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Origins and Adaptation

Dialogues des Carmélites Origins and Adaptation

By Anna Hawkes, Jairo Velazquez, Greg Watts

The first account of the martyrs of Compiegne was written by one of the sole survivors of the sect. Born Françoise-Genevieve Philippe[1] in 1761[2], this illegitimate daughter of Prince Phillip[3] joined the Carmelite convent after a miraculous healing at the tomb of Blessed Mary of the Incarnation at Pontoise[4]. Her name within the convent was Marie de L’Incarnation[5]. Though she shares a name with the character Mère Marie in the opera, this historical figure shares a more similar story with the character of Blanche. She was fairly young when the martyrdom occured[6] and avoided meeting the same fate as her sisters by requesting to see to family business in Paris[7]. After joining another convent later in life, Marie de L’Incarnation was asked by the monastery’s superior, Abbe Clement Villecourt, to document the story of her former convent’s marytrdom. At the age of 70, it appears this process was a traumatic one. She felt guilt for escaping death, but simultaneously felt gratitude that she had been able to survive.


While many writings came from Marie’s account, the one of greatest interest is that of Gertrud von Le Fort. Written in 1931[8], Die Letzte am Schafott[9] tells the story of Blanche de La Force, a fictional young woman who joins the Carmelite convent of Compiegne during the French Revolution. The addition of the fictional[10] character of Blanche was an addition specific to von Le Fort. She had long been writing sketches on this character[11], but it wasn’t until she read an account of the Martyrs of Compiegne that she decided to use that character for that setting as opposed to a modern setting[12]. Von Le Fort’s writings tell us that Blanche’s character was inspired by her own life and experiences[13]. As mentioned above, Blanche took on the story of the historical Mere Marie, and the character of Mere Marie in the opera was created to create a dramatic contrast to Blanche[14]. In the end of the novel, instead of joining her sisters at the guillotine, Blanche watches the martyrdom from the crowd and as the last nun dies, Blanche finishes the song the sister was singing, thus giving herself away to the crowd. She is subsequently beaten to death[15]. Four non-fictional characters remained from the original account: “Madame Marie-Franfoise de Croissy (Mere Henriette de Jesus, Old Prioress), Madame Marie Madeleine Claudine Lidoine (Mere Therese de Saint-Augustin, Prioress), Mademoiselle Marie Genevieve Meunier (Soeur Constance, Novice), Madame Fran?oise-Genevieve Philippe (Soeur Marie de l’Incamation, Sub Prioress)”[16]. The rest are fictional.


Louis Émile Clément George Bernanos(1888-1949) was a French author.  As a young man he was a soldier in the first World War.  Throughout World War II he chose to live in Brazil.  After the war he returned to France.  In 1947 he was commissioned to write a screenplay for a movie that was to be based on Gertrude von Le Fort’s novella about the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne.  Bernanos wrote the screenplay, but the films producers were not pleased with the final product and decided not to make the film at that time.  Bernanos died soon after this in 1949.  After his death the executor of his estate, Albert Béguin, found the screenplay.  He received permission from von Le Fort so that he could have it published as a play.  The only thing she asked was for it to have a different name than her book.  The title chosen was Dialogues des Carmélites.  The play was first staged in Germany and then had its French premier in 1952.  It was in the form of a play that the composer Francis Poulenc first encountered the work and was inspired to turn it into the opera of the same name.  In 1960 the producers who first approached Bernanos about the screenplay, finally made a movie starring Jeanne Moreau that was based on the stage play as well.  The movie title was, Le dialogue des Carmélites.


The process in transforming a spoken drama to a musical drama can be quite complicated and challenging. As many composers have struggled with, choosing a play or libretto to make into an opera is exasperating. Mozart looked at over 100 librettos one year (1783) and still did not find one he liked.[17] The story of Francis Poulenc creating Dialogues des Carmélites however, is a little different. The Ricordi Publishing Company was to commission a work by Poulenc; upon meeting with Ricordi director Guido Valcarenghi, the suggestion was brought up of writing an operatic version of Bernanos’ Dialogues des Carmélites. Poulenc was familiar with the play but had not considered it as a potential libretto until that meeting with Valcarenghi.[18] Poulenc's reaction from a letter he wrote was: "I can see myself sitting in a Piazza Navona cafe one clear morning in March 1953, devouring Bernanos’ drama, and saying to myself at each scene, ’But of course, it’s made for me, it’s made for me! ’"[19] One reason that might have attracted Poulenc to Bernanos’ play is his Catholic faith which started half way through his life. Poulenc stated that “His (Bernanos) conception of the spiritual is exactly my own…”[20]


One of Poulenc's challenges with creating this opera was cutting down Bernanos’ play to a manageable libretto, he spent three years to finish writing the opera as he felt it was one of his most important works. Poulenc only used about one-third of the original script from the play and divided it into three acts.[21] Poulenc became so obsessed with writing the opera that he felt like he knew the nuns of Carmel. The scenes which Poulenc kept in the opera, revolve mostly around the nuns and did not include some minor characters or many scenes which take place outside of the convent. Ultimately it is Poulenc’s music along with Bernanos’ text which make this opera dramatic with hauntingly beautiful music. As stated in Henri Hell’s book Francis Poulenc: “The self sufficiency of the work of Bernanos incited him (Poulenc) to discover the music with which it should be ideally mated (80-81).


[1] Swingle-Putland, R. (2006). “Dialogues des carmélites” by francis poulenc: An historical disquisition, preparing a singer to perform a role in the opera, authentically, emotionally, and musically (Order No. 3227702). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305281378). Retrieved from

[2] Swingle-Putland, R.

[3] Swingle-Putland, R.

[4] Swingle-Putland, R.

[5] Swingle-Putland, R.

[6] Swingle-Putland, R.

[7] Swingle-Putland, R.

[8] Colletti, C. R. (2008). An interdisciplinary approach to selected works by francis poulenc (Order    No. 3323406). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304634295). Retrieved from

[9] Colletti, C. R.

[10] Colletti, C. R. (2008). An interdisciplinary approach to selected works by francis poulenc (Order    No. 3323406). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304634295). Retrieved from

[11] Swingle-Putland, R.

[12] Swingle-Putland, R.

[13] Swingle-Putland, R.

[14] Swingle-Putland, R.

[15] Swingle-Putland, R.

[16] Swingle-Putland, R.

[17] Reinhard G. Pauly, Music and the Theatre (Prentice Hall, 1970), 11.

[18] Keith W. Daniel, Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style (Univ of Rochester Pr, 1982), 49.

[19] Sidney Buckland, Francis Poulenc: ‘Echo and Source’: Selected Correspondence 1915-1963 (1992), 387.

[20] Claude Gendre, Dialogues des Carmélites: the Historical Background, Literary Destiny and Genesis of the Opera, 294.

[21] Most of the information about Poulenc’s writing process comes from Claude Gendre’s essay (ibid., 295).

Last Updated: 3/22/23