Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


a synopsis and analysis of the play by Eugène Brieux

The following essay on Damaged Goods was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 147-60.

IN the preface to the English edition of Damaged Goods, George Bernard Shaw relates a story concerning Lord Melbourne, in the early days of Queen Victoria. When the cabinet meeting threatened to break up in confusion, Lord Melbourne put his back to the door and said: "Gentlemen, we can tell the house the truth or we can tell a lie. I don't give a damn which it is. All I insist on is that we shall all tell the same lie, and you shall not leave the room until you have settled what it is to be."

This seems to characterize the position of our middle-class morality today. Whether a thing be right or wrong, we are all to express the same opinion on the subject. All must agree on the same lie, and the lie upon which all agree, more than on any other, is the lie of purity, which must be kept up at all costs.

How slow our moralists move is best proved by the fact that although the great scientist Neisser had discovered, as far back as 1879, that supposedly insignificant venereal afflictions are due to a malignant micro-organism often disastrous not only to the immediate victim, but also to those who come in touch with him, the subject is still [as of Brieux's day] largely tabooed and must not be discussed.

To be sure, there is a small contingent of men and whomen who realize the necessity of a frank discussion of the very important matter of venereal disease. But unfortunately they are attempting to drive out the devil with the fire. They are enlightening the public as to the gravity of gonorrhea and syphilis, but are implanting an evil by no means less harmful, namely, the element of fear. The result often is that the victims who contract an infection are as little capable of taking care of themselves now as in the past when they knew little about the subject.

Brieux is among the few [of his day] who [treated] the question in a frank manner, showing that the most dangerous phase of venereal disease is ignorance and fear, and that if treated openly and intelligently, it is perfectly curable. Brieux also emphasizes the importance of kindness and consideration for those who contract the affliction, since it has nothing to do with what is commonly called evil, immorality, or impurity.

Therein lies the superiority of Damaged Goods to most scientific treatises. Without lacking logic and clarity, it has greater humanity and warmth.

But Damaged Goods contains more than an exposé of venereal disease. It touches upon the whole of our social life. It points out the cold-blooded indifference of the rich toward those who do not belong to their class, to the poor, the workers, the disinherited whom they sacrifice without the slightest compunction on the altar of their own comforts. Moreover, the play also treats of the contemptible attitude towards love not backed by property or legal sanction. In short, it uncovers and exposes not only sexual disease but that which is even more terrible -- our social disease, our social syphilis.

George Dupont, the son of wealthy people, is informed by a specialist that he has contracted a venereal disease of a most serious nature; but that with patience and time he will be cured. Dupont is crushed by the news, and decides to blow out his brains. His only regret is that he cannot in the least account for his trouble.

GEORGE: I'm not a rake, Doctor. My life might be held up as an example to all young men. I assure you, no one could possibly be more prudent, no one. See here; supposing I told you that in all my life I have only had two mistresses, what would you say to that?
DOCTOR: That would have been enough to bring you here.
GEORGE: No, Doctor. Not one of those two. No one in the world has dreaded this so much as I have; no one has taken such infinite precautions to avoid it. My first mistress was the wife of my best friend. I chose her on account of him; and him, not because I cared most for him, but because I knew he was a man of the most rigid morals, who watched his wife jealously and didn't let her go about forming imprudent connections. As for her, I kept her in absolute terror of this disease. I told her that almost all men were taken with it, so that she mightn't dream of being false to me. My friend died in my arms. That was the only thing that could have separated me from her. Then I took up with a young seamstress.... Well, this was a decent girl with a family in needy circumstances to support. Her grandmother was an invalid, and there was an ailing father and three little brothers. It was by my means that they all lived.... I told her and I let the others know that if she played me false I should leave her at once. So then they all watched her for me. It became regular thing that I should spend Sunday with them, and in that sort of way I was able to give her a lift up. Church-going was a respectable kind of outing for her. I rented a pew for them and her mother used to go with her to church; they liked seeing their name engraved on the card. She never left the house alone. Three months ago, when the question of my marriage came up, I had to leave her.
DOCTOR: You were very happy, why did you want to change?
GEORGE: I wanted to settle down. My father was a notary, and before his death he expressed a wish that I should marry my cousin. It was a good match; her dowry will help to get me a practice. Besides, I simply adore her. She's fond of me, too. I had everything one could want to make my life happy. And then a lot of idiots must give me a farewell dinner and make me gad about with them. See what has come of it! I haven't any luck, I've never had any luck! I know fellows who lead the most racketty life: nothing happens to them, the beasts! But I -- for a wretched lark -- what is there left for a leper like me? My future is ruined, my whole life poisoned. Well then, isn't it better for me to clear out of it? Anyway, I shan't suffer any more. You see now, no one could be more wretched than I am.

The doctor explains to him that there is no need for despair, but that he must postpone his marriage if he does not wish to ruin his wife and possibly make her sterile for life. It is imperative especially because of the offspring, which is certain to be syphilitic.

DOCTOR: Twenty cases identical with yours have been carefully observed -- from the beginning to the end. Nineteen times -- you hear, nineteen times in twenty -- the woman was contaminated by her husband. You think that the danger is negligible: you think you have the right to let your wife take her chance, as you said, of being one of the exceptions for which we can do nothing! Very well then; then you shall know what you are doing. You shall know what sort of a disease it is that your wife will have five chances per cent. of contracting without so much as having her leave asked.... But there is not only your wife -- there are her children, your children, whom you may contaminate, too. It is in the name of those innocent little ones that I appeal to you; it is the future of the race that I am defending.

But George Dupont will not postpone the marriage for several years. He would have to give an explanation, break his word, and lose his inheritance -- things infinitely more important than any consideration for the girl he "adores" or for their children, should they have any. In short, he is actuated by the morality of the bourgeoisie: the silly conception of honor, the dread of public opinion and, above all, the greed for property.

The second act is laid at the home of George Dupont. George and his wife Henriette are childishly happy, except for the regret that their marriage could not have taken place six months earlier because poor George had been declared consumptive. How stupid of the doctors to suspect the healthy strong George Dupont of consumption! But, then, "all doctors are stupid." But now that they are together, nothing shall part them in their great happiness, and especially in their great love for their baby. True, a little could obscures their sunny horizon. The baby is not very strong; but with the care and devotion of the grandmother, out in the country air, it is sure to recover.

The grandmother unexpectedly arrives, announcing that she has brought the baby back to town: it is very ill and she has consulted a specialist who has promised to come at once to examine the child. Presently the doctor arrives. He insists that the wet nurse be dismissed immediately, as the child would infect her and she in return would infect her own husband and baby. Madame Dupont is scandalized. What, leave her precious grand-child! Rob him of the milk he needs!

MME. DUPONT: If there is one way to save its life, it is to give it every possible attention, and you want me to treat it in a way that you doctors condemn even for healthy children. You think I will let her die like that! Oh, I shall take good care she does not! Neglect the one single thing that can save her! It would be criminal! As for the nurse, we will indemnify her. We will do everything in our power, everything but that.
DOCTOR: This is not the first time I have found myself in this situation, and I must begin by telling you that parents who have refused to be guided by my advice have invariably repented of it most bitterly.... You propose to profit by her ignorance and her poverty. Besides, she could obtain the assistance of the court.... You can convince yourself. In one or two cases the parents have been ordered to pay a yearly pension to the nurse; in the others sums of money varying from three to eight thousand francs.
MME. DUPONT: If we had to fight an action, we should retain the very best lawyer on our side. Thank heaven we are rich enough. No doubt he would make it appear doubtful whether the child hadn't caught this disease from the nurse, rather than the nurse from the child.

Indeed, what matters a peasant woman! They are so numerous. In vain the doctor tries to convince Mme. Dupont that it is not a question of money. It is a question of humanity, of decency; he would not and could not be a party to such a crime.

After the doctor leaves to examine the child, Mme. Dupont and her worthy son clinch the bargain with the unsuspecting and ignorant servant. They tell her that the baby has a cold which it might communicate to her. The poor peasant girl had lived in the cold all her life, and as she justly says: "We of the country are not as delicate as the Parisian ladies." She realizes that a thousand francs would mean a great fortune to her, and that it would help her people to pay the mortgage and become independent. She consents to stay and signs away her health.

The doctor returns with the dreaded news that the child has congenital syphilis. He informs them that with care and patience the child might be cured, but that it will have to be put on bottle milk, because otherwise it would be disastrous to the nurse. When he is told that the nurse has consented to remain, he grows indignant, declaring:

"You must not ask me to sacrifice the health of a young and strong woman to that of a sickly infant. I will be no party to giving this woman a disease that would embitter the lives of her whole family, and almost certainly render her sterile. Besides, I cannot even do it from a legal standpoint.... If you do not consent to have the child fed by hand, I shall either speak to the nurse or give up the case."

But there is no need for the doctor to interfere. Fortunately for the servant, she discovers the miserable transaction. She learns from the butler the real condition of the child, and announces to the Duponts that she must refuse to stay. "I know your brat is going to live. I know it's rotten through and through because its father's got a beastly disease that he caught from some woman of the streets."

At this terrible moment the unsuspecting, light-headed and light-hearted mother, Henriette, arrives. She overhears the horrible news and falls screaming to the floor.

The last act takes place in the hospital -- the refuge of the unfortunate victims of poverty, ignorance and false morality. M. Loche, the Deputy, is announced. The doctor is overjoyed because he believes that the representative of the people comes to inform himself of the causes of the widespread misery. But he is mistaken. M. Loche is the father-in-law of George Dupont. He wants to secure the signature of the doctor as evidence in the divorce sought by his daughter.

DOCTOR: I regret that I am unable to furnish you with such a certificate.... The rule of professional secrecy is absolute. And I may add that even were I free, I should refuse your request. I should regret having helped you to obtain a divorce. It would be in your daughter's own interest that I should refuse. You ask me for a certificate in order to prove to the court that your son-in-law has contracted syphilis? You do not consider that in doing so you will publicly acknowledge that your daughter has been exposed to the infection. Do you suppose that after that your daughter is likely to find a second husband?... Do you think that this poor little thing has not been unlucky enough in her start in life? She has been blighted physically. You wish besides to stamp her with the legal proof of congenital syphilis.
LOCHE: Then what am I to do?
DOCTOR: Forgive.... When the marriage was proposed you doubtless made inquiries concerning your future son-in-law's income; you investigated his securities; you satisfied yourself as to his character. You only omitted one point, but it was the most important of all: you made no inquiries concerning his health.
LOCHE: No, I did not do that. It is not the custom.... I think a law should be passed.
DOCTOR: No, no! We want no new laws. There are too many already. All that is needed is for people to understand the nature of this disease rather better. It would soon become the custom for a man who proposed for a girl's hand to add to the other things for which he is asked a medical statement of bodily fitness, which would make it certain that he did not bring this plague into the family with him.... Well, there is one last argument which, since I must, I will put to you. Are you yourself without sin, that you are so relentless to others?
LOCHE: I have never had any shameful disease, sir.
DOCTOR: I was not asking you that. I was asking you if you had never exposed yourself to catching one. Ah, you see! Then it is not virtue that has saved you; it is luck. Few things exasperate me more than that term "shameful disease," which you used just now. This disease is like all other diseases: it is one of our afflictions. There is no shame in being wretched -- even if one deserves to be so. Come, come, let us have a little plain speaking! I should like to know how many of these rigid moralists, who are so shocked with their middle-class prudery, that they dare not mention the name syphilis, or when they bring themselves to speak of it do so with expressions of every sort of disgust, and treat its victims as criminals, have never run the risk of contracting it themselves? It is those alone who have the right to talk. How many do you think there are? Four out of a thousand? Well, leave those four aside: between all the rest and those who catch the disease there is no difference but chance, and by heavens, those who escape won't get much sympathy from me: the others at least have paid their fine of suffering and remorse, while they have gone scot free! Let's have done, if you please, once for all with this sort of hypocrisy.

The doctor, who is not only a sincere scientist but also a humanitarian, realizes that as things are today no one is exempt from the possibility of contracting an infection; that those who are responsible for the spread of the disease are they who constantly excuse themselves with the inane "I did not know," as if ignorance were not the crime of all crimes. The doctor demonstrates to M. Loche a number of cases under his observation, all of them the result of ignorance and of poverty.

There is, for instance, the woman whose husband died of the disease. He "dind't know"; so he infected her. She, on the other hand, is poor and cannot afford the treatment she needs. A private physician is beyond her means, and she has too much pride to stand the indignities heaped upon the poor who are at the mercy of dispensaries and charity. Therefore she neglects her disease and perhaps is unconsciously instrumental in infecting others.

Then there is the man whose young son has contracted the disease. His father "didn't know," and therefore he did not inform his son, as a result of which the boy became half paralyzed.

MAN: We are small trades-people; we have regularly bled ourselves in order to send him to college, and now -- I only wish the same thing mayn't happen to others. It was at the very college gates that my poor boy was got hold of by one of these women. Is it right, sir, that that should be allowed? Aren't there enough police to prevent children of fifteen from being seduced like that? I ask, is it right?

The poor man, in his ignorance, did not know that "these women" are the most victimized, as demonstrated by the doctor himself in the case of the poor girl of the street. She was both ignorant and innocent when she found a place as domestic servant and was seduced by her master. Then she was kicked out into the street, and in her endless search for work found every door closed in her face. She was compelled to stifle her feeling of motherhood, to send her baby to a foundling asylum, and finally, in order to exist, become a street-walker. If in return she infected the men who came to her, including her erstwhile seducer, she was only paying back in a small measure what society had done to her -- the injury, the bitterness, the misery and tears heaped upon her by a cruel and self-satisfied world.

It is to be expected that a political representative of the people like Loche should suggest the same stereotyped measures as his predecessors: legal enactments, prosecution, imprisonment. But the doctor, a real social student, knows that "the true remedy lies in a change of our ways."

DOCTOR: Syphilis must cease to be treated like a mysterious evil, the very name of which cannot be pronounced.... People ought to be taught that there is nothing immoral in the act that reproduces life by means of love. But for the benefit of out children we organize round about it a gigantic conspiracy of silence. A respectable man will take his son and daughter to one of these grand music halls, where they will hear things of the most loathsome description; but he won't let them hear a word spoken seriously on the subject of the great act of love. The mystery and humbug in which physical facts are enveloped ought to be swept away and young men be given some pride in the creative power with which each one of us is endowed.

In other words, what we need is more general enlightenment, greater frankness and, above all, different social and economic conditions. The revolutionary significance of Damaged Goods consists in the lesson that not syphilis but the causes that lead to it are the terrible curse of society. Those who rant against syphilis and clamor for more laws, for marriage certificates, for registration and segregation, do not touch even the surface of the evil. Brieux is among the very few modern dramatists who go to the bottom of this question by insisting on a complete social and economic change, which alone can free us from the scourge of syphilis and other social plagues.

Back to Eugène Brieux