The Well-Made Play Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

C. E. Montague (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "The Weil-Made Play," in Dramatic Values, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925, pp. 62-74.

[In the essay that follows, Montague discusses the dramatic techniques of the well-made playwrights, focusing on Sandeau, Augier, and Dumas.]

During the long reign of the French "well-made piece" the voice of its makers was seldom stilled on the darling theme of how they did it. They lectured on it, and wrote prefaces, and the interviewer went not empty away. Like simple, truthful conjurors—men who are always admitting that rabbits come out of their hats without Divine interposition—"Simply the perfection of my method, ladies and gentlemen, nothing more"—they disclaimed inspiration; they made out that they were only doing a kind of sums; only, like naturalists, inferring the whole of a good-sized unknown beast from the modest premise of one knucklebone.

Then would follow technical instructions. An unwritten play, said Sardou, always appeared to him as a kind of philosophic equation from which the unknown term had to be disengaged; he held that "once the formula for this was found, the piece followed of itself." At this point young France is apt in these later days to interject idiomatically, "Chansons!" and yet there is a sense in what Sardou says. Consider his own play, "La Sorcière," how it grows. Imagine its germ, the first thought, the very practical thought—"What will make a good harrowing climax for Sarah Bernhardt?" Well, he might start from a standard melodramatic horror—a condemnation of the innocent to death. How, then, to sharpen its poignancy? Make the death burning; that's something. What next? Make her convict herself to save her lover. Good!—what next? Make her feel that in killing herself to save her lover, she is merely leaving him in a rival's arms. Excellent!—anything more? Yes, deprive her of the consolation of knowing or hoping that the lover will ever understand her sacrifice or value her memory. That is the way the climax of a tragic "machine" may be devised, by a cumulative process of invention. The climax once there, the plot issues out of it, backward; each step "disengages" itself. Burning?—that means the time of the Inquisition. A lover who shall be set free at a word from a mistress on trial herself and about to be burnt? How shall you make her word so potent to save him, so powerless to save herself? Only by making the lady a Moor, a heathen, the man a Christian Spaniard so framed to please the Holy Office that they will fairly jump at a chance to let him off. But how shall she be made, while clearing him, to damn herself quite in his eyes and to root out all love of her from his heart? Nothing for it but to make her avow herself, in his hearing, a witch, and confess she has used hellish arts to make him in love with her. Yes, but she must not have verily used hellish art; she must not be really a witch; else, where will your audience's sympathies be? And so, of necessity, this Moorish lady of 1507 must practice therapeutic hypnotism in order to scandalize 16th-century Toledo, but must also talk 20th-century science about it, so that the audience may know she is only a female Charcot, born rather soon, and not a veritable Witch of Endor. Thus are the unknown terms of Sardou's equation disengaged; the whole of "La Sorcière" follows of its own accord.

Or take another case of machine-making, that of Jules Sandeau's "Mademoiselle de la Seiglière." Sandeau, one fancies, started with a bright notion for a third-act situation in a four-act play—the sudden discovery of mutual love by a man and a woman of different social rank and political feeling, the man bound by a filial sentiment of revenge not to fall in love with the woman, and the woman bound by a previous betrothal not to fall in love with the man. When Augier lit on an idea like this, for the end of a last act but one, he chuckled.

"L'affaire," he said, "est dans le sac." Doubtless Sandeau did likewise. His fourth act needed small thought; it would come of itself, given the other three, it being the nature of last acts merely to sweep up the crockery smashed at the climax of last acts but one. The first act, of course, must be all explanations. But explanations of what? The answers disengage themselves from the very nature of the smash in Act III. Different social grades and political feelings? Clearly a case for the old clash of well-born Legitimist and plebeian Bonapartist. Filial vengeance to be wreaked by a son of one of these upon a daughter of the other? Plainly your chance is in the seismic dispossessions, redistributions and restitutions of French real estate between the outbreak of the Revolution and the final return of the Legitimist emigrants. When by this process, carried straight on, you have deduced a Royalist Marquis, with one fair daughter, in actual but not legal possession of an estate belonging, under the Code Napoléon, to the unexpectedly surviving son of an ill-used person of lowly origin, your first act begins to write itself, for it must unfold these circumstances. Characters, too, are disengaged from the "philosophic equation." Real property and the Code Napoléon imply a lawyer, to instruct the young claimant to the estates. But in a well-made cast a lawyer cannot be wasted on law alone. People in well-made casts have to work for their places. The obvious work for him to fill up his time with is that of the friend who, by old dramatic tradition, keeps up to the mark, the vindictive mark, the hero who wavers between love and vengeance. The child of the people having thus obtained a bottle-holder, balance necessitates one for the other combatant, the Marquis. Well, as his daughter was first to be betrothed to a man of her own rank, and as she and her father call out, in any case, to be balanced by this young man and his mother, why not make this dowager work double tides too, like the lawyer, and be the Marquis's second and adviser in the conflict. Then the lawyer and this lady, being thus set at one another, must be furnished with some vitriolic dispute of their own, to keep them hard at it; so the lawyer shall be her old, scornfully rejected suitor. And there, with just one footman to get people into rooms and say the things that have to be said but do not quite come rightly from any one else, is Sandeau's whole cast, and, in outline, his whole play; and the cohesion and compactness of plays thus evolved were, until the disturber Ibsen came, the modern European ideal of dramatic craftsmanship.

Of course you find considerable and often delightful differences between one well-made piece and another, as they unwind their orderly coils. Labiche is charmingly unlike Sandeau. "Le Voyage de M. Perrichon," a good Labiche, is very buxom, blithe, and debonair, and most alertly witty. It has, it is true, a rick in its back, caused by violent extension in infancy from three acts to. four, but it has characterization and even a tincture of philosophy, and you enjoy the cunning of the good workman even in the act of spoiling his own work by lugging in the inorganic Zouave and the whole affair of the duel; it takes a master joiner to make such a mess of a play without making more. "Mademoiselle de la Seiglière," not so gay as Labiche, is a regular Kriegspiel of motives and counter-motives wilily set by the ears; the whole Landwehr and Landsturm of the armies of drawing-room intrigue march and countermarch, turn flanks and drive in fronts, like good ones; a silence sinks on the house as it bends up each intellectual agent to the feat of seeing why Destournelles first feared that Bernard would marry Hélène and then hoped it, and how the Baronne de Vaubert first brought Bernard into rivalry with her son, and then ceased to dread him, and then dreaded him again.

Again, in Pailleron's "L'Etincelle" lively comedy rests on quite sound psychology. Original and excellent comic use is made of the fact that speech and gesture are not merely symbols of feeling but modes of feeling, and that when you use them you do not merely interpret preexisting emotions, but also set emotional processes in operation, every emotion being modified by its own expression, while some emotions may be so rapidly developed by their expression, even their histrionic expression, that they seem almost to be born of it.

Bisson, without the sap and sunniness of the humane Labiche, or the pretty genial sparkle that Meilhac had "on his day," perfected a rather mechanical brilliancy and malice of comic invention. No one could imagine queerer fixes for his characters, or work them out with less waste of their comic possibilities. After his "Surprises du Divorce" the theatre ought to have relinquished, as a completed work, its immemorial preoccupation with the mother-in-law. All other dramatic handlings of that theme are leaflets to this treatise, mere tentative borings into that seam of comic effect, compared with this capacious and branching mine. With "Les Surprises du Divorce" a topic was played out, and though we may all be bored by later farcical hits at the mother-in-law, "Les Surprises" always seems piquant; it has the lasting freshness of the best thing of a kind.

And yet, granted the diverse animation of a score of 19th-century French dramatists, there does appear in that period a remarkable coexistence of elaborate and precise technical theory and of poorness or shallowness of spirit. Scribe's soul, where it ventures out at all, looks like that of some mean player for safety, a "sensible man of the world," a thinker of what may be thought with the least inconvenience, an exalter of the current, the accepted, the easy, as wisdom and virtue. The younger Dumas taught from half-knowledge and preached without elevation. Augier, a striking example, could not be content to purl and prattle like the agreeable minor brook that he was; he tried to play the Jordan, to be august, momentous, baptismal. The history of his play "L'Aventurière," which he wrote in his youth and re-wrote when past forty, is full of suggestion. There were those who thought, even in 1860, that second thoughts spoilt a quite good boyish play, a piece of the headlong felicity sometimes brought off by writers when young, just because they are young; their spirits are high; their delight in the way others write is so fresh that they copy with gusto, not tamely; they are not yet dulled by finding they scarcely know anything. The first draft of "L'Aventurière" was one of these April productions; it worked on the somewhat dust-strewn spirit of Sarcey, the critic, until he would babble of green fields, dew, the opening eyelids of the morn, auroral things of all sorts. Then a fatal wisdom entered into Augier. He had walked, more or less, in the ways of his heart and in the sight of his eyes; now he must needs bring himself into judgment, and half the world too; so he deepened, or thickened, the tone of his piece, turned comedy to "drame"—that thing so different from "drama"—made his old guy of a love-sick dotard a quite tragic person, and set up in form as a critic of life and a scourge of the wicked, or some of the wicked.

There may be a time to put away childish things; there is certainly one to refrain from so doing. Augier's was not the time to turn a light-hearted small play of intrigue into a mighty invocation of "vengeance on Jenny's case." Augier grew serious perversely, only to show what a foul wrong it was for "adventuresses" to derange the peace of substantial middle-class houses; the wretches, to Augier's gathering wrath, did not shrink from wishing that someone might marry them, rescue them out of the street; and how splendid it was when the son of the house used his air of the conquering mâle, and his wit, and his well-hung philandering tongue, and his own wide practice in streets ("J'ai fatigué mon cœur," the noble fellow says, "à tous les carrefours") to fool and abase and repel into outer darkness that troublesome asker for help to live well. So thought Augier, like the young Dumas; to them, adventuresses were so many Colorado beetles; art's duty was simply to keep them away from the crops, and the stronger the caustic treatment the better. Well, it still seems quite clever when Fabrice, the good son, the retired rake, dupes and confounds and finally lectures Clorinde. Yet something has gone wrong since 1860; one finds one is laughing upon the wrong side of one's mouth; whether it be Mr. Shaw, or the Zeitgeist, or mere continued incidence of evidence on reluctant ears, something tells people now that Clorindes are Clorindes partly because Fabrices are Fabrices. When a prodigal who "has had so many mistresses that one day he woke up to find he had nothing left but a sword," comes home and preaches on the text—

On doit le même outrage
Aux femmes sans pudeur qu'aux hommes sans courage,
Car le droit au respect, la première grandeur,
Pour nous c'est le courage et pour vous la pudeur,

one only feels now that the kicks already received by the preacher from fortune cry out to be supplemented by the human foot. Who is he, to wave a fellow sinner back to the husks that the swine do eat?

We have got so far past Jew-baiting in western Europe that Shakspere's intention in Shylock has to be turned inside out on the acting for people to stand it. When cleansing and virilizing work like "One of Our Conquerers" gets us past courtesan-baiting as well, we fear it will not be worth while to turn much of Augier inside out too, for he has an outside indeed, but no inside, or little. All that does not matter much he can do very well. How pat the rhymes are that the properly schooled French actors deliver so patly; how lucid the plot; how multitudinous the small sparkles of verbal vivacity; how droll, in an established way, the drinking-bout; how knowingly the touch of demi-semi-pathos is measured out to the adventures at last! Throw the first stone at her? Why, of course we must, and many more; only let us drop a magnanimous tear while we throw. Such was Augier, a soul like a batsman who knows quite well how to walk to the wicket, buttoning a glove as he goes, and to pat the pitch flat with his bat, and to walk from the wicket again the right way, duly breaking into a run, and to raise his cap just at the right distance from the pavilion—who knows, in fact, everything but how to bat. Like his Fabrice he does "un peu de tout, hors de ce qu'il faut faire."

Let us not be unjust to these minor accomplishments. Still, they are minor. And that was the mark of the well-made piece as a whole—to be great in minor respects and minor in great ones. Not, of course, trivial in one way because it was fine in another. Always beware of the sentimental disdain of good craftsmanship as something over against, and at war with, the soul's higher energies. But somehow the well-made pieces had brought technics and ideas—both of them things calling out to be perfected—into a wrong relation. Was it that the trick of conceiving first of a play's emotional climax condemned that very climax to relative poorness or middlingness, since the supreme things of this kind are conceived at a heat that only comes at the culmination of a sustained, ascending effort of imaginative architecture? Is it only when he is sweating and glowing and breathing deeply with the fight against technical difficulties, against the half-thwarting, half-inspiring reluctancy of matter, as the artist knows matter, that visions like that of Desdemona's death scene will visit the dramatist's mind? Sardou and his kind thought to redeem dramatists from their share of Adam's curse—to convert into a smooth mathematical demonstration the obscure and desperate struggle of the craftsman with the obstacles to beauty in the thing that he dimly dreams he may fashion. Perhaps the curse is a condition of the glory; perhaps it is not a curse; we merely surmise, without any assurance.

Allardyce Nicoll (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "The Coming of Realism," in World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949, pp. 484-518.

[In the following excerpt, Nicoll discusses the primary representatives of the well-made play.]

… Scribe and the Well-Made Play

Meanwhile a significant development in dramatic technique was being evolved in France. This came partly through the practice of the melodrama and of its associate, the comédie-vaudeville, partly through trends in the sphere of comedy.

From the time of the Revolution to the thirties of the nineteenth-century French comedy had been unsure of itself. The famous decree of 1791 established complete freedom for the theatres; decrees issued fifteen years later, in 1806 and 1807, not only limited the number of playhouses, but once more set up a censorship; still other decrees, continually changing the regulations, left those concerned with stage affairs never certain by what rules they would next be bound. Such were not conditions favourable for the flourishing of comedy, nor were the general moods of the age apt to encourage the thoughtful laughter of Molière. If, however, little of intrinsic worth was produced, two movements deserve attention.

The first of these may be described as the mechanization of comic-character portrayal. This is marked particularly in the work of Charles Étienne and of Louis-Benoît Picard. As an example may be taken the latter's Un jeu de la fortune, ou les marionettes (Play of Fortune; or, The Marionettes, 1806), wherein men are depicted as creatures whose actions are determined by the pulling of invisible strings. In a sense this trend may be regarded as the unconscious comic counterpart of the emphasis on fate in the poets' dismal tragedies.

The second movement is that towards realism. Such a play as Un moment d'imprudence (An Imprudent Moment, 1819), by Alexis-Jacques-Marie Wafflard, shows a new realistic comedy in the making. Life is treated here with interesting vividity, and the adventures of Monsieur and Madame d'Harcourt are dealt with skilfully. These adventures, ultimately determined by economic causes, are given theatrical complexity through the person of Madame de Montdésir, who lives a double life under her own name and under that of Madame d'Ange: to Madame d'Harcourt she is known in the latter guise, while her husband is acquainted with her in the former. Not without some true virtue, and informed with the same materialistically realistic spirit, is Les comédiens (The Comedians, 1820) of Casimir Delavigne, an author more famous for his rather melodramatic Les vêpres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers, 1819).

Into this atmosphere stepped Eugène Scribe. A practical man of the theatre, he realized that for the attainment of success a new, foolproof dramatic technique was required, a technique suited for a theatre so vastly different in potentiality and form from those that had housed the plays of Shakespeare or even the tragedies of Racine.

For Scribe that which matters in a play is the plot, and consequently he looks back, not towards Marivaux, whose stories were merely slim excuses for an opportunity to probe the heart and reveal sentiments, but towards Beaumarchais, who, although he knew how to delineate character, was fundamentally interested in intrigue and action. Being a practising writer for the theatre, Scribe realized that a popular audience wants, in the first instance, a vividly told dramatic tale; he realized, too, that many of the devices used in the telling of theatrical tales in the past no longer suited the changed stages of his time; and he set for himself the task of devising a formula by which narratives of all kinds—melodramatic, comic, and farcical—could, with a minimum of effort, be rendered appealing when presented on the boards. His success in this task may be gauged from the fact that he was able to set up what amounted to a play-factory, in which stories were found, invented, or paid for and turned, like sausages, into comestibles for which the public was eager to expend its money.

As Alexandre Dumas fils saw clearly, Scribe had no "inspiration of idea" and no sincerity save what he devoted to his commercial values. For Musset a play has an artistic being and, however fantastic, an inner reality: for Scribe a play is a play, to be prepared according to a mechanical plan, a thing without organic life. "No one," comments Dumas,

knew better than M. Scribe—who was without conviction, without simplicity, without any philosophic end in view—how to set into action if not a character or an idea, at least a subject, and above all a situation, and to extract from that subject and that situation their logical theatric effect; none better than he understood how to assimilate the latest ideas and adapt them to the stage, sometimes on a scale and in a spirit absolutely opposed to the combinations of the one from whom he received the idea…. He was the most extraordinary improviser we have had in the history of our drama; he was the most expert at manipulating characters that had no life. He was the shadow-Shakespeare.

From this description of Scribe's ability Dumas proceeds to compare him with Musset:

If, among the four hundred plays he wrote, either by himself or in collaboration, you place Il ne faut jurer de rien, or Un caprice, or Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée—that is to say, a tiny proverbe written by the most naïve and inexpert of dramatists—you will see all Scribe's plays dissolve and go up into thin air, like mercury when heated to three hundred and fifty degrees; because Scribe worked for his audience without putting into his labour anything of his soul or heart, while Musset wrote with heart and soul for the heart and soul of humanity. His sincerity gave him, though he was unaware of this, all the resources which were the sole merit of Scribe.

While this is true—that Scribe's many plays go up into thin air when compared with dramas written from the heart—Dumas was too wise to fail to see that the technical skill of the popular dramatist had its own value. The conclusion, he remarks, is that the playwright who knows man as Balzac (or Musset) did, "and the theatre as Scribe did, will be the greatest of the world's dramatists."

Just as Musset perfected the work of his immediate predecessors, so Scribe, looking only at theatrical form, perfected the work of others. Fundamentally, his inspiration comes from the writers of melodramas—who, eschewing character studies, were forced to pay particular attention to action—and from those of the vaudeville-farce, a genre which became increasingly popular during the early decades of the nineteenth century. His earliest piece, Une nuit de la Garde Nationale (A Night with the National Guard, 1815), was called a tableau-vaudeville, and the vaudeville technique remained with him to the end of his career. This sketch already shows the main elements of his craft. The play begins with a clear presentation of the background, economically but firmly implants in the audience's mind knowledge of the facts on which the subsequent episodes are founded. These facts known by his public, all the author has to do is to start pulling the strings of his puppets: in and out they go, and the resultant intrigue holds the attention, almost makes us forget that they are puppets without life of their own. And the illusion is made the greater by the free use made by the playwright of material taken from the life of the day. Scribe, as Dumas noted, was nothing if not up-to-date.

This does not, of course, imply that Scribe always took his scenes from material familiar to, or closely associated with, the life of the time. Many of his pieces introduce historical matter—however unhistorically treated—and quite a number escape into the world of the fantastic. Towards the very beginning of his career he varied his pattern with a folie-vaudeville entitled L 'ours et le pacha (The Bear and the Pasha, 1820), with exciting scenes in the seraglio, designed to titillate the public, and all the mechanism of Oriental wonder.

By this time the talented young author was the rage of Paris; by this time he had become sure of his art and was capable of applying it to subject-matter of any description. The formula of the well-made play—la pièce bien faite—was complete. Thenceforward for a period of thirty-odd years he kept the playhouses supplied with a constant series of dramas, nearly all accompanied by music, in which scenes serious, comic, and farcical were wrought into a skilful theatrical pattern. One after another his five hundred plays followed in a constant stream. Here were the sketches from life, such as La petite sœur (The Little Sister, 1821), La seconde année (The Second Year, 1830), and Le chaperon (The Hood, 1832); here were drames, such as Rodolphe, ou frère et sœur (Rodolphe; or, Brother and Sister, 1823) or (turn it about) Camilla, ou la sœur et la frère (Camilla; or, The Sister and the Brother, 1832); here were sentimental 'tragedies,' such as the once-famous Adrienne Lecouvreur (1849), penned in collaboration with Ernest Legouvé, and (with a happy ending) these two authors' La bataille des dames, ou un duel en amour (The Ladies' Battle; or, A Duel of Love, 1851); here were fantasies, such as La chatte métamorphosée en femme (The Cat metamorphosed into a Woman, 1827), Le diable à l'école (The Devil at School, 1842) or La fée aux roses (The Rose Fairy, 1849); here were Oriental spectacles, such as Haÿdée, ou le secret (Haydee; or, The Secret, 1847); here were pseudo-historical pieces, such as La sirène (The Syren, 1844) or Marco Spada (1852). With spirit, gaiety, and a sense of the sensational Scribe makes each one of these exciting and entertaining fare; there is hardly a real character in any, but, as many another author of the time discovered, there is a multiplicity of action and, above all, an almost infallible recipe for the production of similar works. As he showed so clearly in the extraordinarily popular Une chaîne (A Chain, 1841), Scribe was able to make people believe in his almost wholly synthetic situations, and naturally his companions eagerly examined the secrets of his art. The immediate imitators of Scribe are legion.

What is more important is that his formula for the construction of a comédie-vaudeville was found to be applicable also to the writing of more serious dramas. It is not too much to say that, mediocre though his own creations may be, he provided for others precisely what an age of romanticism most needed—a mould into which dramatic thought and passion might be poured. The romantic mind tends to be diffuse and sometimes vague, but diffuseness and vagueness are untheatrical qualities. Scribe accomplished an important task—albeit unwittingly—by emphasizing the importance of action and by showing how necessary for success is careful and deliberate planning of effect.

While the influence of Scribe's works was widespread, extending far beyond the boundaries of France, it is important to remember that even where the impress of his style is patent dramatists of many European lands preserved at least the main elements in their own native traditions and allowed the Scribe formula, when they employed it, merely to make more strongly theatrical qualities stemming from a different source.

Thus, for example, in Spain the Argentinian Ventura de la Vega, in...

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