Henry Becque Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Henry Becque’s literary career began with his writing the libretto for the opera Sardanaple, for which Victorien de Joncières wrote the music. This opera, atypical of Becque’s literary efforts, is something he did not count in his own reckoning of his dramatic work. An imitation of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s play Sardanapalus: A Tragedy (1821), Sardanaple clearly illustrates that Becque’s artistic talent lay outside the realm of poetry, yet it did bring him to the theatrical world in which he would make his reputation as a controversial and innovative playwright. In addition to the controversies that his plays generated, Becque’s dramatic criticism provoked controversy in an age that witnessed the birth of modern literary criticism. Becque’s numerous essays and reviews for several Parisian journals, Le Gaulois, La Revue illustrée, Le Figaro, and Gil Blas among them, brought him recognition as a sometimes formidable and original critic who not only championed the new, when he liked it, but also strove to demonstrate the universality and relevance of the old, particularly of the works of Molière. Many of his critical studies, along with some of his public lectures on drama, are collected in Querelles littéraires (1890) and Souvenirs d’un auteur dramatique (1895). More appear under the heading “Études d’art dramatique” in euvres complètes de Henry Becque (1924; seven volumes), edited by his grandnephew, Jean Robaglia. Robaglia’s edition also contains Notes d’album (1898), a collection of Becque’s maxims, as well as his few poems, some of his letters, and the fragments of his last and incomplete play, Les Polichinelles.

Although his sole operatic venture and his poetry have not exerted any influence on French literary thought, Becque’s criticism still constitutes a significant chapter in the history of French theater. In his Querelles littéraires, for example, he considers the works of such disparate contemporaries as Giuseppe Verdi, Alexandre Dumas, fils, Alphonse Daudet, and Victorien Sardou. In other essays, he assesses the dramatic works and contributions of such writers as Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Molière, and Victor Hugo. Frequently and unabashedly biased, his essays reflect not only his opinions and observations but also the intensity and personal dimensions of dramatic criticism in France at that time.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Henry Becque’s unquestionable literary achievement is to have given the theater two extraordinary plays, The Vultures and The Woman of Paris. An accomplished critic and the author of a dozen more plays, Becque is best remembered for the two major plays that set him squarely in the tradition of nineteenth century realism. Some have declared Becque to be the father of naturalistic drama; others, taking quite seriously his professed scorn for the cynicism and squalor of naturalistic drama, have emphasized his realism and have distinguished him fromÉmile Zola and his circle. Clearly, Becque’s relation to naturalism remains the subject of some debate. On the one hand, he did help to develop the dramatic subgenre comédie rosse that flourished at the Théâtre Libre of André Antoine: His The Woman of Paris served as a model that none of his imitators and self-styled disciples could quite duplicate. On the other hand, he soundly reprimanded the inadequacies of naturalism, and no matter how much he encouraged younger dramatists, they still derogated their tendencies to portray seaminess as such. A writer who took truth rather than beauty as his imperative, Becque remains closer to the art of Molière than to that of Zola. Becque’s singleminded pursuit of optimum dramatic form to serve as a vehicle for intense social criticism was a noteworthy quest; he conscientiously avoided the neat formulas that the well-made play held out to him and, in his two major works, achieved unique forms of dramatic expression.

Becque’s other achievements include his becoming first a chévalier (1886) and then an officier (1897) of the Légion d’Honneur as well as having been a candidate at three different times for the Académie Française. Although the honor of election to the French Academy eluded him, he was honored in various other ways. In 1893, his works were performed and his visits were celebrated in Milan and in Rome. He was also invited to lecture on drama in Liège and Brussels (1894), in Marseilles (1895), and in Holland and Denmark (1896).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)


Hyslop, Lois Boe. Henry Becque. New York: Twayne, 1972. A basic biography of Becque that examines his life and works. Bibliography.