Henry Becque’s early plays, like his last plays, are not the stuff on which a theatrical reputation is made or can rest. However, both L’Enfant prodigue and Michel Pauper brought Becque a small measure of the success he sought in the theater. The former won for him some critical acclaim, and the latter was so well received that Becque felt encouraged to continue his work as a dramatist. Although both the critics and the general public recognized Becque’s merits as a fledgling playwright, they took exception to the bleak, pessimistic, and brutal elements of Michel Pauper.
In L’Enfant prodigue, Becque provided the vaudeville theater with a neat comedy that borrows from the traditional comedy of manners and has something in common with the work of Becque’s professed master, Moliére. In his portrayal of three provincials from Montélimar who come under the amorous sway of Clarisse, the daughter of a Parisian concierge, Becque uses stock comic devices such as chance encounters and an anonymous letter and subjects the provincials to the irony and wit that would remain his theatrical trademarks. Character dominates plot in this as in all of Becque’s plays, and the slight intrigue hinges on the standard element of mistaken identities and the characters’ temporary inability to rectify the mistakes out of fear of self-exposure. Although each of the characters is the object of some irony, satire is reserved for the middle-class hypocrisy and manners of Bernardin, the epitome of the bourgeoisie.
Becque’s next play, Michel Pauper, far from the sort of airy vaudeville that was then the rage in the Paris of the Second Empire, is a ponderous mélange of melodrama, romantic tragedy, and comédie larmoyante in the vein of Victorien Sardou and Alexandre Dumas, fils. Full of stilted, pompous language, the play chronicles the rise and fall of Pauper as honest workman, master chemist, and gifted inventor whose idealized love for Hélène first leads him to great creative work and then propels him back to alcoholism when she confesses her guilt with the young Count de Rivailles. In some respects, one could characterize the play as being about the power of love to effect change; one could also argue that the thesis at the play’s core has to do with self-hate and self-destruction in the form of alcoholism. The work has considerable potential for presenting several themes relative to the claims and expectations of situation on character; the potential, however, remains largely unrealized. Becque explored for the first time in Michel Pauper the situation he would use in his more important work, The Vultures: the consequences for a woman, and her children, of the death of her husband.
The public was unprepared for the subject of his L’Enlèvement, a thesis play in favor of divorce that anticipated by several years the more popular plays of Émile Augier and Dumas on that topic. The pomposity and stiltedness of the work clearly contributed to its failure, but it failed primarily because it negated bourgeois respectability: It was one thing for Becque to satirize bourgeois values on the vaudeville stage but quite another to preach against them in an unrelievedly didactic vein.
During the early 1870’s, up to 1876, Becque occupied himself with writing The Vultures, but when the play was finished, he could find no theater willing to stage it. Having failed, for a time, to get The Vultures before the public, he turned his hand to another play, The Merry-Go-Round, a one-act comedy in which he moved beyond L’Enfant prodigue toward a comedy of manners. Again departing from the conventional, he took as his heroine a courtesan, one of the favorite characters of the day, but treated her in a very...
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