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Lectures on Dramatic Art by August Wilhelm Schlegel trans John Black

Part 6 out of 10

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he was opposed by Boileau. The chagrin to which this gave rise,
unfortunately interrupted his theatrical career at the very period when
his mind had reached its full maturity: a mistaken piety afterwards
prevented him from resuming his theatrical occupations, and it required
all the influence of Madame Maintenon to induce him to employ his talent
upon religious subjects for a particular occasion. It is probable that but
for this interruption, he would have carried his art still higher: for in
the works which we have of him, we trace a gradually advancing
improvement. He is a poet in every way worthy of our love: he possessed a
delicate susceptibility for all the tenderer emotions, and great sweetness
in expressing them. His moderation, which never allowed him to transgress
the bounds of propriety, must not be estimated too highly: for he did not
possess strength of character in any eminent degree, nay, there are even
marks of weakness perceptible in him, which, it is said, he also exhibited
in private life. He has also paid his homage to the sugared gallantry of
his age, where it merely serves as a show of love to connect together the
intrigue; but he has often also succeeded completely in the delineation of
a more genuine love, especially in his female characters; and many of his
love-scenes breathe a tender voluptuousness, which, from the veil of
reserve and modesty thrown over it, steals only the more seductively into
the soul. The inconsistencies of unsuccessful passion, the wanderings of a
mind diseased, and a prey to irresistible desire, he has portrayed more
touchingly and truthfully than any French poet before him, or even perhaps
after him. Generally speaking, he was more inclined to the elegiac and the
idyllic, than to the heroic. I will not say that he would never have
elevated himself to more serious and dignified conceptions than are to be
found in his _Britannicus_ and _Mithridate_; but here we must distinguish
between that which his subject suggested, and what he painted with a
peculiar fondness, and wherein he is not so much the dramatic artist as
the spokesman of his own feelings. At the same time, it ought not to be
forgotten that Racine composed most of his pieces when very young, and
that this may possibly have influenced his choice. He seldom disgusts us,
like Corneille and Voltaire, with the undisguised repulsiveness of
unnecessary crimes; he has, however, often veiled much that in reality is
harsh, base, and mean, beneath the forms of politeness and courtesy. I
cannot allow the plans of his pieces to be, as the French critics insist,
unexceptionable; those which he borrowed from ancient mythology are, in my
opinion, the most liable to objection; but still I believe, that with the
rules and observations which he took for his guide, he could hardly in
most cases have extricated himself from his difficulties more cautiously
and with greater propriety than he has actually done. Whatever may be the
defects of his productions separately considered, when we compare him with
others, and view him in connexion with the French literature in general,
we can hardly bestow upon him too high a meed of praise.

A new aera of French Tragedy begins with Voltaire, whose first appearance,
in his early youth, as a writer for the theatre, followed close upon the
age of Louis the Fourteenth. I have already, in a general way, alluded to
the changes and enlargements which he projected, and partly carried into
execution. Corneille and Racine led a true artist's life: they were
dramatic poets with their whole soul; their desire, as authors, was
confined to that object alone, and all their studies were directed to the
stage. Voltaire, on the contrary, wished to shine in every possible
department; a restless vanity permitted him not to be satisfied with the
pursuit of perfection in any single walk of literature; and from the
variety of subjects on which his mind was employed, it was impossible for
him to avoid shallowness and immaturity of ideas. To form a correct idea
of his relation to his two predecessors in the tragic art, we must
institute a comparison between the characteristic features of the
preceding classical age and of that in which he gave the tone. In the time
of Louis the Fourteenth, a certain traditionary code of opinions on all
the most important concerns of humanity reigned in full force and
unquestioned; and even in poetry, the object was not so much to enrich as
to form the mind, by a liberal and noble entertainment. But now, at
length, the want of original thinking began to be felt; however, it
unfortunately happened, that bold presumption hurried far in advance of
profound inquiry, and hence the spread of public immorality was quick
followed by a dangerous scoffing scepticism, which shook to the foundation
every religious and moral conviction, and the very principles of society
itself. Voltaire was by turns philosopher, rhetorician, sophist, and
buffoon. The want of singleness, which more or less characterised all his
views, was irreconcileable with a complete freedom of prejudice even as an
artist in his career. As he saw the public longing for information, which
was rather tolerated by the favour of the great than authorised and
formally approved of and dispensed by appropriate public institutions, he
did not fail to meet their want, and to deliver, in beautiful verses, on
the stage, what no man durst yet preach from the pulpit or the professor's
chair. He made use of poetry as a means to accomplish ends foreign and
extrinsecal to it; and this has often polluted the artistic purity of his
compositions. Thus, the end of his _Mahomet_ was to portray the dangers of
fanaticism, or rather, laying aside all circumlocution, of a belief in
revelation. For this purpose, he has most unjustifiably disfigured a great
historical character, revoltingly loaded him with the most crying
enormities, with which he racks and tortures our feelings. Universally
known, as he was, to be the bitter enemy of Christianity, he bethought
himself of a new triumph for his vanity; in _Zaire_ and _Alzire_, he had
recourse to Christian sentiments to excite emotion: and here, for once,
his versatile heart, which, indeed, in its momentary ebullitions, was not
unsusceptible of good feelings, shamed the rooted malice of his
understanding; he actually succeeded, and these affecting and religious
passages cry out loudly against the slanderous levity of his petulant
misrepresentations. In England he had acquired a knowledge of a free
constitution, and became an enthusiastic admirer of liberty. Corneille had
introduced the Roman republicanism and general politics into his works,
for the sake of their poetical energy. Voltaire again exhibited them under
a poetical form, because of the political effect he thought them
calculated to produce on popular opinion. As he fancied he was better
acquainted with the Greeks than his predecessors, and as he had obtained a
slight knowledge of the English theatre and Shakspeare, which, before him,
were for France, quite an unknown land, he wished in like manner to use
them to his own advantage.--He insisted on the earnestness, the severity,
and the simplicity of the Greek dramatic representation; and actually in
so far approached them, as to exclude love from various subjects to which
it did not properly belong. He was desirous of reviving the majesty of the
Grecian scenery; and here his endeavours had this good effect, that in
theatrical representation the eye was no longer so miserably neglected as
it had been. He borrowed from Shakspeare, as he thought, bold strokes of
theatrical effect; but here he was the least successful; when, in
imitation of that great master, he ventured in _Semiramis_ to call up
a ghost from the lower world, he fell into innumerable absurdities. In a
word he was perpetually making experiments with dramatic art, availing
himself of some new device for effect. Hence some of his works seem to
have stopt short half way between studies and finished productions; there
is a trace of something unfixed and unfinished in his whole mental
formation. Corneille and Racine, within the limits which they set
themselves, are much more perfect; they are altogether that which they
are, and we have no glimpses in their works of any supposed higher object
beyond them. Voltaire's pretensions are much more extensive than his
means. Corneille has expressed the maxims of heroism with greater
sublimity, and Racine the natural emotions with a sweeter gracefulness;
while Voltaire, it must be allowed, has employed the moral motives with
greater effect, and displayed a more intimate acquaintance with the
primary and fundamental principles of the human mind. Hence, in some of
his pieces, he is more deeply affecting than either of the other two.

The first and last only of these three great masters of the French tragic
stage can be said to be fruitful writers; and, even these can hardly be
accounted so, if compared with the Greeks. That Racine was not more
prolific, was owing partly to accidental circumstances. He enjoys this
advantage, however, that with the exception of his first youthful
attempts, the whole of his pieces have kept possession of the stage, and
the public estimation. But many of Corneille's and Voltaire's, even such
as were popular at first, have been since withdrawn from the stage, and at
present are not even so much as read. Accordingly, selections only from
their works, under the title of _Chef-d'oeuvres_, are now generally
published. It is remarkable, that few only of the many French attempts in
Tragedy have been successful. La Harpe reckons up nearly a thousand
tragedies which have been acted or printed since the death of Racine; and
of these not more than thirty, besides those of Voltaire, have kept
possession of the stage. Notwithstanding, therefore, the great competition
in this department, the tragic treasures of the French are far from ample.
Still we do not feel ourselves called upon to give a full account even of
these; and still farther is it from our purpose to enter into a
circumstantial and anatomical investigation of separate pieces. All that
our limits will allow us is, with a rapid pen, to sketch the character and
relative value of the principal works of those three masters, and a few
others specially deserving of mention.

Corneille brilliantly opened his career of fame with the _Cid_, of
which, indeed, the execution alone is his own: in the plan he appears to
have closely followed his Spanish original. As the _Cid_ of Guillen
de Castro has never fallen into my hands, it has been out of my power to
institute an accurate comparison between the two works. But if we may
judge from the specimens produced, the Spanish piece seems written with
far greater simplicity; and the subject owes to Corneille its rhetorical
pomp of ornament. On the other hand, we are ignorant how much he has left
out and sacrificed. All the French critics are agreed in thinking the part
of the Infanta superfluous. They cannot see that by making a princess
forget her elevated rank, and entertain a passion for Rodrigo, the Spanish
poet thereby distinguished him as the flower of noble and amiable knights;
and, on the other hand, furnished a strong justification of Chimene's
love, which so many powerful motives could not overcome. It is true, that
to be attractive in themselves, and duly to aid the general effect, the
Infanta's passion required to be set forth more musically, and Rodrigo's
achievements against the Moors more especially, _i. e._, with greater
vividness of detail: and probably they were so in the Spanish original.
The rapturous applause, which, on its first appearance, universally
welcomed a piece like this, which, without the admixture of any ignoble
incentive, founded its attraction altogether on the represented conflict
between the purest feelings of love, honour, and filial duty, is a strong
proof that the romantic spirit was not yet extinct among spectators who
were still open to such natural impressions. This was entirely
misunderstood by the learned; with the Academy at their head, they
affirmed that this subject (one of the most beautiful that ever fell to
the lot of a poet) was unfit for Tragedy; incapable of entering
historically into the spirit of another age, they made up improbabilities
and improprieties for their censure. [Footnote: Scuderi speaks even of
Chimene as a monster, and off-hand dismisses the whole, as "_ce méchant
combat de l'amour et de l'honneur_." Excellent! Surely he understood
the romantic!] The _Cid_ is not certainly a tragedy in the sense of
the ancients; and, at first, the poet himself called it a Tragi-comedy.
Would that this had been the only occasion in which the authority of
Aristotle has been applied to subjects which do not belong to his

_The Horatii_ has been censured for want of unity; the murder of the
sister and the acquittal of the victorious Roman is said to be a second
action, independent of the combat of the Horatii and Curiatii. Corneille
himself was talked into a belief of it. He appears, however, to me fully
justified in what he has done. If the murder of Camilla had not made a
part of the piece, the female characters in the first act would have been
superfluous; and without the triumph of patriotism over family ties, the
combat could not have been an action, but merely an event destitute of all
tragic complication. But the real defect, in my opinion, is Corneille
representing a public act which decided the fate of two states, as taking
place altogether _infra privates parietes_, and stripping it of every
visible pomp of circumstance. Hence the great flatness of the fifth act.
What a different impression would have been produced had Horatius, in
presence of the king and people, been solemnly condemned, in obedience to
the stern mandate of the law, and afterwards saved through the tears and
lamentations of his father, just as Livy describes it. Moreover, the poet,
not satisfied with making, as the history does, one sister of the Horatii
in love with one of the Curiatii, has thought proper to invent the
marriage of a sister of the Curiatii with one of the Horatii: and as in
the former the love of country yields to personal inclination, in the
latter personal inclination yields to love of country. This gives rise to
a great improbability: for is it likely that men would have been selected
for the combat who, with a well-known family connexion of this kind, would
have had the most powerful inducements to spare one another? Besides, the
conqueror's murder of his sister cannot be rendered even poetically
tolerable, except by supposing him in all the boiling impetuosity of
ungovernable youth. Horatius, already a husband, would have shown a wiser
and milder forbearance towards his unfortunate sister's language; else
were he a ferocious savage.

_Cinna_ is commonly ranked much higher than _The Horatii_; although, as to
purity of sentiment, there is here a perceptible falling off from that
ideal sphere in which the action of the two preceding pieces moves. All is
diversely complicated and diseased. Cinna's republicanism is merely the
cloak of another passion: he is a tool in the hands of Emilia, who, on her
part, constantly sacrifices her pretended love to her passion of revenge.
The magnanimity of Augustus is ambiguous: it appears rather the caution of
a tyrant grown timid through age. The conspiracy is, with a splendid
narration, thrust into the background; it does not excite in us that
gloomy apprehension which so theatrical an object ought to do. Emilia, the
soul of the piece, is called by the witty Balzac, when commending the
work, "an adorable fury." Yet the Furies themselves could be appeased by
purifications and expiations: but Emilia's heart is inaccessible to the
softening influences of benevolence and generosity; the adoration of so
unfeminine a creature is hardly pardonable even in a lover. Hence she has
no better adorers than Cinna and Maximus, two great villains, whose
repentance comes too late to be thought sincere.

Here we have the first specimen of that Machiavellism of motives, which
subsequently disfigured the poetry of Corneille, and which is not only
repulsive, but also for the most part both clumsy and unsuitable. He
flattered himself, that in knowledge of men and the world, in an
acquaintance with courts and politics, he surpassed the most shrewd and
clear-sighted observers. With a mind naturally alive to honour, he yet
conceived the design of taking in hand the "doctrine of the murderous
Machiavel;" and displays, broadly and didactically, all the knowledge
which he had acquired of these arts. He had no suspicion that a
remorseless and selfish policy goes always smoothly to work, and
dexterously disguises itself. Had he been really capable of anything of
the kind, he might have taken a lesson from Richelieu.

Of the remaining pieces in which Corneille has painted the Roman love of
liberty and conquest, the _Death of Pompey_ is the most eminent. It
is full, however, of a grandeur which is more dazzling than genuine; and,
indeed, we could expect nothing else from a cento of Lucan's hyperbolical
antitheses. These bravuras of rhetoric are strung together on the thread
of a clumsy plot. The intrigues of Ptolemy, and the ambitious coquetry of
his sister Cleopatra, have a petty and miserable appearance alongside of
the picture of the fate of the great Pompey, the vengeance-breathing
sorrow of his wife, and the magnanimous compassion of Caesar. Scarcely has
the conqueror paid the last honours to the reluctant shade of his rival,
when he does homage at the feet of the beautiful queen; he is not only in
love, but sighingly and ardently in love. Cleopatra, on her part,
according to the poet's own expression, is desirous, by her love-ogling,
to gain the sceptre of her brother. Caesar certainly made love, in his own
way, to a number of women: but these cynical loves, if represented with
anything like truth, would be most unfit for the stage. Who can refrain
from laughing, when Rome, in the speech of Caesar, implores the
_chaste_ love of Cleopatra for young Caesar?

In _Sertorius_, a much later work, Corneille has contrived to make the
great Pompey appear little, and the hero ridiculous. Sertorius on one
occasion exclaims--

_Que c'est un sort cruel d'aimer par politique!_

This admits of being applied to all the personages of the piece. In love
they are not in the least; but they allow a pretended love to be
subservient to political ends. Sertorius, a hardy and hoary veteran, acts
the lover with the Spanish Queen, Viriata; he brings forward, however,
pretext after pretext, and offers himself the while to Aristia; as Viriata
presses him to marry her on the spot, he begs anxiously for a short delay;
Viriata, along with her other elegant phrases, says roundly, that she
neither knows love nor hatred; Aristia, the repudiated wife of Pompey,
says to him, "Take me back again, or I will marry another;" Pompey
beseeches her to wait only till the death of Sylla, whom he dare not
offend: after this there is no need to mention the low scoundrel Perpenna.
The tendency to this frigidity of soul was perceptible in Corneille, even
at an early period of his career; but in the works of his old age it
increased to an incredible degree.

In _Polyeucte_, Christian sentiments are not unworthily expressed; yet we
find in it more _superstitious reverence_ than _fervent enthusiasm_ for
religion: the wonders of grace are rather _affirmed_, than embraced by a
mysterious illumination. Both the tone and the situations in the first
acts, incline greatly, as Voltaire observes, to comedy. A woman who, in
obedience to her father, has married against her inclinations, and who
declares both to her lover (who returns when too late) and to her husband,
that "she still retains her first love, but that she will keep within the
bounds of virtue;" a vulgar and selfish father, who is sorry that he has
not chosen for his son-in-law the first suitor, now become the favourite
of the Emperor; all this promises no very high tragical determinations.
The divided heart of Paulina is in nature, and consequently does not
detract from the interest of the piece. It is generally agreed that her
situation, and the character of Severus, constitute the principal charm of
this drama. But the practical magnanimity of this Roman, in conquering his
passion, throws Polyeucte's self-renunciation, which appears to cost him
nothing, quite into the shade. From this a conclusion has been partly
drawn, that martyrdom is, in general, an unfavourable subject for Tragedy.
But nothing can be more unjust than this inference. The cheerfulness with
which martyrs embraced pain and death did not proceed from want of
feeling, but from the heroism of the highest love: they must previously,
in struggles painful beyond expression, have obtained the victory over
every earthly tie; and by the exhibition of these struggles, of these
sufferings of our mortal nature, while the seraph soars on its flight to
heaven, the poet may awaken in us the most fervent emotion. In
_Polyeucte_, however, the means employed to bring about the catastrophe,
namely, the dull and low artifice of Felix, by which the endeavours of
Severus to save his rival are made rather to contribute to his
destruction, are inexpressibly contemptible.

How much Corneille delighted in the symmetrical and nicely balanced play
of intrigue, we may see at once from his having pronounced _Rodogune_
his favourite work. I shall content myself with referring to Lessing, who
has exposed pleasantly enough the ridiculous appearance which the two
distressed princes cut, between a mother who says, "He who murders his
mistress I will name heir to my throne," and a mistress who says, "He who
murders his mother shall be my husband." The best and shortest way of
going to work would have been to have locked up the two furies together.
As for Voltaire, he is always recurring to the fifth act, which he
declares to be one of the noblest productions of the French stage. This
singular way of judging works of art by piecemeal, which would praise the
parts in distinction from the whole, without which it is impossible for
the parts to exist, is altogether foreign to our way of thinking.

With respect to _Heraclius_, Voltaire gives himself the unnecessary
trouble of showing that Calderon did not imitate Corneille; and, on the
other hand, he labours, with little success, to give a negative to the
question whether the latter had the Spanish author before him, and availed
himself of his labours. Corneille, it is true, gives out the whole as his
own invention; but we must not forget, that only when hard pressed did he
acknowledge how much he owed to the author of the Spanish _Cid_. The
chief circumstance of the plot, namely, the uncertainty of the tyrant
Phocas as to which of the two youths is his own son, or the son of his
murdered predecessor, bears great resemblance to an incident in a drama of
Calderon's, and nothing of the kind is to be found in history; in other
respects the plot is, it is true, altogether different. However this may
be, in Calderon the ingenious boldness of an extravagant invention is
always preserved in due keeping by a deeper magic colouring of the poetry;
whereas in Corneille, after our head has become giddy in endeavouring to
disentangle a complicated and ill-contrived intrigue, we are recompensed
by a succession of mere tragical epigrams, without the slightest
recreation for the fancy.

_Nicomedes_ is a political comedy, the dryness of which is hardly in
any degree relieved by the ironical tone which runs through the speeches
of the hero.

This is nearly all of Corneille's that now appears on the stage. His later
works are, without exception, merely treatises or reasons of state in
certain difficult conjunctures, dressed out in a pompous dialogical form.
We might as well make a tragedy out of a game at chess.

Those who have the patience to wade through the forgotten pieces of
Corneille will perceive with astonishment that they are constructed on the
same principles, and, with the exception of occasional negligences of
style, executed with as much expenditure of what he considered art, as his
admired productions. For example, _Attila_ bears in its plot a striking
resemblance to _Rodogune_. In his own judgments on his works, it is
impossible not to be struck with the unessential nature of things on which
he lays stress; all along he seems quite unconcerned about that which is
certainly the highest object of tragical composition, the laying open the
depths of the mind and the destiny of man. For the unfavourable reception
which he has so frequently to confess, his self-love can always find some
excuse, some trifling circumstance to which the fate of his piece was to
be attributed.

In the two first youthful attempts of Racine, nothing deserves to be
remarked, but the flexibility with which he accommodated himself to the
limits fixed by Corneille to the career which he had opened. In the
_Andromache_ he first broke loose from them and became himself. He
gave utterance to the inward struggles and inconsistencies of passion,
with a truth and an energy which had never before been witnessed on the
French stage. The fidelity of Andromache to the memory of her husband, and
her maternal tenderness, are affectingly beautiful: even the proud
Hermione carries us along with her in her wild aberrations. Her aversion
to Orestes, after he had made himself the instrument of her revenge, and
her awaking from her blind fury to utter helplesssness and despair, may
almost be called tragically grand. The male parts, as is generally the
case with Racine, are not to advantageously drawn. The constantly repeated
threat of Pyrrhus to deliver up Astyanax to death, if Andromache should
not listen to him, with his gallant protestations, resembles the arts of
an executioner, who applies the torture to his victim with the most
courtly phrases. It is difficult to think of Orestes, after his horrible
deed, as a light-hearted and patient lover. Not the least mention is made
of the murder of his mother; he seems to have completely forgotten it the
whole piece through; whence, then, do the Furies come all at once at the
end? This is a singular contradiction. In short, the way in which the
whole is connected together bears too great a resemblance to certain
sports of children, where one always runs before and tries to surprise the

In _Britannicus_, I have already praised the historical fidelity of
the picture. Nero, Agrippina, Narcissus, and Burrhus, are so accurately
sketched, and finished with such light touches and such delicate
colouring, that, in respect to character, it yields, perhaps, to no French
tragedy whatever. Racine has here possessed the art of giving us to
understand much that is left unsaid, and enabling us to look forward into
futurity. I will only notice one inconsistency which has escaped the poet.
He would paint to us the cruel voluptuary, whom education has only in
appearance tamed, breaking loose from the restraints of discipline and
virtue. And yet, at the close of the fourth act, Narcissus speaks as if he
had even then exhibited himself before the people as a player and a
charioteer. But it was not until he had been hardened by the commission of
grave crimes that he sunk to this ignominy. To represent the perfect Nero,
that is, the flattering and cowardly tyrant, in the same person with the
vain and fantastical being who, as poet, singer, player, and almost as
juggler, was desirous of admiration, and in the agony of death even
recited verses from Homer, was compatible only with a mixed drama, in
which tragical dignity is not required throughout.

To _Berenice_, composed in honour of a virtuous princess, the French
critics generally seem to me extremely unjust. It is an idyllic tragedy,
no doubt; but it is full of mental tenderness. No one was better skilled
than Racine in throwing a veil of dignity over female weakness.--Who
doubts that Berenice has long yielded to Titus every proof of her
tenderness, however carefully it may be veiled over? She is like a
Magdalena of Guido, who languishingly repents of her repentance. The chief
error of the piece is the tiresome part of Antiochus.

On the first representation of _Bajazet_, Corneille, it seems was heard to
say, "These Turks are very much Frenchified." The censure, as is well
known, attaches principally to the parts of _Bajazet_ and _Atalide_. The
old Grand Vizier is certainly Turkish enough; and were a Sultana ever to
become the Sultan, she would perhaps throw the handkerchief in the same
Sultanic manner as the disgusting Roxane. I have already observed that
Turkey, in its naked rudeness, hardly admits of representation before a
cultivated public. Racine felt this, and merely refined the forms without
changing the main incidents. The mutes and the strangling were motives
which in a seraglio could hardly be dispensed with; and so he gives, on
several occasions, very elegant circumlocutory descriptions of strangling.
This is, however, inconsistent; when people are so familiar with the idea
of a thing, they usually call it also by its true name.

The intrigue of _Mithridate_, as Voltaire has remarked, bears great
resemblance to that of the _Miser_ of Molière. Two brothers are rivals for
the bride of their father, who cunningly extorts from her the name of her
favoured lover, by feigning a wish to renounce in his favour. The
confusion of both sons, when they learn that their father, whom they
had believed dead, is still alive, and will speedily make his appearance,
is in reality exceedingly comic. The one calls out: _Qu'avons nous fait?_
This is just the alarm of school-boys, conscious of some impropriety, on
the unexpected entrance of their master. The political scene, where
Mithridates consults his sons respecting his grand project of conquering
Rome, and in which Racine successfully competes with Corneille, is no
doubt logically interwoven in the general plan; but still it is unsuitable
to the tone of the whole, and the impression which it is intended to
produce. All the interest is centred in Monime: she is one of Racine's
most amiable creations, and excites in us a tender commiseration.

On no work of this poet will the sentence of German readers differ more
from that of the French critics and their whole public, than on the
_Iphigenie_.--Voltaire declares it the tragedy of all times and all
nations, which approaches as near to perfection as human essays can; and
in this opinion he is universally followed by his countrymen. But we see
in it only a modernised Greek tragedy, of which the manners are
inconsistent with the mythological traditions, its simplicity destroyed by
the intriguing Eriphile, and in which the amorous Achilles, however brave
in other respects his behaviour may be, is altogether insupportable. La
Harpe affirms that the Achilles of Racine is even more Homeric than that
of Euripides. What shall we say to this? Before acquiescing in the
sentences of such critics, we must first forget the Greeks.

Respecting _Phèdre_ I may express myself with the greater brevity, as
I have already dedicated a separate Treatise to that tragedy. However much
Racine may have borrowed from Euripides and Seneca, and however he may
have spoiled the former without improving the latter, still it is a great
advance from the affected mannerism of his age to a more genuine tragic
style. When we compare it with the _Phaedra_ of Pradon, which was so
well received by his contemporaries for no other reason than because no
trace whatever of antiquity was discernible in it, but every thing reduced
to the scale of a modern miniature portrait for a toilette, we must
entertain a higher admiration of the poet who had so strong a feeling for
the excellence of the ancient poets, and the courage to attach himself to
them, and dared, in an age of vitiated and unnatural taste, to display so
much purity and unaffected simplicity. If Racine actually said, that the
only difference between his _Phaedra_ and that of Pradon was, that he
knew how to write, he did himself the most crying injustice, and must have
allowed himself to be blinded by the miserable doctrine of his friend
Boileau, which made the essence of poetry to consist in diction and
versification, instead of the display of imagination and fancy.

Racine's last two pieces belong, as is well known, to a very different
epoch of his life: they were both written at the same instigation; but are
extremely dissimilar to each other. _Esther_ scarcely deserves the name of
a tragedy; written for the entertainment of well-bred young women in a
pious seminary, it does not rise much higher than its purpose. It had,
however, an astonishing success. The invitation to the representations in
St. Cyr was looked upon as a court favour; flattery and scandal delighted
to discover allusions throughout the piece; Ahasuerus was said to
represent Louis XIV; Esther, Madame de Maintenon; the proud Vasti, who is
only incidentally alluded to, Madame de Montespan; and Haman, the Minister
Louvois. This is certainly rather a profane application of the sacred
history, if we can suppose the poet to have had any such object in view.
In _Athalie_, however, the poet exhibited himself for the last time,
before taking leave of poetry and the world, in his whole strength. It is
not only his most finished work, but, I have no hesitation in declaring it
to be, of all French tragedies the one which, free from all mannerism,
approaches the nearest to the grand style of the Greeks. The chorus is
conceived fully in the ancient sense, though introduced in a different
manner in order to suit our music, and the different arrangement of our
theatre. The scene has all the majesty of a public action. Expectation,
emotion, and keen agitation succeed each other, and continually rise with
the progress of the drama: with a severe abstinence from all foreign
matter, there is still a display of the richest variety, sometimes of
sweetness, but more frequently of majesty and grandeur. The inspiration of
the prophet elevates the fancy to flights of more than usual boldness. Its
import is exactly what that of a religious drama ought to be: on earth,
the struggle between good and evil; and in heaven the wakeful eye of
providence beaming, from unapproachable glory, rays of constancy and
resolution. All is animated by one breath--the poet's pious enthusiasm, of
whose sincerity neither his life nor the work itself allow us a moment to
doubt. This is the very point in which so many French works of art with
their great pretensions are, nevertheless, deficient: their authors were
not inspired by a fervent love of their subject, but by the desire of
external effect: and hence the vanity of the artist is continually
breaking forth to throw a damp over our feelings.

The unfortunate fate of this piece is well known. Scruples of conscience
as to the propriety of all theatrical representations (which appear to be
exclusively entertained by the Gallican church, for both in Italy and
Spain men of religion and piety have thought very differently on this
subject,) prevented the representation in St. Cyr; it appeared in print,
and was universally abused and reprobated; and this reprobation of it long
survived its author. So incapable of every thing serious was the puerile
taste of the age.

Among the poets of this period, the younger Corneille deserves to be
mentioned, who did not seek, like his brother, to excite astonishment by
pictures of heroism so much as to win the favour of the spectators by
"those tendernesses which," to use the words of Pradon, "are so
agreeable." Of his numerous tragedies, two, only the _Comte d'Essex_
and _Ariadné_, keep possession of the stage; the rest are consigned to
oblivion. The latter of the two, composed after the model of _Berenice_,
is a tragedy of which the catastrophe may, properly speaking, be said to
consist in a swoon. The situation of the resigned and enamoured Ariadne,
who, after all her sacrifices, sees herself abandoned by Theseus and
betrayed by her own sister, is expressed with great truth of feeling.
Whenever an actress of an engaging figure, and with a sweet voice, appears
in this character, she is sure to excite our interest. The other parts,
the cold and deceitful Theseus, the intriguing Phaedra, who continues to
the last her deception of her confiding sister, the pandering Pirithbus,
and King Oenarus, who instantly offers himself in the place of the
faithless lover, are all pitiful in the extreme, and frequently even
laughable. Moreover, the desert rocks of Naxos are here smoothed down to
modern drawing-rooms; and the princes who people them, with all the
observances of politeness seek to out-wit each other, or to beguile the
unfortunate princess, who alone has anything like pretensions to nature.

Crebillon, in point of time, comes between Racine and Voltaire, though he
was also the rival of the latter. A numerous party wished to set him, when
far advanced in years, on a par with, nay, even to rank him far higher
than, Voltaire. Nothing, however, but the bitterest rancour of party, or
the utmost depravity of taste, or, what is most probable, the two
together, could have led them to such signal injustice. Far from having
contributed to the purification of the tragic art, he evidently attached
himself, not to the better, but the more affected authors of the age of
Louis the Fourteenth. In his total ignorance of the ancients, he has the
arrogance to rank himself above them. His favourite books were the
antiquated romances of a Calprenede, and others of a similar stamp: from
these he derived his extravagant and ill-connected plots. One of the means
to which he everywhere has recourse, is the unconscious or intentional
disguise of the principal characters under other names; the first example
of which was given in the _Heraclius_. Thus, in Crebillon's _Electra_,
Orestes does not become known to himself before the middle of the piece.
The brother and sister, and a son and daughter of Aegisthus, are almost
exclusively occupied with their double amours, which neither contribute
to, nor injure, the main action; and Clytemnestra is killed by a blow from
Orestes, which, without knowing her, he unintentionally and involuntarily
inflicts. He abounds in extravagances of every kind; of such, for
instance, as the shameless impudence of Semiramis, in persisting in her
love after she has learnt that its object is her own son. A few empty
ravings and common-place displays of terror, have gained for Crebillon the
appellation of _the terrible_, which affords us a standard for judging of
the barbarous and affected taste of the age, and the infinite distance
from nature and truth to which it had fallen. It is pretty much the same
as, in painting, to give the appellation of the majestic to Coypel.


Voltaire--Tragedies on Greek Subjects: _Oedipe_, _Merope_, _Oreste_--
Tragedies on Roman Subjects: _Brute_, _Mort de César_, _Catiline_, _Le
Triumvirat_--Earlier Pieces: _Zaire_, _Alzire_, _Mahomet_, _Semiramis_,
and _Tancred_.

To Voltaire, from his first entrance on his dramatic career, we must give
credit both for a conviction that higher and more extensive efforts
remained to be made, and for the zeal necessary to accomplish all that was
yet undone. How far he was successful, and how much he was himself blinded
by the very national prejudices against which he contended, is another
question. For the more easy review of his works, it will be useful to
class together the pieces in which he handled mythological materials, and
those which he derived from the Roman history.

His earliest tragedy, _Oedipe_, is a mixture of adherence to the Greeks
[Footnote: His admiration of them seems to have been more derived
from foreign influence than from personal study. In his letter to the
Duchess of Maine, prefixed to _Oreste_, he relates how, in his early
youth, he had access to a noble house where it was a custom to read
Sophocles, and to make extemporary translations from him, and where there
were men who acknowledged the superiority of the Greek Theatre over the
French. In vain, in the present day, should we seek for such men in
France, among people of any distinction, so universally is the study of
the classics depreciated.] (with the proviso, however, as may be supposed,
of improving on them,) and of compliance with the prevailing manner. The
best feature of this work Voltaire owed to Sophocles, whom he nevertheless
slanders in his preface; and in comparison with whose catastrophe his own
is flat in the extreme. Not a little, however, was borrowed from the
frigid _Oedipus_ of Corneille; and more especially the love of Philoctetus
for Jocaste, which may be said to correspond nearly with that of Theseus
and Dirce in Corneille. Voltaire alleged in his defence the tyranny of the
players, from which a young and unknown writer cannot emancipate himself.
We may notice the frequent allusions to priestcraft, superstition, &c.,
which even at that early period betray the future direction of his mind.

The _Merope_, a work of his ripest years, was intended as a perfect
revival of Greek tragedy, an undertaking of so great difficulty, and so
long announced with every note of preparation. Its real merit is the
exclusion of the customary love-scenes (of which, however, Racine had
already given an example in the _Athalie_); for in other respects
German readers hardly need to be told how much is not conceived in the
true Grecian spirit. Moreover the confidants are also entirely after the
old traditional cut. The other defects of the piece have been
circumstantially, and, I might almost say, too severely, censured by
Lessing. The tragedy of _Merope_, if well acted, can hardly fail of
being received with a certain degree of favour. This is owing to the
nature of its subject. The passionate love of a mother, who, in dread of
losing her only treasure, and threatened with cruel oppression, still
supports her trials with heroic constancy, and at last triumphs over them,
is altogether a picture of such truth and beauty, that the sympathy it
awakens is beneficent, and remains pure from every painful ingredient.
Still we must not forget that the piece belongs only in a very small
measure to Voltaire. How much he has borrowed from Maffei, and changed--
not always for the better--has been already pointed out by Lessing.

Of all remodellings of Greek tragedies, _Oreste_, the latest, appears
the farthest from the antique simplicity and severity, although it is free
from any mixture of love-making, and all mere confidants are excluded.
That Orestes should undertake to destroy Aegisthus is nowise singular, and
seems scarcely to merit such marked notice in the tragical annals of the
world. It is the case which Aristotle lays down as the most indifferent,
where one enemy knowingly attacks the other. And in Voltaire's play
neither Orestes nor Electra have anything beyond this in view:
Clytemnestra is to be spared; no oracle consigns to her own son the
execution of the punishment due to her guilt. But even the deed in
question can hardly be said to be executed by Orestes himself: he goes to
Aegisthus, and falls, simply enough it must be owned, into the net, and is
only saved by an insurrection of the people. According to the ancients,
the oracle had commanded him to attack the criminals with cunning, as they
had so attacked Agamemnon. This was a just retaliation: to fall in open
conflict would have been too honourable a death for Aegisthus. Voltaire
has added, of his own invention, that he was also prohibited by the oracle
from making himself known to his sister; and when carried away by
fraternal love, he breaks this injunction, he is blinded by the Furies,
and involuntarily perpetrates the deed of matricide. These certainly are
singular ideas to assign to the gods, and a most unexampled punishment for
a slight, nay, even a noble crime. The accidental and unintentional
stabbing of Clytemnestra was borrowed from Crebillon. A French writer will
hardly venture to represent this subject with mythological truth; to
describe, for instance, the murder as intentional, and executed by the
command of the gods. If Clytemnestra were depicted not as rejoicing in the
success of her crime, but repentant and softened by maternal love, then,
it is true, her death would no longer be supportable. But how does this
apply to so premeditated a crime? By such a transition to littleness the
whole profound significance of the dreadful example is lost.

As the French are in general better acquainted with the Romans than the
Greeks, we might expect the Roman pieces of Voltaire to be more
consistent, in a political point of view, with historical truth, than his
Greek pieces are with the symbolical original of mythology. This is,
however, the case only in _Brutus_, the earliest of them, and the
only one which can be said to be sensibly planned. Voltaire sketched this
tragedy in England; he had there learned from _Julius Caesar_ the
effect which the publicity of Republican transactions is capable of
producing on the stage, and he wished therefore to hold something like a
middle course between Corneille and Shakspeare. The first act opens
majestically; the catastrophe is brief but striking, and throughout the
principles of genuine freedom are pronounced with a grave and noble
eloquence. Brutus himself, his son Titus, the ambassador of the king, and
the chief of the conspirators, are admirably depicted. I am by no means
disposed to censure the introduction of love into this play. The passion
of Titus for a daughter of Tarquin, which constitutes the knot, is not
improbable, and in its tone harmonizes with the manners which are
depicted. Still less am I disposed to agree with La Harpe, when he says
that Tullia, to afford a fitting counterpoise to the republican virtues,
ought to utter proud and heroic sentiments, like Emilia in _Cinna_.
By what means can a noble youth be more easily seduced than by female
tenderness and modesty? It is not, generally speaking, natural that a
being like Emilia should ever inspire love.

The _Mort de César_ is a mutilated tragedy: it ends with the speech
of Antony over the dead body of Caesar, borrowed from Shakspeare; that is
to say, it has no conclusion. And what a patched and bungling thing is it
in all its parts! How coarse-spun and hurried is the conspiracy! How
stupid Caesar must have been, to allow the conspirators to brave him
before his face without suspecting their design! That Brutus, although he
knew Caesar to be his father, nay, immediately after this fact had come to
his knowledge, should lay murderous hands on him, is cruel, and, at the
same time, most un-Roman. History affords us many examples of fathers in
Rome who condemned their own sons to death for crimes of state; the law
gave fathers an unlimited power of life and death over their children in
their own houses. But the murder of a father, though perpetrated in the
cause of liberty, would, in the eyes of the Romans, have stamped the
parricide an unnatural monster. The inconsistencies which here arise from
the attempt to observe the unity of place, are obvious to the least
discerning eye. The scene is laid in the Capitol; here the conspiracy is
hatched in the clear light of day, and Caesar the while goes in and out
among them. But the persons, themselves, do not seem to know rightly where
they are; for Caesar on one occasion exclaims, "_Courons au Capitole!_"

The same improprieties are repeated in _Catiline_, which is but a little
better than the preceding piece. From Voltaire's sentiments respecting the
dramatic exhibition of a conspiracy, which I quoted in the foregoing
Lecture, we might well conclude that he had not himself a right
understanding on this head, were it not quite evident that the French
system rendered a true representation of such transactions all but
impossible, not only by the required observance of the Unities of Place
and Time, but also on account of a demand for dignity of poetical
expression, such as is quite incompatible with the accurate mention of
particular circumstances, on which, however, in this case depends the
truthfulness of the whole. The machinations of a conspiracy, and the
endeavours to frustrate them, are like the underground mine and counter-
mine, with which the besiegers and the besieged endeavour to blow up each
other.--Something must be done to enable the spectators to comprehend the
art of the miners. If Catiline and his adherents had employed no more art
and dissimulation, and Cicero no more determined wisdom, than Voltaire has
given them, the one could not have endangered Rome, and the other could
not have saved it. The piece turns always on the same point; they all
declaim against each other, but no one acts; and at the conclusion, the
affair is decided as if by accident, by the blind chance of war. When we
read the simple relation of Sallust, it has the appearance of the genuine
poetry of the matter, and Voltaire's work by the side of it looks like a
piece of school rhetoric. Ben Jonson has treated the subject with a very
different insight into the true connexion of human affairs; and Voltaire
might have learned a great deal from the man in traducing whom he did not
spare even falsehood.

The _Triumvirat_ belongs to the acknowledged unsuccessful essays of his
old age. It consists of endless declamations on the subject of
proscription, which are poorly supported by a mere show of action. Here we
find the Triumvirs quietly sitting in their tents on an island in the
small river Rhenus, while storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes rage around
them; and Julia and the young Pompeius, although they are travelling on
terra firma, are depicted as if they had been just shipwrecked on the
strand; besides a number of other absurdities. Voltaire, probably by way
of apology for the poor success which the piece had on its representation,
says, "This piece is perhaps in the English taste."--Heaven forbid!

We return to the earlier tragedies of Voltaire, in which he brought on the
stage subjects never before attempted, and on which his fame as a dramatic
poet principally rests: _Zaire_, _Alzire_, _Mahomet_, _Semiramis_, and

_Zaire_ is considered in France as the triumph of tragic poetry in
the representation of lore and jealousy. We will not assert with Lessing,
that Voltaire was acquainted only with the _legal_ style of love. He
often expresses feeling with a fiery energy, if not with that familiar
truth and _naïveté_ in which an unreserved heart lays itself open.
But I see no trace of an oriental colouring in Zaire's cast of feeling:
educated in the seraglio, she should cling to the object of her passion
with all the fervour of a maiden of a glowing imagination, rioting, as it
were, in the fragrant perfumes of the East. Her fanciless love dwells
solely in the heart; and again how is this conceivable with such a
character! Orosman, on his part, lays claim indeed to European tenderness
of feeling; but in him the Tartar is merely varnished over, and he has
frequent relapses into the ungovernable fury and despotic habits of his
race. The poet ought at least to have given a credibility to the
magnanimity which he ascribes to him, by investing him with a celebrated
historical name, such as that of the Saracen monarch Saladin, well known
for his nobleness and liberality of sentiment. But all our sympathy
inclines to the oppressed Christian and chivalrous side, and the glorious
names to which it is appropriated. What can be more affecting than the
royal martyr Lusignan, the upright and pious Nerestan, who, though in the
fire of youth, has no heart for deeds of bloody enterprise except to
redeem the associates of his faith? The scenes in which these two
characters appear are uniformly excellent, and more particularly the whole
of the second act. The idea of connecting the discovery of a daughter with
her conversion can never be sufficiently praised. But, in my opinion, the
great effect of this act is injurious to the rest of the piece. Does any
person seriously wish the union of Zaire with Orosman, except lady
spectators flattered with the homage which is paid to beauty, or those of
the male part of the audience who are still entangled in the follies of
youth? Who else can go along with the poet, when Zaire's love for the
Sultan, so ill-justified by his acts, balances in her soul the voice of
blood, and the most sacred claims of filial duty, honour, and religion?

It was a praiseworthy daring (such singular prejudices then prevailed in
France) to exhibit French heroes in _Zaire_. In _Alzire_ Voltaire went
still farther, and treated a subject in modern history never yet touched
by his countrymen. In the former piece he contrasted the chivalrous and
Saracenic way of thinking; in this we have Spaniards opposed to Peruvians.
The difference between the old and new world has given rise to
descriptions of a truly poetical nature. Though the action is a pure
invention, I recognise in this piece more historical and more of what we
may call symbolical truth, than in most French tragedies. Zamor is a
representation of the savage in his free, and Monteze in his subdued
state; Guzman, of the arrogance of the conqueror; and Alvarez, of the mild
influence of Christianity. Alzire remains between these conflicting
elements in an affecting struggle betwixt attachment to her country, its
manners, and the first choice of her heart, on the one part, and new ties
of honour and duty on the other. All the human motives speak in favour of
Alzire's love, which were against the passion of Zaire. The last scene,
where the dying Guzman is dragged in, is beneficently overpowering. The
noble lines on the difference of their religions, by which Zamor is
converted by Guzman, are borrowed from an event in history: they are the
words of the Duke of Guise to a Huguenot who wished to kill him; but the
glory of the poet is not therefore less in applying them as he has done.
In short, notwithstanding the improbabilities in the plot, which are
easily discovered, and have often been censured, _Alzire_ appears to
be the most fortunate attempt, and the most finished of all Voltaire's

In _Mahomet_, want of true singleness of purpose has fearfully avenged
itself on the artist. He may affirm as much as he pleases that his aim was
directed solely against fanaticism; there can be no doubt that he wished
to overthrow the belief in revelation altogether, and that for that object
he considered every means allowable. We have thus a work which is
productive of effect; but an alarmingly painful effect, equally repugnant
to humanity, philosophy, and religious feeling. The Mahomet of Voltaire
makes two innocent young persons, a brother and sister, who, with a
childlike reverence, adore him as a messenger from God, unconsciously
murder their own father, and this from the motives of an incestuous love
in which, by his allowance, they had also become unknowingly entangled;
the brother, after he has blindly executed his horrible mission, he
rewards with poison, and the sister he reserves for the gratification of
his own vile lust. This tissue of atrocities, this cold-blooded delight in
wickedness, exceeds perhaps the measure of human nature; but, at all
events, it exceeds the bounds of poetic exhibition, even though such a
monster should ever have appeared in the course of ages. But, overlooking
this, what a disfigurement, nay, distortion, of history! He has stripped
her, too, of her wonderful charms; not a trace of oriental colouring is to
be found. Mahomet was a false prophet, but one certainly under the
inspiration of enthusiasm, otherwise he would never by his doctrine have
revolutionized the half of the world. What an absurdity to make him merely
a cool deceiver! One alone of the many sublime maxims of the Koran would
be sufficient to annihilate the whole of these incongruous inventions.

_Semiramis_ is a motley patchwork of the French manner and mistaken
imitations. It has something of _Hamlet_, and something of _Clytemnestra_
and _Orestes_; but nothing of any of them as it ought to be. The passion
for an unknown son is borrowed from the _Semiramis_ of Crebillon. The
appearance of Ninus is a mixture of the Ghost in _Hamlet_ and the shadow
of Darius in Aeschylus. That it is superfluous has been admitted even by
the French critics. Lessing, with his raillery, has scared away the Ghost.
With a great many faults common to ordinary ghost-scenes, it has this
peculiar one, that its speeches are dreadfully bombastic. Notwithstanding
the great zeal displayed by Voltaire against subordinate love intrigues in
tragedy, he has, however, contrived to exhibit two pairs of lovers, the
_partie carrée_ as it is called, in this play, which was to be the
foundation of an entirely new species.

Since the _Cid_, no French tragedy had appeared of which the plot was
founded on such pure motives of honour and love without any ignoble
intermixtures, and so completely consecrated to the exhibition of
chivalrous sentiments, as _Tancred_. Amenaide, though honour and life
are at stake, disdains to exculpate herself by a declaration which would
endanger her lover; and Tancred, though justified in esteeming her faith
less, defends her in single combat, and, in despair, is about to seek a
hero's death, when the unfortunate mistake is cleared up. So far the piece
is irreproachable, and deserving of the greatest praise. But it is
weakened by other imperfections. It is of great detriment to its
perspicuity, that we are not at the very first allowed to hear the letter
without superscription which occasions all the embarrassment, and that it
is not sent off before our eyes. The political disquisitions in the first
act are extremely tedious; Tancred does not appear till the third act,
though his presence is impatiently looked for, to give animation to the
scene. The furious imprecations of Amenaide, at the conclusion, are not in
harmony with the deep but soft emotion with which we are overpowered by
the reconciliation of the two lovers, whose hearts, after so long a mutual
misunderstanding, are reunited in the moment of separation by death.

In the earlier piece of the _Orphelin de la Chine_, it might be considered
pardonable if Voltaire represented the great Dschingis-kan in love. This
drama ought to be entitled _The Conquest of China_, with the conversion of
the cruel Khan of Tartary, &c. Its whole interest is concentrated in two
children, who are never once seen. The Chinese are represented as the most
wise and virtuous of mankind, and they overflow with philosophical maxims.
As Corneille, in his old age, made one and all of his characters
politicians, Voltaire in like manner furnished his out with philosophy,
and availed himself of them to preach up his favourite opinions. He was
not deterred by the example of Corneille, when the power of representing
the passions was extinct, from publishing a host of weak and faulty

Since the time of Voltaire the constitution of the French stage has
remained nearly the same. No genius has yet arisen sufficiently mighty to
advance the art a step farther, and victoriously to refute, by success,
their time-strengthened prejudices. Many attempts have been made, but they
generally follow in the track of previous essays, without surpassing them.
The endeavour to introduce more historical extent into dramatic
composition is frustrated by the traditional limitations and restraints.
The attacks, both theoretical and practical, which have been made in
France itself on the prevailing system of rules, will be most suitably
noticed and observed upon when we come to review the present condition of
the French stage, after considering their Comedy and the other secondary
kinds of dramatic works, since in these attempts have been made either to
found new species, or arbitrarily to overturn the classification hitherto


French Comedy--Molière--Criticism of his Works--Scarron, Beursault,
Regnard; Comedies in the Time of the Regency; Marivaux and Destouches;
Piron and Gresset--Later Attempts--The Heroic Opera: Quinault--Operettes
and Vaudevilles--Diderot's attempted Change of the Theatre--The Weeping
Drama--Beaumarchais--Melo-Dramas--Merits and Defects of the Histrionic

The same system of rules and proprieties, which, as I have endeavoured to
show, must inevitably have a narrowing influence on Tragedy, has, in
France, been applied to Comedy much more advantageously. For this mixed
species of composition has, as already seen, an unpoetical side; and some
degree of artificial constraint, if not altogether essential to Comedy, is
certainly beneficial to it; for if it is treated with too negligent a
latitude, it runs a risk, in respect of general structure, of falling into
shapelessness, and in the representation of individual peculiarities, of
sinking into every-day common-place. In the French, as well as in the
Greek, it happens that the same syllabic measure is used in Tragedy and
Comedy, which, on a first view, may appear singular. But if the
Alexandrine did not appear to us peculiarly adapted to the free imitative
expression of pathos, on the other hand, it must be owned that a comical
effect is produced by the application of so symmetrical a measure to the
familiar turns of dialogue. Moreover, the grammatical conscientiousness of
French poetry, which is so greatly injurious in other species of the
drama, is fully suited to Comedy, where the versification is not purchased
at the expense of resemblance to the language of conversation, where it is
not intended to elevate the dialogue by sublimity and dignity above real
life, but merely to communicate to it greater ease and lightness. Hence
the opinion of the French, who hold a comedy in verse in much higher
estimation than a comedy in prose, seems to me to admit fairly of a

I endeavoured to show that the Unities of Place and Time are inconsistent
with the essence of many tragical subjects, because a comprehensive action
is frequently carried on in distant places at the same time, and because
great determinations can only be slowly prepared. This is not the case in
Comedy: here Intrigue ought to prevail, the active spirit of which quickly
hurries towards its object; and hence the unity of time may here be almost
naturally observed. The domestic and social circles in which Comedy moves
are usually assembled in one place, and, consequently, the poet is not
under the necessity of sending our imagination abroad: only it might
perhaps have been as well not to interpret the unity of place so very
strictly as not to allow the transition from one room to another, or to
different houses of the same town. The choice of the street for the scene,
a practice in which the Latin comic writers were frequently followed in
the earlier times of Modern Comedy, is quite irreconcileable with our way
of living, and the more deserving of censure, as in the case of the
ancients it was an inconvenience which arose from the construction of
their theatre.

According to French critics, and the opinion which has become prevalent
through them, Molière alone, of all their comic writers, is classical; and
all that has been done since his time is merely estimated as it
approximates more or less to this supposed pattern of an excellence which
can never be surpassed, nor even equalled. Hence we shall first proceed to
characterize this founder of the French Comedy, and then give a short
sketch of its subsequent progress.

Molière has produced works in so many departments, and of such different
value, that we are hardly able to recognize the same author in all of
them; and yet it is usual, when speaking of his peculiarities and merits,
and the advance which he gave to his art, to throw the whole of his
labours into one mass together.

Born and educated in an inferior rank of life, he enjoyed the advantage of
learning by direct experience the modes of living among the industrious
portion of the community--the so-called _Bourgeois_ class--and of
acquiring the talent of imitating low modes of expression. At an after
period, when Louis XIV. took him into his service, he had opportunities,
though from a subordinate station, of narrowly observing the court. He was
an actor, and, it would appear, of peculiar power in overcharged and
farcical comic parts; so little was he possessed with prejudices of
personal dignity, that he renounced all the conditions by which it was
accompanied, and was ever ready to deal out, or to receive the blows which
were then so frequent on the stage. Nay, his mimetic zeal went so far,
that, actually sick, he acted and drew his last breath in representing his
_Imaginary Invalid_ (_Le Malade Imaginaire_), and became, in the truest
sense, a martyr to the laughter of others. His business was to invent all
manner of pleasant entertainments for the court, and to provoke "the
greatest monarch of the world" to laughter, by way of relaxation from
his state affairs or warlike undertakings. One would think, on the
triumphant return from a glorious campaign, this might have been
accomplished with more refinement than by the representation of the
disgusting state of an imaginary invalid. But Louis XIV. was not so
fastidious; he was very well content with the buffoon whom he protected,
and even occasionally exhibited his own elevated person in the dances of
his ballets. This external position of Molière was the cause why many of
his labours had their origin as mere occasional pieces in the commands of
the court. And, accordingly, they bear the stamp of that origin. Without
travelling out of France, he had opportunities of becoming acquainted with
the _lazzis_ of the Italian comic masks on the Italian theatre at Paris,
where improvisatory dialogues were intermixed with scenes written in
French: in the Spanish comedies he studied the ingenious complications
of intrigue: Plautus and Terence taught him the salt of the Attic wit, the
genuine tone of comic maxims, and the nicer shades of character. All this
he employed, with more or less success, in the exigency of the moment, and
also in order to deck out his drama in a sprightly and variegated dress,
made use of all manner of means, however foreign to his art: such as the
allegorical opening scenes of the opera prologues, musical intermezzos, in
which he even introduced Italian and Spanish national music, with texts in
their own language; ballets, at one time sumptuous and at another
grotesque; and even sometimes mere vaulting and capering. He knew how to
turn everything to profit: the censure passed upon his pieces, the defects
of rival actors imitated to the life by himself and his company, and even
the embarrassment in not being able to produce a theatrical entertainment
as quickly as it was required by the king,--all became for him a matter
for amusement. The pieces he borrowed from the Spanish, his pastorals and
tragi-comedies, calculated merely to please the eye, and also three or
four of his earlier comedies, which are even versified, and consequently
carefully laboured, the critics give up without more ado. But even in the
farces, with or without ballets, and intermezzos, in which the
overcharged, and frequently the self-conscious and arbitrary comic of
buffoonery prevails, Molière has exhibited an inexhaustible store of
excellent humour, scattered capital jokes with a lavish hand, and drawn
the most amusing caricatures with a bold and vigorous pencil. All this,
however, had been often done before his time; and I cannot see how, in
this department, he can stand alone, as a creative and altogether original
artist: for example, is Plautus' braggadocio soldier less meritorious in
grotesque characterization than the _Bourgeois Gentilhomme_? We shall
immediately examine briefly whether Molière has actually improved the
pieces which he borrowed, in whole or in part, from Plautus and Terence.
When we bear in mind that in these Latin authors we have only a faint and
faded copy of the new Attic Comedy, we shall then be enabled to judge
whether he would have been able to surpass its masters had they come down
to us. Many of his shifts and inventions, I am induced to suspect, are
borrowed; and I am convinced that we should soon discover the sources,
were we to search into the antiquities of farcical literature [Footnote:
The learned Tiranoschi (_Storia della Letteratura Italiana_, Lib. III. §
25) attests this in very strong language: "Molière," says he, "has made so
much use of the Italian comic writers, that were we to take from him all
that he has taken from others, the volumes of his comedies would be very
much reduced in bulk."]. Others are so obvious, and have so often been
both used and abused, that they may in some measure be considered as the
common stock of Comedy. Such is the scene in the _Malade Imaginaire_,
where the wife's love is put to the test by the supposed death of the
husband--an old joke, which our Hans Sachs has handled drolly enough.
[Footnote: I know not whether it has been already remarked, that the idea
on which the _Mariage Forcé_ is founded is borrowed from Rabelais; who
makes Panurge enter upon the very same consultation as to his future
marriage, and receive from Pantagruel just such a sceptical answer as
Sganarelle does from the second philosopher.] We have an avowal of
Molière's, which plainly shows he entertained no very great scruples of
conscience on the sin of plagiarism. In the undignified relations amidst
which he lived, and in which every thing was so much calculated for
dazzling show, that his very name did not legally belong to him, we see
less reason to wonder at all this.

And even when in his farcical pieces Molière did not lean on foreign
invention, he still appropriated the comic manners of other countries, and
more particularly the buffoonery of Italy. He wished to introduce a sort
of masked character without masks, who should constantly recur with the
same name. They did not, however, succeed in becoming properly
domiciliated in France; because the flexible national character of the
French, which so nimbly imitates every varying mode of the day, is
incompatible with that odd originality of exterior to which in other
nations, where all are not modelled alike by the prevailing social tone,
humorsome and singular individuals carelessly give themselves up. As the
Sganarelles, Mascarilles, Scapins, and Crispins, must be allowed to retain
their uniform, that every thing like consistency may not be lost, they
have become completely obsolete on the stage. The French taste is,
generally speaking, little inclined to the self-conscious and arbitrary
comic, with its droll exaggerations, even because these kinds of the comic
speak more to the fancy than the understanding. We do not mean to censure
this, nor to quarrel about the respective merits of the different species.
The low estimation in which the former are held may perhaps contribute the
more to the success of the comic of observation, And, in fact, the French
comic writers have here displayed a great deal of refinement and
ingenuity: in this lies the great merit of Molière, and it is certainly
very eminent. Only, we would ask, whether it is of such a description as
to justify the French critics, on account of some half a dozen of so-
called regular comedies of Molière, in holding in such infinite contempt
as they do all the rich stores of refined and characteristic delineation
which other nations possess, and in setting up Molière as the unrivalled
Genius of Comedy.

If the praise bestowed by the French on their tragic writers be, both from
national vanity and from ignorance of the mental productions of other
nations, exceedingly extravagant; so their praises of Molière are out of
all proportion with their subject. Voltaire calls him the Father of
Genuine Comedy; and this may be true enough with respect to France.
According to La Harpe, Comedy and Molière are synonymous terms; he is the
first of all moral philosophers, his works are the school of the world.
Chamfort terms him the most amiable teacher of humanity since Socrates;
and is of opinion that Julius Caesar who called Terence a half Menander,
would have called Menander a half Molière.--I doubt this.

The kind of moral which we may in general expect from Comedy I have
already shown: it is an applied doctrine of ethics, the art of life. In
this respect the higher comedies of Molière contain many admirable
observations happily expressed, which are still in the present day
applicable; others are tainted with the narrowness of his own private
opinions, or of the opinions which were prevalent in his age. In this
sense Menander was also a philosophical comic writer; and we may boldly
place the moral maxims which remain of his by the side at least of those
of Molière. But no comedy is constructed of mere apophthegms. The poet
must be a moralist, but his personages cannot always be moralizing. And
here Molière appears to me to have exceeded the bounds of propriety: he
gives us in lengthened disquisitions the _pro_ and _con_ of the character
exhibited by him; nay, he allows these to consist, in part, of principles
which the persons themselves defend against the attacks of others. Now
this leaves nothing to conjecture; and yet the highest refinement and
delicacy of the comic of observation consists in this, that the characters
disclose themselves unconsciously by traits which involuntarily escape
from them. To this species of comic element, the way in which Oronte
introduces his sonnet, Orgon listens to the accounts respecting Tartuffe
and his wife, and Vadius and Trissotin fall by the ears, undoubtedly
belongs; but the endless disquisitions of Alceste and Philinte as to the
manner in which we ought to behave amid the falsity and corruption of the
world do not in the slightest respect belong to it. They are serious, and
yet they cannot satisfy us as exhausting the subject; and as dialogues
which at the end leave the characters precisely at the same point as at
the beginning, they are devoid in the necessary dramatic movement. Such
argumentative disquisitions which lead to nothing are frequent in all the
most admired pieces of Molière, and nowhere more than in the
_Misanthrope_. Hence the action, which is also poorly invented, is found
to drag heavily; for, with the exception of a few scenes of a more
sprightly description, it consists altogether of discourses formally
introduced and supported, while the stagnation is only partially concealed
by the art employed on the details of versification and expression. In a
word, these pieces are too didactic, too expressly instructive; whereas in
Comedy the spectator should only be instructed incidentally, and, as it
were, without its appearing to have been intended.

Before we proceed to consider more particularly the productions which
properly belong to the poet himself, and are acknowledged as master-
pieces, we shall offer a few observations on his imitations of the Latin
comic writers.

The most celebrated is the _Avare_. The manuscripts of the _Aulularia_ of
Plautus are unfortunately mutilated towards the end; but yet we find
enough in them to excite our admiration. From this play Molière has merely
borrowed a few scenes and jokes, for his plot is altogether different. In
Plautus it is extremely simple: his Miser has found a treasure, which he
anxiously watches and conceals. The suit of a rich bachelor for his
daughter excites a suspicion that his wealth is known. The preparations
for the wedding bring strange servants and cooks into his house; he
considers his pot of gold no longer secure, and conceals it out of doors,
which gives an opportunity to a slave of his daughter's chosen lover, sent
to glean tidings of her and her marriage, to steal it. Without doubt the
thief must afterwards have been obliged to make restitution, otherwise the
piece would end in too melancholy a manner, with the lamentations and
imprecations of the old man. The knot of the love intrigue is easily
untied: the young man, who had anticipated the rights of the marriage
state, is the nephew of the bridegroom, who willingly renounces in his
favour. All the incidents serve merely to lead the miser, by a gradually
heightening series of agitations and alarms, to display and expose his
miserable passion. Molière, on the other hand, without attaining this
object, puts a complicated machine in motion. Here we have a lover of the
daughter, who, disguised as a servant, flatters the avarice of the old
man; a prodigal son, who courts the bride of his father; intriguing
servants; an usurer; and after all a discovery at the end. The love
intrigue is spun out in a very clumsy and every-day sort of manner; and it
has the effect of making us at different times lose sight altogether of
Harpagon. Several scenes of a good comic description are merely
subordinate, and do not, in a true artistic method, arise necessarily out
of the thing itself. Molière has accumulated, as it were, all kinds of
avarice in one person; and yet the miser who buries his treasures and he
who lends on usury can hardly be the same. Harpagon starves his coach-
horses: but why has he any? This would apply better to a man who, with a
disproportionate income, strives to keep up a certain appearance of rank.
Comic characterization would soon be at an end were there really only one
universal character of the miser. The most important deviation of Molière
from Plautus is, that while the one paints merely a person who watches
over his treasure, the other makes his miser in love. The love of an old
man is in itself an object of ridicule; the anxiety of a miser is no less
so. We may easily see that when we unite with avarice, which separates a
man from others and withdraws him within himself, the sympathetic and
liberal passion of love, the union must give rise to the most harsh
contrasts. Avarice, however, is usually a very good preservative against
falling in love. Where then is the more refined characterization; and as
such a wonderful noise is made about it, where shall we here find the more
valuable moral instruction?--in Plautus or in Molière? A miser and a
superannuated lover may both be present at the representation of Harpagon,
and both return from the theatre satisfied with themselves, while the
miser says to himself, "I am at least not in love;" and the lover, "Well,
at all events I am not a miser." High Comedy represents those follies
which, however striking they may be, are reconcilable with the ordinary
course of things; whatever forms a singular exception, and is only
conceivable amid an utter perversion of ideas, belongs to the arbitrary
exaggeration of farce. Hence since (and it was undoubtedly the case long
before) the time of Molière, the enamoured and avaricious old man has been
the peculiar common-place of the Italian masked comedy and _opera buffa_,
to which in truth it certainly belongs. Molière has treated the main
incident, the theft of the chest of gold, with an uncommon want of skill.
At the very beginning Harpagon, in a scene borrowed from Plautus, is
fidgetty with suspicions lest a slave should have discovered his treasure.
After this he forgets it; for four whole acts there is not a word about
it, and the spectator drops, as it were, from the clouds when the servant
all at once brings in the stolen coffer; for we have no information as to
the way in which he fell upon the treasure which had been so carefully
concealed. Now this is really to begin again, not truly to work out. But
Plautus has here shown a great deal of ingenuity: the excessive anxiety of
the old man for his pot of gold, and all that he does to save it, are the
very cause of its loss. The subterraneous treasure is always invisibly
present; it is, as it were, the evil spirit which drives its keeper to
madness. In all this we have, an impressive moral of a very different
kind. In Harpagon's soliloquy, after the theft, the modern poet has
introduced the most incredible exaggerations. The calling on the pit to
discover the theft, which, when well acted, produces so great an effect,
is a trait of the old comedy of Aristophanes, and may serve to give us
some idea of its powers of entertainment.

The _Amphitryon_ is hardly anything more than a free imitation of the
Latin original. The whole plan and order of the scenes is retained. The
waiting-woman, or wife of Sosia, is the invention of Molière. The parody
of the story of the master's marriage in that of the servant is ingenious,
and gives rise to the most amusing investigations on the part of Sosia to
find out whether, during his absence a domestic blessing may not have also
been conferred on him as well as on Amphitryon. The revolting coarseness
of the old mythological story is refined as much as it possibly could
without injury to its spirit and boldness; and in general the execution is
extremely elegant. The uncertainty of the personages respecting their own
identity and duplication is founded on a sort of comic metaphysics:
Sosia's reflections on his two _egos_, which have cudgelled each other,
may in reality furnish materials for thinking to our philosophers of the
present day.

The most unsuccessful of Molière's imitations of the ancients is that of
the _Phormio_ in the _Fourberies de Scapin_. The whole plot is borrowed
from Terence, and, by the addition of a second invention, been adapted,
well or ill, or rather tortured, to a consistency with modern manners. The
poet has indeed gone very hurriedly to work with his plot, which he has
most negligently patched together. The tricks of Scapin, for the sake of
which he has spoiled the plot, occupy the foremost place: but we may well
ask whether they deserve it? The Grecian Phormio, a man who, for the sake
of feasting with young companions, lends himself to all sorts of hazardous
tricks, is an interesting and modest knave; Scapin directly the reverse.
He had no cause to boast so much of his tricks: they are so stupidly
planned that in justice they ought not to have succeeded. Even supposing
the two old men to be obtuse and brainless in the extreme, we can hardly
conceive how they could so easily fall into such a clumsy and obvious
snare as he lays for them. It is also disgustingly improbable that
Zerbinette, who as a gipsy ought to have known how to conceal knavish
tricks, should run out into the street and tell the first stranger that
she meets, who happens to be none other than Geronte himself, the deceit
practised upon him by Scapin. The farce of the sack into which Scapin
makes Geronte to crawl, then bears him off, and cudgels him as if by the
hand of strangers, is altogether a most inappropriate excrescence. Boileau
was therefore well warranted in reproaching Molière with having
shamelessly allied Terence to Taburin, (the merry-andrew of a mountebank).
In reality, Molière has here for once borrowed, not, as he frequently did,
from the Italian masks, but from the Pagliasses of the rope-dancers and

We must not forget that the _Rogueries of Scapin_ is one of the latest
works of the poet. This and several others of the same period, as
_Monsieur de Pourceaugnac_, _La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas_, and even his
last, the _Malade Imaginaire_, sufficiently prove that the maturity of his
mind as an artist did not keep pace with the progress of years, otherwise
he would have been disgusted with such loose productions. They serve,
moreover, to show that frequently he brought forth pieces with great
levity and haste, even when he had full leisure to think of posterity. If
he occasionally subjected himself to stricter rules, we owe it more to his
ambition, and his desire to be numbered among the classical writers of the
golden age, than to any internal and growing aspiration after the highest

The high claims already mentioned, which the French critics make in behalf
of their favourite, are principally founded on the _École des Femmes_,
_Tartuffe_, _Le Misanthrope_, and _Les Femmes Savantes_; pieces which are
certainly finished with great care and diligence. Now, of these, we must
expressly state in the outset, that we leave the separate beauties of
language and versification altogether to the decision of native critics.
These merits can only be subordinate requisites; and the undue stress
which is laid in France on the manner in which a piece is written and
versified has, in our opinion, been both in Tragedy and Comedy injurious
to the development of other and more essential requisites of the dramatic
art. We shall confine our exceptions to the general spirit and plan of
these comedies.

_L'École des Femmes_, the earliest of them, seems to me also the most
excellent; it is the one in which there is the greatest display of
vivacious humour, rapidity, and comic vigour. As to the invention: a man
arrived at an age unsuitable for wedlock, purposely educating a young girl
in ignorance and simplicity, that he may keep her faithful to himself,
while everything turns out the very reverse of his wishes, was not a new
one: a short while before Molière it had been employed by Scarron, who
borrowed it from a Spanish novel. Still, it was a lucky thought in him to
adapt this subject to the stage, and the execution of it is most masterly.
Here we have a real and very interesting plot; no creeping investigations
which do not carry forward the plot; all the matter is of one piece,
without foreign levers and accidental intermixtures, with the exception of
the catastrophe, which is brought about somewhat arbitrarily, by means of
a scene of recognition. The _naïve_ confessions and innocent devices
of Agnes are full of sweetness; they, together with the unguarded
confidence reposed by the young lover in his unknown rival, and the
stifled rage of the old man against both, form a series of comic scenes of
the most amusing, and at the same time of the most refined description.

As an example how little the violation of certain probabilities diminishes
our pleasure, we may remark that Molière, with respect to the choice of
scene, has here indulged in very great liberties. We will not inquire how
Arnolph frequently happens to converse with Agnes in the street or in an
open place, while he keeps her at the same time so carefully locked up.
But if Horace does not know Arnolph to be the intended husband of his
mistress, and betrays everything to him, this can only be allowable from
Arnolph's passing with her by another name. Horace ought therefore to look
for Arnolph in his own house in a remote quarter, and not before the door
of his mistress, where yet he always finds him, without entertaining any
suspicion from that circumstance. Why do the French critics set such a
high value on similar probabilities in the dramatic art, when they must be
compelled to admit that their best masters have not always observed them?

_Tartuffe_ is an exact picture of hypocritical piety held up for
universal warning; it is an excellent serious satire, but with the
exception of separate scenes it is not a comedy. It is generally admitted
that the catastrophe is bad, as it is brought about by a foreign means. It
is bad, too, because the danger which Orgon runs of being driven from his
house and thrown into prison is by no means such an embarrassment as his
blind confidence actually merited. Here the serious purpose of the work is
openly disclosed, and the eulogium of the king is a dedication by which
the poet, even in the piece itself, humbly recommends himself to the
protection of his majesty against the persecutions which he dreaded.

In the _Femmes Savantes_ raillery has also the upper hand of mirth;
the action is insignificant and not in the least degree attractive; and
the catastrophe, after the manner of Molière, is arbitrarily brought about
by foreign means. Yet these technical imperfections might well be excused
for the sake of its satirical merit. But in this respect the composition,
from the limited nature of its views, is anything but equal throughout. We
are not to expect from the comic poet that he should always give us, along
with the exhibition of a folly, a representation also of the opposite way
of wisdom; in this way he would announce his object of instructing us with
too much of method. But two opposite follies admit of being exhibited
together in an equally ludicrous light. Molière has here ridiculed the
affectation of a false taste, and the vain-gloriousness of empty
knowledge. Proud in their own ignorance and contempt for all higher
enlightenment, these characters certainly deserve the ridicule bestowed on
them; but that which in this comedy is portrayed as the correct way of
wisdom falls nearly into the same error. All the reasonable persons of the
piece, the father and his brother, the lover and the daughter, nay, even
the ungrammatical maid, are all proud of what they are not, have not, and
know not, and even what they do not seek to be, to have, or to know.
Chyrsale's limited view of the destination of the female sex, Clitander's
opinion on the inutility of learning, and the sentiments elsewhere
advanced respecting the measure of cultivation and knowledge which is
suitable to a man of rank, were all intended to convey Molière's own
opinions himself on these subjects. We may here trace in him a certain
vein of valet-de-chambre morality, which also makes its appearance on many
other points. We can easily conceive how his education and situation
should lead him to entertain such ideas; but they are hardly such as
entitle him to read lectures on human society. That, at the end, Trissotin
should be ignominiously made to commit an act of low selfishness is
odious; for we know that a learned man then alive was satirized under this
character, and that his name was very slightly disguised. The vanity of an
author is, on the whole, a preservative against this weakness: there are
many more lucrative careers than that of authorship for selfishness
without a feeling of honour.

The _Misanthrope_, which, as is well known, was at first coldly received,
is still less amusing than the two preceding pieces: the action
is less rapid, or rather there is none at all; and there is a great want
of coherence between the meagre incidents which give only an apparent life
to the dramatic movement,--the quarrel with Oronte respecting the sonnet,
and its adjustment; the decision of the law-suit which is ever being
brought forward; the unmasking of Celimene through the vanity of the two
Marquisses, and the jealousy of Arsinöe. Besides all this, the general
plot is not even probable. It is framed with a view to exhibit the
thorough delineation of a character; but a character discloses itself much
more in its relations with others than immediately. How comes Alceste to
have chosen Philinte for a friend, a man whose principles were directly
the reverse of his own? How comes he also to be enamoured of a coquette,
who has nothing amiable in her character, and who entertains us merely by
her scandal? We might well say of this Celimene, without exaggeration,
that there is not one good point in her whole composition. In a character
like that of Alceste, love is not a fleeting sensual impulse, but a
serious feeling arising from a want of a sincere mental union. His dislike
of flattering falsehood and malicious scandal, which always characterise
the conversation of Celimene, breaks forth so incessantly, that, we feel,
the first moment he heard her open her lips ought to have driven him for
ever from her society. Finally, the subject is ambiguous, and that is its
greatest fault. The limits within which Alceste is in the right and beyond
which he is in the wrong, it would be no easy matter to fix, and I am
afraid the poet himself did not here see very clearly what he would be at.
Philinte, however, with his illusory justification of the way of the
world, and his phlegmatic resignation, he paints throughout as the
intelligent and amiable man. As against the elegant Celimene, Alceste is
most decidedly in the right, and only in the wrong in the inconceivable
weakness of his conduct towards her. He is in the right in his complaints
of the corruption of the social constitution; the facts, at least, which
he adduces, are disputed by nobody. He is in the wrong, however, in
delivering his sentiments with so much violence, and at an unseasonable
time; but as he cannot prevail on himself to assume the dissimulation
which is necessary to be well received in the world, he is perfectly in
the right in preferring solitude to society. Rousseau has already censured
the ambiguity of the piece, by which what is deserving of approbation
seems to be turned into ridicule. His opinion was not altogether
unprejudiced; for his own character, and his behaviour towards the world,
had a striking similarity to that of Alceste; and, moreover, he mistakes
the essence of dramatic composition, and founds his condemnation on
examples of an accidentally false direction.

So far with respect to the famed moral philosophy of Molière in his
pretended master-piece. From what has been stated, I consider myself
warranted to assert, in opposition to the prevailing opinion, that Molière
succeeded best with the coarse and homely comic, and that both his talents
and his inclination, if unforced, would have determined him altogether to
the composition of farces such as he continued to write even to the very
end of his life. He seems always to have whipped himself up as it were to
his more serious pieces in verse: we discover something of constraint in
both plot and execution. His friend Boileau probably communicated to him
his view of a correct mirth, of a grave and decorous laughter; and so
Molière determined, after the carnival of his farces, to accommodate
himself occasionally to the spare diet of the regular taste, and to unite
what in their own nature are irreconcileable, namely, dignity and
drollery. However, we find even in his prosaic pieces traces of that
didactical and satirical vein which is peculiarly alien to Comedy; for
example, in his constant attacks on physicians and lawyers, in his
disquisitions upon the true correct tone of society, &c., the intention of
which is actually to censure, to refute, to instruct, and not merely to
afford entertainment.

The classical reputation of Molière still preserves his pieces on the
stage, [Footnote: If they were not already in possession of the stage, the
indecency of a number of the scenes would cause many of them to be
rejected, as the public of the present day, though probably not less
corrupt than that of the author's times, is passionately fond of throwing
over every thing a cloak of morality. When a piece of Molière is acted,
the head theatre of Paris is generally a downright solitude, if no
particular circumstance brings the spectators together. Since these
Lectures were held, _George Dandin_ has been hissed at Paris, to the
great grief of the watchmen of the critical Sion. This was probably not on
account of mere indecency. Whatever may be said in defence of the morality
of the piece, the privileges of the higher classes are offensively
favoured in it; and it concludes with the shameless triumph of arrogance
and depravity over plain honesty.] although in tone and manners they are
altogether obsolete. This is a danger to which the comic poet is
inevitably exposed from that side of his composition which does not rest
on a poetical foundation, but is determined by the prose of external
reality. The originals of the individual portraits of Molière have long
since disappeared. The comic poet who lays claim to immortality must, in
the delineation of character and the disposition of his plan, rest
principally on such motives as are always intelligible, being taken not
from the manners of any particular age, but drawn from human nature

In addition to Molière we have to notice but a few older or contemporary
comedians. Of Corneille, who from the imitation of Spanish comedies
acquired a name before he was known as a tragic author, only one piece
keeps possession of the stage, _Le Menteur_, from Lope de Vega; and
even this evinces, in our opinion, no comic talent. The poet, accustomed
to stilts, moves awkwardly in a species of the drama the first requisites
of which are ease and sweetness. Scarron, who only understood burlesque,
has displayed this talent or knack in several comedies taken from the
Spanish, of which two, _Jodelle_, or the _Servant turned Master_, and _Don
Japhet of Armenia_, have till within these few years been occasionally
acted as carnival farces, and have always been very successful. The plot
of the _Jodelle_, which belongs to Don Francisco de Roxas, is excellent;
the style and the additions of Scarron have not been able altogether to
disfigure it. All that is coarse, nauseous, and repugnant to taste,
belongs to the French writer of the age of Louis XIV., who in his day was
not without celebrity; for the Spanish work is throughout characterized by
a spirit of tenderness. The burlesque tone, which in many languages may be
tolerated, has been properly rejected by the French, for whenever it is
not guided by judgment and taste, it sinks to disgusting vulgarity. _Don
Japhet_ represents in a still ruder manner the mystification of a coarse
fool. The original belongs to the kind which the Spaniards call _Comedias
de Figuron_: it also has undoubtedly been spoiled by Scarron, The worst of
the matter is, that his exaggerations are trifling without being amusing.

Racine hit upon a very different plan of imitation from that which was
then followed, in his _Plaideurs_, of which the idea is derived from
Aristophanes. The piece in this respect stands alone. The action is merely
a light piece of legerdemain; but the follies which it portrays belong to
a circle, and, with the imitations of the officers of court and advocates,
form a complete whole. Many lines are at once witty sallies and
characteristic traits; and some of the jokes have that apparently aimless
drollery, which genuine comic inspiration can alone inspire. Racine would
have become a dangerous rival of Molière, if he had continued to exercise
the talent which he has here displayed.

Some of the comedies of a younger contemporary and rival of Molière,
Boursault, have still kept possession of the stage; they are all of the
secondary description, which the French call _pièces à tiroir_, and
of which Molière gave the first example in _Le Fâcheux_. This kind,
from the accidental succession of the scenes, which are strung together on
some one common occasion, bear in so far a resemblance to the _Mimes_
of the ancients; they are intended also to resemble them in the accurate
imitation of individual peculiarities. These subjects are particularly
favourable for the display of the Mimic art in the more limited
signification of the word, as the same player always appears in a
different disguise, and assumes a new character. It is advisable not to
extend such pieces beyond a single act, as the want of dramatic movement,
and the uniformity of the occasion through all the different changes, are
very apt to excite impatience. But Boursault's pieces, which otherwise are
not without merit, are tediously spun out to five acts. The idea of
exhibiting Aesop, a slave-born sage, and deformed in person, in possession
of court favour, was original and happy. But in the two pieces, _Aesop
in the City_, and _Aesop at Court_, the fables which are tacked to
every important scene are drowned in diffuse morals; besides, they are
quite distinct from the dialogue, instead of being interwoven with it,
like the fable of Menenius Agrippa in Shakespeare; and modern manners do
not suit with this childish mode of instruction. In the _Mercure Galant_
all sorts of out-of-the-way beings bring their petitions to the writer of
a weekly paper. This thought and many of the most entertaining details
have, if I am not mistaken, been borrowed by a popular German author
without acknowledgment.

A considerable time elapsed after the death of Molière before the
appearance of Regnard, to whom in France the second place in Comedy is
usually assigned. He was a sort of adventurer who, after roaming a long
time up and down the world, fell to the trade of a dramatic writer, and
divided himself betwixt the composition of regular comedies in verse, and
the Italian theatre, which still continued to flourish under Gherardi, and
for which he sketched the French scenes. The _Joueur_, his first
play, is justly preferred to the others. The author was acquainted with
this passion, and a gamester's life, from his own experience: it is a
picture after nature, with features strongly drawn, but without
exaggeration; and the plot and accessory circumstances, with the exception
of a pair of caricatures which might well have been dispensed with, are
all appropriate and in character. The _Distrait_ possesses not only
the faults of the methodical pieces of character which I have already
censured, but it is not even a peculiar character at all; the mistakes
occasioned by the unfortunate habit of being absent in thought are all
alike, and admit of no heightening: they might therefore have filled up an
after-piece, but, certainly did not merit the distinction of being spun
out into a comedy of five acts. Regnard has done little more than
dramatize a series of anecdotes which La Bruyère had assembled together
under the name of a certain character. The execution of the _Légataire
Universel_ shows more comic talent; but from the error of the general
plan, arising out of a want of moral feeling, this talent is completely
thrown away. La Harpe declares this piece the _chef-d'oeuvre_ of comic
pleasantry. It is, in fact, such a subject for pleasantry as would
move a stone to pity,--as enlivening as the grin of a death's head. What a
subject for mirth: a feeble old man in the very arms of death, teased by
young profligates for his property, has a false will imposed on him while
he is lying insensible, as is believed, on his death-bed! If it be true
that these scenes have always given rise to much laughter on the French
stage, it only proves the spectators to possess the same unfeeling levity
which disgusts us in the author. We have elsewhere shown that, with an
apparent indifference, a moral reserve is essential to the comic poet,
since the impressions which he would wish to produce are inevitably
destroyed whenever disgust or compassion is excited.

Legrand the actor, a contemporary of Regnard, was one of the first comic
poets who gained celebrity for after-pieces in verse, a species of
composition in which the French have since produced a number of elegant
trifles. He has not, however, risen to any thing like the same height of
posthumous fame as Regnard: La Harpe dismisses him with very little
ceremony. Yet we should be disposed to rank him very high as an artist,
even if he had composed nothing else than the _King of Lubberland_
(_Le Roi de Cocagne_), a sprightly farce in the marvellous style,
overflowing with what is very rare in France, a native fanciful wit,
animated by the most lively mirth, which although carried the length of
the most frolicsome giddiness, sports on and round all subjects with the
utmost harmlessness. We might call it an elegant and ingenious piece of
madness; an example of the manner in which the play of Aristophanes, or
rather that of Eupolis, [Footnote: See page 167.] who had also dramatised
the tale _of Lubberland_, might be brought on our stage without
exciting disgust, and without personal satire. And yet Legrand was,
certainly, unacquainted with the Old Comedy, and his own genius (we
scruple not to use the expression) led him to the invention. The execution
is as careful as in a regular comedy; but to this title in the French
opinion it can have no pretensions, because of the wonderful world which
it represents, of several of the decorations, and of the music here and
there introduced. The French critics show themselves in general
indifferent, or rather unjust towards every suggestion of genuine fancy.
Before they can feel respect for a work it must present a certain
appearance of labour and effort. Among a giddy and light-minded people,
they have appropriated to themselves the post of honour of pedantry: they
confound the levity of jocularity, which is quite compatible with
profundity in art, with the levity of shallowness, which (as a natural
gift or natural defect,) is so frequent among their countrymen.

The eighteenth century produced in France a number of comic writers of the
second and third rank, but no distinguished genius capable of advancing
the art a step farther; in consequence of which the belief in Molière's
unapproachable excellence has become still more firmly riveted. As we have
not space at present to go through all these separate productions, we
shall premise a few observations on the general spirit of French Comedy
before entering on the consideration of the writers whom we have not yet

The want of easy progress, and over-lengthy disquisitions in stationary
dialogue, have characterized more or less every writer since the time of
Molière, on whose regular pieces also the conventional rules applicable to
Tragedy have had an indisputable influence. French Comedy in verse has its
tirades as well as Tragedy. Besides, there was another circumstance, the
introduction of a certain degree of stiff etiquette. The Comedy of other
nations has generally, from motives which we can be at no loss in
understanding, descended into the circle of the lower classes: but the
French Comedy is usually confined to the upper ranks of society. Here,
then, we trace the influence of the court as the central point of the
whole national vanity. Those spectators who in reality had no access to
the great world, were flattered by being surrounded on the stage with
marquises and chevaliers, and while the poet satirized the fashionable
follies, they endeavoured to snatch something of that privileged tone
which was so much the object of envy. Society rubs off the salient angles
of character; its only amusement consists in the pursuit of the
ridiculous, and on the other hand it trains us in the faculty of being
upon our guard against the observations of others. The natural, cordial,
and jovial comic of the inferior classes is thrown aside, and instead of
it another description (the fruit of polished society, and bearing in its
insipidity the stamp of so purposeless a way of living) is adopted. The
object of these comedies is no longer life but society, that perpetual
negotiation between conflicting vanities which never ends in a sincere
treaty of peace: the embroidered dress, the hat under the arm, and the
sword by the side, essentially belong to them, and the whole of their
characterization is limited to painting the folly of the men and the
coquetry of the women. The insipid uniformity of these pictures was
unfortunately too often seasoned by the corruption of moral principles
which, more especially after the age of Louis XIV., it became, under the
Regency of Louis XV., the fashion openly to avow. In this period the
favourite of the women, the _homme à bonnes fortunes_, who in the
tone of satiety boasts of the multitude of his conquests too easily won,
was not a character invented by the comic writers, but a portrait
accurately taken from real life, as is proved by the numerous memoirs of
the last century, even down to those of a Besenval. We are disgusted with
the unveiled sensuality of the love intrigues of the Greek Comedy: but the
Greeks would have found much more disgusting the love intrigues of the
French Comedy, entered into with married women, merely from giddy vanity.
Limits have been fixed by nature herself to sensual excess; but when
vanity assumes the part of a sensuality already deadened and enervated, it
gives birth to the most hollow corruption. And even if, in the constant
ridicule of marriage by the petit-maîtres, and in their moral scepticism
especially with regard to female virtue, it was the intention of the poets
to ridicule a prevailing depravity, the picture is not on that account the
less immoral. The great or fashionable world, which in point of numbers is
the little world, and yet considers itself alone of importance, can hardly
be improved by it; and for the other classes the example is but too
seductive, from the brilliancy with which the characters are surrounded.
But in so far as Comedy is concerned, this deadening corruption is by no
means invariably entertaining; and in many pieces, in which fools of
quality give the tone, for example in the _Chevalier à la mode de
Dancourt_, the picture of complete moral dissoluteness which, although
true, is nevertheless both unpoetical and unnatural, is productive not
merely of _ennui_, but of the most decided repugnance and disgust.

From the number of writers to whom this charge chiefly applies, we must in
justice except Destouches and Marivaux, fruitful or at least diligent
comic writers, the former in verse and the latter in prose. They acquired
considerable distinction among their contemporaries in the first half of
the eighteenth century, but on the stage few of their works survived
either of them. Destouches was a moderate, tame, and well-meaning author,
who applied himself with all his powers to the composition of regular
comedies, which were always drawn out to the length of five acts, and in
which there is nothing laughable, with the exception of the vivacity
displayed in virtue of their situation, by Lisette and her lover Frontin,
or Pasquin. He was in no danger, from any excess of frolicsome petulance,
of falling from the dignified tone of the supposed high comic into the
familiarity of farce, which the French hold in such contempt. With
moderate talents, without humour, and almost without vivacity, neither
ingenious in invention, nor possessed of a deep insight into the human
mind and human affairs, he has in some of his productions, _Le Glorieux_,
_Le Philosophe Marié_, and especially _L'Indécis_, shewn with great credit
to himself what true and unpretending diligence is by itself capable of
effecting. Other pieces, for instance, _L'Ingrat_ and _L'Homme Singulier_,
are complete failures, and enable us to see that a poet who considers
_Tartuffe_ and _The Misanthrope_ as the highest objects of imitation, (and
with Destouches this was evidently the case,) has only another step to
take to lose sight of the comic art altogether. These two works of Molière
have not been friendly beacons to his followers, but false lights to their
ruin. Whenever a comic poet in his preface worships _The Misanthrope_ as a
model, I can immediately foretell the result of his labours. He will
sacrifice every thing like the gladsome inspiration of fun and all truly
poetical amusement, for the dull and formal seriousness of prosaic life,
and for prosaical applications stamped with the respectable name of

That Marivaux is a mannerist is so universally acknowledged in France,
that the peculiar term of _marivaudage_ has been invented for his
mannerism. But this is at least his own, and at first sight by no means
unpleasing. Delicacy of mind cannot be denied to Marivaux, only it is
coupled with a certain littleness. We have stated it to be the most
refined species of the comic of observation, when a peculiarity or
property shows itself most conspicuously at the very time its possessor
has the least suspicion of it, or is most studious to conceal it. Marivaux
has applied this to the passions; and _naïveté_ in the involuntary
disclosure of emotions certainly belongs to the domain of Comedy. But then
this _naïveté_ is prepared by him with too much art, appears too
solicitous for our applause, and, we may almost say, seems too well
pleased with it himself. It is like children in the game of hide and seek,
they cannot stay quiet in their corner, but keep popping out their heads,
if they are not immediately discovered; nay, sometimes, which is still
worse, it is like the squinting over a fan held up from affected modesty.
In Marivaux we always see his aim from the very beginning, and all our
attention is directed to discovering the way by which he is to lead us to
it. This would be a skilful mode of composing, if it did not degenerate
into the insignificant and the superficial. Petty inclinations are
strengthened by petty motives, exposed to petty probations, and brought by
petty steps nearer and nearer to a petty conclusion. The whole generally
turns on a declaration of love, and all sorts of clandestine means are
tried to elicit it, or every kind of slight allusion is hazarded to hasten
it. Marivaux has neither painted characters, nor contrived intrigues. The
whole plot generally turns on an unpronounced word, which is always at the
tongue's end, and which is frequently kept back in a pretty arbitrary
manner. He is so uniform in the motives that he employs, that when we have
read one of his pieces with a tolerable degree of attention we know all of
them. However, we must still rank him above the herd of stiff imitators;
something is to be learned even from him, for he possessed a peculiar
though a very limited view of the essence of Comedy.

Two other single works are named as master-pieces in the regular Comedy in
verse, belonging to two writers who here perhaps have taken more pains,
but in other departments have given a freer scope to their natural talent:
the _Métromanie_ of Piron and the _Méchant_ of Gresset. The _Métromanie_
is not written without humorous inspiration. In the young man possessed
with a passion for poetry, Piron intended in some measure to paint
himself; but as we always go tenderly to work in the ridicule of
ourselves, together with the amiable weakness in question, he endows his
hero with talents, magnanimity, and a good heart. But this tender reserve
is not peculiarly favourable for comic strength. As to the _Méchant_, it
is one of those gloomy comedies which might be rapturously hailed by a
Timon as serving to confirm his aversion to human society, but which, on
social and cheerful minds, can only give rise to the most painful
impression. Why paint a dark and odious disposition which, devoid of all
human sympathy, feeds its vanity in a cold contempt and derision of
everything, and solely occupies itself in aimless detraction? Why exhibit
such a moral deformity, which could hardly be tolerated even in Tragedy,
for the mere purpose of producing domestic discontent and petty

Yet, according to the decision of the French critics, these three
comedies, the _Glorieux_, the _Métromanie_, and the _Méchant_, are all
that the eighteenth century can oppose to Molière. We should be disposed
to rank the _Le Vieux Bachelier_ of Collin d'Harleville much higher; but
for judging this true picture of manners there is no scale afforded in the
works of Molière, and it can only be compared with those of Terence. We
have here the utmost refinement and accuracy of characterization, most
felicitously combined with an able plot, which keeps on the stretch and
rivets our attention, while a certain mildness of sentiment is diffused
over the whole.

I purpose now to make a few observations on the secondary species of the
_Opera_, _Operettes_, and _Vaudevilles_, and shall conclude with a view of
the present condition of the French stage with reference to the histrionic

In the serious, heroic, or rather the ideal _opera_, if we may so
express ourselves, we can only mention one poet of the age of Louis XIV.,
Quinault--who is now little read, but yet deserving of high praise. As a
tragic poet, in the early period of his career, he was satirized by
Boileau; but he was afterwards highly successful in another species, the
musical drama. Mazarin had introduced into France a taste for the Italian
opera; Louis was also desirous of rivalling or surpassing foreign
countries in the external magnificence of the drama, in decoration,
machinery, music, and dancing; these were all to be employed in the
celebration of the court festivals; and accordingly Molière was employed
to write gay, and Quinault serious operas, to the music of Lulli. I am not
sufficiently versed in the earlier literature of the Italian opera to be
able to speak with accuracy, but I suspect that here also Quinault
laboured more after Spanish than Italian models; and more particularly,
that he derived from the Fiestas of Calderon the general form of his
operas, and their frequently allegorical preludes which are often to be
found in them. It is true, poetical ornament is much more sparingly dealt
out, as the whole is necessarily shortened for the sake of the music, and
the very nature of the French language and versification is incompatible
with the splendid magnificence, the luxurious fulness, displayed by
Calderon. But the operas of Quinault are, in their easy progress, truly
fanciful; and the serious opera cannot, in my opinion, be stripped of the
charm of the marvellous without becoming at length wearisome. So far
Quinault appears to me to have taken a much better road towards the true
vocation of particular departments of art, than that on which Metastasio
travelled long after him. The latter has admirably provided for the wants
of a melodious music expressive solely of feeling; but where does he
furnish the least food for the imagination? On the other hand, I am not so
sure that Quinault is justly entitled to praise for sacrificing, in
compliance with the taste of his countrymen, everything like comic
intermixture. He has been censured for an occasional play on language in
the expression of feeling. But is it just to exact the severity of the
tragical cothurnus in light works of this description? Why should not
Poetry also be allowed her arabesque? No person can be more an enemy to
mannerism than I am; but to censure it aright, we ought first to
understand the degree of nature and truth which we have a right to expect
from each species, and what is alone compatible with it. The verses of
Quinault have no other _naïveté_ and simplicity than those of the
madrigal; and though they occasionally fall into the luscious, at other
times they express a languishing tenderness with gracefulness and a soft
melody. The opera ought to resemble the enchanted gardens of Armida, of
which Quinault says,

_Dans ces lieux enchantés la volupté préside._

We ought only to be awaked out of the voluptuous dreams of feeling to
enjoy the magical illusions of fancy. When once we have come to imagine,
instead of real men, beings whose only language is song, it is but a very
short step to represent to ourselves creatures whose only occupation is
love; that feeling which hovers between the sensible and intellectual
world; and the first invention becomes natural again by means of the

Quinault has had no successors. How far below his, both in point of
invention and of execution, are the French operas of the present day! The
heroic and tragic have been required in a department where they cannot
produce their proper effect. Instead of handling with fanciful freedom
mythological materials or subjects taken from chivalrous or pastoral
romances, they have after the manner of Tragedy chained themselves down to
history, and by means of their heavy seriousness, and the pedantry of
their rules, they have so managed matters, that Dulness with leaden
sceptre presides over the opera. The deficiencies of their music, the
unfitness of the French language for composition in a style anything
higher than that of the most simple national melodies, the unaccented and
arbitrary nature of their recitative, the bawling bravura of the singers,
must be left to the animadversions of musical critics.

With pretensions far lower, the _Comic Opera_ or _Operette_ approaches
much more nearly to perfection. With respect to the composition, it may
and indeed ought to assume only a national tone. The transition from song
to speech, without any musical accompaniment or heightening, which was
censured by Rousseau as an unsuitable mixture of two distinct modes of
composition, may be displeasing to the ear; but it has unquestionably
produced an advantageous effect on the structure of the pieces. In the
recitatives, which generally are not half understood, and seldom listened
to with any degree of attention, a plot which is even moderately
complicated cannot be developed with due clearness. Hence in the Italian
_opera buffa_, the action is altogether neglected; and along with its
grotesque caricatures, it is distinguished for uniform situations, which
admit not of dramatic progress. But the comic opera of the French,
although from the space occupied by the music it is unsusceptible of any
very perfect dramatic development, is still calculated to produce a
considerable stage effect, and speaks pleasingly to the imagination. The
poets have not here been prevented by the constraint of rules from
following out their theatrical views. Hence these fleeting productions are
in no wise deficient in the rapidity, life, and amusement, which are
frequently wanting in the more correct dramatic works of the French. The
distinguished favour which the _operettes_ of a Favart, a Sedaine and
later poets, of whom some are still alive, always meet with in Germany,
(where foreign literature has long lost its commanding influence, and
where the national taste has pronounced so strongly against French
Tragedy,) is by no means to be placed to the account of the music; it is
in reality owing to their poetical merit. To cite only one example out of
many, I do not hesitate to declare the whole series of scenes in _Raoul
Sire de Créquy_, where the children of the drunken turnkey set the
prisoner at liberty, a master-piece of theatrical painting. How much were
it to be wished that the Tragedy of the French, and even their Comedy in
court-dress, had but a little of this truth of circumstance, this vivid
presence, and power of arresting the attention. In several _operettes_,
for instance in a _Richard Coeur de Lion_ and a _Nina_, the traces of the
romantic spirit are not to be mistaken.

The _vaudeville_ is but a variation of the comic opera. The essential
difference is that it dispenses with composition, by which the comic opera
forms a musical whole, as the songs are set to well-known popular airs.
The incessant skipping from the song to the dialogue, often after a few
scrapes of the violin and a few words, with the accumulation of airs
mostly common, but frequently also in a style altogether different from
the poetry, drives an ear accustomed to Italian music to despair. If we
can once make up our minds to bear with this, we shall not unfrequently be
richly recompensed in comic drollery; even in the choice of a melody, and
the allusion to the common and well-known words, there is often a display
of wit. In earlier times writers of higher pretensions, a Le Sage and a
Piron have laboured in the department of the _vaudeville_, and even for
_marionettes_. The wits who now dedicate themselves to this species are
little known out of Paris, but this gives them no great concern. It not
unfrequently happens that several of them join together, that the fruit of
their common talents may be sooner brought to light. The parody of new
theatrical pieces, the anecdotes of the day, which form the common talk
among all the idlers of the capital, must furnish them with subjects in
working up which little delay can be brooked. These _vaudevilles_ are like
the gnats that buzz about in a summer evening; they often sting, but they
fly merrily about so long as the sun of opportunity shines upon them. A
piece like the _Despair of Jocrisse_, which, after a lapse of years, may
be still occasionally brought out, passes justly among the ephemeral
productions for a classical work that has gained the crown of immortality.
We must, however, see it acted by Brunet, whose face is almost a mask, and
who is nearly as inexhaustible in the part of the simpleton as Puncinello
is in his.

From a consideration of the sportive secondary species, formed out of a
mixture of the comic with the affecting, in which authors and spectators
give themselves up without reserve to their natural inclinations, it
appears to me evident, that as comic wit with the Italians consists in
grotesque mimicry or buffoonery, and with the English in humour, with the
French it consists in good-natured gaiety. Among the lower orders
especially this property is everywhere visible, where it has not been
supplanted by the artifice of corruption.

With respect to the present condition of Dramatic Art in France, every
thing depends on the endeavours to introduce the theatrical liberties of
other countries, or mixed species of the drama. The hope of producing any
thing truly new in the two species which are alone admitted to be regular,
of excelling the works already produced, of filling up the old frames with
richer pictures, becomes more and more distant every day. A new work
seldom obtains a decided approbation; and, even at best, this approbation
only lasts till it has been found out that the work is only a new
preparation of their old classical productions.

We have passed over several things relating to these endeavours, that we
may deliver together all the observations which we have to make on the
subject. The attacks hitherto made against the French forms of art, first
by De la Motte, and afterwards by Diderot and Mercier, have been like
voices in the wilderness. It could not be otherwise, as the principles on
which these writers proceeded were in reality destructive, not merely of
the conventional forms, but of all poetical forms whatever, and as none of
them showed themselves capable of suitably supporting their doctrine by
their own example, even when they were in the right they contrived,
nevertheless, by a false application, to be in the wrong.

The most remarkable among them is Diderot, whom Lessing calls the best
critic of the French. In opposition to this opinion I should be disposed
to affirm that he was no critic at all. I will not lay any stress on his
mistaking the object of poetry and the fine arts, which he considered to
be merely moral: a man may be a critic without being a theorist. But a man
cannot be a critic without being thoroughly acquainted with the
conditions, means, and styles of an art; and here the nature of Diderot's
studies and acquirements renders his critical capabilities extremely
questionable. This ingenious sophist deals out his blows with such
boisterous haste in the province of criticism, that the half of them are
thrown away. The true and the false, the old and the new, the essential
and the unimportant, are so mixed up together, that the highest praise we
can bestow upon him is, that he is worthy of the labour of disentangling
them. What he wished to accomplish had either been accomplished, though
not in France, or did not deserve to be accomplished, or was altogether
impracticable. His attack on the formality and holiday primness of the
dramatic probabilities, of the excessive symmetry of the French
versification, declamation, and mode of acting, was just; but, at the same
time, he objected to all theatrical elevation, and refused to allow to the
characters anything like a perfect mode of communicating what was passing
within them. He nowhere assigns the reason why he held versification as
not suitable, or prose as more suitable, to familiar tragedy; this has
been extended by others, and among the rest, unfortunately, by Lessing, to
every species of the drama; but the ground for it evidently rests on
nothing but the mistaken principles of illusion and nature, to which we
have more than once adverted. [Footnote: I have stated and refuted them in
a treatise _On the Relation of the Fine Arts to Nature_ in the fifth
number of the periodical work _Prometheus_, published by Leo von
Seckendorf.] And if he gives an undue preference to the sentimental drama
and the familiar tragedy, species valuable in themselves, and susceptible
of a truly poetic treatment; was not this on account of the application?
The main thing, according to him, is not character and situations, but
ranks of life and family relations, that spectators in similar ranks and
relations may lay the example to heart. But this would put an end to
everything like true enjoyment in art. Diderot recommended that the
composition should have this direction, with the very view which, in the
case of a historical tragedy founded on the events of their own times, met
with the disapprobation of the Athenians, and subjected its author
Phrynichus to their displeasure [Footnote: See page 72.]. The view of a
fire by night may, from the wonderful effect produced by the combination
of flames and darkness, fill the unconcerned spectator with delight; but
when our neighbour's house is burning,--_jam oreximus ardet Ucalegon_--we
shall hardly be disposed to see the affair in such a picturesque light.

It is clear that Diderot was induced to take in his sail as he made way
with his own dramatic attempts. He displayed the greatest boldness in an
offensive publication of his youth, in which he wished to overturn the
entire dramatic system of the French; he was less daring in the dialogues
which accompany the _Fils Naturel_, and he showed the greatest moderation
in the treatise appended to the _Père de Famille_. He carried his
hostility a great deal too far with respect to the forms and the objects
of the dramatic art. But in other respects he has not gone far enough: in
his view of the Unities of Place and Time, and the mixture of seriousness
and mirth, he has shown himself infected with the prejudices of his

The two pieces above mentioned, which obtained an unmerited reputation on
their first appearance, have long since received their due appreciation.
On the _Fils Naturel_ Lessing has pronounced a severe sentence, without,
however, censuring the scandalous plagiarism from Goldoni. But the _Père
de Famille_ he calls an excellent piece, but has forgotten, however, to
assign any grounds for his opinion. Its defective plot and want of
connexion have been well exposed by La Harpe. The execution of both pieces
exhibits the utmost mannerism: the characters, which are anything but
natural, become from their frigid prating about virtue in the most
hypocritical style, and the tears which they are perpetually shedding,
altogether intolerable. We Germans may justly say, _Hinc illae lacrymae!_
hence the unnecessary tears with which our stage has ever since been
overflowed. The custom which has grown up of giving long and
circumstantial directions respecting the action, and which we owe also to
Diderot, has been of the greatest detriment to dramatic eloquence. In this
way the poet gives, as it were, an order on the player, instead of paying
out of his own purse. [Footnote: I remember to have read the following
direction in a German drama, which is not worse than many others:--"He
flashes lightning at him with his eyes (_Er blitzt ihn mit den Augen
an_) and goes off."] All good dramatists have uniformly had the action
in some degree present to their minds; but if the actor requires
instruction on the subject, he will hardly possess the talent of following
it up with the suitable gestures. The speeches should be so framed that an
intelligent actor could hardly fail to give them the proper action.

It will he admitted, that long before Diderot there were serious family
pictures, affecting dramas, and familial tragedies, much better than any
which he was capable of executing. Voltaire, who could never rightly
succeed in Comedy, gave in his _Enfant Prodigue_ and _Nanine_ a mixture of
comic scenes and affecting situations, the latter of which are deserving
of high praise. The affecting drama had been before attempted in France by
La Chaussée. All this was in verse: and why not? Of the familiar tragedy
(with the very same moral direction for which Diderot contended) several
examples have been produced on the English stage: and one of them,
_Beverley, or the Gamester_, is translated into French. The period of
sentimentality was of some use to the affecting or sentimental drama; but
the familiar tragedy was never very successful in France, where they were
too much attached to brilliancy and pomp. The _Melanie_ of La Harpe (to
whom the stage of the present day owes _Philoctete_, the most faithful
imitation of a Grecian piece) abounds with those painful impressions which
form the rock this species may be said to split upon. The piece may
perhaps be well adapted to enlighten the conscience of a father who has
determined to force his daughter to enter a cloister; but to other

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