The following essay is reprinted from The Literary Movement in France During the Nineteenth Century. Georges Pellissier. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1897.
Romanticism first had its lyrical poetry, which was the natural expansion of deeply aroused sensibility bursting beyond the bounds of all doctrines; its dramatic poetry, on the contrary, was the application of long elaborated ideas and theories, in open and deliberate antagonism with those by which Classic tragedy had been governed. The words Classicism and Romanticism took their most precise meaning from the theatre, in reality the true battle-ground of these two schools. The innovators clearly perceived that they must become masters of the stage in order to win their cause. Here they were confronted by two of the greatest names in our literature, and a dramatic system perfect of its kind and in touch both with the society in which it had been formed and with the peculiar temperament of our race as fashioned by centuries of Classic culture. All the militant activity of the young school turned to the drama for the final field of victory.
Since Romanticism, at bottom but "liberalism" in art, aimed to substitute a "popular" for a "court" literature, it was obviously necessary to address the people; therefore a new theatre must be created. The people had formerly been but a "thick wall upon which art had only painted a fresco;" now was the time to "move the multitudes and arouse them to their very depths." Only the drama could give a truly national character to the Romantic movement.
While some of the contemporary poets were pure elegiacs, there were others who seemed to consider lyrical poetry only as a sort of "prelude." Victor Hugo, who assumed the direction of Romanticism from its inception, early deemed the drama its inevitable and definitive culmination. In his manifesto published in 1827, and adopted by the new school, the author of Cromwell summons poetry to the rebuilding of the theatre. According to his thinking, humanity has passed the age of lyricism and epopées; the present is the age of the drama, and art, without renouncing its other forms, must eventually become more and more absorbed in it. The ode and the epopee contain the germ of the theatre, but, when developed, it includes both alike; for our contemporary civilization it is "poetry complete."
The great importance, indeed the necessity, of a dramatic renaissance had long been felt. It has been shown how jealous were the susceptibilities with which the innovators first came in contact. However, the public slowly passed through its apprenticeship, maintaining its respect for traditions not without some effort. "The principal indication of the movement that was preparing," wrote M. de Rémusat in 1820, "is the spectator's disgust for works conceived and executed according to rules. It seems as if every means of arousing him had lost its effect. In vain do we seek to renew old forms by disguising them; he soon recognizes and grows weary of them." After having been immortalized by its many masterpieces, the tragedy of the seventeenth century had become exhausted. Created for an aristocratic, monarchical society of beaux esprits and courtiers, it was totally unfitted for the new social conditions. Certain poets attempted to effect its revival; but it was no longer a question of concession to the spirit of reform: a complete revolution was imperative. This would replace conventional formulas by an entirely new order founded upon truth and nature. "There are neither rules nor models," proclaimed Victor Hugo, "or, rather, there are no other rules than the general laws that embrace all art, and the special laws which in each composition result from the conditions proper to each subject."
Moreover, the new theatre was in process of growth from the close of the eighteenth century. After Diderot and Mercier, Madame de Staël assailed everything that tended to make our tragedy artificial in respect to form. At the same time Manzoni was writing his letter upon the dramatic unities. A little later Stendhal, in a series of pamphlets, collected and published under the title of Racine et Shakespeare, was skirmishing like a sharp-shooter before the old theatre. The journal, The Globe, then gave the reformers the support of its keen, weighty criticism. The new theatre possessed a code of poetics before any attempt whatever was produced on the stage. Victor Hugo had given a brilliant exposition of them in his famous preface; shortly after this Alfred de Vigny resumed the subject in his introduction to Othello. These two manifestoes contained a complete theory of the Romantic drama.
The seventeenth century conscientiously separated comedy and tragedy. It sacrificed reality to that ideal of noble harmony which governs all Classical productions. The public of those times demanded unity of both interest and impression. In tragedy everything was required to be grave, stately, sublime. Vices, the ugly, and the ridiculous were banished from it. Crime was only admitted when presented with imposing grandeur. In the theatre life was divided into two distinct parts, one of which was ascribed to Melpomene, the other to Thalia. Tragi-comedy is by no means a mingling of two elements; it is but a tragedy with a happy ending. Moreover, Corneille never wrote them, and Racine has but one upon his conscience. Tragic heroes never laugh; they do not even smile; indeed, they are only presented under circumstances in which their nobility is beyond cavil. It is rash of Racine to have hidden Nero behind a curtain, although it conceals him from the public no less than from Britannicus.
The separation of the comic and the tragic is conventional; and, although perfectly adapted to social environment during our Classical epoch, it is no longer in harmony with the democratic society substituted by the Revolution for the ancient régime. Less polished and refined, and more in touch with the tumult of life, this society was destined to give birth to a theatre which would grasp reality closer, express it more fully and vividly, mingle the ugly with the beautiful and the amusing with the serious, just as they are associated in life. It is precisely this fusion of the comic with the tragic that brought about the Romantic drama. Reality is the distinctive feature of the drama, and, according to the reformers of 1830, the real is but the natural combination of the two types, the sublime and the grotesque. These should be interwoven in the theatre just as in human existence, which the theatre proposes to reproduce faithfully. The author of Hernani demands "those who are shocked by his work" to re-read Molière and Corneille: to supplement each of "these two great and most admirable poets" by the other is the chief aim of the Romantic drama.
When considered apart, the grotesque and the sublime leave reality between them, and both engender abstractions,--on the one side, "abstractions of vices and idiosyncrasies;" on the other, "abstractions of crime and virtues." Classic heroes do not live complete lives. They only embody what is necessary to show us their souls. They ignore all material necessities, all physical pain and fatigue. When Mithridates receives a mortal wound, he is brought on the stage to breathe out his last sigh in a tirade of one hundred and fifty lines. Even moral individuality is reduced to its simplest expression. Whether in comedy or in tragedy, the Classic character never allows those special traits that mark individuality to appear; he shows us only general features in keeping with unique impression which the poet desires to produce.
Our Romantic reformers believed that there was still something to be accomplished after the comedies and tragedies of the seventeenth century,--that is, the drama; they believed that there was still something to be represented after abstractions of vices and virtues,--that is, man. Dramatic Romanticism is, before all else, the substitution of the concrete for the abstract, the particular for the general. The fusion of the comic and the tragic was in itself a departure from Classic abstraction; by blending them in the drama, the reformers of the theatre but obeyed a need for the real, living truth. This impulse, which modified the entire formula of dramatic art, is first evident in the conception of their characters.
The Romanticists no longer sought to place types but individuals before the public. The theatre of the seventeenth century represented ambition, avarice; they wish to show us an ambition, an avaricious man. They will begin by giving him a body: ambition and avarice are incorporeal, and the ambitious or avaricious man stands in need of a body. Then he is endowed with a certain age, physiognomy, and temperament. Indeed, they will bestow as much care upon individualizing his exterior features as the Classicists devoted to eliminating those features, irreconcilable with the constant, universal, abstractly human truth which was the aim and triumph of their art. They will not portray a passion, but a man under the influence of that passion. They will not confine themselves to presenting the essential, permanent qualities of that passion, materializing them as little as possible; they will not study passion as if it were a sort of anonymous force, but this or that individual whose character is modified by it. This complex individual they will then represent in his complex and manifold reality. While Classic art restricts nature, theirs will aim to render nature by confounding itself with it.
Tragical dramatis personæ live in an ideal world. As they are of no particular time or country, the poet can assign nothing definite or positive to their surroundings. Tragedy represents neither Greek nor Roman characters; they are logical entities with no date in time and no place in space. The more neutral the background, the better does it conform to the purely abstract character of tragedy. Indeed, what matters the time or place in which action occurs, if heroes are but pure spirits upon whom neither exerts the slightest influence?
In substituting men of concrete, individual lives for the ideal figures of tragic art, Romanticism was forced to determine their physiognomy by a host of local, casual details. In the name of universal truth the Classicists rejected the coloring of time and place; and this is precisely what the Romanticists seek under the name of particular reality. "We are just beginning to understand," says Victor Hugo, in his preface to Cromwell, "that the exact reproduction of locality is one of the first elements of Realism." Does this mean that our poets of the seventeenth century did not comprehend it? It was exactly from repugnance for the "real" that they paid so little attention to local color. With the Romanticists history takes possession of the theatre. The tragic poets of the seventeenth century had been moralists; those of the nineteenth century became historians. The first observed all that is human only in a general sense; the second aim to vary moral with historical truth. If the basis of our nature never alters, the drama should not only represent this permanent basis, but all the differences of race, age, and milieu also belong to its sphere. In fact, after these differences have modified individuals, they must be interpreted by particular details of manners, language, costume, domestic life--by that exact mise en scène which imparts the quality of precise reality to the drama.
For our Classic poets the theatre was not a picture of real life; to them a dramatic work represented a learned composition, whose art consisted in rectifying and disciplining nature, in selecting and disposing the data it offers according to the laws of reason. The rules of the unities categorically expressed this fundamental conception. They were limits which art prescribed for nature; and their aim and effect was to prevent the subject from being dispersed through time and space. Our Classic theatre is, in great part, indebted to these rules for that remarkable concentration and moderation which is its distinctive characteristic. Though very often defended by doubtful reasons, the unities of time and place possessed a real virtue in assuring unity of action.
They were abolished by Romanticism because they seemed to be the application of a tyrannical art. As, in the conception of characters, it carefully notes all those individual details eliminated by the tragedy of the seventeenth century, so, in the development of action, is it less concerned in pruning all that is naturally complex and irregular than in avoiding what might make the drama appear a complicated structure. According to the old system, every tragedy was the conclusion of an already ripened action bound but by a single thread, and the poet's skill consisted in preparing us for this consummation by an ingeniously imagined series of events. Its opening preceding its close by only a few hours, and all its actors being reunited where all interests are likewise concentrated, in its entire scope tragedy necessarily embraces but a sort of supreme crisis. Its characters remain as they appeared in the first act. In his action the poet did not aim to develop, but to depict characters. It was not his purpose to detach a portion of human life for the public benefit, but to combine a work of art and reason.
Upon this point, as upon all others, the Romanticists decided in favor of truth. "In the future," said Alfred de Vigny, "the dramatic poet will hold many periods of time in his hand, and through these he will cause entire existences to pass.... He will allow his creations to live their own lives, only sowing in their hearts the germs of passion whence arise great events. When the time comes, and only then, will he, without hastening his finger, show us destiny enveloping its victim.... In every respect art will resemble life." These few words sum up the poetics of the drama. It preserves neither unity of time nor of place. But the innovators did not infringe upon unity of action, since this is the universal law of every work of art; they only relaxed its severity by interpreting it more broadly and changing its name to unity of interest or ensemble, in accordance with more liberal views.
If Classic tragedy substituted declamation for action, it was because the refined public which it addressed did not so much care for spectacles as for keen analyses of the human heart,--an inevitable consequence of the unities. As tragedy lasted but twenty-four hours, it seemed expedient to recount all previous incidents necessary to the understanding of the action; and since the scene could not be changed, the greater part of the action took place behind the curtain, and was consequently exposed by narrative. In Britannicus, for example, Shakespeare would have shown us Nero offering his brother the cup of poison, Narcissus mangled by the people, Junia casting herself at the foot of the statue of Augustus. But Classic rules forbade Racine from changing the scene of action to the public square, or even to another room in the palace. As Victor Hugo says, the tragedy of the seventeenth century very often permitted us to see the elbows of action while its hands remained concealed. Released from the unities of time and place, the Romanticists were henceforth free to represent dramas more lifelike and picturesque as well as more in conformity with reality.
Tragedy excluded all the elements not indispensable to moral truth, indeed the only truth at which it aimed. It gave place to nothing fortuitous. With the exception of a few shadowy supernumeraries, whose only duty was to give heroes their cues, it introduced no other personages than protagonists. The only actions permitted were those that helped to weave the plot. It everywhere aimed to simplify nature. It suppressed chance and corrected deviations. Its agents and materials were reduced as far as possible. In fact, it consisted in a problem of mechanics. Racine considered a work half finished when its plot had been outlined. Now, outlining a plot comprised finding a simple arrangement to economize actions and characters by substituting the wise discrimination of art for the daring prodigality of nature.
From the first the Romanticists rose against those "tragedies in which one or two figures stalked solemnly about a stage without background and scantily peopled by a few confidants charged with filling up the breaks in a uniform, monochord action." Alfred de Vigny demanded that the drama should involve a "vortex of actions." Victor Hugo remarked: "Instead of the single individual that satisfied the old school, we shall have twenty, forty, fifty, as many as we wish, and of every variety and importance. The drama will be a concourse of people." It no longer applied itself to representing the elementary forms of human life in primitive peoples, or pure intellects and moral entities moving about in an atmosphere of abstraction. The new drama proposes to place historical life upon the stage. History, beyond legendary antiquity, where the Classic poets had sought the greater number of their subjects, is peopled with strange, complex figures, too individually characteristic to be confined to the narrow limits of tragedy. Victor Hugo appears with Cromwell, whose every act comprehends more than one of Racine's whole tragedies. The poet demands an entire evening "to unfold rather amply the character of a chosen man or a critical epoch:" this is because he wishes to present the man in all the contrasts of his nature, because he seeks to express the details of an epoch with all its many-sided aspects rather than its general features. A roomy stage, a "throng" of characters, "multiform" action, seemed to the reformers of 1830 as indispensable to the drama by which they wished to supplant tragedy. It is designed to represent a picture of human life instead of to incorporate the conventions of an art too exclusive and idealistic ever to be in accord with nature.
Classic style corresponds to the theories in virtue of which tragedy rendered the constant, impersonal elements of humanity. It is abstract, general, psychological, possessing a nobility that does not redeem its lack of color, relief, and what might be called sensible reality. Romanticism required the entire vocabulary to express life. Since the drama does not present pure intellects solely occupied in analyzing themselves, but real people cast body and soul into the world's turmoil, there is now no place for the scruples of tragedy. On entering the drama, history, human existence, and material nature bring with them an army of new expressions which would have been blasphemy on the lips of Classic heroes. "Luther said," wrote Victor Hugo, "'I overturn the world in drinking my mug of beer.' Cromwell said, 'I have the king in my sack and Parliament in my pocket.' Napoleon said, 'Let us wash our soiled linen at home.' Here is advice to makers of tragedies who do not comprehend the great things without great words." The Romantic drama demands a style adaptable to all tones, situations, and characters, a style admitting the whole poetic scale, "running from the highest to the lowest key, from the noblest to the most vulgar of ideas, from the most absurd to the gravest, from the most external to the most abstract." It must pass without effort from the recitative proper to the simplicity of ordinary existence, to the song of "passion or misfortune;" it must be by turns concise or diffuse according to the speaker, scholarly or ungrammatical, lavish or grudging of embellishment, aiming first of all to be appropriate, and, when circumstances demand fine language, only so as if by chance and unconsciously."
Let us sum up the characteristics of tragedy as in full sympathy with the Classic spirit, of which it is the most perfect and significative production. It admits of but three or four characters upon a stage with a colonnade against a neutral background for its only scenery. Its action is cramped into twenty-four hours, and its heroes never open their mouths but to utter long tirades, their action taking place almost entirely behind the scenes. There is nothing that appeals to the senses; they are souls freed from all intercourse with the body, pure intellects, human only in what relates to moral life, their passions being those most general to mankind. In its nobility there is a harmony that suffers no discord. Laughter is banished, and crime only dares present itself under the most imposing aspects. It is a system of abstraction artificially suppressing half of life, a system of idealization reducing humanity to its constant, typical characteristics.
What is the drama? Let us proceed to define it as conceived by its creators. It is a broad picture of life in place of a condensed picture of a catastrophe, -- a mingling of peaceful with tragic or comic scenes. Belonging to tragedy in the rendering of passions and to comedy in the portrayal of characteristics, it is neither the one nor the other, because its passions are individual and not general, and its characters real men instead of types. With it the theatre becomes a little corner of the real world, having a truthful local coloring in close accord with people of flesh and blood. It associates in the same work all the elements offered by reality. It multiplies actors, enlarges and complicates the sphere of action, and hastens its movement. It permits liberty of time and space in order to develop freely its subjects. Despising Classic conventions and artifices, it is ready to sacrifice tirades and even deny itself "fine lines." For its rule and purpose it has the imitation of nature, the representation of life.
Is truth in art, as the Romanticists wished to place it upon the stage, then, an exact copy of "the thing itself," just as those whom the author of Cromwell calls the tardy partisans of Romanticism assumed in 1827? Not less hostile to "Realism" than to Classicism, Victor Hugo protests from the first against this theory. In separating himself from the one, he assimilated from the other, beyond its conventional formulas, certain fundamental principles upon which the Classic theatre is based, and which correspond both to the conditions of its form and to the special demands of the French mind and its traditions of natural culture.
From the Romantic point of view there is an "insurmountable barrier which separates reality according to art and reality according to nature." The drama is a mirror reflecting human life,--not an ordinary mirror always throwing back a feebler likeness, but one that collects, concentrates, and condenses rays of color, and makes light from a gleam and flame from light. Those very words freely employed by the new school to designate the two elements of the drama, the "grotesque" and the "sublime," indicate what is characteristic of their conception. The grotesque and the sublime are two types; but mean, commonplace reality is composed of neither of these. In the Romantic drama we find both the grotesque and the sublime, but not that characterless truth which art, and particularly dramatic art, rejects. Even the trivial "should have accent." The Realists make a drama of the commonplace; whereas, according to the Romanticists, this very commonplace, which is the defect of limited minds, would result in "killing" the drama.
The theatre allows no place either for the poet's intervention or for the reflection of spectators. The desired effect can be obtained only by forcing features; hence its idealization. But the best means of accentuating certain traits is to efface others; hence the abstraction which completes idealization. What would be the result if reality were produced on the stage just as it exists? There are more insignificant actions in life than significant; they would be quite overwhelmed by them. Accessory personages are more numerous than those to whom a drama is attached; they would pass over the stage only to distract our attention. In respect to characteristics, if a complete man were represented, the significant would here also be stifled by the insignificant. Without selecting certain acts there would be no action; without emphasizing certain features there would be no characteristic figures. The poet must portray his hero and complete his action in three hours. He must suppress idle incidents, superfluous words, condense and abridge nature. Dramatic works are not found ready made; it is the purpose of art to construct them. Every work of art should possess unity or be without signification; it must have a beginning and an ending. Real life brings so many circumstances and different people together that its scenes have neither beginning nor ending. Nature makes no jumps; if presented as it is, we would insensibly pass from one person and one circumstance to others without finding a stopping-place. A drama is not composed by reproducing what is disconnected in human life, what belies our previsions and disconcerts our plans. Above and beyond material truth exists moral truth. It is the logical that is true upon the stage. Side by side with nature is art, and art thrives upon ellipses and syntheses.
Abstraction and idealization, after all, remain the fundamental processes of theatrical art for the Romanticists as well as for the Classicists. Romanticism distinguishes itself from Realism by maintaining these two great stage laws in opposition to it. Victor Hugo declares that, according to the optics of the theatre, every figure should be reduced to its most evident and most precise features; he opposes art to nature,--that "truthful, salient life which is the peculiar element of all drama to a flat, stupid, charmless reality."
Not when it concerns principles, but conventions, does Romanticism make use of its acquired liberties with a very significant reserve.
If it abolishes unity of time, it is not to place the entire life of man upon the stage, to force into the same setting events which follow each other with no other connection than accidental succession; if it abolishes unity of place, it is not to transport the spectator elsewhere with each scene, to disguise the poet's incapacity to compose an action adhering in all its parts. He knows that if characters are presented at too long intervals, the thread of their identity will be broken, for too frequent changes of scenery are likely to confuse and fatigue the spectator and "produce the effect of dazzling him." The first of Victor Hugo's dramas, though not destined for the stage, and indisputably the most "Shakespearian" of all his works, rigorously observes unity of time, and scarcely transgresses unity of place. Moreover, the poet does not hesitate to assert that a concentrated subject is better than a dispersed subject of equal interest.
The Classicists strictly maintained the division of styles in the name of harmony, to which they sacrificed reality. The Romanticists mingled comedy and tragedy, but it was no more in the interest of reality than for the purpose of securing a more complex harmony. One of the most important reasons that influenced Victor Hugo in favor of what he calls the grotesque is the fact that "we must have repose from all things, even from the sublime; indeed, the sublime upon the sublime with difficulty produces contrast." According to him, "true poetry lies in the harmony of opposites."
Thus, in spite of his declarations, the poet treats the comic and the tragic as elements not to be confounded. In his dramas there is a juxtaposition, but no combination of these two elements. For example, each act of Hernani, as in Alfred de Vigny's Maréchale d'Ancre and Alexandre Dumas' Tour de Nesle, starts out as a comedy and ends a tragedy. The "grotesque" appears to have no part in the real foundation of the work. Indeed, the tragic has but to make its appearance to cause the disappearance of the comic element. The distinction of the two styles is not altogether conventional. Doubtless the tragic and the comic constantly mingle under our eyes; do we only remark the amusing incidents that may cross our grief when misfortune strikes us? When under the influence of pleasure, can we not easily dispel every painful memory that might trouble our enjoyment?
"Far from demolishing art," wrote Victor Hugo, "the new ideas aim to reconstruct it on a firmer basis." That Romanticism brought about a revolution in the theatre cannot be denied. It was, however, not so much directed against the actual aesthetics of Classicism, revived with new force in the new drama, as against modish conventions, antiquated costuming, a rhetoric and stage setting inconsistent with the new society. It cast aside all narrow and formal rules, but in remaining true to the general spirit that dictated them. It freed the stage from all superannuated restraints in order to give a more or less complete and expressive representation of life. If it did not seek to attain its dramatic ideal by means of the formulas of the seventeenth century, in its essential features it was still in sympathy with that upheld by our national poets. Logical development, economy of means, sobriety of action, are the main characteristics of the Romantic drama as well as of tragedy. Through so many tumults and tempests the real basis of French genius had remained intact.
The entire Romantic theatre can be summed up in three poets: Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alexandre Dumas.
Victor Hugo unfolds all the wealth of his poetry on the stage. To vigor of passion, vivacity of coloring, grandeur of tirades, may be added force of situation, the instinct for scenic effect, a rapid, pressing action, a skill in composition always maintaining his work within its lines, and binding its parts closely together. If his dramas fall below his ideal, in spite of so many great works it is, in great part, due to the peculiarly lyrical bias of his genius. He seems always to have in view certain culminating points which he hastens to ascend in order there to make heard those vivid, vibrating couplets in which he gives full swing to his eloquence. Victor Hugo's dramas lack most a profound and complete analysis of the characters so vigorously presented. Though there are, here and there, admirable psychological fragments, the poet never gives us an entire soul, and too often replaces psychology by a superb rhetoric of sentiment.
Too lyrical in this sense, he is so also in that he does not issue from himself; we find more or less of the author in all his creations. Victor Hugo's characters "live by his breath and speak with his voice." Sometimes they are mere creatures of fancy. Hernani, Didier, Ruy Blas, all thoroughly "Romantic" heroes, do not represent the poet's soul, but his imagination. They have footing neither in history nor in human truth.
In addition to this defect there is also another, not less incompatible with that "truth" which Romanticism aims to restore. We have only to read Victor Hugo's prefaces to learn how he conceives the subjects and characters of his dramas. Not living men and real events, but logical formulas, first present themselves to him. The four most important characters of Ruy Blas "represent the main facts noted by the philosophical historian concerning the Spanish monarchy of a hundred years ago." That paternal love may transform the being most degraded by the physical deformity, is the idea that produced le Roi s'amuse. That maternal love may purify moral deformity is the inspiration of Lucrèce Borgia. The original conception of Angelo consists in bringing together a woman of society and one without its pale, in order to guard the one from despotism and the other from contempt. Finally, the thought that the poet attempted to realize in Marie Tudor is that a "queen may be great as a queen and true as a woman." This rational conception of subjects necessarily leads to abstraction. All the activity of the poet's creations is designed to realize an "idea" or a "thought." It is not the cevelopment of characters, it is the deduction from a thesis. Victor Hugo delights in clashing the disparities of a character, and in this way he avoids that vice of Classic tragedy which reduces an individual to a sentiment. But these very disparities form an artificial whole; by making contrasts so violent do we not also falsify human nature?
Victor Hugo's faults are counterbalanced by his profound insight into history, from which he borrows features of local reality, just, fresh tints, a vivid, picturesque setting which imnparts the colors of life to his dramas. In this he is also aided by his art of combining dramatic incidents, the energy with which he urges on his characters, his thorough understanding of the stage,--by all those constructive qualities comprehended in the theatrical gift. With Alfred de Vigny these faults are much more marked, and they are not redeemed by the same qualities.
It seems as though the timid, prudent author of Eloa should never have risked the theatre. However, he was the first to descend into this arena. It is true, the drama which he brought out before Hernani was but a translation. Only one of those that followed achieved any degree of success, Chatterton, a pathetic work, and according to Saint-Beuve but the analysis of a "literary malady." A broad picture of man could not be expected from him. Vigny's delicate art has admirably personified on the stage the type of poet who is wounded by the meannesses and vulgarities of contemporary environment; but, as he has said, "Chatterton was but a man's name, the poet was everything for him." And we may add that this poet was the author of the drama.
Alfred de Vigny made known his fundamental conception of the theatre at the beginning of his career. "If art is a fable," it should be a philosophical fable." He has given a rational explanation of all his works. La Maréchale d'Ancre, as well as Chatterton, was developed from an abstract idea. "From the centre of the circle described by this composition, a keen eye can perceive that Destiny against which we are ever struggling, but which overcomes us as soon as our characters become enfeebled." According to the poet, even the little comedy, Quitte pour la peur, also contains "a very grave question beneath its light form." Alfred de Vigny declares that the time has come for what he calls the "Drama of Thought," and this is what he wishes to substitute for the drama of life and action.
In his exhaustless fecundity, the ardor of his temperament, his expansive enthusiasm, his sensual love of life, movement, color, and everything that moves and glitters, Alexandre Dumas is directly opposed to Alfred de Vigny. In 1829 the author of Henri III brought dramatic gifts of rare vigor to the stage. No contemporary poet was his equal in the gift for effect, fertility of resource, skill and aptness in stage setting. His works owe their exceptional vogue to truly dramatic qualities, though sustained by no solid foundation of learning. Is not the theatre, in fact, a peculiarly popular form of art? His marvellous power of assimilation has sometimes succeeded in reviving the past; but his dramas are too often historical only in their exterior features, in costume, and details that attract the eye. Local color can only be found upon the surface of his works. He openly confesses that he considers history but a "hook upon which to hang his pictures." He concerns himself much less with human truth than with picturesque decoration and thrilling catastrophes. He appeals to the nerves and senses of his spectators. He only shows the outside of man and life. His theatre is a façade. In explaining his popularity, Alexandre Dumas' faults and virtues also indicate those of the new style towards which he, little by little, directed Romanticism. For the Romantic drama as conceived by Victor Hugo, he substituted that very drama which the leader of Romanticism predicted and attempted to overthrow in his preface to Cromwell. It is a drama appealing solely to curiosity, quite exterior and material, composed of machinations and soon destined to end in melodrama.
While Alexandre Dumas was turning more and more towards a crude triviality, Victor Hugo continued to lift ever higher that ideal which his grandeur-loving genius from the outset attempted to realize on the stage. His last and one of his finest works, les Burgraves, came in conflict with public taste on account of the strange and inhuman elements it contained. Théophile Gautier relates that the poet's friends, feeling that the work was in danger, besought the engraver Célestin Nanteuil to recruit for the first presentation three hundred young Spartans determined to conquer or die. "Go and say to your master that youth no longer exists," responded Nanteuil, shaking his long hair. "These memorable words," says Sainte-Beuve, "make a date marking the last stage of the Romantic movement; all means had been forced, there was nothing left but to retrograde."
Only six weeks after les Burgraves, Ponsard, until then unknown, had his Lucrèce brought out. This "version of Titus Livy," as Victor Hugo styled it, met with great success by reason of its contrast. Ponsard at once found himself transformed into the leader of a new school grafted upon the old Classic trunk. This school was baptized the school of good sense after one of the poet's unlucky expressions.
Did tragedy, then, regain possession of our stage? Ponsard was certainly Classical in inclination and temperament, as his first work had plainly shown. If he did not return to the unities of time and place so feebly defended by Classicism, he at least reverted to nudity of action, simplicity of characters, sobriety of style, to those austere, symmetrical forms affected by tragedy. However, even in Lucrèce, so noisily opposed to their adversaries by the last of the Classicists, there are many evidences of Romanticism, which, as Ponsard himself acknowledged, "had been the object of his first cult." But Ponsard vainly attempted to conciliate tragedy with the drama; and this fruitless attempt suffices to explain his inferiority as a poet. Although in movement and brilliancy so often at fault, his conscientious talent lacks neither force nor audacity in its dryness and stiffness. He gradually made advances towards the innovators; and Charlotte Corday the best of this pretended restorer of tragedy's works, in spite of its title, is much more of a Romantic drama than a tragedy.
The drama was not succeeded by Classic tragedy, but by a species of comedy new in spirit and form, which, after the irremediable decadence of Romanticism, naturally adapted itself to the Positive and Realistic tendencies of our epoch. Even in the period of its greatest success, Romanticism had not abolished the comedy, in spite of its pretence to mingle it with the drama. But at that time it was little more than an amusement without import. It can be entirely included in the name of Eugène Scribe. For thirty years and with inexhaustible fertility Scribe supplied the theatres with works devoid of style and observation, and in which he displayed inimitable skill in embroiling and unravelling the threads of intrigues. He possessed the genius of savoir-faire. Solely concerned in diverting the world, he continued to amuse his public until coming generations no longer demanded marionettes in place of men, and the artificial glare of footlights for the full light of real life.
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