Other Literary Forms
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.