It seems like the majority of nineteenth-century French novels, at least the ones set in society, include a scene of two at the theatre (or opera). Le Père Goriot, La Dame aux Camélias, Le Rouge et le Noir, Madame Bovary, and many more. But it’s rarely the play that anyone is going to see– it's the other members of the audience, particularly the goings-on in the boxes, where the subtle play consists of what everyone is wearing, who is visiting with whom, and who is no longer talking to whom is the real show. The drama onstage hasn’t got much of a chance.
True, some male audience members (those in Nana or Les Illusions perdues) are watching what is going on onstage, but that is usually because he has or wishes to have a liaison with one of the actresses, singers, or ballerinas, not because of any innate interest in the performance or the play.
Zola’s La Curée is a big exception. There. two specific stage performances are described and reflect the changing moods of the heroine Renée, who has entered into a wild semi-incestuous affair with her stepson Maxime.
The first is Offenbach’s operetta La Belle Hélène, a big hit by that favored composer of the Second Empire. The operetta is a saucy retelling of the rape of Helen and was a giant success for the sexy (and notorious) female star, Blanche Muller (who serves as a model for Zola’s Nana). The story casts ancient myth as a Parisian adulterous adventure. Helen cuckolds the foolish Menelaus with the younger Paris, and runs away with him to Troy.
Renée is so taken with this operetta that she butchers the score on the piano, trying to imitate the raspy voice and the wiggling hips of the star (“cherchait à retrouver la voix rauque et les déhanchements de Blanche Muller.”) Maxime joins in the fun, imitating the actors. Their affair is at its height, carefree and spirited.
The second play is Racine’s Phèdre, performed by the Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori, the toast of Italy and France. The play is the tragic counterpart of La Belle Hélène, also a take on adultery in ancient Greece. But it cuts closer to Renée’s situation, where Phaedra’s desire for an adulterous liaison with her stepson Hippolytus, ends in both their deaths.
And the performance by the tragedienne moves her to the depths.
elle emplissait la salle d’un tel cri de passion fauve, d’un tel besoin de volupté surhumaine que la jeune femme sentait passer sur sa chair chaque frisson de son désir et de ses remords.Not so Maxime, who mcoks Ristori ad just a big puppet, who hitched up her tunic and wags her tongue to the public just like Blanche Muller in La Belle Hélène. He sees the tragedy as a farce.
(She [Ristori] filled the hall with such a cry of wild passion, such a need for superhuman pleasure that the young woman felt each shiver of desire and remorse passing through her flesh.)
Renée sees the tragic potential of her own situation. a harbinger of the end of her affair with Maxime. As she becomes more desperate and the affair becomes more fraught, Maxime withdraws from her increasingly desperate embrace.
It is typical of Zola that the end of the novel and the end of the affair is neither tragic nor comic. Unlike Phèdre. Renée does not poison herself after a confession of guilt. (She tried – unsuccessfully – to poison herself out of sheer boredom earlier in the novel.) In fact, her husband. Saccard seems to deliberately ignore the affair even when the evidence is in front of his nose. Maxime does not perish either – he gets married to a hunchback heiress, inherits when she dies on their honeymoon, and reconciles himself with his father. Renée fades away, abandoned.
The next winter, we are told very abruptly at the end of the novel, Renée died from acute meningitis “Renée mourut d’une méningite aiguë” She dies with neither a tragic or comic denouement.