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THE DRAMA OF MODERN FRANCE.
No. III. THE CLASSIC SCHOOL.
FRANCE perhaps, even more than other nations which can boast of ages of civilization and greatness, has among its people, large and important bodies who cling with unalterable devotion to the feelings, manners and customs, of distinct and different periods. Thus do the advocates of the dethroned house of Bourbon invariably adopt the style and sentiIment which characterised the courts of Louis the Great, and his unfortunate descendants. Thus too, there are many who to this day, in sorrow be it said, assume the bearing, and ape the antics of the hideous French republic. How dearly also do the Bonapartists attach themselves to the pompous fashion and grandiloquent tone of their brief, but magnificent empire; for, with them,
Cæsar, thou art mighty yet:
It is rather singular that the classic drama happens to be alike acceptable to royalist, republican, and imperialist. The supporter of the ancient regime fondly cherishes the school formed by the Corneilles and Racines of his boasted Ludovican age. The Girondist, or Terrorist, regards the classic stage as the best means of bringing to present and perspicuous view, the form and features of those Greek and Roman commonwealths, which the revolutionary party so viciously, and miserably endeavoured to copy. Again, the theatres of ancient Greece and Rome were in accordance with the amplified state and proud existence of a conqueror, whose models were Cæsar and Alexander. Indeed, during the continuance of Napoleon's sway, the classic drama was so popular, that the taste went to excess, and plays became the mere vehicles of cold, tedious and bombastic declamation. The Romantic school therefore had to contend against the fixed prejudices of these three parties, which it could never overcome. Its eminent success was with the rest of the people; but the classic drama still retained its hold upon a portion of the public. There were authors who wrote for it, and audiences who came to applaud it. Yet it would probably have followed the political decline of its favourers, and have sunk into very infrequent representation, or entire disuse, but for the appearance of an actress whose great genius has effected, for a time, the complete restoration of the classic stage. Mlle. Rachel has revived Corneille, and Racine, and rendered popular their modern imitators. This heroine of the Théatre Français resembles in personal dignity and grace, the master statues of antiquity: her mind is also with the ancients. Subdued by her wondrous art, the romancists themselves come once more to contemplate and to sympathize with the sorrows of Andromache, or the wrongs of the sister of Horatius. The writings of the classic drama are again in the ascendant. Among the more modern classic authors, the principal of later, or actual existence, are Laharpe, Chenier, Lemercier,
Ducis, Delavigne, Guiraud, Soumet and Latour. The "Philoctete" of Laharpe is a scholar-like and faithful imitation of a Grecian play. The Sieurs Chenier and Lemercier, (the latter afterwards deserted the classic cause) are eminent as poets, but as dramatists are now little thought of; their works, such as “ Tiberius," "Clovis," "Agamemnon," are not, we believe, patronized by Mlle. Rachel. Guiraud is the author of the tragedies of "Les Machabées," and "Compte Julien," and others of more than passing merit. Ducis converted the plays of Shakespeare into classic dramas, and mainly owed his success to the acting of Talma. The reputation of Casimir De La Vigne is too well established to allow his works to be passed over, without more comment and consideration. M. De La Vigne is really a fine poet, and his writings frequently display much of elegant diction, and exquisite pathos. Unlike his romantic rivals, he never verges beyond the bounds of purity and propriety; indeed this is a virtue common to most authors of his school. De La Vigne's four great tragedies, are "Don Juan d'Autriche," "Les Enfans d'Edouard," "Les Vepres Siciliennes," and "Le Paria." We prefer the two latter, and therefore would especially notice them. "Les Vepres Siciliennes," as its name announces, takes for plot that terrible massacre and extermination of the French, which occurred at Palermo, in 1282, and which has obtained the appellation of "The Sicilian Vespers." The famous John of Procida, the instigator of the revolt, is introduced upon the scene, and his stern and determined character is well pourtrayed. The nature of the subject is however, little suited to the unity of time and place which a classic dramatist is obliged to observe. Instead of having, as in a Shakesperian play, the events of the fearful insurrection vividly presented to the audience, the story entirely depends on the descriptive accounts given by the various persons of the drama. Some of these narratives are, however, told with spirit, especially that of the heroine's confidant, Elfrida, who has witnessed the commencement of the massacre in the church of Palermo. Her relation is as follows; but of course the reader must make due allowance for the injury done to the original verse, by a translation into English prose.
Elfrida. "I slowly ascended the steps of the sanctuary, still strewed with flowers and sacred branches. The people, prostrated under those ancient arches, had begun to sing the psalins of the prophet-king, when a terrible sound shook the temple. The doors moved suddenly on their hinges. They opened. Aged men, distracted women, priests and soldiers who besieged the outlets, the former pursued, the latter threatening, the whole rushing against each other, burst over the threshold in multitudes. From mouth to mouth, fly the words War to Tyrants.' Priests repeat them with a savage look: children even respond. I wish to fly, but suddenly this increasing torrent closes the path. Our conquerors, whom a profane and rash love had to their destruction assembled at the foot of the sanctuary, calm though surprised, hear, without fear, the tumultuous cries of the enraged mob. Their swords glitter; numbers increase their courage. A cavalier rushes forward, opens a passage; he advances with precipitation. All yield to the strength of his arm: the dispersed ranks make way for him. He offers himself to their blows, without helmet or armour. It is Montfort,' they cry. To that shout succeeded a long murmur. 'Aye, traitors,' he exclaimed, my name alone, is a barrier to you. Fly from hence " He spoke thus indignantpale with wrath, and waved in the air his formidable sword, still reeking
with the blood in which he had steeped it-he strikes at the mob. An emissary from the Divinity would have seemed less terrible to the affrighted people. But Procida appears, and the stupified multitude reassured by his voice, precipitate themselves forward, and surround Montford. Lorédan forced on by the parental authority of Procida, follows him speechless with dismay. I saw our citizens, worked up by their fury, massacre each other, and they did so in the name of their country; I even heard the priest, as he stumbled over the ruins made by the havoc, a cross in his hand, utter curses, while he slew. The cries of the victors and the vanquished, are confounded together; the echoes from subterranean tombs respond. The fate of the conflict still rests in suspense, when night overshadows us with its wings of darkness. I lose my way among the assassins, and in uncertainty I seek the palace. I proceed stealthily. Oh! what heaps of dead and dying! Is another day to cast its light over that horrible picture? May the sun avoid us. May this sanguinary night hide from the whole world, the crimes it has engendered."
The "Paria" is among the most popular of M. de la Vigne's plays, and is, we think, his most graceful production. The scene of this tragedy is at Benares in India, among the Bramins. The story is this:
Idamoro, one of the outcast people called Parias, has quitted, in search of worldly adventure and advancement, his father, by whom he is tenderly beloved. He becomes a great warrior with the Bramin nation, and their leader in a hundred victorious battles. The fact of his being a Paria is unknown to them, and their high priest Akbar resolves to give him for wife his daughter, Néala, whose affection Idamoro has already secretly won. Unwilling to deceive his mistress, when about to wed her, Idamoro announces to her his belonging to a tribe that is accursed. She is at first horrified, but her love at length prevails, and she still consents to espouse him. As the nuptials are about to take place, Idamoro's aged father, Zares, comes in search of his long lost son: he discovers him in the successful conqueror, and implores him to return with him to their own country, to prevent his dying of grief. Idamoro promises to do so, but unable to quit his bride, he delays and permits the wedding to proceed, on Néala's agreeing to fly with them when it is over. In the mean time Zares is recognized as a Paria, is seized, and about to be put to death, when Idamoro declares himself a Paria also, and offers himself in the place of his father as a greater victim. The indignant and enraged Bramins accept the proposal. Idamoro is led to execution, but, while on the way thither, he and his constant companion Alvar, a Portuguese Christian, whom he has captured, and made his devoted friend, are stoned to death by the people. Néala, on hearing his fate avows her previous knowledge of his being a Paria, and she is sentenced to banishment: she departs with the aged Zares, whom she determines to accompany to his own home in lieu of the son he has lost.
The whole of this tragedy is very skilfully constructed, according to classic rules. The language is throughout poetic, and some parts display great spirit and harmony. The deaths of Idamoro and his Christian friend Alvar, are finely described: the following is the literal translation of the passage.
"The people rush forward to demand their prey, mingling cries of fury with shouts of joy. Idamoro appears haughty, yet his look is serene; he divides the crowd, walks majestically among them, and seems still to lead us, and to exhibit within our walls, as in the days of his glory, the pride of victory. His friend, that captive foeman tolerated amongst us as long as the unworthy chieftain himself beheld us at his feet-the Christian Alvar, who awaited him, rushes to his side. We take our ranks in mournful silence, whilst the Christian, prolonging his adieux, importuned our looks with a scene of blameable compassion. As to Idamoro, the very last accents of his sacrilegious voice braved, as he walked, the procession that led him to his death. Hasten!' he exclaimed, 'what Bramin, or what warrior reserves to himself the honour of striking me the first? When he passed near the spot where from the height of our walls his armed hand had sent death amongst our foes; 'Choose for my place of slaughter,' he cried, these rocks with which I used to crush your terror-struck enemies.' The people waxes indignant at the taunt. In their prompt justice they meditate and adopt a second punishment for this new offence. Their irritation increases as they proceed, and they prelude with insults the massacre of Alvar. Idamoro stops when he hears their menacing voices. The bravest recoil with terror; when, from all directions a thousand avenging arms hurl upon him the fragments of stone that lie scattered in the dust. A perfect cloud of missiles arises: it breaks and bursts forth with loud din and tempestuous force upon his breast, and around his head. Idamoro protects his friend, embraces him, and opposes in vain his bosom and his arm against the blow intended for Alvar. The meek Christian who prays while he falls, fixed an eye of love on the cross, the powerless symbol of his idolatry, invokes it, and, his countenance radiant with hope, drops at the feet of Idamoro, while pointing out the heavens to his friend. The insensate Idamoro now standing alone, weak and nearly lifeless, still fronts us amid the storm,-with a brow of defiance he still protects Alvar,-then grows faint-falls overcome, and while dying covers with his own mutilated body the corpse of his friend."
Alexander Soumet, a thorough poet in tone and thought has written some superb classic dramas: among others may be mentioned "Cleopatra," "Norma," "Clytemnestre," and "Jeanne d'Arc." Of these "Norma" has been immortalised by the genius of Bellini, and "Jeanne d'Arc" is rendered famous by the character of the heroine being a favourite performance of Mlle. Rachel. Yet the romantic subject of Joan of Arc is so little suited to the narrow limits of the classic stage, that this tragedy, despite of beautiful verse and acting, hangs heavily in representation: to exhibit the varied fortunes of the Pucelle without changing the scene, and without extending the time beyond a day, is an undertaking that must necessarily mar the interest of the story.
One of the latest writers of classic tragedy is M. Latour de Saint Ybars, and he is at the same time one of the best. His "Virginie" is an exquisite production: its fame is closely connected with that of Mlle. Rachel: the inherent worth of the play, and her admirable impersonation of Virginia, have secured to its frequent repetition delight and admiration. The tragedy opens with the prayer of Virginia to the household gods, which is replete with classic grace, and feeling. The following is a version of it:
ACT I. SCENEI.-Virginia comes from her chamber; she carries in her hands, with religious fervor, the violet crowns and the cup containing the sacred grain she strews the grain upon the altar of the domestic gods, and places the crowns upon their heads.
Virginia." Household Gods, you who watch over domestic peace, I cmoe according to ancient custom to invoke you. Oh! deign to receive my gifts; I bring to your altar, crowns of flowers, and pure offerings of salt and grain. For, O Gods domestic! protectors of my childhood; you, it is who have acted in my defence in every danger. Behold now, those other divinities who foster love, are withdrawing me for ever from the paternal roof. Oh! Penates, adopt my new found family, and guide my footsteps towards that future which my heart reveals. I quit with regret your modest altar and its calm retreat. My hope of happiness is great. Yet, I weep in offering you this last oblation, while I feel that I soon must quit this spot. Oh, household divinities! accept my farewell. To my father, above all, grant some share of comfort, so that the thread of his existence may be one of silk interwoven with gold. I think with sorrow of how he will return alone this evening, and seat himself solitary and silent at his hearth. Bounteous Gods, if his virtue move you, drive pallid-visaged sleeplessness and weariness from his couch. May days of happiness linked one to the other come to him in place of the remembrance of sorrows that he must forget for ever. Dear tokens of happiness,-sweet gifts, render me more handsome in my lover's eyes-more worthy of his faith. Ye Gods of Hymen, put in this veil of the priestly Flamen some sovereign charm to captivate Icilius' soul..... This day then, in a few short moments I give myself as a wife to the object of my love. Icilius pleases me, and men admire and extol him; yet my very happiness troubles me and makes me fearful. Explain to me this strange sensation of my heart. This day am I to become the mistress of his house, and yet I tremble for Icilius. Oh, pardon me, my beloved, I, who doat on thee, do thee offence by this tremor: still I feel as if I would willingly return to my childhood."
In a former number of "the Patrician," when noticing the acting of Mlle. Rachel at the St. James's Theatre, we contrasted this tragedy of Virginia with the romantic play of "Virginius" by Sheridan Knowles : we still scarcely know to which to give the preference. M. Latour's work, however, next to Talfourd's Ion, is certainly the nearest modern assimilation to the dramas of antiquity.
In conclusion, the observations of Augustus Schlegel on the tragedies of France in former times, are so applicable to its modern classic drama, that we cannot do better than here extract the passage from his lectures.
"To comprise," says M. Schlegel, "what I have hitherto observed in a few words: the French have endeavoured to form their tragedy according to a strict idea; but instead of this they have merely hit upon an abstract notion. They require tragical dignity and grandeur, tragical situations, passions, and pathos, altogether naked and pure without any foreign appendages. From stripping them in this way of their accompaniments they lose much in truth, profundity, and character; and the whole composition is deprived of the living charm of variety, the magic of picturesque situations, and of all those overpowering effects which