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- Lectures on Dramatic Art - 50/97 -


Lenotre. All merit consisted, in their judgment, in extorting a triumph from nature by means of art. They had no other idea of regularity than the measured symmetry of straight alleys, clipped edges, &c. Vain would have been the attempt to make those who laid out such gardens to comprehend that there could be any plan, any hidden order, in an English park, and demonstrate to them that a succession of landscapes, which from their gradation, their alternation, and their opposition, give effect to each other, did all aim at exciting in us a certain mental impression.

The rooted and lasting prejudices of a whole nation are seldom accidental, but are connected with some general want of intrinsic capacities, from which even the eminent minds who read the rest are not exempted. We are not, therefore, to consider such prejudices merely as causes; we must also consider them at the same time as important effects. We allow that the narrow system of rules, that a dissecting criticism of the understanding, has shackled the efforts of the French tragedians; still, however, it remains doubtful whether of their own inclination they would ever have made choice of more comprehensive designs, and, if so, in what way they would have filled them up. The most distinguished among them have certainly not been deficient in means and talents. In a particular examination of their different productions we cannot show them any favour; but, on a general view, they are more deserving of pity than censure; and when, under such unfavourable circumstances, they yet produce what is excellent, they are doubly entitled to our admiration, although we can by no means admit the justice of the common-place observation, that the overcoming of difficulty is a source of pleasure, nor find anything meritorious in a work of art merely because it is artificially composed. As for the claim which the French advance to set themselves up, in spite of all their one-sidedness and inadequacy of view, as the lawgivers of taste, it must be rejected with becoming indignation.

LECTURE XIX.

Use at first made of the Spanish Theatre by the French--General Character of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire--Review of the principal Works of Corneille and of Racine--Thomas Corneille and Crebillon.

I have briefly noticed all that was necessary to mention of the antiquities of the French stage. The duties of the poet were gradually more rigorously laid down, under a belief in the authority of the ancients, and the infallibility of Aristotle. By their own inclination, however, the poets were led to the Spanish theatre, as long as the Dramatic Art in France, under a native education, had not attained its full maturity. They not only imitated the Spaniards, but, from this mine of ingenious invention, even borrowed largely and directly. I do not merely allude to the earlier times under Richelieu; this state of things continued through the whole of the first half of the age of Louis XIV.; and Racine is perhaps the oldest poet who seems to have been altogether unacquainted with the Spaniards, or at least who was in no manner influenced by them. The comedies of Corneille are nearly all taken from Spanish pieces; and of his celebrated works, the _Cid_ and _Don Sancho of Aragon_ are also Spanish. The only piece of Rotrou which still keeps its place on the theatre, _Wenceslas_, is borrowed from Francisco de Roxas: Molière's unfinished _Princess of Etis_ is from Moreto, his _Don Garcia of Navarre_ from an unknown author, and the _Festin de Pierre_ carries its origin in its front: [Footnote: And betrays at the same time Molière's ignorance of Spanish. For if he had possessed even a tolerable knowledge of it, how could he have translated _El Convidado de Piedra_ (the Stone Guest) into the _Stone Feast_, which has no meaning here, and could only be applicable to the Feasts of Midas?] we have only to look at the works of Thomas Corneille to be at once convinced that, with the exception of a few, they are all Spanish; as also are the earlier labours of Quinault, namely, his comedies and tragi-comedies. The right of drawing without scruple from this source was so universal, that the French imitators, when they borrowed without the least disguise, did not even give themselves the trouble of naming the author of the original, and assigning to the true owner a part of the applause which they might earn. In the _Cid_ alone the text of the Spanish poet is frequently cited, and that only because Corneille's claim to originality had been called in question.

We should certainly derive much instruction from a discovery of the prototypes, when they are not among the more celebrated, or already known by their titles, and thereupon instituting a comparison between them and their copies. We must, however, go very differently to work from Voltaire in _Heraclius_, in which, as Garcia de la Huerta [Footnote: In the introduction to his Theatro Hespañol.] has incontestably proved, he displays both great ignorance and studied and disgusting perversions. If the most of these imitations give little pleasure to France in the present day, this decision is noways against the originals, which must always have suffered considerably from the recast. The national characters of the French and Spanish are totally different; and consequently also the spirit of their language and poetry. The most temperate and restrained character belongs to the French; the Spaniard, though in the remotest West, displays, what his history may easily account for, an Oriental vein, which luxuriates in a profusion of bold images and sallies of wit. When we strip their dramas of these rich and splendid ornaments, when, for the glowing colours of their romance and the musical variations of the rhymed strophes in which they are composed, we compel them to assume the monotony of the Alexandrine, and submit to the fetters of external regularities, while the character and situations are allowed to remain essentially the same, there can no longer be any harmony between the subject and its mode of treatment, and it loses that truth which it may still retain within the domain of fancy.

The charm of the Spanish poetry consists, generally speaking, in the union of a sublime and enthusiastic earnestness of feeling, which peculiarly descends from the North, with the lovely breath of the South, and the dazzling pomp of the East. Corneille possessed an affinity to the Spanish spirit but only in the first point; he might be taken for a Spaniard educated in Normandy. It is much to be regretted that he had not, after the composition of the _Cid_, employed himself without depending on foreign models, upon subjects which would have allowed him to follow altogether his feeling for chivalrous honour and fidelity. But on the other hand he took himself to the Roman history; and the severe patriotism of the older, and the ambitious policy of the later Romans, supplied the place of chivalry, and in some measure assumed its garb. It was by no means so much his object to excite our terror and compassion as our admiration for the characters and astonishment at the situations of his heroes. He hardly ever affects us; and is seldom capable of agitating our minds. And here I may indeed observe, that such is his partiality for exciting our wonder and admiration, that, not contented with exacting it for the heroism of virtue, he claims it also for the heroism of vice, by the boldness, strength of soul, presence of mind, and elevation above all human weakness, with which he endows his criminals of both sexes. Nay, often his characters express themselves in the language of ostentatious pride, without our being well able to see what they have to be proud of: they are merely proud of their pride. We cannot often say that we take an interest in them: they either appear, from the great resources which they possess within themselves, to stand in no need of our compassion, or else they are undeserving of it. He has delineated the conflict of passions and motives; but for the most part not immediately as such, but as already metamorphosed into a contest of principles. It is in love that he has been found coldest; and this was because he could not prevail on himself to paint it as an amiable weakness, although he everywhere introduced it, even where most unsuitable, either out of a condescension to the taste of the age or a private inclination for chivalry, where love always appears as the ornament of valour, as the checquered favour waving at the lance, or the elegant ribbon-knot to the sword. Seldom does he paint love as a power which imperceptibly steals upon us, and gains at last an involuntary and irresistible dominion over us; but as an homage freely chosen at first, to the exclusion of duty, but afterwards maintaining its place along with it. This is the case at least in his better pieces; for in his later works love is frequently compelled to give way to ambition; and these two springs of action mutually weaken each other. His females are generally not sufficiently feminine; and the love which they inspire is with them not the last object, but merely a means to something beyond. They drive their lovers into great dangers, and sometimes also to great crimes; and the men too often appear to disadvantage, while they allow themselves to become mere instruments in the hands of women, or to be dispatched by them on heroic errands, as it were, for the sake of winning the prize of love held out to them. Such women as Emilia in _Cinna and Rodogune_, must surely be unsusceptible of love. But if in his principal characters, Corneille, by exaggerating the energetic and underrating the passive part of our nature, has departed from truth; if his heroes display too much volition and too little feeling, he is still much more unnatural in his situations. He has, in defiance of all probability, pointed them in such a way that we might with great propriety give them the name of tragical antitheses, and it becomes almost natural if the personages express themselves in a series of epigrammatical maxims. He is fond of exhibiting perfectly symmetrical oppositions. His eloquence is often admirable from its strength and compression; but it sometimes degenerates into bombast, and exhausts itself in superfluous accumulations. The later Romans, Seneca the philosopher, and Lucan, were considered by him too much in the light of models; and unfortunately he possessed also a vein of Seneca the tragedian. From this wearisome pomp of declamation, a few simple words interspersed here and there, have been often made the subject of extravagant praise. [Footnote: For instance, the _Qu'il mourût_ of the old Horatius; the _Soyons amis, Cinna_: also the _Moi_ of Medea, which, we may observe in passing, is borrowed from Seneca.] If they stood alone they would certainly be entitled to praise; but they are immediately followed by long harangues which destroy their effect. When the Spartan mother, on delivering the shield to her son, used the well-known words, "This, or on this!" she certainly made no farther addition to them. Corneille was peculiarly well qualified to portray ambition and the lust of power, a passion which stifles all other human feelings, and never properly erects its throne till the mind has become a cold and dreary wilderness. His youth was passed in the last civil wars, and he still saw around him remains of the feudal independence. I will not pretend to decide how much this may have influenced him, but it is undeniable that the sense which he often showed of the great importance of political questions was altogether lost in the following age, and did not make its appearance again before Voltaire. However he, like the rest of the poets of his time, paid his tribute of flattery to Louis the Fourteenth, in verses which are now forgotten.

Racine, who for all but an entire century has been unhesitatingly proclaimed the favourite poet of the French nation, was by no means during his lifetime in so enviable a situation, and, notwithstanding many an instance of brilliant success, could not rest as yet in the pleasing and undisturbed possession of his fame. His merit in giving the last polish to the French language, his unrivalled excellence both of expression and versification, were not then allowed; on the stage he had rivals, of whom some were undeservedly preferred before him. On the one hand, the exclusive admirers of Corneille, with Madame Sevigné at their head, made a formal party against him; on the other hand, Pradon, a younger candidate for the honours of the Tragic Muse, endeavoured to wrest the victory from him, and actually succeeded, not merely, it would appear, in gaining over the crowd, but the very court itself, notwithstanding the zeal with which 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


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