‘Tangos and triangles’
translated and adapted by David Nicholson ©
from Ma Cousine by Henry Meilhac, 1890
[5 women; 3 men]

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Henry Meilhac (1831-1897) has been almost forgotten in the English-speaking theatre world.  A select few may recognize him as co-author of the libretto for Bizet’s Carmen,  but he was also one of one of the most successful authors of Paris comedies.  Meilhac created strong, appealing female characters – in this play, four of them.

In 1890, Ma Cousine opened at the Théâtre des Variétés, Paris with Gabrielle Réjane, France’s leading comic actress in the title role – and the play had a run of over three hundred consecutive performances.

Summary of the Play:

The play opens with Gabrielle, toast of the 1921 Paris stage, having her nails polished by her manicurist Berlandet while they discuss life and society.  A succession of visitors drop by Gabrielle’s apartment and introduce the foundation of the plot – news of an affair between Raoul d’Arnay-la-Hutte and Victorine Champcourtier.   He’s a well-to-do young socialite; she’s the wife of a much older, even wealthier club-man who has decided to try his luck at play-writing to impress “the fellows”.  Raoul’s wife Clotilde, Gabrielle’s long-lost cousin, comes to plead for her assistance in winning back her husband.  Gabrielle agrees and outlines her plan: she intends to charm Raoul away from Victorine, then find a way to deliver him back to Clotilde.  A rehearsal of Champcourtier’s play, The Hortense Tango, in the d’Arnay-la-Hutte salon provides the setting for phase one of her strategy, culminating in a comic dance of lustful glances and jealous reproaches.  By one of life’s coincidences, Raoul’s love-nest for his planned rendezvous with Victorine in the final act, turns out to be an apartment rented from Berlandet.  Gabrielle shows up, as do the other characters, and she succeeds in wrapping up her master (or is that mistress?) strategy.

I have adapted the play to 1921 – a time when such adult comedies would have become acceptable, although still daring, to English-speaking audiences.   This has required a few changes, such as turning Champcourtier’s play into The Hortense Tango, complete with Rudolf Valentino silent movie references.

Although the laughter prompted by Meilhac’s Ma Cousine has an underlay of human truth, the play’s principal charm comes from its ability to leave audiences smiling.  As a contemporary critic wrote, Ma Cousine was:

…pure joy and a continuous peel of laughter; a delicious promenade in the land of fantasy . . . it is, in short, a small masterpiece and a large success.”

Excerpt from ACT II


 GABRIELLE              Come on stage with me, then.  (Champcourtier looks around) Here, beside me.  (to all) Mr. Champcourtier has had the brilliant idea of beginning his play with a pantomime.

CHAMPCOURTIER  Except I don’t call it a pantomime.  My idea is to combine the best of moving pictures with the best of the stage.  The curtains part . . . and the audience can read the preamble written on large cards – we call them titles – then the actors enter and, well . . . act – and the next title tells the audience what they are saying to one another, and so on, just like at the cinema . . . and then they dance a tango.   When the dancing ends, they start talking out loud, like, well . . . like at the Theatre des Folies-Amoureuses. That way, the audience gets two art forms instead of one!

GABRIELLE              Value for the money . . . if only all our playwrights thought like you, Mr. Champcourtier.

[several lines omitted]

 GABRIELLE              Then, if Victorine is ready, I think it’s time . . . quiet please!   (Victorine starts playing – it is tango music.  Gabrielle whispers to Champcourtier) We let her play the overture for a few moments more and then . . . (she nods to Raoul to begin reading.)

(Raoul reads the following words that would appear on titles in Champcourtier’s silent movie.  Gabrielle and then Champcourtier “act” in accordance with his words – the two of them are the focus of a triangle formed by Raoul reading, Victorine at the piano and Clotilde standing)  

RAOUL          (pacing his narrative to the “acting”) Hortense, a young flower-girl, sings while making up a bouquet . . .  Adhémar, the accordion player, enters the room . . . and stops to admire the reflection of his handsome face in the mirror. . .  After giving Hortense a quick kiss goodbye . . . he heads for the door . . . and finds it locked . . .   Adhémar tries to open the door, without success, then . . . returns to Hortense and asks her for the key.  . . . Hortense says she didn’t know the door was locked and that she has no key . . . Adhémar insists on having the key . . . which infuriates Hortense . . . until she admits that she has hidden it to prevent Adhémar from leaving . . . Why must he go?  . . . Probably just to drink and carouse with the tango dancers from his club.  . . . Well, then!  . . . Hortense can play that game, too and is quite prepared to go out drinking and tango dancing.  . . . It would certainly be an improvement over working to support a man who doesn’t earn enough to support himself . . .  Adhémar objects vociferously . . . The only reason he needs to leave is to get to the tango club and do his job: play the accordion . . . Finding himself unable to convince Hortense, he takes her in his arms and begins to dance the tango.”

(Having taken one tango lesson, Champcourtier is not completely awkward.  The scene crackles with wordless exchanges between Raoul, Victorine and Clotilde.  This is interrupted every time Gabrielle spins around in Raoul’s direction and the two of them lock eyes – as she told him, she is doing this with him in mind.  The tango ends with Gabrielle doing an exaggerated backward dip, so low that she can gaze into Raoul’s eyes upside down. Champcourtier, who has had to concentrate on his dance steps, is oblivious)

CHAMPCOURTIER  (lifting Gabrielle back up) I think that went well, didn’t you?   (Victorine stands up behind the piano; she, Raoul and Clotilde are now so busy ignoring each other, nobody answers him) I certainly do!