Magazine article UNESCO Courier

African First Nights

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

African First Nights

Article excerpt

African first nights

IN 1866, during his eleventh year of exile in Guernsey, Hugo wrote, in two months, a four-act, prose melodrama entitled Mille Francs de Recompense (A Thousand Francs Reward). Was the worldrenowned author of Les Miserables at long last going to start writing for the theatre again, something he had not done since the failure of his play Les Burgraves in 1843?

This, at any rate, was what the exiled writer's friends were saying in Paris, where this event was awaited with the greatest impatience. Instead, the visionary of Guernsey put away the large blue sheets of paper, covered with his extraordinary handwriting. in the bottom of a trunk, declaring that the censors would not pass it for publication, and adding, laconically, "I wrote it to rid myself of an obsession with an idea'.

The work was among a collection of plays, entitled The atre en Liberte, that remained unpublished during Hugo's lifetime. It resurfaced in 1934, when it was published for the first time. It was not staged until 1961, when it was put on in Strasbourg by Hubert Gignoux. Twenty-four years later, on the occasion of the centenary of the author's death, our turn came to stage the ballad of Glapieu.

What is it about?

The secne is set in the Paris of the 1820s. An outlawed convict named Glapieu--a Jean Valjean with a sense of humour-- creeps stealthily over the rooftops of the city. He is hungry, but manages to summon up just enough strength to bid defiance to God: "The first good deed I have the opportunity to do I shall do at once. That will put God in the wrong.'

Glapieu glances through the window of a wretched attic. Inside he sees an old man who is slowly dying, surrounded by the trophies he won as a soldier of the Imperial army. Only his widowed daughter, Etiennette, and his grand-daughter, Cyprienne, remain to watch over him in his poverty. In order to support them Major Gedouard is reduced to giving music lessons. This was appalling, naked destitution--something men perhaps may bear, but not women.

Cyprienne is in love with a young bank clerk, Edgar Marc, who is employed by the rich banker Baron Puencarral. And it is in the name of this same Puencarral that all Gedouard's furniture, including his piano, has been seized. The agent of this despicable act is a businessman named Rousseline, the pitiless incarnation of the spirit of the Restoration period. Rousseline decides to teach Etiennette a lesson in realism--if you want to be rich, do not look as though you are poor, and if you do not wish to condemn your daughter to destitution, give her to me and I shall marry her. At the end of her tether, like Fantine in Les Miserables, Etiennette leaves the choice to her daughter. But Cyprienne, like Cosette in the same novel, obeys the voice of youth and refuses the offer. At this point Glapieu, who has been concealed the while in a cupboard, like the lover in any trivial bedroom farce, emerges erying "Well said, my dear!' The tone of the play is set.

I shall not go over all the ins and outs of the melodrama (which reveals that the banker is Etiennette's long-lost husband and Cyprienne's father), but content myself with pointing out that the whole spirit of the play is personified in that of the central character, Glapieu. The convict is neither saint nor martyr. He is the street-urchin Gavroche at fifty, he is the spirit of Paris, he is the bitter, poetic laughter of the people.

If the convict--who is another kind of exile--is, in the eyes of official morality, guilty of every shorteoming, his position gives him an advantage over the honest bourgeois, he is "on the outside'. Glapieu on his rooftop is Hugo on his island. They can both play at tearing away the maks of honesty. The judge says: "You are a thief.' What does Glapieu say? "I stole because I was hungry.' Justice, like the army, does not want to know, it sticks to the bare facts. …

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