Written by Graham Billing, co-director of La Belle Hélène.
Last time I set down some thoughts about the way in which Offenbach and his two script-writers Meilhac and Halévy turned serious figures from Greek mythology into comic characters in La Belle Hélène. This time I’m going to continue with this theme and discuss the operetta’s central love interest.
In France in the nineteenth century farce was coming more and more to the fore – farce being the type of comedy in which one false move early on plunges the characters into a situation over which they have less and less control and which forces them to try and keep one step ahead of the game by allowing themselves to be more and more humiliated.
Not surprisingly, the situations in question often involve extra-marital love affairs. The classic comedy plot, which goes back to the Romans, if not further, sees a young and passionate woman married, usually against her will or at any rate with no great enthusiasm, to an unsuitable husband who is old or daft or both and cannot satisfy her between the sheets. A younger, more intelligent and definitely more virile partner is bound to turn up and adultery is on the point of being committed when the two participants are obliged to go into hiding or on the run by the unexpected reappearance of the husband. Actually, it may be the girl’s father, or the boy’s father, or even the boy’s wife, but it’s always someone against whom the naughty couple have offended and whose wrath they need to flee.
Most people know that one of the key Greek sagas concerns the Trojan War, started by the Greeks to avenge the fact that their Princess Helen was abducted from her husband Menelaus by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. What the script of La Belle Hélène does is to fuse this saga with the archetypal French farce, making Paris into a suave and irresistible seducer, Helen into a woman who is about to explode with sexual frustration and Menelaus into a timid and dithery buffoon. Albert Brasseur, who played the role in the 1899 revival, looks the part to perfection!