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Preface and Introduction
from Four plays (1915)
Preface by Eugène Brieux
Introduction by Barrett H. Clark
MY DEAR MR. CLARK:
AS I had occasion to explain to you when you were planning the present volume, I can see among the numerous reasons for the success which it will achieve that it is above all a timely book, introducing as it does the work of Emile Augier to the American public at the moment when the evolution of the taste of that public is directing it precisely toward that form of dramatic art which is exemplified by the author of "Le Gendre de M. Poirier." No longer content merely with dramas of adventure and plays in which sensational incidents and arbitrary development render them closely akin to the newspaper serial or the fairy-tale, this public has ceased looking to the theatre solely as an amusement, a pleasant recreation and distraction from its daily occupations; it is now interested in more complex problems; it is willing to listen to arguments a process more taxing, possibly, than the other, but thereby only the more fascinating. Avid of progress and bent on the quest of the most recent and most profound manifestations of thought, it cannot fail at this time to take an interest in the theatre of ideas. Indeed, if the drama of Ibsen has already attracted the attention of this public, it is certain that there has existed some transitional form of dramatic art between that drama and the works first presented in America.
Each epoch has its particular way of thinking and its particular kind of plays. Our epoch is that of the social play.
The material progress of civilization, reducing the distance and obstacles which hitherto separated the nations, has resulted in bringing us closer to one another, arousing our common interests and stimulating those mental and spiritual qualities which unite the Old World with the New. This art in my opinion is only the result of that sympathetic note which we seek in those who not many years ago were total strangers to us.
You have made a most wise and careful choice among the works of Emile Augier.
"Le Gendre de M. Poirier," his most celebrated comedy, together with "Les Fourchambault" and "Le Mariage d'Olympe," set forth and defend principles and ideas which cannot but find favour in the United States.
This play ["Le Gendre de M. Poirier"] may be compared with an exciting and chivalrous tournament, in which the contestants represent the two forms of nobility: that of the heart or spirit, nobility pure and simple, and that of caste. The first triumphs over the other, yet without crushing it as is just and fitting. Antoinette Poirier, having succeeded in arousing the enthusiasm and admiration of her husband the Marquis de Presles to the point where he renders her the highest possible homage he acknowledges that in her heart he has found that of his mother the Marquise exclaims, wounded and yet radiantly happy in the full consciousness of her legitimate pride: "I have my mother's heart!"
This play then sums up in these two speeches one uttered by the representative of individual pride, the other by the representative of traditional haughtiness, which may occasionally hide but never destroy, the essential qualities of the aristocracy.
Here is depicted that struggle, intelligent, courteous, tender, too, between race and caste, with honor in the balance. In short, here we are able to observe commonsense, sentiment, and French good-humour finally at swords' points with traditional pride and all its concomitant sophistry, achieving a triumph, a triumph however over what is conventional and superficial in this ancient pride, for it respects and honours the prestige and greatness of the past and even admits the charm of aristocratic idiosyncrasies.
Finally, as a sort of compensation due us for the exaggerations of the Naturalistic School, there is not a single odious personage in this lively and natural comedy, for Madame de Montjay is only a dramatic "utility," which Augier took pleasure in relegating far into the background.
As for the Marquis de Presles, he is exquisitely French, and his purely superficial faults scarcely detract from his charm in the eyes of the Poirier-Verdelet partnership. Nor do the petty meannesses of these old gentlemen greatly lower them in our eyes what a good excuse they have! After this optimistic and charming play it was necessary to select one showing Emile Augier under his severest aspect. You have done this in choosing "Le Mariage d'Olympe."
Emile Augier has always stood for the great middle classes. Its ideals are order and regularity, justice, the family and fireside. He considers from a tragic viewpoint what Molière laughed at in order not to cry over, and he stands forth as champion against every peril which threatens to destroy conjugal happiness.
His middle-class honesty prevented his sentimentalising over the lot of the prostitute; throughout his plays he shows himself her constant enemy. His Olympe is the exact counterpart of Marguerite Gautier in "La Dame aux camélias": she is a cynical and insidious being, whom unhoped-for good fortune has not succeeded in overthrowing.
Having made her way by subterfuge into society and the intimacy of the family circle, she does not seek real redemption. Seized with a homesickness for her vile past, she makes use of her position only in order to wreck the happiness of those about her, up to the day when the gentleman of the old school, whose nephew she has ensnared and married, puts an end to her in an access of indignation.
In "Les Fourchambault" we observe the struggle between ambition and the material interests on the one hand, and natural impulse and the true nobility of the heart on the other. In every scene Emile Augier maintains his antipathy to fortunes which, when they are not honourably acquired, are the brutal weapons directed against those who are weaker, or else when they are utilised for ends to which our reason, our commonsense and our desire for justice, are radically opposed.
The sordid, petty, and ambitious Madame Fourchambault, Fourchambault, Bernard and his mother, are synthetic figures, types of humanity at large, thrust into the midst of social drama.
Emile Augier was great as an observer of the society of his time. Weary of the conventional, romantic, superannuated drama of his day, of religious and historical themes, he preferred to treat those questions which the life of his time furnishes every day to the dramatist.
The powers of good and evil have since Augier's day changed in the matter of terminology, together with the methods of treating them as material for drama. He was among the first to realise that an individual face to face with questions of physiological and social heredity was quite as poignant a subject for study as was the legendary hero pursued by the anañk&evacuate; of antiquity; so that the plays of the present are more attractive to us than those of early times by reason of the interest aroused by the discussions to which they give rise, discussions which we can immediately assimilate and allow to react upon our consciousness as living beings.
Such then are the questions treated in the plays of Emile Augier which this volume offers to the American public. I am delighted, Monsieur, to join you in rendering homage to the literary memory of a master whom I consider one of the greatest of that line in which I am proud and happy to consider myself as a dramatist and French writer.
THE present volume is the first attempt to make known in English something of the rich and varied genius of one of the ablest and most influential dramatists of the nineteenth century. Up to the present, Emile Augier has been accessible to readers of English only through translations of two plays, while among the rare studies of the subject in our language the only one that pretends to any sort of completeness is the illuminating and sympathetic essay by Professor Brander Matthews in his "French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century."
The first three plays, here translated for the first time, are typical of three separate and distinct manners of their author; the fourth is a delicate and amusing trifle, serving to show rather what he could do in an odd moment than to stand for a different phase of his work. One of these is an acknowledged masterpiece of the nineteenth century drama: "Le Gendre de M. Poirier" is indubitably one of the finest comedies since Molière, and rightly holds a place of honour in the repertory of the Comedie Française with "Tartufe" and "Le Mariage de Figaro." "Les Fourchambault," too, with its plea for family solidarity, its commonsense, its quiet and reasoned optimism, is still deservedly a favourite in France. "Le Mariage d'Olympe" is not often played, but its position in French drama, its historical importance, its significance as a social document, containing as it does a challenge to romantic ideas about the "rehabilitation of the courtesan," entitle it to a position of high honour.
A volume which aimed at including all the important and typical plays of Augier would be three or four times the size of the present, which seeks only to introduce three of the best of his plays.
There is so much matter in the dramatic works of Augier which does not properly fall within the scope of the theatre, that the casual reader may infer, incorrectly, that Augier was more of a social reformer and champion of home and fatherland, than a man of the theatre. True it is that in practically all his plays he attacks some form of social or political corruption, and stands forth to do battle in behalf of the domestic virtues. He condemns political trickery, he aims his shafts at the prostitute regaled as a wife and mother, trying to break her way into the homes and families of the respectable; he ruthlessly flays all forms of marital infidelity, and fearlessly enters the arena in questions of divorce and marriage but with all this, he is primarily a dramatist. His works are plays, as time has proved. Augier does not however take a subject at hazard, as Pinero often does, and then write a play; nor does he, as is usual with his disciple Brieux, write his play to fit a thesis: his themes evolve naturally out of the fable, with the apparent unconsciousness of art. He is deeply concerned with the vices and virtues of mankind, but rarely does he allow his convictions to warp the dramatic texture of his plays. Rarely, too, is he so fearlessly didactic as his fellow-playwright Dumas fils. Augier has been compared with Molière; but it is only as a man of the theatre and a painter of character that the analogy holds.
Augier's debut was made with a graceful comedy in two acts: "La Cigüe" (1844). This is in verse, and recounts the story of a repentant debauchee. His next play, "Un Homme de bien" (1845), likewise in verse, in spite of its hesitancy in the development of plot and the delineation of character, indicates the path which Augier was to tread; here he "manifests for the first time his intention to paint a picture of contemporary life, attack the customs of the day, in short, to write a social comedy."1
1 Henry Gaillard de Champris; "Emile Augier et la Comédie sociale" (Grasset, Paris, 1910).
But Augier did not at once adopt and develop his new manner. During the next few years, he continued to write verse plays in which the thesis was more or less prominent.
"L'Aventurière" (1848), "Gabrielle" (1849), "Le Joueur de Flute" (1850), "Diane" (1852), "Philiberte" (1853), and "Paul Forestier" (1868) are primarily comedies in which the purely dramatic element predominates, although "L'Aventurière" and "Gabrielle" are a closer approximation to the later manner than the others.
"L'Aventurière" is a modern play in spite of the fact that the scene is laid in the Italian Renaissance. It is the story of an adventuress who has managed to get into the good graces of a rich merchant of Padua. He is about to give up friends and family for the woman, when his son, who has been away for ten years, appears upon the scene. Assuming a disguise, he reveals the true character of Clorinde to his father and effects a breaking-off of their relationship. The father and family are saved and the repentant woman goes into a convent.
If in "L'Aventurière" Augier was still undecided as to the means of expression best fitted to his temperament or as to the purpose to which his powers were to be put, in "Le Mariage d'Olympe," six years later, he found his most forceful and realistic manner. Meantime there is one play, forming a connecting link between the wavering "
Aventurière" and "Olympe." "Gabrielle" (1849) is, in spite of its poetic form, a realistic play. The husband who labours hard for wife and family, the wife who is bored and seeks a fuller "realisation of self" in the husband's friend this is a familiar situation. But it should be borne in mind that a serious treatment of such a story was, sixty-five years ago, something of a departure. Scribe's stock in trade was the menage à trois, but conjugal infidelity with him was always a subject for comedy. Augier's play then was a challenge, both to the Romanticists and the Vaudevillistes. When Julien Chabrière opens the eyes of his wife and her would-be lover to the dangers and miseries of their projected step, the lover goes away and Gabrielle, falling to her knees before her husband, speaks the celebrated line:
"O père de famille! O poète, je t'aime!"
Leaving the realm of poetic comedy, with its attached "moral" and more or less optimistic d&eacaute;nouement, in 1854 Augier threw the gauntlet in the face of the Romanticists who applauded Dumas fils' "La Dame aux camélias" commonly known in English as "Camille." A curious change in public taste and manners had allowed large numbers of demi-mondaines to assume a place of distinction and honour in the social life of the day. This was due perhaps to the numerous political transformations which France was at the time undergoing, as well as the spreading of the ideas of the Romantic school of art and literature. When, in 1852, Dumas fils made a prostitute the sympathetic heroine of a play, and brought forward the doctrine that "she will be forgiven because she has loved deeply," a feeling of revolt awoke in the breast of Augier, and he wrote "Le Mariage d'Olympe." This is one of the most directly didactic of all his works: it was aimed primarily against the "reign of the courtesan." He says, in short, that such women as Olympe Taverny do undoubtedly exist, that the men are at fault as much as the women for that fact; possibly he even secretly sympathises with her, but he denies her the right to marry into good families. When the Marquis de Puygiron shoots Olympe, after endeavouring to force her to give up the family name which she has stolen, declaring that "God is his judge," Augier issues his ultimatum on the question.
"Le Mariage d'Olympe," a play with a purpose, stands apart from the great mass of Augier's plays. In the three short and well built acts, the author has merely sketched his characters: every effort has been bent on the idea, the facts, the thesis. Just so much of characterisation as is needed to carry the story is given. The admirable and disgusting scene which closes the second act is one of the most trenchant and poignant which ever came from this dramatist's pen. Nowadays, even after Zola and Becque and the Théâtre Libre dramatists, it strikes a note of horror. How it must have shocked an audience of the 'fifties!
Although the play failed2 it aroused considerable discussion and a good deal of adverse criticism. Still, its importance in the dramatic and intellectual development of the dramatist was great. It was his first straightforward declaration of independence. From 1854 on, he followed the path he had himself opened with this early play.
2 Due perhaps to the fact that the public had had enough of the subject: "La Dame aux camélias," "Les Filles de marbre," and "Le Demi-monde," all treated a similar theme.
"The reign of the courtesan" was not ended by the plays of the day, but Augier did not cease for that reason in his attempts to check its influence. Twelve years after "Le Mariage d'Olympe" he wrote "La Contagion." The development of society and its relation to the fallen woman may be clearly traced by a comparative study of "L'Aventurière," "Le Mariage d'Olympe," and "La Contagion." In the first play, the woman is merely an exception, an adventuress who happens to "break into" society and a good family. In "Le Mariage d'Olympe" she is a demi-mondaine who has carefully planned to obtain for herself, at any cost, a noble name. But she is checked in time by a pistol-shot. Twelve years later the Olympes and Clorindes are no longer exceptions; the rehabilitated courtesan has triumphed. By skillful manipulation she has insinuated her way into a position of equality similar to that of the respected mother and wife, and has even begun to corrupt her. "The consequences" [of this triumph of the courtesan] says De Champris, "were deplorable. As a result of hearing of these 'ladies,' of reading about them in the newspapers, of seeing their gorgeous equipages, of passing their pretty homes, applauding them on the stage or admiring their silhouettes in the fashion magazines, society women fell a prey to contradictory feelings and ideas: the resentment at being occasionally deserted for these women, the curiosity to know these enemies, so far away yet so near, the wish to rival them, furnished them with weapons, perhaps even a certain desire for forbidden fruit, and gave birth to a regret at being forced to pay for a reputation in society which entailed so rigid a restraint. For these various reasons, many honest women, played the part of demi-mondaines." This was the contagion against which Augier raised his voice. The clever and diabolical Navarette, mistress of a wealthy man of the world, succeeds in ruining her lover and bringing his family to her feet. By subtle manipulation she compromises the Baron d'Estrigaud's married sister, is witness of her infidelity, and finally succeeds in holding the entire family at her mercy. A pistol-shot will do no good here: the evil has gone too far, society itself is corrupted. The kept woman, successfully rehabilitated, rich, held in high esteem, has at last attained that position for which she had striven.
The war of 1870 and the fall of the Empire put a stop to the particular state of affairs which Augier had fought against. Rarely in his later plays (except in "Jean de Thommeray") did he again attack the question. To Brieux and Hervieu and François de Curel he left the work of analysing deeper motives and making a study of the various ramifications, some of which were still invisible in Augier's day but this is current history.
The three plays which have just been discussed are sufficient to show that Augier is the staunch champion of the family and the home. His hatred of the prostitute is not so much a matter of personal feeling as a social one. Whether or no he believes in what is now known as segregated vice or whether as a man he was occasionally lenient in matters of sex, is beside the question: he saw that the home, of all institutions in France the most important, was threatened by a fearful invasion, and he did his best to check it.
It will be seen that Augier's plays, so far considered, are not in chronological order. "L'Aventurière," "Le Mariage d'Olympe," and "La Contagion," have been grouped together for the purpose of observing a particular trend in the thought of the author. Meantime, such widely different plays as "Philiberte," "La Pierre de touche," "Le Gendre de M. Poirier," and "Les Effrontes," made their appearance.
"Gabrielle" was the first play to treat of a more insidious evil, a greater danger to the home which Augier was ever so eager to protect: conjugal infidelity. After the comparatively timid "Gabrielle" came "Les Lionnes pauvres" (1858), which stands in much the same relation to the earlier play as "Le Mariage d'Olympe" did to "L'Aventurière." Here again is the story of a woman whom the love of luxury, too much idleness and a natural penchant, lead to take a lover. The honest and industrious husband is long kept in ignorance of the fact, believing that his wife's expensive clothes are paid for out of her savings. Besides being deceived, in the French sense of the word, he is being partially supported meantime by his wife's lover. At last he learns the facts, and is even willing to forgive his wife, but when she declares her unwillingness to restore the money given her, on the ground that she is "afraid of poverty," the husband leaves her. He seeks consolation in the home of Thérèse and Léon Lecarmier. Then Thérèse is forced to tell him that her husband, Léon, is Séraphine's lover. Séraphine, then going the path of least resistance, decides to remain a kept woman. Thenceforth she joins the ranks of Olympe and Navarette.
Augier's sanity, his healthy attitude toward humanity, his belief in the eternal rightness of things, could not long remain obscured by the temporary pessimism incident to the writing of "Les Lionnes pauvres." In 1858, the same year, he turned to light comedy, and in "La Jeunesse" produced a genial if somewhat conventional play. In spite of its thesis that money is an evil, especially in the case where young people are forced into marriages of convenience it can scarcely be classed among the important social plays. It marks a return to the earlier manner.
The question of money, lightly touched upon in "La Jeunesse," is the second of the important problems which is intimately concerned with the welfare of the family and the home. From this time on, sex and money are to assume a position in the front rank of Augier's work.
Closely allied in spirit with "La Jeunesse" is "Un beau Mariage" (1859). The question, Should a poor man marry a rich wife, is handled with keen insight and answered in the negative. Pierre Chambaud, a poor young chemist, marries the rich Clémentine Bernier, whose mother, possessing nearly all the money, literally supports the daughter and her husband. Pierre soon becomes a mere figure-head in his own house and, as a result of the social ambitions of his wife and mother-in-law, is forced to give up his scientific pursuits. Soon losing the love and respect of the two women, he complains to them, and is made to feel more keenly than ever the utter degradation of his position. A certain Marquis de la Roche-Pingolley has been over-assiduous in his attentions to Pierre's mother-in-law. When he demands that the Marquis either marry Madame Bernier or cease his visits, he is
humiliatedonce again by being told by his mother-in-law that the Marquis is in her home. Receiving no help or sympathy from his wife, he goes to live with his friend, Michel Ducaine; and work out an experiment which, if successful, will revolutionise science and render him celebrated. Fearful of the scandal and inconvenience of a separation, Clémentine sends the Marquis to Pierre in order to effect a reconciliation. Pierre is willing to return to his wife, but only on the condition that the mother-in-law is to have nothing to do with them. Preparatory to making his final experiment, which, we are told, will either kill or make Pierre a successful man, he sends a letter to his wife. Clémentine arrives at the laboratory just in time to be with her husband in the hour of danger. She has somehow come to see his real worth and is willing to sacrifice comfort and luxury for his sake. She hides during the experiment, and when the seven minutes necessary for its consummation are at an end she cries "Saved!" and falls into Pierre's arms:The last act shows a pretty picture of Pierre and Clémentine at home: she is the incarnation of domesticity, and he, of independence and happiness. The mother-in-law, distracted at not being able to help the couple, ends by purchasing Pierre's discovery. The play's weakness is so flagrant as hardly to call for further comment. With so good a theme the dramatist ought surely to have developed a more credible story, and sought a more logical dénouement. To begin with, his thesis was irretrievably weakened by making Clémentine the sort of woman she was. If, during the entire struggle with his wife and her mother, Pierre had once received some sign of sympathy from Clémentine, we might have hoped and looked for her ultimate change, but when, having stood throughout against him, she finally does go to him and at the risk of her life, stands at his side during the experiment, and then after his experiment succeeds falls into his arms, and forever after mends his clothes, we cannot doubt that we have to do with melodrama.
"Oh, Pierre, my love, my life! . . . We might have died together! . . . But you are given to me again! What happiness! God is good! How I love you! Forgive me! I thought you were a coward, I thought you were base, and I hated you! Now I adore you! Oh, courage, oh, genius! Forgive your comrade, your handmaid!"
Had Clémentine at first been in earnest and made an honest endeavour to understand Pierre and then gradually been corrupted by her mother and her mother's money, and eventually been made to see the good qualities in Pierre, we might have believed. As it is, the last two acts spoil the play.
Technically, "Un beau Mariage" is important. A man of science as a serious stage-figure, a hero in fact, was a decided novelty in the 'fifties, and, if the play accomplished nothing else, it at least opened the way for the moderns, and broadened the field of the theatre. Possibly the doctors and other scientists in the plays of Brieux and Hervieu and Curel owe something to the earnest treatment of the chemist in this early play of Augier.
"Ceinture dorée" (1855) is little more than an expanded fable; it might well be termed "Tainted Money." The rich merchant Roussel has an only daughter, Caliste, who seeks among numerous suitors for her hand one who cares nothing for her money. Finally, M. de Tirélan makes his appearance, and Roussel offers to make him his son-in-law. But Tirélan, whose father has been ruined in business by Roussel, and who has scruples against marrying for money, refuses. Roussel swallows the insult, Tirélan decides to go away, and Roussel turns to another suitor, whom Caliste is about to accept when she learns that Tirélan really loves her and will not ask for her hand because of her money. Meantime, Roussel has been particularly susceptible to allusions to the source of his fortune, and this susceptibility finally assumes the form of monomania. Once again Roussel makes overtures to Tirélan and offers to restore the money which he took from the young man's father. He is again refused. The knot is cut at last when it is learned that Roussel is ruined by unwise speculation. Tirélan is at last free to declare his love to Caliste; he can marry her now that the barrier of fortune is removed.
The play is so light that it hardly deserves a place among the serious plays of Augier. Yet in its own way it stands as a further document upon the social system in which hard cash plays so large and important a role.
To turn from the idealistic and timid "Ceinture dorée" to "Les Effrontés" (1861) is to realise in the most forceful manner the extreme poles of the genius of Emile Augier. The earlier play appears little other than the work of a dilettante beside the later. "Les Effrontés" is a compact yet varied picture of manners, in which the principal portrait is the parvenu Vernouillet, a vulgar, unscrupulous journalist with money and a vast amount of aplomb "nerve." Respected by no one, he is held in fear by all, for he is influential and rich.
Politically, socially, dramatically, "Les Effrontés" is a work of the first importance. It was the first play to treat in a realistic manner the power of the press and paint a truly modern villain. Says Vernouillet: "I have put my money to the only use to which it has not hitherto been put: making public opinion. I have in my hands the two powers which the Empire has always disputed: money and the press! Each helps the other. I open up new roads to them; I am in fact making a revolution." Although "Les Effrontés" is at the same time a comedy of character and manners with a complicated intrigue and a love story, it was in its day considered mainly as an attack on the press. But what was not realised so clearly in the many heated discussions aroused by the piece, was that Augier was not so much concerned with the actual state of the press which was and is bad enough but with the power which the press, backed by money, may exert. His purpose was larger, for it was humanitarian.
Once again he enlarged the scope of the theatre, and gave the stage a figure which is today one of the most familiar and oftenest used.
In several of Augier's plays there is a mingling of themes which, while it adds to the atmosphere and interest, often renders any distinct classification of genres, a difficult task. "Money," "Sex," "Politics," and such-like more or less arbitrary headings are not sufficient to cover more than half of Augier's plays. "Le Gendre de M. Poirier," for example, is a comedy of character, as well as a comedy of sentiment, a picture of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, and a study of the money question. "La Pierre de Touche" (1853) and "Maitre Guérin" (1865), although they are not so unified as "Le Mariage d'Olympe," may still be satisfactorily classified under the heading of "Money." The first is another of those lighter plays with "morals"; it shows the evil results of the acquisition of large sums of money by those who do not know its proper uses; the second is an interesting study in the character of a bourgeois merchant.
"Les Effrontés" has been classed among the works of Augier in which money was shown to be at the base of a great part of the evils of the social system. It is likewise one of the three political plays, of which the others are "Le Fils de Giboyer" and "Lions et Renards."
"Le Fils de Giboyer" (1862) was for the French of the day what was called an "Anticlerical" play. The Jesuits as politicians were attacked, or believed themselves to be,3 so that national discussions and conflicts arose, bitter counter-attacks made on the author and what was supposed to be his party. Augier denies (see the foot-note) that his play is political; he declares that it deals with society in a general way. As a story of father and son it indubitably suffers from what now appears as a great deal of topical and contemporaneous discussion, but that is rather the fault of the times and of the subject. The clever but unscrupulous bohemian scribbler, Giboyer who, together with his protector D'Auberive, was one of the principal characters in "Les Effrontés", has sold himself to the rich Marquis. Through political intrigues, hypocrisy, venality of the basest kind, Giboyer makes his way, until at last through his love for his son, his designated successor, he undergoes a moral "rehabilitation." The psychology of the transformation may be true enough, and would doubtless have been more credible had it been developed at greater length by a novelist like Balzac or George Eliot, but somehow we cannot believe in the sudden change, and are prone to ask how it happens that Giboyer can be redeemed by love for his son any more than could Olympe because Henri once loved her.
1 In his preface to "Le Fils de Giboyer" Augier says: "In spite of what has been affirmed, this comedy is not a political piece in the current sense of the term: it is a social play. It attacks and defends only ideas, abstract conceptions of all sorts of government .... The antagonism between the old and modern principles, that, in brief, is the theme of the play. I defy anyone to find a single word to warrant the assumption that I have gone beyond this."
"Lions et Renards" (1869) is valuable and historically interesting as a comedy of manners and character. It is another attack on the Jesuits. But the complicated intrigue, the occasional obscurity of the motivation, were sufficient to account for the failure of the play.
Augier realized, as Balzac did, that money was the root of much evil, and, in the midst of the social readjustments which France was undergoing in the nineteenth century, he made one of the greatest of his protagonists. In the struggle between the classes, in the personal relationship of the family, the race for money and power was almost always the prime reason for social degradation and disintegration. Social position is mainly a question of money. Olympe Taverny attempted to climb, and the family suffered; Gabrielle's husband was forced to spend the time he should have had with his wife, in earning the money he thought was supporting her; marriages of love and inclination are forced to give way before marriages of convenience, which means ruin for the home and the family; the press and the Church strive for power, political and financial the very basis and sinews of politics is cash. France, says Augier, is money-mad, and a nation which forgets what is of supreme importance family and home and the virtues of old is heading for destruction.
The remaining important plays are all more or less concerned with money; sometimes it hovers in the background, is only apprehended; sometimes it is obscured by other considerations, but it is always present.
"Le Gendre de M. Poirier" (1855), written in collaboration with Jules Sandeau, is without doubt one of the finest comedies of character ever written. The figure of the "bonhomme" Poirier is one of the greatest in the realm of dramatic literature. In this play Augier was less concerned with social considerations than was his wont, although money again is the basis of the action. The Marquis de Presles, a ruined member of the aristocracy, has in a way entered into a business pact with Poirier, but the business dealings of the two have been utilised by the authors chiefly as a frame in which to depict and contrast the nobleman and the bourgeois. The plot is of necessity rather thin: character is the important consideration.
The last three important plays of Augier, written after the war, might possibly be classified under the general headings which we have so far been using, but each, by reason of a comparative novelty of theme, may well be placed apart in different categories. The plays in question are "Jean de Thommeray," "Madame Caverlet," and "Les Fourchambault." Besides these, there is, however, "Le Prix Martin," written in collaboration with Eugène Labiche, a conventional and amusing little comedy.
"Jean de Thommeray" (1873) written with Jules Sandeau, whose novel of the same name was used as a basis is a patriotic piece, in which a young aristocrat, succumbing to the demoralising influences of the capital, finally redeems himself by fighting for the Patrie. The value of the play lies rather in the separate pictures of the life of the aristocratic De Thommerays, than in the story. Jean's redemption is not very satisfactorily explained, while the plot is loose and our interest consequently wavering.
"Madame Caverlet" (1876) is a strong and passionate plea for divorce. Again it points out an evil in the social system which militates against the good of the family. Sir Edward Merson and his wife have been separated for a number of years. She has found consolation in the upright and honourable M. Caverlet, with whom, and her two children, she has been living in what is all but a legal status of marriage. When the daughter, however, is about to marry, Caverlet and "Madame" Caverlet confess to the suitor's father the truth of the case, and the proposed marriage is broken off without delay. Merson then appears, demands his son and daughter, forces Caverlet to go away, and ends by breaking up the family until he is offered a large sum of money to go to Switzerland and there become a citizen. This ameliorates the situation, as the wife can then obtain a divorce and become the lawful wife of Caverlet. But Henri, the son, completely disillusioned, joins the army and goes to a foreign country. The marriage then takes place.
We cannot but feel that Augier's case would have been stronger had he not loaded the dice. If Merson had really cared more for his wife than for her money, and had he insisted on his "rights," then the injustice of the law and its bitter consequences would have been more strikingly proved. Had Augier, as Hervieu did in "La Loi de l'homme," pushed his thesis to its logical conclusion, we should have had a more touchingly poignant play, as well as a stronger plea for divorce.
"Les Fourchambault" (1878) is the last play of Emile Augier. In structure, in character analysis, it shows no diminution in the dramatist's powers; it is indeed a proof of his deepening sympathy and broader understanding of human life, it shows a brighter optimism and a more deep-rooted belief in the basic goodness of humanity. Viewed from a strictly logical angle, the play may seem reactionary if not contradictory, yet the young man in the early 'fifties denouncing the fallen Olympes and Navarettes, had with increasing years come to realise that there were exceptions in life, that human nature cannot always be evil. Leaving aside particular questions of the day, wishing to attack no specific institution, law, or social wrong, he bases his play on human frailty and human goodness, infusing the whole with a generous portion of good and kindly humour and gentle satire. Madame Fourchambault is after all only silly and weak, not criminally ambitious or vicious. Leopold, too, is weak, like his father, and not wicked. Madame Bernard, though she once sinned, has redeemed her error by a life of service. Marie and Bernard are almost too good. If a criticism may be urged, it is that the play is too kindly and optimistic. Bernard's and Marie's rhapsody on marriage is a little too much like a sermon. This play is Augier's idealistic swansong. It seems, that, tired of attacking, worn out by the sight of vice and stupidity, he was prompted, in his old age, to raise up an ideal of virtue, and make that ideal triumph over evil.
Augier is the Balzac of the French stage of the last century: his power of observation, his commonsense, his straightforward and honest way of speaking the truth, the great extent and variety of his work, bring him into closer relationship with the great novelist than any other dramatist of his time. Considered as a moralist or social reformer, as exponent of the domestic virtues, as champion of the fireside, he is of great importance, but as a painter of the life of his time, of the bourgeoisie as well as of the aristocracy, as a literary artist depicting living men and women, he occupies a position in French literature and drama as sure, though possibly not so exalted, as that of Molière or Balzac.
Biographical Note. Emile Augier was born in 1820. He once said that his life was devoid of events. His first play, produced in 1844, met with considerable success, and was followed, not long after, with a series of plays which brought him first esteem and finally fame. For nearly thirty-five years he continued to put forth plays at regular and frequent intervals. Respected and beloved in his country, he died in 1889.
PLAYS BY EMILE AUGIER
- La Cigüe
- Un Homme de bien
- Le Joueur de Flute
- La Pierre de touche
- Le Mariage d'Olympe
- Ceinture doree
- Le Gendre de M. Poirier
- (In collaboration with Jules Sandeau)
- La Jeunesse
- Les Lionnes pauvres
- Un beau Mariage
- Les Effrontés
- Le Fils de Giboyer
- Maitre Guérin
- La Contagion
- Paul Forestier
- Lions et Renards
- Jean de Thommeray
- (In collaboration with Jules Sandeau)
- Madame Caverlet
- Le Prix Martin
- (In collaboration with Eugène Labiche)
- Les Fourchambault
La Chasse au Roman (1851), written in collaboration with Jules Sandeau, is not included in the "Théatre complet." L'Habit vert, in collaboration with Alfred de Musset, and Le Post-scriptum, are one-act plays.
Le Fils de Giboyer as the Son of Giboyer is to be found in translation in The Universal Anthology, also, translated by Bénédict Papot, in The Drama, no. 2. L'Habit vert is translated by Barrett H. Clark, in The World's Best Plays Series (Samuel French); likewise Le Post-scriptum (as The Green Coat and The Post-scriptum).
- Léopold Lacour, "Trois Théâtres." 1880.
- Edouard Pailleron, "Emile Augier." 1889.
- Parigot, "Emile Augier." 1890.
- Antoine Benoist, "Essais de critique."
- Henri Gaillard de Champris, "Emile Augier et la comédie sociale." 1910.
- (Contains an extensive bibliography.)
- Brander Matthews, "French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century." Scribner's.
- W.N. Guthrie, in "The Drama," no. 2.
Read the first play: Olympe's marriage