Madam Sans-Géne

Theater Comedy of 1894 : The Washerwoman and the Emperor Napoleon

Paul Smith Spirit art
Illustration of Madame Réjane as Madam Sans-Géne
from the play of the same name. Click to enlarge

Punch July 7, 1894

PUNCH, OR THE LONDON CHARIVARI July 7, 1894
('Chariveri' seems to technically mean " a noisy procession" coupled with "a headache.")

Brief Biography

Gabrielle Réjane was the stage name used by Gabrielle-Charlotte Reju, a French actress who was apparently best known for her comedic roles, and this play Madame Sans-Géne was her most successful play in Britain and the United States. Her own theater "Theatre Rejane" was opened in Paris in 1906. She was awarded a knight of the Legion of Honor three months before her death. She was born June 5, 1856, died in Paris on June 14, 1920.


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Theatre Review from page 9 of PUNCH July 7, 1894:

GAIETY "SANS-GÉNE.'

Madame Sans-Géne, represented by Madame Réjane, at the Gaiety Theatre, has made a decided hit. The plot of the piece by Messieurs Sardou and Moreau is poor, but it shows what an experienced dramatist can do with meagre materials and one strikingly good notion: It seems as if the plan of the play was started from the idea of an interview between the great NAPOLEON, when Emperor, with a washerwoman whose bill for washing and mending he, when only a poor lieutenant, had been unable to discharge. This scene is the scene par excellence of the piece. It is here that both Madame Réjane and M. Duquesne are at their very best. Besides this, and the scene between Napoleon, La Reine Caroline, and Madame de Bulow, when there is a regular family row admirably acted by M. Duquesne, with the tongs, and Miles. Verneuil and Suger with their glib tongues, there is very little in the piece.

M. Candé, as the sergeant who rises to Maréchal, is very good, as is also M. Lerand, as Fouché. Madame Réjane is a thorough comedienne, but it is most unlikely (good as are historically the stories told about this same washerwoman elevated to the rank of Duchess) that she, in an interval of nineteen years -i.e., between 1792 and 1811 – should not have been able to wear her costume with, at all events, some grace and dignity, and it is most improbable that the clever blanchisseuse of 1792 should, in 1811, have found any difficulty in managing her Court costume without rendering herself outrageously ridiculous. All this hitching up of the dress and kicking out of the leg "goes" immensely with the audience and this must be the comedienne's excuse for overdoing the farcical business of her chief scenes, save the best of all, which, as I have already surmised, was the motive of the piece, namely, the scene with the Emperor in the Third Act. Here she is perfect, only just assuming so much of her old manner as would naturally come to her when chatting with "the little Corporal" over old times.

As to M. Duquesne as Napoléon premier, - well, middle-aged playgoers will call to mind Mr. Benjamin Webster as a far more perfect portrait of the great Emperor than is M. Duquesne, but the latter advantage in manner, and realises the Emperor's traditional eccentric habits in a way which at ones appeals to all conversant with the story of the eccentricities of the Great Emperor when he chanced to be in a very good humour. Perhaps nowadays there are very few who read Lever's works, but a dip into Charles O'Malley, with Phiz's spirited illustrations, will give exactly the phase of Napoleon's character that Messrs. Sardou and Moreau have depicted in this piece.

The play is well mounted, and the acting of all, from the leading parts to the very least, is about as good as it can be. The incidents of the drama are not particularly novel, but they are safe, and to every Act there is a good dramatic finish. Madame Réjane may congratulate herself and "Co." on a decided success in London.


MRS. R. was driving lately in a friend's barouche, which seemed to swing about a great deal, and made her feel rather uncomfortable. She was not surprised at this, however, when she heard the carriage was on "Sea" springs!

(Above: This small 'joke' was a filler at the bottom of the page from the PUNCH page with the theater review. I do not know what a 'sea' spring is. But the humor (or 'humour' as it is spelled in the UK) is an example of how humor from any era, including the present one, dies out as the minutia of a culture is buried by the passage of time.)


Original page Friday, May 2, 2008 | Updated Dec 2011

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