What to say about a dramatist whose oeuvre includes a play called Please Don’t Walk Around in the Nude? Georges Feydeau was the Neil Simon of his day (he died in 1918), prolific and successful and for the most part dismissed by critics. His reputation outside France for most of the 20th century survived in the occasional footnote to masterpieces like Pelleas and Melisande and Cyrano de Bergerac. But critical opinion started to shift in the last decades of the previous century, and now some see him as a precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd. And there is something existential in his plots, giant impersonal constructions from which innocent characters struggle to extricate themselves, not quite understanding what has happened. That is certainly the case with poor Doctor Petypon in That Lady from Maxim’s. As a lyric from the finale puts it:
You wake up with a throbbing head
And find a woman in your bed.
Go back to sleep -- this can’t be real --
You must be dreaming.
That Lady from Maxim’s is a story that could only take place at the fin de siècle, turn-of-the-century France, 1899 to be exact, the Belle Epoque, age of art nouveau and delicious décadence. The epicenter is Maxim’s, the chicest restaurant in Paris, where the women gather in waves and billows gracing the bars and divans. All of them elegant, some of them respectable, many of them . . . available.
One night a respectable married doctor, PETYPON, is lured there by MONGICOURT, his fellow surgeon, a bachelor and man about town. The next morning Mongicourt and ETIENNE, Petypon’s servant (he prefers “gentleman of service”) discover Petypon asleep on the floor of his room with a woman in his bed -- CREVETTE, the insouciant star dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Petypon is not used to drinking, so he has no memory of the inebriated night before, and is terrified when GABRIELLE, his formidably pious wife, enters celebrating the rash of miracles happening at the Cirque de Paris. She herself heard the voice of Saint Catherine (Joan of Arc’s inspiration) prophesying an angel would soon come visit her. Crevette, hidden away by Petypon, seizes the opportunity and emerges in a sheet with a candelabrum on her head, pretending to be the angel. She sends Gabrielle away on a fool’s errand to the Place de la Concorde.
As Petypon is rushing Crevette out, the GENERAL enters, Petypon’s wealthy uncle, the Baron de Grelé. He’s been off to Africa for many years, but has returned to preside over an engagement party for his (wealthy) niece at his country chateau in Touraine. A widower, he hopes Madame Petypon will serve as maid of honor. He is much taken with Crevette -- he assumes she is Madame Petypon -- and is particularly eager she should she take his niece under her wing. Crevette learns that fiancé his niece is engaged to is none other than Crevette’s lover, which makes her decision to attend the engagement party the next day a bit more piquant. When the real Madame Petypon returns, the General deduces she is Mongicourt’s wife. Anxious not to rock the sinking boat, Petypon resolves to go to Touraine to keep an eye on Crevette, telling Gabrielle he’ll be away for the day attending to an epidemic. Unfortunately, an earlier letter sent by the General arrives inviting Madame Petypon to be maid of honor, so Gabrielle will also be going to Touraine. Petypon, relieved that he’s dodged half a dozen bullets in one morning (or so he thinks), unvels his “Ecstatic Chair,” the latest scientific advance: a patient sits in the chair, the doctor presses a button, and the patient falls into a deep slumber, making it possible for the surgeon to operate without anesthesia. However, if anyone touches the slumbering patient without insulated gloves, that person is also instantly frozen in place. Case in point: Mongicourt is immobile in the chair, and when Gabrielle touches him, she too is frozen in place. Petypon is about to release them, when CORIGNON enters, the Lieutenant engaged to the General’s niece. He tells Petypon (who has no recollection of the night before) that when he discovered Petypon dining, drinking and dancing with his mistress Crevette, he challenged him to a duel. But now he’s discovered that Petypon is related to the General and therefore to his fiancee, so he withdraws the challenge. He takes Gabrielle's hand to bit her good-day, and is, of course, frozen in place. Petypon and Etienne enjoy the tableau, then Etienne presses the button to release them. They fall willy-nilly into each other's laps, and Gabrielle, outraged at the stranger in her lap, drives Corignon from the house.
Scene 2 shifts to the General’s country estate in Touraine. There Crevette meets FIFI, a former fellow dancer at the Moulin Rouge who married one of her admirers and is now a Countess; and HERMIONE, sister of the young DUKE Guy de Valmonté, who is most un-duke-like, spending his time writing inane poems about nature and semi-pornographic outpourings about women. Hermione is star-struck to meet a real Parisienne, and begs Crevette (whom she believes to be the respectable Madame Petypon) to take the Duke under her wing when he goes to Paris, and steer him away from a certain kind of woman (she’s afraid the feckless Duke will squander their joint fortune). Learning how wealthy the Duke is, Crevette gladly obliges, grows rather fond of the impressionable dunce, and invites him to pursue the relationship in Paris.
Gabrielle bursts on the scene like a bad dream and Petypon slinks away, hiding from her. When she comes out on the balcony to complain to the General that some other woman has scattered her gaudy clothing around the room reserved for Madame Petypon, Etienne drages her back into her room warning of ghosts on the balcony.
Enter CLÉMENTINE, raised by nuns when she was left an orphan, since her uncle, the General, was off patriotically defending the French African Empire. Clémentine is awaiting the arrival of her bridegroom-to-be, Corignon (Crevette’s lover). Crevette, Hermione and Fifi do their best to disabuse Clementine of her convent-bred notions about men (and, sad to say, she proves sto be a most eager student). When Corignon arrives, he is pleasantly surprised to find her awfully wordly for a convent girl (they met only once before, as children). But then Corignon is thunderstruck to find Crevette there, mentoring Clementine. He and Crevette go off together to talk things through in private, in the estate’s private chapel. Hermione and Fifi, always on high alert for scandal, spot them going off, and as dear friends of Clémentine, feel obliged to report the bad news in provocative detail. When the General hears Corignon has run off with Crevette, he is outraged, telling Petypon that his wife (meaning Crevette) is a two-timing tart. Insulted, thinking the General means her, Gabrielle slaps the General. The General turns to Mongicourt (who has traveled there to warn Petypon that Gabrielle is on her way), and believing Gabrielle is his wife, challenges him to a duel. Then all go off in search of the errant lovers, Corignon and Crevette.
Act II begins In a stable on the estate, Crevette and Corignon are bidding their melancholy goodbyes to each other. They cannot marry because he’s only a poor lieutenant, and both realize their love would wither on the vine of poverty. Clementine overhears the whole episode and is overcome with romantic feelings for Corignon who is making this noble sacrifice -- to give up his beloved mistress -- in order to marry her. The scandal over, Hermione and Fifi resolve to go to Paris and visit the again respectable Madame Petypon.
The scene shifts back in Paris, the next morning. A knock on the door is heard. The day’s adventures have begun. The Duke arrives, thinking he has an assignation with Crevette. When he asks for Madame Petypon, Gabrielle enters. The Duke wonders if Madame Petypon is ill, Gabrielle replies she’s a little tired. They continue to talk past each other for awhile till, frustrated, the Duke leaves. Mongicourt enters and threatens to tell the General the truth. Enter the General, while Petypon hides Mongicourt. The General has come to reconcile Petypon and his wife (meaning Crevette), assuring him that whatever there was between Crevette and Corignon is over. Thinking he was rid of Crevette, Petypon loses it. He excuses himself, leaving the General to sympathize with Crevette about her inconsiderate “husband.” The General sits her in the Ectstatic Chair to calm her, accidentally presses the button, then goes off in search of Petypon, unaware of Crevette’s frozen state. The Duke returns and, seeing Crevette immobile, praises her silence and declares his love for her. When he kisses her, he too freezes. The General and Peypon return to find the Duke kissing Crevette. The General orders Petypon to fight for his wife, pushing him into the pair, so both the General and Petypon freeze. Hermione and Fifi come for their visit, greet Crevette and are frozen; Corignon and Clémentine arrive to anounce that, after all the turmoil, they decided to just “do it” and get married. They in turn are added to the frozen tableau. When Etienne reluctantly releases them all, chaos ensues and after a few more twists and turns, the truth finally comes out -- well, some of it. Madame Petypon is indeed Gabrielle. As for Crevette, she only passed herself off as Petypon’s wife when she went to Touraine in order to avoid the scandal that would ensue when it was revealed Crevette was Corignon’s lover. Playing by convent rules, Clementine would have had to call off the engagement, and in revenge, for the sake of his family’s honor, the General would have had to burn down the convent. Gabrielle praises her husband’s nobility for saving all those holy sisters, both the General and Duke are delighted to find Crevette suddenly available, and all go off to Maxim’s to celebrate the happy resolution of events.
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