Le voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, a comedy in four parts, by Eugène Labiche
On 10 September, 1860, the premiere of Eugène Labiche's Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, a comedy in four acts, was held at the Théâtre du Gymnase in Paris. The play, considered by many to be representative of the bourgeoisie during the Second Empire, ran until 15 September (cf. the issues of the Moniteur Universel from 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 September, 1860) and featured one of the Second Empire's most famous actors, Geoffroy,* in the role of Monsieur Perrichon.
The play's history
By 1860, Eugène Labiche was one of France's most successful dramatists. His first play, La Cuvette d'eau, was most likely written in 1837, but his first success came in 1851 with Un chapeau de paille en Italie. Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, written in collaboration with Edouard Martin, was quite unlike any of Labiche's other plays. Whilst his previous works usually saw the plot unfold in domestic surroundings, Labiche's latest work saw the Perrichon family take the audience on a journey from Paris' Gare de Lyon to Savoie's glaciers.
The play, written over the course of 1860, did not take long to complete and clearly took its inspiration from current affairs, namely, France's annexation of Nice and Savoie. The parallel ends there however. Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon is a comedy of manners, featuring comic and absurdist situations. The author was more concerned with portraying the Parisian bourgeois individual than Savoyard society. And it was the railway, not the current political situation, that interested him the most.
Although the introduction and development of the railway in France was slow, by 1860 it was well established within the empire. The Compagnie des chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (known more simply known as the PLM) was founded in 1857 following the amalgamation of the Paris-Lyon and Lyon-Méditerranée companies. The network proceeded to expand, including a line to Geneva via Lyon (as seen in the play), and developments in equipment continued apace, with locomotive speeds soon reaching 60 km per hour.
Following its opening at the Théâtre du Gymnase on 10 September, Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon was a triumphant success, earning Labiche the nickname “king of the Vaudeville”. This success has proved long-lasting and in 1906, the play was added to the Comédie Française's repertory.
Monsieur Perrichon, a rich coachbuilder by profession, is an honest but vain member of the bourgeoisie who decides to take a pleasure trip in the company of his wife Caroline and his daughter Henriette. The family, deciding on a train journey to the Swiss Alps, arrive at Gare de Lyon in Paris where they happen upon two young suitors, both with the same goal of marrying Henriette. Over the course of the journey, the two men are involved in an honourable but fierce struggle for the young lady's hand in marriage.
Jean Marie Geoffroy (1813-1883), known simply as “Geoffroy”, joined the Théâtre du Gymnase in Paris in 1844 and very quickly became one of its mainstays. His performances were, on the whole, critically well received: “He is positively brimming with unexpected brio. His fame has become almost a source of renown in itself”. (J. Arago, 1852); “He has a laugh that is his own, a pleasant laugh that fills the auditorium. Other comic actors draw from that which is serious for their effect, using it to sell the jokes, good or bad, that make up their roles; Geoffroy's approach is the opposite”.
In 1863, after nineteen years of service, he left the Théâtre du Gymnase to work with the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. It was there that his career blossomed, making him one of the most successful actors of his time.