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ÉMILE AUGIER (1820-1889)

AUGIER, GUILLAUME VICTOR ÉMILE, French dramatist, was born at Valence, Drôme, on the 17th of September 1820. He was the grandson of Pigault Lebrun, and belonged to the well-to-do bourgeoisie in principles and in thought as well as by actual birth. He received a good education and studied for the bar. IN 1844 he wrote a play in two acts and in verse, La Ciguë, refused at the Théâtre Français, but produced with considerable success at the Odéon. This settled his career. Thenceforward, at fairly regular intervals, either alone or in collaboration with other writers--Jules Sandeau, Eugène-Marie Labiche, Ed. Foussier--he produced plays which were in their way eventful. Le Fils de Giboyer (1862)--which was regarded as an attack on the clerical party in France, and was only brought out by direct intervention of the emperor--caused some political excitement. His last comedy, Les Fourchambâult, belongs to the year 1879. After that date he wrote no more, restrained by an honourable fear of producing inferior work. The Academy had long before, on the 31st of March 1857, elected him to be one of its members. He died in his house at Croissy on the 25th of October 1889. Such, in briefest outline, is the story of a life which Augier himself describes as "without incident"--a life in all senses honourable. Augier, with Dumas fils and Sardou, may be said to have held the French stage during the Second Empire. The man respected himself and his art, and his art on its ethical side--for he did not disdain to be a teacher--has high qualities of rectitude and restraint. Uprightness of mind and of heart, generous honesty, as Jules Lemaître well said, constituted the very soul of all his dramatic work. L'Aventurière (1848), the first of Augier's important works, already shows a deviation from romantic models; and in the Mariage d'Olympe (1855) the courtesan is shown as she is, not glorified as in Dumas' Dame aux Camélias. In Gabrielle (1849) the husband, not the lover, is the sympathetic, poetic character. In the Lionnes pauvres (1858) the wife who sells her favours comes under the lash. Greed of gold, social demoralization, ultramontanism, lust of power, these are satirized in Les Effrontés (1861), Le Fils de Giboyer (1862), Contagion, first announced under the title of Le Baron d'Estrigaud (1866), Lions et renards (1869)--which, with Le Gendre de M. Poirier (1854), written in collaboration with Jules Sandeau, reach the high-water mark of Augier's art; in Philiberte (1853) he produced a graceful and delicate drawing-room comedy; and in Jean de Thommeray, acted in 1873 after the great reverses of 1870, the regenerating note of patriotism rings high and clear. His last two dramas, Madame Caverlet (1876) and Les Fourchambault (1879) are problem plays. But it would be unfair to suggest that Émile Augier was a preacher only. He was a moralist in the great sense, the sense in which the term can be applied to Molière and the great dramatists--a moralist because of his large and sane outlook on life. Nor does the interest of his dramas depend on elaborate plot. It springs from character and its evolution. His men and women move as personality, that mysterious factor, dictates. They are real, several of them typical. Augier's first drama, La Ciguë, belongs to a time (1844) when the romantic drama was on the wane; and his almost exclusively domestic range of subject scarcely lends itself to lyric outbursts of pure poetry. But his verse, if not that of a great poet, has excellent dramatic qualities, while the prose of his prose dramas is admirable for directness, alertness, sinew and a large and effective wit. Perhaps it wanted these qualities to enlist laughter on his side in such a war as he waged against false passion and false sentiment.

This article was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition. F.T.M. Cambridge: University Press, 1911.

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