A heroine of medieval legend whose story was told in the Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum (Golden Legend), a compilation of traditional lore about the lives of the saints by the Italian Jacobus de Voragine (c.1228/1230-1298). Starting from the 18th century, Geneviève de Brabant became a traditional heroine of puppet theatre. Daughter of the Duke of Brabant, and married to Count Siffroy (in German: Siegfried), Geneviève (in German: Genovefa) is put under the protection of her husband’s steward, Golo, when Siffroy leaves to fight the Saracens. Golo tries, in vain, to seduce Geneviève. When the Count returns, he accuses her of adultery and condemns her to death; however, her executioners take pity on her and instead of killing her, abandon her in the forest with her child. Years later during a hunt, Siffroy pursues an extraordinary deer (who had breastfed the child) and stumbles upon Geneviève. She manages to prove her innocence, but dies of the suffering she has endured. Golo is then punished.
The legend, whose motif was already present in the Indian epic, the Ramayana (pregnant Sita, wife of King Rama, is abandoned in the forest because of a rumour that puts into question her chastity), spread quickly during the Middle Ages. Its first version for puppets, originating from Brabant (a region shared by the Netherlands and Belgium), dates from 1716. The play became one of the favourite subjects of German puppet companies that travelled throughout Bohemia in the mid-18th century, and the most performed subject of Czech theatre. It was also a source of inspiration for composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Karl Karl Michael Joseph von Pauersbach (1737-1809) for one of the puppet operas they created for the Eszterháza Palace marionette theatre. The play also became part of the Münchner Marionettentheater (Munich Marionette Theatre) repertoire geared towards the education of children. In the 19th century, several French companies performed an adaptation that shared numerous elements with the German version. The text, published by Gaston Baty, brought together performances of several itinerant troupes including that of the Pitou, in which local characters often appeared. Geneviève de Brabant also offered Érik Satie the subject for a short stage music piece probably written for the shadow theatre (1899), but generally played as a puppet opera: the Waltons (see Pajot-Walton (family)) interpreted this opera during their posthumous creation (Paris, 1926); the theatre Toone interpreted it in Brussels; Otello Sarzi in Italy; the Colla company in Venice (1983); and Massimo Schuster directed it for the Theater Taptoe (1998).
A theme cherished by the German Romantics (dramas by Wilhelm Müller, Ludwig Tieck, Christian Friedrich Hebbel, operas by Robert Schumann), Geneviève de Brabant remains rooted in the popular tradition: in the forms of coloured prints, it inspired Erik Satie; projected with a magic lantern, it illuminated the bedroom of a young Marcel Proust (at the beginning of À la recherche du temps perdu – Remembrance of Things Past); and as overhead rod marionettes (French: marionnettes à tringle), the little theatre Théâtre Al Botroûle in Liège, Belgium still performs this drama of persecuted innocence.