In the two novels, as in the twoscore short stories and sketches—the contes and the nouvelles which are now spring-like idyls and now wintry episodes, now sombre etchings and now gayly-colored pastels—in all the works of the story-teller we see the firm grasp of the dramatist. The characters speak for themselves; each reveals himself with the swift directness of the personages of a play. They are not talked about and about, for all analysis has been done by the playwright before he rings up the curtain in the first paragraph. And the story unrolls itself, also, as rapidly as does a comedy. The movement is straightforward. There is the cleverness and the ingenuity of the accomplished dramatist, but the construction has the simplicity of the highest skill. The arrangement of incidents is so artistic that it seems inevitable; and no one is ever moved to wonder whether or not the tale might have been better told in different fashion.
Nephew of the composer of “La Juive”—an opera not now heard as often as it deserves, perhaps—and son of a playwright no one of whose productions now survives, M. Halevy grew up in the theatre. At fourteen he was on the free-list of the Opera, the Opera-Comique, and the Odeon. After he left school and went into the civil service his one wish was to write plays, and so to be able to afford to resign his post. In the civil service he had an inside view of French politics, which gave him a distaste for the mere game of government without in any way impairing the vigor of his patriotism; as is proved by certain of the short stones dealing with the war of 1870 and the revolt of the Paris Communists. And while he did his work faithfully, he had spare hours to give to literature. He wrote plays and stories, and they were rejected. The manager of the Odeon declared that one early play of M. Halevy’s was exactly suited to the Gymnase, and the manager of the Gymnase protested that it was exactly suited to the Odeon. The editor of a daily journal said that one early tale of M. Halevy’s was too brief for a novel, and the editor of a weekly paper said that it was too long for a short story.
In time, of course, his luck turned; he had plays performed and stories published; and at last he met M. Henri Meilhac, and entered on that collaboration of nearly twenty years’ duration to which we owe “Froufrou” and “Tricoche et Cacolet,” on the one hand, and on the other the books of Offenbach’s most brilliant operas—“Barbebleue,” for example, and “La Perichole.” When this collaboration terminated, shortly before M. Halevy wrote The Abbe Constantin, he gave up writing for the stage. The training of the playwright he could not give up, if he would, nor the intimacy with the manners and customs of the people who live, move, and have their being on the far side of the curtain.