If the constant and predominant theme of Émile Augier’s plays is money and its corrupting effect, this circumstance is not without its historical justification. The period of the Second Empire in France was marked by an enormous development of the nation’s industrial potential, and with this development came a material prosperity that fostered both a wider dissemination of wealth and a more intense desire, among those not directly touched by the newfound prosperity, to share in it. So intense was this desire, in some cases, that it swept aside moral principle. Augier’s self-appointed task of calling attention to this decay and noting its deleterious effects on the middle class, even as he recalled the sound values of that class, is therefore more than caprice or literary fancy.
Augier’s plays are successful when he uses in a measured fashion the innovations in theme and style of the two playwrights who most influenced him, Dumas, fils, and Scribe. The former’s tendency to expound theses in his plays, converting them into pièces à thèse, exerted an unfavorable influence on Augier in those instances in which Augier’s dramatic apparatus becomes nothing more than a pretext for the elaboration of an idea. Scribe’s propensity for overemphasizing the aspect of technical adroitness in the delineation of plot and character also exerted an unfavorable influence on Augier in those instances in which Augier appears to have sacrificed realism in the description of a social situation or individual psychology to the objective of achieving a well-made play.
In his best works, however, Augier avoids these two traps, profiting from the lessons of Dumas, fils, and Scribe without subverting the worthy fruits of his insightful analysis of bourgeois society. The plays in which Augier arrives at this equilibrium of art and realistic observation are Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law, Giboyer’s Son, and The House of Fourchambault.
Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law
Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law, rightly regarded as Augier’s masterpiece, is a nineteenth century reworking of a theme brilliantly treated in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (pr. 1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675), the theme of the middle-class social climber. M. Poirier is a nouveau riche who, longing to be titled, marries off his daughter, Antoinette, to a poor aristocrat, the marquis de Presles. Underwriting the expenses of the couple, Poirier explodes in indignation when he discovers that his noble son-in-law is content to live off him and is in effect exploiting his largesse. Poirier then threatens to stop subsidizing the marquis, and this predictably provokes a crisis of major proportions for the latter, who now takes another look at the internal circumstances of his marriage and, in particular, his feelings for his wife. In so doing, he finds that he really loves her, and, happily, this discovery represents a new beginning for him, rather than a very sad end. Through the magnanimity of Poirier’s friend Verdelet, the marquis is able to redress the financial aspect of the crisis and even becomes employed. At the conclusion of the play, however, Poirier, having acquired the marquis’s property, is still clinging to his glorious ambition of gaining the status of a nobleman.
The particular subject of Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law, the tensions between the nouveau riche and the impoverished aristocrat, was a most appropriate one for Augier because it mirrored faithfully the social agitation of the Second Empire, with the realignments engendered by the mercantile decline of the nobility and the upward movement of the bourgeoisie. What makes Augier’s treatment of this subject remarkable is his unrelenting scrutiny of the well-to-do bourgeois as typified by Poirier. Himself a bourgeois, Augier nevertheless resisted the temptation to poeticize his character. Poirier is clearly meritorious, admittedly, to the extent that he has created his wealth honestly, through hard work. Nor is he lacking in common sense, or in a kind of stubborn persistence in the pursuit of his ends, a persistence admirable by the very energy that animates it.
On the other hand, Augier has discerned Poirier’s defects and does not hesitate to reveal them. This social climber borders on a caricature by the vanity and vacuity of his social ambitions. More disquieting is the fact that, once he has decided that marrying his daughter to an unscrupulous marquis was a colossal blunder, he seeks to separate her from him with a bitterness and rancor that are repugnant. Yet, if these negative qualities reduce the audience’s admiration for Poirier, they reinforce the impression that his character is derived from the example of life itself. Poirier is, in fact, the model for many other representatives of the middle class in Augier’s theater, such as Vernouillet in Faces of Brass, Maréchal in Giboyer’s Son, and Guérin in Maître Guérin.
If Augier has not exaggerated Poirier’s moral assets, so he has not exaggerated the marquis de Presles’s moral liabilities. The marquis surely reflects the principal vices of his class as they were often perceived at this juncture in European history. In his own way, he too is prideful. It is only that his pride takes the form of a delight in indolence and frivolity. At the same time, however, he embodies the more traditional positive features of the aristocracy. He easily spends the money of others without question. Yet he does so with a wit, a grace, and a generosity that are the hallmarks of his aristocratic bearing at its best. What is more significant, however, is that the marquis de Presles gains in moral stature as his essential qualities are favorably mirrored in his wife Antoinette’s love for him. Augier has made of her a sympathetic figure, and her adoration of her husband affects the audience’s feelings toward him. The portrait of the marquis resembles that of Poirier in that both characters emerge as believable creations from the psychological as well as the historical viewpoint.
The artistic construction of Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law attests an intelligent and skillful adaptation of the precepts of Scribe. The play is well-made less in the artificial sense of perfect technical balance—notwithstanding the careful contrasting of Poirier and Verdelet, Gaston and Hector—than in the more classical sense of a rigorous economy of organization in which there is practically no padding. The nineteenth century drama critic Francisque Sarcey expressed it succinctly in his review of Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law when he observed that there was not a single scene or word in it that one would want to eliminate. When Sarcey added that the play was the masterpiece of contemporary comedy, he was asserting an opinion that the work’s general excellence completely justifies.
In Giboyer’s Son, the antagonism between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie is again a focal point of the dramatic action but in circumstances appreciably different from those of Monsieur Poirier’s Son-in-Law, as Augier creates a larger political context for that dramatic action. The play pits the traditional aristocracy, incarnated by the marquis d’Auberville, against the Liberal Party, represented, however intermittently, by M. Maréchal. To combat the growing influence of the Liberal Party, the marquis chooses as speech writer for his Conservatives, who are aligned with the clergy, an opportunist, the journalist Giboyer. In selecting Giboyer, the marquis is well aware of the venality of the man and feels confident that Giboyer will support whatever political position will bring him the most money, especially since he is bent on educating his son, Maximilien. The latter, who does not know that Giboyer is in reality his father, becomes Maréchal’s secretary, again through the agency of the marquis. Maréchal, who was formerly a member of the Liberal Party but is now under the wing of the marquis, dreams of an alliance of the “old” and the “new” aristocracy, reinforced in his expectations by the fact that his daughter, Fernande, has become the marquis’s protégée and by the fact that he himself has been chosen to deliver the Conservative Party’s speech in opposition to the spokesman for the Liberal Party.
Everything changes when the clerical members of the Conservative Party move to replace Maréchal. Angered and disillusioned, he...
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