The Well-Made Play Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Well-Made Play

Originating in France as the pièce bien faite, the well-made play is a style of dramatic writing characterized by a meticulous, methodological purposiveness of plotting. The logically precise construction of the well-made play is typified by a number of conventions. The plot is most often based on a withheld secret—known to the audience but unknown to the characters—which, when revealed at the climax, reverses the fortunes of the play's hero. During the course of the play, the overall pattern of the drama is reflected in the movement of the individual acts, in which a steadily mounting suspense is achieved through the battle of wits between the hero and the villain. The hero's fortune fluctuates during his conflict with the adversary until finally, at the climax, the secret is revealed in an obligatory scene (scène à faire) and the hero is benefitted in the final dénouement, or resolution.

By all critical accounts, the well-made play was originated by Eugène Scribe, who, over the course of his prolific career, gradually perfected the genre. Like those of Jean Racine, Scribe's plays focus on a small cluster of characters involved in a single action that builds steadily to a climax. Unlike Racine, however, Scribe infused his plays with a technical specificity, by which each particular action of a character is explained and justified so that it is made to seem inevitable. Over the course of his literary career, during which he produced over 420 dramatic works, Scribe was one of the most popular playwrights in France. He wrote dramas for the four major Parisian theaters of the day, and in the period from 1815 to 1830, Scribe's plays accounted for more than one-tenth of the new comedies and vaudevilles in Paris.

The French dramatists who followed Scribe adapted his formula to two very different uses. Victorien Sardou, a disciple of Scribe, used the well-made form in the service of a more realistic drama. For example, his Daniel Rochat (1880) depicts the confrontation between an atheist hero who marries an Anglo-American woman who wants to follow their civil ceremony with a church wedding; the entire play chronicles the struggle between these two and ends in an unsatisfactory conclusion. By contrast, Eugène Labiche applied Scribe's formula mainly for the purpose of arousing laughter; his farces present a picture of contemporary Parisian life, but offer little social commentary.

Scribean drama was extended by Émile Augier and Alexandre Dumas fils. Augier infused the form of the well-made play with romanticism and melodrama, and founded popular realism in France. In plays such as L'aventurière, Gabrielle, and La gendre de M. Poirier, Augier addresses the moral culture of his time, commenting on contemporary Parisian life, its mores and social distinctions. Dumas similarly used Scribe's style to comment on modern life, but Dumas went further than Augier in his realism. His characters are battered by their circumstances; Dumas used the form to critique the social conventions and class stratifications of France, to study the problems of modern capitalism and religion, and to comment on the literary process itself.

Despite Scribe's overwhelming popularity during his life-time and his profound influence on his contemporaries, evaluations of the well-made play since then have been primarily negative. Literary critics have largely dismissed the well-made plays of Scribe, which they claim combine theatrical ingenuity in an intricate plot with a bare minimum of thought, a lack of poetry, and weak characterization. George Bernard Shaw said of Scribe in a famous comment, "Why the devil should a man write like Scribe when he can write like Shakespeare or Molière, Aristophanes or Euripides?" While most of Scribe's plays have been relegated to virtual obscurity, however, the profound effect the well-made form had on the historical development of modern European drama is undeniable. The plays of Scribe and Sardou were translated and performed in England and America as early as 1819, influencing such playwrights as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Tom Taylor, and T. W. Robertson, all of whom adapted the form to their own purposes. Most notably, Scribe's influence extends to Henrik Ibsen, who directed a number of Scribe's plays in Norway before producing his own dramatic works; his early works clearly reflect a Scribean influence, while his later works adapt the style of the well-made play, infusing it with symbolism. Other critics have detected Scribe's influence on Henry James and, ironically, Shaw as well. Despite Scribe's dramatic weaknesses, then, the well-made play exerted an immeasurable influence in the history of theater well into the twentieth century, shaping the nature of drama in a variety of movements, including realism, naturalism, and symbolism.