Sunday 22 January 2012

Jane Eyre on the Brussels Stage, 1855.

The film Jane Eyre is currently being shown at all the major cinemas in Brussels, and is receiving enthusiastic reviews in the Belgian press (e.g. Le Soir, 11 January 2012). Perhaps it is an opportune moment to point out that Jane Eyre had its first representation in Brussels as far back as 1855, the year of Charlotte's Brontë's death. On 29 November 1855, the drama Jane Eyre was premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville, on the Rue de l'Evêque, 23 (near the present day Place De Brouckère). It was a play in five acts, co-written by the Paris-born Alphonse Royer (1803-1875) and the young Brussels writer Victor Lefèvre (1822-1904).

Dramas inspired by Jane Eyre had already been performed before this date, notably in England and in Vienna, where in 1853 a version written by Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer entitled Die Weise von Lowood (The Orphan of Lowood) was first performed. However, the Royer/Lefèvre production was the first version of any Brontë work to reach the Brussels stage. The text of their work was published in Brussels by Parys in 1855, but it has proved impossible to find a copy in Belgium. Apparently there are copies held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Utrecht University Library, which we hope to check out in the near future.

As with the 2011 film directed by Cary Fukunaga, the 1855 theatreproduction received very positive reviews in the contemporary press. The anonymous theatre critic writing in Méphistophélès (02 December 1855) finds but a few "petits défauts" in the piece, and praises the elegant and flowing quality of the dialogue. He is especially pleased by the performance of the two main actors, Mademoiselle Magnan playing Jane, and Monsieur Quélus as Rochester, declaring " ils ont triomphé sur toute la ligne".

Meanwhile Eugène Van Bemmel in the Revue Trimestrielle ( Volume 9, 1856) states that it is a long time since he has witnessed the public so enthralled by a drama. Interestingly, he observes that there is no need to explain the subject matter of the play, "which is known to most of our readers ". It's not certain of course, to what extent Van Bemmel's readers knew that the author of Jane Eyrehad lived in their city, often feeling lonely and unhappy, a mere twelve years or so before.

The drama was so successful that in December 1855 it moved to the larger Théâtre des Galeries St.Hubert, for a further series of performances. This theatre, built in the 1840's, had a capacity of about 850 places, and has survived to the present day. It is located but a few hundred metres away from where the Heger-Parent pensionnat once stood. Heger and his wife were very fond of theatre, and who knows, perhaps they may have attended the show based on the work of their ex-pupil. What an experience this would have been for Constantin, to behold on stage the character of Rochester, in part modelled on himselfl!

Despite the acclaim it received in 1855, Royer and Lefèvre's Jane Eyre doesn't seem to have been presented again on the Brussels stage. If the original text of the work could be located, perhaps a new production could be envisaged some time.

The Brussels production in 1855, though little known about, had at least one major influence on the history of world literature. At the same time as the play was being performed in Brussels, the legendary French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was putting the final touches to his own drama based on Charlotte's novel. However, when Dumas got news that Jane Eyre was already being played on the Brussels stage, he promptly abandoned his own version. The text of Dumas' work went missing soon after, and has never been recovered. Unless it turns up some day, we're unlikely to ever know how the great Dumas chose to interpret Charlotte Brontë's novel.

Brian Bracken.

1 comment:

frrahier@hotmail.com said...

Dumas' manuscript drama on Jane Eyre was recently found in Paris. I'm working about its transcription for the Complete Theatre of Alexandre Dumas père to appear in France in Garnier Classics.