Imagens das páginas

defends her in single combat, and seeks in despair the death of a hero, when the unfortunate error clears 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 cannot at the very first 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 tedious; Tancred appears in the third act for the first time, and he is impatiently expected 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 re-union of two lovers, who have mistaken each other, in the moment of their separation by death.

It might be considered allowable in Voltaire in the earlier piece of the Orphelin de la Chine to represent the great Dschingis-kan in love. This drama ought to be called the Conquest of China, with the conversion of the cruel Khan of Tartary, &c. The whole of the interest is concentrated in two children whom we never once see. The Chinese are represented as the most virtuous and wise of all mankind, and overflow with philosophical maxims. As Corneille in his old age made one and all of his characters politicians, Voltaire in like manner furnished out his with philosophy, and availed himself of them to preach up his favourite opinions. He was not deterred by the example of Cor

neille, when the power of representing the passions was extinguished, from bringing to light a number of weak and faulty productions.

Since the time of Voltaire the constitution of the French stage has remained nearly the same. No talent has yet arisen sufficiently powerful to advance the art a step farther, and to refute, by a victorious result, their superannuated prejudices. Many attempts have been made, but they generally follow in the track of what has already been done, without surpassing it. The endeavour to introduce more historical extent into dramatic composition is frustrated by the traditional limitations and restraints. Of the attacks both theoretical and practical which have been made in France itself on the prevailing system of rules, it will be the most suitable time to deliver a few observations when we review the present condition of the French stage, after considering their comedy and the other secondary kinds of dramatic works; as attempts have either been made to found new species, or, in an arbitrary manner, to overturn the divisions which have hitherto been established between them.


French Comedy.-Molière.-Criticism of his works.-Scarron, Boursault, 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 art.

THE same system of rules and proprieties, which I have endeavoured to show must inevitably have a narrowing influence on tragedy, has been applied to comedy in France much more advantageously. For this mixed composition has, as we have already seen, an unpoetical side; and some degree of artificial constraint, if not altogether essential to the new 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, shapelessness, and representation of individual peculiarities, of falling into every day common place. In the French as well as the Grecian language, 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. The narrowing grammatical conscientiousness of the French poetry 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 a more elegant 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 of a good justification.

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 the intrigue ought to prevail, the activity of which quickly advances towards its object; and hence the unity of time comes to be almost naturally observed. The domestic and social circles in which the new comedy moves are usually assembled in one place, and consequently the poet is not under the necessity of sending our imagina. tion abroad: only it might have been as well, perhaps, 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 scene on the street, a practice in which the Latin

comic writers were frequently followed in the earlier times of modern comedy, is very 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 the 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 a more or less perfect approximation 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 progress after his time.

Molière has produced works in so many departments, and of such various worth, that we should hardly be enabled to recognize the same founder in all of them; and yet it is usual, when speaking of his peculiarities and merits, and the advance made by him in his art, to throw the whole of his labours into one mass.

Born and educated in an inferior rank, he enjoyed the advantage of becoming acquainted with the modes of living of the industrious part of the community * from his own experience, and of acquiring the talent

* Bürgerliche Leben (bourgeois).—I have translated this by a circumlocution: we have no privileged castes in this country, and consequently our language has no single expression equivalent to bourgeois, which includes, it is believed, all the unprivileged classes in cities and towns.—Trans.

« AnteriorContinuar »