Dora B. Montefiore March 1911
Source: Justice, 18 March, 1911, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Paul Bourget is a distinguished French novelist, who, in “Le Disciple,” “Terre Promise,” and “Cosmopolis,” has established his reputation as a psychologist, an observer, and a modernist of the first order. He claims, above all things, to be a scientific writer of chroniques sans thèse – that is, he sets forth his story or chronicle without didactic conclusions, but dispassionately, in the form of a scientific diagnosis, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. This claim of his he specially dwells on in his preface of 60 pages to “La Barricade,” the recently published play now under review. Like our English playwright, Mr. G.B. Shaw, Paul Bourget considers it not sufficient to write a play and leave the public to criticise it, but he desires also to show the mechanism which makes the puppets move, to explain where he obtained the pasteboard, glue and wire necessary to make them dance – in a word, as they are the puppets of his creation, and he has grown to love them and believe in them, he desires, above all things, that the public should also Jove them and believe in them. I have read carefully three times Monsieur Bourget’s “Barricade,” and his Preface to the same, and I believe him to be entirely sincere when he writes that his aim has been to catch the reflections of a mirror, which he held up as he walked through life; but he adds, rather naively: “And what is the important quality of a mirror? That it should not distort the reality which it reflects.” That is just the point, Monsieur Bourget. And my object as a Socialist critic must be to point out that though conversations and portions of situations in real life may be faithfully jotted down in note books and reproduced in the dialogue and situations of a play, the pyschology and inwardness of the dramatic movement evolved, if the dramatist consciously or unconsciously takes sides with his puppets, ceases to be the work of an observer, and becomes distorted into that of either a social reformer or of a lecturer. Monsieur Bourget writes only too truly in one part of his preface: “The day has come when he has been forced by invincible necessity to reply to other destroyers, who were not themselves bourgeois: You are on one side of the barricade, I am on the other.” That is just the point. We know, after reading his play and its preface, on which side of the barricade Monsieur Bourget is. This last volume of his might have had more scientific value had this fact not been made so very apparent.
The play is in four acts: Act I., “Sabotage,” an incident in the class struggle, in which Langouet and his comrades, in the workshop of a wealthy cabinet maker, purposely put indifferent work into the inner finishing of an expensive piece of furniture, in order to bring disrepute on the firm. The employer, Breschard, is represented as having taken for his mistress a workgirl, Louise, employed in the firm; but she will accept no financial support from him, though she enjoys a position of responsibility and of emolument among the women employees. Langouet is in love with the girl, and Breschard, not being an evil-minded man, but only morally lax, is willing to repair his fault towards her by marrying her. This solution, when it comes to the point, Louise refuses, because, as we are told, the work girl has, “like all the unfortunate ones whom their leaders organise for strikes, the devotion and the religion of their class; the only word in their mouths and the only sentiment in their hearts is to be able to serve the comrades.” Breschard has also a son, Philip, an intimate friend of Langouet, and who has accepted the Socialist ideal on its sentimental and utopian side. Already, in the first act, we know that the idealist who declares that “the problem of the class struggles only demands for its solution goodwill on both sides,” will be forced, as the situation develops, to take his stand on one side or the other of the barricade; for the position of sitting smiling between and holding out a friendly hand to either armed force is, in war, an absolutely untenable one.
Another prominent figure throughout the play is Gaucherond, an old workman, who, from the fact of having done for years highly skilled work in his own home, has remained industrially undeveloped, and consequently lacking in solidarity to his own class. Monsieur Bourget considers that the figure of Gaucherond is “the most sympathetic in the drama.” No doubt he appears so from the “privileged” side of the barricade; from the unprivileged side, the unconscious proletarian who fails to realise the great world adventure towards industrial freedom in which he is privileged to take part is not the most sympathetic, but the most pathetic, figure. In the second act the strike in the cabinet making trade spreads to Breschard’s workshop; he is forced to receive the union delegate and a deputation of his own workmen; but he has previously told his son that if he finds himself for the moment, in consequence of a pressing London order, forced to submit to the union demands, he will, when the order is delivered six weeks hence, withdraw these concessions, and offer his workmen either a return to original conditions or a lock-out. This cynical disregard for his pledged word disconcerts Philip, the peacemaker, who remarks: “You would never do that, father ... where would your honour as an employer come in?” To which Breschard replies: “The honour of an employer is to be master, in his own business.”
The delegation is received, and Breschard, stung to anger by the aggressiveness of the union delegate, refuses the demands of his men, and the strike is declared. In this industrial crisis Gaucherond steps in; and after the workers have left, suggests to Breschard that he can still save the situation if he will take a workshop an out-of-the way part of the town, and allow him, Gaucherond, with a party of scabs, to execute the London order. This Breschard finally agrees to, and in Act III called: “La chasse aux renards” or “The hunt for the scabs,” we are introduced to this improvised workshop, where children are engaged packing the recently finished furniture which now fills thirty five cases. Breschard comes in to see how the work is progressing, and Gaucherond shows him a strikers manifesto declaring that they will hunt out and punish those who are blacklegging them; for the strikers also have their police. Breschard promises protection; but after he has left, the strikers arrive, and persuade five of the scabs to leave their work and join the strike. Gaucherond alone holds out and when the strikers threaten to destroy the contents of the cases in the inner workshop; he draws a pistol, and, after threatening to fire on the first man who molests him; he shuts himself in with the cases and bolts the door. The excited strikers want to set fire to the workshop and smoke out the old blackleg; but Langouet reminds them of their wives and families, and of the legal difficulties they may get themselves into through such action; he finally persuades them to allow him, a man without family ties, to deal with the situation; and, after a noisy discussion and the singing of the “International,” he succeeds in getting them outside. When about to carry out his pledge to his comrades, and burn the result of the six weeks scab labour, the work girl Louise rushes in, throws herself between him and the heap of wood and shavings he has piled up, and seizes the burning stick he holds in his hand. When he tells her her place is not there but with her lover Breschard, she declares her love for Langouet, and hinders him from carrying out his intention of firing the workshop. Whilst they are talking. Breschard and the police arrive. On hearing their voices, Gaucherond comes out of the inner workshop, his pistol in his hand. The police arrest Langouet, who threatens Breschard; and when the latter and Louise are left alone, she confesses to her elderly lover her passion for Langouet, and repulses her employer.
The fourth act is called “After the Strike” and is without doubt the weakest and the least scientifically written of all. Philip’s half-baked Socialism crumbles dust; his father makes him partner in the business, which is now so flourishing that there it talk of starting a London branch. In the conversation between the father and son, Philip remarks: “You see in them (the workmen) traces of the child. I see in them the brute which slumbers and which is going to bite. I have learnt something about them during these last three month. There are moments, father, when the change which has taken place in me almost frightens me. You know how I used to love them. There are moments now when I almost seem to hate them. No! I have no more illusions. No! I am no longer a Socialist or a humanitarian.” Acting in this new character, he receives Louie and Langouet in his private office, in order to pay them the balance of their wages owing before the strike; and takes advantage of the opportunity to tell them that the employers have formed a league, and have placed on the index, as undesirable workers, those who were leaders in the recent labour trouble. When Langouet compliments him ironically on having so rapidly learnt the language of the capitalist and the methods of defending his interests as an employer, Philip replies pompously: “They are not my interests that I am defending.”
Langouet: “Whose, then, are they?”
Philip: “They are the interests of civilisation against barbarism; for you are barbarians.”
In view of the fact that as Philip has acknowledged to his father his friendship with Langouet represents “ten years of youth and enthusiasm shared together,” this almost savage reaction is inartistic, if the author wishes us to retain intellectual sympathy with Philip.
Louise is then introduced begging as a favour of her former employer and lover that he will not enforce his decision of refusing work for Langouet, who is now her husband favour. Breschard retorts by reminding her of the scene in the blackleg workshops, and flings at her the reproach: “And that was the moment that you chose to follow this criminal!” An emotional crisis, verging almost on the absurd, follows, in the midst of which Langouet, the worse for drink, and demanding his wife, forces his way in. Louise is depicted as following him abjectly, when, he orders her out of her employer’s office and Breschard, as he watches the two go down the street, murmurs, “Poor Louise!” As a final absurdity Breschard is represented as giving £800 to Gaucherond, in order that he may start a co-operative work-shop with Langouet at its head. This action is, of course, absurd, when judged from the point of view of the ideal of Socialism, which is the most far reaching adventure the race has yet undertaken. But the action is quite logical: and comprehensible from Monsieur Bourget’s point of view, because he believes in the continued existence of a privileged class, and is seeking for fresh forces and influences whereby it may be strengthened and upheld. He tells in his Preface how he has had many letters from working men on the subject of “La Barricade,” and that they all write accusing “the vices and weaknesses of degenerate capitalists, who are only able to defend themselves because one part of the proletariat, failing to understand the situation, betray their brothers.” What Monsieur Bourget fails to understand is that it is not capitalists with their vices or Virtues that economic Socialism is attacking, but the capitalist system; because that system, just like the slave or serf system, is an economic anachronism. He instances the English aristocracy, which has survived because it “met half way” “the ambition of the best endowed members of the middle class “; and he suggests that the French bourgeoisie might meet in the same spirit some of the demands of the French working man. This is the spirit that is no doubt working at the present moment to form “Labour Parties” in politics, and Revisionist sections in organised Socialism; in which a sort of aristocracy of labour is formed, moderate demands are formulated, and breathing time is given to the privileged classes to reconstruct their political, social and economic barricade. That is the barricade, comrades, on which we are at present being driven to take sides! Monsieur Bourget writes: “It is the sensation of actual, present danger which I have attempted to express in ‘The Barricade’, and I am convinced that if I have succeeded in expressing this, I have usefully served my class, and consequently my country.” I, as his Socialist critic, have only to add that those who are on the same side of the barricade with Monsieur Bourget, his class and his country, are on the opposite side to the class-conscious organised Socialist, who realises that it is neither reform nor conciliation, nor humanitarian ideals which can free industry and overthrow capitalism, but only an economic and social revolution.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.