Scène à faire.

I was looking at Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature (and the more I read him, the less I can stand his sneering, bullying tone when he’s discussing writers he doesn’t like — I’m glad I didn’t have him as a teacher, since he’s not interested in letting you develop your own view, he wants to imprint you with his own) when I came across this:

I want to stress again the fact that Dostoevski was more of a playwright than a novelist. What his novels represent is a succession of scenes, of dialogues, of scenes where all the people are brought together—and with all the tricks of the theatre, as with the scène à faire, the unexpected visitor, the comedy relief, etc.

I wasn’t clear on what “scène à faire” meant, so I started investigating, and I found two crucially different explanations. The OED (updated June 2015) says:

Etymology: < French scène à faire, lit. ‘scene for action’ (1714 or earlier) < scène scene n. + à to + faire do (see fact n.).
Not fully naturalized in English.

  A scene in a play, opera, etc., made inevitable and indispensable by the progress of the action; the most important scene of the play, often the climax, which fulfils the expectation created by the plot. Also figurative.

1884 R. L. Stevenson in Longman’s Mag. Dec. 145 Even in the heroine the working of the passion is suppressed; and the great struggle, the true tragedy, the scène-à-faire, passes unseen behind the panels of a locked door.
1893 Manch. Guardian 24 Oct. 8/3 The subject of the ‘Dame aux Camellias’..has often been essayed, and the scène à faire of her confrontation..with the inexorable reality of things has been often and sometimes admirably composed.
1924 Amer. Mercury Dec. 439/1 If Washington, Lincoln and Lee have an appeal, it has its source in their great scènes à faire, the moments when they made great decisions, rewrote history, changed the map of the world.
1969 Listener 13 Feb. 220/2 Robert Hoffman acts badly, and the scène à faire in a wobbling rowing a triumph of embarrassment.
2001 P. C. Castagno New Playwriting Strategies ix. 129 The arranged sequence builds towards a climatic scène à faire, the major confrontational or ‘obligatory’ scene.

But that last citation introduces a new element, that of obligatoriness, and this is the feature emphasized in the Wikipedia article (which for some reason has a plural title):

Scène à faire (French for “scene to be made” or “scene that must be done”; plural: scènes à faire) is a scene in a book or film which is almost obligatory for a genre of its type. In the U.S. it also refers to a principle in copyright law in which certain elements of a creative work are held to be not protected when they are mandated by or customary to the genre.

That is the sole sense given by M-W (“obligatory scene : a plot element that is standard for a particular genre”), and most of the google hits for the phrase are legal in nature (“Scenes à Faire Law and Legal Definition,” etc.). While I appreciate the usefulness of the phrase to lawyers, it seems a pity that it’s driven out the subtler sense conveyed by the OED definition (and doubtless used by Nabokov), which pins it to the particular work of art (“made inevitable and indispensable by the progress of the action”) rather than to the genre (Wikipedia: “For example, a spy novel is expected to contain elements such as numbered Swiss bank accounts, a femme fatale, and various spy gadgets hidden in wristwatches, belts, shoes, and other personal effects”). Ah well, it’s not a phrase you see much anyway (unless, I guess, you’re a copyright lawyer).

Incidentally, if you’re wondering, as I was, about the 1969 Listener citation, it would appear that the actor thus castigated is this Robert Hoffman, and I’m guessing the movie is Diary of a Telephone Operator (“Pietro’s friend has bought a boat in order to sail around the world with Pietro”).


  1. Jessica Litman, in a paper archived at, credits Judge Leon Yankwich with originating the legal meaning of “scènes à faire” in the early 1940s.

    “The other small details, on which stress is laid, such as the playing of the piano, the prayer, the hunger motive, as it called, are inherent in the situation itself. They are what the French call “scenes a faire”. Once having placed two persons in a church during a big storm, it was inevitable that incidents like these and others which are, necessarily, associated with such a situation should force themselves upon the writer in developing the theme. Courts have held repeatedly that such similarities and incidental details necessary to the environment or setting of an action are not the material of which copyrightable originality consists.”

    Cain v. Universal Pictures Co., 47 F.Supp. 1013, 1017 (S.D.Cal.1942).

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    1. The “scene a faire” notion is an important one in copyright-infringment cases, so it is not unexpected that lawyer-jargon should have adapted a pre-existing phrase used in the relevant field of human endeavor. But lawyers doing so need not, as a general matter, drive out the prior use, so I expect that if literary critics no longer use the phrase it is probably due to some other circumstance than its adaptation into legal jargon.

    2. Nabokov was apparently more memorable as a teacher than most of the other teachers my father had as an undergraduate 60-odd years ago. Of course, since he was a mechanical engineering major trying out a popular-on-campus class outside his own focus, the idiosyncratic opinions of the teacher might have been less of a risk than for someone who was more focused on literature — although hopefully someone in the latter category would also be taking other classes taught by other professors to balance that out.

  3. Jessica Litman, in a paper archived at, credits Judge Leon Yankwich with originating the legal meaning of “scènes à faire” in the early 1940s.

    Thanks very much for that!

    I expect that if literary critics no longer use the phrase it is probably due to some other circumstance than its adaptation into legal jargon.

    I expect you’re right; outside of legal usage, it’s probably an occasional ad hoc borrowing. As the OED puts it: “Not fully naturalized in English.”

    Nabokov was apparently more memorable as a teacher than most of the other teachers my father had as an undergraduate 60-odd years ago.

    Oh, I’m sure he was memorable; such teachers generally are, and often attract cultlike followings (not among students like your father, of course). I just don’t like ’em.

  4. Here’s Nabokov straight-up lying to buttress his peculiar idea that the novel (and its heroine) should be called “Anna Karenin”: “Having decided to write ‘Karenina,’ translators found themselves forced to call Anna’s husband ‘Mr. Karenina,’ which is about as ridiculous as calling Lady Mary’s husband ‘Lord Mary.’” What translators? Find me one. Shame on you, VV.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Leaving aside the falsity of the claim made to buttress it, why is that a “peculiar idea”? Whether a distinction (in this case, inflecting surnames for gender) that is ubiquitous in the source language but absent in the target language should or should not be maintained in the translation seems like exactly the sort of thing that reasonable translators could disagree about. And “we should/shouldn’t stick with what prior translators of the same work have done because readers in our language are now used to it” seems likewise subject to reasonable disagreement.

  6. It would be reasonable (if, in my opinion, wrong) to make such a choice if the topic had never been addressed in English — if Russian were as obscure as, say, Kusaal and he were trying to figure out how to deal with the morphology of gender-inflected surnames. As it is, he’s a crank saying “You’re all fools, fools! Here is the only possible solution!” Like I said, a bully.

  7. SFReader says

    “Eugène Savitzkaya est un écrivain belge de langue française né en 1955 à Liège.“

    The guy got his Russian mother’s surname. Belgian bureaucrats are very strict!

  8. There are plenty of Jews of both genders with Ben- surnames. A few women have taken on Bat- surnames (e.g. filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam), but since surnames now come from the father as elsewhere, there are no men I know of with Bat- surnames.

  9. Since I’m sticking pins into Nabokov, I’ll point out that he thinks Tolstoy invented the «Англия» (which Nabokov chooses to call “Hotel d’Angleterre”) where Lyovin has dinner with Oblonsky, whereas it was a real place on Petrovka (with a bad reputation).

  10. AJP Crown says

    Except Batman, of course.

  11. Oh, you would, would ye???

  12. Owlmirror says

    Batman is an obvious Anglicization of “Ben-Atalef”.

    ( . . . or is it Mannaskaya?)

  13. There’s a jazz pianist named Michele Rosewoman, but Google isn’t telling me anything about the origin of her name.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I had forgotten Michele Rosewoman but I now remember coming across the name probably back in the ’80’s and just taking it in stride — no odder, even if less common, than the numerous other jazz musicians who had adopted names that were probably not the same as those on their birth certificates. This obituary of her mother Estera Roseman suggests that her father was named Louis Roseman.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    For other folks with surnames ending in -woman, I decided under the inspiration of that fellow with the stage name “Bob Dylan” to start an investigation at the end of the alphabet rather than the beginning, and lo and behold “Join us the day after Valentine’s Day for an entertaining (and lovely) evening with sweethearts Kenneth Josephson and Marilyn Zimmerwoman!” Someone else can find the third instance, but it must be out there.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    But backing up a bit, are we really to assume that the only reason Ве́ра Набо́кова got to be Vera Nabokov rather than Nabokova is that she was non-fictional, and only a crank would have treated a fictional person the way the non-fictional person was, in fact, treated?

  17. I don’t know what you mean. Obviously she was known as Nabokov in English because her crank of a husband insisted on it. If she had married an Oblonsky she would surely have been known as Oblonskaya.

  18. Also, I have a Michele Rosewoman CD but haven’t listened to it in ages.

  19. John Cowan says

    I presume it was the Berlin bureaucrats of 1925 that gave Vera Nabokov her new name, and nothing to do with her husband at all.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    When it comes to female Slavs who end up in the U.S., cranks who ignore feminine suffixes are ubiquitous, as witness this gravestone of a lady of some repute who suffered that indignity both to her married name and her maiden name:

  21. Well, obviously I exaggerate as always.

  22. John Cowan says

    I love the fluctuating spellings (and dates) in the Find-a-Grave writeup:

    Irina Sergievna Rakhmaninov was born on 27 May / 9 June 1903 at the Rachmaninoff family estate, Ivanovka, in the Tambov region of Russia. She was the oldest child of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

    She married Prince Peter Volkonsky in Dresden, Germany on 24 September 1924. Her married name became Wolkonsky.

  23. SFReader says

    According to Fasmer, Rachmaninoff surname derives from old Russian word ‘rakhmanny’:

    “lazy; puny; awkward; quiet, peaceful, simple; strange”, ukr rakhman, rakhmanin “a resident of a fairy-tale country, a righteous christian; a beggar,” Old Russian rahmane pl— “Brahmins”, also Vrahman (from the fourteenth century ) From the Greek. βράχμανοι “Brahmins” or βραχμνες ̇ οἱ παρὰ ᾽Ινδοῖς γυμνονο (Gecischium); see Charpentier. This word has spread thanks to the tale of Alexander and the Travels of Zosima.

    From Sanskrit ब्राह्मण (brā́hmaṇa).

  24. Good lord, what an etymology — thanks for that!

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    For extra credit, demonstrate a speculative etymological link between brakhmanoi/rakhmanny and the Yiddish word “rachmones” (also spelled in a variety of other ways in the Latin alphabet because of course it is).

  26. SFReader says

    That’s surely Semitic.

    Bismillahi rahmani rahim (In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate) – first Arabic phrase I learned.

  27. AJP Crown says

    The Batman thread has very interesting comments from many people.

  28. Rakhmanny used to mean different things in different parts of the country. (I say “used to” because I don’t remember ever hearing it from a native Russian speaker. It must be extinct or very rural.) The meaning “not quite of this world, therefore useless for practical tasks,” possibly “blessed” in the pejorative Russian sense, is one element of this diverse set. Rakhmanny could mean “slow, lazy” but also “lively, quick”; “dim-witted” but also “smart”; “weak, prone to disease” but also “healthy, vigorous”; “bad, worthless” but also “good, kind”; “simple-minded” but also “calculating” – and so on. In some places, it referred to good-looking and/or smartly dressed people. See Svetlana Tolstik’s 2014 note in Vestnik Tomskogo Gosudarstvennogo Universiteta.

    Vasmer and Alexei Sobolevsky preferred βραχμάνος as the immediate source, but Vasmer did not completely rule out the principal alternative hypothesis, from Arabic raḥmān via Turkic.

  29. SFReader says

    1893 Manch. Guardian 24 Oct. 8/3

    For a brief moment wondered why I never heard of the Manchurian Guardian…

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