Laura has committed adultery and tells her husband Jacques that she wants to leave him to live with her lover. How will he react? Gabriel Arout’s 1963 comedy Laure et Les Jacques handles this theme in a distinctive way, by playing out the situation with four different husbands, each played by a different actor, each with a different personality and temperament. The first Jacques is forgiving, the second manipulative, and the third infatuated and disbelieving. It is Jacques 4 who most concerns us…
The play premiered at the Theatre Saint-Georges, Paris, on December 19, 1963. Laura was played by 27-year-old Geneviève Fontanel:
Jacques 4 was Jess Hahn, a giant of an actor who later played Simon Templar’s sidekick Hoppy in the 1966 French outing for the classic Leslie Charteris hero, Le Saint Prend L’Affût (The Saint Lies in Wait). It’s a movie we know best for the fate that befalls the spoilt heroine, played by Danielle Evenou, seen here in the fight scene at the climax…
… and here earlier on with the Saint himself, Jean Marais:
The scene even found its way onto the poster for the movie’s Danish release:
Less well known is another moment where she’s being recalcitrant about going to bed when she’s told, so Hoppy picks her up bodily and carries her to the bedroom…
… on the way giving her a good smack on the seat of those white panties:
So that little digression helps to establish Jess Hahn’s suitability for the task he had to undertake three years earlier on the Parisian stage!
The first three acts all begin with Laura on the telephone to her friend Suzou, explaining her dilemma.
But when the curtain rises on the fourth and final act, things are different. We begin not with Laura but Jacques 4, who is, says the stage direction, very big, athletic and powerful. He may be a violent man, but he has channeled all his violence into love of Laura. So when an incriminating letter arrives for her, she gets a slap which knocks her off her feet. In all other respects he is utterly calm: he is determined to remain collected and not jump jealously to conclusions that might be mistaken. But of course, they’re not mistaken: she tells him they will have to separate, so he reads the letter. And that’s it: he starts to devastate the room in a kind of controlled fury. Then he half tears off her dress…
She’s like a child, he tells her – except that children get whooping cough, whereas she has caught the adult disease of adultery. But he has the cure for it:
Il la saisit, l’étale sur les genoux et lui administre une fessée magistrale, malgré ses cris et ses plaintes.
(He seizes her, lays her across his knees and gives her a masterful spanking in spite of her cries and pleas.)
Then there is a knock at the door. He gets up, letting Laura fall off his lap onto the floor. It’s a delivery: a bouquet of roses for her. He explains that what she needed was a shock. In this situation, other men might behave in a more ‘civilized’ way – like Jacques 1-3, in fact – but they don’t really love their women. But he has done everything for love of her: ‘Like a child asking for a spanking, you need to be reassured, to be shown I love you.’ She protests that in his destructive frenzy he hasn’t left her a thing to wear. But he has: quite deliberately, the one garment he left untouched is her wedding dress.
And so the final act ends as all the others began, with Laura talking on the phone to Suzou. Jacques has torn up all her clothes and spanked her, she explains.
Should Suzou call the police? Absolutely not! Laura isn’t going to leave Jacques after all: she loves him, and he in turn has proven that he loves her. In fact, this has been a marriage saved by a good spanking!
‘Un peu pincée, puis extrêmement fessée, Geneviève Fontanel est une gentille Laure,’ wrote one of the critics. (A little pinched, then very soundly spanked, Geneviève Fontanel is a nice Laura.) And Jess Hahn’s performance does indeed seem to have been very vigorous indeed: another reviewer, in Le Figaro, described how he ‘picked her up like a feather and gave her the most formidable spanking that you can possibly give a woman to cure her of adultery’!
The play was a success in several ways. In 1965, it won the prestigious Prix Brieux, presented biennially by the Académie Française. In 1967, a television version was made, with Geneviève Fontanel recreating her role, but with a new Jacques 4, Bernard Fresson. She also starred in a retitled adaptation, Eve et Les Hommes (Eve and the Men) that was shown on French television on May 29, 1972, with John Abbey now taking on the role of the fourth cuckold.
As befits a recognized modern French classic, it has had a good run of stage revivals, too, starting in the mid-1960s when Françoise Delille played Laura…
More recently, Josée Bélanger was Laura at Montreal in October 2004:
And the play also has a life beyond the French-speaking world. It was translated early into other European languages (the Czech version by Evzenie Janu was done in 1965), and it has been especially popular in the various eastern European countries of the former Soviet Union. As Quartet for Laura it was revived in Moscow in 1995, with pint-sized Nikolai Dobrynin miscast as the fourth Jacques and Lyubov Polishchuk as Laura:
Evgenia Mikhailova was Laura in Belarus in 2004, with both Timur Isupov and Maxim Peshkov playing Jacques 4 at different performances. And another Evgenia, this one surnamed Nicolaeva, played Laura in another Russian production in 2011:
There’s also a Ukrainian adaptation entitled Her Mad Men, with only three Jacques, which has been popular in Kiev since it opened in July 2009 with Elena Borokh as Laura. It toured Israel and remained in the Kiev repertory until 2013, though by then the leading lady had changed her stage name to Elena Silantyeva. Here she is as Laura:
And, in case you’re wondering, she did get spanked: diligent searching has so far failed to unearth a photograph, but the scene is mentioned in reviews. It is, after all, another of those spanking scenes that can’t really be cut if you want the play to have an ending!