Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XVI., December, 1880 online

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Ludovic Halévy.

Born in 1832, M. Henri Meilhac, like M. Émile Zola, dealt in books
before he began to make them. He soon gave up trade for journalism, and
contributed with pen and pencil to the comic _Journal pour Rire_. He
began as a dramatist in 1855 with a two-act play at the Palais Royal
Theatre: like the first pieces of Scribe and of M. Sardou, and of so
many more who have afterward abundantly succeeded on the stage, this
play of M. Meilhac's was a failure; and so also was his next, likewise
in two acts. But in 1856 the _Sarabande du Cardinal_, a delightful
little comedy in one act, met with favor at the Gymnase. It was followed
by two or three other comediettas equally clever. In 1859, M. Meilhac
made his first attempt at a comedy in five acts, but the _Petit fils de
Mascarille_ had not the good fortune of his ancestor. In 1860, for the
first time, he was assisted by M. Ludovic Halévy, and in the twenty
years since then their names have been linked together on the
title-pages of two score or more plays of all kinds - drama, comedy,
farce, opera, operetta and ballet. M. Meilhac's new partner was the
nephew of the Halévy who is best known out of France as the composer of
the _Jewess_, and he was the son of M. Léon Halévy, poet, philosopher
and playwright. Two years younger than M. Henri Meilhac, M. Ludovic
Halévy held a place in the French civil service until 1858, when he
resigned to devote his whole time, instead of his spare time, to the
theatre. As the son of a dramatist and the nephew of a popular composer,
he had easy access to the stage. He began as the librettist-in-ordinary
to M. Offenbach, for whom he wrote _Ba-ta-clan_ in 1855, and later the
_Chanson de Fortunio_, the _Pont des Soupirs_ and _Orphée aux Enfers_.
The first very successful play which MM. Meilhac and Halévy wrote
together was a book for M. Offenbach; and it was possibly the good
fortune of this operetta which finally affirmed the partnership. Before
the triumph of the _Belle Hélène_ in 1864 the collaboration had been
tentative, as it were: after that it was as though the articles had been
definitely ratified - not that either of the parties has not now and then
indulged in outside speculations, trying a play alone or with an
outsider, but this was without prejudice to the permanent partnership.

This kind of literary union, the long-continued conjunction of two
kindred spirits, is better understood amongst us than the indiscriminate
collaboration which marks the dramatic career of M. Eugène Labiche, for
instance. Both kinds were usual enough on the English stage in the days
of Elizabeth, but we can recall the ever-memorable example of Beaumont
and Fletcher, while we forget the chance associations of Marston,
Dekker, Chapman and Ben Jonson. And in contemporary literature we have
before us the French tales of MM. Erckmann-Chatrian and the English
novels of Messrs. Besant and Rice. The fact that such a union endures is
proof that it is advantageous. A long-lasting collaboration like this of
MM. Meilhac and Halévy must needs be the result of a strong sympathy and
a sharp contrast of character, as well as of the possession by one of
literary qualities which supplement those of the other.

One of the first things noticed by an American student of French
dramatic literature is that the chief Parisian critics generally refer
to the joint work of these two writers as the plays of M. Meilhac,
leaving M. Halévy altogether in the shade. At first this seems a curious
injustice, but the reason is not far to seek. It is not that M. Halévy
is some two years the junior of M. Meilhac: it lies in the quality of
their respective abilities. M. Meilhac has the more masculine style, and
so the literary progeny of the couple bear rather his name than his
associate's. M. Meilhac has the strength of marked individuality, he has
a style of his own, one can tell his touch; while M. Halévy is merely a
clever French dramatist of the more conventional pattern. This we detect
by considering the plays which each has put forth alone and unaided by
the other. In reading one of M. Meilhac's works we should feel no doubt
as to the author, while M. Halévy's clever pictures of Parisian society,
wanting in personal distinctiveness, would impress us simply as a
product of the "Modern French School."

Before finally joining with M. Halévy, M. Meilhac wrote two comedies in
five acts of high aim and skilful execution, and two other five-act
pieces have been written by MM. Meilhac and Halévy together. The _Vertu
de Célimène_ and the _Petit fils de Mascarille_ are by the elder
partner - _Fanny Lear_ and _Froufrou_ are the work of the firm. Yet in
these last two it is difficult to see any trace of M. Halévy's
handiwork. Allowing for the growth of M. Meilhac's intellect during the
eight or ten years which intervened between the work alone and the work
with his associate, and allowing for the improvement in the mechanism of
play-making, I see no reason why M. Meilhac might not have written
_Fanny Lear_ and _Froufrou_ substantially as they are had he never met
M. Halévy. But it is inconceivable that M. Halévy alone could have
attained so high an elevation or have gained so full a comic force.
Perhaps, however, M. Halévy deserves credit for the better technical
construction of the later plays: merely in their mechanism the first
three acts of _Froufrou_ are marvellously skilful. And perhaps, also,
his is a certain softening humor, which is the cause that the two later
plays, written by both partners, are not so hard in their brilliance as
the two earlier comedies, the work of M. Meilhac alone.

It may seem something like a discussion of infinitesimals, but I think
M. Halévy's co-operation has given M. Meilhac's plays a fuller ethical
richness. To the younger writer is due a simple but direct irony, as
well as a lightsome and laughing desire to point a moral when occasion
serves. Certainly, I shall not hold up a play written to please the
public of the Palais Royal, or even of the Gymnase, as a model of all
the virtues. Nor need it be, on the other hand, an embodiment of all the
cardinal sins. The frequenters of the Palais Royal Theatre are not
babes; young people of either sex are not taken there; only the
emancipated gain admittance; and to the seasoned sinners who haunt
theatres of this type these plays by MM. Meilhac and Halévy are
harmless. Indeed, I do not recall any play of theirs which could hurt
any one capable of understanding it. Most of their plays are not to be
recommended to ignorant innocence or to fragile virtue. They are not
meant for young men and maidens. They are not wholly free from the taint
which is to be detected in nearly all French fiction. The mark of the
beast is set on not a little of the work done by the strongest men in
France. M. Meilhac is too clean and too clever ever to delve in
indecency from mere wantonness: he has no liking for vice, but his
virtue sits easily on him, and though he is sound on the main question,
he looks upon the vagaries of others with a gentle eye. M. Halévy, it
seems to me, is made of somewhat sterner stuff. He raises a warning
voice now and then - in _Fanny Lear_, for instance, the moral is pointed
explicitly - and even where there is no moral tagged to the fable, he who
has eyes to see and ears to hear can find "a terrible example" in almost
any of these plays, even the lightest. For the congregation to which it
was delivered there is a sermon in _Toto chez Tata_, perhaps the piece
in which, above all others, the Muse seems Gallic and _égrillarde_. That
is a touch of real truth, and so of a true morality, where Tata, the
fashionable courtesan, leaning over her stairs as Toto the school-boy
bears off her elderly lover, and laughing at him, cries out, "Toi, mon
petit homme, je te repincerai dans quatre ou cinq ans!" And a cold and
cutting stroke it is a little earlier in the same little comedy where
Toto, left alone in Tata's parlor, negligently turns over her basket of
visiting-cards and sees "names which he knew because he had learnt them
by heart in his history of France." Still, in spite of this truth and
morality, I do not advise the reading of _Toto chez Tata_ in young
ladies' seminaries. Young ladies in Paris do not go to hear Madame
Chaumont, for whom _Toto_ was written, nor is the Variétés, where it was
played, a place where a girl can take her mother.

It was at the Variétés in December, 1864, that the _Belle Hélène_ was
produced: this was the first of half a score of plays written by MM.
Meilhac and Halévy for which M. Jacques Offenbach composed the music.
Chief among these are _Barbe-bleue_, the _Grande Duchesse de
Gérolstein_, the _Brigands_ and _Périchole_. When we recall the fact
that these five operas are the most widely known, the most popular and
by far the best of M. Offenbach's works, there is no need to dwell on
his indebtedness to MM. Meilhac and Halévy, or to point out how
important a thing the quality of the opera-book is to the composer of
the score. These earlier librettos were admirably made: they are models
of what a comic opera-book should be. I cannot well imagine a better bit
of work of its kind than the _Belle Hélène_ or the _Grande Duchesse_.
Tried by the triple test of plot, characters and dialogue, they are
nowhere wanting. Since MM. Meilhac and Halévy have ceased writing for M.
Offenbach they have done two books for M. Charles Lecoq - the _Petit Duc_
and the _Grande Demoiselle_. These are rather light comic operas than
true _opéras-bouffes_, but if there is an elevation in the style of the
music, there is an emphatic falling off in the quality of the words.
From the _Grande Duchesse_ to the _Petit Duc_ is a great descent: the
former was a genuine play, complete and self-contained - the latter is a
careless trifle, a mere outline sketch for the composer to fill up. The
story - akin in subject to Mr. Tom Taylor's fine historical drama
_Clancarty_ - is pretty, but there is no trace of the true poetry which
made the farewell letter of Périchole so touching, or of the true comic
force which projected Général Bourn. _Carmen_, which, like _Périchole_,
owes the suggestion of its plot and characters to Prosper Mérimée, is
little more than the task-work of the two well-trained play-makers: it
was sufficient for its purpose, no more and no less.

Of all the opera-books of MM. Meilhac and Halévy, that one is easily
first and foremost which has for its heroine the Helen of Troy whom
Marlowe's Faustus declared

Fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.

In the _Belle Hélène_ we see the higher wit of M. Meilhac. M. Halévy had
been at the same college with him, and they had pored together over the
same legends of old time, but working without M. Meilhac on _Orphée aux
Enfers_, M. Halévy showed his inferiority, for _Orphée_ is the
old-fashioned anachronistic skit on antiquity - funny if you will, but
with a fun often labored, not to say forced - the fun of physical
incongruity and exaggeration. But in the _Belle Hélène_ the fun, easy
and flowing, is of a very high quality, and it has root in mental, not
physical, incongruity. Here indeed is the humorous touchstone of a whole
system of government and of theology. And, allowing for the variations
made with comic intent, it is altogether Greek in spirit - so Greek, in
fact, that I doubt whether any one who has not given his days and nights
to the study of Homer and of the tragedians, and who has not thus taken
in by the pores the subtle essence of Hellenic life and literature, can
truly appreciate this French farce. Planché's _Golden Fleece_ is in the
same vein, but the ore is not as rich. Frere's _Loves of the Triangles_
and some of his _Anti-Jacobin_ writing are perhaps as good in quality,
but the subjects are inferior and temporary. Scarron's vulgar burlesques
and the cheap parodies of many contemporary English play-makers are not
to be mentioned in the same breath with this scholarly fooling. There is
something in the French genius akin to the Greek, and here was a Gallic
wit who could turn a Hellenic love-tale inside out, and wring the
uttermost drop of fun from it without recourse to the devices of the
booth at the fair, the false nose and the simulation of needless
ugliness. The French play, comic as it was, did not suggest hysteria or
epilepsy, and it was not so lacking in grace that we could not recall
the original story without a shudder. There is no shattering of an
ideal, and one cannot reproach the authors of the _Belle Hélène_ with
what Theophrastus Such calls "debasing the moral currency, lowering the
value of every inspiring fact and tradition."

Surpassed only by the _Belle Hélène_ is the _Grande Duchesse de
Gérolstein_. It is nearly fifteen years since all the world went to
Paris to see an Exposition Universelle and to gaze at the "sabre de mon
père," and since a Russian emperor, going to hear the operetta, said to
have been suggested by the freak of a Russian empress, sat incognito in
one stage-box of the little Variétés Theatre, and glancing up saw a
Russian grand duke in the other. It is nearly fifteen years since the
tiny army of Her Grand-ducal Highness took New York by storm, and since
American audience after audience hummed its love for the military and
walked from the French Theatre along Fourteenth street to Delmonico's to
supper, sabring the waiters there with the venerated weapon of her sire.
The French Theatre is no more, and Delmonico's is no longer at that
Fourteenth-street corner, and Her Highness Mademoiselle Tostée is dead,
and M. Offenbach's sprightly tunes have had the fate of all over-popular
airs, and are forgotten now. _Où sont les neiges d'antan?_

It has been said that the authors regretted having written the _Grande
Duchesse_, because the irony of history soon made a joke on Teutonic
powers and principalities seem like unpatriotic satire. Certainly, they
had no reason to be ashamed of the literary quality of their work: in
its class it yields only to its predecessor. There is no single figure
as fine as Calchas - Général Boum is a coarser outline - but how humorous
and how firm is the drawing of Prince Paul and Baron Grog! And Her
Highness herself may be thought a cleverer sketch of youthful femininity
than even the Hellenic Helen. It is hard to judge the play now. Custom
has worn its freshness and made it too familiar: we know it too well to
criticise it clearly. Besides, the actors have now overlaid the action
with over-much "business." But in spite of these difficulties the merits
of the piece are sufficiently obvious: its constructive skill can be
remarked; the first act, for example, is one of the best bits of
exposition on the modern French stage.

Besides these plays for music, and besides the more important five-act
comedies to be considered later, MM. Meilhac and Halévy are the authors
of thirty or forty comic dramas - as they are called on the English
stage - or farce-comedies in one, two, three, four, and even five acts,
ranging in aim from the gentle satire of sentimentality in _La Veuve_ to
the outspoken farce of the _Réveillon_. Among the best of the longer of
these comic plays are _Tricoche et Cacolet_ and _La Boule_. Both were
written for the Palais Royal, and they are models of the new dramatic
species which came into existence at that theatre about twenty years
ago, as M. Francisquc Sarcey recently reminded us in his interesting
article on the Palais Royal in _The Nineteenth Century_. This new style
of comic play may be termed realistic farce - realistic, because it
starts from every-day life and the most matter-of-fact conditions; and
farce, because it uses its exact facts only to further its fantasy and
extravagance. Consider _La Boule_. Its first act is a model of accurate
observation; it is a transcript from life; it is an inside view of a
commonplace French household which incompatibility of temper has made
unsupportable. And then take the following acts, and see how on this
foundation of fact, and screened by an outward semblance of realism,
there is erected the most laughable superstructure of fantastic farce. I
remember hearing one of the two great comedians of the Théâtre Français,
M. Coquelin, praise a comic actor of the Variétés whom we had lately
seen in a rather cheap and flimsy farce, because he combined "la vérité
la plus absolue avec la fantasie la plus pure." And this is the merit of
_La Boule_: its most humorous inventions have their roots in the truth.

Better even than _La Boule_ is _Tricoche et Cacolet_, which is the name
of a firm of private detectives whose exploits and devices surpass those
imagined by Poe in America, by Wilkie Collins in England, and by
Gaboriau in France. The manifold disguises and impersonations of the two
partners when seeking to outwit each other are as well-motived and as
fertile in comic effect as any of the attempts of Crispin or of some
other of Regnard's interchangeable valets. Is not even the _Légataire
Universel_, Regnard's masterpiece, overrated? To me it is neither higher
comedy nor more provocative of laughter than either _La Boule_ or
_Tricoche et Cacolet_; and the modern plays, as I have said, are based
on a study of life as it is, while the figures of the older comedies are
frankly conventional. Nowhere in Regnard is there a situation equal in
comic power to that in the final act of the _Réveillon_ - a situation
Molière would have been glad to treat.

Especially to be commended in _Tricoche et Cacolet_ is the satire of the
hysterical sentimentality and of the forced emotions born of luxury and
idleness. The parody of the amorous intrigue which is the staple of so
many French plays is as wholesome as it is exhilarating. Absurdity is a
deadly shower-bath to sentimentalism. The method of Meilhac and Halévy
in sketching this couple is not unlike that employed by Mr. W.S. Gilbert
in _H.M.S. Pinafore_ and _The Pirates of Penzance_. Especially to be
noted is the same perfectly serious pushing of the dramatic commonplaces
to an absurd conclusion. There is the same kind of humor too, and the
same girding at the stock tricks of stage-craft - in _H.M.S. Pinafore_ at
the swapping of children in the cradle, and in _Tricoche et Cacolet_ at
the "portrait de ma mère" which has drawn so many tears in modern
melodrama. But MM. Meilhac and Halévy, having made one success, did not
further attempt the same kind of pleasantry - wiser in this than Mr.
Gilbert, who seems to find it hard to write anything else.

As in the _Château à Toto_ MM. Meilhac and Halévy had made a modern
perversion of _Dame Blanche_, so in _La Cigale_ did they dress up afresh
the story of the _Fille du R'egiment_. As the poet asks -

Ah, World of ours, are you so gray,
And weary, World, of spinning,
That you repeat the tales to-day
You told at the beginning?
For lo! the same old myths that made
The early stage-successes
Still hold the boards, and still are played
With new effects and dresses.

I have cited _La Cigale_, not because it is a very good play - for it is
not - but because it shows the present carelessness of French
dramatists in regard to dramatic construction. _La Cigale_ is a very
clever bit of work, but it has the slightest of plots, and this made out
of old cloth; and the situations, in so far as there are any, follow
each other as best they may. It is not really a play: it is a mere
sketch touched up with Parisianisms, "local hits" and the wit of the
moment. This substitution of an off-hand sketch for a full-sized picture
can better be borne in a little one-act play than in a more ambitious
work in three or four acts.

And of one-act plays Meilhac and Halévy have written a score or
more - delightful little _genre_ pictures, like the _Été de
Saint-Martin_, simple pastels, like _Toto chez Tata_, and vigorous
caricatures, like the _Photographe_ or the _Brésilien_. The Frenchman
invented the ruffle, says Emerson: the Englishman added the shirt. These
little dramatic trifles are French ruffles. In the beginning of his
theatrical career M. Meilhac did little comedies like the _Sarabande_
and the _Autographe_, in the Scribe formula - dramatized anecdotes, but
fresher in wit and livelier in fancy than Scribe's. This early work was
far more regular than we find in some of his latest, bright as these
are: the _Petit Hôtel_, for instance, and _Lolotte_ are etchings, as it
were, instantaneous photographs of certain aspects of life in the city
by the Seine or stray paragraphs of the latest news from Paris.

It is perhaps not too much to say that Meilhac and Halévy are seen at
their best in these one-act plays. They hit better with a single-barrel
than with a revolver. In their five-act plays, whether serious like
_Fanny Lear_ or comic like _La Vie Parisienne_, the interest is
scattered, and we have a series of episodes rather than a single story.
Just as the egg of the jelly-fish is girt by circles which tighten
slowly until the ovoid form is cut into disks of independent life, so if
the four intermissions of some of Meilhac and Halévy's full-sized plays
were but a little longer and wider and deeper they would divide the
piece into five separate plays, any one of which could fairly hope for
success by itself. I have heard that the _Roi Candaule_ was originally
an act of _La Boule_, and the _Photographe_ seems as though it had
dropped from _La Vie Parisienne_ by mistake. In M. Meilhac's earlier
five-act plays, the _Vertu de Celimène_ and the _Petit fils de
Mascarille_, there is great power of conception, a real grip on
character, but the main action is clogged with tardy incidents, and so
the momentum is lost. In these comedies the influence of the new school
of Alexandre Dumas _fils_ is plainly visible. And the inclination toward
the strong, not to say violent, emotions which Dumas and Angier had
imported into comedy is still more evident in _Fanny Lear_, the first
five-act comedy which Meilhac and Halévy wrote together, and which was
brought out in 1868. The final situation is one of truth and immense
effectiveness, and there is great vigor in the creation of character.
The decrepit old rake, the Marquis de Noriolis, feeble in his folly and
wandering in helplessness, but irresistible when aroused, is a striking
figure; and still more striking is the portrait of his wife, now the
Marquise de Noriolis, but once Fanny Lear the adventuress - a woman who
has youth, beauty, wealth, everything before her, if it were not for the
shame which is behind her: gay and witty, and even good-humored, she is
inflexible when she is determined; hers is a velvet manner and an iron
will. The name of Fanny Lear may sound familiar to some readers because
it was given to an American adventuress in Russia by a grand-ducal

After _Fanny Lear_ came _Froufrou_, the lineal successor of _The
Stranger_ as the current masterpiece of the lachrymatory drama. Nothing
so tear-compelling as the final act of _Froufrou_ had been seen on the
stage for half a century or more. The death of Froufrou was a watery
sight, and for any chance to weep we are many of us grateful. And yet it
was a German, born in the land of Charlotte and Werther, - it was Heine
who remarked on the oddity of praising the "dramatic poet who possesses
the art of drawing tears - a talent which he has in common with the
meanest onion." It is noteworthy that it was by way of Germany that
English tragedy exerted its singular influence on French comedy.
Attracted by the homely power of pieces like _The Gamester_ and _Jane
Shore_, Diderot in France and Lessing in Germany attempted the _tragédie
bourgeoise_, but the right of the "tradesmen's tragedies" - as Goldsmith
called them - to exist at all was questioned until Kotzebue's pathetic
power and theatrical skill captured nearly every stage in Europe. In
France the bastard offspring of English tragedy and German drama gave
birth to an equally illegitimate _comédie larmoyante_. And so it happens
that while comedy in English literature, resulting from the clash of
character, is always on the brink of farce, comedy in French literature
may be tinged with passion until it almost turns to tragedy. In France
the word "comedy" is elastic and covers a multitude of sins: it includes
the laughing _Boule_ and the tearful _Froufrou_: in fact, the French
Melpomene is a sort of _Jeanne qui pleure et Jeanne qui rit_.

So it happens that _Froufrou_ is a comedy. And indeed the first three
acts are comedy of a very high order, full of wit and rich in character.

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