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Eugène Scribe

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Eugène Scribe
Eugène Scribe

Augustin Eugène Scribe (French: [oɡystɛ̃ øʒɛn skʁib]; 24 December 1791 – 20 February 1861) was a French dramatist and librettist. He is known for the perfection of the so-called "well-made play" (pièce bien faite), a mainstay of popular theatre for over 100 years, and as the librettist of many of the most successful grand operas.

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  • ✪ Zola, France, Realism, and Naturalism: Crash Course Theater #31
  • ✪ Paharul cu apa de Eugene Scribe Comedie radiofonică
  • ✪ Paharul cu apa - Eugene Scribe
  • ✪ "Paharul cu apă" Eugene Scribe


Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta. This is Crash Course Theater, and today we’re headed back to France. Hang onto your culturally appropriate headwear because today there’s gonna be murder. There’s gonna be sexy times. There’s gonna be tuberculosis. Rebels are gonna pee in the aisles. Au revoir, neoclassicism. Don’t let the minimal scene changes hit you on the way out. We’ll be taking a quick look at French Romanticism before moving on to Realism and then Naturalism, which is a lot like Realism, only more realer. Allons-y! INTRO Let’s start with Victor Hugo, who you may know as the author of “Les Miserables.” The novel “Les Miserables.” But Hugo also wrote plays. And in 1827, he wrote “Cromwell,” which we now mostly know because of its awesome preface, in which Hugo argues that if you really wanna show how grotesque, sublime, and weird life is, you can’t play by the neoclassical rules. “Let us tear down that old plasterwork that hides the façade of art,” he writes. “There are no rules, no models; rather, there are no rules other than the general laws of Nature… Nature then! Nature and truth!” But maybe not too much nature? “Everyone knows that color and light are lost in a simple reflection,” Hugo writes. “The drama, therefore, must be a concentrating mirror, which, instead of weakening, concentrates and condenses the colored rays, which makes of a mere gleam a light, and of a light a flame.” It’s sort like the old documentarian nugget about wanting to tell the truth, but don’t get bogged down in all the facts. He tried out these natural-but-not-too-natural ideas in his play “Hernani,” which premiered in 1830. Kind of like “Le Cid” with a sad ending, “Hernani” is the story of a noble outlaw and his noble non-outlaw girlfriend. It ends in a double suicide. But remember how Corneille was toeing the Neoclassical/Academie Francaise line? Hugo was not into it. He mixed comedy and tragedy and flipped the bird to the unities of place and time. He was cool with the unity of action though. And he was like, I’mma mess with your twelve-syllable alexandrine and use words that have been considered beneath the dignity of tragedy, so how do ya like me now? Still going to write in verse, because… c’mon I’M NOT A HEATHEN. Hugo! So rebellious! But within reason. The play premiered in late February after weeks of editorials and counter-editorials about what a shock it would be. One paper announced there would be riots and death and a small civil war if Hernani went on. It went on. And there was a riot—a small and slightly gross one. Four hours before the performance, a large group of Hugo-supporting bohemians snuck into the theater, occupying the pit and the gallery. They snacked and drank and peed in the aisles. And when the upper class patrons arrived for the show, they were not thrilled. The two groups spent most of the performance fighting each other. But then in the last act, when everything became very sad, the two groups settled down and wept together, and the play was a hit. Hugo hired a hundred people to come and applaud it every night though, so that probably helped. Following Hugo, a few people half-heartedly attempted to make the theater a little more like life. Mostly they did this by moving popular theater away from grandiose, avalanche-heavy melodrama ... towards intimate, sofa-heavy melodrama. This form was perfected by Eugene Scribe in the piece bien fait, or the well-made play—a five-act prose drama that hooks the audience with a series of discoveries, reversals, and recognitions before ultimately reaffirming nice, conservative bourgeois values. Scribe, who wrote nearly four hundred plays, definitely wasn’t interested in making the theater all that life like. He wrote: “You go to theater, not for instruction or correction, but for relaxation and amusement. Now what amuses you most is not truth, but fiction… the extraordinary, the romantic, that is what charms you, that is what one is eager to offer you.” Scribe was incredibly popular, and so were his dramaturgical roll crew, Georges Feydeau and Victorien Sardou. Playwright George Bernard Shaw despised Sardou so much that he coined... ...the term “Sardoodledom” to describe his plays. But other writers were starting to wonder if the well-made play could be made even better by being brought more in line with observable reality. And this is basically where we got theatrical realism! The term “realism” started popping up in France in the 1850s. And there was even a journal called Realisme. Theorists called for realistic situations, realistic characters, and realistic dialogue. Even grammatically incorrect dialogue! A development which I am aghast … about Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of Alexandre Dumas of “Three Musketeers” fame, was one of the first writers to shift the well-made play into an even more realistic social problem play. As Dumas wrote, “invention does not exist for us. We have nothing to invent. We have only to look and remember, to feel, to co-ordinate and give back, under a special form, that which all the spectators should immediately remember to have felt or witnessed.” But that special form thing is important. A true artist can’t just reproduce life; “he has to discover and to reveal to us that which we do not see in things we look at every day,” Dumas wrote. Which all sounds great. But if you read Dumas’s most famous play, “La Dame Aux Camilles,” with its courtesan -with-a-heart-of-gold-reforms-her-life-and-then-dies-of- culosis-because-it’s-easier-to-forgive-a-fallen-women-when-they’re-dead plot, you’ll see that there is definitely some invention and some tear-jerking going on. I mean, I guess you can rip only so much from the headlines, y’know? And even though realism was supposed to be a move away from the sensationalism and moralism of melodrama—well, there’s still a lot of sensation. As we’ll see in upcoming episodes, the problem with a lot of new artistic movements is that it’s hard to be faithful to your theories and write plays people wanna see. The realistic movement coincides with a whole bunch of scientific discoveries and publications, notably Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” Artists were fascinated by this text and by what Darwin suggests about how heredity and environment come together to create character. In theater, the big-time early adopter of evolution was Emile Zola, who was described as a fat, pot-bellied whiner by one of his colleagues. Instead of the well-made play formula, Zola said that theater should use other formulas: scientific formulas! This was naturalism. Theater, Zola thought, should be a laboratory of human life, with its experiments based not on the demands of plot, but on the inner conflicts of a group of characters. Each play should test a hypothesis, investigating what happens if you put these characters, with these hereditary traits, into this environment. Spoiler alert: Nothing good! Naturalism doesn’t include a lot of happy endings. Zola’s plays were so intense that they were considered too radical for some former radicals. Victor Hugo’s supporters came to boo them. You know how those earlier realists were like, We want the theater to be like life but maybe not too much? Zola was all, Make it all the way like life. More life! LIFE TO THE MAX In his preface to “Therese Raquin,” the 1873 study of an adulterous couple that he adapted from his own novel, Zola wrote... “I am waiting for the time to come when they will tell us no more incredible stories, when they will no longer spoil the effects of just observations by romantic incidents… I am waiting for them to abandon the cut and dried rules, the worked-out formulas, the tears and cheap laughs… I am waiting, finally… until they return to the source of science and modern arts, to the study of nature, to the anatomy of man, to the painting of life, in an exact reproduction, more original and powerful than anyone has so far.” Let’s test some of these ideas out with “Therese Raquin.” Hope you brought your life jacket, ThoughtBubble: Therese is a poor girl who lives with her aunt and her aunt’s hypochondriac son, Camille. Therese is semi-forced to marry Camille, and the family moves to Paris. Then one day, Camille brings home a work friend, and artist Laurent. And before you can say heredity and environment, Laurent and Therese start a torrid affair But… sneaking around is tough. So eventually they’re like, Hey, Camille, let’s all go for a boat ride. Their plan is to drown Camille and then live happily ever after. But the drowning doesn’t go so well: Camille bites Laurent, and no one can find the body. And then the happily-ever-after doesn’t go so well, because after they get married, Laurent and Therese are tortured by guilt. They keep hallucinating that zombie-Camille is actually in their bedroom, which really interferes with sexy time. Therese can’t sleep. Laurent can’t paint. They both go a little crazy. Therese’s aunt finds out about the murder, but she’s had a couple of strokes and can only communicate with her eyes and one finger. So she does a lot of ominous staring. She tries to expose them, but fails. The pressure is so great that Therese decides to kill Laurent, and Laurent decides to kill Therese. Then they figure out that each is trying to kill the other, so they hug and cry and drink poison while the aunt watches, and probably some pointing? TOO REAL, ThoughtBubble. Or I guess, not REAL but … NATURAL? In some ways “Therese Raquin” proves Zola’s ideas pretty well. The murder occurs because of the kind of temperaments each character has and the opportunities that their environment provides. And there aren’t a lot of cut and dried rules or cheap laughs. But ok - how real or natural is this play? Eh. Even Zola acknowledged that it had problems. It’s an incredible story. It’s full of romantic incidents. It doesn’t feel like an exact reproduction of my life or probably your life … hopefully. Unless you have thrown yourself into a passionate affair and then drowned your husband. If this is a slice of life, it’s a very lurid slice, and it actually looks a lot like a sad version of bourgeois melodrama. Realism, like melodrama, is one of those genres that’s still very much with us today. In plays, in movies, on TV shows. Realism and naturalism promise us art that looks a lot like life, but it turns out that life isn’t always so easy to stage. It’s long; a lot of it is boring; and people normally get really miffed when you call INTERMISSION in the middle of it. Also don’t get me started on the costumes. K actually, that's pretty good. This means that realistic art adopts its own less-than-exactingly-realistic conventions. Maybe they’re not as strict as neoclassicism, but they’re definitely there. Like the way that opening scenes have to establish who all the characters are, or the way that a crisis has to be instigated and then resolved. And speaking of resolution: we’ll be staying in France for one more episode, to take a look at a sea change in acting and the rise of the director. Until then… curtain!



Scribe was born in Paris and died there. His father was a silk merchant, and he was well educated, being destined for the law. However, he soon began to write for the stage. His first piece, Le Prétendu sans le savoir, was produced anonymously at the Théâtre des Variétés in 1810 and was a failure. Numerous other plays, written in collaboration with various authors, followed; but Scribe achieved no distinct success till 1815, when he wrote Une Nuit de la garde nationale (Night of the National Guard, 1815), a collaboration with Delestre Poirson. Much of his later work was also written in collaboration with others. His debut in serious comedy was made at the Théâtre Français in 1822 with Valérie, the first of many successful pieces of the same kind.[1] Among the actors he wrote starring roles for are Mlle Mars and Rachel. Scribe was elected to the Académie Française in 1834.

Print of Eugène Scribe by Bernard-Romain Julien
Print of Eugène Scribe by Bernard-Romain Julien

Scribe's main subject matter was the contemporary bourgeoisie. He mastered his craft writing comédies vaudevilles, short middle-class entertainments, often with songs. Eventually he developed the formulaic "well-made play"; popular pieces with elaborate plots featuring clever twists and turns, and usually centering on a misunderstanding (quiproquo) which is revealed early on to the audience but not realised by the protagonists until the final scenes. Characters face a series of obstacles, the resolution of which may create in turn further problems. At the end a scène a faire, with startling revelations, leads to a sensational denouement.[2][3] Whilst their ingenuity was recognised by contemporary and later critics, the plays lack fine language, depth of character, thought, or social analysis. They thus stand in sharp contrast, for example, to Romantic plays of the same period, such as those of Victor Hugo. Théophile Gautier questioned how it could be that, "an author without poetry, lyricism, style, philosophy, truth or naturalism could be the most successful writer of his epoch, despite the opposition of literature and the critics?"[4]

Scribe was prolific; he wrote various dramas — vaudevilles, comedies, tragedies and opera libretti. To the Théâtre du Gymnase alone he is said to have furnished a hundred and fifty pieces before 1830. He had a number of co-workers, (Scribe's 'factory'), one of whom supplied the story, another the dialogue, a third the jokes and so on. He is said in some cases to have sent sums of money for "copyright in ideas" to men who were unaware that he had taken suggestions from their work. Among his collaborators were Jean Henri Dupin (1787–1887), Germain Delavigne, Delestre-Poirson, Mélesville, Marc-Antoine Madeleine Désaugiers, Xavier Saintine and Ernest Legouvé.[1]

Scribe's grave at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, (Paris)
Scribe's grave at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, (Paris)

The mechanical aspect of Scribe's constructions made his works suitable for operatic adaptation, allowing for "effective contrasting of musical treatment, whilst the confrontations provided excellent opportunities for ensembles."[5]

Scribe wrote libretti for operas for many major composers of his time, often for productions destined for the Paris Opéra. Many of these libretti constitute the basis of the Grand Opera genre and changed the whole course of French lyric drama.[6]

He collaborated with Giacomo Meyerbeer on a number of occasions, and also provided the words for works by Giuseppe Verdi (Les vêpres siciliennes), Vincenzo Bellini, Daniel Auber (La muette de Portici, Gustave III and others), Fromental Halévy (including La Juive, Guido et Ginevra, and Le Juif errant), François-Adrien Boieldieu, Gaetano Donizetti (Dom Sébastien) and Gioachino Rossini (Le comte Ory). At the time of his death, he was working on a revision of the libretto for Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, which he had originally written in 1838.[5]

Of his 'historical' operas it has been written:

They exist in a parallel universe, in which colourful historical or geographical milieu display a handful of stereotypes who, as a consequence of some secret manoeuvrings in their own pasts and coincidences in the present, are forced to face some implausible crisis of choice or conscience, preferably accompanied by a simultaneous natural disaster or violent death (or both).[7]

Scribe's own hard-headed views on his libretti are summarised in his comments on a dispute over payment with Léon Pillet, the director of the Opéra, in 1841:

I want to be paid for them according to what they bring in, that is to say, a great deal. The...director only wants to pay for them according to what they are worth, that is to say, very little.[8]

Scribe wrote a few novels, but none of any mark. His Œuvres complètes appeared in seventy-six volumes between 1874 and 1885.[1]

He has been assumed to be the father of the politician Georges Coulon.[9]


See also Category: Libretti by Eugène Scribe and Category:Plays by Eugène Scribe


Scribe at the time of writing La Bataille de Dames, 1851
Scribe at the time of writing La Bataille de Dames, 1851

Plays adapted into opera libretti

Principal libretti





  1. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Scribe, Augustin Eugène". Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 482.
  2. ^ Stanton, Stephen S. (November 1957). "Scribe's 'Bertrand Et Raton': A Well-Made Play". The Tulane Drama Review. The MIT Press. 2 (1): 58–70. JSTOR 1124796.
  3. ^ Cardwell, Douglas (May 1983). "The Well-Made Play of Eugène Scribe". American Association of Teachers of French. 56 (6): 878–879. JSTOR 392365.
  4. ^ Gautier , Histoire de l'art dramatique en France (1859), cited in Cardwell (1983), p. 876
  5. ^ a b Smith, p. ??
  6. ^ Crosten, p. 89
  7. ^ Conway, p. 217
  8. ^ Cited in Roberts (2003), 211
  9. ^ Article by Vincent Wright and Éric Anceau: "Georges Coulon, né le 11 mars 1838, était sans doute le fils naturel d’Eugène Scribe" / "Georges Coulon, born on 11 March 1838, was without doubt the natural (illegitimate) son of Eugène Scribe" Retrieved 2 March 2012
  10. ^ Handelsblad (Het) 16-04-1847

Cited sources

Other sources

  • Charlton, David (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 9780521646833.

External links

This page was last edited on 13 January 2019, at 01:39
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