Eugène Scribe

CARLYLE speaks of Diderot as “ successful in criticism, successful in philosophism, — nay, highest of sublunary glories, successful in the theatre.” Accepting this last dictum, we may venture the assertion that no writer ever enjoyed so much of the highest of sublunary glories as Eugène Scribe ; for no maker of plays, either before or since, was ever so uniformly successful, and over so wide an area. Æschylus and Aristophanes did not always get the prize they strove for; and even when they did triumph their fame was limited to their own city, or at most to Greece and its chain of colonies. Scribe’s luck rarely failed him, and his best pieces were carried not only all over France, but around the world. His fertility was as unfailing as his good fortune. The output of his fiction-factory is enormous. In the year 1823 alone he brought out nearly a score of plays. In the half century of his incessant production he wrote more than four hundred dramatic pieces, of one kind or another, beside a dozen or more novels. In bulk his work is barely equaled by Lope de Vega’s or by Hardy’s, by De Foe’s or by Voltaire’s, or, in our own day, by the elder Dumas’s. His complete works are now in course of publication ; sixty closely printed volumes, of some four hundred pages each, have already appeared, and the end is not yet. He began life with a trifling patrimony ; by his pen he made sometimes as much as one hundred and fifty thousand francs a year ; for the one long novel he wrote, for serial publication in a newspaper, he received sixty thousand francs ; and when he died he left a fortune of quite two millions of francs. To these material gains there was added the honor of a seat among the illustrious forty of the French Academy.

Born in 1791, Scribe began to write for the stage before he was twenty. Like many another dramatist, he was intended for the law, before his success on the stage justified his giving up the bar. Like many another dramatist, moreover, his earlier dramatic attempts proved failures. If we may credit M. Ernest Legouvé, his fellow-craftsman and sometime literary partner, Scribe saw fourteen of his plays miss fire before he made his first hit. Then, turning from the servile imitation of Picard and Duval, he began to look at the life around him, and determined to place on the stage the petty foibles of the day. His first attempt at what an American dramatist has called “ contemporaneous human interest” was Une Nuit de la Garde Nationale, a vaudeville in one act, brought out in 1816. It attracted instant attention ; the citizen soldiers it made fun of chose to take offense ; there was much bluster, and some talk of a challenge to mortal combat. The piece, in the mean time, set everybody laughing, and Scribe saw that, after prospecting vainly, he had found at last the lead he could work to advantage. The vaudeville, when Scribe took it up, was in a middle stage of its evolution. Originally, it had been a sort of satirical ballad or a string of epigrams, telling pointedly an anecdote of the hour or girding sharply at an unpopular official or favorite. This is the vaudeville whereof Boileau speaks when he says, —

“Le Français, né malin, forma le vaudeville.”

About the beginning of the last century, this versified anecdote came to be cast into dialogue and sung in public, appropriate action aiding. For the theatre in the fair first, and afterward for the Italian comedians, Lesage and Piron wrote vaudevilles of this type, rudimentary plays, the words of which were all in rhyme, ready for the vocalists. By the end of the century the vaudeville had got a little more dramatic consistence, remaining, however, either the parody of a play or opera popular at another theatre, or a brief and brisk setting on the stage of an anecdote. Such it was when Scribe began to write, and to him was due its final transformation. First he freshened it, as we have seen, by attacking the follies and the fashions of the day ; then, as soon as he felt himself secure, he broadened its scope. The versified anecdote, dramatic only by courtesy, gave place to a complete play, which, slight as it might be, had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Traces of the old form survived in the frequent sets of verses written to wellknown airs, and almost meant to be said rather than sung. In these couplets, as the snatches of song were called, were put the special points of the dialogue, the best jests, the jeux d’esprit. But in Scribe’s hands reliance was had on the situation rather than on the dialogue. For the first time a vaudeville was seen with an imbroglio as involved and as full of comic uncertainty as might have sufficed hitherto for a play of far greater pretensions.

In 1820, four years after Scribe’s first success, M. Poirson, his collaborator in that play, opened the Gymnase theatre, and at once bound Scribe by contract not to write for any rival house for the space of ten years. This, is the decade of Scribe’s most copious production. Aided by a host of collaborators, he brought out at the Gymnase a hundred and fifty pieces, nearly all of them vaudevilles. Sure of his public, Scribe gave the vaudeville still greater extension : from one act he enlarged it often to two, and at times to three acts ; from a merely jocular and hasty representation of scenes from every-day life, he raised it now into comedy, and again into drama. As he trusted more and more to his plot, to the situations which his marvelous constructive skill enabled him to present to the best advantage, the couplets, although still retained, became of less and less importance ; they could even be omitted without great loss. In at least one case this was done. Scribe had written a vaudeville in one act for the Gymnase, intending the chief part for Léontine Fay, who, however, fell sick before the piece was put in rehearsal. The author cut out the couplets, and cut up the play into three acts, changing but one line of his original prose in so doing. Then he took Valérie, a comedy in three acts, to the Théâtre-Français, where it was accepted at once, and where Mademoiselle Mars acted the blind heroine with her usual graceful perfection. This anecdote shows how the vaudeville had grown in Scribe’s hands. A vaudeville which a skillful touch or two will turn into a comedy fit for the Comédie - Française is very far from the vaudeville which is only a hastily dramatized anecdote. Of this comédie-vaudeville, then, Scribe was really the inventor, as well as its most industrious maker.

The new comédies-vaudevilles varied in range from pretty and semi-sentimental comedy, like Valérie, to light farce, like L’Intérieur d’un Bureau. As fast as they appeared in Paris they were adapted to the London market by Planché, Dance, Poole, or Charles Mathews the younger. As typical as any is Zoé, ou l’Amant Prêté, which Planché turned into the Loan of a Lover. Those who recall that well-worn little comedy can form a not unfair idea of the hundred other plays of its kind which Scribe wrote for the Gymnase. Those who will take the trouble to compare the English play with the French will see that the adaptation is a better bit of work than the original. Planché, having a story ready to his hand, could spend time and give thought to the consistency and coherence of the characters who were to take part in it. To Scribe the situations were of first importance, and no more strength was imparted to the characters than was needed to get them through the ingenious intrigue. There is a sharp contrast between the innate and carefully cultivated tact with which Scribe handled the succeeding situations of these lively little dramas and the careless way he set on their legs the people whom he was to guide through the labyrinth.

I do not pretend to have read all of Scribe’s four hundred and more dramatic pieces, or even the half of them, but I have read or seen acted all those which the consensus of criticism has indicated as the most typical and the best; and in all these plays I do not recall one single character thoroughly thought out and wrought out, breathing the breath of life and moving of its own will. By an effort of memory I can call up a crowd of pretty faces with a strong family likeness, or a lot of young gentlemen who have got themselves into an unpleasant scrape. But that is all. The people who pass through these plays are merely profiles ; they are like the plane of the geometricians,—without thickness and impalpable. Scribe had some knowledge of human nature, but it was only skin deep. He had insight enough, but it went just below the surface, and no further: now, nothing is more temporary than superficial human nature. Scribe never got behind the man of the time to find man as he is at all times. His characters are silhouettes into which the scissors have cut also the date. The fifteen years of the Restoration were the years when Scribe wrote the most of his comédies-vaudevilles, and it does not need the title-page to tell us that they were acted before 1830. Scribe had looked around him, and seen the mighty industrial progress of France freed at last from the bondage of the old Bourbon rule, from the uneasiness and ferment of the Revolution, and from the military strain of the empire. Sick of martial glory, all France was trying to make money; and yet in picturesque juxtaposition to the new brood of bankers and merchants and manufacturers stood the survivors of the empire and the Revolution. So these comédies-vaudevilles are full of old soldiers, sergeants and colonels and generals, all singing bits of verse in which guerriers rhymes with lauriers ; and in contrast with these are the money-makers, and the usual young men and pretty dolls of women, more or less witty and wicked. By dint of off-hand sketching of these as they floated by on the current of middle-class society, Scribe had made for himself a full set of the personages which might be needed in any comédievaudeville ; and having once got a stock of these figures he used them again and again, much as the deviser of one of the old Italian commedia dell’ arte used the pedant and Brighetta, the captain and the doctor, and the rest of the instantly recognizable masks.

A comparison, not without interest, might be instituted between the comédie-vaudeville of Scribe and the commedia dell’ arte as it became naturalized in France by the harlequin Dominique and his fellows, the friends of Molière. In each case it was especially the amusement of the people of Paris, of the shop-keeping class above all ; and, as I have said already, in each case characters and dialogue were of less importance than plot and situation. The fecundity of Scribe in providing new subjects far surpassed that of his Italian predecessors. Goethe told Eckermann that Gozzi said that there were only thirty-six tragic situations, and added that Schiller had thought there were more, but could never succeed in finding even so many. Granting that the comic situations outnumber the tragic, there must be an end to them, at length; but Scribe seemed inexhaustible. When one turns out from ten to twenty new plays every year for ten years, there must be some repetition, some use of stale matter, some attempt at a rechauffée. But France is not a country with ten religions and only one sauce, and a French play-maker, if he be as skillful as Scribe, can serve you over again any old drama with a new dressing, so deftly disguised that you would scarce know it. Scribe took suggestions everywhere: from Marryat he borrowed Japhet in Search of a Father ; from Mrs. Inchbald, A Simple Story ; from Hertz, the lovely King Réné’s Daughter; and from Cooper’s Lionel Lincoln he got the germ of La Bohémienne, ou l’Amérique en 1775, a highly comic drama of our Revolution, which might have been adapted to advantage during the centennial excitement. Scribe was fond also of doing over again in his more modern manner some of the masterpieces of the past; and so we have Les Nouveaux Jeux de l’Amour et l’Hasard and Le Nouveau Pourceaugnac, — even Molière did not scare him ! Then, too, he did his own plays over again. M. Legouvé tells us that he quite forgot his own work, sometimes, and would sit and listen to it, criticising it freely, without recalling it as his own ; and I have seen somewhere an anecdote of his saying, as the curtain fell on a piece of his which was an obvious failure, " No matter ; I will do it again next year!” He did over not only his own failures, but those of other dramatists, when they bungled a good idea.

Beside all his borrowing from himself and from others, borrowing in which there was no deceit or dishonesty, —a more straightforward and upright man than Scribe never lived, — he had the assistance of the crowd of collaborators who encompassed him about. Scarce a tithe of his earlier plays were written by Scribe alone. First and last, he must have had half a hundred collaborators, most of them unknown now out of France, and well-nigh forgotten even there. Not a few were men of mark on the French stage at that time. Three or four may be known to the world at large: Saintine, for instance, the author of Picciola; and Bayard, the author of the Gamin de Paris; and SaintGeorges, the author of the libretto of Martha and of many another opera; and M. Legouvé, the author of Medèe. So many were his partners that he was accused of keeping a play-factory, under the style of Scribe & Co., just as Dumas had been charged with keeping a novel-factory. But Scribe’s treatment of his collaborators was in marked contrast with Dumas’s. Scribe always did more than his share of the work, and was ready to give them more than their share of the credit. He never tried to grasp all the gold or the glory for himself. His collaborators remained his friends ; and it was to them collectively that he dedicated the complete edition of his plays. One brought him a suggestion, another a plot in detail, a third a few couplets; whatever the share in the work, they were always named in the bill of the play and on the title-page, and they always drew a proportion in the profits. The most of the labor was always Scribe’s, and sometimes the contribution of the partner was so slight that he could not point it out. M. Dupin once brought Scribe an ill-made two-act vaudeville, from which, however, Scribe got a suggestion that he immediately worked over into a one-act play of his own, Michel et Christine. To the first performance he invited Dupin, who never knew he was seeing his own piece until it had succeeded and the chief actor had announced as its authors MM. Scribe and Dupin. Again, M. Cornu came up from the country with a bag full of melodramas, one of which he begged Scribe to glance at. When he next called, months afterward, Scribe asked him if he had time to listen to a play. M. Cornu was pleased with the compliment, pleased with the vaudeville Scribe read, and astonished as well as pleased when told that he was its author. “ I found an idea in your melodrama,” said Scribe ; “ to me an idea is enough.” So the Chanoinesse declares itself on its title-page to be by MM. Scribe and Cornu. M. Dupin had not written a line of one play, nor M. Cornu of the other, nor had they even recognized their ideas in Scribe’s work; yet he acknowledged his obligation to them and shared his profits with them. But Scribe’s delicacy went even farther than this. In 1822 M. de Saint-Georges brought him a piece turning on a game of lansquenet. “ You have lost your labor,” said Scribe; “ your play is impossible. If you want to make dramatic use of a game of cards, you must choose a game familiar to play-goers now, — écarté, for example.” And then he went on showing how such a play might be written, what its plot might be, and what might be done and said. When he paused, Saint-Georges suggested that he had just sketched a play, only needing to be written out. “ So I have ! ” said Scribe, smiling ; and in November, 1822, there was acted at the Gymnase a vaudeville called L’Ecarté, by MM. Scribe and Saint-Georges. Now M. Saint-Georges had contributed nothing whatever to the piece, but as his play had been the cause of the talk out of which L’Ecarté sprang, Scribe chose to consider him as a collaborator. Surely delicacy can go no further than this !

Perhaps the making of a vaudeville like Michel et Christine, or the Chanoinesse, or L’Ecarté, was such an easy thing to Scribe that he held it lightly, — although it must not be forgotten that he shared the substantial profits of the play as well as the more immaterial honor. When, however, he took a higher flight, and rose from the comédie-vaudeville, never longer than three acts, to the full-length five-act comedy of manners, meant for the Théâtre Français, he renounced all outside aid, and relied on himself alone. The only fault his collaborators had ever found with him was his insisting on doing more than his share of the work ; when he began to write for the ComédieFrançaise he cast them aside altogether, and did all the work. Dumas, whose assistants were as many, but not as loyally treated, as Scribe’s, once defended himself over Scribe’s shoulders, and declared that collaboration is a hindrance, and not a help. When Scribe was received at the French Academy one of his dissatisfied colleagues is said to have murmured, “ It is not a chair we should give him, but a bench to seat all his collaborators.” And there were not wanting those who insinuated that his literary partners supplied all the ideas and deserved all the credit ; on these he turned the tables by doing alone and unaided his most important and in many respects his best work.

Fifty years ago the Théâtre-Français, owing to the strict division of styles among the theatres of Paris, and the reservation to it of the masterpieces of classic tragedy and comedy, was an institution more august and of higher dignity than it is even now. Scribe, broken to every ruse and wile of theatrical effectby the experience gained in a hundred plays, and speaking on the stage as one having authority, turned from the Gymnase (though without wholly giving up the comédie-vaudeville), and brought out at the Théâtre-Français a series of comedies of higher pretensions. Valèrie was produced by the ComédieFrançaise in 1822, half by accident, as we have seen. Five years later, in the midst of his incessant production at the Gymnase, he brought out at the ThéâtreFrançais his first five-act comedy, the Mariage d’Argent. It failed. “ Here, at last,” said Villemain, when receiving Scribe into the French Academy, “ is a complete comedy, without couplets, without collaborators, sustaining itself by its dramatic complexity, by the unity of its characters, by the truth of the dialogue, and by the vivacity of its moral.” But at first the old play-goers, who were wont to meet in the house of Molière, keen to protect its traditions, would not hear of Scribe’s comedy ; it was the work of a vaudevilliste only too obviously, they said, and they sent him back to his couplets and his collaborators. But though the piece failed in Paris, it succeeded amply in the provinces.

Soon the Théâtre-Français was bearing the brunt of the Romanticist onslaught ; and soon a more material revolution overthrew the Bourbon throne. Scribe was the only French dramatist of prominence who took no part in the struggle between the Romanticists and the Classicists, who went quietly on in his own way, and who held his public as firmly after the success of Antony and Hernani as before the publication of the preface to Cromwell. But the revolution of July affected him more closely. The Gymnase had been called the “ Théâtre de Madame,” and on the withdrawal of the princely protection its future seemed less favorable. Besides, the turn of the political wheel had brought into view subjects for which the stage of the Gymnase was too small. So Scribe went to the Théâtre-Français again, and Bertrand et Raton, ou l’Art de Conspirer, was acted there in November, 1833, nearly six years after the check of the Mariage d’Argent. In the next fifteen years seven other five-act comedies, written by .Scribe alone, were acted by the Comédie - Française: L’Ambitieux (1834); La Camaraderie, ou la Courte Echelle (1837) ; La Calomnie, and Le Verre d’Eau, ou les Effets et les Causes (1840); Une Chaîne (1841); Le Fils de Cromwell, ou une Restauration (1842) ; and Le Puff, ou Mensonge et Vérité (1848). These comedies, notwithstanding their well-jointed skeletons, are already aging terribly; they show the wrinkles of time; even the young lovers are now gray-haired, and the language is hopelessly rococo. The fancy for sub-titles has died out, and some of Scribe’s seem very ridiculous now. His fancy for reflecting fully the changing hues of the hour has given his plays a color now faded and out of fashion forever. What is contemporary is three parts temporary. Language, for one thing, is always shifting. A far-seeing literary artist borrows only as many phrases from the jargon of the day as he may need to give life to his dialogue, and never enough to weight that dialogue down with dead words after they have dropped out of use. Scribe’s subordination of everything to the demands of an immediate stage-success makes most of his dialogue now lifeless and wooden. And unfortunately, though Scribe had a very pretty wit of his own, and was capable of writing dialogue of no little sparkle, he was never above making use of the ready-made jests, the commonplaces of joking. Théophile Gautier, to whom picturesqueness was the whole duty of man, somewhere says that, after a witticism had been worn threadbare by hard usage, it was still sure of a freshening up in some one of Scribe’s plays. Here again we see Scribe’s knowledge of the play-goer : if Scribe made the new jest he was so well capable of making, perhaps the public might not see it, but if he used the old joke, the public could but laugh. On the same principle, the clown in the circus gives us the most obvious and antique wit; and the people needs must laugh at it, just as Diggory had been laughing at the story of the grouse in the gun-room these twenty years. Taught by his experience as a playwright, Scribe distrusted his own higher powers, assuredly capable of further development, and chose instead to rely on his well-tried, and indeed truly wondrous, constructive skill.

To consider in detail the comedies acted at the Théâtre-Français would take too long. Valérie is no doubt much improved by the cutting out of its couplets; it is a simple and touching little story, lacking only in depth and pathos, in the one touch of nature ; it is made, not born, and there is no blood in it. The Mariage d’Argent seems to me the least satisfactory in structure of Scribe’s long plays, and I do not wonder it failed. The subject might suffice for a comédie-vaudeville in three acts, and the strain of stretching it into a five-act comedy is, unfortunately, only too evident. But in Bertrand et Raton is a great improvement; for the first time Scribe strikes the true note of high comedy. All the characters are cast in worn moulds, and have no sharpness of edge, save Bertrand, the incarnation of the ultimate diplomacy. Here is real observation and the real comic touch. In Bertrand the world chose to see a portrait of Talleyrand, then ambassador to England ; and when the play was acted in London Mr. Farren wore a wig which made him the image of Talleyrand. To the horror of the English authorities, the French ambassador came to the play ; but with characteristic shrewdness he refused to see the likeness, and led in applause of the actor. Bertrand is Scribe’s one rememberable character. It leavens the whole play, the plot of which, however, is interesting and possible, and not without irony.

What would the great writer who invented Queen Anne have thought of the Verre d’Eau, in which the Duchess of Marlborough and the lady-love of Lieutenant Masham are rivals of the queen for the affection of that inoffensive young man ? Scribe takes as many liberties with Queen Anne — who is dead, as we all know, and has no Churchill now to fight her battles — as Hugo took with Queen Mary ; but he is never melodramatic, like Hugo. The emotion is rarely tense, and even the shock of surprise evokes no more startling ejaculation than “ Oh Heaven ! ” — a lady-like expletive which recurs half a dozen times in the play. The Verre d’Eau, indeed, is a very lady-like comedy, wherein high affairs of state are shown to hang on the trifles of feminine feeling. While Scribe has no enthusiasm, no poetry, no passion, so also has he no affectation and no false and forced emotion. In Une Chaîne, for instance, which remains the most modern of Scribe’s comedies, and which tells a familiar tale, there are no ardent scenes between the lover and the mistress, and no dwelling on the raptures of illicit passion. On the contrary, the play, as the title shows, turns on the lover’s struggles to break the toils that bind him to his enchantress. Scribe was a bourgeois, a Philistine, if you will, and he worshiped respectability, with its thousand gigs. In Oscar, ou le Mari qui Trompe sa Femme, a three-act comedy done at the ThéâtreFrançais in 1842, there is abundant sacrifice to decorum, though the subject is disgusting. Outwardly all is proper ; inwardly it is of indescribable indelicacy ; but so skillfully has Scribe told his story that it is only by taking thought that one sees into it; we are hurried so swiftly over the quaking bog that we scarcely suspect its existence. In Une Chaîne the subject is commonplace enough now, though it was less so in Scribe’s day. What is remarkable about it is not only the matter-of-fact treatment of a passionate situation, — this was possibly Scribe’s protest against the Romanticist code, which set passion above duty,— but the curious way in which his instinct as a playwright had anticipated the formulas of a quarter of a century later. Une Chaîne, written in 1841 by Scribe, is in construction very much what it would have been had it been written by M. Victorien Sardou in 1881; it has the external aspects of a comedy, but lurking behind, and half out of sight, is a possibility of impending tragedy, — a possibility which stiffens the interest of the comedy and strengthens it. We try a play by a triple test, — for plot, for character, or dialogue. Scribe, who was a born playwright, well knew what so many would-be dramatists do not know, that plot alone, if it be striking enough, will suffice to draw the public. But he either ignored or was ignorant of the fact that character only, that only a true fragment of human nature, can confer immortality : Panurge and Sancho Panza and Bardolph and Mascarille are as alive to-day as when they came into being. Plot and situation and intrigue, however clever, become stale in time; we weary of them, and they are forgotten. Unless a story is kept alive by the immortality of character it soon gets oldfashioned, and drops out of sight till another generation takes it up and dresses it anew to suit the changing fancy. If it then fall into the hands of a true poet, a real maker, and he put into it the human nature it has hitherto lacked, it has a chance of long life ; though the first arranger is remembered only as having suggested the story, and the great credit is given to the creator of the character. Thus Shakespeare and Molière have worked over the plots of the Latin comic dramatists and so stamped these with their marks that no one has since dared to question their ownership, or to replevin what after all belonged to the public domain.

Scribe has left his impress on the stage, but it is as the inventor of the comédie-vaudeville, as the improver of grand opera, as a play-maker of consummate skill, — not as the maker of character. He was full of appreciation of a comic situation, and wrung from it the last drop of amusement; it never reacted to the creation of a truly comic character. No one of Scribepeople lives after him. They were in outline only, faint at best, and soon faded ; time has had no difficulty in rubbing them out. " Outline ” is perhaps scarcely the right word; one may say rather that they are pastels, not sketches in black and white. Indeed, there is little black anywhere in Scribe ; he took a rose-colored view of life; and, as M. Octave Feuillet pointed out in the eulogy he delivered as Scribesuccessor in the French Academy, nowhere in all Scribe’s plays will you find a villain of the deepest dye. Few of his characters are even vicious; they are ridiculous, only. We can laugh at them without any feeling that we ought, perhaps, to weep. His is a benevolent muse; and allfor the best in the best of worlds.

The most easily recalled of Scribe’s characters is one which shows some of the complexity of real life, — Bertrand, the cold and subtle diplomatist, who turns the zeal and the generosity of others to his own account, and makes the rest of his fellow-men serve as his cat’spaws and scapegoats. Here is a figure not all of a piece: he has some life of his own; he could stand on his own legs even if the directing wire of the manager of the show were withdrawn. After Bertrand one can bring up with least effort Michonnet, the old prompter in Adrienne Lecouvreur. Here also is a man with the blood of life coursing through his veins. And of all Scribe countless women no one has such a glow of human nature, fragile and feminine, as Adrienne herself.

It is hard to have to grudge Scribe the credit of these last two characters, but it is a fact that in writing Adrienne Lecouvreur Scribe had again taken unto himself a partner, this time M. Ernest Legouvé. Scribe was asked by the Comédie-Française to write a comedy for Rachel. He doubted, and wisely, whether the task was not beyond him, and whether Rachel, who was great in tragedy, would in comedy either be easy herself or be accepted by the public. He casually consulted M. Legouvé, who said the task was easier than, it seemed. “ It will be enough to put into a new frame and another period Rachelordinary qualities. The public will believe it a transformation, while it will be only a change of costume.” “ Will you look up a subject for us to treat together ? ” said Scribe at once. M. Legouve sought, and at last he happened on the anecdote of Adrienne Lecouvreur acting Phèdre and throwing into the teeth of the Duchess de Bouillon, who sat in the stage box, these scorching lines of her part: —

“ Je ne suis point de ces femmes hardies
Qui, goûtant dans le crime une tranquille paix,
Ont su se faire un front qui ne rougit jamais! ”

M. Legouvé hastened to carry his find to Scribe, who fell on his neck in delight, crying, “ A hundred performances at six thousand francs ! ” M. Legouvé kindly tells us that this was not a mercenary outbreak ; it was the natural expression of the enthusiasm of a trained playwright who knew that in the boxoffice receipts are figures that never lie, or flatter, or disparage, but tell with brutal frankness what the public thinks of his work. M. Legouvé also tells how Rachel refused the piece, and how artfully he persuaded her to play it. Its success tightened the link between Scribe and M. Legouvé, and they wrote three other plays together, of which the best known is Bataille de Dames, turned into sturdy English by Mr. Charles Reade as the Ladies’ Battle.

If I had to select one play of Scribe’s showing him at his best, I should choose this Bataille de Dames. I can recommend it as agreeable reading and quite harmless. It takes no great study to see that the plot of the play is a wonderful work of art. The neatness with which the successive links of the simple yet ever-changing action are jointed together is beyond all praise. The comedy of intrigue can go no further ; this is its last word. And there is not only ingenuity of incident, there is some play of character ; not much, to be sure, but a little. Nature in Scribe’s plays has as poor a chance as it had at the hands of the French gardeners who bent the yew and the box into shapes of strange animals. But Bataille de Dames is far better in this respect than the Camaraderie of fifteen years before. Ingenious with a Chinese-puzzle ingenuity, all the pieces fit into each other and fill the box exactly, and so completely that there is scant room for the least human nature. In the Camaraderie there is no air at all, and you cannot breathe, but in Bataille de Dames the people show some little will of their own, thanks, possibly, to M. Legouvé. In the plays Scribe wrote with M. Legouvé there is more life and less insufficience of style than in his other pieces. Scribe had little of the literary feeling, and cared as little for the art of writing as M. Zola. It is a rare thing for a Frenchman to attain prominence as an author, and yet write as ill as Scribe; and it is only as a dramatist that he could have done it; on the stage purely literary merit is a secondary consideration. Scribe had far more real ability than M. Legouvé, but he lacked the tincture of literature of the latter ; so their conjunction was fertile. Together they made a better play than Legouvé alone, who with no great poetic endowment tried to be a poet, or than Scribe alone, who was satisfied to be theatrically effective. So the Bataille de Dames is the best of Scribe’s comic imbroglios, and Adrienne Lecouvreur is the best of his more dramatic attempts.

In his lighter comedies, as in his position in the theatrical world, Scribe recalls Lope de Vega. Each was in his day the chief purveyor of plays ; both relied on the ingenuity of plot to sustain the interest; neither left behind him a single memorable character. With due allowance for the differences of time and place, some of Lope de Vega’s comedies are very like Scribe’s. Take the Perro del Hortelano : is it not in suggestion and handling much what it would have been had Scribe written it ? A little more sprawling, may be, not as economical in its effects, but still much the same. The Gardener’s Dog is Spanish for the Dog in the Manger. In this case it is a woman, lightly and easily sketched : she loves and she is jealous ; and yet she cannot make up her mind to marry the man she loves, because of his lowly birth. Even the nincompoop of a lover is not unlike some of Scribe’s uncertain heroes. The art of play-making is constantly improving, and Scribe could have given points to Lope in the game of the stage. The Spanish dramatist, on the other hand, had a Spanish dignity and grandiloquence, and some stirrings of poetry. Scribe’s Pegasus had no wings, and so his attempts to rise to the romantic and historical drama did not succeed. He had a telescope rifle unfailing in shooting folly as it flies, but the handling of a siege gun was beyond his power.

In 1819, Scribe had written the Frères Invisibles, a sufficiently absurd melodrama of the Pixérécourt school. In 1832, in the midst of the Romantic ferment, he tried his hand at Dix Ans de la Vie d’une Femme, — something in the style of Dinaux and Ducange’s Trente Ans, on la Vie d’un Joueur. But the dagger and the bowl were too heavy for him to lift. If any one wants to see a delightful specimen of the competent criticism one dramatist can visit on another, as candid and as cutting as may be, notwithstanding its good nature, he should glance over Scribe’s drama, and then read Dumas’s analysis of it in his Souvenirs Dramatiques. Perhaps the rattling raillery of Dumas convinced Scribe of his error. It was twenty years later, and only after Adrienne Lecouvreur, a comedy-drama, had succeeded, that he ventured on the Czarine, an historical drama, acted by Rachel in 1855. Scribe could do a dainty pastel or a delicate miniature, but he lacked the robust strength which historical painting calls for. Strange to say, the play is wanting even in the picturesqueness of stage effect when compared with Scribe’s own libretto for the Star of the North, or with the beginning of a play sketched by Balzac, both of which have for their heroine the mistress and wife and successor of Peter the Great. A complicated and petty intrigue dwarfs the figure of one who fills so large a place in history and in the imagination as Catherine. Scribe’s feebleness in character-drawing is shown in the way his historic figures slip out of mind, in spite of every effort to lay hold on them, and in spite of their pretense to be portraits of Richard Cromwell and Marshal Saxe, of Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough, of Francis the First and Charles the Fifth.

Scribe’s device was a pen crossed over pan-pipes, with the motto, Inde Fortuna et Libertas, — a proud saying, for all its humility. He owed what he was to his pen, and he acknowledged the debt.

The pan-pipes, I take it, are meant to symbolize, more modestly than a lyre, his operatic labors; still they seem somewhat out of place, as no man was ever less given to the warbling of native wood-notes wild. Scribe’s share in the development of grand opera and in the maintenance of opéra-comique, important as it is, must be dismissed briefly. Nowhere is skillful scaffolding more needed than in an opera-book, and nowhere did Scribe’s unequaled genius for the stage show to better advantage than at the Opéra. It was he who constructed the Jewess for Halévy, and Robert the Devil, the Huguenots, the Prophet, and the Africaine for Meyerbeer. It was be, in great measure, who made possible Herr Wagner’s art work of the future, by bringing together in unexampled perfection and profusion the contributions of the scene-painter, the ballet-master, the property-man, and the stage-manager, and putting them all at the service of the composer for the embellishing of his work. As the First Player says, in the Rehearsal of his grace the Duke of Buckingham, “ And then, for scenes, clothes, and dancing, we put ’em quite down, all that ever went before us; and these are the things, you know, that are essential to a play.” They are essential to that passing show we call an opera, and no one handled them more effectively than Scribe.

His operas, ballets, and operas-comiques fill twenty-six volumes in the new edition of his works ; and among them are the librettos of the Bronze Horse, Crown Diamonds, the Sicilian Vespers, the Star of the North, Fra Diavolo, the Dame Blanche, the Domino Noir, the Favorita, Masaniello, and I Martin, which last he had taken from Corneille’s Polyeucte, just as he had taken another opera book from Shakespeare’s Tempest. Many of his comédies-vaudevilles he made over as operas; the Comte Ory was set by Rossini, and the Sonnambule was arranged as a ballet. An Italian librettist afterward took this ballet and used it as the book for Bellini’s Sonnambula, just as other foreign librettists have used his plots for the Ballo in Maschera, the Elisire d’Amor, and more recently for Fatinitza.

Consider, for a moment, Scribe’s extraordinary dramatic range : he began with the vaudeville, which he improved into the comédie-vaudeville ; he rose to the five-act comedy of manners ; he invented the comedy drama ; he failed in romantic and historical drama, but he succeeded in handling tragic themes in grand opera; he devised the ballet opera; and he gave great variety to the opéracomique. He was ever on the lookout for new dramatic forms ; one of the most curious of those he attempted is to be seen in the three-act play of Avant, Pendant, et Après. The first act, Before the French Revolution, is a comedy ; the second act, During the Revolution, is a drama ; and the third act, After the Revolution, is a vaudeville. The same impulse to seek new forms led him also to discover a new country, in which he laid the scenes of all his plays. Scribe called this new land England, or France, or Russia, or whatever else he wanted to make it pass for; but the critics called it Scribia. This is a country where the people are all cut and dried, where the jokes are generally old jokes, where everything always comes out right in the end, where waiting-women twist queens around their fingers, where great effects are always the result of little causes, and where, in short, M. Scribe could have everything his own way. This uniformity of local color made Scribe’s plays more easily understood in foreign countries, and facilitated the task of the adapter. Beaumarchais and Augier lose fifty per cent. in transport to another land and tongue. Scribe’s tare and tret is trifling. Manners are local, but a plot might be used as well in England as in France, and in Germany or Italy as in England ; and so the universal borrowing from France began. Before Scribe, the nations had borrowed from each other all round ; no one race had a monopoly of the dramatic supply. The Restoration comedy of England was derived from France ; but Germany and France were both copying from England toward the end of the last century, and England and France were imitating Germany in the early part of this. Since Scribe’s plays began their tour of the world, and since his reorganization of the French Dramatic Authors Society made writing for the stage the most profitable form of literary labor, France has ruled the dramatic market. It is instructive to note that the French playwright who, after Scribe, has had the most foreign popularity is M. Victorien Sardou, who came to the front in 1861, the year of Scribe’s death, and who, like Scribe, places his main reliance on his situations. M. Sardou is the direct disciple of Scribe. We have been told that when M. Sardou was learning the trade of play-making he modeled himself on Scribe, seeking to spy out his secret. He would take a play of Scribe’s, read one act, and then write the following acts himself ; comparing his work with Scribe’s, and so learning the tricks of the trade from its greatest master. Proof of this study can be seen by a glance at the list of M. Sardou’s works : the Pattes de Mouche is his Bataille do Dames, Rabagas is his Bertrand et Raton, and in Nos Intimes and Fernande we have the formula of Une Chaîne. To M. Sardou, as to Scribe, a play is a complex structure, whose varied incidents fit into each other as exactly as the parts of a machine-made rifle, lacking any one of which the gun will miss fire. M. Sardou is not as rigid in his construction as Scribe was, and he has a broader humor and is more open to the influences of the day, — perhaps too much so. Toward the end of his life Scribe complained that his pieces did not meet the old success, and wondered why it was, sure that he made plays as well as ever. The fact was that taste had changed, and the public did not ask for well-made plays ; or rather it demanded something more than a well - made play, something more than mere workmanship. Fortunately for his own peace of mind, Scribe passed away before the full effect of the change in public taste was apparent.

To sum up, Scribe’s qualities are an inexhaustible industry, an unfailing invention, an easy wit, a lively feeling for situation, marvelous cleverness, and supreme technical skill. He paid little attention to human nature : he showed no knowledge that life is more than mere work and play ; that there can be grand self-sacrifice, noble sorrow, or any large and liberal sweep of emotion. He had neither depth not breadth. A good man himself, and a generous, in his plays he took a petty, not to say an ignoble, view of life. Even in his comedies there is no great comic force ; it is easy to understand how Philarète Chasles came to call him a Marivaux épicier. And it is no wonder that Heine, whose eyes were wide open to the iniquities, the sufferings, and the struggles of mankind, should regard Scribe as the arch-Philistine, the guardian of the gates of Gath, and should have risked a dying jest against Scribe. As breath was fast failing him, Heine was asked if he could whistle (in French, siffler, meaning also “to hiss”); to which he replied, with an effort, “No, not even a play of M. Scribe’s,”

J. Brander Matthews.