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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Eugène Brieux (1858–1932)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Clayton Meeker Hamilton (1881–1946)
 
EUGÈNE BRIEUX, of the French Academy, who is generally regarded as the foremost French dramatist of the first decade of the twentieth century, was born in Paris, in the old quarter of the Temple, on January 19th, 1858. His father was a carpenter. Brieux came, therefore, from the working class, and, despite the honors that have come to him in later life, he has remained at heart a man of the people. There is a noticeable difference, both in subject and in tone, between his plays and those of the more aristocratic playwrights of the boulevards. He seldom deals with what is called “high life,” and then only to satirize it caustically; he prefers to deal with the problems of the middle class, and particularly with the various injustices which the middle class is forced to suffer because of the faults of the prevailing social system.  1
  The early education of Brieux was merely meager. His parents were poor, and he was left an orphan at the age of fifteen. He proceeded through the primary and secondary schools; but beyond this point he could not go, because of the necessity to earn his living. He was, however, an inveterate reader in his youth. He never entered a theatre until he was seventeen; but by that time he had already read and studied the most important works of French dramatic literature. He tried his hand at several one-act plays; and one of these, entitled ‘Bernard Palissy,’ which was written in collaboration with Gaston Salandri, was produced for a single matinée performance at the tiny Théâtre Cluny, in the Latin Quarter. This was on December 21st, 1879, when Brieux was not quite twenty-one years old. This piece, which was rather violently theatrical, showed little merit; and it was more than ten years before the author was ever really heard of in the theatre.  2
  The desire to write, and the necessity at the same time to earn a regular stipend week by week, pushed the young Brieux into the profession of journalism. He began as a reporter for an obscure provincial paper in Dieppe. A few years later he was called to Rouen, where he became the editor of a newspaper called La Nouvelliste. The fact that Brieux spent the entire decade of his twenties in the provinces has been of great advantage to his work. If he had lived in Paris, it would have been only natural for him to imitate the most successful playwrights of the day; but, living in Rouen, he was obliged, in his apprentice efforts, to copy no one and to take his material immediately from life.  3
  Of all the cities of France, the one that is least French is Paris. The capital is cosmopolitan, and prides itself on catering to foreigners; but, really to understand the life of France, it is necessary to settle down in some comparatively little city like Rouen. In a dozen years devoted to newspaper work in the provinces, Brieux absorbed a sense of all of France. In this respect his experience ran parallel to that of Molière. The greatest of all French dramatists, after a preliminary false start in the capital, wandered for many years through all the little cities of the provinces, before he became ready to return to Paris and to bring to the Parisians news of France.  4
  While Brieux was living in Rouen and editing La Nouvelliste, he continued to write plays and sent them up to Paris. The first of these to be accepted was ‘Ménages d’Artistes,’ a satire of the shallowness and affectation of the literary charlatans who had taken up the symbolistic movement because it merely happened to be popular. This play was produced in 1890 by André Antoine at the notable Théâtre Libre, which had been founded by this pioneer three years before. ‘Ménages d’Artistes’ was sufficiently successful to warrant the encouragement of further compositions by Brieux; and in 1892 another play by the provincial editor was produced at the Théâtre Libre by Antoine.  5
  This play was ‘Blanchette’; and its success was so great that Brieux became a celebrity and was able to move up to Paris. For half a dozen years after his return to the capital he wrote regularly for Le Figaro; but by 1898 his fame as a dramatist was sufficiently established to permit him to renounce the secondary business of journalism.  6
  ‘Blanchette’ discussed a subject which was of great importance in provincial life. The heroine was a girl of peasant parents who had been educated beyond her station. After finishing her course at school, she was bored by the society of her illiterate progenitors; but she was unable to climb up to that higher station in life to which her educated talents now entitled her. Here, in the form of a dilemma to which there seemed to be no answer, was presented a social problem of immediate importance to thousands of families of the humbler class of France.  7
  The success of this initial problem-play determined the drift of the future labors of the dramatist. It has never been the purpose of Brieux primarily to entertain; it has always been his aim to teach. This endeavor has been stated, in the following terms, by the dramatist himself:—
          “It seems to me that the dramatic author should be an intermediary between the public and those great thoughts of great thinkers which are ordinarily inaccessible to the masses. He ought to offer to the public, in an interesting shape, beautiful and generous ideas. Yes, that is the rôle appointed for us: to seduce the public by placing the ideas of the philosophers within its reach.”
  8
  In his subsequent plays, Brieux has always taken as his subject some social proposition of profound importance to the French nation of today, has built up a definite body of belief about this proposition, and has striven to inculcate this belief by means of his dramatic art. He does not always venture to suggest an answer to the problem which it seems to him important to propound. The weakness of the “thesis-play,” as it is called, is that the author may be tempted, in selecting his characters and inventing his incidents, to cog the dice in such a way as to necessitate a particular solution of the thesis, which may be either true or false. This danger has nearly always been avoided by Brieux. His habit is not to answer questions but to ask them. He poses a problem, presents the evidence on every side, and begs the public to endeavor to find the true solution.  9
  No artist springs full-grown into the world, without a predecessor; and Brieux has acknowledged that the nature and the spirit of his effort were engendered by a desire to carry on the work of one who has gradually come to be regarded as the most important playwright of the nineteenth century in France, the great Émile Augier. Like Augier, Brieux cares more deeply about French society than he cares about the theatre. Like Augier he desires to make France a better and a nobler country than it was when he was born in it. It is for this reason that he attacks the special social problems that primarily concern his country at the present time.  10
  But, precisely because his themes are indigenous to French society, the plays of Brieux are rarely appreciated at their full value beyond the borders of his own country. His work, like that of his illustrious predecessor, can hardly be successfully exported. It is necessary to know France in order to appreciate such writers as Augier and Brieux; and, of the intimate details of the machinery of French society, the people of Great Britain and America have remained astonishingly ignorant.  11
  This fact must be remembered when we read the record of Brieux in the theatres of America. In 1909, the late Laurence Irving presented in New York a translation of ‘Les Hannetons,’ entitled first ‘The Incubus’ and subsequently ‘The Affinity.’ This is a very brilliant comedy which teaches that a man who desires to conserve his liberty by avoiding legal marriage may find himself more tightly and embarrassingly bound if he enters into an illicit relation with a mistress. The next year, Mr. Irving presented in New York a translation of ‘Les Trois Filles de Monsieur Dupont.’ In both these plays, the plots are well-articulated, the characters are real and vivid, and the dialogue is aglow with humanity and agleam with humor. Yet both pieces were written off as failures in the commercial theatres of New York.  12
  The reason is that both ‘Les Hannetons’ and ‘Les Trois Filles de Monsieur Dupont’ dealt with conditions of society which, being essentially French, seemed unaccustomed to the theatre-going public in America. In ‘Les Trois Filles,’ for example, the dramatist propounded the proposition that only three courses are open to a girl who comes of a bourgeois family in the provinces of France—namely, to follow the disastrous allurement of free love, to accept a life of frustrate and embittered celibacy, or to be married mechanically by a contract of convenience arranged between her parents and the parents of a man she does not love. In this play, the author pleaded clearly for the permission of a marriage of love arranged directly by the two young people who want to wed each other. This being the theme and the teaching of the play, it is easy to understand why it could not succeed in America. Since Brieux was advocating a system of matrimony which is the only system that is commonly approved in the United States, his teaching seemed superfluous to the average American auditor; and the auditor found himself incapable of imagining the other tragic system which the dramatist was analyzing and combating.  13
  The only great success of Brieux in the American theatre was achieved in 1913 by a play which, oddly enough, was never intended for public presentation. This was ‘Les Avariés,’ or, as it is called in English, ‘Damaged Goods.’ ‘Les Avariés’ is not a dramatic composition, but a tract. It was acted only once in Paris, in 1902; and this single performance was intended merely to advertise the composition and to draw attention to the published text. But when this piece was presented in New York, at a semi-private matinée, by Mr. Richard Bennett, it attracted so much serious attention that it was subsequently acted many weeks in the metropolis and was taken on a tour that comprised the leading cities of the country. Two years later, Mr. Bennett produced in New York a translation of ‘Maternité’; but the project failed commercially, because this play, which had been acted in Paris in 1904, dealt polemically with several details of the general problem of motherhood that seemed of little pertinence to the public of America.  14
  Eight plays by Brieux have thus far been translated into English and published in the United States, namely:—‘The Three Daughters of Monsieur Dupont,’ ‘Maternity,’ ‘Damaged Goods’ (‘Les Avariés’), ‘Woman On Her Own’ (‘La Femme Seule’), ‘False Gods’ (‘La Foi’), ‘The Red Robe,’ ‘Blanchette,’ and ‘The Escape’ (‘L’Evasion’). These eight plays can scarcely be said to represent the author’s work with a disinterested fairness. Mr. Bernard Shaw, who is mainly responsible for the currency of these translations, was attracted more toward Brieux the propagandist than toward Brieux the dramatist. For this reason the reading public of Great Britain and America has been offered a solemn tract like ‘Damaged Goods’ instead of a brilliantly successful comedy like ‘Les Hannetons.’ By this process the English reader might be deceived into thinking that Brieux is more a lecturer than a playwright. But this impression is unwarranted. It was not for any secondary reason that ‘L’Evasion’ was crowned by the French Academy in 1897, and that Brieux was elected in 1910 to the seat with the immortal forty which had been left vacant by the death of no less renowned a dramatist than Ludovic Halévy. Brieux, though at heart a teacher of the people, is in all his finest work essentially an artist. To feel this, it is necessary only to study the text of ‘The Red Robe,’ which, although in its polemic aspect it is merely an attack on the French judicial system, is also, in its dramatic aspect, an exceedingly well-made and exceptionally moving play. By virtue of this single composition, Brieux would be entitled to remembrance as a dramatist of important purpose and extraordinary skill.  15
 
 
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