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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Henri Becque Post by :tuanor Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2572

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Henri Becque

_20 Oct. '10_

Henri Becque, one of the greatest dramatists of the nineteenth century, and certainly the greatest realistic French dramatist, died at the close of the century in all the odour of obliquity. His work is now the chief literary topic in Paris; it has indeed rivalled the Portuguese revolution and the French railway strike as a subject of conversation among people who talk like sheep run. This dizzy popularity has been due to an accident, but it is, nevertheless, a triumph for Becque, who until recently had won the esteem only of the handful of people who think for themselves. I should say that no first-class modern French author is more perfectly unknown and uncared-for in England than Henri Becque. I once met a musical young woman who had never heard of Ibsen (she afterwards married a man with twelve thousand a year--such is life!), but I have met dozens and scores of enormously up-to-date persons who had never heard of Henri Becque. The most fantastic and the most exotic foreign plays have been performed in England, but I doubt if the London curtain has ever yet risen on a play of Becque's. Once in Soho, a historic and highly ceremonious repast took place. I entertained a personage to afternoon tea in a restaurant where afternoon tea had never been served before. This personage was the President of the Incorporated Stage Society. He asked me if I knew anything about a French play called "La Parisienne." I replied that I had seen it oftener than any other modern play, and that it was the greatest modern play of my acquaintance. He then inquired whether I would translate it for the Stage Society. I said I should be delighted to translate it for the Stage Society. He expressed joy and said the Committee would sit on the project. I never heard any more.

* * * * *

Becque wrote two absolutely first-class modern realistic plays. One is "La Parisienne." The other is "Les Corbeaux." Once, when I was in Paris, I saw exposed among a million other books in front of the window of Stock's shop near the Theatre Francais, a copy of "Les Corbeaux." Opening it, I perceived that it was an example of the first edition (1882). I asked the price, and to my horror the attendant hesitated and said that he would "see." I feared the price was going to be fancy. He came back and named four francs, adding, "It's our last copy." I paid the four francs willingly. On examining my trophy I saw that it was published by Tresse. Now Stock became Tresse's partner before he had that business to himself. I had simply bought the play at the original house of its publication. And it had fallen to me, after some twenty-five years, to put the first edition of "Les Corbeaux" out of print! I went home and read the play and was somewhat disappointed with it. I thought it very fine in its direct sincerity, but not on the same plane as "La Parisienne."

* * * * *

Antoine, founder of the Theatre Libre, director of the Theatre Antoine during brilliant years, and now director of the Odeon (which he has raised from the dead), was always a tremendous admirer of Becque. It was through Antoine that Paris had such magnificent performances of "La Parisienne." He had long expressed his intention of producing "Les Corbeaux," and now he has produced "Les Corbeaux" at the Odeon, where it has been definitely accepted and consecrated as a masterpiece. I could not refrain from going to Paris specially to see it. It was years since I had been in the Odeon. Rather brighter, perhaps, in its more ephemeral decorations, but still the same old-fashioned, roomy, cramped, provincial theatre, with pit-tier boxes like the cells of a prison! The audience was good. It was startingly good for the Odeon. The play, too, at first seemed old-fashioned--in externals. It has bits of soliloquies and other dodges of technique now demoded. But the first act was not half over before the extreme modernness of the play forced itself upon you. Tchehkoff is not more modern. The picture of family life presented in the first act was simply delightful. All the bitterness was reserved for the other acts. And what superb bitterness! No one can be so cruel as Becque to a "sympathetic" character. He exposes every foolishness of the ruined widow; he never spares her for an instant; and yet one's sympathy is not alienated. This is truth. This is a play. I had not read the thing with sufficient imagination, with the result that for me it "acted" much better than it had "read." Its sheer beauty, truth, power, and wit, justified even the great length of the last act. I thought Becque had continued to add scenes to the play after it was essentially finished. But it was I who was mistaken, not he. The final scene began by irritating and ended by completely capturing the public. Teissier, the principal male part, was played by M. Numes in a manner which amounted to genius.

* * * * *

"Les Corbeaux" was originally produced at the Theatre Francais, where it was not a success. All Becque's recent fame is due, after Becque, to Antoine. But now that Antoine has done all the hard work, Jules Claretie, the flaccid director of the Francais, shows a natural desire to share in the harvest. Becque left a play unfinished, "Les Polichinelles." Becque's executor, M. Robaglia, handed this play to M. Henri de Noussanne to finish--heaven knows why! M. de Noussanne has written novels entirely bereft of importance, and he is the editor of _Gil Blas_, a daily paper whose importance it would not be easy to underestimate; and his qualifications for finishing a play by Becque are in the highest degree mysterious. The finished play was to be produced at the Francais. The production would have been what the French call a solemnity. But M. Robaglia suddenly jibbed. He declared M. de Noussanne's work to be unworthy, and he declined to permit the performance of the play. Then followed a grand and complicated shindy--one of those charming Parisian literary rows which excite the newspapers for days! In the end it was settled that neither M. de Noussanne's version nor any other version of "Les Polichinelles" should ever be produced, but that the journal _L'Illustration_, which gives away the text of a new play as a supplement about twice a month, should give, one week, Becque's original incomplete version exactly as it stands, and M. de Noussanne's completed version the next week, to the end that "the public might judge." Then Stock, the publisher, came along and sought to prevent the publication on the strength of a contract by which Becque had bound himself to give Stock his next play. (Times change, but not publishers!) However, _L'Illustration_, being wealthy and powerful, rode over M. Stock. And the amateurs of Becque have duly had the pleasure of reading "Les Polichinelles." Just as "Les Corbeaux" was the result of experiences gained in a domestic smash-up, and "La Parisienne" the result of experiences gained in a feverish liaison, so "Les Polichinelles" is the result experiences gained on the Bourse. It is in five acts. The first two are practically complete, and they are exceedingly fine--quite equal to the very best Becque. The other acts are fragmentary, but some of the fragments are admirable. I can think of no living author who would be equal to the task of completing the play without making himself ridiculous.

* * * * *

Becque was unfortunate in death as in life. At his graveside, on the day of his funeral, his admirers said with one accord: "Every year on this day we will gather here. His name shall be a flag for us." But for several years they forgot all about Becque. And when at length they did come back, with a wreath, they could not find the grave. It was necessary to question keepers and to consult the official register of the cemetery. In the end the grave was rediscovered and every one recognized it, and speeches were made, and the wreath piously deposited. The next year the admirers came again, with another wreath and more speeches. But some one had been before them. A wreath already lay on the grave; it bore this inscription: "To my dear husband defunct." Now Becque, though worried by liaisons, had lived and died a bachelor. The admirers had discoursed, the year before, at the grave of a humble clerk. After this Paris put up a statue to Becque. But it is only a bust. You can see it in the Avenue de Villiers.

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