Eugène Labiche’s 175 works, a moderate total for the period, encompass many varieties of comic theater and include operettas. The quality of these works varies. At worst, the single-act vaudeville pieces are amusing, with their exuberant humor and caricatures; at best, the more substantial comedies of character and manners contain portraits in the moralistic tradition of Jean de La Bruyère and Molière. The comic elements of Labiche’s plays are not of the witty type; they tend instead to be of the kind Henri Bergson described in his essay Le Rire (1900; Laughter, 1911). Actions more than words form their basis. The most influential theater critics of his period credited Labiche with having revolutionized the vaudeville comedy form in France by enlarging its traditional scope and format to include realistic observation. Thoroughly bourgeois in status and formation himself, Labiche wrote plays primarily for and about his own social class. It is for his double portrait of middle-class French society, astutely observed from an interior vantage point, and of human vanities in general, that he is justly acclaimed.
Only six of his plays were written without collaborators. Nevertheless, all the works possess a continuity of style and tone that seems attributable to Labiche himself. Several of his collaborators asserted that their role in the creative process was to act primarily as a sounding board for ideas that Labiche had already elaborated. The best of Labiche’s plays have entered the classic repertory of French theater and are still performed regularly. Outside France, the popularity of Labiche’s comedies rests largely on what is perceived as their Gallic humor and on the playwright’s skillful handling of movement and rhythm.
Pao, Angela C. The Orient of the Boulevards: Exoticism, Empire, and Nineteenth Century French Theater. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. A look at nineteenth century French theater that focuses on Orientalism. Bibliography and index.
Pronko, Leonard C. Eugène Labiche and Georges Feydeau. New York: Grove 1982. This study examines the lives and works of Labiche and Georges Feydeau. Bibliography and index.