A French Comic Dramatist

ONE of the most curious changes of opinion that is recorded anywhere in the history of literature has suddenly taken place within the past eighteen months in France. For more than twoscore years M. Eugène Labiche has been putting forth comic plays with unhesitating liberality. His humorous inventions have delighted two generations, and he is set down in the biographical dictionaries as one of the most amusing of French farce writers. Attempting in rapid succession and with almost unbroken success every kind of comic play, from the keen and quick comedy of the Gymnase Theatre to the broad buffoonery of the Palais Royal, for nearly forty years M. Labiche was one of the most prolific and the most popular of French playwrights. His work was seemingly unpretentious, and the author modestly made no higher claim than to be the exciting cause of laughter and gayety. Having made a fine fortune, he watched for the first symptom of failing luck, and as soon as two or three plays were plainly not successes he announced that he should write no more, and withdrew quietly to his large farm in Normandy.

The retiring of a mere comic writer was of no great moment, and few paid any attention to it. But a friend of M. Labiche’s, and by far the foremost dramatic author of France to-day, M. Emile Augier, came to visit M. Labiche in his country retirement, and fell to reading the odd plays of his host as he found them in his library. He was so struck and so surprised with what he discovered that he prevailed on the author to gather together the best of them into a series of volumes, promising to write an introduction. In the spring of 1878 appeared the first volume of the Théâtre Complet de M. Eugène Labiche, with a preface by M. Emile Augier, in which he pointed out that the author of a hundred and fifty comic plays was not a mere farce writer, but a master of humor for whom he had the highest admiration. “ Seek among the highest works of our generation a comedy of more profound observation than the Voyage de M. Perrichon, or of more philosophy than the Misanthrope et l’Auvergnat. Well, Labiche has ten plays of this strength in his repertory.” The leading dramatic critics of Paris — and in France dramatic criticism is still one of the fine arts — fell into line, M. Francisque Sarcey first of all. They read the volumes of M. Labiche’s Théâtre Complet, as they followed one another from the press, and with one accord almost all confessed their surprise at the richness and fecundity of M. Labiche’s humor. Indeed, it seemed as though the critics had taken to heart the repairing of their previous unwitting indifference, and were unduly lavish of admiration. So it came to pass in the fall of 1879, when the tenth and for the present final volume of the Théâtre Complet appeared, that, urged to overcome his modesty by his cordial friends, M. Labiche became a candidate for a vacant chair in the French Academy, seeking admittance among the forty immortals chosen from the chiefs of literature, science, and politics. Three years before such a step would have seemed a good joke ; but now no one laughed. Certainly those did not laugh who opposed his election, and the staid Revue des Deux Mondes, in an elaborate article, written rather in the slashing style of the earlier Edinburgh Review than with the suave and academic urbanity we have been taught to expect in the pages of the French fortnightly, — the Revue des Deux Mondes argued seriously and severely against his election. But the tide has turned in his favor, and perhaps before these pages get into print1 M. Eugène Labiche will have taken his place in the Academy by the side of his fellow dramatists, M. Victor Hugo, M. Emile Augier, M. Jules Sandeau, M. Octave Feuillet, M. Alexandre Dumas, fils, and M. Victorien Sardou. A seat in the Academy, it may be remembered, was an honor refused to Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Molière, to Caron de Beaumarchais, to Alexandre Dumas, and to Honoré de Balzac.

It is said — but with how much truth I do not know — that what determined M. Labiche to stop writing for the stage was the recalling of an incident of Scribe’s later years. One day, about 1860, M. Labiche had called on M. Jacques Offenbach, at his request, to see about the setting to music of a little piece which had already been successful without it. While they were talking a card was brought to M. Offenbach, who impatiently tore it up, and told the servant to say he was not at home. Then turning to M. Labiche, the composer said that the visitor was Scribe, who had been bothering him to set one of his plays, “ but I will not do it,” added M. Offenbach roughly, “ for old Scribe is played out! ” M. Labiche at once resolved that when he was old, like Scribe, and rich he would not lag superfluous on the stage. And with the first intimations of failing power to please the fickle playgoers of Paris he withdrew. For three if not four years no new play from his pen has been brought out in Paris. He has written a trifle or two for the Théâtre de Campagne, and for Saynètes et Monologues, two little collections of comedies for amateur acting; but for the paying public he has done nothing. It is to M. Emile Augier that the credit is due of bringing M. Labiche out of his retirement. The preface which he had been too lazy to write for his own collected plays he wrote for M. Labiche’s, and it was this preface which first opened the eyes of the press and the public, and led to the frank acknowledgment of M. Labiche’s very unusual merit. The theatrical managers are only too eager now for new pieces from him, and in the mean while they have revived, right and left, some of the most mirthful of his plays. La Grammaire at the Palais Royal, Les Trente Millions de Gladiateur at the Nouveautés, and, above all, Le Voyage de M. Perrichon at the Odéon have been received with great cordiality and appreciation.

To most Americans, I fancy, the name of M. Labiche is utterly unknown, and one may well ask, What manner of plays are these, that they could remain so long misunderstood ? The question is easier to ask than to answer. The most of them are apparently farces, in one, two, three, four, or even five acts, —farces somewhat of the Madison Morton type. Mr. Morton borrowed his Box and Cox from one of them ; the late Charles Mathews took his Little Toddlekins from another; from a third came the equally well-known Phenomenon in a Smockfrock. These are all one-act plays. Of his larger work, aversion of the Voyage de M. Perrichon has been done at the Boston Museum as Papa Perrichon, and Mr. W. S. Gilbert has used the plot and caught the spirit of the Chapeau de Paille d’ltalie in his Wedding March. In many of M. Labiche’s plays, perhaps in all but the best of them, the first impression one gets is that of extravagant buffoonery, — the phrase is scarcely too strong. But soon one sees that this is no grinning through a horse-collar ; that it has its roots in truth; and that, although unduly exuberant, it is in essence truly humorous. To the very best of M. Labiche’s plays, the half dozen or so comedies which entitle their author to take rank as a master, reference will be made later. In all his work, in the weakest as well as in the best, the dominant note is gayety; they are filled full of frank, hearty, joyous laughter. In reading his plays, as in seeing them on the stage, you have rarely that quiet smile of intellectual appreciation which is called forth by Sheridan in English, and by Beaumarchais or M. Augier or M. Dumas in French. The wit is not subtle and quiet, excepting now and again in the half dozen chosen comedies. There is rather the rush of broad and tumultuous humor than the thrust of wit and the clash of repartee. It is not that the dialogue has not its felicities and its not always felicitous quibblings and quips ; it is because the laughter is evoked by a humorous situation, from which with great knowledge of comic effect, and with unfailing ingenuity, the author extracts alt the fun possible. A comedy ought to stand the test of the library, — how few modern comedies there are in English which will stand it! —but a farce, making no pretensions to be literature, may well be excused if it does not read as well as it acts. Yet M. Labiche’s plays, frankly farces as the most of them are, and devised to lend themselves to the whim and exaggeration of comic actors, will still repay perusal. I have just finished the reading of the ten volumes of his Théâtre Complet, and I confess to real enjoyment in the course of it. The fundamental idea of each piece is in general so humorous and the individual scenes are so comic that I paid my tribute of laughter in my chair by myself almost as freely as in my seat at the theatre. Even in the plays where the fun seems forced, as though the author were out of spirits when he wrote, at worst there is nearly always one scene as mirthful as any one could wish. This quality of humor, which does not rely upon any merely verbal cleverness, is difficult to set before a reader. An epigram of Sheridan’s or of the younger Dumas’s can be selected for quotation which shall be typical of the writer’s whole work. It would be only by long paraphrases of entire plays, or at least of the main plots, that any fair idea could be given of M. Labiche’s merits, so closely, as a rule, is his humor the result of his comic situation. But the attempt must be made, however inadequately. In the Trente Millions de Gladiateur, one of the poorest of M. Labiche’s plays, is a scene which M. Francisque Sarcey thus spoke of when the piece was last given in Paris : —

“ The scene of the slaps is now legendary. I do not know anything more unexpected or more laughable. A druggist, very much in love with a young lady, has by accident, one night, thinking to strike another, given his future father-in-law a resounding slap. The father of the lady declares that he will never consent to the marriage until he has returned the blow. But the druggist is a man of dignity, and he has been a commander in the national guard; still, after many a hesitation he submits. He presents himself to be slapped, and holds forth his cheek. But he has no sooner received the blow than, carried away by an irresistible impulse, he returns it, crying with disgust, ‘ That does not count. We must begin again.’ Finally, at the very end of the piece, when she whom he loves is, unknown to him, promised to another, love brings him again to the father, and again he holds out his cheek for the blow. The father rolls up his sleeve, gives him the slap, and then at once points to the other suitor, and says, ‘Allow me to present my future son-in-law ! ’ ”

Another scene as characteristic is to be found in the Vivacités du Capitaine Tic. The captain is a very quick-tempered man. His cousin Lucile, whom he loves, says she will have nothing to do with him if he forgets himself in future as he has done in the past. An irritating old man, who wishes to marry Lucile to his nephew, determines to provoke the captain into an outbreak. Lucile promises to warn her cousin when he begins to get heated by tapping a handbell. The old man is irritating, and the young officer warms up at once, to be checked by a tap of the bell. As Lucile puts the bell down, the old man unconsciously takes it up, and goes on with his insulting remarks. Again the captain boils over, and is about to throw the insulter out of the window when Lucile shakes the old man’s arm, and so rings the bell. The officer laughs, and after that he has no difficulty in keeping his temper, in spite of the strength of the old man’s provocation, which indeed goes so far as to call Lucile to her feet, to defend her cousin with warmth, not to say heat. Then the captain, leaning coolly against the fire-place, taps a bell there, and calls his cousin to order. Both of the young people break into a hearty laugh, and ring their bells once again under the nose of the disappointed old man, who goes out saying that the captain “ has no blood in his veins ” !

All this may sound simple enough, and perhaps dull enough, in a bald paraphrase, but no one would call the scene dull when it is read in full as M. Labiche has written it, with manifold clever little turns in the action and neat little touches in the dialogue. Both of the plays from which these scenes are taken have stood the severest of tests, — the ordeal by fire ; they have been tried in the glare of the foot-lights. It is no easy task to bring a smile on the faces of a thousand people assembled together ; it is no light endeavor to force the smile into a hearty laugh ; and nowhere is a public more experienced and more exacting than in Paris. But most of M. Labiche’s plays have received due meed of merriment. The laughter is not always evoked, it must be confessed, by devices as simple as those just set forth. There is sometimes a descent into the broadly fantastic both of situation and of dialogue. The effort to be fuuny is at times apparent, and the means adopted are, now and then, farfetched.

M. Labiche’s plays divide themselves readily into three classes : first, the farcical comedies of broad and generous fun ; second, the plays in which the fun has run away with itself and become extravagance,— still founded on a humorous idea, it is true, but none the. less extravagant; and, third, the plays in which the humor has crystallized around a thread of philosophy, — the plays in which the fun rises from the region of farce into the domain of true comedy, of a high quality. Most of the fiftyseven plays in the ten volumes of the Théâtre Complet take their places at once in the first division ; they are comic dramas, neither falling into wild farce nor rising into real comedy. These are comedies of large and hearty laughter, with no Rabelaisian breadth of beam, but with not a little of Molièrian swiftness. The linking thus of M. Labiche’s name with that of the great, sad humorist who wrote the Misanthrope is not as incongruous as it might seem. Along with other and perhaps nobler qualities for which we revere him, Molière had comic force, the vis comica, in its highest expression. And this is a quality which M. Labiche has, as we have seen, in a very high degree. In a few other particulars it might be possible to trace something of a likeness. M. Labiche in his most fanciful inventions could scarcely surpass the exuberant fancies of Molière; the author of the Bourgeois Gentilhomme and the Malade Imaginaire does not hesitate to be exuberant, and extravagant also, when he needs must make the pit laugh. And in M. Labiche’s very best work there are strokes which the author of the School for Wives would not despise.

If M. Labiche were always as strong as his strongest work, just as a bridge is as weak as its weakest point, he would hold high rank among the heirs of Molière. His Théâtre Complet is not complete ; indeed, it contains barely a third of his dramatic writing; but it would give the reader a higher opinion of his powers if it were but a third of what it is ; if, instead of ten volumes, we had only three or four, — and of these one, or at most two, would suffice to hold the few plays which raise the author above most, if not all, of the other French stage humorists of our time.

This best work of M. Labiche’s, this third division of his plays, includes a half dozen comedies, each of which is devoted to illustrating a philosophic truth. They may be called dramatizations of La Rochefoucauld-like maxims, in Celimare le Bien-Aimé, the truth illustrated is seemingly the homely one that our pleasant vices are chickens which will surely come home to roost. In the Voyage de M. Perrichon, it is the more ducal axiom that we like better those whom we have benefited than those who have benefited us. The history of this last play, if current report may be credited, affords an instance of the rather roundabout, not to say half-accidental, way in which M. Labiche has made his masterpieces. He started out with the well-worn plan of getting fun out of the misadventures of a Parisian shop-keeper in Switzerland; but just as Dickens soon abandoned the sporting exploits of Mr. Winkle, which were at first intended to form the staple of the Pickwick Papers, so M. Labiche, when the play was half written, coming to a scene in which Perrichon was rescued from mortal peril by the suitor for his daughter’s hand, saw at once that this scene ought to have its counterpart, in which Perrichon should pose as the relieving hero. This suggested the axiom that we like better those whom we have benefited than those who have benefited us ; and the author thereupon rewrote the play, taking this maxim as the Q. E. D. Perrichon’s daughter now has two suitors, one of whom, acting up to the axiom, coolly calculates that to have been foolish enough to get into danger will not be a pleasant recollection, while to have saved another’s life will be most gratifying to recall. So he pretends to be in danger, and lets Perrichon get him out of it, and calls him a preserver, and has the rescue elaborately noticed in the newspaper. The simple and conceited shopkeeper avoids the man who saved him, and seeks the man he saved. And so the play goes on : whenever one suitor really serves Perrichon, the other devises a fresh occasion for Perrichon apparently to benefit him. In the end, of course, all is exposed and explained, — in a less skillful manner than is usual with M. Labiche, — and the really brave and deserving young man gets the fair daughter. Here, again, all paraphrase is bald and bleak when contrasted with the fertile luxuriance of the humorous original; but I trust the subject has been shown plainly enough for the reader to see that it lends itself readily to comic treatment. I trust, too, that the reader may be induced to examine for himself (and also for herself) the play as it is in the second volume of M. Labiche’s Théâtre Complet, where it is accompanied by La Grammaire, a bright and lively little play in one act; by Les Petits Oiseaux ; by Les Vivacités du Capitaine Tic, already referred to ; and by La Poudre aux Yeux, an almost equally amusing though short comedy, in two acts, perhaps better known in America than any other of its author’s work, as it forms part of the excellent college series of French plays edited by Professor Bôcher, of Harvard. These five plays are all entertaining, characteristic of the author, and free from all taint of impropriety.

A certificate of good moral character cannot be given to all of M. Labiche’s plays. Le Plus Heureux des Trois and Celimare le Bien-Aimé, two of his best works, had better be avoided by those who have not been broken in to French ways of looking at life. But two other plays, very nearly as good, La Cagnotte and Moi, are without any Frenchiness or Parisianism. These four plays, with the Voyage de M. Perrichon, represent M. Labiche at his best. The first query which the reader of the rest of his works makes is, Why does not he write always at this level ? Why does he let wit so lively and humor so true waste themselves on the wildness of farce ? The answer is not far to seek. It is to be found in the insultingly modest way he spoke to SI. Augier about his own writings. It is because he really did not know how good his best work was. He apparently ranked all his plays together; he had aimed at fun, at amusement only, in making them; and although some had paid better and been more praised than others, he did not see that now and again one of them rose right up from the low level of farce to the broad tableland of true comedy. This of course suggests the further question, Why did he not see his own merits ? And that is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it is owing to his writing generally for farce theatres, where the comic company so overlaid his work with the freaks of individual fantasy that he could not see the higher qualities of what was best, any more than did the professional critics, whose duty it surely was to sound a note of warning and prevent such pure comic force from wasting itself. Perhaps it is due to some want of self-reliance,— of which one may possibly see proof in the fact that there are fifty-seven plays in the ten volumes of Théâtre Complet, containing in all one hundred and twelve acts, and only four acts are the work of M. Labiche alone and unaided by a collaborator.

Literary partnerships are the fashion in France nowadays, — a fashion which tends to the general improvement of play-making, but which has hampered M. Labiche, and kept him from doing his best. In one way his reluctance to rely on himself is freely shown when we come to examine the result of his collaborating. First of all, we see that although a dozen, at least, different writers at different times, some of them again and again, worked in partnership with him, yet the fifty-seven plays are all alike stamped with his trade-mark. M. Augier and M. Legouvé and M. Gondinet are authors of positive force and distinct characteristics, yet the plays they have written with M. Labiche are like his other plays, and unlike their other plays. In the development of the comic theme, in expressing all possible fun from the situation, in giving the action unexpected turns to bring it back again for a fresh squeeze, — in all this M. Labiche is unexcelled ; in all this the plays are beyond peradventure his doing. Put in the technical construction, in the sequence of scenes, in the mere stage-craft, which differs in different pieces, and is indifferent in many of them, there is nothing of M. Labiche’s own ; in all probability, intent upon his higher task, he slighted this, and left it in great measure to his coadjutors. M. Augier points out the generic likeness of all the plays which M. Labiche has signed, and suggests that it is because he writes all these plays alone. In M. Augier’s case repeated conversations between him and M. Labiche enabled them to make out a very elaborate scenario ; this was their joint work, and this done M. Labiche requested permission to write the piece himself, which M. Augier generously granted, revising the completed play in a few minor points only.

Although in general the technical construction of the play seems to be the work of his collaborator of the moment, yet even in this one can now and again detect traces of M. Labiche’s individual cleverness. No one of the contemporary comic dramatists of France can so neatly and so simply get out of a seemingly inextricable entanglement. A single sentence, a solitary word sometimes, a slight turn given to the dialogue, and the knot is cut, and nothing remains but “ Bless you, my children,” and the fall of the curtain. An instance of this dramaturgical cleverness can be seen in Les Deux Timides, one of the most amusing of his one-act plays.2

A recent critic in the Revue des Deux Mondes, pleading specially against M, Labiche’s candidature for a seat among the forty, has pointed out that he has not hesitated to use the same idea twice; that, for instance, the Vivacités du Capitaine Tic is erected on the same foundation as the shorter and slighter Un Monsieur qui prend la Mouehe, — both being based on the identical hot-headedness of the hero. He might have instanced also that instead of repeating the situation M. Labiche sometimes reverses it; that Le Plus Heureux des Trois is in part the turning inside out of the idea of Celimare le Bien-Aimé. In spite of discoveries like these, one of the first things which strikes the reader of M. Labiche’s plays is his almost inexhaustible variety of comic incident. Any one of his plays is a series of freshly humorous situations. What little old material may here and there be detected is wholly cast in the shadow by the brilliant fun of the original incidents. But, strange to say, the sterility of character is almost as quickly remarked as the fertility of situation: and this shows at once that he cannot, no matter at what interval, be put even in the same class with Molière, who sought for humor in the human heart, and not in the external circumstances of life.

This repetition of characters is but added evidence in proof of M. Labiche’s lack of ambition and want of belief in his best powers; for in Moi, written for the Comédie-Française, he has shown a capacity for the searching investigation of characters invented with almost as much freshness as he had in other plays contrived comic incidents. There are lines in Moi worthy of the highest comedy. And in more than one other play his characters deserve, indeed demand, study. But in general they are merely the Punch-and Judy puppets required by the plot. There is scarcely a female figure in all his plays which the memory can grasp ; all are slight, intangible, shadowy, merely the projections needed by the story. M. Sarcey tells us that M. Labiche does not pretend to “ do ” girls or women ; he says that they are not funny.

But none of his men are as weak as his women; some of his peasants are drawn with great and amusing accuracy ; most of his minor characters are vigorously outlined and well contrasted one with another; and one character, repeated with but little alteration as the central figure in perhaps two dozen plays, is drawn with a marvelous insight into the inner nature of the bourgeois of Paris. Although grotesque almost in its humor, the caricature is vital; for it is a personification of the exact facts of bourgeois life. M. Perrichon and Celimare and Champbourcy (in La Cagnotte), and their fellows in many another play, are not unlike Mr. Matthew Arnold’s homme sensuel moyen; and with a master hand M. Labiche lays bare the selfish foibles and petty vanity of the average sensual man.

One cannot help wondering what Mr. Matthew Arnold’s opinion of M. Labiche’s Théâtre Complet would be, if it were of high or of equal enough merit to deserve his study. Mr. Arnold would surely be confirmed in his belief that it is for the average sensual man that the French dramatist of our day writes. Not that there is any pandering to sensuality in M. Labiehe’s plays. On the contrary, the ultimate moral of his work is always wholesome. As the sharp critic of the Revue des Deux Mondes confessed, his pleasantry is not either heavy and gross, as in the old vaudeville, or licentious, as in the new opcra-bouffe. “Generally it is gay, witty, and, what is not without value, at bottom always honest.” M. Labiche is too healthy to take kindly to vice, but like other hearty natures, like Rabelais and like Molière, he is not always free from a fancy for breadth rather than length. He has the old French sel gaulois rather than Attic salt.

And if, dropping morality, we consult Mr. Arnold as to M. Labiche’s title to a seat in the Academy, we shall have no difficulty in getting an answer. In the essay on the Literary Influence of Academies Mr. Arnold gives us Richelieu’s words in founding the French Academy : its “ principal function shall be to work with all the care and all the diligence possible at giving sure rules to our language.” It was to be a literary tribunal. “ To give the law, the tone, to literature, and that tone a high one, is its business.” Sainte-Beuve said that Richelieu meant it to be a haut jury, — “ a sovereign organ of opinion.” And M. Renan tells us that “ all ages have had their inferior literature ; but the great danger of our time is that this inferior literature tends more and more to get the upper place. No one has the same advantages as the Academy for fighting against this mischief.” To make these quotations is to crush M. Labiche’s claim to be admitted as one of the forty jurists. But if the Academy exists for such high aims, why is it not true to them ? How many of the dramatists who now have seats there are entitled to them ? M. Victor Hugo of course is ; and equally of course is M. Emile Augier, for he is a master, writing in the grand style. And perhaps M. Jules Sandeau may justly claim a place for his Mademoiselle de la Seiglière and also for his share in the ever admirable Gendre de M. Poirier. But by what right is M. Octave Feuillet theree ? The empress used to like his novels. And is M. Alexandre Dumas, or M. Victorien Sardou, a writer who can speak with “ the authority of a recognized master in matters of tone and taste ” ? M. Dumas is strong and brilliant, but his brain is hopelessly lopsided. M. Sardou is a very clever caricaturist, of immense technical skill. If these have each a seat among the forty, why not M. Labiche also ? He is surely not more out of place than they. Their election was the reward of skill and ability and success. His would mean no more and no less. If the Academy is what Richelieu meant it to be, M. Labiche belongs outside. If its duty is to reward success, as the election of M. Feuillet, M. Dumas, and M. Sardou apparently asserts, then M. Labiche also deserves an election. For as M. Emile Augier tells us in the preface from which quotation has been made before, M. Labiche is a master, “ and without hyperbole, since there are as many degrees of mastership as there are regions in art; the important thing is to be a master, — not a school-boy. It is in a matter like this that Cæsar’s phrase is so true : Better to be the first in a village than the second at Rome. I prefer Teniers to Giulio Romano, and Labiche to the elder Crébillon. It is not the hazard of the sentence which brings together under my pen the names of Labiche and of Teniers. There are striking analogies between these two masters. There is at first the same aspect of caricature; there is, on looking closer, the same fineness of tone, the same justness of expression, the same vivacity of movement.” And here follows a remark, already cited, but repeated now because it is the ultimate expression of M. Labiche’s ability : “ The foundation of all these joyeusetés à toute outrance is truth. Look among the highest works of our generation, seek for a comedy of more profound observation than the Voyage de M. Perrichon, or of more philosophy than the Misanthrope et l’Auvergnat. Well, Labiche has ten plays of this strength in his repertory.”

J. Brander Matthews.

  1. M. Labiche has been elected since this article was written.
  2. An admirable adaptation of this amusing little piece, by Mr. Julian Magnus, has been printed in Comedies for Amateur Acting.