1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sardou, Victorien

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SARDOU, VICTORIEN (1831–1908), French dramatist, was born in Paris on the 5th of September 1831. The Sardous were settled at Le Cannet, a village near Cannes, where they owned an estate, planted with olive trees. A night's frost killed all the trees and the family was ruined. Victorien's father, Antoine Léandre Sardou, came to Paris in search of employment. He was in succession a book-keeper at a commercial establishment, a professor of book-keeping, the head of a provincial school, then a private tutor and a schoolmaster in Paris, besides editing grammars, dictionaries and treatises on various subjects. With all these occupations, he hardly succeeded in making a livelihood, and when he retired to his native country, Victorien was left on his own resources. He had begun studying medicine, but had to desist for want of funds. He taught French to foreign pupils; he also gave lessons in Latin, history and mathematics to students, and wrote articles for cheap encyclopaedias. At the same time he was trying to make headway in the literary world. His talents had been encouraged by an old bas-bleu, Mme de Bawl, who had published novels and enjoyed some reputation in the days of the Restoration. But she could do little for her protégé. Victorien Sardou made efforts to attract the attention of Mlle Rachel, and to win her support by submitting to her a drama, La Reine Ulfra, founded on an old Swedish chronicle. A play of his, La Taverne des étudiants, was produced at the Odéon on the 1st of April 1854, but met with a stormy reception, owing to a rumour that the débutant had been instructed and commissioned by the government to insult the students. La Taverne was withdrawn after five nights. Another drama by Sardou, Bernard Palissy, was accepted at the same theatre, but the arrangement was cancelled in consequence of a change in the management. A Canadian play, Fleur de Liane, would have been produced at the Ambigu but for the death of the manager. Le Bossu, which he wrote for Charles Albert Fechter, did not satisfy the actor; and when the play was successfully produced, the nominal authorship, by some unfortunate arrangement, had been transferred to other men. M Sardou submitted to Adolphe Montigny (Lemoine-Montigny), manager of the Gymnase, a play entitled Paris à l'envers, which contained the love scene, afterwards so famous, in Nos Intimes. Montigny thought fit to consult Eugene Scribe, who was revolted by the scene in question.

Sardou felt the pangs of actual want, and his misfortunes culminated in an attack of typhoid fever. He was dying in his garret, surrounded with his rejected manuscripts. A lady who was living in the same house unexpectedly came to his assistance. Her name was Mlle de Brécourt. She had theatrical connexions, and was a special favourite of Mlle Déjazet. She nursed him, cured him, and, when he was well again, introduced him to her friend. Then fortune began to smile on the author. It is true that Candide, the first play he wrote for Mlle Déjazet, was stopped by the censor, but Les Premières Armes de Figaro, Monsieur Gorat, and Les Prés Saint Gervais, produced almost in succession, had a splendid run, and Les Pattes de mouche (1860: afterwards anglicized as A Scrap of Paper) obtained a similar success at the Gymnase. Fedora (1882) was written expressly for Sarah Bernhardt, as were many of his later plays. He soon ranked with the two undisputed leaders of dramatic art, Augier and Dumas. He lacked the powerful humour, the eloquence and moral vigour of the former, the passionate conviction and pungent wit of the latter, but he was a master of clever and easy flowing dialogue. He adhered to Scribe's constructive methods, which combined the three old kinds of comedy—the comedy of character, of manners and of intrigue—with the drame bourgeois, and blended the heterogeneous elements into a compact body and living unity. He was no less dexterous in handling his materials than his master had been before him, and at the same time opened a wider field to social satire. He ridiculed the vulgar and selfish middle-class person in Nos Intimes (1861: anglicized as Peril), the gay old bachelors in Les Vieux Garçons (1865), the modern Tartufes in Séraphine (1868), the rural element in Nos Bans Villageois (1866), old-fashioned customs and antiquated political beliefs in Les Ganaches (1862), the revolutionary spirit and those who thrive on it in Rabagas (1872) and Le Roi Carotte (1872), the then threatened divorce laws in Divorçons (1880).

He struck a new vein by introducing a strong historic element in some of his dramatic romances. Thus he borrowed Theodora (1884) from Byzantine annals, La Haine (1874) from Italian chronicles, La Duchesse d'Athènes from the forgotten records of medieval Greece. Patrie (1869) is founded on the rising of the Dutch gueux at the end of the 16th century. The scene of La Sorcière (1904) was laid in Spain in the 16th century. The French Revolution furnished him with three plays, Les Merveilleuses, Thermidor (1891) and Robespierre (1902). The last named was written expressly for Sir Henry Irving, and produced at the Lyceum theatre, as was Dante (1903). The imperial epoch was revived in La Tosca[1] (1887) and Madame Sans Gêne (1893). Later plays were La Piste (1905) and Le Drame des poisons (1907). In many of these plays, however, it was too obvious that a thin varnish of historic learning, acquired for the purpose, had been artificially laid on to cover modern thoughts and feelings. But a few—Patrie and La Haine (1874), for instance—exhibit a true insight into the strong passions of past ages.

M. Sardou married his benefactress, Mlle. de Brécourt, but eight years later he became a widower, and soon after the revolution of 1870 was married a second time, to Mlle. Soulié, the daughter of the erudite Eudore Soulié, who for many years superintended the Musée de Versailles. He was elected to the French Academy in the room of the poet Joseph Autran (1813-1877), and took his seat on the 22nd of May 1878. He died at Paris on the 8th of November 1908.

See L. Lacour, Trois théâtres (1880); Brander Matthews, French Dramatists (New York, 1881); R. Doumic, Écrivains d'aujourd'hui (Paris, 1895); F. Sarcey, Quarante ans de théâtre (vol. vi., 1901).

  1. Adapted as an opera for the music of Puccini (Rome, 14th Jan. 1900).