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.