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Now best known for opera librettico-authored with Michel Carré, like Gounod's Faust or Thomas' Mignon, (Paul-) Jules Barbier (1825-1901) made his debut in legitimate theater. His play in verse for the Comédie-Française, Un Poète (1847) - which includes American characters and reference to slavery - was awarded a prize by the Académie Française. In the 1860s he penned several five-act dramas for the Ambigu-Comique, where Cora, ou l'esclavage had its premiere on August 21, 1861 , virtually coincident with the beginning of the American Civil War. Presented as a contemporary story, it attracted wide attention. Georges Bizet's comments catch the enthusiasm of the audience response: "Je suis sorti du théâtre profondément ému, et c'est de cette émotion que je viens vous remercier. Si la grotesque organisation sociale à laquelle nous sommes soumis pouvait nous faire oublier que nous avons du coeur, il suffirait de quelques oeuvres comme la vôtre pous nous le rappeler. J'ai donc pour votre drame mieux que de l'admiration, j'ai de la reconnaissance" (Dossier d'artiste, Jules Barbier, Bibliothèque de l'Opéra [F-Po]).
Barbara T. Cooper, a specialist in nineteenth-century French drama and Alexandre [End Page 348] Dumas, père, has rescued Barbier's Cora, ou l'esclavage from oblivion with her recent critical edition (and several scholarly articles). She makes an excellent case for reading the play now, although she acknowledges its style is old-fashioned, its plot contrived and almost all the characters stereotyped. In these days of galloping digitization, high quality critical apparatus like hers is crucial to justifying editions of this sort.
Making use of Barbier's papers (F-Po), Cooper discusses his references to travellers' commentaries, sociopolitical studies and scientific publications on slavery and race that grounded his drama in geographical, sociological and legal details for a public already familiar with Uncle Tom's Cabin. She also surveys Barbier's earlier manuscript drafts that reveal the work's genesis. Comments on Cora's initial reception appear to be based on only about a dozen of the numerous critics of that time, but excerpts of their reviews are partially reproduced in appendices. A fascinating selected bibliography of books and articles on slavery, theater, America and the press from the midnineteenth century as well as relevant modern critical sources follows the introduction. A useful addition here might be Mary Jean Speare's doctoral dissertation, The Transformation of Opéra Comique 1850-1880 (Washington University at Saint Louis, 1997), with its biographical essay on Barbier and an extended analysis of his collaboration with Michel Carré.
Barbier's drama opens at a ball in Paris. There the beautiful, innocent, refined and fair-skinned heroine, Cora Gérard, attracts the gaze of the hero, the young French engineer Georges Bessières. Raised in France at her father's expense, she is unaware that she is part black and that her mother was a slave. She is also ignorant that she would be legally defined as property should she ever return to Louisiana. In this prelude, Cora is admired and courted. She finds out that her father, in financial straits, has also been injured and decides to go home, where during the next four acts she is ostracized and insulted, and eventually sold as a slave because of her father's insolvency. Georges abhors both slavery and racism. He believes that technology will provide the way to replace slave labor, just as it has revolutionized the lives of French peasants. He, too, travels to Louisiana. Barbier shows the evils of slavery without scenes of overt violence and without obviously black characters. He foregrounds the civilizing influence of French humanitarian ideals (particularly in the ironic comments of French-educated Curtiss, an American business partner of plantation owner Williams Johnson) and contrasts these with the racism and heartless mercantilism of the evil Kraig (another plantation owner) and the lustful Johnson. After many twists and turns, Cora's father is freed from crushing debt...