The audacious French theater director André Antoine felt compelled to write to an author whose play he had accepted for production that he would have to cancel the performance. “Your play, which might possibly be performed among intimates, is not playable to a public audience,” he explained on May 26, 1891. At the read-through, the actors, case-hardened as they were to “naturalistic” subjects, had been aghast at the boldness and violence of the central concept. Antoine admitted that he had let himself be won over by the play’s literary qualities, but “I do not think that, after this trial, an auditorium of 1,200 persons could accept coolly such an inordinately abnormal and impassioned situation.” Were the author to insist on his rights, “we simply run the danger of having the Théâtre Libre closed by a huge scandal which would be quickly exploited by someone you know and which you do not seek ultimately any more than we do.”
What could have provoked such a nervous reaction?
Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor of Drama at Tufts University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.