Home > 19th Century, French Literature, Highly Recommended, Mirbeau Octave, Theatre > Business Is Business by Octave Mirbeau

Business Is Business by Octave Mirbeau

Business is Business by Octave Mirbeau (1903) French title: Les affaires sont les affaires

Mirbeau_AffairesBusiness Is Business is a play by Octave Mirbeau. It’s French and dates back to 1903 but unfortunately, it’s still relevant more than a century later.

We’re in a chateau in the suburb of Paris, probably in the West, in a property that now belongs to Isidore Lechat. It’s called Vauperdu and was allegedly built under Louis XIV. Isidore Lechat is a businessman and a parvenu. He has a knack for business, doesn’t shy away from playing dirty to achieve his goals. He’s formidable and vulgar, intelligent but whimsical. He has that business acumen that some people have; they’re able to get what will work, will be trendy, will make him money. His net worth is 50 million of francs.

The play opens in the gardens of the chateau. Madame Lechat is sitting outside with her daughter Germaine. It’s 6pm, they’re waiting for Isidore to come back from his business day in Paris. Madame Lechat is anxious because her husband always brings home unexpected guests. She wonders if she’ll have enough to serve a proper diner. From Germaine’s replies and comments, the spectator quickly understands that she despises her father’s money and especially the way he earnt it.

Isidore is a ruthless businessman, earning money is his goal, even if it means bulldozing people. He’s unstoppable when he wants something. He despises culture and intellectuals. He’s friends with politicians. He bought a newspaper. And now he wants to go into politics and be elected as a député. (MP) Does that ring a bell? He’s been to prison, went bankrupt and recovered. He seems to fall back on his feet each time and to have seven lives, like a cat. Perhaps that’s why he’s named Lechat (The Cat). He’s restless and greedy. He wants more every day.

Mirbeau_LechatOf course, it’s hard to see Isidore Lechat and not think about Donald Trump, Berlusconi or Bernard Tapie if you’re French. He’s also a theatre soul mate of Zola’s Aristide Saccard, the main character of La Curée.

The play revolves around Isidore and he’s taught a lesson about the cost of his business choices on his family. He’s proud of his son Xavier, who lives the happy life of a rich heir, mingling with people at the Jockey Club. (This is a very elitist club in Paris. In Proust, Swann is a member of this club) Isidore is new money who’d like to slip into old money’s shoes. But it’s not so easy. He wants to destroy the aristocracy and yet copies their customs. One of his aristocratic neighbors makes fun of him and tells him money is not enough, there’s a spirit to it, that he should invent new customs instead of mimicking the aristocrats. He doesn’t know what to do with Germaine who recoils from him; he’d love to marry her to an aristocrat but it’s not in the cards.

Madame Lechat comes from the same background. She knows all his flaws but supports him. She doesn’t have a conscience either and doesn’t share her daughter’s reservations about the means used to get this rich. When she complains that she never knows whether she needs to organize a diner, Germaine points out that she’d better consider that she’ll have guests and be ready every night. Madame Lechat argues that Isidore might come back alone and then, what about the food? When Germaine replies that she can always give the food away to the poor, Madame Lechat is offended. You don’t feed the poor with chicken. This exchange is representative of the Lechat couple. They’re both greedy and have absolutely no compassion for the poor. They’d rather chase them away. They reminded me of these bourgeois in the 16th arrondissement of Paris (the richest one) who are currently signing petitions against the foundation of a shelter for homeless people in their neighborhood. Their shocking lack of humanity was all over the papers. What a shame. They should be grateful for their circumstances and give back to the less fortunate.

There are fascinating exchanges about money, about getting rich and live with all this money. Mirbeau depicts a despicable character in Isidore but remains fair on two levels, his genuine love for his children and the fact that his wealth attracts all kinds of crooks who attempt to take advantage of him. Madame Lechat says she feels that she doesn’t belong in this mansion. She doesn’t feel at home but on holiday, in a property that belongs to someone else.

There’s a lot to chew over in this play. It’s disgruntling to know who Isidore looks like. He’s one of these businessmen who flirt with illegality to get ahead but have such charisma that people like them anyway. He’s one of these politicians who get reelected time and again even if their character is doubtful or if they had trouble with the law. Yes, Mirbeau drew a very believable tale and nailed a type of character that still exists today.

Mirbeau_DecorThe play was directed by Claudia Stavisky who did an amazing job. The actors were excellent and physically matched their characters. Madame Lechat was played by Marie Bunel, a classic blonde beauty. François Marthouret was a fantastic Isidore Lechat with his moustache and his loquacity. The clothes of the actors displayed their social status. The smarmy business men in their suits with their hair slicked back on their head. The aristocrats with classic clothes that scream old money and old values. Isidore’s outfit that tells “I’m expensive” but lacks class. The décor was well chosen, with high French doors to picture an old building and allowed scenes indoors and outdoors.

This was my first Mirbeau; now I’m curious about his Journal d’une femme de chambre. (Journal of a Chambermaid)

Highly recommended.

PS: I think the cover of the play is not good. Indeed, the man on the picture is Count Robert de Montesquiou, who was the inspiration for Charlus is In Search of Lost Time. This man was a dandy, elegant, cultivated and gay. Nothing to do with Isidore Lechat.

  1. March 20, 2016 at 10:52 am

    it’s fascinating (and quite sad) how something like this remains all too relevant today. I couldn’t help but think of Berlusconi as I was reading your billet, plus Donald Trump of course. It sounds like a very timely production.

    Like

    • March 20, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      It was fascinating to see Isidore and think of real life counterparts.
      The text is punchy and Isidore makes you gasp with his bold and rude assertions.
      It aged well.

      Like

  2. March 21, 2016 at 5:53 am

    This sounds great. I’ve seen two film versions of Diary of a Chambermaid. Both excellent and well work catching although I prefer the Bunuel version which is, IMO, more subversive. I also have the book version here unread…

    Like

    • March 22, 2016 at 9:29 pm

      I’d like to read the book, really. I expect subversive…

      Like

  3. March 22, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    You have such an impressive theater in Lyon. What a treat to see this play.

    Like

    • March 22, 2016 at 9:31 pm

      It’s the theatre you saw in Lyon. At the moment, the plazza is gorgeous because the trees are in flower. (magnolias and something else)
      There still are a lot a theatres in France and it’s a chance for us.

      Like

  4. March 24, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    I thought for one moment that I didn’t own this–but I do. It’s in a double edition similar to yours. Good thing too as I was going to HAVE to get this.

    Like

    • April 9, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Have fun reading it and try to put Isidore’s words into a living person’s mouth. It’s funny but it’s a bit black-humour funny.

      Like

  1. January 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm

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