In 1862 a stocky, bespectacled Parisian playwright-actor appeared on stage for the first time in the character of Monsieur Joseph Prudhomme (literally ‘prude-man’). It was 63-year-old Henry Monnier, in the ‘free theatre’ he had founded with his publisher Auguste Poulet-Malassis ‘at the bottom of the Batignolles, between the fortifications and the first houses of Clichy-la-Garenne’ in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. The theatre was called Le théâtre érotique de la Rue de la Santé (The Erotic Theatre in the Street of Health), and featured puppets, song and dance – and Monnier as Prudhomme. The theatre lasted less than a year, but Monnier’s plays, both mainstream and more risqué, were too popular to be lost, and the script of L’enfer de Joseph Prudhomme (The Hell of Joseph Prudhomme) became an underground classic, so popular that it was banned under French censorship laws in 1868.
The text consists of two one-act plays, Les deux gougnottes (The Two Lesbians) and La grisette et l’étudiant (The Working Girl and the Student). The illustrations by Jean Dulac, produced very shortly after those for Nous deux, succeed brilliantly in being at the same time explicit and elegant, capturing the spirit of the 1860s to perfection.
The 1929 version of L’enfer de Joseph Prudhomme, published ‘à l’enseigne du plaisir des filles’ (under the sign of female pleasure) was produced in a numbered edition of 300 copies.