Thursday, October 28, 2010

It is full of married women whose husbands are never seen - a look at the demi-monde

Three days of “thunder on the legitimate stage” – that’s probably enough.  Let’s switch themes.

Social arrangements for women, how about that one.  In Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, the women are all trapped in the house, trapped on stage, confined by customs but also by their iron-clad mother.  The only escape is to latch onto a (completely unreliable) man.  Even then, good luck.  But at least a married woman gets to move away from that awful mother.

Unlike in Ostrovsky’s Thunder, where married women become the slaves of their nightmarish mother-in-laws.  Marriage, in that society, is a complete surrender of freedom.  In both plays, the restrictions lead to tragedy, for a few characters, at least.  The social order is undeniable when it strikes back, but the playwright, and the reader, are dismayed.

The Demi-Monde, the 1855 play of Alexandre Dumas fils, depicts a society of women who have taken control of their own lives, money, and sexual behavior.  It is a world of divorcées, cast-off wives, adulteresses, and fallen women who have created their own society in the shadow of the “proper” society from which they came, the wealthy houses that will no longer admit them.

My understanding is that Dumas, in this play, coined the term “demi-monde”:

Each woman here has some blot in her past life; they are crowded close to one another in order that these blots may be noticed as little as possible. Although they have the same origin, the same appearance and the same prejudices as women of society, they do not belong to it: they constitute the “Demi-monde" or "Half-world", a veritable floating island on the ocean of Paris, which calls to itself, welcomes, accepts everything that falls, emigrates, everything that escapes from terra firma – not to mention those who have been shipwrecked or who come from God knows where. (Act II)

That goes on a bit, doesn’t it.  Maybe I should snip it some more, but the passage is from the most interesting part of the play, in which the male lead – easy enough to guess the speaker here is a man – defines the demi-monde for us.  “It is full of married women whose husbands are never seen” – that’s it in one line.  He compares the women to blemished peaches, discounted to half price.

This is taking an ugly turn, isn’t it?  And in fact, after working through a handful of soap opera plots worthy of, and about as significant as – what’s the show about rich New York teenagers? – the woman who threatens to escape from the demi-monde is successfully shoved back into the shadows, and the audience can leave the theater certain that proper French society remains on solid foundations.  I cannot say how Lorca or Ostrovsky work, or were ever meant to work, as social criticsim.  Their readers are philosophically and aesthetically disquieted.  Dumas's reader is reassured, a characteristic of kitsch.  His hypothetical contemporary reader or viewer, I mean.  This reader was annoyed.

The French literary strain that I associate with Colette and Proust does not begin with this play – there’s plenty of demi-monde in Balzac – but is defined or formalized here.  So The Demi-Monde should be pretty interesting.  Should be.  Too bad it’s so poor.  Dumas, of course, went on to membership in the Académie française.  Readers particularly interested in the sociology of the demi-monde should read those two or three pages of Act II and skip the rest.

Quotations, such as they are, from an old translation by Barrett H. Clark, found in World Drama, Vol. 2, Dover Publications, 1933.

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