Dreyfus
Prisoner of Devil’s Island

Music, Book & Lyrics: Bryan Kesselman
Music Theatre piece in 2 Acts based on the infamous Dreyfus Affair.

Professional and World première:
Wednesday 18th November 1998 at St Giles, Cripplegate
9th London International Jewish Music Festival

dreyfus_collage-2

Original Cast:
Dreyfus……………...…..………..Philip Barnett
Henry………………..…….…….Nicholas Forty
Mercier………………....……..Christopher Bull
Bertillon……………...………….Carl Gombrich
du Paty/Picquart….….……..Bryan Kesselman
Zola……………………Anton Jungreuthmayer
Esterhazy……………..John McGregor Murray
Lucie……………..……...Carol-Anne Grainger
Mme Bastian………...………Rebecca Decker

Piano…………….………………….Chris Coote


The story is that of the infamous Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s researched from contemporary sources.In 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Officer in the French Army, was wrongly found Guilty of Treason and sentenced to Military Degradation and Life Imprisonment on Devil's Island a former leper colony off the North-East coast of South America. At his Court-Martial a secret dossier was illegally shown to the judges, but not to the defence. Thus began the Dreyfus Affair, which caused anti-Semitic riots on the streets of France, condemnation of the French Government throughout the world, and, by its influence on Theodore Herzl, led to the development of Zionism.

Some people genuinely believed Dreyfus to be guilty, and justly sentenced.  But there were those to whom injustice evidently meant nothing. To save the honour of their Army and its Minister of War, the General Staff consistently lied, and created forgeries in order to keep Dreyfus a life-long prisoner on Devil's Island although they knew him to be innocent.

In 1898, Émile Zola wrote his famous open letter to President Faure, J'ACCUSE...!  Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906. The French army officially declared Dreyfus to be innocent in 1995 !


Among the amazing characters who were involved in these events, figures Alphonse Bertillon, the inventor of Anthropometry - a very complicated system of measurements, used (with great inaccuracy) for identifying criminals before fingerprinting came into use. He was called as a handwriting expert (which he was not) at both of Dreyfus's court-martials, where he was described as having used, "absurd and entangled arguments with outrageous vocabulary like a necromancer's spells." These arguments seem to have been taken most seriously, however, by the judges.


On the face of it, the issues appear to be injustice and anti-Semitism. But that is to miss the point. Prejudice, be it anti-Semitism, apartheid, or any other manifestation, is abhorrent to most of us, and it becomes doubly evil when mixed up with the judicial system.  The fact that prejudice reared its ugly head in such an enlightened country as France, the land of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, was a great shock to the world.

The Dreyfus Affair leaves us with a sobering message on the subject of human rights, which is as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago.

© Bryan Kesselman 2010

Some Contemporary Source Material:
Five Years of My Life (Alfred Dreyfus)
The Trial of Emile Zola
Dreyfus, The Prisoner of Devil’s Island (Harding)
My Secret Diary of the Dreyfus Case (Paleologue)
Dreyfus (Barlow)
The Truth about Dreyfus (Schwartzkoppen)
The Tragedy of Dreyfus (Steevens)
Dreyfus and the Shame of France (Stevans)
The Dreyfus Case (Conybeare)
L’Affaire telle que l’ai vécue (Mathieu Dreyfus)
Alfred Dreyfus, Les dessous d’une trahison (Comte de W...) - ( pseudonym for Esterhazy)