Friday, September 11, 2020

Topaze by Marcel Pagnol

Fernandel as Topaze
“It is exactly like the story of my mother's chimpanzee. When she bought, him he was skinny, he stank of misery, but I have never seen such a loving monkey. We gave him coconuts, we fed him bananas, he became as strong as a Turk, he slapped the maid. We had to call the fire department ... "

It was this funny quote, remembered by my dear father, that brought Topaze, this hundred-year old theatre piece written by Marcel Pagnol to my attention. Pagnol is of course no stranger for whoever has benefitted from an education at a French “college”. Especially his biographical novels, like La Gloire de mon père, Le château de ma mère and le temp des secrets were recommended novels for generations of young readers. Pagnol, a member of the French academy, was very famous in his time, not only as a writer, but also as a scenarist and moviemaker. 

Topaze was written in 1928 and an immediate and lasting success as soon as it hit the stage. Even today, the play is very entertaining and has barely aged. It tells the story of Topaze, a naïve and gentle teacher working in a school in a Paris suburb. Everybody, we soon notice, fellow teachers and pupils alike take advantage of this gentle person. Topaz in his unworldly simple-mindedness is unfit for the foul and corrupt world of the big city. When he refuses to falsify the school results of a rich dunce and he has a misunderstanding with the daughter of the school director, he is kicked out without any ado.

The unfortunate Topaze however is not long without a job. One of the students’ mother has noticed the childlike innocence and naivety of the teacher and decides to present him to her lover, a corrupt politician. Involved in many questionable business enterprises, this unscrupulous wheeler-dealer is in search of a straw man to shield himself from too much public attention. Topaze just fits the profile and is hired on the spot. His salary is doubled, his attire gets a make-over and his new business card mentions ‘Director’.

But the shrewd politician might have underestimated Topaz. Because this excellent teacher turns out to be a fast learner too…

An entertaining and funny read.