BORN: 1791, Paris, France
DIED: 1861, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, drama
A Night at the National Guard (1815)
The School for Politicians; or, Non-Committal (1833)
The Glass of Water (1840)
Adrienne Lecouvreur (1849)
The Ladies' Battle (1851)
Eugène Scribe was one of the most prolific and popular French dramatists of the nineteenth century. Although his works are seldom produced today, Scribe is remembered for his mastery of the “well-made” play, which profoundly influenced the works of his contemporaries and successors. Scribe is known for plays that feature elaborate plots full of clever twists and light, witty dialogue. In addition, he wrote music and librettos to accompany his own stage plays and the operas of the time.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Prodigy Augustin Eugène Scribe was born in Paris on December 24, 1791. At this time, France was undergoing a period of social and political upheaval; the ten year French Revolution (1789–1799), which began shortly before Scribe's birth, transformed the government according to the principles of the Enlightenment, paving the way for changes in the literary arena. Scribe's father, a silk merchant, died when Eugène was an infant but left enough for his widow to raise their son without financial worries. She was able to send him to good schools, and he was a brilliant student at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, where he finished with a first prize in his last year. He received his prize under the dome of the Académie Française and, coincidentally, from the hands of Vincent-Antoine Arnault, whose seat at the Académie Scribe eventually inherited.
Rejecting Law for Theater Following his university education, Scribe's mother placed him with a prominent attorney, expecting him to demonstrate his talents in the field of law, but the young Scribe had developed a passion for the theater, and neither his mother's nor his employer's efforts could keep him away from it. When his mother died in 1807, his inheritance provided him an adequate living, and he devoted himself fully to the theater. He soon graduated from merely watching plays to writing them in collaboration with his former classmate, Germain Delavigne, among others.
Early Failures, Eventual Successes The first of Scribe and Delavigne's plays to be staged, on January 13, 1810, was The Accidental Suitor; or, Opportunity Makes the Thief, which did not make it through its first performance. Over the next five years more plays followed, none of which were successes. After several failures Delavigne gave up, but Scribe struggled on, and eventually his persistence was rewarded. In November 1815, he achieved his first hit with A Night at the National Guard, which introduced themes (such as virtue versus vice) that he would pursue for the rest of his career.
Prolific Career Although A Night at the National Guard was followed by several failures, it did not take long for the successes to mount as Scribe's prolific pen churned out more than a dozen works a year. Many were written with collaborators, which was a frequent practice at the time, and Scribe was always generous with his colleagues, sharing both credit and profits even though in many cases he did more than his share of the work.
Théâtre du Gymnase The opening of the new Théâtre du Gymnase in 1820 added to the prominence of Scribe. He provided its first play and was bound to the theater by a long-term contract. Over the next decade he wrote more than a hundred plays for the Théâtre du Gymnase, which did not keep him from filling other theaters with more than forty more. His production included not only vaudevilles but also full-length dramas for the Théâtre-Français and librettos for the Opéra-Comique and the Opéra. He showed that he could be serious as well as humorous and that he understood the special needs of the musical genres, which made him much in demand as a librettist.
Important Contributions Scribe's popularity made him an invaluable member of the Sociétédes Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, which he helped found in 1827. Writers had little leverage in dealing with theater managers and often had to settle for nominal payments for their work even if it went on to make a fortune for the theater. The new organization was able to establish fairer practices that set minimum payments and allowed those in great demand, such as Scribe, to negotiate upward from the base payments.
Académie Française In 1834, Scribe entered the Académie Française, replacing Arnault in the seat that had once belonged to Jean Racine. The next year he used the English court for a character study on the love of power in The Ambitious (1835) and a few years later chose the same locale for what is probably his best-known play, The Glass of Water (1840).
Late Marriage and Slowed Production Scribe remained single until he was forty-eight, when he married Madame Biollay, the widow of a wine merchant. It appears that she managed to do what his mother could not—get him to think at least occasionally about something other than the theater. His productivity after his marriage decreased significantly. It was the ideal bourgeois marriage that he favored so consistently in his plays—comfortable and harmonious. Scribe did continue to work, however, up until his death, which claimed him without warning on February 20, 1861, as he rode home in his carriage after a meeting. He was sixty-nine years old. Thousands turned out to watch his funeral cortège pass.
Works in Literary Context
A “Well-Made” Style Scribe was influential as the author who perfected the well-made play: he took forms and devices from the theater of earlier periods, like the recommendations made in Aristotle's Poetics for example, and combined them in inventive and systematic ways that formed a new type of play adaptable to various styles and genres. This new form, with its clarity, logic, and intriguing combination of inevitability and surprise, seldom failed to please the public.
The main plot, and the real subject of the play, might involve events and themes from history, politics, or various social issues of the day, but the focus of the play was action rather than philosophy. In many of Scribe's plays the structure centers around a single character whose actions and decisions vitally affect the lives of the other characters. Often this character makes a decision and then changes it several times, provoking appropriate reactions from the other characters before the final decision brings about the play's resolution, or denouement.
Whatever the basic structure, Scribe obviously believed that the audience wanted the action to keep moving. Each scene makes a definite contribution to the development of the plot. Lyrical interludes and development of character beyond what is needed for the plot or for engaging the interest of the audience are considered unnecessary; they interrupt the flow of the action, so they are kept to a minimum, if not eliminated entirely.
Another major element of the construction of the well-made play is the arrangement of the entrances and exits and the onstage combinations that result. The scenes are usually tightly linked together, and each scene leads into the next; Scribe makes sure that each scene has a combination of characters that will permit the action to move forward according to a plan.
Scribe often linked a love interest to the principal plot. Most of his plays, however, have at least one subplot (and sometimes as many as seven), usually solidly connected to the main plot. In The Glass of Water (1840), for example, the love plot of Masham and Abigail and the struggle of Bolingbroke to overthrow the duchess become interdependent when the first three characters join forces. The subplot may be minor or nearly as important as the main plot, and it may stretch from beginning to the end of the play or just occupy a part of it, but it must be satisfactorily resolved before the final curtain. There can be no loose ends in a well-made play.
Human Virtue and Vice as Theme Scribe chose a wide variety of subjects for his plays. Many are linked to historical events in various times and places, including England, Russia, France, and even the United States during the American Revolution. They are only in a limited sense historical plays, for they tend to emphasize private lives against a historical backdrop rather than to portray political history for its own sake.
The values Scribe expresses consistently include the standard virtues and values that are generally called bourgeois. He opposes the old aristocratic prejudices against earning a living and favors individual merit above class origin. He shows the consequences of gambling, adultery, and a variety of character weaknesses. His characters speak constantly of money, reflecting its importance in society, but he repeatedly shows those who are excessively concerned about it in an unfavorable light, especially those who sacrifice their happiness, or that of others, to it. Marrying for Money (1827), for instance, puts primary emphasis on a theme that appears as a secondary consideration in many of his plays—the role of money in marriage. Scribe's most frequently represented form of happiness is a good marriage, one in which there is enough money for a modicum of comfort and a genuine affection between the partners.
He was widely imitated by playwrights as different as Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw,Émile Augier, and Georges Feydeau, to name but a few, many of whom denied their debt to him and joined his detractors, who had almost from the beginning loudly proclaimed his supposed faults. Such sustained criticism and a vogue for new forms led to his eventual eclipse. A few of his plays have been produced in modern times, but today few among the theatergoing public even know his name although the techniques he used so masterfully continue to permeate the theater and made their way into the cinema and eventually into television.
Works in Critical Context
When Scribe took the seat at the Académie Française in 1894, his election was by no means universally acclaimed. Many critics, especially those associated with the Romantic movement, had long decried his “lack of style,” as Théophile Gautier put it. They placed primary emphasis on the literary value of dramatic works, and they forgave him neither his preference for realistic dialogue nor the commercial success he enjoyed and that was denied more “literary” authors. Scribe, following his usual practice when attacked, did not bother to respond.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Scribe's famous contemporaries include:
Charles Babbage (1791–1871): British mathematician, philosopher, and mechanical engineer. Babbage is credited with originating the concept of a programmable computer.
John Keats (1795–1821): English poet and a central figure in the Romantic movement in literature.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851): English novelist, playwright, essayist, biographer, and short-story and travel writer who in addition edited the writings of her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832): German poet, playwright, and philosopher.
Although many critics and playwrights recognized Scribe's mastery of dramatic construction and technique, few made more than a cursory attempt to explain it. Such an omission may be the result of disdain, since for some the phrase “well-made play” indicated inferior, lowbrow culture. But it may also have been with some amount of envy that his critics derided the playwright. Scribe was the first French playwright to make a fortune solely by writing plays. He was proud to acknowledge the source of his income and went so far as to have inscribed over the gate of his country estate: “The theater funded this rustic retreat. Thanks, traveler! I may owe it to you.”
The Glass of Water The Glass of Water played a key role in the career of a man who was both, as literary critic Philip G. Hill puts it, “hailed and acclaimed during his lifetime as a playwright wildly popular with the public” and “vilified and derided since his death, blamed for all the shortcomings of the playwrights who came after him.” “Neither position,” Hill concludes, “is completely fair.” What Scribe accomplished, in The Glass of Water perhaps above all, was “the structuring of theatrically effective plots out of nearly any subject matter that came to hand, so that the ‘well-made play’ became almost a formula.” From another perspective, scholar Stephen S. Stanton notes that “the reason the social dramatists adopted Scribe's technique was that he had evolved a very tricky, though essentially mechanical, method of dealing with lightly social and moral themes, so as to make them seem amusing to a jaded and blasé society.” Stanton also observes that at times The Glass of Water, “for all its dependence on a hand prop and its skilful timing, seems more credible [than other, more ‘literary’ dramas] and not just another variation of a standard farce plot.”
Responses to Literature
- Eugène Scribe is credited with creating the theatre genre known as the well-made play. Discuss the elements that make this kind of play and match the list of criteria against one of Scribe's works. What are Scribe's important techniques of action, characterization, and plot?
- The term “well-made play” had negative connotations by the mid-nineteenth century. Yet several writers of the time and at the end of the 1800s refused to give up the convention. Study a play by Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, or Émile Zola and, using the list of criteria for the well-made play, try to identify the elements that survived criticism. Defend your findings with examples from the text.
- Libretto is Italian for “little book,” and is a text created for the production of, usually, an opera. Scribe was considered both a playwright and a librettist. Giuseppe Verdi and Jacques Offenbach were famous librettists. Investigate the history of the libretto. With an idea of the necessary components needed in a script for an opera, write a modern libretto: Choose a favorite short story or scene from a novel; decide on the best music to use; and add some action and dialogue set to music. Consider the reasons for your choices. For instance, why would a certain song fit with a moment in the opera? How would the best parts of the prose text be played out musically on stage? How can you cater to your audience as carefully as Scribe did?
- Citing specific examples from the text, compare and contrast the conflicts in The Glass of Water and Adrienne Lecouvreur. Comment on these tensions with regard to aspects of the well-made play.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who, like Scribe, focused on the consequences of greed, selfishness, ambition, and other vices in their work:
Othello (c. 1603), a play by William Shakespeare. In this classic tragedy, ambition is combined with jealousy and greed to destroy a marriage, a political relationship, and a life.
The Miser (1668), a play by Molière. In this comic drama, grown children seek to get away from their miserly father.
Wuthering Heights (1847), a novel by Emily Brontë. In this classic novel, the two main characters have grown up together, love each other deeply, and are torn apart by the choices one makes based on selfishness and a sense of superiority.
Forbidden Love: A Harrowing True Story of Love and Revenge in Jordan (2003), a novel by Norma Khouri. In this book an Arabic Muslim woman must face the dire personal and cultural consequences of falling in love with a Catholic man.
Gautier, Théophile. The History of Dramatic Art in France for Twenty-five Years. Paris: Magnin, Blanchard, 1858–1859.
Gillespie, Patti P. The Well-Made Plays of Eugène Scribe. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1971.
Koon, Helen, and Richard Switzer. Eugène Scribe. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Stanton, Stephen Sadler. English Drama and the Well-Made Play, 1815–1915. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1958.
Cardwell, Walter Douglas, Jr. “The Role of Stage Properties in the Plays of Eugène Scribe.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 16 (Spring/Summer 1988): 290–309.
Matthews, J. Brander. “Pleasant Land of Scribia,” YaleReview 8 (1919): 836–44.
Stanton, Stephen Sadler. “Shaw's Debt to Scribe.” PMLA 76 (December 1961): 575–85.
1911 Encyclopedia. “Augustin Eugène Scribe.” Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Augustin_Eugene_Scribe.
Project Gutenberg. “Scribe, Eugène, 1791–1861.” Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/s#a4444.
Turney, Wayne S. Eugène Scribe (1791–1861) & the “Well-made Play”. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.wayneturney.20m.com/scribe.htm.