Tuesday, August 09, 2016


Benjamin Britten Salvages Guy de Maupassant from Jingoism



This opera is inspired – adapted they say – from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, “Madame Husson’s Rosier,” and do not make the simple mistake to believe this Madame Husson is a Madame. She is an old spinster or maybe old widow, rich enough to believe she can change the world by buying the soul of a young virginal man to make him her virtuous mascot for the whole village or city. She is enslaved to the local Catholic priest, not physically of course not, not emotionally of course not, not sensually either of course not. But she is kneeling in front of Jesus and God, she is in full mesmerism when the priest speaks, and yet Maupassant cannot escape his anti-catholic blockage and he turns that virtue, that cultish adoration of virtue for all into ridicule and the satire, the caustic debunking of this fundamentalist Catholic hatred of life and pleasure is as hot as hell and burning bright in what he considers the night of religious faith if not dependence, the opium of the people, as you know. We are in 1887, the famous Third Republic, the Republic of the Jules (and there are many of them: Jules Favre, Jules Grévy, Jules Simon and Jules Ferry, the Three Musketeers who were four of course), a republic that was anti-religious first of all, and becoming more and more urban minded if not Paris-centered, considering the provinces as some underdeveloped Purgatory if not Hell, because these anti-religious politicians kept the concepts of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, just as if they were natural continents on the planet Earth.

Luckily Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier got rid of this impossible extreme war against anything divine just as well as Maupassant’s hatred of anything English seen as the main enemy, the only enemy, the empire of Satan and all his devils and witches along with Lucifer, Mephistopheles and many others. Listen to that jingoist brave and warmongering anti-British absurdity of a character for sure but reflecting the atmosphere of Maupassant’s time and the phenomenal fight between the British and the French colonial empires. Maupassant was a real jingo indeed (http://wordhistories.com/2013/06/15/jingoism-chauvinism/).

"The spirit of provincialism, my friend, is nothing but natural patriotism," he said. "I love my house, my town and my province because I discover in them the customs of my own village; but if I love my country, if I become angry when a neighbor sets foot in it, it is because I feel that my home is in danger, because the frontier that I do not know is the high road to my province. For instance, I am a Norman, a true Norman; well, in spite of my hatred of the German and my desire for revenge, I do not detest them, I do not hate them by instinct as I hate the English, the real, hereditary natural enemy of the Normans; for the English traversed this soil inhabited by my ancestors, plundered and ravaged it twenty times, and my aversion to this perfidious people was transmitted to me at birth by my father. See, here is the statue of the general." . . .

“I also learned that Clothaire II had given the patrimony of Gisors to his cousin, Saint Romain, bishop of Rouen; that Gisors ceased to be the capital of the whole of Vexin after the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte; that the town is the chief strategic centre of all that portion of France, and that in consequence of this advantage she was taken and retaken over and over again. At the command of William the Red, the eminent engineer, Robert de Bellesme, constructed there a powerful fortress that was attacked later by Louis le Gros, then by the Norman barons, was defended by Robert de Candos, was finally ceded to Louis le Gros by Geoffry Plantagenet, was retaken by the English in consequence of the treachery of the Knights-Templars, was contested by Philippe-Augustus and Richard the Lionhearted, was set on fire by Edward III of England, who could not take the castle, was again taken by the English in 1419, restored later to Charles VIII by Richard de Marbury, was taken by the Duke of Calabria occupied by the League, inhabited by Henry IV, etc., etc.
And Marambot, eager and almost eloquent, continued:
"What beggars, those English! And what sots, my boy; they are all 'Rosiers,' those hypocrites!" (http://www.online-literature.com/maupassant/242/)

So, as you can see the French, and Guy de Maupassant first of all, voted for Brexit a long time before the English did. Britten and Crozier expurgated that mud out of the story and transplanted the plot to England in a city named Loxford, some pseudo-mythical irban neighborhood of the vast London area that could be London per se and Oxford, London the real capital and Oxford the intellectual capital, both of England.

It is interesting to also quote some background on ”jingoism,” the reference Britten and Crozier rejects in their verson of this chauvinistic story by Maupassant. I borrow this information from word histories facts, opinions & creation (http://wordhistories.com/2013/06/15/jingoism-chauvinism/):

“The English word jingo and the French word chauvin both apply to that ultra-patriotic section of the population which, in war-time, attends to the shouting. 
Jingo first appeared in conjurors’ jargon of the 17th century.
It was used in the oath by Jingo, sometimes by the living Jingo.
Peter Motteux (1663-1718), who translated François Rabelais, used by jingo for par Dieu and sacré Dieu in Pantagruel: 

By jingo! quoth Panurge, the man talks somewhat like.
Par Dieu, dist Panurge, je l’en croy. (chapter 56)

And if they were painted in other parts of your house, by jingo, you would presently conskite yourself wherever you saw them.
Si painctes estoient en aultre lieu de vostre maison, en vostre chambre, en vostre salle, en vostre chapelle, en vos gualleries ou ailleurs, sacre Dieu ! vous chiriez par tout sus l’instant que les auriez veues. (chapter 67)

Jingo is perhaps a form, introduced by gypsies or soldiers, of the Basque Jinkoa, Jainkoa,  Jeinkoa, contracted forms of Jaungoicoa, Jangoikoa, meaning God, literally the Lord of the high.
It is also said that the word Jingo was picked up from Basque sailors, who were employed as harpooners on the early English and Dutch whaling voyages to the Arctic.
(The present specialized sense of the word harpoon itself might have been given by those Basques.)
In this case, jingo might be the only Basque word in the English lexicon.
 The name Jingo then came to designate a member of a section of the Tory party in Great Britain, which advocated a spirited foreign policy.
It was especially used during the Beaconsfield (Disraeli) administration of 1874-80, in reference to the Russo-Turkish war:

When Lord Beaconsfield courted the cheers of the City by threatening the Emperor of Russia with three campaigns, he was acting the part of a genuine Jingo. (The spectator, 22 July 1882)

The name alluded to an 1878 music-hall song, written by G. W. Hunt, popular with Russophobes. When war with Russia seemed imminent, the Great MacDermott delighted large audiences with this refrain: 

We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo! if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.

The political sense of Jingo first appeared in the Daily News, on 11 March 1878, and was fixed two days later in a letter signed by George Jacob Holyoake

I am, if you like, a Jingo, a word which, by the way, I was the first person ever to write – at the dictation of my late uncle, George Jacob Holyoake. (H. Bottomley, in John Bull, 10 November 1917)

Then they moved the campaign from the hands of some old virginal spinster to a local Lady, hence a representative of the local aristocracy that is helped in her newborn campaign against pleasure and enjoyment, particularly physical and hormonal, by the local Vicar Mr. Gedge, but also by the local Superintendent Mr. Budd, the local Mayor Mr. Upford and the local Head Mistress from the school Miss Wordsworth.  Then the satire is against the five basic institutions of England, and it could be any country after all, namely the aristocracy, the church of England (and the Christian religion), the police, politicians (in this case the city council) and the school system. That is a lot more pertinent and impertinent too than what Guy de Maupassant imagined.

Then our composer and author invent all kinds of names that are funny in many ways but they make the story both believable and in many ways plausible. Of course Albert Herring is nothing but a red herring (A “red herring” is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences towards a false conclusion) but the story does not lead that poor young man to perdition in alcoholism and death in delirium tremens like in Maupassant’s short story, but just to only one night of escape and come back in the morning. In other words it is a very simple prodigal son though he leaves with 30 pounds and comes back with 27, which is very reasonable for a prodigal son. Maupassant’s Isidore lost all his money and even his heirloom silver watch after a week or so of complete drunkenness he will never manage to override and leave behind.

The next change, and that is a deep change in the line of Britten’s themes, is the relation between the young man Albert and his mother. His mother is actually present in the opera and she is an obvious control freak, and that is a theme Britten will work on regularly and maybe all his life? Mothers are most of the time absent or power freaks with the exception of Curfew River in which the son was abducted by a male stranger or foreigner and the mother is running after them to finally cross the Curfew River to find her son’s tomb on the other side next to a church or chapel. And we could wonder why she did not prevent that abduction. But she is obviously tortured by the event. But Britten and Crozier bring the mother to reason at the end of this opera buffa and the transmuted, transformed and transfigured son Albert is finally able to tell her to stop bothering him with a short, curt and brief “That’ll do, Mum.”

So we do not have the tale of perdition that Maupassant imagined. We have a tale of salvation from imposed innocence, imposed blindness, imposed dullness and the discovery that plain simple pleasures are something you have to experience once in your life and then bring them under control and know that you can drink a little bit, you van have and make love from time to time and you can have other simple pleasures like a peach and the best way to appreciate the taste of a peach is to pass the basket around and give a peach to all the kids just to share the pleasure, though our Albert seems promised to have some competition with Sid concerning Nancy who seems to be wavering between Sid and the redeemed Albert who is maybe after all not a red herring at all but might be promised to a brighter future. Let’s hope he will not turn into a carnivorous if not cannibalistic pike.

Of course then we have to wonder what makes this Opera Buffa a real masterwork. And that’s the music of course.

The music never stop and intermissionS are in fact musical interludes. The music is extremely dynamic with singers mixing their voices and their lines into choruses at times, duets and other small groups of coordinated singing, but also and quite often a group of characters, all of them most of the time sing together one on top of the others, or one line between the lines of someone else, etc. We have a real sensation of having a crowd in front of us, a rowdy and excited crowd. Many of the songs and tunes are simple and rather joyous, dynamic and even popular in many ways. We could easily get up to them and sing along. This is typical of Comic Opera or Opera Buffa, just as much as of pantomimes and I must say quite in the long tradition of the English stage, since Shakespeare and even before with medieval mysteries for example, or Elizabethan masques. This mixture of simple music and dancing in between the scenes of a play will still be alive and strong under Henry Purcell, thus surviving the Commonwealth, and even under George F. Handel. That gives to this opera a joyful and extremely pleasant sound and look.

In the third act Britten manages to create a real funeral wake for the supposedly dead and lost Albert and this wake becomes little by little more and more sinister with songs that are more dirges, a threnody, even a requiem to poor Albert that suddenly pops up hardly soiled and hurt by his night of evil adventure, though apart from the drink and the fights we do not get much detail. The prodigal son is after all discreet, modest, bashful, still shy and we could even say demure if Albert were a woman. Dies Irae Dies Illa, indeed.

What’s more any stage production is easy with such an opera buffa that does not require any hard and complex interpretation and the creation of a stage universe to make the meaning explicit.


Just out of World War Two, let us sing the greatness of Great Britain and the still in existence Empire. The greatness and also the naïve innocence of the old Celtic traditions of the Maypole, May Day and of course May Queen. But today it is difficult to find a pure, innocent, virginal female teenager who could qualify for such a rite, such a choice, such a symbolic designation. So the poor villagers and their local noble lady are obliged to change their target and aim at a May King. And sure enough there is one who qualifies, though we do not know why that actually happened.

This Albert Herring, with no father any more and only a possessive control freak mother is the next greengrocer of the village when his mother decides to retire. More than a simpleton, since he knows how to count and he’d better do so since everyone is trying to cheat him out of what they owe him, he is nicely autistic more than anything else: he has difficulties establishing a relation with any third person apart from himself and his mother. He is shy they say. He is hard working and one-pointed but he does not have any vision of the future: He lacks ambition – maybe – they say. And he does not know at all what is beyond the narrow pale of his mother: he has never had any alcohol since his mother is a teetotaler. He has never gone out to a pub or anywhere else since he works for his mother from sunrise to beyond sunset. He has never approached or been approached by a girl or woman since he is the untouchable of his mother.

And the opera turns to his disadvantage and to our merry pleasure since he is a fool in the first act, a fair idiot in the second act and then he disappears to come back a transformed person who has discovered there are many other things in life beyond his mother and her narrow-minded vision of her living death and her cane if not cudgel imposed authority. Good riddance and welcome home, finally home, your home, the way you make it and not the way your widowed mother wants to impose it.

The text is light and light-hearted, and yet it makes fun of British fundamentalism based on “no alcohol, we are teetotalers” and “no **fleshy contact**, we are British” and “no free thinking or atheistic illusions, we are Anglicans.” How could that fundamentalism survive in Great Britain so long with pub opening hours reduced to nearly nothing up to the 1980s when they were finally slightly extended and liberalized though they will be really free only in the 21sy century.

What is amazing is that two of the basic themes of Benjamin Britten’s operas are already all contained in this early one. Albert Herring is a stranger in his own village, kept apart, on the side and the target of jokes, tricks, and other pranks, like making him drink rum laced in his lemonade, or stealing his apples, or getting herbs for free by just forgetting to pay before leaving. He is also a stranger to his mother because she does not know he is a man and she treats him as if he were a pet, a working pet mind you, hence a domestic animal like an ox, and he is as strong as one if not two.

The second theme is of course the denunciation of ethical, religious, moral fundamentalism and particularly the way some women who think they are the mothers of society like Lady Billows, not one billow but several large undulating mass of something, typically cloud, smoke, or steam, or maybe a vast inflated balloon billowing in the hot air of her moralistic discourse, fanned like a moralistic fire by the local Mayor, the local Vicar and the local Superintendent, or is it only a simple Constable? Three men aided by a fourth female character, the local teacher, Miss Wordsworth who is worth what words are worth, not much indeed since they only exist in dictionaries. And of course a real mother, the possessive control freak that she is, is seen as stifling, choking and smothering her own son into asocial suffocation with only one intention: to make him a money-earner for the family, that is to say for herself.

These two themes are extremely present in many operas with one absent here: the killing or abducting father figure, the third side of the trinity Benjamin Britten used so much all the time along with pentacles and pentads like the five selectors of the new May King: Lady Billows, Mr. Gedge the Vicar, Superintendent Budd, Mr. Upfold the Mayor and Miss Wordsworth the Head Teacher, clearly opposed to the three people around Albert, Sid, Nancy and Mrs. Herring, and the three kids from the village, Emmie, Cis and Harry. And if you add Florence Pike, the Housekeeper of the Lady, you reach thirteen fateful blind deaf and not dumb at all, meaning mute, though quite dumb meaning besotted characters. And their names are just a bunch of funny puns.



Une historiette que l’on peu appeler nouvelle de Guy de Maupassant dans son plus pur style si grotesquement caustique et satirique qu’il en devient hilarant et ce qui devait être une critique acide de la bourgeoisie parvenue de Normandie – comme Madame Bovary de Gustave Flaubert – ainsi que de la pruderie vierge et totalement stérile et impuissante d’une vieille rombière tout aussi vieille fille mais riche qui vit cul et chemise avec Jésus Christ et le Bon Dieu, et l’âme entièrement conquise par le célibataire curé du village, pardon de la paroisse. Celui-ci n’est pas près de tomber dans les rets de Madame Husson car Madame Husson n’a pas de rets. Elle n’a tout au plus que des rots, des hauts-le-cœur, des nausées devant les cochonneries, pour ne pas dire cochonnailleries ou autres activités porcines ou dignes d’un goret, que les jeunes font aux quatre coins de la rue Dauphine comme il se doit, car c’est rue Dauphine que tout arrive dans ce monde.

Je ne raconterai pas l’histoire, connue comme le loup rouge, le loup qui boit du gros rouge qui tâche bien sûr, mais je dois dire que Maupassant fait un peu fort en son temps contre les Allemands qu’ils ne haït point et les Anglais qu’il honnit fort et bien  Ecoutez un peu ces deux morceaux de bravoure jingoïste ou pourrions-nous dire chauviniste : plus Affront Nationaliste que moi tu meurs, mon pauvre Guy.

« Ainsi moi, je suis Normand, un vrai Normand ; eh bien, malgré ma rancune contre l’Allemand et mon désir de vengeance, je ne le déteste pas, je ne le hais pas d’instinct comme je hais l’Anglais, l’ennemi véritable, l’ennemi héréditaire, l’ennemi naturel du Normand, parce que l’Anglais a passé sur ce sol habité par mes aïeux, l’a pillé et ravagé vingt fois, et que l’aversion de ce peuple perfide m’a été transmise avec la vie, par mon père... […]
« Puis j’appris que Clotaire II avait donné le patrimoine de Gisors à son cousin saint Romain, évêque de Rouen, que Gisors cessa d’être la capitale de tout le Vexin après le traité de Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, que la ville est le premier point stratégique de toute cette partie de la France et qu’elle fut, par suite de cet avantage, prise et reprise un nombre infini de fois. Sur l’ordre de Guillaume le Roux, le célèbre ingénieur Robert de Bellesme y construisit une puissante forteresse attaquée plus tard par Louis le Gros, puis par les barons normands, défendue par Robert de Candos, cédée enfin à Louis le Gros par Geoffroy Plantagenet, reprise par les Anglais à la suite d’une trahison des Templiers, disputée entre Philippe-Auguste et Richard Coeur de Lion, brûlée par Edouard III d’Angleterre qui ne put prendre le château, enlevée de nouveau par les Anglais en 1419, rendue plus tard à Charles VII par Richard de Marbury, prise par le duc de Calabre, occupée par la Ligue, habitée par Henri IV, etc., etc.. etc.
“Et Marambot, convaincu, presque éloquent, répétait :
« Quels gueux, ces Anglais ! ! ! Et quels pochards, mon cher ; tous Rosiers, ces hypocrites-là. »  

Le Brexit est une invention française et bien plus ancienne que l’on pourrait croire. C’est d’autant plus amusant que c’est un duc de Normandie qui conquit l’Angleterre en 1066 à Hastings faisant ainsi des rois anglais rien de moins que des ducs de Normandie légitimes.

De cette histoire il ne reste que l’immense mépris de Maupassant pour les villes de province qui n’a d’égal que Jules Romains et Les Copains avec Issoire-Passoire et Ambert-Camembert. Ici on fait dans Gisors-Isidore, ne réveillez pas l’ivrogne qui dort en Isidore. Et ces copains-là, ceux de Gisors, eau bénite, curé et vieille fille stérile n’ont rien à voir avec ceux du radeau de la méduse de Brassens, pas plus que cette ville de province n’a rien de bien loin d’avec celle de Jacques Brel de passage a Vesoul par le caprice d’une femme comme une autre.

Je vous souhaite donc le plaisir de lire ce Guy de Maupassant et de ne pas vous étrangler ni vous étouffer sur l’horreur qui est la sienne contre tout ce qui est la France profonde, l’humanité première et naturellement primitive dans nos sociétés pas encore complètement mais déjà un peu de consommation. Guy de Maupassant a vieilli, comme Zola d’ailleurs. Mais George Sand devrait vous charmez car elle a gardé une dimension féérique, voire enfantine, tout comme Colette et ses Dialogues de Bêtes.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?