HENRY BECQUE (1837-1899) was one of those men of letters to whom falls the ungrateful lot of giving the public what it does not want. In the very heyday of romanticism, Becque had the effrontery to hawk an entirely different line of wares in the Parisian theatrical markets. He boldly trespassed against the most sacred traditions built up and sustained under the guidance of Sardou. He flouted the "happy ending"; he questioned the infallibility of M. Sarcey; he even thought it was possible to write a drama in five acts, when everybody knew that four must be the limit. Becque was a revolutionist.
Yet even revolutionists have friends and admirers. Becque had comparitively few, but those few were powerful enough to force the production of plays which, lacking this propulsion of friendship, could never have seen the light. One of these friends was Edouard Thierry, one-time director of the Comédie Française. Another, strange to say, was Sardou--that very Sardou against whose dramatic precepts Becque carried on a merciless warfare.
This man might have been popular. He was Parisian born. He had all the cleverness and knack and sophistication necessary to make him a brilliant transient on the stage of Paris. But he had a big dream, and the dream was to make the stage represent the marvelous dramatic commonplaces of every-day life. He saw that the sentimental nonsense with which the public was being regaled--high-class nonsense though some of it might be--represented a very small corner of Life, if it represented Life at all. The reaction of Becque's mind against the glorification of sentimental impossibilities was terrific. He conceived the idea of a "cruel theatre," in which truth should go defiantly bare; in which the characters should act like human beings instead of wire-worked puppets; in which the action should be the logical course of workday events, without the introduction of spurious material to keep the audience mystified or good-humored. In our day this is an old story. The tide turned against the old-school romanticism long ago, and we have our realism so refined that it often has less dramatic action than Life itself. If Becque had fallen into this trap--of being dull-- that would have been the end of him. But he happened to be a master of stagecraft; and he knew how to manipulate the surprises of every-day existence, how to reproduce them with telling effect, how to tell a precise story so that the narration would be clear without being obvious. He had also an almost incredible persistence and faith in himself. He was a tireless worker. And he had some good friends. So he was permitted to drive the wedge that opened the way for realism. Becque's followers were many. More than one of them excelled the master in certain details, as was to be expected. They were not pioneering. They had a trail already blazed. It required a brutal strength like Becque's to knock over the idols of romance.
When Henry Becque first came knocking at the stage door, it was with an opera in three acts, "Sardana-pale," and avowed imitation of Lord Byron. With music by Victorin Joncières, a composer of merit, it was presented for the first time at the Théâtre Lyrique early in 1867. It enjoyed some success.
Following the opera came "L'Enfant Prodigue," produced in 1868 at the Vaudeville. The freshness of this piece, with its unconventionality, its deliberately wicked and sometimes savage thrusts, combined with real wit and sprightliness, puzzled the critics a little. The dean of the profession, M. Sarcey, permitted himself to welcome the new dramatic author, and to praise him for his pleasant frivolity. M. Sarcey wrote rather gingerly, however. He evidently wanted to be in a position to beat a quick retreat. "The Prodigal Son" is certainly not great, but as a reading play it is good for the blues. And besides its wit, it contains at least one unexpectantly striking and powerful scene, that of the dinner of the concierges. In this scene Clarisse sings a curious street-girl song, "Les Pauvr's P'tit's Femmes," of exquisite humanity and pathos.
Following "The Prodigal Son," it was to be expected the Becque, taking advantage of the foothold his vaudeville had given him, should come back with some joyous comedy. He appeared with a five-act drama, "Michel Pauper," a play almost barbarous in its brutality. The wonder now is, not that it was not a success, but that it was ever presented at all. It must have seemed mad as a hatter in 1870. It does, indeed, at this distance, seem to have a touch of madness. It did demonstrate one thing, however: that Becque could construct a play. He used strange materials, he sounded uncanny depths, but he could write.
After the production of "L'Enlèvement" in 1871--a mordant comedy of provincial domesticity--Becque had nothing produced until "La Navette," in 1878. This one-act comedy, translated into English as "The Merry-Go-Round," is light, malicious, even naughty on the surface. There is much under the surface. Becque's eyes were open in the seventies. He saw a lot of sham.
"Les Honnêtes Femmes," another one-act comedy, was produced in 1880, and then Becque was at last engaged upon more enduring stuff. In the next five years were produced his two finished masterpieces, "Les Corbeaux" and "La Parisienne," and a beginning was made of "Les Polichinelles," unfortunately left undone at the dramatist's death.
"Les Corbeaux" (translated as "The Vultures") was produced in 1882 at the Comédie Française. It was by mere chance that it was produced at all. Becque's difficulty was no longer that he was unknown; it was that the theatre-directors knew him only too well. He was a disturber of the peace of mind of quiet folks who wanted to "look on the bright side of things." He was the kind of author that puts out the lights at theatres in mid-season. Becque peddled "Les Corbeaux" from one theatre to another. It was rejected everywhere. Finally there was only one reputable theatre left, and that was the greatest of them all, the Comédie Française. Becque had not even considered the possibility of getting a hearing there. But M. Thierry read the play, and though it staggered him a little, he recognized the genius in it. He was convinced that it shouldd be put on. He was no longer at the head of the Comédie Française, but a request from him would, of course, be gracefully received by his successor, Émile Perrin. In this least promising of ways, "Les Corbeaux" had its first presentation at the famous theatre on September 14, 1882.
"Les Corbeaux" was not a play calculated to make its author a prime favorite among the run of playgoers. It hurt them. It assailed one of the darling institutions of the country, the notarial system. "You are attacking, offhand, the most respectable body of men I know of; you are bringing under suspicion the law itself," says Bourdon, the notary, in the second act of the play, in futile reply to the rude insinuations of the architect Lefort. That was just what Becque meant to do! He intended to reveal the possibilities of gross injustice, fraud and graft that lay within the hide-bound, parochial and bureaucratic system which turned out Bourdons, and then, even against its will, felt bound to maintain them.
But worse even than this cold-blooded handling of tender subjects in particular, was Becque's general exaltation of the bourgeois viewpoint. "Exaltation" is a strong word, but it must have been a terrible blow, at a moment when the stage was dedicated to the depiction of chapters from the lives of the very nicest of people, to find in "Les Corbeaux" that the only representatives of "an old family" were a vicious woman, dead broke and fortune-hunting, and her invertebrate son. Then, besides, Becque's stage settings were held to be too simple. The furnishings had been constantly growing more elaborate and expensive, and it seems that the arrangements of Becque might have come as a grateful relief to theatre directors. It was not so. They didn't like it. It looked cheap.
Becque's social ideas were surprisingly "advanced." He sensed the wrongs of the little people, the under-dogs in the struggle for existence. He voiced the protest of women against the prejudice that kept them from earning a decent livelihood and forced them, in one direction, to parasitism, and, in the other direction, to immorality.
Poor Mrs. Vigneron! So helplessly naïve and impractical was she that she could imagine herself at the head of her late husband's factory. Bourdon, the notary, disillusioned her on that point: "Would it look well for a woman to place herself at the head of a large establishment?"
"La Parisienne," which had its first performance in 1885, was for other reasons a bitter pill to the public. Nobody questioned its wit. It was admitted that the diabolically clever dialogue of the first scene, leading up to the thunderbolt discovery of the audience that Lafont is not Clotilde's husband, but her lover, was alone worth the price of admission. But the critics, most of them, thought that Becque had slandered the Parisian woman. Someone said that the title of the play should be changed from "La Parisienne" to "Une Parisienne"; but what the temper of the time could not forgive was the ruthlessness with which Henry Becque tore the veil of romance from illicit love--from adultery, if you please--and put it on the prosaic basis of every-day marriage. That was too much. However, as Mr. James Huneker remarks in his delightful essay on Becque, the conventional naughty triangle of the French theatre, after the presentation of "La Parisienne," was done forever.
"La Parisienne" was Becque's last play. At the time of his death he was at work upon "Les Polichinelles," a play even more militant in its social ideas than the others. But though there is reason for regret that Becque's work was cut short, it is certain that with his three volumes of plays he had performed his special mission. It is not too much to say that when Ibsen came upon the field with his great dramas, he had a decided advantage in his struggle from taking possession of the breastworks thrown up and manned by Henry Becque.
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