Henri Becque Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

Henri Becque 1837-1899

(Full name Henri Francois Becque) French playwright.

The following entry presents criticism on Becque's life and works from 1913 through 1989.

Through his plays, Becque introduced realism and naturalism to the French theater. He examined the French social classes from the nuclear bourgeois family in Les Corbeaux (1882; The Vultures) and addressed social issues of the time such as legalizing divorce in L'Enlèvement (1871; The Abduction). Becque's plays were at times considered controversial, especially The Vultures and La Parisienne (1885; The Woman of Paris). The controversy often made it difficult for Becque to get his work produced. In some instances, the audience would actually hiss through a performance as they did at the Theatre du Vaudeville during The Abduction, causing the play to only be performed five times. However, his literary work introduced the genre of le comédie rosse: bitter comedy. The naturalist style Becque presented in Paris and some of the most radical tendencies of his plays were explored by other writers outside of France including Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov and Bertolt Brecht.

Biographical Information

Becque was born April 18, 1837, to Alexandre-Louis and Jeanne Martin Becque in Paris. His father was a bookkeeper, which allowed Becque to consider his background as that of a petit bourgeois. He studied at the Lycée Bonaparte (Lycée Condorcet), but he did not attempt to pass the baccalaureate. In 1854 he held a job with the Chemins du fer du Nord (the Northern Railroad); other occupations Becque entertained included working as a stockbroker, a tutor and even a journalist. In 1865, Becque worked as a secretary for the Polish Count Potocki. His employment with the count provided an opportunity to participate in the Parisian theater where he met Victorin Joncieres, a young composer. Working with Joncieres, he wrote the libretto to the opera Sardanapale (1867). He followed the opera with other plays, then entered the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. After the war, he returned to writing. Toward the end of his career, he began writing shorter plays to cater to theaters in Paris. Becque died homeless on May 12, 1899.

Major Works

After working with Joncieres on Sardanapale, Becque wrote his first play, L'Enfant prodigue (1868; The Prodigal Son,), which tells the story of a young provincial who takes on a mistress, Clarisse, who in turn, is managing more than one affair. The characters in this first play, including a male character who becomes disillusioned, are typical of most of Becque's characters, which critics have considered to be one-dimensional. An impersonal reaction between social relations is a common theme and style carried through most of his plays.

The theme of a disillusioned young man is also found in Becque's next play, Michel Pauper (1870). This story revolves around a young man, Michel Pauper, and his demise because of his marriage. On his wedding night, Michel learns his bride is not a virgin, which leads him to destroy his diamond-manufacturing invention. Becque's play is considered a socialist play dealing with different levels of bourgeoisie effects on others. In the case of Michel Pauper, the petit bourgeois replaces the working class. Michel Pauper's character resembles many 19th-century European writers—such as Becque himself—because he is struggling and hoping for the life of those above his social status.

Becque examined another facet of French society when he wrote The Abduction, in which he argues for the legalization of divorce. The play details the relationship between Emma de Sainte-Croix and her husband, Raoul. After running away from her husband, another man declares his love for her. The other man is the husband of Emma's husband's mistress. By the end of the play, Becque rearranges the sexual relationships based on natural inclination. However, the play goes beyond sexual relationships and explores French society. Emma's unhappiness is due to her circumstances. She was married when she was young and had no knowledge of what marriage really was. As she matured, she became an intellectual woman her husband couldn't understand or bear. Emma begs Raoul for a separation, but he refuses, so eventually she leaves.

In The Vultures, Becque departs from flat, interchangeable characters. He changes his thematic focus from sex to money and its effect on a situation. The Vultures features two daughters, Marie and Blanche Vigneron, from an haute bourgeois family. In four acts, Becque takes the Vigneron family from their luxurious apartment to a shabby home. The family's money is stripped away by Teisser after the father dies. As Becque details their downfall, he adds humiliation when Blanche has to beg a woman to marry her son because of sexual relations and when Marie is forced to accept the marriage proposal of the man who helped destroy her family. The Vultures was not only a departure in style for Becque, but by providing a realistic look at society, it was also a departure from the conventional mid-to late-19th century theater.

Becque returned to a plot focusing on a woman managing multiple relationships in The Woman of Paris. In this play, his lead female character is a grande bourgeoisie. Again, like his earlier plays, the characters are accused of being interchangeable by critics.

Critical Reception

Critics have labeled Becque as the first French dramatist graduating from the naturalist school. Becque has also been classified as a realist who presents the play-going public a realistic look at society. Much of his work did not meet with popular approval, but Becque was unwilling to compromise and chose to produce his own plays. However, audiences found his work more curious than dramatically innovative and Becque withdrew from the theater for several years.

After completing The Vultures, it took Becque five years to get it produced. The first production proved a triumphant success and was acclaimed by a group of young playwrights. However, it was not until Andre Antoine founded the Theatre Libre, a theatrical group that rejected the banality and artificiality of contemporary French drama, that Becque's work found a sympathetic home.

In 1886, Becque was awarded the Legion of Honor. He later traveled to Italy where he was lionized as a brilliant dramatist, but at home, in France, he lived in poverty and solitude, receiving little income from his writing. Success came to Becque too late to inspire more works of the caliber of The Vultures and The Woman of Paris. Although his plays are rarely performed today, Becque holds a place of importance in the development of French drama.