Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Eugène Marin Labiche

Eugène Marin Labiche (May 5, 1815-1888), French dramatist, was born of bourgeois parentage.

He read for the bar, but literature had more powerful attractions, and he was hardly twenty when he gave to the Chérubin--an impertinent little magazine, long vanished and forgotten--a short story, entitled, in the cavalier style of the period, Les plus belles sont les plus fausses. A few others followed much in the same strain, but failed to catch the attention of the public. He tried his hand at dramatic criticism in the Revue des théâtres, and in 1838 made a double venture on the stage. The small Théâtre du Pantheon produced, amid some signs of popular favour, a drama of his, L'Avocat Loubet, while a vaudeville, Monsieur de Coislin ou l'homme infiniment poli, written in collaboration with Marc Michel, and given at the Palais Royal, introduced for the first time to the Parisians a provincial actor who was to become and to remain a great favourite with them, Grassot, the famous low comedian. In the same year Labiche, still doubtful about his true vocation, published a romance called La Cie des champs.

M. Leon Halévy, his successor at the Academy and his panegyrist, informs us that the publisher became a bankrupt soon after the novel was out. "A lucky misadventure, for," the biographer concludes, "this timely warning of Destiny sent him back to the stage, where a career of success was awaiting him." There was yet another obstacle in the way. When he married, he solemnly promised his wife's parents that he would renounce a profession. then considered incompatible with moral regularity and domestic happiness. But a year afterwards his wife spontaneously released him from his vow, and Labiche recalled the incident when he dedicated the first edition of his complete works: "To my wife." Labiche, in conjunction with Varin, Marc Michel, Clairville, Dumanoir, and others contributed comic plays interspersed with couplets to various Paris theatres. The series culminated in the memorable farce In five acts, Un Chapeau do pailie d'Italie (August 1851). It remains an accomplished specimen of the French imbroglio, in which some one is in search of something, but does not find it till five minutes before the curtain falls. Prior to that date Labiche had been only a successful vaudevilliste among a crowd of others; but a twelvemonth later he made a new departure in Le Misanthrope et l'Auvergnat. All the plays given for the next twenty-five years, although constructed on the old plan, contained a more or less appreciable dose of that comic observation and good sense which gradually raised the French farce almost to the level of the comedy of character and manners. "Of all the subjects," he said, "which offered themselves to me, I have selected the bourgeois. Essentially mediocre in his vices and in his virtues, he stands half-way between the hero and the scoundrel, between the saint and the profligate."

During the second period of his career Labiche had the collaboration of Delacour, Choler, and others. When it is asked what share in the authorship and success of the plays may be claimed for those men, we shall answer in Emile Augier's words: "The distinctive qualities which secured a lasting vogue for the plays of Labiche are to be found in all the comedies written by him with different collaborators, and are conspicuously absent from those which they wrote without him.” A more useful and more important collaborator he found in Jean Marie Michel Geoffroy (1813-1883) whom he had known as a debutant in his younger days, and who remained his faithful interpreter to the last. Geoffroy impersonated the bourgeois not only to the public, but to the author himself; and it may be assumed that Labiche, when writing, could see and hear Geoffroy acting the character and uttering, in his pompous, fussy way, the words that he had just committed to paper. Cilimare le bien-aimi (1863), Le Voyage de M. Perrichon (1860), La Grammaire, Un Pied dans le crime, La Cagnotte (1864), may be quoted as the happiest productions of Labiche.

In 1877 he brought his connexion with the stage to a close, and retired to his rural property in Sologne. There he could be seen, dressed as a farmer, with low-brimmed hat, thick gaiters and an enormous stick, superintending the agricultural work and busily engaged in reclaiming land and marshes. His lifelong friend, Augier, visited him in his principality, and, being left alone in the library, took to reading his host's dramatic productions, scattered here and there in the shape of theatrical brochures. He strongly advised Labiche to publish a collected and revised edition of his works. The suggestion, first declined as a joke and long resisted, was finally accepted and carried into effect. Labiche's comic plays, in ten volumes, were issued during 1878 and 1879. The success was even greater than had been expected by the author's most sanguine friends. It had been commonly believed that these plays owed their popularity in great measure to the favourite actors who had appeared in them; but it was now discovered that all, with the exception of Geoffroy, had introduced into them a grotesque and caricatural element, thus hiding from the spectator, in many cases, the true comic vein. and delightful delineation of human character. The amazement turned into admiration, and the engouement became so general that very few dared grumble or appear scandalized when, in 1880, Labiche was elected to the Académie française. It was fortunate that, in former years, he had never dreamt of attaining this high distinction; for, as M. Pailleron justly observed, while trying to get rid of the little faults which were in him, he would have been in danger of losing some of his sterling qualities. But when the honour was bestowed upon him, he enjoyed it with his usual good sense and quiet modesty. He died in Paris on the 23rd of January 1888.

Some foolish admirers have placed him on a level with Molière, but it will be enough to say that he was something better than a public amuseur. Many of his plays have been transferred to the English stage. They are, on the whole, as sound as they are entertaining. Love is practically absent from his theatre. In none of his plays did he ever venture into the depths of feminine psychology, and womankind is only represented in them by pretentious old maids and silly, insipid, almost dumb, young ladies. He ridiculed marriage according to the invariable custom of French playwrights, but in a friendly and goodnatured manner which always left a door open to repentance and timely amendment. He is never coarse, never suggestive. After he died the French farce, which he had raised to something akin to literature, relapsed into its former grossness and unmeaning complexity.

His Théâtre complet (10 vols., 1878—1879) Contains a preface by Émile Augier.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.