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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 60/97 -


With pretensions far lower, the _Comic Opera_ or _Operette_ approaches much more nearly to perfection. With respect to the composition, it may and indeed ought to assume only a national tone. The transition from song to speech, without any musical accompaniment or heightening, which was censured by Rousseau as an unsuitable mixture of two distinct modes of composition, may be displeasing to the ear; but it has unquestionably produced an advantageous effect on the structure of the pieces. In the recitatives, which generally are not half understood, and seldom listened to with any degree of attention, a plot which is even moderately complicated cannot be developed with due clearness. Hence in the Italian _opera buffa_, the action is altogether neglected; and along with its grotesque caricatures, it is distinguished for uniform situations, which admit not of dramatic progress. But the comic opera of the French, although from the space occupied by the music it is unsusceptible of any very perfect dramatic development, is still calculated to produce a considerable stage effect, and speaks pleasingly to the imagination. The poets have not here been prevented by the constraint of rules from following out their theatrical views. Hence these fleeting productions are in no wise deficient in the rapidity, life, and amusement, which are frequently wanting in the more correct dramatic works of the French. The distinguished favour which the _operettes_ of a Favart, a Sedaine and later poets, of whom some are still alive, always meet with in Germany, (where foreign literature has long lost its commanding influence, and where the national taste has pronounced so strongly against French Tragedy,) is by no means to be placed to the account of the music; it is in reality owing to their poetical merit. To cite only one example out of many, I do not hesitate to declare the whole series of scenes in _Raoul Sire de Crequy_, where the children of the drunken turnkey set the prisoner at liberty, a master-piece of theatrical painting. How much were it to be wished that the Tragedy of the French, and even their Comedy in court-dress, had but a little of this truth of circumstance, this vivid presence, and power of arresting the attention. In several _operettes_, for instance in a _Richard Coeur de Lion_ and a _Nina_, the traces of the romantic spirit are not to be mistaken.

The _vaudeville_ is but a variation of the comic opera. The essential difference is that it dispenses with composition, by which the comic opera forms a musical whole, as the songs are set to well-known popular airs. The incessant skipping from the song to the dialogue, often after a few scrapes of the violin and a few words, with the accumulation of airs mostly common, but frequently also in a style altogether different from the poetry, drives an ear accustomed to Italian music to despair. If we can once make up our minds to bear with this, we shall not unfrequently be richly recompensed in comic drollery; even in the choice of a melody, and the allusion to the common and well-known words, there is often a display of wit. In earlier times writers of higher pretensions, a Le Sage and a Piron have laboured in the department of the _vaudeville_, and even for _marionettes_. The wits who now dedicate themselves to this species are little known out of Paris, but this gives them no great concern. It not unfrequently happens that several of them join together, that the fruit of their common talents may be sooner brought to light. The parody of new theatrical pieces, the anecdotes of the day, which form the common talk among all the idlers of the capital, must furnish them with subjects in working up which little delay can be brooked. These _vaudevilles_ are like the gnats that buzz about in a summer evening; they often sting, but they fly merrily about so long as the sun of opportunity shines upon them. A piece like the _Despair of Jocrisse_, which, after a lapse of years, may be still occasionally brought out, passes justly among the ephemeral productions for a classical work that has gained the crown of immortality. We must, however, see it acted by Brunet, whose face is almost a mask, and who is nearly as inexhaustible in the part of the simpleton as Puncinello is in his.

From a consideration of the sportive secondary species, formed out of a mixture of the comic with the affecting, in which authors and spectators give themselves up without reserve to their natural inclinations, it appears to me evident, that as comic wit with the Italians consists in grotesque mimicry or buffoonery, and with the English in humour, with the French it consists in good-natured gaiety. Among the lower orders especially this property is everywhere visible, where it has not been supplanted by the artifice of corruption.

With respect to the present condition of Dramatic Art in France, every thing depends on the endeavours to introduce the theatrical liberties of other countries, or mixed species of the drama. The hope of producing any thing truly new in the two species which are alone admitted to be regular, of excelling the works already produced, of filling up the old frames with richer pictures, becomes more and more distant every day. A new work seldom obtains a decided approbation; and, even at best, this approbation only lasts till it has been found out that the work is only a new preparation of their old classical productions.

We have passed over several things relating to these endeavours, that we may deliver together all the observations which we have to make on the subject. The attacks hitherto made against the French forms of art, first by De la Motte, and afterwards by Diderot and Mercier, have been like voices in the wilderness. It could not be otherwise, as the principles on which these writers proceeded were in reality destructive, not merely of the conventional forms, but of all poetical forms whatever, and as none of them showed themselves capable of suitably supporting their doctrine by their own example, even when they were in the right they contrived, nevertheless, by a false application, to be in the wrong.

The most remarkable among them is Diderot, whom Lessing calls the best critic of the French. In opposition to this opinion I should be disposed to affirm that he was no critic at all. I will not lay any stress on his mistaking the object of poetry and the fine arts, which he considered to be merely moral: a man may be a critic without being a theorist. But a man cannot be a critic without being thoroughly acquainted with the conditions, means, and styles of an art; and here the nature of Diderot's studies and acquirements renders his critical capabilities extremely questionable. This ingenious sophist deals out his blows with such boisterous haste in the province of criticism, that the half of them are thrown away. The true and the false, the old and the new, the essential and the unimportant, are so mixed up together, that the highest praise we can bestow upon him is, that he is worthy of the labour of disentangling them. What he wished to accomplish had either been accomplished, though not in France, or did not deserve to be accomplished, or was altogether impracticable. His attack on the formality and holiday primness of the dramatic probabilities, of the excessive symmetry of the French versification, declamation, and mode of acting, was just; but, at the same time, he objected to all theatrical elevation, and refused to allow to the characters anything like a perfect mode of communicating what was passing within them. He nowhere assigns the reason why he held versification as not suitable, or prose as more suitable, to familiar tragedy; this has been extended by others, and among the rest, unfortunately, by Lessing, to every species of the drama; but the ground for it evidently rests on nothing but the mistaken principles of illusion and nature, to which we have more than once adverted. [Footnote: I have stated and refuted them in a treatise _On the Relation of the Fine Arts to Nature_ in the fifth number of the periodical work _Prometheus_, published by Leo von Seckendorf.] And if he gives an undue preference to the sentimental drama and the familiar tragedy, species valuable in themselves, and susceptible of a truly poetic treatment; was not this on account of the application? The main thing, according to him, is not character and situations, but ranks of life and family relations, that spectators in similar ranks and relations may lay the example to heart. But this would put an end to everything like true enjoyment in art. Diderot recommended that the composition should have this direction, with the very view which, in the case of a historical tragedy founded on the events of their own times, met with the disapprobation of the Athenians, and subjected its author Phrynichus to their displeasure [Footnote: See page 72.]. The view of a fire by night may, from the wonderful effect produced by the combination of flames and darkness, fill the unconcerned spectator with delight; but when our neighbour's house is burning,--_jam oreximus ardet Ucalegon_--we shall hardly be disposed to see the affair in such a picturesque light.

It is clear that Diderot was induced to take in his sail as he made way with his own dramatic attempts. He displayed the greatest boldness in an offensive publication of his youth, in which he wished to overturn the entire dramatic system of the French; he was less daring in the dialogues which accompany the _Fils Naturel_, and he showed the greatest moderation in the treatise appended to the _Pere de Famille_. He carried his hostility a great deal too far with respect to the forms and the objects of the dramatic art. But in other respects he has not gone far enough: in his view of the Unities of Place and Time, and the mixture of seriousness and mirth, he has shown himself infected with the prejudices of his nation.

The two pieces above mentioned, which obtained an unmerited reputation on their first appearance, have long since received their due appreciation. On the _Fils Naturel_ Lessing has pronounced a severe sentence, without, however, censuring the scandalous plagiarism from Goldoni. But the _Pere de Famille_ he calls an excellent piece, but has forgotten, however, to assign any grounds for his opinion. Its defective plot and want of connexion have been well exposed by La Harpe. The execution of both pieces exhibits the utmost mannerism: the characters, which are anything but natural, become from their frigid prating about virtue in the most hypocritical style, and the tears which they are perpetually shedding, altogether intolerable. We Germans may justly say, _Hinc illae lacrymae!_ hence the unnecessary tears with which our stage has ever since been overflowed. The custom which has grown up of giving long and circumstantial directions respecting the action, and which we owe also to Diderot, has been of the greatest detriment to dramatic eloquence. In this way the poet gives, as it were, an order on the player, instead of paying out of his own purse. [Footnote: I remember to have read the following direction in a German drama, which is not worse than many others:--"He flashes lightning at him with his eyes (_Er blitzt ihn mit den Augen an_) and goes off."] All good dramatists have uniformly had the action in some degree present to their minds; but if the actor requires instruction on the subject, he will hardly possess the talent of following it up with the suitable gestures. The speeches should be so framed that an intelligent actor could hardly fail to give them the proper action.

It will he admitted, that long before Diderot there were serious family pictures, affecting dramas, and familial tragedies, much better than any which he was capable of executing. Voltaire, who could never rightly succeed in Comedy, gave in his _Enfant Prodigue_ and _Nanine_ a mixture of comic scenes and affecting situations, the latter of which are deserving of high praise. The affecting drama had been before attempted in France by La Chaussee. All this was in verse: and why not? Of the familiar tragedy (with the very same moral direction for which Diderot contended) several examples have been produced on the English stage: and one of them, _Beverley, or the Gamester_, is translated into French. The period of sentimentality was of some use to the affecting or sentimental drama; but the familiar tragedy was never very successful in France, where they were too much attached to brilliancy and pomp. The _Melanie_ of La Harpe (to whom the stage of the present day owes _Philoctete_, the most faithful imitation of a Grecian piece) abounds with those painful impressions which form the rock this species may be said to split upon. The piece may perhaps be well adapted to enlighten the conscience of a father who has determined to force his daughter to enter a cloister; but to other spectators it can only be painful.

Notwithstanding the opposition which Diderot experienced, he was however the founder of a sort of school of which the most distinguished names are Beaumarchais and Mercier. The former wrote only two pieces in the spirit of his predecessor--_Eugenie_, and _La Mere Coupable_; and they display the very same faults. His acquaintance with Spain and the Spanish theatre


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