Georges Courteline (1858-1929) wrote many, many short comedies during the Belle Epoque, but remains less well known outside France than his contemporary Georges Feydeau. His work contains much social and political satire, but the strand that continues to be enjoyed and revived in his native land deals with a topic that never goes out of date: the tensions and power struggles within marriage.
Courteline’s is a sardonic, witty world in which wives provoke husbands, and husbands take reprisals against wives, sometimes in ways that we appreciate. With hindsight, it’s not a million miles away from I Love Lucy, but with more sophistication and panache. One Courteline wife who gets spanked appears in Le Paix Chez Soi (Peace at Home), which premiered on 25 November 1903 at the Theatre Antoine, Paris, with Gabriel Signoret and Sandra Fortier in the two roles. The play entered the repertory of the Comédie Française in July 1906, with Maurice de Féraudy and Marie Leconte,
and it has rarely been out of production since; it was even produced in Britain in 1915. There is one slight problem with it, as we’ll see… but, as we’ll also see, modern directors have a good track record of finding a way around that problem.
The home of the title is that of commercial writer Edward Trielle. It is October 1, 1903. Trielle’s 25-year-old wife Valentine arrives, as she always does on the first of the month, to demand her housekeeping money. He usually gives her 800 francs a month – but this time she finds it is 150 francs short.
He explains. Earlier in the summer, for the first time in five years of marriage, he spanked her. Usually he managed to match her ill temper with equanimity, but not this time:
TRIELLE: I lost my patience. I got up, tucked you under my left arm, turned up your skirt and used my right hand in the way washerwomen do at work. I gave you a…
VALENTINE (interrupting): Oh, brilliant! You must be very proud of yourself! Brute! Coward! Boor!
The spanking didn’t have entirely the salutary effect intended. After a while, Valentine continued to misbehave, and Trielle was faced with the prospect of a longer haul for which he felt little enthusiasm:
‘I only needed to keep up the good work: more spankings! But the first one hurt me so much that I had to abandon the idea of doing it again. It taught me how little aptitude I had as a spanker. … So I had to come up with some other way of dealing with you.’
His first thought was to take it out on the furniture. Result: a lot of broken furniture that had to be replaced. Then he hit on another idea: fine her. So the 150 francs missing from the housekeeping represents the sum total of her bad behavior in the month of September.
Valentine takes the news badly. She threatens to kill herself by throwing herself out of the window, but thinks better of it when he obligingly opens the window for her. Result: a fine for the threat, and another fine for not going through with it. Then she packs her things and threatens to go home to her parents. She doesn’t do that either.
Of course, it’s all about the 150 francs – because, it emerges, she signed a promissory note for that amount when making a purchase, and the bill falls due today. There are two problems with that. Firstly, under French law, no wife may sign such a document without the consent of her husband. So she forged his signature – which, naturally enough, is also illegal. And secondly, where’s her expensive purchase? She broke it when bringing it home – so that’s money right down the drain. ‘Naughty children get spanked for less, and deserve it,’ her husband tells her. But in the end, she doesn’t get spanked, and he does pay the bill – whereupon she demands that he also give her the 150 francs outstanding from the housekeeping!
And there’s the problem: Valentine is spanked, and with her skirt up too, but she’s spanked a month or more before the start of the action, rather than onstage. It’s often the case with Courteline that the characters’ behavior is generated by key incidents that have already happened, and early illustrated editions took the opportunity to show some of those incidents. Here’s how a 1917 artist envisaged the spanking of Valentine:
But by the 1930s at the latest, theatergoers were starting to feel left out. A reviewer of a 1933 production, with René Lefêvre and Mireille (one of those European stars with only one name), declared that the spanking of Valentine should have been the highlight of the play, if only it had happened onstage. And by the 1950s, a way had been found…
Courteline’s plays are generally so short that they are usually revived in anthology shows. This became the basis of the film Scènes de Ménage (1954), which collected three Courteline titles, slightly updated to the year 1910, with a wraparound sequence of the three wives comparing notes on their husbands during an evening out. Valentine was played by Marie Daems,
and Trielle was François Périer, whose prowess as a spanker, and his manly strength, was demonstrated two years earlier in the treatment he meted out to Dany Robin in Elle et Moi:
His chance to spank Marie Daems came because this was a movie version of La Paix Chez Soi, meaning that, when Trielle reminds Valentine of the spanking he gave her, the scene can be actually shown, as a flashback. And so, in another feat of strength, Trielle holds Valentine firmly under his arm and spanks the seat of her bloomers. Here they are posing for the stills camera:
If you look carefully, you can see a slight anachronism: Marie is clearly wearing 1954 white bikini panties under her 1910 bloomers!
Some more recent stage productions have also managed to incorporate the spanking, though it seems only to have got into the trailer for this one from 2013:
But when the play was produced in Saint Maxime the following year, with Sacha Ekizian as Trielle and Cécile Douelle as Valentine, Trielle did something unexpected when his wife asked him for money.
He didn’t just tell her about the spanking he gave her a month ago. He gave her a more forceful reminder:
But it is relevant that his spanking hand is palm upward. This is a scene that turns on Trielle’s unwillingness to go through with the necessary act of spanking his wife, which is why he had to devise a financial penalty in the first place. To illustrate how this works in practice, here’s a video of similar business from a 1997 production:
He puts her in position – but can’t bring himself to do it! Except that sometimes, as in this 2012 Parisian production with Serge Gelly and Josée Laprun… he can!
Valentine isn’t the only spanked wife in Courteline’s work, so we’ll be back in the boulevards before long!