Henri Becque Essay - Critical Essays

Becque, Henri


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.

Principal Works

Sardanapale [with music by Victorin Joncieres] 1867

L'Enfant prodigue [The Prodigal Son] 1868

Michel Pauper 1870

L'Enlèvement [The Abduction] 1871

La Navette [The Merry-Go-Round] 1878

Les Honnêtes Femmes 1880

Les Corbeaux [The Vultures; The Crows] 1882

La Parisienne [The Woman of Paris] 1885

*Théâtre complet 2 vols. 1890

*Théâtre complet 3 vols. 1898

*Oeuvres complètes 7 vols. 1924-26

*These titles are collections of the complete dramatic works of Henry Becque.

Criticism: General Commentary

Freeman Tilden (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Tilden, Freeman. “Introduction.” In The Vultures, The Woman of Paris, The Merry-Go-Round: Three Plays by Henry Becque, pp. 7-8. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913.

[In the following essay, Tilden provides an overview of Becque's produced plays, commenting that without the help of a few notable friends these productions would not have been possible.]

Henry Becque (1837-1899) was one of those men of letters to whom falls the ungrateful lot of giving the public what it does not want. In the very heyday of romanticism, Becque had the effrontery to hawk an entirely different line of wares in the Parisian theatrical markets. He boldly trespassed against the most...

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Nation (essay date 28 May 1914)

SOURCE: “The Stage of Henri Becque.” Nation 98, no. 2552 (28 May 1914): 644.

[In the following essay, the critic argues that Becque's writing skills were inferior to those of his rivals.]

There was a time, thirty or forty years ago, when the name of Henri Becque occupied a very prominent place in the list of contemporary French playwrights, but his works seem hopelessly old-fashioned now, and it is not easy to divine the special reason which induced Mr. Edwin Björkman to include these pieces in his Modern Drama series. Still more difficult is it to acquiesce in the judgment of the translator, Mr. Freeman Tilden, who, in his preface, acclaims Becque as an...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

James Huneker (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: Huneker, James. “Henry Becque.” In Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists, pp. 163-81. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922.

[In the following essay, Huneker examines Becque's style through overviews of The Vultures, The Prodigal Son, and The Woman of Paris.]

Emile Zola once wrote in his sweeping dictatorial manner, “Le théâtre sera naturaliste ou il ne sera pas”; but as Henry Becque said in his mordant style, Zola always convinced one in his pronunciamentos; it was only when he attempted to put his theories into action that they completely broke down. Alas! realism in the theatre after all the gong-sounding of café æstheticians, after the...

(The entire section is 4478 words.)

Hugh Allison Smith (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: Smith, Hugh Allison. “Henri Becque and the Theatre Libre.” In Main Currents of Modern French Drama, pp. 189-207. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1925.

[In the following essay, Smith compares the three main influences involved in the modification of Dumas and Augier's Social drama, including Becque and the Theatre Libre.]

The significant work of Dumas and Augier was done by 1880, and with the weakening of their master hands, the chief faults of the form of drama they represented became apparent. The most fundamental of these was the artificial duality caused by combining the well-made play of Scribe, a comedy of intrigue complete in itself, with a social...

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Barrett H. Clark (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Clark, Barrett H. “Henry Becque.” In A Study of Modern Drama: A Handbook for the Study and Appreciation of Typical Plays, European, English and American, of the Last Three-Quarters of a Century, pp. 122-26. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1938.

[In the following essay, Clark discusses Becque's life, career, and the plot of The Vultures.]

Henry Becque, the father of the modern French Naturalistic school, was born at Paris in 1837. His early works were produced in the sixties, but The Parisian Woman and The Vultures, his most important plays, were peddled about for years before they were performed. During the last years of his life,...

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John Gassner (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Gassner, John. “Henry Becque: The Mordant Virtuoso.” In The Theatre in Our Times: A Survey of the Men, Materials and Movements in the Modern Theatre, pp. 114-22. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954.

[In the following essay, Gassner takes a close look at Becque's two “masterpieces,” The Vultures and The Woman of Paris.]

At a time when good writing for the theatre is at a low ebb in most countries, not excluding our own, it may be well to return to the fountain-springs of the modern drama, which are now so muddied by the demands of commerce. And in returning to the sources we could do worse than glance at the struggles of Henry Becque, the one...

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Marvin Carlson (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Carlson, Marvin. “Realism & Symbolism (1870-1900).” In The French Stage in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 177-80. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1972.

[In the following essay, Carlson proclaims Becque a major victim of the French theatre's prejudices towards new playwrights and the reintroduction of censorship in 1874.]

In France, as elsewhere in Europe, the final decades of the nineteenth century provide the richest variety of theatre. Identifying the period with a single movement is therefore even more misleading here than identifying the 1830s and 1840s with the then-dominant romantic school. Nevertheless, there is considerable justice in the...

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Criticism: La Navette (The Merry-Go-Round)

SOURCE: Spiers, A. G. H. “Reviews of Plays: Becque and Merimee at the Vieux Colombier.” Nation 105, no. 2737 (13 December 1917): 674.

[In the following review, Spiers remarks favorably on the production of Becque's The Merry-Go-Round at the Theatre du Vieux Colombier.]

The second bill of the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier is a delight—a delight for the eyes as well as for the mind. I shall speak later of Copeau's stage-setting and costumes; our immediate attention is required by a question raised in the review of the preceding bill: can this company present with equal soundness and skill plays of very different types?

So far as can be...

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Criticism: Les Corbeaux (The Vultures)

Frank Wadleigh Chandler (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: Chandler, Frank Wadleigh. “Family Studies.” In Aspects of Modern Drama, pp. 210-22. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

[In the following essay, Chandler compares marital relationships in plays by Bjornson, Mirbeau and Barker to Becque's The Vultures (translated by Chandler as The Ravens).]

I. The family study an outgrowth of the domestic drama. The family in relation to commercialism, as exhibited by Björnson, Becque, Mirbeau, and Barker: Björnson's A Bankruptcy, a family which has forfeited the higher values of life growing regenerate through a business failure; Becque's The Ravens, a widow and her children becoming the prey of her...

(The entire section is 3319 words.)

Carl W. Wooton (essay date May 1961)

SOURCE: Wooton, Carl W. “The Vultures: Becque's Realistic Comedy of Manners.” Modern Drama 4, no. 1 (May 1961): 72-79.

[In the following essay, Wooton discusses The Vultures and its importance in the early development of modern realism.]

Henry Becque's The Vultures, although important in the early development of modern realism, seems to be, for the most part, a forgotten play, or at least one that has received little critical attention in America. Its inclusion in John Gassner's, A Treasury of the Theatre, in an English translation by Freeman Tilden,1 however, is likely to make it a familiar play, at least to undergraduate...

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Norman Araujo (essay date October 1989)

SOURCE: Araujo, Norman. “The Language of Business and the Business of Language in Becque's Les Corbeaux.The French Review 63, no. 1 (Oct 1989): 72-79.

[In the following essay, Araujo delivers an in-depth discussion of The Vultures, which opened with mixed reviews.]

Henry Becque's Les Corbeaux was presented for the first time on 14 September 1882, at the Comédie-Française. The work of a bookkeeper's son whose earlier plays had been little noticed, Les Corbeaux opened to mixed reviews, but would later be generally acclaimed as Becque's masterpiece and one of the finest and most original plays of the late nineteenth...

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Further Reading


Antoine, Andre. Memories of the Theatre Libre. Edited by H. D. Albright. Translated by Marvin A. Carlson. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1964, 239 p.

Contains Andre Antoine's personal recollections of Becque's early productions.

Dimnet, Ernest. “Henry Becque's Posthumous Play.” Saturday Review 110, no. 2871 (5 November 1910): 575-576.

Dimnet gives a negative review of Becque's Les Polichinelles.

Additional coverage of Becque's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 192;...

(The entire section is 94 words.)