The effects of gratitude on the manufacturing classes.
Translated by David Nicholson ©
from Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon
by Eugène Labiche & Édouard Martin, 1860
[6 men; 3 women, with doubling]
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Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, written by Eugène Labiche in 1860, is a jewel of 19th century French comedy too long neglected in the English-speaking world.
The play was a milestone for Labiche. An enormously successful playwright (lifetime total of 173 works produced), up to that time his name had been a synonym for light-hearted, fast-paced fun (Italian Straw Hat, for instance). With Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, he began to cultivate the comedy of character – and the character of Perrichon remains proverbial in France.
Perrichon is the proverbial successful businessman – comfortable, excessively sure of himself, spectacularly devoid of self-awareness, who can soldier on through any calamity except being obliged to feel grateful. As the play opens, Perrichon is leading his wife and daughter Henriette on their first ever vacation – to Mont Blanc by train. Armand and Daniel show up at the train station – two young men who have both fallen in love with Henriette and agree to be friendly adversaries for her hand. Armand gains the first advantage by rescuing Perrichon from a crevasse on the glacier. Daniel shrewdly arranges an opportunity to fall in a crevasse himself, so that Perrichon can be a hero (a more congenial role than that of rescued victim). Perrichon rashly writes a note insulting a travelling military man, who ends up challenging him to a duel back in Paris. Armand comes close to ruining his chance to marry Henriette by extricating her father from this danger as well – until Perrichon overhears Daniel laughingly assess him as “an imbecile who can only bear the crushing weight of gratitude for a few minutes at a time”.
There hadn’t been any new English translations since the 1950’s, although the play’s rich production history continues in France. Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon entered into the official repertoire of the famed Comédie-Française in 1906, 46 years after its creation and has since enjoyed almost 600 performances there. There have been at least five major productions of Perrichon in France since 2000, as well as a 2014 film.
Upon Labiche’s election to the Académie française in 1880, he was introduced with words that recalled both his entire career and Perrichon in particular:
“You sir, have made audiences laugh for forty years; they’re still laughing and they’ll keep on laughing. You have attained that rare mark of popular success: you have become proverbial. The names of your plays and the words of your scripts have become part of everyday speech, part of the collective memory of rich and poor.”
Excerpt from ACT I
(Perrichon, Mrs. Perrichon, Henriette enter from stage right)
PERRICHON Here we are, this way! . . . Stay close; we don’t want to get lost! (looks around room) What happened to our bags, the trunk . . .? (looks towards the wings) Ah, there they are! . . . Now, who has the umbrellas?
HENRIETTE I do, papa.
PERRICHON And the overnight bag . . . and the overcoats?
MRS. PERRICHON I have them, dear.
PERRICHON My panama hat – I left it in the cab! (takes a step towards the exit and stops) No . . . it’s in my hand. It’s so hot in here.
MRS. PERRICHON Well, it’s your fault, Perrichon! You’re always pushing us – never a moment’s rest. I hate traveling like this!
PERRICHON Departures are always painful – we’ll be fine once we’re on our way. Stay put a minute – I’ll get the tickets. (handing his hat to Henriette) Hold my hat for me? (at the wicket) Three first class for Lyon.
CLERK (brusquely) Not open. Fifteen minutes.
PERRICHON (to the clerk) Oh, I’m sorry. (confidentially) This is my first train trip. (returns to his wife) We’re too early.
MRS. PERRICHON I told you we had lots of time – you wouldn’t even let us eat breakfast!
PERRICHON Better to be early than miss the important things in life! Now we can have a look around the station. (to Henriette) Is my little girl happy now? We’re finally going . . . in just a few minutes we’ll be speeding towards the Alps like William Tell’s arrow towards the apple. (to his wife) Did you bring the opera glasses?
MRS. PERRICHON Of course.
HENRIETTE I am glad we’re finally on our way – you promised us this trip two years ago. (sweetly) But I’m not complaining, papa – I’m just happy we’re here.
PERRICHON You don’t understand how much is involved in selling a company, my dear. A businessman can’t just walk away from it all as easily as a young girl skips away from her finishing school. Besides, I always intended to wait until you completed your formal education – and then top it off with the miracle of creation that is mother nature at her most magnificent.
MRS. PERRICHON (not entirely to herself) Dear god, don’t let him go on like this for the whole trip!