Eugène Marin Labiche
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|French literary history|
Eugène Marin Labiche (5 May 1815 – 23 January 1888) was a French dramatist, perhaps best known for his 1851 farce written with Marc-Michel, The Italian Straw Hat, which has since been adapted many times to stage and screen.
He was born into a bourgeois family and studied law. At the age of twenty, he contributed a short story to Chérubin magazine, entitled Les plus belles sont les plus fausses. A few others followed, but failed to catch the attention of the public. He tried his hand at dramatic criticism in the Revue des théâtres and in 1838, wrote and premiered two plays.
The small Théâtre du Pantheon produced, to some popular success, his drama L'Avocat Loubet, while a vaudeville, Monsieur de Coyllin ou l'homme infiniment poli (written in collaboration with Marc Michel and performed at the Palais Royal) introduced a provincial actor who was to become and to remain a great Parisian favourite, Grassot, the famous comedian.
In the same year Labiche, still doubtful about his true vocation, published a romance called La Clé des champs. According to Léon Halévy, Labiche's publisher went bankrupt soon after the novel was out: "A lucky misadventure, for 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, Labiche solemnly promised his wife's parents that he would renounce a profession then considered incompatible with moral regularity and domestic happiness. A year later, his wife released him from his vow, and Labiche recalled the incident when he dedicated the first edition of his complete works to her.
In conjunction with Varin, Marc Michel, Louis François Clairville, Philippe François Dumanoir, and others, he contributed comic plays interspersed with couplets to various Paris theatres. He was considered a successful but undistinguished vaudevillist, until he paired with Marc-Michel to create the five-act farce, Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat), which turned out to be a major success upon its opening in August 1851. It is an accomplished specimen of the French imbroglio-style play, in which someone is in search of something, but does not find it till five minutes before the curtain falls. For the next twenty-five years, he continued to write successful comedies and vaudevilles, all basically constructed on the same plan and containing a dose of comic observation and good sense. "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 collaborated with Alfred Delacour, Adolphe Choler, and others. Emile Augier said: "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.” Even more important was his professional relationship with actor Jean Marie Geoffroy, who specialized in Labiche's pompous and fussy bourgeois characters. Many of Labiche's roles were written specifically for Geoffroy. Célimare le bien-aimé (1863), Le Voyage de M. Perrichon (1860), La Grammaire, Un Pied dans le crime, La Cagnotte (1864), were some of Labiche's most important plays.
In 1877 he ended his connection with the stage, and retired to his rural property in Sologne. There he devoted his energies to supervising agricultural work and to reclaiming land and marshes. His lifelong friend, Émile Augier, visited him there, and strongly advised Labiche to publish a collected and revised edition of his works. Though Labiche was initially reluctant, he issued his comic plays in ten volumes during 1878 and 1879, which were enthusiastically received. Many people had assumed that Labiche's plays owed their popularity to the actors who had appeared in them, but upon reading the plays, they realized that their success was due to the writing itself, with its humor and skilled characterization. Due to this reevaluation of Labiche's writing, he was elected to the Académie française in 1880.
Labiche died in Paris and was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre.
Some admirers have considered Labiche the equal of Molière; his plays are more complex and less coarse than many other examples of French farce. 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 by pretentious old maids and silly young ladies. He ridiculed marriage, but in a friendly and good-natured manner which always left a door open to repentance and timely amendment.