Magnificent Cuckolds

William Empson

Frank Budgen’s last pamphlet ‘Further Recollections of James Joyce’ (1955) carries a bit of personal reminiscence which looks as if it might be more important than most. He remembers that he had one day remarked to Joyce that he could never understand why Bloom, in Ulysses, lets his wife commit adultery with Boylan; but we gather that after this leading question he offered his own answer, hoping it would irritate the great man into a correction, which shows he understood interviewers’ technique. Joyce said: ‘You see an undercurrent of homosexuality in Bloom as well as his loneliness as a Jew who finds no warmth of fellowship either among Jews or Gentiles, and I think you are right. But there is another aspect of the matter you have missed.’ And he went on to claim that the only reason why his play Exiles wasn’t acted in Paris in 1921 was that Le Cocu Magnifique by Crommelynck somehow ‘took the wind out of the sails of Exiles. The jealousy motive is the same in kind in both cases. The only difference is that in my play the people act with a certain reserve, whereas in Crommelynck’s play the hero, to mention only one person, acts like a madman.’ Crommelynck’s is in the British Museum Library, and I would like to offer a report on it as it seems little known among readers of Joyce and strongly supports my previous opinion, which no other writer yet supports, about the fundamental topic of Ulysses.

I was very startled to find the play so good, packed with poetry and deep thoughts and simple pathos all through the startling turns of its plot. The title calls it a farce, and I first ignorantly thought that it was regarded rather like a contemporary Aldwych farce: but the French reference book treats Crommelynck’s work with just though brief respect, and lists that Le Cocu was reviewed by Paul Morand in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1921, its first year. It is thus not quite true that the beautiful innocence of the quarrelsome mind of Joyce, his complete lack of snobbery when confronted with literary merit, saved him from getting cross about his failure at this point. The devoted efforts of M. Léon to get Exiles performed for a small audience would have been helped, not hurt, by having a very successful play already illustrating the same theme: the real reason why Exiles could not be performed must have been that it is too sickly, or solipsistic (as Mr Harry Levin said), or afraid of expressing sentiment, or simply afraid of letting the audience know that the author has advanced moral ideas; Joyce was trying to run before he could walk. But as he had gone on to handle the subject grandly in Ulysses he was right to look back on the failure of his play generous-mindedly – with his interest in the theme, not the personalities. It was true as well as comforting to realise that Le Cocu happened to be doing the same thing better. What is more, I think it shows up the modern exasperated farce of Beckett, Ionescu etc as too mean-minded to fit the emotional requirements of their audience.

Still, Joyce would have been misleading in this casual intimate reply if he had meant to jump away from Budgen’s suggestion of homosexuality and imply that there is none in Le Cocu. He had come, I think, rather to enjoy the game of misdirection in chat about Ulysses, but was genuinely not doing it here (one feels sure because he jumps instead to his excuse for his play). It is clear from the notes planning Exiles that he considered that the most usual and upsetting result of the love of one man for another is his desire to share his woman with his friend. This is plainly the topic of Exiles, Ulysses and Le Cocu Magnifique, except that Le Cocu only approaches it in the first act, and in the next two has become mad to escape from understanding his own feelings. The ecstatic happiness of the young couple, the absolute reliability of the wife, shown by her refusal of three offers, only further built up by a trick played on the audience (when the husband first returns), in that they pretend to be lovers with the husband away, thus achieving the greatest possible sexual happiness, seems naturally to explode when the old friend comes to stay (off his ship, with no woman) into Bruno telling his wife to pull up her clothes and show his friend how wonderful she is. Suddenly he knocks his friend about; and then he hugs his friend, and begs him to forgive him and leave with no more bother; then he falls into despair because he cannot find out who the man is whom he is really jealous of. Such is the superb end of the first act, and one may agree that a play which went on to show how he really did try to share his wife with his friend would be of greater interest: but the audience would not have stood it, as Joyce realised quite as well as Crommelynck.

In the second and third acts Bruno is mad, first locking up his wife, then driving her to have sex with all the young men in the neighbourhood till a delegation of infuriated women has to be led to the house by the Burgomaster. With insane cunning, he continues to refuse to believe that she ever does have sex with any of them: this is driven home when he pauses in a harangue to wonder, with the pathetic simplicity which we English so often find impressive in 17th-century playwrights and which is here echoed by the absolute devotion of his wife, what his wife can find to say to all these men so that they emerge satisfied after she has retired to the bedroom with them. She cannot possibly satisfy them, have sex with them, because the real adulterer is precisely the one who dare not come: but if this goes on long enough Bruno will outwit the adulterer. Obviously she is only trying to hide her real secret from him, and his whole purpose is to obtain vengeance on the genuine lover, who never comes. The actual return of his friend, forced to the bedroom with her to prove he is like all the others, and happening to emerge before an indignant delegation, makes Bruno very happy because it is triumphant proof that this one was not the adulterer: but his feelings about his friend get rather swamped in the play because the effects of his lunacy are raging forward.

This is an extremely clear-cut treatment, meant to be as obvious to the audience as it was to the author, of the husband who first acts on an impulse to share his wife with his friend and then becomes so horrified (because he has started down a forbidden path) that he welcomes any disastrous public lunacy whatever so long as it enables him to hide from himself his first intention. If this was as far as Joyce himself felt he could go, in a stage discussion of this aspect of marriage, he was quite right to say that the farce had done it better. I should think he looked at it like that: the most charming thing we learn about Joyce from brother Stanislaus’s book is that he spent the money earned by his article on Ibsen in the Fortnightly Review, at the age of 18, on taking his father to London for a week, with ample bother about saving father from his drunken quarrels over the Boer War, and returned saying that ‘poetry isn’t a criticism of life, the music halls are.’ As I say, I do not understand whether Paris took Le Cocu Magnifique seriously or not: but I do myself, and feel sure that Joyce did too, so that he wasn’t playing a trick on Budgen.

In fact, the ideas that Joyce had been boggling over, in the secret notes to Exiles ten years before, come out wonderfully big and simple in Le Cocu, and the development of the beautiful character of the wife is better than Joyce could ever have invented. The play is not exactly a tragedy: she finally allows herself to be carried off by the coarse herdsman who made the first insinuations to her, and her decaying husband brings down the curtain triumphantly by reflecting: ‘That wasn’t the man she really wanted.’ He means he has somehow defeated her, in spite of the terrible cleverness which he has imputed to her since he first almost offered her to his friend. You must betray me, says Bruno, or my doubt can never be relieved; I will not accept your offer to die before I know your secret; whether you will die afterwards, I will decide then; Je te veux impure et moi déshonoré! Joyce gives just this sentiment to his hero in Exiles: ‘I have always spoken of my guilt, and you of your purity, dishonouring me.’

Of course Proust also uses the idea that a man feels all right so long as he is not left in doubt, but all this was commonplace before he had published. What must seem wildly noble about the character of the wife, who is drawn as totally simple and unworldly (except in the odd initial detail that she, too, is excited by receiving back her husband with the pretence that they are illicit lovers), is that she accepts the degradation of sex with all the men who come, each paying her husband 20 sous to write her a love letter, because she believes this is the only way to handle his madness and win him back. The effect is that she cannot bear the procedure when he at last pretends to be one of them himself, and we must presume she sees through the disguise: Pas cela, pas aver toi, avec toi qui m’ aimes!!! C’ est affreux! But already a terrible change has been going on in her mind: I submitted to my degradation, she says, with patience and humility, my soul is as white as a swan – but at last: J’ ai voulu trop bien faire, et je n’ aime plus Bruno, et me voilà damnée! The cries of Bruno at crucial points have just the same ringing quality. We see him in fatuous contentment, though the stage directions insist that he must look ageing and ill, saying, Stella m’ aime aujourd’ hui d’ un amour qui enflamme trente villages, and yet there is a first cry before the final scene: Je veux être cocu, mais pas autant! ... Stella, je me trouve assez cocu – a firm statement that he had wanted what his madness believes never to have happened; and then the final joke, after she has accepted him – as he absurdly believes – without realising that he is her husband (the audience has been made to realise it through a rather long pathetic scene): Je suis cocu autant qu’ on peut l’être.

It is a merciful play: she announces to the audience, from the inherently mysterious source of the feelings which have carried her buoyantly through so much ill-treatment, that she has suddenly stopped loving her husband; and when the herdsman carries off Stella, Bruno brings down the curtain with an equally mysterious satisfaction. I suppose most of the audience regarded it simply as a warning against jealousy, so far as it was anything more than a very well-built-up farce. What it does not do is even to insinuate that the wife might have gone to bed with the friend without going to bed with all the young men of thirty villages too, and indeed without the sudden innocent surprise of discovering that she had ceased to love her husband. But as Joyce only wanted to treat the subject as a problem, feeling he could not commit himself, though he wanted to insinuate advanced ideas, he was brave and truthful to admit that the successful farce had beaten him all along the line.