, and Orphée aux enfers.1 All three were, of course, French, for Sarcey subscribed to that school of cultural geography which holds Paris to be the umbilicus of civilization. As Sarcey explained it, Labiche's vaudeville introduced the style of ultra-logical, mechanistic, plot-driven farce, while Dumas fils' play initiated the critique of modern life. The third revolution, however, was the most radical. Offenbach's effervescent scoring and staging of a witty libretto by Crémieux, Meilhac and Halévy, established a genre - opéra bouffe - which absorbed all earlier forms of comedy. The ebullition of high spirits that accompanied its racy irreverence conclusively swept away any lingering vestiges of neoclassicism. The whole age, claimed Sarcey, with its governments, institutions, manners and laws, were tuned into 'a prodigious and universal saraband.'

Sarcey was not mistaken. For dramatic topographers, opéra bouffe altered the landscape irrevocably. A favourite image, both verbal and pictorial, was Offenbach and his violin leading the world in a feverish dance - not unlike his own 'Dr Miracle' in Contes d'Hoffmann. The effects were felt from New York to Yokohama where a production of La Grande Duchesse was the first Western theatre piece staged in Japan. Direct testimony to Offenbach's liberating influence on their creative development was offered by, among others, Nietzsche, Strindberg, Chekhov and Karl Kraus. Offenbach's diabolical rhythms and grotesque raillery were interpreted by some as an anti-bourgeois revolution, in the words of the Portuguese novelist Eiça de Queiros, 'a sung philosophy.'2 It was wholly up-to-date at a time when the byword was social improvement through technical advances. Offenbach's music was taken as the sonic equivalent of steam engines and railways, illustrations of a self-proclaimed age of progress. (Like Labiche's Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, La Vie Parisienne opens in a railway station.) It is no coincidence that one of the composer's collaborators was Aurélien Scholl, the anti-reactionary champion of Zola's naturalism.

Another of Scholl's enthusiasms was Jules Verne, whom he extolled for purveying useful knowledge to the masses in an exciting form. Although at first sight, there would be seem to be little in common between Verne's science fiction and Offenbach's lyrical fantasies, a reciprocal influence runs between them.3 Besides a passion for Mozart and puns, they shared a basic belief in the ultimate futility of human endeavour. Verne's protagonists, like those in so many Offenbach operas, are goal-oriented over-achievers with a will to power and knowledge. …