AT the age of nineteen, when, his mother being dead and his father at Blois, Victor Hugo, alone in the world and prevented by his lack of means from marrying, was seeking in every direction the money which would bring happiness within his reach, M. Soumet proposed to him that they should together write a play based upon one of Walter Scott's novels, Kenilworth. M. Soumet was to arrange the plot, M. Victor Hugo to write the first three acts, and M. Soumet the last two.
M. Victor Hugo did his part; but, when M. Soumet read his three acts, he was only half satisfied; he did not approve the combination of tragedy and comedy, and he wanted to cut out all that was not grave and serious. M. Victor Hugo cited Shakespeare as a precedent; but at that time English actors had not made Shakespeare popular in Paris, and M. Soumet claimed that, although his plays were good reading, they would not stand the test of representation; that Hamlet and Othello, moreover, were rather sublime efforts, beautiful monstrosities, than chefs-d'oeuvre; that a play must make its choice, to arouse laughter or weeping. The collaborators, being unable to agree, parted on the best of terms; each of them took with him the acts he had written and his independence, and completed his play as he chose. M. Soumet produced Emilia, which, when played at the Théâtre-Francaise by Mlle. Mars, had a sort of half-success. M. Victor Hugo completed his Amy Robsart according to his own ideas, freely mingling comedy and tragedy therein.
Six years had passed, and M. Hugo had entirely forgotten his first play, when the younger of his two brothers-in-law, Paul Foucher, who had a strong inclination for the stage, begged him to let him read it. Alexandre Soumet had mentioned it to him the day before as a singularly interesting piece of work.
"It startled me a little at the time," said Soumet, "and there are many audacious passages in it which I myself would not venture to father even now; but, as English dramas have succeeded, I don't see why that should not succeed. If I were Victor Hugo I would not throw away a play in which there are some very fine scenes."
Paul Foucher, after reading the drama, insisted that Victor Hugo should follow Soumet's advice. But Hugo, who had already become famous, did not care to put his name to a play whose subject was borrowed from somebody else.
"Very well," said Paul Foucher, "if you don't wish to have it produced under your name, let it be produced under mine. You will do me a great service, for such a play will bring my name forward, and throw the stage-doors wide open to me."
Victor Hugo consented, glad to oblige his brother-in-law, and no less glad perhaps to make this trial of the theatre and the public.
But the play was not produced as the author wrote it at the age of nineteen. Victor Hugo did to Amy Robsart what he had done to Bug-Jargal, and what he would have done to Cromwell, had not Talma's death prevented its production. He modified and compressed the drama, and did not allow it to be played until he had prepared it for the stage.
Amy Robsart was acted February 13, 1828, at the Odéon, under the management of M. Sauvage. Although it was agreed that Victor Hugo's name should not be pronounced, some chance phrase or some indiscretion betrayed him, and the manager, overjoyed, lost no time in spreading the report that the drama was written by the author of Cromwell. Victor Hugo remonstrated in vain; the manager, seeing that the name was a drawing card, continued to cry it from the house-tops.
The play was much hissed. M. Victor Hugo, who was very glad to give away a success, did not wish to give away a failure. Without actually declaring himself to be the author of the play, he assumed the responsibility for the passages that were hissed in the following letter to the newspapers:
"To the Editor:
Since the success of Amy Robsart, the first essay of a young poet whose fortune is dearer to me than my own, has met with such bitter opposition, I hasten to declare that I am not altogether a stranger to the work. There are, in the drama, some passages, some fragments of scenes, which were written by me, and I ought to say that they are the passages which were, perhaps, most loudly hissed...
P.S. --The author has withdrawn the play."
The play was a complete failure and was performed but once.
Purchase Amy Robsart
Search eBay! for Victor Hugo collectibles