Eugène Scribe left two brief theoretical documents summing up his ideas about his art. In his inaugural speech at the Académie Français in 1836, he combines respect for France’s classical tradition with an appreciation of popular culture, especially the satiric songs (ancestors of his own vaudevilles) that reflected their time more accurately than did the theater. The preface composed for an edition of the plays of his friend Jean-François-Alfred Bayard in 1855 goes further in proclaiming Scribe’s affiliation with classicism, declaring that the artist cannot dispense with order, rules, and hard work, and that comedy, based on mirth and truth, is harder to write than serious drama. It also provides an early definition of the well-made play: the skillful presentation of a subject, rapid action, sudden reversals, obstacles created and overcome, and unexpected but carefully prepared denouement.
Love and marriage have always been a principal theme of comedy, but Scribe placed more emphasis on the pragmatic than on the romantic side. In contrast to Romantic drama, Scribe never condones the excesses of violent passion, and in particular, he condemns marital infidelity on the part of husband and wife alike. As a champion of middle-class values, he chooses for the sympathetic characters of his comedies honest, caring, simple, hardworking people. In such a milieu, love, although sincere and abiding, is not an explosive or antisocial force. Instead, it is a gentle and respectful emotion that needs to be grounded in mutual esteem, together with compatibility of personality, education and, usually, social rank. Despite the charges of Scribe’s detractors, it is simply not true that he viewed money as the main consideration in marriage: Le Mariage d’argent, his first experiment in the five-act form, is a clear condemnation of those who betray love and principles for the sake of ambition and greed. Even in Malvina: Ou, Un Mariage d’inclination (1828), in which he takes the side of the parents over the young lovers, he gives his blessing to love, provided that the young people are mature enough to know what they are doing and that they act in accord with their parents. It is also true that bourgeois parents in Scribe’s plays are normally idealized figures, extremely caring and indulgent and situated at the furthest extreme from the tyrannical fathers that one associates with the comedies of Molière.
La Demoiselle à marier
La Demoiselle à marier is a one-act vaudeville. This genre, in which Scribe honed his dramatic skills and acquired his early successes, may be defined as a little operetta, usually in one act but sometimes expanded to two or three, in which new words are set to well-known tunes, ranging from popular songs to operatic selections. The use of unoriginal music provides a kind of complicity between the spectators and the characters. The mood may range from farce to sentimentality, but the appeal is always to a respectable, middle-class, family audience. Scribe elevated this form of frivolous entertainment to real drama by introducing exciting, complicated plots and more realistic characters and situations. His favorite device was to spend the first half of the play presenting the characters and involving them in an awkward predicament, and the second half in extricating them in a plausible, yet unexpected manner.
La Demoiselle à marier is a charming story of ordinary, middle-class people, temporarily harmed by a moment of vanity and pretension but saved by their basic simplicity and honesty. When the wealthy young Alphonse buys an estate in the country and finds that his new neighbors have a daughter of suitable age, he arranges to pay them a visit with the possible intention of matrimony, but he specifically requests that they abstain from formality and not inform the girl in advance of his visit. Camille, however, learns the truth, the parents yield to an impulse of vanity and put on great airs for Alphonse, and the arrival of an old family friend (who is in the process of arranging another match for the girl and is irked to find that he has not been consulted about this one) completes the complications. At first meeting, Alphonse and the family make a dreadful impression on one another, and the match is broken off at once. Now that they need treat him only as a neighbor and friend, the Dumesnils quickly revert to their normal selves, relations immediately become cordial, Alphonse discovers that his late uncle was the family friend’s old schoolmate and chum, and the young people, alone for the second time but now chatting informally, find much in common and finally fall in love. Unfortunately, the change seems to have come too late, for the father has already sent a letter to the other suitor making the engagement official. The day is saved by a seemingly trivial remark made near the start of the play by the good-hearted servant Baptiste: A man of sober habits, he has vowed to get drunk on the day of his young mistress’ wedding. In the process, he has fallen asleep and failed to deliver the letter, which is retrieved and torn up. Alphonse can marry Camille after all, and they join in the obligatory final chorus in which the characters sing of their happiness.
The play is in part an ingenious reversal of the timeworn convention of love at first sight and in part a satire of petty human vanity. Most of all, however, it is a celebration of ordinary life and bourgeois values. The dying words of Alphonse’s uncle may be seen as a summation of Scribe’s own code of conduct and one that he assumed his audience to share: Wealth is honorable when acquired honestly, and money is not to be worshiped for its own sake but is to be valued as a means to procure independence. In addition, one must not sell one’s liberty by seeking positions of influence or contracting an opulent marriage, but should live within one’s means, choose a good wife, and rear one’s own children.
The Glass of Water
Scribe’s masterpiece in the field of full-length comedy is usually considered to be The Glass of Water. Never overly concerned with factual accuracy, Scribe concentrated in his historical plays on intricate plots mixing real and fictional characters. As critics have noted, Scribe had no passion for history and, unlike the Romantics, felt no urge to reconstruct the manners and attitudes of past eras. Yet Scribe’s motivation in writing historical drama was not limited to catering to popular taste. Political upheavals provided a suitable backdrop for a five-act drama of constant reversals and intrigues and allowed Scribe to depict the past as a metaphor for the present.
Set in England in 1712, during the final months of the War of the Spanish Succession, The Glass of Water exemplifies Scribe’s theory that history consists of great effects arising from small causes. Rather than presenting likenesses of heroes of epic or tragedy, Scribe depicts political leaders as basically ordinary people, ambitious and selfish, sometimes petty or inept. The major antagonists of The Glass of Water, the Duchess of Marlborough and Henri de Saint-Jean, later Lord Bolingbroke, are of a higher caliber—geniuses at calculation and manipulation, who fascinate with their quick wits and vitality while failing to demonstrate genuine loyalty to any moral or political ideas beyond their own self-interest.
What makes The Glass of Water a marvelous theatrical experience is the complexity and dizzying pace of the action. The opening act sets forth the obstacles confronting the hero: Saint-Jean is penniless and heavily in debt, and the family fortune is in the hands of an obnoxious and stupid cousin with whom he is on bad terms. His enemy, the duchess, has bought up his debts and threatens to send him to prison. There is no immediate prospect of his party’s regaining power and his returning to the post of prime minister, and the duchess will not let any of his letters reach the queen. Although England’s finances have been seriously depleted by the protracted war, and the French are anxious to negotiate peace, the duchess, whose husband commands the English forces and who stands to gain handsomely from continued hostilities, will not let the French envoy approach the queen. As if this were not enough, the hero’s friends also face serious hurdles. The shopgirl Abigail, whom Saint-Jean has befriended, finds the duchess opposed to her taking a position in the palace that the queen (who owes the girl a sum of money) has promised. The young and handsome officer Masham, another protégé of Saint-Jean, is penniless and loves Abigail but cannot marry her until he has made his fortune. In addition, he has been warned by a secret protector never to marry and has been repeatedly insulted by an arrogant but unknown nobleman. The denouement is easy enough to predict: Masham marries Abigail, who becomes the queen’s new favorite; the duchess and her faction are disgraced; and Saint-Jean, having inherited his cousin’s title and fortune, regains the post of prime minister and persuades the queen to sign a peace treaty with France. As in a mystery novel, it is not the ending but the means of...
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