Eleanor Alexander
Correspondence of
Edmond de Goncourt and Fritz Mauthner


I should like to express my warmest thanks to Professor Roy Jay Nelson with whom I studied at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the 1960's. He is retired and living in Florida wher he teaches at the Alliance Francaise.

He read de Goncourt's often difficult handwriting and put the letters on the computer. He gave me a great deal of background information and, best of all, he asked me many questions which I tried to answer to the best of my ability. In short, I was his pupil again - a wonderful feeling at my age. His help was invaluable.

I should also like to thank the Landesarchiv at the City Hall Berlin for sending me material about the literary scene in Berlin at the time and information about the performance of "Henriette Marèchal" in Berlin on November 17, 1889.

I found a copy of the announcement of the play at the Freie Bühne in Gordon Craig's book "Über Fontane".

Edmond de Goncourt (1822 - 1896) and his brother Jules (1830 - 1870) were well-known writers in the last decade of the 19th century. They kept a diary of cultural events in Paris and their salon attracted a wide variety of well-known people. They were great collectors and especially interested in Japanese art.

Together they wrote many realistic novels and liked to portray the unhappy lives of their heroines who were unable to change their life for a better one. Their best known novels are Renée Mauperin (1861) and Germinie Lacerteux (1865).

Edmond de Goncourt nominated the first members of the Académie Goncourt and left money in his will for the Prix Goncourt to be given for the "most imaginative piece of prose.", lt has always been a great honour to receive the Prix Goncourt.


October 6, 1889

Monsieur et Cher Maitre,

Only today do I have the honor to acknowledge your friendly lines of August 24, because I wanted to tell you at the same time the date of the performance. I am happy to tell you that "Henriette Maréchal" will be performed on the 17th of next month. I should appreciate it very much if you could give me your home address so that I can give you a report of the performance of your masterpiece.

While working on the translation I have taken great care to render the essence and the charm of your poetry in German. However, there remains some doubt and I beg you to enlighten me on the items. lt is the following allusions which I did not quite understand.
  1. Who is Badoche? Isn't he a celebrity from the lower-class fringes of Paris?
  2. Une grue de Numidie?
  3. Peacemaker of the Vendée (political allusion?)
  4. Tourneur de mats de Cocagne en chambre???
  5. President de la Societé du Bec dans l'eau?
  6. What was the particular importance of the Café de la Garde Nationale?
The book will be published in time for the performance; I would be happy to receive your answers as soon as possible.

I am sure that the success of the play will increase the number of your readers and admirers in Germany. That is for me the best reason to inconvenience you in this way.

Please accept the respeetful greetings of your devoted

Fritz Mauthner


Saturday, October 12, 1889

Monsieur at cher confrére,
  1. 1. Badoche was a famous dancer at the Opera balls.
  2. 2. Grue de Numidie [Numidian cran] - name derived from the coiffure of prostitutes, who wore golden plumes in their hats
  3. 3. Pacificateur de la Vendée - a polltical allusion, as you suggest. [French General Louis-Lazare Hoche has been referred to as the "Pacifier of Vendée," a region of western France. He combatted and finally quelled a pro-royalist insurrection and guerilla war in the area during the French Revolution.]
  4. 4. Tourneur de mats de cognac en chambre [one who carves Maypoles in his bedroom] - rather humorous irony to descirbe an impossible activity, considening the length of a "mat de cocagne" [Maypole] and the smallness of a worker's bedroom.
  5. 5. President de la Societe du Bec dans l'eau [President of the Face-Down-in-the-Water-Club] - or of the Finger-in-His-Eye Club: a bungling incompetent.
  6. 6. No answer
If these gallicisms, these slangy phrases of the Boulevard - really impossible to translate - would not be understood in Berlin, why not leave them out?

Here is my address: Edmond de Goncourt, 53 Boulevard Montmorency, Paris Auteuil.

Please send me the outline of the piece in detail shortly before the performance and I will get your comments ready for the Paris newspapers.

My best, Edmond de Goncourt


November 12,1889

Monsieur et cher confrére,

I should like to thank you for all the trouble and care you were willing to take to make the performance of my play a success.

Certainly if you would like to translate "La Patrie en Danger" (The Fatherland in Danger) I am happy to glve you full and complete authorization to do so.

And since you would like my portrait, here it is.

I should like to close with the expression of my warmest greetings,

Edmond de Goncourt


November 24, 1889

Monsieur et cher confrére,

I should like to send you my warmest thanks for your intelligent production of "Henriette Maréchal," as well as the translation preceeded by the laudatory preface. Thanks also for the friendly wire you sent me last Sunday.

lf you would like to continue to perform plays in translation, I would suggest a play which might be a success in Berlin. It is a play by Vidal and Gye based on my novel "Soeur Philoméne" (Sister Philomene) which was a great success at the Théatre Antoine and which played about forty times in Brussels. Would you like me to ask the authors to send it to you?

Write the expression of my sincere gratitude.

I remain, Edmond de Goncourt


Fritz Mauthner was the theater critic of the Berliner Tageblatt, a liberal widely read paper, from 1876 to 1905. He was one of the founders of an experimental theater, Die Freie Bühne, in Berlin, and an active member of the board. He probably wanted to provide an avant garde play to be staged at the theater and therefore decided to translate "Henriette Maréchal," by the Brothers de Goncourt.

Why did he choose just this play? He must have liked it. But I think another reason may have been that the play had been very controversial when it was performed in Paris at the Comèdie Francaise in 1865; it actually caused an anti-government demonstration. Students from the Quartier Latin lined up on opening night, December 5,1865, to "boo" the play because the de Goncourts were considered anti-Republicans and intimates of Princess Mathilde. They believed that only the influence of the princess had made it possible to stage the play. Gradually the furor over the play died down, but then an attack was mounted from the opposite camp. Empress Eugénie, an enemy of Princess Mathilde, succeeded in having the play banned on December 17, 1865.

"Henriette Marèchal" seems to be a rather conventional play by now; except for the first act, a masked ball at the opera where the de Goncourt's language and staging seem unusual and sparkling. Henriette falls in love with one of the masked players who later gets injured in a duel and by chance is taken to her house to convalesce. Paul and Henriette become lovers.

Unfortunately, rumours of the affair are all over Paris, and the husband who had always been sure of his wife's love for him is in despair and decided to shoot his wife. In his excitement he kills his daughter instead who had also been in love with her mothers lover and who tells him of her love; never giving her mother away.

To us this may seem a rather sentimental story and not very avant garde. And it seemed quite old-fashioned when it was performed in Berlin. By that time, Gerhard Hauptmann's plays were immensely successful; they were truly excellent realistic plays. I particularly remember "The Weavers,"; the theme was the revolt of the workers when weaving machines were introduced.

I had the great good fortune to receive a review of the play performed on November 17, 1889 in Berlin from the Landesarchiv at the city hall. They sent me a copy of a review written by Theodor Fontane, the theater critic of the Vossische Zeitung, one of my favorite German writers.

(My father had written a page called Recht und Leben (Life and Law) every Thursday in the Vossische Zeitung for many years.) Fontane's review is very interesting, fair, and well-written.

How times change, and how fast. In 1865 Henriette Maréchal by Jules and Edmond Goncourt received a tumultuous reception in Paris at the Comédie Francaise. It's language and style were too realistic. What was too new then seems almost too old-fashioned now, even in good old Berlin.

People said, what we want is Gerhard Hauptmann. There one hears something really new "Henriette Maréchal" is an old story; we do not need a Freie Bühne to see that play; give us Hauptmann's "Alpenglühen." Thus quickly changes what we call public opinion. Everything goes along quietly in the political and cultural life of a people when suddenly revolutionary ideas are born, and it is the merit of the Freie Bühne to bring into the open what might never have seen the light of day, and "Henriette Maréchal" is one of those plays that needs a Freie Bühne.

Strangely enough it did not seem revolutionary at all but quite old-fashioned, at least of the Freie Bühne, but in spite of this it seemed an excellent play - what dialogue style and technique. I cannot agree with the people who say that it jumps around too much, that too much is left to chance; this unpredictability exists everywhere.

lf I try to shoot my guilty wife and mistakenly hit my blameless daughter, it is easy to explain because it happened in the dark; we considered it a tragic event. But the play is not altogether a good play. I do not approve of the angelic resignation and the silence of the daughter; she knows that the man she loves is her mother's lover - perhaps a rather common case. It seems unnatural that the daughter remains so tender and loving - we cannot enjoy it.

I like even less the unkind words of the mother when she speaks to her daughter. The mother is afraid because she expects her lover - unfortunately her husband decided to stay at home at the last minute. Besides, the lover's older brother tells in an incredibly beautiful scene that rumours of the affair are heard all over, that great danger is everywhere. And on top of all this she reads in the newspaper that last night a friend of her husband killed his wife in a similar situation. She is deathly afraid, aware of two things: she loves her lover and is afraid for his life. And at that moment she begins a comfortable talk with her daughter - that just is not natural. In such a situation one is restless; one starts to do one thing, only to drop it a moment later, and walks around aimlessly. lf the mother loves her so much, she should keep quiet and not keep talking to the girl. That is the weak point of the play. But it is not really much worse for it, as the episode is well-hidden.

The performance of the play was not altogether perfect, but often very good. The actor who played the elder brother was excellent. in the superb scene in the last act that I mentioned above he was superb and had a tremendous success and was applauded with fervor by the audience. The "Herr im Frack: was also excellent - he was the glory of the first act-, the parlor maid Therese was quite charming. Mrs. Maréchal did very well, but she did not have quite enough charm or poise. The actress who played Henriette brought out her character very well, but she did not hit quite the right tone, and her appearance was not quite impressive enough. After all the play is set in Paris and not Berlin.

The performance was very successful and all went very well. Fritz Mauthner's excellent translation deserves a great deal of credit. His personality enables him to do justice to the spirited and sparkling dialogue throughout the play.

Theodor Fontane

LITERATUR - Letters to Fritz Mauthner, Translation by Eleanor Alexander, Winter 2001