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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Victorien Sardou (1831–1908)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harvey Hatcher Hughes (1881–1945)
 
VICTORIEN SARDOU was not the greatest dramatist of his time, but he was by far the most popular and attained the greatest material success. For almost half a century his plays appeared regularly in every country of the Western World; and his influence is still seen in much of the drama of to-day, though his work is seldom performed.  1
  The account of Sardou’s life reads more like a chapter from one of the popular romances of his day than a statement of fact. Born in Paris of poor parents, he had a bitter struggle to gain a footing. Unable to complete his medical studies on account of poverty, he abandoned the profession his father had chosen for him, and supported himself by private tutoring and hackwork of one sort or another, writing his first pieces for the stage in the meantime.  2
  In 1854 his ‘La Taverne des Étudiants’ was performed, but owing to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the purposes of the author, it was hissed by the audience and was withdrawn after the fifth performance. Meeting with no success or encouragement for the next few years and having no profession to fall back on, he was in despair. In this condition he was stricken with typhoid fever and was dying alone in his room, when Mlle. de Brecourt, an actress living in the same house, found him by chance and nursed him back to health.  3
  This event marked the turning point in his career. Mlle. de Brecourt, whom he afterwards married, was an intimate friend of Déjazet, whose fame was then at its height. An introduction was arranged, and the noted actress was so favorably impressed by the young Sardou that she commissioned him to write a play for her at once. When this play was finished it was impossible to find a manager who would produce it. But a second play, ‘Les Premières Armes de Figaro,’ was performed by Déjazet in 1859 and proved a great success.  4
  Encouraged by this good fortune Sardou now threw himself enthusiastically into the task of dramatic authorship, and for the next five years produced plays at the rate of three or four a year. One of these, ‘Les Pattes de Mouches,’ brought the young author into instant prominence and remains to-day one of the best examples of the artificial comedy of intrigue.  5
  When this play was produced in 1860 Francisque Sarcey, the leading dramatic critic of France, predicted a brilliant career for the author. He pointed out that his work bore certain resemblances to that of Scribe, Alfred de Musset, and Dumas; but he condoned this lack of originality by saying that it was the imitation of one who bade fair one day to surpass his originals. This prediction was borne out only in part by the later work of Sardou. In ingenuity of plot, in cleverness of invention, in sheer mastery of technique and command over all the resources of his art, he surpasses not only his originals but every other dramatic author of his time. But this extraordinary natural endowment for the theatre proved the greatest obstacle to his permanent success. The ease with which he held his audience by ingenuity and cleverness led him to neglect the more enduring qualities in his work. He became a skillful deviser of theatrical situations rather than a student of life. His characters have little semblance of reality; they are controlled, not by their own wills but by the exigences of the plot or situation. They are what they are because the story is what it is. His plays awaken echoes, not of things in the world about us, but of things in other plays and other arts. We feel that his eye is always on the theatre, that instead of making his art a medium for the interpretation of experience he offers it as a substitute for it.  6
  But if Sardou fails to measure up to the great dramatists of the world in the interpretation of life and character, he is incomparable on his own ground. What he delights in most is to knot with marvelous ingenuity the threads of an exciting plot and then to untie little by little—or else cut at a single stroke—this highly wrought complication. In this—the art of theatric story-telling—Sardou’s mastery is indisputable. No one who has ever written for the theatre has been able to extract from his material more of the pleasure that is specific to the theatre. He had no absorbing vision of life such as Ibsen had to torture him when his work failed to measure up to it. His audience took the place of this. If they were pleased all was well; if not, the highest duty of the dramatist, as he conceived it, was to find the fault and remedy it. He was more intent on capturing and holding our interest than on satisfying it. We leave his plays with something of the same impression that we carry away from a slight-of-hand performance. We have been amused and interested, but in our hearts we know that all was not quite as it seemed.  7
  Sardou wrote in all some seventy plays, ranging in tone from farce to tragedy. Of his humorous pieces, ‘Divorçons,’ with its brilliant dialogue and skillfully contrived situations, is perhaps the most characteristic, as ‘Patrie’ is of his serious work. In this last play Sardou just missed creating a work of the first rank. The story is one of the most absorbing in all drama. But the design is too perfect, the fingering of the dramatist too obvious. The author lacks the art that conceals art. We are reminded that this is the theatre, and that the story that is unfolding itself before us has been prepared with an eye to its effect on the audience.  8
  In his later work Sardou confined himself largely to devising a series of parts for Mme. Sarah Bernhardt. Had his fortunes been bound up with a Duse instead of the golden-voiced Sarah his work might not have suffered as a result. But unfortunately Mme. Bernhardt possessed as an actress much the same defects that Sardou had shown as a playwright. Her cleverness and technical dexterity, coupled with her inability to suggest sincerity or depth of emotion, only served to accentuate his weakness, so that the plays that resulted from this collaboration have little value apart from her personality.  9
 
 
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