Let's Get a Divorce! by Victorien Sardou and Émile Najac.

Let's Get a Divorce! (Divorçons!) is a play by the French writers Victorien Sardou and Émile Najac and was first performed at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on the 6th December 1880. It has one of the most distinctive titles I've ever come across in literature!

Quite obviously the play is about divorce. In France, from the quick crash-course I've just given myself on the history of divorce laws, divorce was first made legal in 1792 however it was then abolished in 1816 during the Restoration of Louis XVIII when Roman Catholicism became once again the state religion. In the United Kingdom it was possible to obtain divorce through an ecclesiastical court, however in 1858 the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 came into force and divorce could be obtained through civil courts. France however would have to wait until 27th July 1884 during the Third Republic (1870 - 1940) before a divorce could be obtained. Until then there were various attempts at reinstating the divorce laws, for example in 1876 Alfred Naquet (a member of the Chamber of Deputies) proposed the re-establishment of the divorce laws, and did so again in 1878, 1879, 1881 and 1882. He was, as I say, finally successful in 1884.

Let's Get a Divorce! was set in Rheims in 1880 where Monsieur des Prunelles and his young wife Cyprienne eagerly await the result of the latest parliamentary discussion on re-instating the Divorce Bill.  They are very unhappily married: des Prunelles, about twenty years Cyprienne's senior, is grumpy and obtuse, and Cyprienne, when she isn't reading The Question of Divorce, Divorce, On Divorce, About Divorce, and More about Divorce, is embarking on an affair with her husband's cousin Adhémar de Gratignan, only stopping for fear of dishonour. And so Adhémar sends a telegram to his friend Dumoulin in Paris requesting that Dumoulin responds with the news that the Divorce Bill has been reinstated (regardless of whether or not that is the truth). When the telegram arrives he secretly exclaims, "Now she will be mine!", everyone believes divorce is now possible, and Cyprienne can be with Adhémar without a scandal. But that is only Act I - there are still another two acts to go!

That Uncertain Feeling, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (1941),
was based on Sardou and Najac's Divorçons.
What follows is a fun farce in which des Prunelles, exploiting the new freedom they have (or think they have), endeavours to make his frivolous and passionate young wife to love him again. There is, as you'd expect, much talk of the nature of marriage, the advantages of divorce, and the consequences (for good or for bad), but above all this play is a comedy. There is no darkness, it's not bleak and depressing, just light-hearted and silly, and very good too. Let's Get a Divorce! is of 'la pièce bien faite' genre: it is "a well-made play", which is Neoclassical in its structure. Plot is everything, and most often based on a secret known only to one or two characters and the audience. Essentially it's very artificial and particularly neat: there is a problem, suspense, a climax, and a happy end where everything is wrapped up and no questions are left - this approach was described as "Make 'em laugh; make 'em weep; make 'em wait" (who actually said that I don't know - it's ascribed to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Charles Reade). George Bernard Shaw called this genre "Sardoodledom", referring to Victorien Sardou, and was not a fan, nor was Émile Zola (who published Nana and The Experimental Novel in the same year as Let's Get a Divorce!) who described Sardou and writers like him as "simply labourers who are cleaning the paths of debris [...], not creators, not geniuses who are building a monument" (from The Experimental Novel). Whatever the case I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I don't think it deserves its neglect. I do very highly recommend it!

Comments

  1. I had to laugh at Zola's characterization of the writer; it sounds so exactly like him. One must be serious about things otherwise life is just not worth living, right? ;-)

    Thanks for another introduction to another obscure piece of literature. I don't think I could have found this one without you! :-)

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    Replies
    1. I'll have to read all of Zola's 'Experimental Novel' at some point - apparently it is all very serious and do or die :)

      I'm lucky I found this, actually. It's part of 'Three French Farces' which I found by accident in the wrong section of a bookshop :)

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  2. sometimes i think the main problem with the world is too many geniuses. more silliness would make for a more civilized society i think...

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  3. How funny, I wouldn't have thought that someone could manage to write a light-hearted comedy about divorce of all things, much less in 19th c. France. Just goes to show how much I still have to learn about the French and divorce and classic plays, I suppose!

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    Replies
    1. I was surprised myself when I came across it :) Learned a lot from reading it, and not just abut divorce laws!

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