Thursday, October 18, 2012


This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 9. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 1-10.

An original painting by L. Ceosio

During the latter part of the eighteenth century the drama in France had steadily declined from the glorious position which it had achieved in the reign of Louis XIV. The genius of Voltaire, by its stage-reforms and innovations, had partially stayed the downward movement in tragedy, and the philosophic Diderot had sought to substitute for mirthful comedy a new species--the serious--which should be an agent of social reform, and in fact the consummation of dramatic art as a mirror of life.

Classical tragedy had been weighted down by the artificiality of the court in every direction, and thus made a beautiful monster. The plays of the new style, vaguely called drames, were intended to be true to life and to inculcate the proper principles of society. The idea had already been advanced in the dreams of various social philosophers, but for obvious reasons no attempt had been made to reduce it to practice. Diderot, though an able writer in other departments, failed as a dramatist, but some who had adopted his idea had better success. The most remarkable dramatist of the period, however, was Beaumarchais, who boldly revived the old Spanish comedy of intrigue. He not only surpassed his predecessor in the skillful framing of plots, but drew his characters with peculiar truth. His dialogue was brilliant with flashes of wit, and his plays were charged with social satire. His Figaro, with its searchlight illumination of the old régime, became a warning beacon of the approaching Revolution. But taken altogether, the drama of this period is rather of historic interest than actual value. It consists of imitations of the great works of the classic age, themselves imitations of antiquity, or imperfect attempts at reform and extension. It became thoroughly mechanical and lost artistic value. "French tragedy," said Goethe, with not undue severity, "is a parody of itself."
Political changes had marked effect on the French theatre, yet comparitively little on the drama. The Revolution proclaimed, among other liberties, that of theatres, and fifty were soon open in Paris. The tragic poet of the period was M.J. de Chénier, who wrote Charles IX, an historical drama with a political moral. Though Chénier fell a victim to the guillotine at the early age of thirty, the actor Talma achieved his first success in that play and lived to become the favorite of Napoleon. Under the empire the theatres came under the direct control of the government. The number in Paris was limited to nine, and each was restricted to a certain class of plays. To the Théâtre Français was reserved the exclusive right to present the masterpieces of Corneille, RacineMolière and Voltaire. Minor theatres might produce melodramas, vaudevilles or operas-comiques. Napoleon wished to encourage the drama, and offered prizes for the best tragedy, but he failed to secure a great dramatist to give lustre to his reign.
In spite of the glory which Napoleon's victories won for France, and with which its people were intoxicated, their intellectual condition under his rule was pitiful in the extreme. The grand ideals to which their noblest minds had so recently aspired became a laughing-stock. From those pure and lofty visions of humanity and the noble motto--Liberty, Equality, Fraternity--which they had cherished for themselves and even sought to impose on a reluctant world, their leaders now turned away with foolish contempt. Liberty, so highly prized, so dearly purchased, was crushed under an accumulation of mischances and adversities which seemed to be the natural outcome of the Revolution. Statesmen declared the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire the logical result of the Revolution. The philosophic historian sees in them the inevitable backward swing of the mighty pendulum of human government. The new chief of state claimed by his acts what Louis XIV had expressed in words, "L'état, c'est moi"--I am the State. His envy was kindled by the seventeenth century, that golden age of literature and art, and he trusted to renew and surpass its beauty and fertility, as he was able to enact a new and better code of laws. But the conqueror of Italy and Germany could not restore life to the noble victims of the guillotine nor renew the inspiration of departed genius. The entire intellectual and spiritual product of the Empire--its literature and philosophy, its arts and music--is the debased outcome of imperial despotism.
The fondness for classical tragedies which had lasted through the convulsions of the Revolution and the Empire remained after the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons. The emigrant nobles, on their return, found the drama on the stage as they had left it. Tragedy was strictly bound by the unities of time, place and action, and the new writers who attempted it lacked the inventive power of their predecessors. Comedy fared better, and many writers who wrought in this department produced plays which have not suffered the complete eclipse that has befallen contemporary tragedies. The imitated Beaumarchais rather than Molière. Among them may be named Andrieux, Picard, Alexandre Duval and Népomucène Lemercier.
But when the despot Napoleon was overthrown and France was again subjected to the Bourbon tyranny and misrule, where was there any prospect or hope of her intellectual redemption? Her ideals of the moral world had been shattered and destroyed. The gaudy balloon of the republic, whose apparition had but lately startled the nations, had soon been rent in mid air by the explosion of its own motive power. Monarchy was restored to the Bourbons, who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The old institutions were to be rebuilt where the very foundations had been destroyed by earthquakes. To what period in her past history or to what nation beside herself could France turn for models in reconstruction? Two great writers of the time offered replies to the grand question of the time--Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael--replies widely variant, yet each having a substantial amount of truth.
From the literary, no less from the political, point of view the chief interest of the time belongs to Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, whose writings did much to inaugerate the new movement which was to alter the character of French literature. Chateaubriand had visited America and seen something of savage life in the wilderness, which afterward formed the basis of picturesque and ideal descriptions. He was also a champion of the restoration of the Catholic religion, whose rites and churches had been wantonly assailed and overthrown in the French Revolution, yet had been reinstated in their former place under Napoleon. Chateaubriand regarded Christianity as "the most poetical of all religions, the most attractive, the most fertile in literary, artistic and social results." To prove his thesis and impress it on the minds and hearts of his countrymen he wrote his two splendid works, the Genius of Christianity and The Martyrs, which, by their powerful appeal to history and their imaginative beauty, had enormous influence on succeeding literary development. Madame de Stael, exiled by Napoleon, wandered to Germany and there became acquainted with Goethe and Schiller and their surroundings. Her description of this country in De l'Allemagne opened up to the rising generation in France treasures of literature and philosophy till then entirely unknown. Her romances, Delphine and Corinne, also led the imagination in new fields. Different as were the spirit, aim and style of these two writers, they combined in their enthusiasm in inaugerating what has become known as Romanticism.
Chateaubriand revived a longing for the simple faith of the mediæval church and the beauties of chivalry. This was fostered by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, which were eagerly welcomed in France. A periodical called La Muse Français enlisted the services of ardent royalists, among them were Victor Hugo and De Vigny. Then war was declared against classicism in the drama, which was supported chiefly by writers of the Liberal party. The Romantics formed a club called the Cénacle, in which Hugo was the chief poet and Sainte-Beuve the chief critic. Political divisions became less prominent, and literary sympathies alone formed the bond of the union. The movement was violently opposed, and members of the Academy petitioned the king to forbid the representation of any Romantic piece at the Théâtre Français. On the other hand the more violent members of the club declared its object to be the burning of everything which had been adored, and the adoring of everything which had been burnt. The rejected the established canons of the classic drama--the unities, the arbitrary selection of subjects, the restrictions on the use of words, the requirements of periphrasis instead of plain speech, the cultivation of artificial beauty. These enthusiasts wished to hear in the drama, as the language of passion and emotion, the words in common use. The Romantics were sometimes designated as the flamboyant, referring to the gay and picturesque attire affected by some of their most enthusiastic adherents, as well as their literary style. The conservative Classicists were called grisâtre, or graybeard, which might also denote the gray and monotonous color of their poetry.
After several preliminary skirmishes the struggle culminated at the representation of Victor Hugo's Hernani in February, 1830. Both parties assembled in force, one prepared to applaud, the other to hiss. Cries arose as the play proceeded, and even blows were struck. But the Romantic play was kept on the stage for two months, and the fierceness of the fight gradually subsided. The Romantics had won the day, though they had by no means suppressed the opposition. It lasted throughout the reign of Louis Philippe. The younger men of letters were all Romantics.
Romanticism has been defined in various ways, both by its advocates and by its opponents, and, indeed, by the historians who sought to be impartial. It was plainly a revolt against the enforcement of the rules which had been framed in the golden age of French literature as representing the best practice of the best writers. But these rules had been interpreted in a narrow spirit and enforced in an arbitrary manner by succeeding generations of critics. Scant allowance was made for the necessary growth of language, and for the introduction of new ideas and forms of thought. The classic literature belonged to the court and was modeled by strict rules of etiquette, which were out of harmony with the wider view of life and nature struggling for expression. Romanticism gave liberty to the author to express his thought in such terms as seemed to him most appropriate, without regard to what his predecessors had said. It refused to be trammeled by the notions of the French lawgiver Boileau, of the seventeenth century, or by the principles of the philosopher Aristotle, who wrote three centuries before Christ. It vindicated the rights of the modern world, and of each individual in that world, to utter and write his message to his fellow-men. It was individualistic.
Yet, in actual practice it did not depart so widely from the standards already established, as either its opponents feared or its advocates claimed the right to do. Victor Hugo wrote hisHernani in rhymed Alexandrines, and observed many other conventionalities of the drama. The conservatives had been trained to criticise minute variations from the rules, and they doubted whereto those vaunted reforms would grow. The Romantics had themselves been trained in the same school and, as a matter of course, retained much of the old discipline. They knew that this was necessary if they were to be heard and understood by the people. Their changes were limited to lessening the restraint and relaxing the bonds of the old rules. They did not destroy and burn as they had threatened. The new liberty was found to be moderate, pleasing to the imagination and satisfactory to the calm judgment. If at times proper bounds were overstepped, criticism, rational and not arbitrary, could intervene to correct the error.
Although the battle of the Romanticists and Classicists was fought on the field of the drama, its principal results are not found there. The dramatic changes have not been of the greatest value or most permanent character. What is chiefly seen in the theatre is the prevalence of tragi-comedy, which the French call drame, a modified mixture of the old divisions of the art. It admits a greater variety of personages on the stage, and rejects the stock characters of the old style. It even allows that disjointed action, which has always been characteristic of the English stage, but was positively prohibited by the canons of the French, and even of the Greek theatre. After Victor Hugo's early battles for greater freedom had been fought to a successful conclusion, Alexandre Dumas came forward with a still more melodramatic style of the drame, and his plays also served as rallying points for the Romantics in their long contest. The chief of these were Henry III and Antony, in which new elements of strife were interjected, especially with regard to morality. La Tour de Nesle was also a fruitful source of discussion, the question of authorship being involved. Alexandre Soumet and Casimir Delavigne adhered more closely to the old models and won support from the Classicists. Soumet's dramas were Norma and Une Fête de Neron, while Delavigne presented Marino Faliero and Louis XI. Still later, Ponsard was leader in a kind of classical reaction with his Lucrèce, Charlotte Corday and other historical plays.
The most prominent and fertile producer of comic plays was Eugène Scribe, who poured out shoals of vaudevilles and high comedies which had immense popularity. A new variety of comedy was introduced under the name of Proverbs, slight dramatic sketches in which the dialogue is of more importance than the action. In this class the poet Alfred de Musset specially distinguished himself. The titles of his pieces are self-explanatory, as Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée--A door must be open or shut; On ne badine pas avec L'amour--There's no trifling with love.

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