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from French men of letters (1880, 1901 ed.)
D. Appleton and Company: New York
THE lives of great artists and distinguished writers offer to the curiosity of the public that most enticing literary pabulum, namely, anecdotes in which personality imparts a fresh and attractive feature to the plainest facts. There are always certain eminent men, however, who escape the inquisitiveness of their contemporaries. To this class Émile Augier seems to belong. In France he is considered the finest dramatist of our age. Dumas, Feuillet, and Sardou may be severally his superiors in some special quality; but, all things considered, it must be conceded that he is the most complete and perfect of the three. Europeans generally are acquainted with his works, of which they are wont to speak most enthusiastically. In the streets of Paris nearly anybody can point him out, as the Veronese mothers were wont to point out to their children the great Florentine exile, who, as they said, "was master of hell and paradise." Augier is known, by sight at least, to every one; but rarely can you find one who is able to throw any light upon his private life. Were he the denizen of another world, he could hardly in this regard be less known.
I had witnessed with ever-increasing admiration some twenty representations of "Le Fils de Giboyer." I became anxious, naturally, to gain some information respecting the author's life. All that I could presently learn was that he was a family man, and lived at Croissy. My curiosity was increased by the difficulties I encountered in my endeavors to satisfy it. I finally met him at one of Victor Hugo's informal receptions, where one may see the cream of the political, literary, and art life of France. The poet-host himself cut short my inquiries concerning Augier with the laconic remark, "He is a patriarch."
Though finely molded, the head of () Augier is that of a witty, good-natured bourgeois. He was born in 1820, but looks as though be were not yet fifty. His hair, and his full curly beard, at which his left hand is ever tugging, were, when I last saw him, still black. His forehead is broad and intellectual. His whole countenance bespeaks physical as well as moral strength. The dominating feature is the nose, which is of the most pronounced Roman type, and which apparently lessens the size of its neighbors, a pair of small piercing black eyes shining with Rabelaisian humor. Far from betraying the favored child of fame, his manners are still those of the clerk of Monsieur Mason, the celebrated lawyer, in whose office he passed his early youth, before his poetic and dramatic talent had pointed out to him where his destiny lay.
On his mother's side, Augier is the grandson of Pigault Lebrun. He studied at the College of Henri IV. Here he became the intimate friend of the Duc d'Aumale, to whom he afterward acted as librarian, never concealing the while his strong liberal sympathies. Few young men have ever left college with a more useful stock of learning than did Augier. He began the study of law at the University of Paris; but his tastes tended to the lyre rather than the bench, and his family offering no hindrance, he embraced a literary career. At the age of twenty-three he was already favorably known as a poet. When Ponsard's "Lucrèce" was produced, Augier was twenty-four years old. Its success seems greatly to have stimulated the talent of the young man. Ponsard was at the time the leader of that school which aimed at the revival of classic tragedy, and fancied itself all-powerful to crush the new-born romanticism. Augier in a short time brought forth "La Ciguë." The coterie, of which Ponsard was the ruling spirit, perceiving in the play the tokens of a superior talent not inspired by Victor Hugo, courted the young author, received him with open arms, and in a short time he became Ponsard's intimate friend. "La Ciguë" was first read by the Society of the Théâtre Français, and unanimously rejected. Produced subsequently at the Odéon, its success was so complete as to elicit an unprecedented apology from the theatre which had at first refused it. The Society of the Théâtre Français so earnestly besought Augier to withdraw the piece from the Odéon, and place it in their own hands, that the young dramatist was finally constrained to yield to their desire. It is but fair to add that the intrigues of the Classicists were not foreign to the contrition which marked the behavior of the Society of the Théâtre Français.
"La Ciguë," however, only partially fulfilled the hopes of the Classicists. It is true that the poet, by laying the scene in the house of a young Greek libertine, in the time of Pericles, seemed to have taken sides against the Romanticists. But it was not difficult to discover that, under its classic form, the piece was pervaded by a strong spirit of independence and progress. The Romantic school readily perceived that all the grace, piquancy, and imagery of the play were in every sense original and unconventional, and accordingly took good care not to treat as an enemy the admirer of Ponsard. They divined from this first dramatic essay that Augier would never become a mere pedant, although the Academy might use all its available means to emasculate his fresh and vigorous talents; and, in consequence, Théophile Gautier celebrated his triumph with as much loyalty and ability as if Augier had been a duly proved member of his own phalanstery.
The object of this sketch not being to
criticise, I shall not attempt exhaustively to analyze
the works of Augier. For my purpose it will suffice to
say that he is a humanitarian, whose constant aim is
the improvement of his fellow creatures. There is not
in his plays a single idea which is not highly moral.
He is a psychologist of the first order. Though he has
touched upon all the important problems with which our
time is occupied, he deals more especially with those
which affect the organization of the family and the
life of the middle classes. The society which he most
frequently analyzes is a peculiar world, which is not
bourgeois nor yet the old noblesse. It
is the frontier upon which these castes meet; the
salons where bankers and counts, journalists and
barons, intermingle or join battle; the true stage
where the combat between honor and gold is
uncompromisingly portrayed. Indeed, we know not how a
more salient feature of the age could have been hit
upon by any dramatist. This world with
which he concerns himself is not so narrow as might at
first sight be imagined. The same struggle is waging
in every sphere of life, and the contest has never
been so earnest as in these times when all grades of
society are gravitating toward a common point. And the
varied phases of this mighty problem he faces with an
iron resolve to hide nothing. With a pitiless eye he
has scanned every scandal that had money for its cause
or its object. He has looked about him, and, seeing
that extraordinary beings are but exceptions, he has
dissected the heart of the average man, laid bare
whatever of good or bad it contains, and brought into
bold relief all the chaste poetry that hovers around
the family fireside. His training in the midst of a
virtuous family has made him an apostle of the family
virtues. His ideal man is the honest
paterfamilias. In a famous line he celebrates
the apotheosis of the father:
"Oh! Père de famille; oh poëte! je
"Oh! Père de famille; oh poëte! je t'aime"
One of the most remarkable incidents in the life of Augier is his duel with Charles Monselet, which grew out of certain strictures uttered by the latter upon "Philiberte." Monselet, it is well known, seldom crosses the threshold of a theatre. Yet his dramatic criticisms have in Paris great weight. To the just reproaches which his method justifies, he, like Lireux, coolly replies: "I never go to see a play, you know, lest it should influence my judgment." After a first representation, Monselet examines with scrupulous attention all that has been said by other critics. He compares the favorable with the unfavorable, the black with the white, and by dint of shrewd eclecticism he often attains that impartiality after which his fellows strive in vain. His criticism upon "Philiberte" happened to be very trenchant. Augier determined to prevent his humbugging the public, and replied in language every whit as cutting as that used by his critic, and insisted upon his confessing that he had never seen the play in question. Monselet refused absolutely, and a challenge quickly followed. Pistols were the weapons chosen. Augier is a splendid shot, and Monselet's priestly embonpoint offered a very large target to his antagonist. When the principals had arrived at the spot selected for the encounter, Augier's anger was considerably abated. His generous instincts overcame his thirst for revenge, and he purposely missed hitting his man. As for Monselet, it would have been only by a prodigy of chance that he could have done otherwise. The end of the affair was that the malcontents separated amicably, which relation they have ever since maintained.
Before he was thirty years old, Augier had by a few plays attained the height of celebrity. His verdicts in literary matters were everywhere received with the humblest deference. When, in 1849, the Government by every means opposed the representation of Dumas's "La Dame aux Camélias," on account of its "immorality," Augier took sides with Dumas, and used all his influence to have the prohibition revoked. But, faithful to his respect and love for the family, he deemed it incumbent on him to counteract the unwholesome effects the play might produce, by showing that, though interesting as an isolated fact, the case of Marguerite Gautier would by generalization become paradoxical. Admitting the possibility of exceptions with which every honest heart ought to sympathize, he demonstrated by his "Mariage d'Olympe" that to idealize a courtesan is folly; that, in general, she will remain such, no matter how wholesome her surroundings after marriage. This play may be considered as the continuation of "La Dame aux Camélias," regarding that heterogeneous being from the standpoint of the consequences which her presence would ordinarily produce in the family. When Augier read his play before the Society of the Comédie Française, he was requested to change the catastrophe, which represents the husband in the act of shooting his wife, who, failing to reform, had rendered family life unbearable. Such an issue was as inexorable as the Divine vengeance; it grew out of the fundamental idea upon which the play was grounded. Augier refused to make the alteration. "That woman is seized with hydrophobia," he exclaimed; "I can not see why she should be dealt with otherwise than a dog affected by the same disease." The public at first confirmed the judgment of the Society; but, when the play was revived, the spell cast by "La Dame aux Camélias" having then died away. Augier's production was as warmly applauded as the famous piece to which it was a rejoinder. Augier never panders to the public taste. Earnestly believing in the sanctity of his mission, he would not for a world depart from that which he deems right and consistent. When he writes a play, he is wholly oblivious to the tastes and caprices of the public. He has an idea; he molds it entirely after his own fashion. His intimate friends warned him of certain objections which would be raised against "Gabrielle." "I am aware of all that," he replied, "but I will not compromise with my audience. Such as I am, they must take me, or not take me at all." He has generally triumphed, and has frequently led the public to applaud plays which in the beginning had been dealt with as cheap works. "Gabrielle," coolly received at first, was afterward reckoned one of the best pieces of the French theatre.
() Augier has written some thirty dramas. A third of these are written in blank verse, and form the most natural and yet the most exquisite dramatic poetry that French literature possesses. Not a few of his plays are so thoroughly French that, in a foreign dress, they lose much of their original interest. "Le Gendre de Monsieur de Poirier," "Les Effrontés," "Lions et Rénards," "La Pierre de Touche," "Les Lionnes Pauvres," and "Le Fils de Giboyer," are each wonderful conceptions. Dumas does not hesitate to say that the last is the finest play on the French stage. Giboyer, the hero's father, coins his heart to nurture his son. Besides being an idealization of paternal and filial love, the play mercilessly satirizes the intrigues and makeshifts of the Clericals and Legitimists in France. Its first representation occurred under the Second Empire, and provoked such a storm of disapprobation in aristocratic circles that the piece was prohibited. The Republican principles, sanctioned by the Revolution as the true base of society, were never more brilliantly and forcibly enunciated than in "Le Fils de Giboyer." To this effort he mainly owed his election to the French Academy in 1858, to fill the seat from which death had removed M. de Salvandy.
Augier is a hard and conscientious worker. Almost all his plays were written over three or four times. His motto is "perfection," and he is never wholly satisfied with his performances. He has a numerous family, and, for the most part, lives like a patriarch among his children and grandchildren in his country-house at Croissy, near Paris. His habits and tastes are simple beyond writing, his greatest passion would seem to be gardening. He is a thorough botanist and agriculturist, and an inspection in his company of his fruit, flower, and vegetable gardens proves one of the greatest pleasures he can offer to his friends. I once surprised him planting cabbage, his head covered with a large straw hat, his shoulders with the gray blouse of a French laborer, and his feet incased in sabots, after the manner of a Breton peasant. I could not forbear halting to contemplate him, and to speculate upon the vagaries of human character. To write a play like "Le Fils de Giboyer" and to plant turnips and cabbages are widely different occupations.
When in Paris, Augier is literally besieged with callers who represent the most distinguished circles of literary and scientific people in the city. He generally puts up at a modest hotel in the Rue St. Honoré, near the old house of Molière. He attends and enjoys festivals and receptions in great numbers, the "Bals Masqués de l'Opéra" included. It was while present at one of these that he defined masked balls to be "charitable institutions for homely women."
At Croissy he may frequently be seen sitting before the door of his house, thinking, and smoking a pipe, the stem of which is long and singularly twisted. Jules Sandeau, the early collaborateur of George Sand, has one like it, and both these smoking implements are called by their owners "les pipes de la collaboration," from their being chiefly used when the two playwrights work together upon some drama. It occasionally happens that either puffs his smoke into the other's eyes, when it is amusing to hear them quarrel and accuse each other of malign intent.
Augier has a very sympathetic heart. No one is kinder toward young or unknown authors, or more charitable toward struggling littérateurs. He never refuses to read a manuscript, and, if the production be at all worth publication, he recommends it to the publishers as warmly as he can conscientiously. He once had an experience very like an incident in the editorial career of Murat Halstead. A young poet wished to have a poem published in Mr. Halstead's paper. As the poem was a piece of sickening sentimentalism, the editor declined it. The poet remonstrated as though the refusal were little less that an insult. "Very well," said Halstead, "since you insist, I will publish it; but in ten years from now you will regret that I ever aided you to make a fool of yourself." The young man was sensible enough to withdraw his verses, and a few years afterward be thanked Halstead for teaching him that poetry and sentimentalism are quite different things.
On another occasion, Augier became accidentally aware of the fact that a talented young author who had brought a manuscript for him to read was in distress. Augier not only kindly took it upon himself to find a publisher for him, but also inserted three bank-notes of one hundred francs each between the leaves of the manuscript, which he returned, saying that be had taken the liberty to make some corrections on such and such pages. The corrections proved to be the banknotes. The young author has since attained a high reputation, and enjoys a yearly income of many thousands; but, whether he has paid his debt or not, we should dislike to state.
Augier's generosity was lately proved by his behavior toward his old schoolmate Deslandes, the manager of the "Théatre de la Renaissance." Augier had sent one of his last plays, "Madame Caverlet," to the Théeatre Français. The Society was perplexed to know what to do, as they had previously engaged themselves to play Dumas's "L'Étrangère" and other dramas, and disliked to tell the author of "Gabrielle" that he must wait. Augier saw their dilemma, and, out of respect to his fellow playwrights, as well as to the Society, withdrew the piece under the plea of its needing some alteration. On his leaving the theatre with his manuscript under his arm, Augier met Deslandes, and the conversation fell upon the condition of the Renaissance Theatre. Deslandes sorrowfully hinted at the poor business he had recently done, and at his financial embarrassment.
"Suppose I were to give you a play of mine," said Augier, "do you think it would help you out of your difficulties?"
"Help me out! It would make my fortune!" cried the manager.
"Then take it," replied the dramatist, handing to him the manuscript of "Madame Caverlet" "take it; I make you a present of it."
When Augier's name was seen in the announcements of a third-rate theatre, some of his fellow academicians complained that it lowered their dignity. "Let them grumble," said Augier to his informant; "Deslandes is making plenty of money, and that is to me of more importance than the approval or disapproval of a few bigoted people."
Full of respect and love for his art, more conscientious, perhaps, than his brother dramatists, he has spent thirty-five years in building up a dramatic edifice, at once the healthiest and the most graceful that France may boast. He has placed his ideal very high. He perhaps lacks the superior originality of those artists and thinkers who invent new forms in the domain of art. He is not the high priest who at one blow of his wand can lay bare the springs of new life and light, not one of those resolute souls who put a whole generation in commotion, and turn upon themselves the hatred and enthusiasm which are characteristic of the struggle between the fanaticism of the past and that of the future. He has made his way slowly and quietly, keeping his mind always open to the nobler passions, following the traditions of the old masters, and avoiding the excesses of revolution as well as the slavery of accepted dogmas. I am aware that to the majority Dumas and Sardou are more attractive, both on account of their merits and their faults. Our generation is inclined toward excesses. The melodrama and burlesque suit our blasé senses better than the more truthful stage. The bitterness, the deep restlessness, the contradictions of thought and feeling, the misanthropic outbursts against social injustice, and the mystical effusions which characterize the works of Dumas, move us more deeply than the calm development of Augier's dramas. The feverish movement, the sparkling wit, the unforeseen resources in the action, the violence and the refinement of passion peculiar to our age, so delicate yet so rough, so heroic yet so timid, which are painted in such a masterly manner by Sardou, are not to be met with in Augier's productions. The latter, although thoroughly a man of the nineteenth century, has many traits in common with the writers of classic times. His simple and manly style moves calmly on, always graceful and correct. His knowledge of dramatic composition, the logic and precision of his conceptions, the care which he bestows upon the analysis of character, his high morals, his disdain for clap-trap and sensational effects, may not awake the enthusiasm of the multitude, but will always command the admiration of taste and intellect.