FRENCH DRAMA IN THE EIGHTEENTH
the beginning of the eighteenth century the prestige of France
in all matters relating to literature and art was unquestioned.
The great reign of Louis XIV had brought the country into the
foremost place as a center of culture and learning. Peace had
been relatively secure, and men of letters had been encouraged.
had all died within the last twenty-seven years of the seventeenth
century, but the splendor of their achievement had not yet waned.
Encouraged by their success and by the establishment of permanent
theaters, playwrights increased in number, and new types of plays
began to appear. One of these new types was called, rather inappropriately,
drame, meaning a serious work not quite in the class of
conventional tragedy. In this group were included the tragédie
bourgeoise, dealing with commonplace people and often ending
in comparative happiness; also the sad or tearful pieces (comédie
larmoyante) which, transplanted to England, became the sentimental
comedy of Murphy or Kelly. There was also the comedietta, a short
piece, sometimes with music, resembling the "one-acter"
The writers who bridge the gap between
the neo-classicists and Voltaire were often men of considerable
talent, but there was no first-rate genius among them. Fontenelle,
nephew of the great Corneille, was a writer of comedies, who
broke away from the habit of writing in verse. Seven of his eight
plays are in prose. Regnard sought to imitate Molière,
but lacked the depth and earnestness which make an artist important.
Dufresny, who collaborated with Regnard, consciously disengaged
himself from the influence of Molière and attempted new
themes and new situations. Dancourt was an actor whose prose
plays definitely enlarged the field of comedy. He portrayed the
world of business, the demi-monde, and the common occupations;
and at the same time he revived the old, yet ever new, conflicts
between the sour guardian and youth, pictured the rogue entrapped
in his own roguery, and the wise man caught in his weaknesses.
The ideas of Dancourt were in the right line, but his equipment
as dramatist was not sufficient to give much weight to his work.
There were likewise writers of tragedy,
well thought of and fairly successful in their day, who have
left little trace in dramatic history. The most distinguished
of these was Crébillon the Elder, whose Idoménée
(1703) and Rhadamiste et Zénobie (1711) were far
above the level of the majority of the dramatic offerings of
his time. There was Pompignan, who again brought Dido from the
dead; Saurin who wrote about Spartacus; and Belloy who, among
other themes, dramatized the triumphs of Titus. It is evident
that the genius of modern classicism had passed the peak of its
development; the decline had set in. Before the low-water mark
was reached, however, there rose a man of energy and intellect
-- who achieved a somewhat hectic career as a dramatist and gave
his name to the period.
The young writer François Marie
Arouet (1694-1778), who is said to have written his famous tragedy,
Oedipe, at the age of nineteen, adopted the name Voltaire
after the successful production of that play in 1718. He was
born in Paris of a middle-class family and educated by Jesuit
priests. From his earliest youth he seems to have breathed skepticism
and a spirit of rebellion against intolerance. Twice he was imprisoned
in the Bastille, and more than once he was forced to leave France.
One of his periods of exile (1726-1728) was spent in England,
where he shrewdly observed many contrasts to the customs in his
own country. It was during that period that he sought out Congreve,
who affected to disdain his visitor's admiration of him as a
dramatist, saying he was but a "gentleman of the world."
Voltaire promptly replied, "If you were but that, then I
should not care to see you."
Voltaire's writings gained friends for
him among the most distinguished people of Europe. In 1745 he
became a member of the French Academy and was ennobled. Catherine
of Russia corresponded with him, and Frederick of Prussia
invited him to Berlin, where he remained for some years. The
last twenty years of his life were spent on his estate at Ferney,
near Geneva in Switzerland. When in 1778 he visited Pris again
after a long absence, he was welcomed by throngs of the populace
with an enthusiasm that spread throughout the city. Few kings
of emperors were ever so honored. Voltaire, however, was then
in his eighty-fourth year, and the presentations, visits, and
ceremonies proved to be too great a strain on his health. He
died in Paris, May 30, 1778.
With the success of Oedipe, Voltaire
had won almost immediately the first place among living French
dramatists. He continued to write for the stage for more than
fifty years, producing something like twenty tragedies and a
dozen comedies. He came near absolute failure in the latter species;
but one of his pieces, L'Enfant prodigue, is still remembered.
Such genius as he had for the stage lay in tragedy. Zaïre
(1732) and Mérope (1743) are among the best of
his plays. He obtained plot material from sources which before
his time had never been touched, such as China, South America,
and Mexico. Unfamiliar countries and ages attracted him; nevertheless,
he did not overlook the conventional sources of supply. In Mérope
he borrowed from the Italian Maffei; and Corneille, Calderón
all furnished him with ideas. He had the supreme theatrical gift
of portraying a sharp conflict: between patriotism and love,
as in Brutus; between love and religious duty, as in Zaïre;
between love and filial obedience, as in Alzire and Tancrède.
In the play L'orphelin de Chine, taken from an ancient
Chinese story, the conflict between parental love and patriotic
duty takes unusual turn. If a love interest were not present,
he nearly always borrowed or invented one, Oreste being
the only drama in which it is absent. In the best of his work
the action is carried on with spirit and vigor; and if the original
plot were not sufficiently striking, he created something to
make it so.
Voltaire was greatly influenced by English
drama, and in early life he expressed his admiration for Shakespeare.
As he gained an authoritative position among men of letters in
Europe, however, he became satirical about the practices of the
English, calling Shakespeare "a savage with some imagination,"
and "a Corneille at London, elsewhere a great fool."
He was annoyed by the English disregard for formality, by the
exuberance of fancy, the mixture of comic and tragic elements
in the same piece, the absence of the unities,
and carelessness as to poetic form. Gradually he evolved what
he considered to be a correct formula: namely, the use of the
alexandrine rhymed verse, the observance of the unities, the
differentiation between tragedy and comedy, and the presentation
of people of importance as heroes. Sophocles,
and after him Racine, were the true models. Addison's Cato
was truly great, the only fine tragedy in English!
Superficially it would seem that Voltaire
was attached to the classic mode; and in Oreste, it must
be admitted, he actually followed his own theories to some extent,
abolishing the love interest, the confidants, and other features
which had been injected by Renaissance writers. The majority
of his plays, however, reveal the fact that he was in practice
very little troubled by rules classical or otherwise. Whenever
the observance of the unities embarrassed him, he disregarded
them; or, observing them, he caused an absurd foreshortening
of events into an impossibly brief period of time. Only the shell
of classicism -- pseudo-classicism -- was kept; its austere and
noble tone, its reliance upon the deepest springs of human sympathy,
its wholesome lessons of courage and endurance "purging
the soul through pity and terror," --these things were forgotten
in the desire to be sensational at any cost. Nevertheless, Voltaire
as a dramatist stands head and shoulders above his fellow craftsmen.
Writing of the eighteenth century, Saintsbury says: "Were
it not for the prodigious genius of Voltaire, not a single tragedy
of the age would have much chance of being read, still less of
being performed; and were it not for that genius, and the unequal
but still remarkable talent of Crébillon the Elder, not
a single tragedy of the age would be worth reading."
In a peculiar way Voltaire was representative
of his age. Skepticism, ardor for new things, rashness, zeal,
keen sensibilities with comparatively little depth -- these were
his characteristics. He was the crack journalist of his time.
His great virtue was his courage in a fight; and his whole life
was a battle for intellectual liberty, religious tolerance, and
freedom of speech. The modern world would be infinitely poorer,
more enslaved, had it not been for his courageous and lifelong
rebellion against every sort of tyranny. Often he his teachings
of independence into his plays. Lacking in the gift of poetry
and an understanding of the human heart, he was unable to give
his dialogue the accent of real life and passion; but he was
able to dramatize a thrilling story and at the same time preach
a sermon. Voltaire as dramatist was merely the greatest in a
poverty-stricken age; but Voltaire, the banner-bearer of intellectual
and personal liberty, is still marching on.
PRODUCTION OF SHAKESPEARE
Although in his later years Voltaire scoffed
at Shakespeare, yet he was instrumental in introducing the English
dramatist into France; and many strange "adaptations"
were seen. In making these changes, the adapters were influenced
by the older classical writers, such as Racine. Characters which
in the original performed bloody and hair-raising deeds on the
open stage, in the Gallic version were sent behind the scenes,
and their crimes were related by that pest, the Messenger. Hamlet
was changed into a dutiful son; Lear,
were provided with happy endings. As to Lear, there was
grave doubt about the propriety of introducing a king as crazy
as he upon the Parisian stage, whatever his end might be. Shakespeare,
however, survived the indiscretions of friends and enemies alike,
and gained a firm foothold, six of his plays being translated
by the writer Ducis alone.
COMEDY IN FRANCE
The eighteenth century produced no Molière,
but there were writers of acceptable comedy -- LeSage, Piron,
Destouches, and a few others. LeSage, in his prose comedy Turcaret
(1709), satirized the corruption of financiers, the loose morals
of the nobility, the absurdities of provincial prise, and the
mean ways of shopkeepers. Destouches left at least seventeen
comedies, among them Le philosophe marié (1727)
and Le glorieux (1732), both worthy of being remembered.
Piron is said to have accomplished the difficult feat of composing
a comic opera and using but a single actor.
More than thirty comedies remain from Pierre
Carlet de Chamberlain de Marivaux (1688-1763), the romantic writer
who gave his name to a special style of language, marivaudage,
meaning a delicate but affected expression of emotion. Marivaux
avoided violence, but displayed a wealth of wit, surprise, and
entertainment. He gave the first place to the heart rather than
to the intellect, and so insinuated a romantic interest into
plots which had very little action. His plays enjoyed great popularity,
and are even now known on the stage. The characters are more
natural than those created by earlier writers; and at the same
time they are sophisticated and elegant. The theme is always
love; and the "big" scenes always portray the crisis
of some affaire du coeur.
It has been said that the chief business
of Pierre Claude de la Chaussée was to afford the public
the luxury of tears. His name is inseparably connected with the
comédie larmoyante. He had imbibed some of the
philosophy of Rousseau, and his plays can often be reduced to
the thesis: Whatever is sanctioned by love is right; unrestrained
actions are a sign of force of character; the heart and its passions
must rule. Unfortunately La Chaussée had not sufficient
genius to prove his thesis. His plays were popular without being
very highly regarded. Voltaire made fun of them; and other critics
complained of their unreality and lack of strength. They are
written in verse in which may be found many improving sentiments.
One of the important intellectual leaders
of the eighteenth century was Diderot, who had definite ideas
concerning the reformation of the drama. He was not an admirer
of the high-riding style of Voltaire; but he was greatly interested
in English plays such as The London Merchant and The
Gamester, which took for their chief characters people of
the middle class. Diderot claimed that the theater had been too
remote from real life, that it should be used as an educational
medium, that prose was the more natural vehicle, and that the
fable should illustrate the duties, temptations and peculiarities
of the special class of society in which the hero finds himself.
In other words, the stage should be used to teach men how to
conduct themselves in their own sphere. Diderot's two principal
plays, Le fils naturel and Le père de famille,
written soon after the middle of the century, are dull and rather
priggish, but the theories they set forth found a response. With
the drame borgeois, which may be said to begin with the
appearance of Le fils naturel, the actions of kings and
mythological heroes became, at last, of less importance than
the experiences of Tom, Dick and Harry, who represent the common
man. Follower's of Diderot's theory wrote pieces no less concerned
with bourgeois virtues, but better suited to the stage than those
of their master. Sedaine, La Harpe, and Mercier continued the
use of common themes in plays which now seem dreary and absurd,
but were stirring for their time. The French stage then, as for
the century previous, was far cleaner and more decent than the
English stage of the corresponding period. Wives, sisters, and
mothers could witness the drame bourgeois not only without
injury to their modesty, but with benefit to their education.
The air of the theater became a bit heavy and oppressive with
its domesticity, but at least it was "near to the people."
afforded a brilliant exit for eighteenth century English drama,
(Pierre Augustin Caron 1732-1799) in France relieved the general
dramatic stodginess of the dying century. The career of Beaumarchais
is sufficiently remarkable in itself to afford a theme for a
playwright. As an inventive genius he devised a new escapement
for timepieces, and became "clockmaker to the king,"
Louis XV. He took the name Beaumarchais from the wealthy widow
whom he married. After her death he was appointed instructor
in music to the daughters of the sovereign; and after a second
marriage and widowhood, he was again made some sort of court
official. He was involved in lawsuits, and made and lost a fortune
in speculation. During the American Revolution he financed the
shipping of supplies and ammunition to the colonists, sending
out his own cruiser, named "Le fier Roderique," in
the D'Estang fleet. During the reign of terror he resided in
Holland, and upon returning found that his mansion had been destroyed.
He died the same year as Washington, with his claims against
the United States government still unsettled.
At about the age of thirty-five Beaumarchais
became interested in Diderot's ideas of drama, and sought to
touch a pathetic vein in the tragedy Eugénie (1767),
which treats of everyday events in the life of the common people.
The play was a failure; but in 1775 he won an extraordinary success
with The Barber of Seville; only, however, after an initial
failure and a revision of the first text. The plays is in five
acts, in prose, and the chief character, Figaro, is the lying,
intriguing servant familiar to us since the time of Plautus.
The plot, though simple, is full of surprising and amusing turns,
the wit flows, and the character study gives excellent opportunity
for the actor.
Nine years after his first success Beaumarchais
wrote The Marriage of Figaro, which was so permeated with
revolutionary ideas that public performance was forbidden. The
author had to content himself with reading it in private houses.
When in 1784 its presentation was permitted, the crowd at the
Théâtre Français was so great that three
people were crushed to death. Strangely enough, this "seditious"
play in time became popular even with royalty. Enacted by amateurs
of the court of Louis XV, the chief woman character was impersonated
by Marie Antoinette. It is very amusing even now. The Barber
of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro are widely known
and accepted as the most famous French comedies of the eighteenth
century, and among the celebrated comedies of the world. They
found a new sort of immortality in opera, The Barber of Seville
being composed by Rossini, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart.
This article was originally
published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher
Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 268-76.