Eugène Scribe 1791-1861
Full name Augustin Eugène Scribe.
Scribe was one of the most prolific and successful French dramatists of the nineteenth century. His output—variously estimated at between three and four hundred works, written either alone or with collaborators—consists of opera libretti and comédies-vaudevilles (brief topical farces), as well as full-length plays. Scribe's great popularity with contemporary audiences derived in large part from his unrivalled skills as a craftsman; indeed, Scribe is considered the originator of the piéce bien faite, or well-made play, a genre characterized by intricate, carefully constructed plots. Although his works are seldom produced today, Scribe's masterful stage technique profoundly influenced the works of his contemporaries and successors throughout Europe and America.
The son of a silk merchant and his wife, Scribe was born and raised in Paris. His family suffered financial hardships following his father's death in 1798, but Scribe received a scholarship that enabled him to attend the Collège de Sainte-Barbe, a well-regarded secondary school. After graduating, he studied law at his mother's urging; when she died in 1811, however, Scribe abandoned his studies and decided to pursue a career as a dramatist. His earliest works were failures, and it was not until 1815 with the staging of Encore une nuit de la Garde Nationale (Another Night in the National Guard), a one-act comédie-vaudeville, that Scribe achieved his first success. This production is also notable because it marked the establishment of a royalty system for playwrights in France: rather than accepting a single payment for the play, Scribe insisted on receiving a percentage of its profits. Following the production of Another Night, Scribe went on to write several enormously popular plays every year until shortly before his death; in addition, he composed libretti for over one hundred comic and grand operas. Throughout his career, in order to meet theater managers' demands for new plays, Scribe often enlisted the aid of collaborators, including Germain Delavigne, Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson, Henri Dupin, and Ernest Legouvé. This practice earned Scribe a reputation for running a "play factory," and some of his contemporaries claimed that his contributions to the dramas were negligible. Such charges notwithstanding, Scribe was elected to the prestigious Académie Française in 1836. By the end of his life, he had amassed a fortune from his works, and he lived lavishly, frequently entertaining guests at his country estate at Séricourt and becoming well known for his generosity toward his collaborators. When he died in 1861, thousands attended his funeral in Paris, causing business in the city to come to a standstill.
Scribe spent the early part of his career writing primarily comédies-vaudevilles, and he is credited with revolutionizing the genre through his innovations in form and subject matter. He broadened the scope of the comédie-vaudeville by transforming it from a one-act farce depicting an incident from everyday life into a two- or three-act play that had a complex plot with well-planned surprises and a logical denouement. Scribe emphasized topical satire in these works, offering audiences studies of the vices and follies of contemporary life. Thus, in such pieces as Le Mariage de raison (The Marriage of Convenience) he condemned impulsive marriages; in Le Solliciteur (The Applicant), he denounced corrupt politicians; and in Le Charlatanisme (Quackery) he censured unethical journalism.
Though often noted for their accurate depiction of nineteenth-century French society, Scribe's full-length plays are primarily praised for their superb construction. Expanding upon the technical innovations of his comédies-vaudevilles, Scribe composed these works according to a precise structural formula which has become known as the well-made play. Distinguished by tightly constructed, fast-moving plots in which action takes precedence over character development, Scribe's well-made plays display several common structural features, including a clear exposition of the subject in the first act, a series of reversals in the protagonist's fortunes, a pattern of mounting suspense leading up to a striking climax, and a credible denouement. Scribe considered a carefully designed plot so essential to the success of his plays that he once remarked, "When I have finished my plan, I have nothing more to do." Critics agree that Scribe's most popular well-made plays—including the comedies Bertrand et Raton and Bataille des dames (The Ladies' Battle); the historical drama La Verre d'eau (The Glass of Water); and his only tragedy, Adrienne Lecouvreur—reveal him to be a master of theatrical effect who knew what would please playgoers.
Commentators have observed that Scribe also applied the principles of the well-made play to his libretti, which he constructed within a dramatic framework that combined an emphasis on spectacle with logically ordered, increasingly suspenseful scenes. He is also recognized for introducing a number of changes into French opera, notably the expansion of the role of the chorus by using it as an essential part of the action radier man merely as an element of the background. As a librettist, Scribe is best known for his work with composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Daniel Auber; however, he also provided libretti for the operas of other famous composers, including Gaetano Donizetti, Jacques Offenbach, and Giuseppi Verdi.
Scribe's works were extremely popular in his day, although critics often condemned them as possessing flat characters, lifeless dialogue, and shallow subjects. Most conceded, however, that Scribe was an excellent craftsman with a talent for adapting his plays to suit the fluctuating tastes of his audiences. Recent commentators, while acknowledging the artistic flaws of Scribe's works, recognize the extent of his technical achievement and the lasting impact of his stage-craft. Several studies have been devoted to assessing the contribution the well-made play has made to modern drama, and Scribe is often admired for furnishing dramatists with a formula that is both adaptable to many subjects and guaranteed to please the public. Numerous scholars have pointed out mat such playwrights as Alexandre Dumas fils, Georges Feydeau, Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, as well as countless others are indebted to the techniques that Scribe pioneered.
Les Dervis (with Germain Delavigne) 1811
Encore une nuit de la Garde Nationale; ou, Le Poste de la barrère (with Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson) 1815
[Another Night in the National Guard; or, The Guard Post at the City Gate]
Le Valet de son rival (with Delavigne) 1816
[His Rival's Valet]
Le Solliciteur; ou, L 'Art d'obtenir des places (with Jean-Gilbert Ymbert and Antoine-François Varner) 1817
[The Applicant; or, The Art of Obtaining Employment]
Les Frères invisibles (with Honoré Mélesville and Delestre-Poirson) 1819
[The Invisible Brothers]
Valérie (with Mélesville) 1822
Rodolphe; ou, Frère et soeur (with Mélesville) 1823
[Rodolphe; or, Brother and Sister]
Le Charlatanisme (with Edouard-Joseph Mazéres) 1825
Le Mauvais Sujet (with Camille) 1825
[The Worthless Fellow]
Le Mariage de raison (with Varner) 1826
[The Marriage of Convenience]
La Chatte métamorphosée en femme (with Mélesville) 1827
[The Cat Changed into a Woman]
Dix ans de la vie d'une femme; ou, Les Mauvais Conseils
(with Thomas Terrier) 1832
[Ten Years from the Life of a Woman; or, Bad Advice]
Betrand et Raton; ou, L'Art de conspirer 1833
[Betrand and Raton; or, The Art of Conspiracy]...
(The entire section is 756 words.)
Overviews And General Studies
A. B. Walkley (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "Scribe," in Still More Prejudice, Alfred A. Knopf, 1925, pp. 44-8.
[Walkley attacks Scribe's plays as the productions of a hack pandering to the tastes of a bourgeois audience.]
Scribe, the greatest of all theatrical purveyors, died so long ago (1861), and is so completely forgotten, that it is high time to have a book about him. A Professor in the University of California, Dr. Neil Cole Arvin, obliges with one—Eugène Scribe and the French Theatre, written from that distance which lends enchantment to the view as well as some errors in perspective. Was Scribe really so important in the history of the theatre? Did he so markedly influence his successors? "Practically every innovation, every reform, every novelty found in the drama of the nineteenth century," says Dr. Arvin, "originated with Scribe, and the highest point in the development of the main genres of dramatic literature was reached in his plays." This, if true at all, is only true of the technicalities, the machinery of the theatre, the mere stage-carpentry—things that matter very little and may almost be said to invent themselves. Everything of value in the modern theatre, its intellectual dialectic, its emotional sincerity, its fundamental verisimilitude, has been a revolt against that shallow theatricality which we call Scribism.
Of Scribe's own 300 and odd plays, which were once to be seen not only in Paris but in every theatre in Europe, the sole survivor to-day is Adrienne Lecouvreur—and that from the mere accident that its heroine caught the fancy of Sarah Bernhardt. Now that Sarah is gone, I doubt if we shall ever see Adrienne again. Scribe's great success—commercial success—in his day was, like other commercial successes, the result of three things: a natural instinct for the business, industry and skill in meeting a popular demand, and a certain mediocrity of mind. Scribe was born for the theatre and scribbled plays almost from infancy. He consistently catered for the tastes of his public—that curious, mixed bourgeoisie of his time, the Royalists of the Faubourg St Germain, the ex-Imperialists of the Faubourg St Honoré, and the new rich of the Chaussée d'Antin. These various interests he was careful to conciliate, generally by a system of mixed marriages. The Royalist heroine married the Imperial colonel's nephew, or the young marquis, ruined at cards, but an accomplished horseman, married the banker's daughter. The proper thing was to marry for money, an eminently bourgeois the passion of love Scribe left to the romantic playwrights. Indeed, money plays as conspicuous a part in Scribe's theatre as in the novels of his contemporary Balzac. But Balzac gives you, what Scribe could not, the passion as well. Scribe's essential mediocrity and shallowness of mind was, no doubt the chief factor in his success: it kept so steadily on the mental level of his materialistic public. Like theirs, his moral code was strictly prudential and regulated by the social proprieties. Husbands always triumphed over lovers, and the cause of passion is always sacrificed to that of "la famille." "Respectability" was the chief ideal. As for history, that was a collection of trivial anecdotes, all illustrating the dictum "What great events from little causes spring." Thus Scribe wrote a play about Walpole (L'Ambitieux), in which that Minister's fortune hangs in the balance through George II.'s discovery of a love-letter tied up in the Royal mistress's handkerchief; and a play about Queen Anne (Le Verre d'Eau), in which the political history of England is vitally affected because the Duchess of Marlborough drops a glass of water in the Queen's lap. Indeed, Scribe's history is as childish as any in Hugo or Dumas père, without their excuse of making the absurdity a pretext for passionate or romantic adventure.
If there is hardly any passion in Scribe (because it is not "respectable," because it is a nuisance to "the family," because it is not correct form in the Chaussée d'Antin), still less are there any characters (because puppets will do just as well, or even better, to carry out a plot which is merely an ingenious combination of incidents). Dr. Arvin prefers to say that "this conception of dramatic art by its very nature relieves the author of the responsibility of taking account of characters, sentiment, or passion." He might as well say that it relieves the author of the responsibility of authorship. Can you think of Balzac without thinking of his characters? We say a Hulot, a Mme. Marneffe, a Pre Goriot a Rubempré, a Coralie, a Rastignac, and know them better than our own blood-relations. A list of Scribe's characters would be a list of meaningless, unidentifiable names. Is it to be wondered at that he is clean forgotten?
He might even so, have escaped oblivion, had he had the advantage of a style. But that invaluable preservative was wholly lacking; it was Théophile Gautier's perpetual grievance against him that he had no style. It is easy to overstress the point no doubt. Balzac had no style, or a very bad one, and yet has more enthusiasts to-day than he ever had in his life-time. Labiche had no style, but his eleven volumes of collected plays are still, despite the drawback, a perpetual feast of delight. On the other hand, I think some of the plays of Dumas fils live as much by their style as by their dramatic quality, or so at least I thought when I saw Le Demi-Monde in London the other day. The importance of style, the most personal or elements, in dramatic work will always be a disputable question, for it is the peculiarity of the dramatist that he never speaks in his own person. Yet every dramatist of mark has his own, unmistakable fashion of speech; Congreve's is distinct from Farquhar's, Goldsmith's from Sheridan's, Maugham's from Shaw's.
Scribe's, however, was the pedestrian slipshod which we call "no" style. It was the common language of the classes with no ear for language, the busy philistine bourgeoisie for whom Scribe wrote. No wonder the poets and critics and the whole aesthetic and literary world were banded against him!
Martin Lamm (essay date 1948)
SOURCE: "Scribe and Hebbel," in Modern Drama, translated by Karin Elliott, Basil Blackwell, 1952, pp. 1-15.
[The following excerpt is taken from a work that first appeared in Swedish in 1948. Using the historical drama The Glass of Water as his model, Lamm investigates Scribe's dramatic technique and assesses his influence on subsequent playwrights throughout Europe, most notably Henrik Ibsen]
[The German poet and playwright Friedrich Hebbel] writes in his diary; "A real drama can be compared with a big building, which has as many rooms and passages under the ground as above it. Ordinary people only see the latter, but the builder knows both".
Scribe never wrote a "real drama" in this sense. There are no underground passages and rooms in his works; everything is above the ground. He took to heart La Bruyére's maxim, that writing a book is as much a craft as making a clock. In his chosen craft, moreover, Scribe achieved a mastery which was to stand his successors during the next fifty years in good stead. In particular, his skill in the construction of plots provided a firm framework which the shapeless bourgeois dramas had previously lacked. He succeded in writing plays which gave a real impression of contemporary life; he dealt with live issues in a way which made the stage seem their natural setting. It remained for the next generation of playwrights to give the stage drama greater depth. Scribe was not the man to compose literary drama; he wrote for a wider public. To some extent he resembles those playwrights who created the folk drama of the late renaissance in Spain and England. Like them he was an educated man and had originally intended to become a lawyer. Economic reasons had compelled him to turn to playwriting. He wrote his plays to be acted, not to be read, but he knew how to use his education to the best advantage. He was the first of the 19th century playwrights to succeed in living by his pen alone. Hitherto authors had received only a single and very meagre payment for their plays. Scribe however introduced a system of royalties which made him a millionaire and the owner of a great chateau in France. He also formed an association of playwrights to defend their interests against the theatre directors, thanks to which dramatic authors were enabled for the rest of the century to devote themselves wholly to their craft.
It was this system of royalties which Scribe introduced that enabled the younger Dumas, Augier and Ibsen to live a life free from financial worries.
The changes which Scribe introduced into the drama were the most valuable of all reforms during this period. There had been no lack of good poets, shrewd psychologists and profound thinkers ready to try their hand at drama in the early 19th century. The majority, however, had little stage sense, or if they had, stifled it with their theories. Scribe had no great gift for characterization, no high moral or philosophical ideas; he had no style, and was indifferent to all aesthetic theories; but he understood stagecraft better than anyone. His skill at weaving plots was such that he gave to the 19th century drama just what it had hitherto lacked—a firm internal structure. It is surprising to note how rapidly modern drama developed after Scribe, though his disciples soon revolted against the excessive artificiality of their master's plots.
Scribe's dramatic works, including those which he wrote in collaboration with other authors, are estimated at three or four hundred. Not all of these are plays. Scribe also completely transformed the libretti of opera and opéra comique. Opera had not yet shaken itself free from the classical subjects, and the same situations and themes were repeated again and again. Scribe was the creator (as far as the text is concerned) of Grand Opera, his first work being La Muette de Portici (The Mute from Portici). Later he wrote some of the best-known operas of his day, Les Huguenots (The Huguenots), Le Prophète (The Prophet), L'Africaine (The African Woman), and many more. As an opera librettist, his taste was for romantic and colourful subjects, though otherwise he was no romantic. Many of his libretti were not original, but adaptations of others' work; he even had the courage to rewrite Shakespeare's The Tempest as an opera. Of all Scribe's works, his elegant comic operas have perhaps held their place on the stage longest—La dame blanche (The White Lady), Le domino noir (The Black Domino), Fra Diavolo, and many others.
It was for the half-musical Vaudeville theatre that Scribe wrote his first and most of his later plays, and it was here that he first won his reputation. Vaudeville was a light form of drama, dating back to the 17th century. The name really referred to the couplets which occurred in it. For instance in Beaumarchais' Le mariage de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), which is a comedy, there is a vaudeville, that is a series of couplets, at the end of the play. During the 18th century the name came to signify a short musical play with a delicate and sometimes improvised plot, with interspersed couplets, which often have a topical or political significance. During the 18th century this peculiarly French form spread all over Europe.
The reason why Scribe came to write so many vaudevilles or vaudeville-comedies was that the Théâtre Français had special priveleges for the production of both comedies and tragedies. But Scribe was too prolific a writer for the Théâtre Français to take all his works. He had therefore come to an agreement with the Director of the Gymnase Theatre, whereby the latter undertook to stage all Scribe's vaudeville plays—an arrangement, incidentally, which made this director a multi-millionaire.
Scribe was least happy as a writer of lyrics, and he gradually whittled away the couplets until he had removed from vaudeville the last traces of the pastoral drama and the rural idyll. Instead he invested it with a lively Parisian atmosphere. He devoted his attention to devising more elegant and ingenious plots, based on stories both old and new, real and imaginary. Even at this stage he was giving expression to a sober bourgeois attitude that was later to be reflected in modern French drama.
It was above all as a writer of vaudeville that Scribe made his name. In this capacity he became a master from whom Heiberg, Hertz and Hostrup learned much, as did also the distinguished Swedish vaudeville playwrights of whom Blanche was the best. Even when, in his more serious plays, he deals with social problems, there always lingers a faint echo of the gaiety of vaudeville.
Scribe's straight plays are either historical comedies or domestic dramas. In both types his technique is the same, but as his historical plays have retained their popularity longer it is proposed to deal first with them, and in particular with his play Le Verre d'Eau (The Glass of Water). This drama was first produced in 1840 and is still being played to-day. This play gives in essence Scribe's whole philosophy of dramatic art, in so far as he can be said to have had one.
The Glass of Water has the high-sounding sub-title, Les effects et les causes. A glass of water spilt on Queen Anne's dress by the Duchess of Marlborough is the cause of her own disgrace, the collapse of the Whigs, the rise of Bolingbroke and ultimately a revolution in English foreign policy. Scribe wishes to show that from the most trivial incident can result the most catastrophic reversals of fortune. This point of view is put by Boling-broke himself in his famous tirade in the first act; he concludes it by telling how he became a statesman and a Minister of the Crown because he could dance a saraband, and was dismissed because he caught a cold.
This discovery made by Scribe and Bolingbroke is as old as the hills, and many authors at many times have expressed it in more or less the same terms. Scribe found it first in Voltaire who had previously quoted this very same historical incident, the spilling of a glass of water. In direct contrast to Schiller, Scribe conceived a historical event as the result of cunning intrigue, and as set in motion by trivial causes such as personal ambition or vanity. This conception naturally deprived his plays of all semblance of historical reality, but enhanced their dramatic quality. About the actual clash of ideas behind the conflict between Bolingbroke and his enemy we learn nothing.
Significantly enough, it is only against the Duchess of Marlborough that Bolingbroke is fighting; as plotters and counter-plotters they are well matched in cunning. The remaining characters—the Queen who is always vacillating, and the young lovers, Masham and Abigail Churchill—are mere puppets in their hands. The whole play hinges on the rather improbable supposition that Masham is the unconscious object of admiration of two rivals, the Queen and the Duchess. Bolingbroke contrives to make good use of their jealousy, and by the fourth act causes a quarrel to break out between them, at the very moment when the Queen bids Masham hand her the fateful glass of water. The jealous Duchess seizes it and spills the water over the Queen's dress.
Scribe often builds his plays round two young people who fall in love, and are happily united at the end of the fifth act. But their fates are playfully interwoven with serious political struggles and they are used as catspaws by both sides for their own ends. The general idea is to allow the characters to fall victims to all kinds of misunderstandings, which the audience knows all about already and therefore finds all the more entertaining to watch as they see the characters becoming innocently and unconsciously embroiled. If Masham is anxious to confide in one or other of the noble ladies, or they are about to confess their affection for him, the author is sure to interrupt their conversation by some device which leaves them with false impressions of each other's feelings. Letters are intercepted, secret whisperings over-heard and misunderstood, assignations are made, but the person who turns up is always the one whose presence is least desired; this is all according to the convention.
Plots of this kind go far back into dramatic history, and are to be found fully developed in the French playwrights of the 18th century, Marivaux and Beaumarchais. One can even find 18th century examples of comedy based on some historical incident—a type of which Scribe was so fond. What was new in Scribe was the importance which he gave to the plot. In The Glass of Water the love of the Queen and the Duchess of Marl-borough for Masham is regarded solely as a factor in the development of the plot, and the author makes no effort whatever to explain their motives in psychological terms.
The Exposition, which was such an important element in most 19th century drama, is almost entirely missing in Scribe's works. He plunges straight into the action, and from the first moment dramatic tension is high. Scribe then gives himself plenty of time; the real climax is not reached until the fourth act, the fifth being reserved for setting all to rights. Meanwhile the audience is held in suspense. Every new character who appears on the stage adds a new twist to the plot, and leads the audience to look for a solution in a different quarter. To ensure that they fully appreciate the dangers of the situation, the author allows the principal characters to exchange asides which show how the game is going. At the end of the third act Bolingbroke whispers to Abigail, "The match goes well". "It is lost", says Abigail. "It is won", answers Bolingbroke.
At the end of the fourth act comes the big scene which everyone has been waiting for, the same which later on, in the plays of Dumas the younger and Augier was to be known as the scène à faire. In The Glass of Water we have in this scene the fateful glass of water which brings disgrace to the Duchess of Marlborough. The purpose of this technique is of course to ensure that right up to the moment when the curtain rises for the last act the spectator's heart shall be in his mourn. Plays were constructed on this principle not only by the younger Dumas and Augier, but also by Ibsen in his earliest plays.
The last act, however, always brings a happy solution to every problem. The plot is by now so complicated that the audience is quite incapable of guessing the solution, though at the same time entirely confident that all will be well in the end. The dramatic critic Sarcey, who, unlike his contemporaries, cherished an abiding affection for Scribe, was very irritated when the great tragic actress, Madame Bartet, overacted her part in one of Scribe's plays and gave her despair too realistic an expression. The incident occurred in a scene in La bataille de dames (The Ladles' Battle), when her lover was being dragged away to execution by the police. So movingly did the actress depict the agony of young Léonie that Sarcey felt himself compelled in the name of the public to reprove her. "Dear Lady", he said, "Pray do not be so anxious. You are in M. Scribe's hands; he is a fine fellow and he won't let you down. In the last act he will restore your handsome lover and see that you are married. Your young man pretends to put his head on the block, and we pretend to believe that he may lose it. You must pretend to be anxious, because courtesy demands it, but if you are more than reasonably anxious you embarrass both the author and all of us. The emotion that you show must bear some relation to the truth of the situation—and the truth is that none of this is really true: it has never happened".
This passage shows the atmosphere of unreality which pervades Scribe's plays. They are good theatre, and good theatre they are meant to be: they have no pretensions to reality.
The last line of a Scribe play often contains some allusion to the title. In The Glass of Water, Bolingbroke hands Masham his seals of office, and receives the answer "And all this thanks to a glass of water". The Ladies' Battle ends in the same way; "It's not enough to play well in order to win", says the triumphant Countess. "True", replies her opponent, "you need to hold the aces and kings". At which the Countess, with a glance at the happy lover, exclaims, "Especially the King, when ladies wage war". Allusions to card games or chess are characteristic of Scribe, and may be noted in as late a play as Strindberg's Gustav III.
Plots such as those of Scribe would seem quite incredible if he had not also created characters expressly for them. These characters fall into two categories, the intriguers and their victims.
At the centre of his plays there is always a brilliant conspirator, who carries on his intrigues for the sheer joy of intriguing. To enable him to display his art in all its glory, it is necessary that the other characters shall be, if not fools, at least easily led and unsuspecting. The audience are in the chief conspirator's confidence from the very first moment, and by means of his asides they are kept informed of the progress of his plots. Thus they can derive great amusement from the spectacle of those poor credulous wretches who think they are behaving as heroes, when in fact they are being used as pawns by others, or else are chivvied along in ignorance of the fearful dangers around them, until at last they are safe in their lovers' arms, as happens to Masham in The Glass of Water. If ever Scribe tries to create a real character he fails miserably, and his dramas are almost always at their best when they are so full of incident that no one has any time to gain a real impression of the characters.
The dialogue is also determined by the plot. In no way does it resemble ordinary conversation—indeed, it hardly pretends to do so. A typical dramatic dialogue of Scribe's is one where the brilliant characters sparkle like fireworks, while the stupid, the pompous and the gullible betray themselves in every sentence they utter. Scribe's style is considered to be dull, but it is at any rate economical: it carries the reader straight into the action and anchors his attention there.
It is above all in these historical plays that Scribe's virtuosity as a constructor of plots is made plain. For the development of modern drama, however, his contemporary plays have been of at least equal significance. On the whole they are written after the same pattern; but however slight their connexion with real life, these plays, because of the subject with which they deal and the technique employed, have had a considerable effect on modern drama as developed by Augier and Dumas the younger.
The construction of La Camaraderie (Comradeship) is similar to that of the historical plays. Conspiracy and intrigue are represented in a contemporary setting of cliques and coteries. The play introduces us first to a group of people who have made a compact to secure each other's advancement to posts of honour and profit by every available means. To this end they influence opinion in journals and salons, and whisper confidences in the ears of ministers—with such success that all members of the group achieve fame and distinction, while outsiders are discredited and disgraced. As the leader of the conspiracy we find Madame de Mirémont, a former schoolmistress, who has succeeded in marrying a peer of France. There is also a hero, an honest young lawyer who is pushed forward to advancement without his being aware of it. Exactly like Masham in The Glass of Water, he falls in love with a girl, and to win her hand must secure election to Parliament. To achieve this his friends succeed in persuading the influential Mme. de Mirémont that he is in love with her. The ruse is not discovered until too late, when she can no longer take counter-measures, and in the final scene the hero makes this naive recantation: "How wrong I was to lament my fate and the wickedness of mankind. Why, even this morning, I was cursing the age for its plots and intrigues. Now I perceive that friendships can indeed be disinterested, and that one may succeed without recourse to cliques and shameful manœuvres". The play was immensely popular because it openly satirized the cliques which have always flourished in French politics. It is superficial, but it is also witty and entertaining, and it is certainly a fore-runner of the "Comedy of Manners", in which Augier was later to display the sores on the body of French society.
Une Chaîne (A Chain) is probably the play of Scribe's which most foreshadows the dramas of the younger Dumas, a playwright on whom Scribe's technique was to have great influence. It tells of a young man who falls in love with a girl, but feels himself still bound to a former mistress, as if by a heavy chain, and it introduces several characters who are later to become stock figures in modern French drama; the grande dame who falls in love with a young genius, the deceived husband whose duelling pistols are always cocked, the innocent girl led to the altar without knowing anything about her husband or the extent of his affections, and finally the honest and prosperous father-in-law from the country. The issue is really a profoundly serious one, but Scribe cannot resist the temptation to contrive intrigues and really succeeds (without unduly straining our credulity) in presenting a series of highly dramatic situations.
The play shows both Scribe's strength and his weakness. It was written in 1841, and portrayed both characters and situations with a realism that modern drama was not to develop to the full until ten years later. As soon as the complexities of the plot begin to appear, the atmosphere changes, the characters become mere puppets in the author's hands, and the whole thing becomes just an ingenious piece of stagecraft. The novel at this period had already achieved a much higher degree of realism. Ten years before A Chain appeared, Stendhal had written in France Le Rouge et le Noir, a study of a similar situation, but executed with supreme realism and with very shrewd psychological insight.
The attention which Scribe gave to his plots was a very necessary element in the reform and growth of drama, which needed to recover some of the logic it had lost since the great days of the French classical period. The trouble is, however, that the mechanism of Scribe's plots is too obvious, and dramatic tension becomes the dominating factor in his plays. The play becomes a sort of chess problem where the spectator is presented with a situation for which there seems no solution until the author's skill suddenly reveals the move which resolves it. Scribe was once watching a performance of one of his own early plays whose plot he had forgotten; turning to his neighbour he said, "I am curious to see how I got myself out of this one". Perhaps it is the weakness of Scribe's plays that the spectator is more interested in the author's solution to the problem than in the psychological consistency of his characters' behaviour.
Scribe was very fond of placing one character at the mercy of two powerful personalities, each pulling him in a different direction. The typical example of this is The Glass of Water, where young Masham is tossed like a shuttle between the Duchess of Marlborough and Boling-broke. Again in Comradeship the hero is placed between two intriguing ladies, and with various modifications the same situation is found in most of his main plays. The solution is usually so contrived that the main conspirator achieves his object, and removes the last obstacle to the union of the young lovers in the final scene.
By his skill in the construction of plots Scribe became the obvious teacher, to whom young dramatists of succeeding generations looked. It is said of Sardou, his most faithful disciple and the heir of his crown, that he began his career by reading the first act of a Scribe drama with which he was not familiar, then composing the rest of the play, and finally comparing the result with Scribe's original.
The more ambitious playwrights of the realistic modem drama school which followed Scribe also made use of his technique. This holds true even of the younger Dumas, who rather ungratefully described Scribe as the Shakespeare of the shadow theatre, the master who could construct plays with characters who never came alive. Naturally Björnson and Ibsen were not such close intimates of Scribe, but in their young days, when they were theatre directors, they came much under his influence, because the Norwegian repertory gave pride of place to his plays. Björnson, indeed, in his early theatre reviews expressly warned his contemporaries not to omit that stage in development which could be described by the name of "the man with the new theatre machine". The influence of Scribe on Björnson's plays is apparent, not only in the early Norse dramas, but also in later contemporary plays. In his great feminist play, Leonardo, a forerunner of Ibsen's A Doll's House, the resemblance to The Ladies' Battle was so plain that he found it advisable to make one of his heroines say that she had just read the play.
The influence of Scribe also dominated Ibsen when he wrote his early historical plays, especially Fru Inger til Östråt (Lady Inger of Östråt), while his play, De unges forbund (The League of Youth), has as its hero, Stensgård, a mere puppet of the Scribe type who is tossed to and fro between two experienced plotters, Daniel Hejre and Lundestad. Gradually Ibsen cut the threads that bound him to Scribe's involved plots, but he never quite succeeded in freeing himself entirely from the tendency to over-elaborate his plots. Without those years of apprentice-ship to Scribe, however, he might never have become the greatest master of technique in modem drama.
Patti Gillespie (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Plays: Well-Complicated," in Speech Monographs Vol. 42, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 20-8.
[Gillespie closely examines the structure of Scribe's dramas in an attempt to formulate a precise definition of the term "well-made play. "]
Considerable confusion surrounds the meaning of the phrase well-made play. This confusion can be lessened by agreeing to restrict its use to those plays written in or after the nineteenth century, by or in the manner of Eugene Scribe. But even men the phrase lacks precision since little agreement exists about which features of Scribe's plays combine to call forth the designation well-made. The consistency with which various critics speak of the well-made play form or formula seems to imply an awareness of some pattern in the over-all structure, but the infrequent attempts to discover the pattern have not been successful.
Perhaps a key to this presumed form, or formula, or overall structure, is an understanding of how Scribe built and resolved complication. Aristotle identified complication and denouement as the formal parts of plot, and critics are fond of remarking that Scribe relied on "lots of plot" as he wrote his plays. Although random remarks concerning complications in Scribean drama appear throughout the critical literature, no systematic study of Scribe's construction of complications has been undertaken and reported. A methodical inquiry into these techniques seems warranted, for it should provide valuable information about recurring features of construction throughout the body of Scribe's plays. And mese recurring features, once identified, should constitute a very important part of any eventual definition of the phrase well-made play.
Before turning to the analysis of the plays themselves, how-ever, the meanings of certain terms should be clarified. A play has two formal parts: complication and denouement. The play is divided into mese parts by the crisis. A complication is anything which alters or threatens to alter the course of an action. A crisis, or turning point, is reached whenever no further entanglement or involvement of a complication is possible. For the untangling or resolving of complication, the French adopted the term denouement. Line of action will be used to designate a related series of complications. The number of complications within any given play may be vast, for a single line of action may encompass numerous complications, and many plays develop more than one line of action.
But dealing with complications can be simplified by agreeing that a play has a major complication, the resolution of which precipitates, or allows, an end to the play. Similarly, a single complication may have its own crisis and resolution; therefore, a play will have several crises. But the major crisis of the play occurs when the play's major complication reaches the point at which its further entanglement is impossible. An example will clarify. The major complication of Hamlet is initiated when the young prince accepts the three-fold charge from the ghost of his father; the major crisis is the famous mousetrap scene; the complication ends with the death of Hamlet.
Clearly, the relative position of the play's major crisis determines in large measure the form of the play's complication and denouement. Three basic patterns are possible. If the crisis is early, the play will build complications fairly rapidly to the point where further involvement is impossible; the play will then rather slowly resolve its complications. If the crisis is very late, the complications will build for an extended period and then resolve abruptly: the denouement will be short. When the crisis occupies an intermediate position, the knotting of the complications and the untying (the denouement) will adjust accordingly. To clarify and to provide a convenient point of reference, two examples will serve. Shakespeare frequently employed an early crisis, a crisis located in what is now the third act of his five-act play. Moliere, on the other hand, placed the crisis of Tartuffe in the fourth act and used the whole fifth act for the denouement. Such a crisis, I will call intermediate. The term late crisis will designate a crisis in the fifth act of a five-act play or in a proportionately similar position in the case of one-, two-, three- or four-act plays.
Scribe employs all three structural patterns, but he shows a decided preference for crises in the intermediate and late positions. Of the thirty-five plays [which contain no music], only Dix Ans de la vie d'une femme and Le Mauvais Sujet display an early crisis and extensive denouement. Significantly, these two plays are early works and are atypical in another respect: both posit a change in the ethical disposition of the leading character.
In Le Mauvais Sujet, Estelle and Raymond are happily contemplating marriage, but the arrival and subsequent intervention of the mysterious and malevolent Robert complicates the action. About midway through the play's single act, Robert undergoes a spiritual conversion because he discovers that his father has forgiven him. He becomes the benefactor of the play's sympathetic characters and hastily eliminates those very obstacles he had earlier contrived. Robert then leaves the village as secretly as he had come, sacrificing his own happiness for that of his friends and family. Only after his ship sails do the characters guess his true identity. The crisis, Robert's reformation, occurs about midway in the action; the denouement explores the changed attitudes of Robert and shows his attempts to undo the wrongs which he committed in his past.
In Dix Ans de la vie d'une femme, Adele's foolish decision to obey her friends rather than her husband, Darcey, leads directly to a life of adultery. The crisis is reached in Act III when Darcey exposes Adele's sin to the entire family. The denouement begins with the decision that Adele's punishment will be estrangement from Darcey; the rest of the play portrays her consequent moral decline and progressively worsening economic plight. As in Le Mauvais Sujet, the play's final resolution depends upon the removal of the protagonist from the dramatic action; whereas Robert sails away, Adele dies (repentant but not forgiven). In both plays, the ending is less a resolution of the play's major complication than a contrivance for stopping the action.
With respect to the position of the crisis, the remaining thirty-three plays are about equally divided, the late crisis being slightly more prevalent. Five of the six one-act plays and nine of the eleven three-act plays have this construction; among the five-act works, the late crisis is rare but not absent. Usually the late crisis takes the form of a major plot discovery (e.g., Rêves d'amour); less often it is a threat to a sympathetic character (e.g., La Passion secrete), a decision by a principal character (e.g. Valérie), or a confrontation (e.g., Le Puff). Whatever its form, the late crisis leads almost immediately to the play's resolution, the rapidity of which is most often made possible by the direct and successful intervention of an agent aligned with the sympathetic characters. Although the interfering agent may be new to the action (e.g., Le Valet de son rival), typically he has been a participant throughout but assumes a new position of strength by means of information only recently acquired (e.g., Les Indépendants). Less often the speedy resolution is made possible by an agent's conversion (e.g., La Czarine and La Frileuse), or by another discovery (e.g., Rodolphe). In plays dependent on deception, the resolution may merely be the successful completion of the trickery and abysmal (and acknowledged) defeat of one agent (e.g., La Grand'mere and Le Valet de son rival). Whatever the instrument of resolution, in Scribe's plays which have a late crisis, the denouement is less an untangling than a cutting-through the mass of complications.
Japhet, Feu Lionel, La Tutrice, and most of Scribe's five-act plays have an intermediately-placed crisis. This crisis is also usually a major plot discovery, but on some occasions a deed (e.g., La Tutrice) or a confrontation (e.g., Le Fils de Cromwell) may substitute for, or strongly supplement, the discovery.
Obviously, plays with an intermediately-placed crisis have more extensive denouements than those with a late crisis. The way in which Scribe uses the lengthy denouments is varied. The denouement most often develops (often to a crisis) numerous minor lines of action preparatory to resolving both them and the principal line of the play. In Bertrand et Raton, for example, the crisis is at the end of Act IV. The early part of the fifth act por-trays the plight of the young lovers, dramatizing their helplessness and inability to extricate themselves from their dilemma; the rest of the act reinforces the didactic purposes of the play: suggesting that governing is best left to the aristocrats and politicians and showing the ineptitude of the people and the fickleness of the mob.
An intermediate crisis not infrequently gives rise to another complication; the denouement then is itself the initiation, development, and resolution of this complication. In La Calomnie, for example, the discovery of the identity of the count's real lover will presumably end the threat to Cecile's reputation and restore her happiness. Instead, the discovery (the major crisis) initiates another complication. Before the crisis, Raymond has only to put an end to the rumors about Cecile; his strategy is simple—he will learn and then reveal the identity of the real lover. After the crisis, Raymond must dispel the rumors still, but he must do so without revealing that Herminie (his sister) is the true culprit. Act five is devoted to exploring alternative solutions to the dilemma and to selecting and effecting one of these.
In most plays of trickery depending on a conflict between wits, the action after the crisis is devoted primarily to the unsuccessful efforts of the antipathetic wit to re-gain the advantage lost at the play's crisis. In La Camaraderie, for example, Cesarine employs all of her wiles to recoup her losses and to reverse the trend toward Edmond's nomination which she herself...
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Arvin, Neil C. "The Technique of Scribe's Comédies-Vaudevilles." Modern Philology XVI, No. 3 (July 1918): 47-53.
Asserts that "Scribe was the greatest technician in the history of the French drama and … all the dramatists of the nineteenth century who aimed at constructive excellence profit, consciously or unconsciously, from the new models which he gave to dramatic art."
——. 'The Comédie-Vaudeville of Scribe." Sewanee Review XXVI, No. 4 (October 1918): 474-84.
While admitting that Scribe's short plays are "devoid of literary value and written in a mediocre, prosy style," Arvin insists they are historically valuable for the picture they...
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