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Victorien Sardou is today scarcely more than a footnote to the history of late nineteenth-century French drama. Were it not for Puccini's opera, based on his play, Sardou's name would probably be known today only to students of French literature.
Yet in his time he was a most successful playwright, generally recognized as a born man of the theatre who had all the tricks of his trade at his finger-tips. Modelling his technique on that of his more famous predecessor, Eugene Scribe, who may be said to have initiated what is nowadays called with some contempt the 'well-made' play, Sardou wrote a number of stage-works in this genre.
Yet there was in them no profundity of thought and feeling, no spiritual, moral or social 'message', no poetry.
Sardou's were boulevard dramas in which his supreme aim was to entertain - to entertain as a high-class thriller entertains, creating an atmosphere of mounting suspense and riveting the spectator's attention by means of sensational stagehappenings that were to their author of far greater importance than the exploration of a character's psychology.
In a Sardou play, action dwarfs character which is, as it were, only one storey high. Shaw coined for this kind of play. Sardou began his career as a satirical writer producing political comedies and comedies of manners in which he pilloried French, in particular Parisian, society of his time.
He subsequently turned to serious drama in which the central figure was an historical character or the background an authentic historical event.
Thus, in Theodora the heroine was the sixth-century Queen of Byzantium; MadameSans-Gene dealt with the wife, originally a laundry-girl, of Lefebvre, 1 2 Tosca one of Napoleon's generals; and La Tosca is linked with Napoleon's invasion of Italy in and the fight of the royalists against the republicans.
Sardou wrote the majority of his dramas for Sarah Bernhardt - hence his almost invariable choice of a heroine for the central figure - who was one of Space writing activities ks10 most celebrated actresses, renowned for the extraordinary quality of her voice, which was compared to a 'golden bell', and for her remarkable miming talent.
This is the reason for the presence in his plays of long miming scenes, as for instance the scene after Scarpia's murder in La Tosca, She was an actress of intense personal projection but, according to Shaw, she never changed, never penetrated a character, but simply overlaid it with her own strong personality.
Bernhardt, to whom La Tosca is dedicated, went on a number of foreign tours with it; Puccini saw her in Milan in and again in Florence in October She did not please him much on this second occasion. He also found the play inferior in poetic situations to lllica's operatic adaptation of it see below ; he was of course judging the play through the eyes of an opera composer.
He had only a smattering of French but he was able to follow the action on account of its extraordinary dramatic power and the fact that its situations were self-explanatory; these were his principal criteria whenever he saw a play in a foreign language French, English, German - and was considering its suitability as an operatic subject.
A man is condemned to death. His wife, mistress or daughter implores the judge or a person of similar authority to pardon him.
The judge promises to let the man go on condition that he enjoys her favours for a night. The woman agrees, only to find in the morning that her man has been executed.
That is the story of Sardou's play in a nutshell. It appears that this subject had been known since the Middle Ages as potent dramatic material. Shakespeare uses it in Measure for Measure; it forms the content of an old Italian ballad said to be still sung in the province of Emilia, and it is the theme of a novel by the nineteenth-century German writer Paul Heyse.
In view of this it might seem surprising that, when La Tosca was first given in Paris, at the Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin on 24 Novemberaccusations of brazen plagiarism should have been raised against Sardou who, to be sure, was never averse to borrowing ideas from other playwrights.
Thus Ernest Daudet, brother of the more famous Alphonse, declared that details in Sardou's plot were taken from his own play La Sainte Aubin, the heroine of which was a celebrated Sardou and his La Tosca 3 singer like Tosca, and where the action takes place, as in Sardou, on the eve of Napoleon's battle at Marengo.
Like Sardou, Daudet had written the play for Sarah Bernhardt, and the scandal was not without its piquancy, since Daudet asserted that he had read his play to her, implying that the actress had committed an impropriety by giving his plot away to his rival.
There was also the American playwright, Maurice Barrymore founder of the renowned theatrical familywho contended that the theme of Scarpia's infamous bargain with Tosca and his deception of her derived from his play Nadjezda.
Barrymore succeeded in obtaining an injunction against all American performances of La Tosca in English. Sardou, however, energetically denied all these accusations, maintaining that as an avid reader of history he had come across the key-idea for his play in an episode said to have occurred at Toulouse during the religious wars in sixteenth-century France.
This episode concerned the Catholic Connetable de Montmorency who promised a Protestant peasant woman that he would save her husband from execution if she gave herself to him.
The woman consented but her reward was to see her husband's body dangling from the gallows the next morning. It is probable that Sardou found a further source for his play in Victor Hugo's drama, Angelo, tyran de Padoue, which Arrigo Boito subsequently adapted for the opera La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli, Puccini's composition teacher at the Milan Conservatory.
In this opera the title-role is a Venetian street-singer who is pursued by a Scarpia-like character, Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition, and who commits suicide rather than yield to Barnaba's desire in exchange for Enzo's life.
It is possible that Puccini's first interest in the Tosca subject was aroused by Ponchielli's opera. As for the character of Cavaradossi, there is the likelihood that Sardou found his model in the French revolutionary poet Andre Chenier; both are free-thinkers, both are artists, and both end by being executed.
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Illica was Giordano's librettist just as he was of the Lucca composer. However patronizing present-day attitudes towards Sardou may be, it cannot be gainsaid that, on the terms on which he intended La Tosca to be taken, it is excellent theatre - melodrama in excelsis.I've always loved the spaceman spacers for reminders to use spaces between words when writing!
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