Journey through the Impossible

by Jules Verne
New York : Prometheus Books, 2003

A Review by Colleen R. Cahill

In the United States, Jules Verne is well known for his stories of adventure and science, but fewer are aware that he was also successful in the theater. In fact, Verne’s original dream was to be a playwright and he wrote many plays before he gained fame as a novelist. His wealth came not only from being an author but from very profitable productions of his plays. Now English readers can enjoy one of Verne’s most successful plays with the publication of Journey through the Impossible.

First performed in 1882, Journey through the Impossible is a combination of ideas and characters from Verne’s previously published novels and short stories, focusing mostly on Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and From the Earth to the Moon. This is not a re-telling of those stories, but more a blending that is tempered with many other Verne works. The play centers around George Hatteras, son of the explorer Captain Hatteras (from Verne’s polar expedition novel, Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras). George is tormented by desires to go “Still farther!” and see what no man has seen. His fiancee Eva and her mother bring in Doctor Ox to try and cure these obsessions, but the doctor has other plans, mostly involving getting rid of George and winning Eva for himself. In an attempt to break George’s fragile mind, he produces a magic potion that allows the young man to travel to the center of the earth, the depths of the oceans and to the planet Altor. But George is not without protectors: Eva and Mr. Tartelet, a friend and frustrated dancing instructor, join him in these journeys to exotic locations. Before the explorers leave, they meet Master Volsius, an extraordinary organist who appears later in the guise of Professor Lidenbrock, Captain Nemo, and Michel Ardan, all of whom attempt to counter the evil influences of Doctor Ox and show George the costs of his insane desires.

At the time this play was produced, it was a huge success, not just because of Verne’s reputation as a writer, but because it was an extravaganza, full of theatrical magic, music and dance. It can be compared to a movie blockbuster of today, one with lots of neat special effects. Keeping this in mind, the reader will realize that is not intended to be a stage production of one of Verne’s novels. In his fiction, Verne concentrated on what was possible, and his books were Extraordinary Voyages; this play moves into the unbelievable, using more magic than science. It also has more humor than many of Verne’s books, with Mr. Tartelet and Axel Valdemar, a Danish fortune-seeker, providing many moments of comic relief throughout the play. While readers of Verne’s novels will see the differences between those works and this drama, they will also recognize the ingenuity and complex story that are hallmarks of Verne’s creations.

Even though it was a successful production in both Paris and New York , the text for this play soon became lost and was only rediscovered in 1978 in the archives of the Censorship Office of the French Third Republic . Published in French in 1981, it gave Verne scholars the first look at this work which previously could only be studied through its reviews. The Prometheus Books edition is not only the first English translation, but also the first complete publication of Journey through the Impossible, as the French edition mistakenly omitted a short section in Act II, Scene 2. The inclusion of a very well written introduction by Jean-Michel Margot helped me more fully appreciate the importance and complexity of this work, as did the text of two reviews from 1882.

This is a work for Verne aficionados, theater buffs or just those who enjoy a good story. Take a Journey through the Impossible and you might see another side of the “Father of Science Fiction.”

Copyright 2003 - Colleen R. Cahill

Verne on Stage

Jules Verne. Journey through the Impossible.

Trans. Edward Baxter. Ed. Jean-Michel Margot. Artwork Roger Leyonmark. Amherst , NY : Prometheus, 2003. 181pp. $21.00 hc.

I have been remiss in not mentioning earlier this excellent little book, the first English translation of an 1882 play by Jules Verne that shows him at his most whimsically science-fictional. It features on-stage journeys to the center of the Earth, beneath the seas to Atlantis, and through outer space to the planet Altor. The cast of characters in Journey recycles a host of recognizable Vernian heroes such as Professor Lidenbrock, Captain Nemo, Impey Barbicane and J.T. Maston, and Doctor Ox, among others. The main protagonist of the play is the son of Captain Hatteras who is seeking to “surpass what has been done by the heroes whose names are written in these books, to go beyond the frontiers they could not cross” (42)—i.e., to go beyond the extraordinary to the impossible. Concisely translated from the French by veteran Verne translator Edward Baxter, this delightful play is triply rare: very few of Verne’s theater works are available in English; Journey is the only one to incorporate bits and pieces from his most celebrated early sf novels; and the original French script of Journey had been lost for nearly a century when, in 1978, a hand-written copy was finally discovered in the French government archives.

Although he quickly became famous for the scientific novels of his Voyages Extraordinaires, theater was Verne’s true passion. He began his writing career as a playwright in the 1850s and several of his plays were performed at the Théâtre Historique, the Théâtre Lyrique, and the Bouffes-Parisiennes long before his historic 1862 encounter with publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel. And, not surprisingly, once he had become an internationally best-selling author, Verne again returned to the theater, teaming up with Adolphe d’Ennery to adapt a few of his novels to the stage. As explained in the introduction by Jean-Michel Margot, president of the North American Jules Verne Society (the organization sponsoring the publication of this book):

The success [of these plays] was striking.... Around the World in Eighty Days—a lavish production with Indians, Hindus, elephants, serpents, trains, and shipwrecks—ran for 415 successive performances from November 7, 1874 to December 20, 1875. Encouraged by this success, Verne reissued Children of Captain Grant in 1878 and Michel Strogoff in 1880. (14)
Verne penned Journey Through the Impossible next; it opened at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin on November 25, 1882 and then ran for 97 performances. Incidentally, contrary to what one might suppose, Verne became wealthy not from the royalties he earned from his published novels, but rather from his share of the gate of these very popular plays adapted from his novels—much like authors today who get rich by negotiating lucrative deals for the television and cinema rights to their books.

In addition to Margot’s expert introduction, Leyonmark’s fine illustrations (which recall in style the nineteenth-century woodcuts of Verne’s original editions), and twenty pages of notes on the text, this book also includes two press reviews of Journey Through the Impossible, one written by a Parisian reviewer that was published in French on November 25, 1882, and the other (anonymous) that appeared in English in The New York Times on December 19, 1882. The first characterized the play as “very lavish ... very beautiful and very elegant” but then went on—rather perplexingly—to complain that “it lacks imagination, novelty, and ingenuity” (148). The second reviewer described the play as “a salmagundi, pretty nearly headless and tailless, yet which must be acknowledged to be a triumph of stage carpentry, scene-painting, and costumery” (136). Both reviewers predicted that Journey would probably be very successful at the box office because of its visual appeal—in similar fashion to movie reviewers today who explain the success of many contemporary sf films as being mostly due to their eye-popping special effects.

The North American Jules Verne Society, in sponsoring the development and publication of this book, explained that its principal purpose was to make a substantial contribution to Verne scholarship. It has certainly done so. Highly recommended. —ABE

Copyright 2004 - Arthur B. Evans
Originally published in SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES, XXXI:3 #94 (Nov. 2004): 479-80.

Jules Verne’s Stage Play of Intergalactic Travel

June 20, 2003

by Brian Taves

Most science fiction fans think of Jules Verne as the “father” of the genre, but with a rather remote paternity, the genre’s modern directions owing more to H.G. Wells. Verne would hardly be suspected of telling a story of cosmic travel to another planet in a distant galaxy. And yet that is among the destinations in this incredible play, staged to acclaim in France in 1882, then lost for over a century until the manuscript’s rediscovery in a French archive. This is not only the first English translation, it is also the only version in any language that offers the complete text of the play. With it, and other recent Verne books discovered or translated for the first time, readers of today can gauge Verne’s imagination far more accurately than those of the 19th or 20th century.

Verne’s editor constantly rejected or toned down his true science fiction, compelling his most inventive author to remain largely earthbound. For instance, 1994 saw the first appearance of Paris in the 20th Century, a book rejected outright by Verne’s publisher, who refused to sanction a dystopia set a century in the future. Similarly, Verne’s publisher compelled his author to transform his voyage around the solar system on a comet in Hector Servadac into simply a “dream.” Journey through the Impossible goes even further, because Verne found an escape from his publisher’s censorship by turning to the theater.

In Journey through the Impossible Verne takes us to the center of the earth and under the sea, destinations from some of his most popular novels. In the underground realms dwell Troglodytes anticipating the Morlocks of Wells’s The Time Machine. On board the submarine Nautilus, a visit is made to the city of Atlantis. The play includes appearances by many of the most famous characters from Verne’s novels, including the diabolical scientist Doctor Ox and the Baltimore Gun Club that launched the first projectile to the moon. This time the Gun Club’s giant cannon sends a capsule full of explorers to Altor, a newly-discovered distant planet with two sons.

Journey through the Impossible is published in association with the North American Jules Verne Society, and includes a preface and footnotes by its president, Jean-Michel Margot, one of the leading authorities on Verne today. The background explains the play’s many allusions and allows the reader to readily imagine how its presentation might have appeared. Further visual embellishment is provided by lavish illustrations, including several originals by Roger Leyonmark that evoke the style of the engravings that were a trademark of the early French editions of Verne’s books. Edward Baxter, translator of the play, has already earned approbation for his previous translations of Verne into English, including several novels.

This is an incredible book, one that is full of both Verne’s imagination and Vernian scholarship. It will forever change the way readers think of Verne, and will re-establish his foundation as the originator of modern science fiction.

Copyright 2003 - Brian Taves

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