The Well-Made Play
The Well-Made Play
Originating in France as the pièce bien faite, the well-made play is a style of dramatic writing characterized by a meticulous, methodological purposiveness of plotting. The logically precise construction of the well-made play is typified by a number of conventions. The plot is most often based on a withheld secret—known to the audience but unknown to the characters—which, when revealed at the climax, reverses the fortunes of the play's hero. During the course of the play, the overall pattern of the drama is reflected in the movement of the individual acts, in which a steadily mounting suspense is achieved through the battle of wits between the hero and the villain. The hero's fortune fluctuates during his conflict with the adversary until finally, at the climax, the secret is revealed in an obligatory scene (scène à faire) and the hero is benefitted in the final dénouement, or resolution.
By all critical accounts, the well-made play was originated by Eugène Scribe, who, over the course of his prolific career, gradually perfected the genre. Like those of Jean Racine, Scribe's plays focus on a small cluster of characters involved in a single action that builds steadily to a climax. Unlike Racine, however, Scribe infused his plays with a technical specificity, by which each particular action of a character is explained and justified so that it is made to seem inevitable. Over the course of his literary career, during which he produced over 420 dramatic works, Scribe was one of the most popular playwrights in France. He wrote dramas for the four major Parisian theaters of the day, and in the period from 1815 to 1830, Scribe's plays accounted for more than one-tenth of the new comedies and vaudevilles in Paris.
The French dramatists who followed Scribe adapted his formula to two very different uses. Victorien Sardou, a disciple of Scribe, used the well-made form in the service of a more realistic drama. For example, his Daniel Rochat (1880) depicts the confrontation between an atheist hero who marries an Anglo-American woman who wants to follow their civil ceremony with a church wedding; the entire play chronicles the struggle between these two and ends in an unsatisfactory conclusion. By contrast, Eugène Labiche applied Scribe's formula mainly for the purpose of arousing laughter; his farces present a picture of contemporary Parisian life, but offer little social commentary.
Scribean drama was extended by Émile Augier and Alexandre Dumas fils. Augier infused the form of the well-made play with romanticism and melodrama, and founded popular realism in France. In plays such as L'aventurière, Gabrielle, and La gendre de M. Poirier, Augier addresses the moral culture of his time, commenting on contemporary Parisian life, its mores and social distinctions. Dumas similarly used Scribe's style to comment on modern life, but Dumas went further than Augier in his realism. His characters are battered by their circumstances; Dumas used the form to critique the social conventions and class stratifications of France, to study the problems of modern capitalism and religion, and to comment on the literary process itself.
Despite Scribe's overwhelming popularity during his life-time and his profound influence on his contemporaries, evaluations of the well-made play since then have been primarily negative. Literary critics have largely dismissed the well-made plays of Scribe, which they claim combine theatrical ingenuity in an intricate plot with a bare minimum of thought, a lack of poetry, and weak characterization. George Bernard Shaw said of Scribe in a famous comment, "Why the devil should a man write like Scribe when he can write like Shakespeare or Molière, Aristophanes or Euripides?" While most of Scribe's plays have been relegated to virtual obscurity, however, the profound effect the well-made form had on the historical development of modern European drama is undeniable. The plays of Scribe and Sardou were translated and performed in England and America as early as 1819, influencing such playwrights as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Tom Taylor, and T. W. Robertson, all of whom adapted the form to their own purposes. Most notably, Scribe's influence extends to Henrik Ibsen, who directed a number of Scribe's plays in Norway before producing his own dramatic works; his early works clearly reflect a Scribean influence, while his later works adapt the style of the well-made play, infusing it with symbolism. Other critics have detected Scribe's influence on Henry James and, ironically, Shaw as well. Despite Scribe's dramatic weaknesses, then, the well-made play exerted an immeasurable influence in the history of theater well into the twentieth century, shaping the nature of drama in a variety of movements, including realism, naturalism, and symbolism.
L'aventurière [The Adventuress] (drama) 1848
Gabrielle (drama) 1849
Le gendre de M. Poirier [The Son-in-law of M. Poirier] (drama) 1854
Le mariage d'Olympe [Olympia 's Marriage] (drama) 1855
Richelieu (drama) 1839
Money (drama) 1840
Alexandre Dumas fils
La dame aux camélias [Camille] (drama) 1852
Diane de Lys (drama) 1853
Le demi-monde (drama) 1855
Francillon (drama) 1887
Le chapeau de paille d'Italie [The Italian Straw Hat] (drama) 1851
Les pattes de mouche [A Scrap of Paper] (drama) 1860
La patrie [The Fatherland] (drama) 1869
Daniel Rochat (drama) 1880
Bertrand et Raton (drama)...
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C. E. Montague (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "The Weil-Made Play," in Dramatic Values, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925, pp. 62-74.
[In the essay that follows, Montague discusses the dramatic techniques of the well-made playwrights, focusing on Sandeau, Augier, and Dumas.]
During the long reign of the French "well-made piece" the voice of its makers was seldom stilled on the darling theme of how they did it. They lectured on it, and wrote prefaces, and the interviewer went not empty away. Like simple, truthful conjurors—men who are always admitting that rabbits come out of their hats without Divine interposition—"Simply the perfection of my method, ladies and gentlemen, nothing more"—they disclaimed inspiration; they made out that they were only doing a kind of sums; only, like naturalists, inferring the whole of a good-sized unknown beast from the modest premise of one knucklebone.
Then would follow technical instructions. An unwritten play, said Sardou, always appeared to him as a kind of philosophic equation from which the unknown term had to be disengaged; he held that "once the formula for this was found, the piece followed of itself." At this point young France is apt in these later days to interject idiomatically, "Chansons!" and yet there is a sense in what Sardou says. Consider his own play, "La Sorcière," how it grows. Imagine its germ,...
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Patti P. Giliespie (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Plays, Well-Constructed and Weil-Made," in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 58, No. 3, October, 1972, pp. 313-21.
[In this essay, Giliespie differentiates the well-made play from the well-constructed play, using the distinction to critically evaluate Scribe's dramatic style.]
Critical allusions to the plays of Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) are confused, ambiguous, and often contradictory. The literature surrounding this playwright discloses several curious situations. The name of Scribe is well known to students of the drama; the plays of Scribe are not. The success and esteem of Scribe in his own day were remarkable;1 his subsequent reputation has been largely unfavorable.2 Dramaturgical patterns which supposedly describe Scribe's practices are proposed;3 a substantial number of Scribe's plays do not fit the patterns.4 Eugene Scribe is the acknowledged "father" of something called the "well-made play"; the meaning of the phrase "well-made play" remains obscure, imprecisely defined, inadequately understood.
None of these problems is more vexing than the use which critics have made of the term "well-made play." Common usage for over a century has firmly linked the name of Scribe to the label "well-made play"; on the other hand, the phrase connotes a degree of excellence...
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The Influence Of The Well-Made Play
Donald Clive Stuart (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: "French Realistic Drama: The Problem Play," in The Development of Dramatic Art, D. Appleton and Company, 1928, pp. 514-41.
[In the following chapter from The Development of Dramatic Art, Stuart traces the influence of Scribe and the well-made play on the development of the French realistic drama.]
The Mariage de Figaro had combined a discussion of a social problem with an intricate plot handled with great dexterity. During the Revolution the theatre had been given over to propaganda. The characters were mere masks. The plots were often inartistically sacrificed for the sake of satire in comedy, and in order to voice republican sentiments in serious plays. Drama, like all other arts, was at low ebb. But, while the war over tragedy was being waged, comedy began a peaceful development which was to culminate in the work of Scribe and, through him, to exert a powerful influence on all European drama of the nineteenth century.
Picard, an actor-dramatist, was chiefly responsible for the reestablishment of true comedy on the stage. His Mediocre et Rampant (1797) was an artistic success in comparison to the plays of the sans culottes of the revolutionary period, although it was no novelty in comparison to the comedies of the Old Régime. In his Entrée dans le Monde (1799), Picard...
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Arvin, Neil Cole. Eugène Scribe and the French Theatre, 1815-1860. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924, 268 p.
Studies Scribe's plays as social commentary on the mores of contemporary French culture and surveys the reaction of his contemporaries to his portrayal of the period.
Gillespie, Patti. "Plays: Well-Complicated." Speech Monographs 42, No. 1 (March 1975): 20-28
Defines some common characteristics of well-made plays through an examination of the ways in which Scribe establishes and resolves complication.
Habegger, Alfred. "The Siege of London: Henry James and the Pièce Bien Faite." Modern Fiction Studies 15, No. 2 (Summer 1969): 219-30.
Explores the professed influence of Dumas and Augier on James's "The Siege of London," concluding that the work has little in common with the style of the well-made play.
Koon, Helene, and Richard Switzer. Eugène Scribe. Boston: Twayne, 1980, 174 p.
Critical biography of Scribe's life and times that explores the style of his social comedies and his history plays and their influence on later dramatists.
Lamm, Martin. "Scribe and Hebbel" and "French Drama of the Second Empire." In...
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