The Internet may have discovered sexual harassment last month, (and may abandon itself to some new wave of outrage next month) but women have been subject to pretty odious, relentless persecution throughout the sad, sexist annals of human history. Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse” is set in the France of Louis XIII (1601-1643, a. k. a. “Musketeer time”) and yet it works hard to answer a question that has plagued the female of the species from times immemorial: What are you supposed to do when some deluded dude just won’t take “no” for an answer?
According to Gautier, you get ANOTHER big, strong guy to stab the perv in the lung. It’s not the best feminist answer, but who can argue with results?
In the 1820s, most of the literary luminaries of French Romanticism managed to cram themselves into Victor Hugo’s drawing room, in what was known as the Cenacle: Dumas, Musset, Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, Prosper Merimee… Theophile Gautier was there, but he was wild enough to spin off the circle into his own satellite. The Petit Cenacle was termed thusly half in affection, half in acknowledgment that its irreverent, borderline Bohemian members (Nerval, Petrus Borel) would not achieve quite the same level of glory as the parent congregation. Gautier had many achievements as poet and critic, though, including his popularization of the “Art for Art Sake’s” doctrine; he wrote an early vampire story in “La Morte Amoureuse,” and what may be the first big tale about mummies, “Le Roman de la Momie.”
But Gautier’s most lasting success has been “Captain Fracasse,” a cloak-and-dagger romance that had several film adaptations last century, (one directed by Abel Gance in much the same style as “The Tower of Nesle.”)
The young Baron de Sigognac is living on reduced means in his dilapidated mansion when a band of traveling players shows up looking for shelter. It takes little more than a pleasant dinner to convince Sigognac to join the colorful thespians in their journey, and soon he adopts the stage name of Captain Fracasse. That’s a pun worth explaining: “fracasser” means to smash things, to break down ; a “fracasse” would be a fray, a big mess of a fight; it also implies a debacle, a failure. Captain Disaster would be an appropriate translation.
Sigognac has fallen in love, (a proper, respectful, requited love), with Isabelle, the ingenue of the crew. Isabelle is modest, sweet, perfect and boring in every way, and it takes only the briefest mention of her absent parents to suggest to us that she must have noble blood and may well turn out to be Louis XIII’s hidden daughter by the novel’s conclusion. She has eyes for no one but Sigognac, but has attracted the unwanted attention of the Duke of Vallombreuse. Vallombreuse is a despicable cad who one imagines carrying a pouch of roofies under his cloak, getting pumped up for his date rape by listening to whatever was the 1600s version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” ( probably Bach’s “Tocatta in A Minor – Molto Molestoso.” )
Vallombreuse can’t quite believe Isabelle isn’t giving it up, even after he’s basically hurled diamonds at her face, so he does what any sensible gentleman in the 17th century would do: he contracts brigands to murder Captain Fracasse, and then abducts Isabelle. I know what you’re thinking: Surely Isabelle is seduced by this earnest display of affection? After all, few suitors are willing to go that extra-mile that involves killing and kidnapping!
But the unappreciative Isabelle is inexplicably angered by Vallombreuse’s maneuvers. Vallombreuse is of course too noble to actually reduce himself to the role of rapist, (or else Gautier is too shy to go there). The duke simply locks the actress in a room and waits for her mood to be more favorable.
This isn’t “Clarissa,” not entirely, but the situation will be familiar to readers of Samuel Richardson. It’s something to reflect on that, at one point in time, being abducted and brow-beaten into sex wasn’t a freak criminal situation but a relatable trope, something to contend with and prepare for: since women were more or less sequestered in the patriarchal home waiting for marriages in which they had limited say, both unwanted abductions and desirable elopements functioned through similar mechanisms.
Meanwhile, Captain Fracasse shows his would-be killers his fancy fencing moves, wins the fight, and goes to the rescue of Isabelle. The modern reader may dismiss Isabelle as a damsel in distress, in that she doesn’t save herself from the situation – but isn’t that yet another form of victim blaming? (“Why wasn’t she strong and empowered? It’s like she was asking for it!”) It doesn’t matter if she isn’t strong and empowered; most PEOPLE, men or women, aren’t particularly strong or empowered outside of our psycho-therapeutic parlance. It’s irrelevant: weakness doesn’t justify abuse.
So what matters is that Fracasse arrives and puts his sword through the Duke of Vallombreuse’s left lung.
Up to this point, “Captain Fracasse” has been a fine romance. The characters are stock, (literally, in the case of the theater troupe.) The history is non-existent, (notice I can’t tell you where exactly in the 40 years of Louis XIII’s reign it takes place, and I doubt Gautier could either.) It lacks the wit or drama of a Dumas, the mad over-plotting of a Zevaco, or the relatively fleshed out personalities of a Feval, but it has charm and heart, specially whenever Gautier details the family life of the theater people.
… But after the sword fight between Vallombreuse and Fracasse the whole set-up crumbles. It’s the worst sort of crumbling, the slow-motion, brick-by-brick un-mantling of the facade that has you looking at your watch wondering how long it can possibly take for a building to collapse. It’s not even crumbling, really; it’s deterioration.
Most stories wrap-up after the villain is eliminated and the lovers reunited. “Captain Fracasse” does too, but the wrapping is done very, very slowly by arthritic hands. After Vallombreuse is defeated, his father shows up, to reveal that Isabelle is actually Vallombreuse’s sister and therefore the near rape was 100 times creepier. That means Isabel and Captain Fracasse can marry, since she’s now nobility and no longer a paint-faced, hell-bound theater leper. Then we’re forced to watch with a profound lack of interest while Vallombreuse struggles between life and death (with Isabelle and Fracasse watching tenderly over him!) It’s not exactly Little Nell’s death, let me tell you; the reader will more likely feel alarmed by the possibility that the mustache-twirling douche might LIVE.
Which he does, and what follows is beyond absurd. Let me condense:
VALLOMBREUSE: “Oooh, that sword in the lung has changed my outlook in life. I woke up from my coma respecting women and their right to sexual autonomy!”
FRACASSE: “And also my right to not be murdered?”
VALLOMBREUSE: “Of course, you big lug! You’re family now!”
ISABELLE: “OOOH! I love you, brother! You are the best brother a sister could ever have! Give me a big hug!”
ISABELLE: “Oooh. That’s a tight hug. Ok, brother, you can stop hugging now. Let go. Stop. Stop now. STOP!!!”
VALLOMBREUSE: “Pardon moi, sister! Garcons will be garcons!”
FRACASSE: “Ay ay ay. Thanksgivings are gonna be awkward!”
*The three of men chortle merrily.*
RATING : COOL! for the early sections, SHRUG for the denouement.