Born: Paris, France, 24 December 1791. Education: Educated at the College de Sainte-Barbe and Lycee Napoleon, both Paris; studied law briefly. Career: Playwright from 1810; in a commercially successful career, went on to write more than 330 (and possibly as many as 400) works for the stage, including plays and comedies-vaudevilles for the Parisian boulevard theatres (especially the Gymnase, for which he was resident dramatist, 1821-31, and the Vaudeville) and later for the Comedie-Frangaise, and libretti for operas, operas-comiques, and ballets for the Paris Opera and Opera-Comique. His principal dramatic collaborators included Germain Delavigne, Henri Dupin, Melesville, and E.-W. Legouve, and he wrote libretti to the music of leading composers, including Auber, Donizetti, Bo’ieldieu, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Rossini, and Verdi. Member: Academie frangaise, 1834. Died: 20 February 1861.
Oeuvres completes. 76 vols., 1874-85; includes five series:
1. Comedies-drames. 9 vols.
2. Comedies-vaudevilles. 33 vols.
3. Operas; Ballets. 6 vols.
4. Operas-comiques. 20 vols.
5. Proverbes; Nouvelles; Romans. 8 vols.
The following list includes those plays and libretti that have been translated into English, and some collections published within the author’s lifetime. Non-musical collaborators are not listed.
La Somnabule (produced 1819). 1821; translated as The Somnabulist, 1850.
Le Gastronome sans argent (produced 1821). 1821; as A Race for Dinner, adapted by J.T.G. Rodwell, 1829.
Michel et Christine (produced 1821). 1821; as Love in Humble Life, translated by J.H. Payne, 1850.
Le Vieux Gargon et la petite fille (produced 1822). 1822; translated as The Popular Farce Called Old and Young, 1822.
Le Menteur veridique (produced 1823). 1823; translated as He Lies like Truth, 1850.
Leocadie, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1824). 1824; as Leocadia, translated by Cavillini, 1835.
La Chatte metamorphosee en femme (produced 1827). 1827; translated as The Woman That Was a Cat, 1840.
Le Comte Ory, music by Rossini (produced 1828). 1828; as The Count Ory, translated anonymously, 1829.
La Muette de Portici, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1828). 1828; translated as Mansaniello; or, The Dumb Girl of Portici, 1850.
L’Enfantprodigue, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1830). 1850; translated as Il Prodigo, The Prodigal, 1851.
Robert-le-diable, music by Giacomo Meyerbeer (produced 1831). 1831; translated as Robert-le-diable, 1832.
Gustave III; ou, Le Bal masque, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1833). 1833; translated as Gustavus the Third; or, The Masked Ball, adapted by J.R. Planche, 1833.
Le Chalet, music by Adolphe Adam. 1834; translated as Betly: An Opera, 1838.
Salvoisy; ou, L’Amoureux de la reine (produced 1834). 1834; as Salvoisy; or, The Queen’s Lover, translated anonymously by Catherine Dove, 1834; as The Queen’s Champion, translated by Catherine Dove, 1886.
La Frontiere de Savoie (produced 1834). 1834; as A Peculiar Position, translated by J. R. Planche, 1837; also in Camille and Other Plays, edited by Stephen Sadler Stanton, 1957.
Theatre complet. 24 vols., 1834-47.
La Juive, music by Jacques Halevy (produced 1835). 1835; as The Jewess, adapted by J.R. Planche, 1835; translated by Henri Drayton, 1854.
Le Cheval de bronze, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1835). 1835; as Opera of the Bronze Horse, adapted by A. Bunn, 1836.
Les Huguenots, music by Giacomo Meyerbeer (produced 1836). 1836; translated as The Huguenots, n.d. FraDiavalo; ou, L’Hatellerie de Terracine, music by Daniel Auber. 1836; as Fra Diavalo: A Comic Opera, translated anonymously, 1854.
Le Domino noir, music by Daniel Auber. 1837; translated as The Black Domino; or, A Night’s Adventure, 1837.
Cesar; ou, Le Chien du chateau (produced 1837). 1837; translated as Caesar: The Watchdog of the Castle, 1886.
La Reine d’un jour, music by Adolphe Adam (produced 1839). 1839; as Opera of A Queen for a Day, adapted by J.T. Haines, 1841.
Les Martyres, music by Donizetti (produced 1842). 1840; translated as The Martyrs, 1852.
Le Verre d’eau; ou, Los Effets et les causes. 1840; as A Glass of Water, adapted by W.E. Suter, 1850; also translated by Robert Cornthwaite, 1995.
Oeuvres completes. 5 vols., 1840-42.
Les Diamants de ta couronne, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1841). 1841; translated as The Crown Diamonds, 1844.
Une chaine (produced 1841). 1841; as In Honour Bound, translated anonymously, 1885.
Dom Sebastien, roi de Portugal, music by Donizetti (produced 1843). 1843; translated as Don Sebastiano: A Tragic Opera, 1860.
La Part du diable, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1843). 1843; as Asmodeus, the Little Demon, translated by T. Archer, 1850.
La Sirene, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1844). 1844; as The Syren, translated and adapted by George Soane, 1849.
Hay dee; ou, Le Secret, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1847). 1848; as Haydee; or, The Secret, translated and adapted by George Soane, 1848.
Le Prophete, music by Giacomo Meyerbeer (produced 1849). 1849; translated as The Opera of the Prophet, 1850.
Adrienne Lecouvreur (produced 1849). 1849; edited by Theodore Ely Hamilton, 1917; as Adrienne Lecouvreur, translated by Frederick A. Schwab, 1880; also translated by H. Herman, 1883.
Giralda; ou, La Nouvelle Psyche, music by Adolphe Adam (produced 1850). 1850; as Giralda; or, Which Is My Husband?, translated by Mrs. Davidson, 1850; as Giralda; or, The Invisible Husband, translated by H. Welstead, 1850.
La Dame de pique, music by Jacques Halevy (produced 1850). 1851; as The Queen of Spades, translated by Dion Boucicault, n.d. Bataille des dames; ou, Un duel d’amour (produced 1851). 1851; as The Ladies’ Battle, translated by Charles Reade, 1850; also translated by George B. Coale, 1887.
Zerline; ou, La Corbeille d’oranges, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1851). 1851; translated as Zerlina, 1851.
Marco Spada, music by Daniel Auber (produced 1852). 1851; as Marco Spada, translated by J.P. Simpson, 1850.
L’Africaine, music by Giacomo Myerbeer (produced 1851). 1865; translated as L’Africaine, 1866.
Oeuvres illustrees. 12 vols., 1853-55.
L’Etoile du nord, music by Giacomo Meyerbeer (produced 1854). 1854; translated as The Star of the North, 1855.
Les Doigts de fee (produced 1858). 1858; translated as The World of Fashion, 1860; translated as Fairy Fingers, in Easy French Plays, edited by C.W. Benton, 1901.
La Maitresse anonyme. 1840.
Piquillo Alliaga; ou, Los Maures sous Philippe III. 2 vols., 1847; as The Victim of the Jesuits; or, Piquillo Alliaga: A Romance, translated anonymously, 3 vols., 1848.
Le Filleul d’Amadis; ou, Les Amours d’une fee. 3 vols., 1858.
Les Yeux de ma tante. 6 vols., 1859.
Fleurette labouquetiere. 6 vols., 1861; as Fleurette, translated by F.P. Clark, 1886.
Noelie. 4 vols., 1862.
Proverbes et nouvelles. 1840.
Historiettes et Proverbes. 1856.
Eugene Scribe and the French Theatre (1815-1860) by N. Cole Arvin, 1924; Eugene Scribe by H. Hoop and R. Switzer,1979; Eugene Scribe and French Opera of the Nineteenth Century by Karin Pendle, 1979; Eugene Scribe by Helen Koon, 1980.
There is a cruel irony in the fact that Rossini’s cheerful light opera Le Comte Ory (The Count Ory) of 1828 is about the only example of Eugene Scribe’s immense output of stage works of every sort that has survived in the repertory, and if it is still performed from time to time, that is certainly more a compliment to the ebullience of its music than to the dramatic qualities of its libretto. The Count Ory can, nevertheless, tell us quite a lot about Scribe and his attitudes to writing. By 1828 Scribe already had to his credit some successes in both the theatre and the opera house, but that did not mean he was unwilling to undertake what really was little better than hackwork. During his Parisian period Rossini had tackled major themes in an innovative style with ambitious operas like William Tell, but The Count Ory was a reversion to an earlier, far less demanding style, and Scribe cannot be said to have put himself out unduly to provide a libretto, either. Though it is true that the manifestly implausible story of a 12th-century crusading nobleman’s amorous adventures is entertaining, there is no great imagination here either in the theme, which in fact owes something to the late 18th-century French interest in more or less fictionalized medievalism, or in its treatment. On the other hand, though, the plot is so transparent that it never gets in the way of the musical development of the opera; there are plenty of ”cues for song,” whether from the principals or the chorus, and that is basically what Rossini was looking for. Scribe also gave him just the right sort of words to set. The verse of the libretto is simple and repetitive, full of cliches, and with no real indication of poetic strengths. As a result it does not read particularly well, but it is the sort of text that could easily be set to music and which would carry its meaning clearly even when sung against an orchestral background. Two final points about The Count Ory: first, that Scribe had no scruples about fashioning its libretto out of two little one-act plays of his from an earlier period and, second, that this was not his unaided work but rather the product of collaboration, with Charles Delestre-Poirson.
All this serves to give some impression of a writer with real talent and considerable versatility but perhaps with no very strong convictions, and who regarded writing for the stage as a skilled craft rather than as a means of self-expression. Though the 19th century is not normally considered to be one of the great periods of French drama, Parisian theatres were the centre of enormous, bustling activity from the time of the Revolution, which gave the managements far greater freedom than they had previously experienced. High society enjoyed going to the play just like the ordinary folk up in the gods, and the press dwelt no less on the beauties of the brilliantly lighted theatres than on the scandals that dogged the leading actresses of the day. Above all, in an age that produced few dramatic masterpieces, there was an insatiable demand for new plays, and, though many writers were astonishingly prolific and versatile, none could rival Scribe.
He began, often in collaboration, with comedies-vaudevilles, of which an important early example is Une nuit de la Garde nationale [A Night for the National Guard]. These ephemeral little one-act plays in prose, with a spice of topicality and opportunities for song, quite often to well-known tunes, provided him with a training in theatrical technique that was to stand him in good stead, particularly when he turned his hand to the writing of librettos for comic operas which, of course, also combined songs and spoken dialogue but demanded rather fuller development. In a list of more than 80 comic opera librettos written over a period of some 50 years, it is La Dame blanche [The White Lady], with its fashionable setting in 18th-century Scotland, which is generally reckoned to be the masterpiece. It was written for Bo’ieldieu in 1825 and enjoyed great popularity for a long time. Many of the grand operas for which Scribe provided librettos were also highly successful throughout the 19th century. Among the most important are La Muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici), written for Auber; Robert-le-diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophete (The Opera of the Prophet), and L’Africaine for Meyerbeer; La Juive (The Jewess) for Halevy; and Los Vepres siciliennes [The Sicilian Vespers] for Verdi. In these librettos Scribe takes the blazing Romanticism of Victor Hugo’s stage plays, such as Hernani, and transposes it into opera, providing rich opportunities for the expression of the strongest imaginable personal, political, and religious emotions, in solos, ensembles, and choruses, in crisis situations and in historical settings of considerable splendour and magnificence.
Scribe also made highly significant contributions to the spoken theatre, and he is above all associated with the development of the ”well-made play,” such as Le Verre d’eau (A Glass of Water), with its highly significant subtitle ”Or the Effects and Its Causes.” Bertrand et Raton, set in Copenhagen, is among Scribe’s most successful historical comedies, and Adrienne Lecouvreur is a romanticized account of the career of the great 18th-century actress that gave the Swiss-born star Rachel every opportunity to display her talents and her beauty. By the end of the 19th century Scribe had become a byword for plays that were deftly crafted, rather superficial theatrical entertainments, and a reaction set in. In his time, however, he had a great reputation, and historically he may be seen not only as one of the men who brought Romanticism into grand opera but also as the playwright who developed the theatrically weak ”bourgeois drama” of the Enlightenment so that it could be employed effectively in the realist theatre of the late 19th century.