Jacques Offenbach's operetta La belle Hélène was adapted into English by A. P. Herbert (1890-1971) for production in London in 1932.1 This paper situates the production of Helen in terms of Herbert's thought and the stage practices at the time, and suggests that, however indirectly, the femme fatale of Greek literature has helped changed the nature of marriage in modern English Common Law. While the play could be approached within a rubric of adaptation and translation theory, instead it is hoped that by situating it here within its historical context, the unexpected resonances with Herbert's advocacy for social change will bring new light to this forgotten work that describes the abduction of Helen from Menelaus by Paris, thereby inaugurating the Trojan War.
Herbert enjoyed a diverse career, even serving as Member of Parliament for the University of Oxford from 1935 to 1950, when the university ceased to be a constituency; he was knighted in 1945. He was one of Britain's leading humourists, writing novels, plays, and satirical political columns for Punch. His most famous work was a series of comic essays that pointed out the absurdities of British law, Misleading Cases in the Common Law (1927) and its four sequels. Among his novels, his account of the First World War, The Secret Battle (1919) drew on his own experience as a soldier in Gallipoli in 1915 and led to changes in the Court Martial procedure in Britain. His novel Holy Deadlock (1934) led to changes in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937 to allow divorce without first requiring proof of adultery.2 And it is this interest in adultery and its consequences, perhaps, that led him to adapt into English Offenbach's operetta La belle Hélène, script by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, whom Herbert called "those skilled and mischievous librettists" (Herbert, A. P. H. 97).3 Though Helen could later be modestly described as a treatment of the age-old problem, "How to reconcile Homer and 'show-girls'" (ibid. 99), I believe the play is rightly seen in terms of Herbert's public advocacy concerning divorce. [End Page 44]
Offenbach's original operetta is set before the Trojan War, and had enjoyed an unprecedented run in the 1860s. Revivals on the Continent provided inspiration for the eventual London director, C. B. Cochran, who sold "some of his Toulouse-Lautrecs to provide necessary cash" (Pound, Biography 109, cf. Herbert A. P. H. 97) and took Herbert to see Max Reinhardt's production that was running in Berlin, and then to Salzburg to meet with Reinhardt himself. Cochran was arguably Britain's foremost director of musical comedies at the time: immediately before Helen, he had directed Noël Coward's Private Lives (1930) and Cavalcade (1931), and his first show after Helen was Coward's Words and Music (1932; performed, like Helen, at London's Royal Adelphi Theatre); Cochran also worked with Cole Porter, producing Anything Goes (1935). Reinhardt consulted with Cochran during rehearsals (Biography 110), and supported Herbert's intention to write a third act for the operetta, set after the ten-year conflict. Cochran calls this decision "a special audacity" (Herbert, Helen 7); Herbert "my audacious plan" (A. P. H. 98).
The division of responsibilities of Herbert's adaptation was clear: the artistic vision was Cochran's, though Reinhardt was brought in to direct, at least in the final weeks of initial rehearsal in mid-December. As Herbert described it, "Reinhardt was to produce, and his E. W. Korngold [the composer] was to contribute his musical arrangements: but, granting all that was due to them, Helen was the artistic creation of C. B. [Cochran] and nobody else" (A. P. H. 99). Herbert recalls twelve-hour rehearsals going through the night with Reinhardt, as the German director worked small scenes meticulously (ibid. 103). Reinhardt was very fond of musical comedy, since he felt that it taxed the resources of the modern theatre so much more than any other genre (ibid. 78).
This was not the first time that Offenbach's operetta La belle Hél...