The first and last only of these three great masters of the French tragic stage can be said to be fruitful writers; and, even these can hardly be accounted so, if compared with the Greeks. That Racine was not more prolific, was owing partly to accidental circumstances. He enjoys this advantage, however, that with the exception of his first youthful attempts, the whole of his pieces have kept possession of the stage, and the public estimation. But many of Corneille's and Voltaire's, even such as were popular at first, have been since withdrawn from the stage, and at present are not even so much as read. Accordingly, selections only from their works, under the title of Chef-d'oeuvres, are now generally published. It is remarkable, that few only of the many French attempts in Tragedy have been successful. La Harpe reckons up nearly a thousand tragedies which have been acted or printed since the death of Racine; and of these not more than thirty, besides those of Voltaire, have kept possession of the stage. Notwithstanding, therefore, the great competition in this department, the tragic treasures of the French are far from ample. Still we do not feel ourselves called upon to give a full account even of these; and still farther is it from our purpose to enter into a circumstantial and anatomical investigation of separate pieces. All that our limits will allow us is, with a rapid pen, to sketch the character and relative value of the principal works of those three masters, and a few others specially deserving of mention.
Corneille brilliantly opened his career of fame with the Cid, of which, indeed, the execution alone is his own: in the plan he appears to have closely followed his Spanish original. As the Cid of Guillen de Castro has never fallen into my hands, it has been out of my power to institute an accurate comparison between the two works. But if we may judge from the specimens produced, the Spanish piece seems written with far greater simplicity; and the subject owes to Corneille its rhetorical pomp of ornament. On the other hand, we are ignorant how much he has left out and sacrificed. All the French critics are agreed in thinking the part of the Infanta superfluous. They cannot see that by making a princess forget her elevated rank, and entertain a passion for Rodrigo, the Spanish poet thereby distinguished him as the flower of noble and amiable knights; and, on the other hand, furnished a strong justification of Chimene's love, which so many powerful motives could not overcome. It is true, that to be attractive in themselves, and duly to aid the general effect, the Infanta's passion required to be set forth more musically, and Rodrigo's achievements against the Moors more especially, i. e., with greater vividness of detail: and probably they were so in the Spanish original. The rapturous applause, which, on its first appearance, universally welcomed a piece like this, which, without the admixture of any ignoble incentive, founded its attraction altogether on the represented conflict between the purest feelings of love, honour, and filial duty, is a strong proof that the romantic spirit was not yet extinct among spectators who were still open to such natural impressions. This was entirely misunderstood by the learned; with the Academy at their head, they affirmed that this subject (one of the most beautiful that ever fell to the lot of a poet) was unfit for Tragedy; incapable of entering historically into the spirit of another age, they made up improbabilities and improprieties for their censure. [Footnote: Scuderi speaks even of Chimene as a monster, and off-hand dismisses the whole, as "ce mechant combat de l'amour et de l'honneur." Excellent! Surely he understood the romantic!] The Cid is not certainly a tragedy in the sense of the ancients; and, at first, the poet himself called it a Tragi-comedy. Would that this had been the only occasion in which the authority of Aristotle has been applied to subjects which do not belong to his jurisdiction!
The Horatii has been censured for want of unity; the murder of the sister and the acquittal of the victorious Roman is said to be a second action, independent of the combat of the Horatii and Curiatii. Corneille himself was talked into a belief of it. He appears, however, to me fully justified in what he has done. If the murder of Camilla had not made a part of the piece, the female characters in the first act would have been superfluous; and without the triumph of patriotism over family ties, the combat could not have been an action, but merely an event destitute of all tragic complication. But the real defect, in my opinion, is Corneille representing a public act which decided the fate of two states, as taking place altogether infra privates parietes, and stripping it of every visible pomp of circumstance. Hence the great flatness of the fifth act. What a different impression would have been produced had Horatius, in presence of the king and people, been solemnly condemned, in obedience to the stern mandate of the law, and afterwards saved through the tears and lamentations of his father, just as Livy describes it. Moreover, the poet, not satisfied with making, as the history does, one sister of the Horatii in love with one of the Curiatii, has thought proper to invent the marriage of a sister of the Curiatii with one of the Horatii: and as in the former the love of country yields to personal inclination, in the latter personal inclination yields to love of country. This gives rise to a great improbability: for is it likely that men would have been selected for the combat who, with a well-known family connexion of this kind, would have had the most powerful inducements to spare one another? Besides, the conqueror's murder of his sister cannot be rendered even poetically tolerable, except by supposing him in all the boiling impetuosity of ungovernable youth. Horatius, already a husband, would have shown a wiser and milder forbearance towards his unfortunate sister's language; else were he a ferocious savage.
Cinna is commonly ranked much higher than The Horatii; although, as to purity of sentiment, there is here a perceptible falling off from that ideal sphere in which the action of the two preceding pieces moves. All is diversely complicated and diseased. Cinna's republicanism is merely the cloak of another passion: he is a tool in the hands of Emilia, who, on her part, constantly sacrifices her pretended love to her passion of revenge. The magnanimity of Augustus is ambiguous: it appears rather the caution of a tyrant grown timid through age. The conspiracy is, with a splendid narration, thrust into the background; it does not excite in us that gloomy apprehension which so theatrical an object ought to do. Emilia, the soul of the piece, is called by the witty Balzac, when commending the work, "an adorable fury." Yet the Furies themselves could be appeased by purifications and expiations: but Emilia's heart is inaccessible to the softening influences of benevolence and generosity; the adoration of so unfeminine a creature is hardly pardonable even in a lover. Hence she has no better adorers than Cinna and Maximus, two great villains, whose repentance comes too late to be thought sincere.
Here we have the first specimen of that Machiavellism of motives, which subsequently disfigured the poetry of Corneille, and which is not only repulsive, but also for the most part both clumsy and unsuitable. He flattered himself, that in knowledge of men and the world, in an acquaintance with courts and politics, he surpassed the most shrewd and clear-sighted observers. With a mind naturally alive to honour, he yet conceived the design of taking in hand the "doctrine of the murderous Machiavel;" and displays, broadly and didactically, all the knowledge which he had acquired of these arts. He had no suspicion that a remorseless and selfish policy goes always smoothly to work, and dexterously disguises itself. Had he been really capable of anything of the kind, he might have taken a lesson from Richelieu.
Of the remaining pieces in which Corneille has painted the Roman love of liberty and conquest, the Death of Pompey is the most eminent. It is full, however, of a grandeur which is more dazzling than genuine; and, indeed, we could expect nothing else from a cento of Lucan's hyperbolical antitheses. These bravuras of rhetoric are strung together on the thread of a clumsy plot. The intrigues of Ptolemy, and the ambitious coquetry of his sister Cleopatra, have a petty and miserable appearance alongside of the picture of the fate of the great Pompey, the vengeance-breathing sorrow of his wife, and the magnanimous compassion of Caesar. Scarcely has the conqueror paid the last honours to the reluctant shade of his rival, when he does homage at the feet of the beautiful queen; he is not only in love, but sighingly and ardently in love. Cleopatra, on her part, according to the poet's own expression, is desirous, by her love-ogling, to gain the sceptre of her brother. Caesar certainly made love, in his own way, to a number of women: but these cynical loves, if represented with anything like truth, would be most unfit for the stage. Who can refrain from laughing, when Rome, in the speech of Caesar, implores the chaste love of Cleopatra for young Caesar?
In Sertorius, a much later work, Corneille has contrived to make the great Pompey appear little, and the hero ridiculous. Sertorius on one occasion exclaims—
Que c'est un sort cruel d'aimer par politique!
This admits of being applied to all the personages of the piece. In love they are not in the least; but they allow a pretended love to be subservient to political ends. Sertorius, a hardy and hoary veteran, acts the lover with the Spanish Queen, Viriata; he brings forward, however, pretext after pretext, and offers himself the while to Aristia; as Viriata presses him to marry her on the spot, he begs anxiously for a short delay; Viriata, along with her other elegant phrases, says roundly, that she neither knows love nor hatred; Aristia, the repudiated wife of Pompey, says to him, "Take me back again, or I will marry another;" Pompey beseeches her to wait only till the death of Sylla, whom he dare not offend: after this there is no need to mention the low scoundrel Perpenna. The tendency to this frigidity of soul was perceptible in Corneille, even at an early period of his career; but in the works of his old age it increased to an incredible degree.
In Polyeucte, Christian sentiments are not unworthily expressed; yet we find in it more superstitious reverence than fervent enthusiasm for religion: the wonders of grace are rather affirmed, than embraced by a mysterious illumination. Both the tone and the situations in the first acts, incline greatly, as Voltaire observes, to comedy. A woman who, in obedience to her father, has married against her inclinations, and who declares both to her lover (who returns when too late) and to her husband, that "she still retains her first love, but that she will keep within the bounds of virtue;" a vulgar and selfish father, who is sorry that he has not chosen for his son-in-law the first suitor, now become the favourite of the Emperor; all this promises no very high tragical determinations. The divided heart of Paulina is in nature, and consequently does not detract from the interest of the piece. It is generally agreed that her situation, and the character of Severus, constitute the principal charm of this drama. But the practical magnanimity of this Roman, in conquering his passion, throws Polyeucte's self-renunciation, which appears to cost him nothing, quite into the shade. From this a conclusion has been partly drawn, that martyrdom is, in general, an unfavourable subject for Tragedy. But nothing can be more unjust than this inference. The cheerfulness with which martyrs embraced pain and death did not proceed from want of feeling, but from the heroism of the highest love: they must previously, in struggles painful beyond expression, have obtained the victory over every earthly tie; and by the exhibition of these struggles, of these sufferings of our mortal nature, while the seraph soars on its flight to heaven, the poet may awaken in us the most fervent emotion. In Polyeucte, however, the means employed to bring about the catastrophe, namely, the dull and low artifice of Felix, by which the endeavours of Severus to save his rival are made rather to contribute to his destruction, are inexpressibly contemptible.
How much Corneille delighted in the symmetrical and nicely balanced play of intrigue, we may see at once from his having pronounced Rodogune his favourite work. I shall content myself with referring to Lessing, who has exposed pleasantly enough the ridiculous appearance which the two distressed princes cut, between a mother who says, "He who murders his mistress I will name heir to my throne," and a mistress who says, "He who murders his mother shall be my husband." The best and shortest way of going to work would have been to have locked up the two furies together. As for Voltaire, he is always recurring to the fifth act, which he declares to be one of the noblest productions of the French stage. This singular way of judging works of art by piecemeal, which would praise the parts in distinction from the whole, without which it is impossible for the parts to exist, is altogether foreign to our way of thinking.
With respect to Heraclius, Voltaire gives himself the unnecessary trouble of showing that Calderon did not imitate Corneille; and, on the other hand, he labours, with little success, to give a negative to the question whether the latter had the Spanish author before him, and availed himself of his labours. Corneille, it is true, gives out the whole as his own invention; but we must not forget, that only when hard pressed did he acknowledge how much he owed to the author of the Spanish Cid. The chief circumstance of the plot, namely, the uncertainty of the tyrant Phocas as to which of the two youths is his own son, or the son of his murdered predecessor, bears great resemblance to an incident in a drama of Calderon's, and nothing of the kind is to be found in history; in other respects the plot is, it is true, altogether different. However this may be, in Calderon the ingenious boldness of an extravagant invention is always preserved in due keeping by a deeper magic colouring of the poetry; whereas in Corneille, after our head has become giddy in endeavouring to disentangle a complicated and ill-contrived intrigue, we are recompensed by a succession of mere tragical epigrams, without the slightest recreation for the fancy.
Nicomedes is a political comedy, the dryness of which is hardly in any degree relieved by the ironical tone which runs through the speeches of the hero.
This is nearly all of Corneille's that now appears on the stage. His later works are, without exception, merely treatises or reasons of state in certain difficult conjunctures, dressed out in a pompous dialogical form. We might as well make a tragedy out of a game at chess.
Those who have the patience to wade through the forgotten pieces of Corneille will perceive with astonishment that they are constructed on the same principles, and, with the exception of occasional negligences of style, executed with as much expenditure of what he considered art, as his admired productions. For example, Attila bears in its plot a striking resemblance to Rodogune. In his own judgments on his works, it is impossible not to be struck with the unessential nature of things on which he lays stress; all along he seems quite unconcerned about that which is certainly the highest object of tragical composition, the laying open the depths of the mind and the destiny of man. For the unfavourable reception which he has so frequently to confess, his self-love can always find some excuse, some trifling circumstance to which the fate of his piece was to be attributed.
In the two first youthful attempts of Racine, nothing deserves to be remarked, but the flexibility with which he accommodated himself to the limits fixed by Corneille to the career which he had opened. In the Andromache he first broke loose from them and became himself. He gave utterance to the inward struggles and inconsistencies of passion, with a truth and an energy which had never before been witnessed on the French stage. The fidelity of Andromache to the memory of her husband, and her maternal tenderness, are affectingly beautiful: even the proud Hermione carries us along with her in her wild aberrations. Her aversion to Orestes, after he had made himself the instrument of her revenge, and her awaking from her blind fury to utter helplesssness and despair, may almost be called tragically grand. The male parts, as is generally the case with Racine, are not to advantageously drawn. The constantly repeated threat of Pyrrhus to deliver up Astyanax to death, if Andromache should not listen to him, with his gallant protestations, resembles the arts of an executioner, who applies the torture to his victim with the most courtly phrases. It is difficult to think of Orestes, after his horrible deed, as a light-hearted and patient lover. Not the least mention is made of the murder of his mother; he seems to have completely forgotten it the whole piece through; whence, then, do the Furies come all at once at the end? This is a singular contradiction. In short, the way in which the whole is connected together bears too great a resemblance to certain sports of children, where one always runs before and tries to surprise the other.
In Britannicus, I have already praised the historical fidelity of the picture. Nero, Agrippina, Narcissus, and Burrhus, are so accurately sketched, and finished with such light touches and such delicate colouring, that, in respect to character, it yields, perhaps, to no French tragedy whatever. Racine has here possessed the art of giving us to understand much that is left unsaid, and enabling us to look forward into futurity. I will only notice one inconsistency which has escaped the poet. He would paint to us the cruel voluptuary, whom education has only in appearance tamed, breaking loose from the restraints of discipline and virtue. And yet, at the close of the fourth act, Narcissus speaks as if he had even then exhibited himself before the people as a player and a charioteer. But it was not until he had been hardened by the commission of grave crimes that he sunk to this ignominy. To represent the perfect Nero, that is, the flattering and cowardly tyrant, in the same person with the vain and fantastical being who, as poet, singer, player, and almost as juggler, was desirous of admiration, and in the agony of death even recited verses from Homer, was compatible only with a mixed drama, in which tragical dignity is not required throughout.
To Berenice, composed in honour of a virtuous princess, the French critics generally seem to me extremely unjust. It is an idyllic tragedy, no doubt; but it is full of mental tenderness. No one was better skilled than Racine in throwing a veil of dignity over female weakness.—Who doubts that Berenice has long yielded to Titus every proof of her tenderness, however carefully it may be veiled over? She is like a Magdalena of Guido, who languishingly repents of her repentance. The chief error of the piece is the tiresome part of Antiochus.
On the first representation of Bajazet, Corneille, it seems was heard to say, "These Turks are very much Frenchified." The censure, as is well known, attaches principally to the parts of Bajazet and Atalide. The old Grand Vizier is certainly Turkish enough; and were a Sultana ever to become the Sultan, she would perhaps throw the handkerchief in the same Sultanic manner as the disgusting Roxane. I have already observed that Turkey, in its naked rudeness, hardly admits of representation before a cultivated public. Racine felt this, and merely refined the forms without changing the main incidents. The mutes and the strangling were motives which in a seraglio could hardly be dispensed with; and so he gives, on several occasions, very elegant circumlocutory descriptions of strangling. This is, however, inconsistent; when people are so familiar with the idea of a thing, they usually call it also by its true name.
The intrigue of Mithridate, as Voltaire has remarked, bears great resemblance to that of the Miser of Moliere. Two brothers are rivals for the bride of their father, who cunningly extorts from her the name of her favoured lover, by feigning a wish to renounce in his favour. The confusion of both sons, when they learn that their father, whom they had believed dead, is still alive, and will speedily make his appearance, is in reality exceedingly comic. The one calls out: Qu'avons nous fait? This is just the alarm of school-boys, conscious of some impropriety, on the unexpected entrance of their master. The political scene, where Mithridates consults his sons respecting his grand project of conquering Rome, and in which Racine successfully competes with Corneille, is no doubt logically interwoven in the general plan; but still it is unsuitable to the tone of the whole, and the impression which it is intended to produce. All the interest is centred in Monime: she is one of Racine's most amiable creations, and excites in us a tender commiseration.
On no work of this poet will the sentence of German readers differ more from that of the French critics and their whole public, than on the Iphigenie.—Voltaire declares it the tragedy of all times and all nations, which approaches as near to perfection as human essays can; and in this opinion he is universally followed by his countrymen. But we see in it only a modernised Greek tragedy, of which the manners are inconsistent with the mythological traditions, its simplicity destroyed by the intriguing Eriphile, and in which the amorous Achilles, however brave in other respects his behaviour may be, is altogether insupportable. La Harpe affirms that the Achilles of Racine is even more Homeric than that of Euripides. What shall we say to this? Before acquiescing in the sentences of such critics, we must first forget the Greeks.
Respecting Phedre I may express myself with the greater brevity, as I have already dedicated a separate Treatise to that tragedy. However much Racine may have borrowed from Euripides and Seneca, and however he may have spoiled the former without improving the latter, still it is a great advance from the affected mannerism of his age to a more genuine tragic style. When we compare it with the Phaedra of Pradon, which was so well received by his contemporaries for no other reason than because no trace whatever of antiquity was discernible in it, but every thing reduced to the scale of a modern miniature portrait for a toilette, we must entertain a higher admiration of the poet who had so strong a feeling for the excellence of the ancient poets, and the courage to attach himself to them, and dared, in an age of vitiated and unnatural taste, to display so much purity and unaffected simplicity. If Racine actually said, that the only difference between his Phaedra and that of Pradon was, that he knew how to write, he did himself the most crying injustice, and must have allowed himself to be blinded by the miserable doctrine of his friend Boileau, which made the essence of poetry to consist in diction and versification, instead of the display of imagination and fancy.
Racine's last two pieces belong, as is well known, to a very different epoch of his life: they were both written at the same instigation; but are extremely dissimilar to each other. Esther scarcely deserves the name of a tragedy; written for the entertainment of well-bred young women in a pious seminary, it does not rise much higher than its purpose. It had, however, an astonishing success. The invitation to the representations in St. Cyr was looked upon as a court favour; flattery and scandal delighted to discover allusions throughout the piece; Ahasuerus was said to represent Louis XIV; Esther, Madame de Maintenon; the proud Vasti, who is only incidentally alluded to, Madame de Montespan; and Haman, the Minister Louvois. This is certainly rather a profane application of the sacred history, if we can suppose the poet to have had any such object in view. In Athalie, however, the poet exhibited himself for the last time, before taking leave of poetry and the world, in his whole strength. It is not only his most finished work, but, I have no hesitation in declaring it to be, of all French tragedies the one which, free from all mannerism, approaches the nearest to the grand style of the Greeks. The chorus is conceived fully in the ancient sense, though introduced in a different manner in order to suit our music, and the different arrangement of our theatre. The scene has all the majesty of a public action. Expectation, emotion, and keen agitation succeed each other, and continually rise with the progress of the drama: with a severe abstinence from all foreign matter, there is still a display of the richest variety, sometimes of sweetness, but more frequently of majesty and grandeur. The inspiration of the prophet elevates the fancy to flights of more than usual boldness. Its import is exactly what that of a religious drama ought to be: on earth, the struggle between good and evil; and in heaven the wakeful eye of providence beaming, from unapproachable glory, rays of constancy and resolution. All is animated by one breath—the poet's pious enthusiasm, of whose sincerity neither his life nor the work itself allow us a moment to doubt. This is the very point in which so many French works of art with their great pretensions are, nevertheless, deficient: their authors were not inspired by a fervent love of their subject, but by the desire of external effect: and hence the vanity of the artist is continually breaking forth to throw a damp over our feelings.
The unfortunate fate of this piece is well known. Scruples of conscience as to the propriety of all theatrical representations (which appear to be exclusively entertained by the Gallican church, for both in Italy and Spain men of religion and piety have thought very differently on this subject,) prevented the representation in St. Cyr; it appeared in print, and was universally abused and reprobated; and this reprobation of it long survived its author. So incapable of every thing serious was the puerile taste of the age.
Among the poets of this period, the younger Corneille deserves to be mentioned, who did not seek, like his brother, to excite astonishment by pictures of heroism so much as to win the favour of the spectators by "those tendernesses which," to use the words of Pradon, "are so agreeable." Of his numerous tragedies, two, only the Comte d'Essex and Ariadne, keep possession of the stage; the rest are consigned to oblivion. The latter of the two, composed after the model of Berenice, is a tragedy of which the catastrophe may, properly speaking, be said to consist in a swoon. The situation of the resigned and enamoured Ariadne, who, after all her sacrifices, sees herself abandoned by Theseus and betrayed by her own sister, is expressed with great truth of feeling. Whenever an actress of an engaging figure, and with a sweet voice, appears in this character, she is sure to excite our interest. The other parts, the cold and deceitful Theseus, the intriguing Phaedra, who continues to the last her deception of her confiding sister, the pandering Pirithbus, and King Oenarus, who instantly offers himself in the place of the faithless lover, are all pitiful in the extreme, and frequently even laughable. Moreover, the desert rocks of Naxos are here smoothed down to modern drawing-rooms; and the princes who people them, with all the observances of politeness seek to out-wit each other, or to beguile the unfortunate princess, who alone has anything like pretensions to nature.
Crebillon, in point of time, comes between Racine and Voltaire, though he was also the rival of the latter. A numerous party wished to set him, when far advanced in years, on a par with, nay, even to rank him far higher than, Voltaire. Nothing, however, but the bitterest rancour of party, or the utmost depravity of taste, or, what is most probable, the two together, could have led them to such signal injustice. Far from having contributed to the purification of the tragic art, he evidently attached himself, not to the better, but the more affected authors of the age of Louis the Fourteenth. In his total ignorance of the ancients, he has the arrogance to rank himself above them. His favourite books were the antiquated romances of a Calprenede, and others of a similar stamp: from these he derived his extravagant and ill-connected plots. One of the means to which he everywhere has recourse, is the unconscious or intentional disguise of the principal characters under other names; the first example of which was given in the Heraclius. Thus, in Crebillon's Electra, Orestes does not become known to himself before the middle of the piece. The brother and sister, and a son and daughter of Aegisthus, are almost exclusively occupied with their double amours, which neither contribute to, nor injure, the main action; and Clytemnestra is killed by a blow from Orestes, which, without knowing her, he unintentionally and involuntarily inflicts. He abounds in extravagances of every kind; of such, for instance, as the shameless impudence of Semiramis, in persisting in her love after she has learnt that its object is her own son. A few empty ravings and common-place displays of terror, have gained for Crebillon the appellation of the terrible, which affords us a standard for judging of the barbarous and affected taste of the age, and the infinite distance from nature and truth to which it had fallen. It is pretty much the same as, in painting, to give the appellation of the majestic to Coypel.
Voltaire—Tragedies on Greek Subjects: Oedipe, Merope, Oreste— Tragedies on Roman Subjects: Brute, Mort de Cesar, Catiline, Le Triumvirat—Earlier Pieces: Zaire, Alzire, Mahomet, Semiramis, and Tancred.
To Voltaire, from his first entrance on his dramatic career, we must give credit both for a conviction that higher and more extensive efforts remained to be made, and for the zeal necessary to accomplish all that was yet undone. How far he was successful, and how much he was himself blinded by the very national prejudices against which he contended, is another question. For the more easy review of his works, it will be useful to class together the pieces in which he handled mythological materials, and those which he derived from the Roman history.
His earliest tragedy, Oedipe, is a mixture of adherence to the Greeks [Footnote: His admiration of them seems to have been more derived from foreign influence than from personal study. In his letter to the Duchess of Maine, prefixed to Oreste, he relates how, in his early youth, he had access to a noble house where it was a custom to read Sophocles, and to make extemporary translations from him, and where there were men who acknowledged the superiority of the Greek Theatre over the French. In vain, in the present day, should we seek for such men in France, among people of any distinction, so universally is the study of the classics depreciated.] (with the proviso, however, as may be supposed, of improving on them,) and of compliance with the prevailing manner. The best feature of this work Voltaire owed to Sophocles, whom he nevertheless slanders in his preface; and in comparison with whose catastrophe his own is flat in the extreme. Not a little, however, was borrowed from the frigid Oedipus of Corneille; and more especially the love of Philoctetus for Jocaste, which may be said to correspond nearly with that of Theseus and Dirce in Corneille. Voltaire alleged in his defence the tyranny of the players, from which a young and unknown writer cannot emancipate himself. We may notice the frequent allusions to priestcraft, superstition, &c., which even at that early period betray the future direction of his mind.
The Merope, a work of his ripest years, was intended as a perfect revival of Greek tragedy, an undertaking of so great difficulty, and so long announced with every note of preparation. Its real merit is the exclusion of the customary love-scenes (of which, however, Racine had already given an example in the Athalie); for in other respects German readers hardly need to be told how much is not conceived in the true Grecian spirit. Moreover the confidants are also entirely after the old traditional cut. The other defects of the piece have been circumstantially, and, I might almost say, too severely, censured by Lessing. The tragedy of Merope, if well acted, can hardly fail of being received with a certain degree of favour. This is owing to the nature of its subject. The passionate love of a mother, who, in dread of losing her only treasure, and threatened with cruel oppression, still supports her trials with heroic constancy, and at last triumphs over them, is altogether a picture of such truth and beauty, that the sympathy it awakens is beneficent, and remains pure from every painful ingredient. Still we must not forget that the piece belongs only in a very small measure to Voltaire. How much he has borrowed from Maffei, and changed— not always for the better—has been already pointed out by Lessing.
Of all remodellings of Greek tragedies, Oreste, the latest, appears the farthest from the antique simplicity and severity, although it is free from any mixture of love-making, and all mere confidants are excluded. That Orestes should undertake to destroy Aegisthus is nowise singular, and seems scarcely to merit such marked notice in the tragical annals of the world. It is the case which Aristotle lays down as the most indifferent, where one enemy knowingly attacks the other. And in Voltaire's play neither Orestes nor Electra have anything beyond this in view: Clytemnestra is to be spared; no oracle consigns to her own son the execution of the punishment due to her guilt. But even the deed in question can hardly be said to be executed by Orestes himself: he goes to Aegisthus, and falls, simply enough it must be owned, into the net, and is only saved by an insurrection of the people. According to the ancients, the oracle had commanded him to attack the criminals with cunning, as they had so attacked Agamemnon. This was a just retaliation: to fall in open conflict would have been too honourable a death for Aegisthus. Voltaire has added, of his own invention, that he was also prohibited by the oracle from making himself known to his sister; and when carried away by fraternal love, he breaks this injunction, he is blinded by the Furies, and involuntarily perpetrates the deed of matricide. These certainly are singular ideas to assign to the gods, and a most unexampled punishment for a slight, nay, even a noble crime. The accidental and unintentional stabbing of Clytemnestra was borrowed from Crebillon. A French writer will hardly venture to represent this subject with mythological truth; to describe, for instance, the murder as intentional, and executed by the command of the gods. If Clytemnestra were depicted not as rejoicing in the success of her crime, but repentant and softened by maternal love, then, it is true, her death would no longer be supportable. But how does this apply to so premeditated a crime? By such a transition to littleness the whole profound significance of the dreadful example is lost.
As the French are in general better acquainted with the Romans than the Greeks, we might expect the Roman pieces of Voltaire to be more consistent, in a political point of view, with historical truth, than his Greek pieces are with the symbolical original of mythology. This is, however, the case only in Brutus, the earliest of them, and the only one which can be said to be sensibly planned. Voltaire sketched this tragedy in England; he had there learned from Julius Caesar the effect which the publicity of Republican transactions is capable of producing on the stage, and he wished therefore to hold something like a middle course between Corneille and Shakspeare. The first act opens majestically; the catastrophe is brief but striking, and throughout the principles of genuine freedom are pronounced with a grave and noble eloquence. Brutus himself, his son Titus, the ambassador of the king, and the chief of the conspirators, are admirably depicted. I am by no means disposed to censure the introduction of love into this play. The passion of Titus for a daughter of Tarquin, which constitutes the knot, is not improbable, and in its tone harmonizes with the manners which are depicted. Still less am I disposed to agree with La Harpe, when he says that Tullia, to afford a fitting counterpoise to the republican virtues, ought to utter proud and heroic sentiments, like Emilia in Cinna. By what means can a noble youth be more easily seduced than by female tenderness and modesty? It is not, generally speaking, natural that a being like Emilia should ever inspire love.
The Mort de Cesar is a mutilated tragedy: it ends with the speech of Antony over the dead body of Caesar, borrowed from Shakspeare; that is to say, it has no conclusion. And what a patched and bungling thing is it in all its parts! How coarse-spun and hurried is the conspiracy! How stupid Caesar must have been, to allow the conspirators to brave him before his face without suspecting their design! That Brutus, although he knew Caesar to be his father, nay, immediately after this fact had come to his knowledge, should lay murderous hands on him, is cruel, and, at the same time, most un-Roman. History affords us many examples of fathers in Rome who condemned their own sons to death for crimes of state; the law gave fathers an unlimited power of life and death over their children in their own houses. But the murder of a father, though perpetrated in the cause of liberty, would, in the eyes of the Romans, have stamped the parricide an unnatural monster. The inconsistencies which here arise from the attempt to observe the unity of place, are obvious to the least discerning eye. The scene is laid in the Capitol; here the conspiracy is hatched in the clear light of day, and Caesar the while goes in and out among them. But the persons, themselves, do not seem to know rightly where they are; for Caesar on one occasion exclaims, "Courons au Capitole!"
The same improprieties are repeated in Catiline, which is but a little better than the preceding piece. From Voltaire's sentiments respecting the dramatic exhibition of a conspiracy, which I quoted in the foregoing Lecture, we might well conclude that he had not himself a right understanding on this head, were it not quite evident that the French system rendered a true representation of such transactions all but impossible, not only by the required observance of the Unities of Place and Time, but also on account of a demand for dignity of poetical expression, such as is quite incompatible with the accurate mention of particular circumstances, on which, however, in this case depends the truthfulness of the whole. The machinations of a conspiracy, and the endeavours to frustrate them, are like the underground mine and counter- mine, with which the besiegers and the besieged endeavour to blow up each other.—Something must be done to enable the spectators to comprehend the art of the miners. If Catiline and his adherents had employed no more art and dissimulation, and Cicero no more determined wisdom, than Voltaire has given them, the one could not have endangered Rome, and the other could not have saved it. The piece turns always on the same point; they all declaim against each other, but no one acts; and at the conclusion, the affair is decided as if by accident, by the blind chance of war. When we read the simple relation of Sallust, it has the appearance of the genuine poetry of the matter, and Voltaire's work by the side of it looks like a piece of school rhetoric. Ben Jonson has treated the subject with a very different insight into the true connexion of human affairs; and Voltaire might have learned a great deal from the man in traducing whom he did not spare even falsehood.
The Triumvirat belongs to the acknowledged unsuccessful essays of his old age. It consists of endless declamations on the subject of proscription, which are poorly supported by a mere show of action. Here we find the Triumvirs quietly sitting in their tents on an island in the small river Rhenus, while storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes rage around them; and Julia and the young Pompeius, although they are travelling on terra firma, are depicted as if they had been just shipwrecked on the strand; besides a number of other absurdities. Voltaire, probably by way of apology for the poor success which the piece had on its representation, says, "This piece is perhaps in the English taste."—Heaven forbid!
We return to the earlier tragedies of Voltaire, in which he brought on the stage subjects never before attempted, and on which his fame as a dramatic poet principally rests: Zaire, Alzire, Mahomet, Semiramis, and Tancred.
Zaire is considered in France as the triumph of tragic poetry in the representation of lore and jealousy. We will not assert with Lessing, that Voltaire was acquainted only with the legal style of love. He often expresses feeling with a fiery energy, if not with that familiar truth and naivete in which an unreserved heart lays itself open. But I see no trace of an oriental colouring in Zaire's cast of feeling: educated in the seraglio, she should cling to the object of her passion with all the fervour of a maiden of a glowing imagination, rioting, as it were, in the fragrant perfumes of the East. Her fanciless love dwells solely in the heart; and again how is this conceivable with such a character! Orosman, on his part, lays claim indeed to European tenderness of feeling; but in him the Tartar is merely varnished over, and he has frequent relapses into the ungovernable fury and despotic habits of his race. The poet ought at least to have given a credibility to the magnanimity which he ascribes to him, by investing him with a celebrated historical name, such as that of the Saracen monarch Saladin, well known for his nobleness and liberality of sentiment. But all our sympathy inclines to the oppressed Christian and chivalrous side, and the glorious names to which it is appropriated. What can be more affecting than the royal martyr Lusignan, the upright and pious Nerestan, who, though in the fire of youth, has no heart for deeds of bloody enterprise except to redeem the associates of his faith? The scenes in which these two characters appear are uniformly excellent, and more particularly the whole of the second act. The idea of connecting the discovery of a daughter with her conversion can never be sufficiently praised. But, in my opinion, the great effect of this act is injurious to the rest of the piece. Does any person seriously wish the union of Zaire with Orosman, except lady spectators flattered with the homage which is paid to beauty, or those of the male part of the audience who are still entangled in the follies of youth? Who else can go along with the poet, when Zaire's love for the Sultan, so ill-justified by his acts, balances in her soul the voice of blood, and the most sacred claims of filial duty, honour, and religion?
It was a praiseworthy daring (such singular prejudices then prevailed in France) to exhibit French heroes in Zaire. In Alzire Voltaire went still farther, and treated a subject in modern history never yet touched by his countrymen. In the former piece he contrasted the chivalrous and Saracenic way of thinking; in this we have Spaniards opposed to Peruvians. The difference between the old and new world has given rise to descriptions of a truly poetical nature. Though the action is a pure invention, I recognise in this piece more historical and more of what we may call symbolical truth, than in most French tragedies. Zamor is a representation of the savage in his free, and Monteze in his subdued state; Guzman, of the arrogance of the conqueror; and Alvarez, of the mild influence of Christianity. Alzire remains between these conflicting elements in an affecting struggle betwixt attachment to her country, its manners, and the first choice of her heart, on the one part, and new ties of honour and duty on the other. All the human motives speak in favour of Alzire's love, which were against the passion of Zaire. The last scene, where the dying Guzman is dragged in, is beneficently overpowering. The noble lines on the difference of their religions, by which Zamor is converted by Guzman, are borrowed from an event in history: they are the words of the Duke of Guise to a Huguenot who wished to kill him; but the glory of the poet is not therefore less in applying them as he has done. In short, notwithstanding the improbabilities in the plot, which are easily discovered, and have often been censured, Alzire appears to be the most fortunate attempt, and the most finished of all Voltaire's compositions.
In Mahomet, want of true singleness of purpose has fearfully avenged itself on the artist. He may affirm as much as he pleases that his aim was directed solely against fanaticism; there can be no doubt that he wished to overthrow the belief in revelation altogether, and that for that object he considered every means allowable. We have thus a work which is productive of effect; but an alarmingly painful effect, equally repugnant to humanity, philosophy, and religious feeling. The Mahomet of Voltaire makes two innocent young persons, a brother and sister, who, with a childlike reverence, adore him as a messenger from God, unconsciously murder their own father, and this from the motives of an incestuous love in which, by his allowance, they had also become unknowingly entangled; the brother, after he has blindly executed his horrible mission, he rewards with poison, and the sister he reserves for the gratification of his own vile lust. This tissue of atrocities, this cold-blooded delight in wickedness, exceeds perhaps the measure of human nature; but, at all events, it exceeds the bounds of poetic exhibition, even though such a monster should ever have appeared in the course of ages. But, overlooking this, what a disfigurement, nay, distortion, of history! He has stripped her, too, of her wonderful charms; not a trace of oriental colouring is to be found. Mahomet was a false prophet, but one certainly under the inspiration of enthusiasm, otherwise he would never by his doctrine have revolutionized the half of the world. What an absurdity to make him merely a cool deceiver! One alone of the many sublime maxims of the Koran would be sufficient to annihilate the whole of these incongruous inventions.
Semiramis is a motley patchwork of the French manner and mistaken imitations. It has something of Hamlet, and something of Clytemnestra and Orestes; but nothing of any of them as it ought to be. The passion for an unknown son is borrowed from the Semiramis of Crebillon. The appearance of Ninus is a mixture of the Ghost in Hamlet and the shadow of Darius in Aeschylus. That it is superfluous has been admitted even by the French critics. Lessing, with his raillery, has scared away the Ghost. With a great many faults common to ordinary ghost-scenes, it has this peculiar one, that its speeches are dreadfully bombastic. Notwithstanding the great zeal displayed by Voltaire against subordinate love intrigues in tragedy, he has, however, contrived to exhibit two pairs of lovers, the partie carree as it is called, in this play, which was to be the foundation of an entirely new species.
Since the Cid, no French tragedy had appeared of which the plot was founded on such pure motives of honour and love without any ignoble intermixtures, and so completely consecrated to the exhibition of chivalrous sentiments, as Tancred. Amenaide, though honour and life are at stake, disdains to exculpate herself by a declaration which would endanger her lover; and Tancred, though justified in esteeming her faith less, defends her in single combat, and, in despair, is about to seek a hero's death, when the unfortunate mistake is cleared 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 are not at the very first allowed to 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 extremely tedious; Tancred does not appear till the third act, though his presence is impatiently looked for, 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 reconciliation of the two lovers, whose hearts, after so long a mutual misunderstanding, are reunited in the moment of separation by death.
In the earlier piece of the Orphelin de la Chine, it might be considered pardonable if Voltaire represented the great Dschingis-kan in love. This drama ought to be entitled The Conquest of China, with the conversion of the cruel Khan of Tartary, &c. Its whole interest is concentrated in two children, who are never once seen. The Chinese are represented as the most wise and virtuous of mankind, and they overflow with philosophical maxims. As Corneille, in his old age, made one and all of his characters politicians, Voltaire in like manner furnished his out with philosophy, and availed himself of them to preach up his favourite opinions. He was not deterred by the example of Corneille, when the power of representing the passions was extinct, from publishing a host of weak and faulty productions.
Since the time of Voltaire the constitution of the French stage has remained nearly the same. No genius has yet arisen sufficiently mighty to advance the art a step farther, and victoriously to refute, by success, their time-strengthened prejudices. Many attempts have been made, but they generally follow in the track of previous essays, without surpassing them. The endeavour to introduce more historical extent into dramatic composition is frustrated by the traditional limitations and restraints. The attacks, both theoretical and practical, which have been made in France itself on the prevailing system of rules, will be most suitably noticed and observed upon when we come to review the present condition of the French stage, after considering their Comedy and the other secondary kinds of dramatic works, since in these attempts have been made either to found new species, or arbitrarily to overturn the classification hitherto established.
French Comedy—Moliere—Criticism of his Works—Scarron, Beursault, 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, as I have endeavoured to show, must inevitably have a narrowing influence on Tragedy, has, in France, been applied to Comedy much more advantageously. For this mixed species of composition has, as already seen, an unpoetical side; and some degree of artificial constraint, if not altogether essential to 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, of falling into shapelessness, and in the representation of individual peculiarities, of sinking into every-day common-place. In the French, as well as in the Greek, 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. Moreover, the grammatical conscientiousness of French poetry, which is so greatly injurious in other species of the drama, 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 greater 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 fairly of a 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 Intrigue ought to prevail, the active spirit of which quickly hurries towards its object; and hence the unity of time may here be almost naturally observed. The domestic and social circles in which Comedy moves are usually assembled in one place, and, consequently, the poet is not under the necessity of sending our imagination abroad: only it might perhaps have been as well 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 street for the scene, a practice in which the Latin comic writers were frequently followed in the earlier times of Modern Comedy, is quite 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 French critics, and the opinion which has become prevalent through them, Moliere alone, of all their comic writers, is classical; and all that has been done since his time is merely estimated as it approximates more or less 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 subsequent progress.
Moliere has produced works in so many departments, and of such different value, that we are hardly able to recognize the same author in all of them; and yet it is usual, when speaking of his peculiarities and merits, and the advance which he gave to his art, to throw the whole of his labours into one mass together.
Born and educated in an inferior rank of life, he enjoyed the advantage of learning by direct experience the modes of living among the industrious portion of the community—the so-called Bourgeois class—and of acquiring the talent of imitating low modes of expression. At an after period, when Louis XIV. took him into his service, he had opportunities, though from a subordinate station, of narrowly observing the court. He was an actor, and, it would appear, of peculiar power in overcharged and farcical comic parts; so little was he possessed with prejudices of personal dignity, that he renounced all the conditions by which it was accompanied, and was ever ready to deal out, or to receive the blows which were then so frequent on the stage. Nay, his mimetic zeal went so far, that, actually sick, he acted and drew his last breath in representing his Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire), and became, in the truest sense, a martyr to the laughter of others. His business was to invent all manner of pleasant entertainments for the court, and to provoke "the greatest monarch of the world" to laughter, by way of relaxation from his state affairs or warlike undertakings. One would think, on the triumphant return from a glorious campaign, this might have been accomplished with more refinement than by the representation of the disgusting state of an imaginary invalid. But Louis XIV. was not so fastidious; he was very well content with the buffoon whom he protected, and even occasionally exhibited his own elevated person in the dances of his ballets. This external position of Moliere was the cause why many of his labours had their origin as mere occasional pieces in the commands of the court. And, accordingly, they bear the stamp of that origin. Without travelling out of France, he had opportunities of becoming acquainted with the lazzis of the Italian comic masks on the Italian theatre at Paris, where improvisatory dialogues were intermixed with scenes written in French: in the Spanish comedies he studied the ingenious complications of intrigue: Plautus and Terence taught him the salt of the Attic wit, the genuine tone of comic maxims, and the nicer shades of character. All this he employed, with more or less success, in the exigency of the moment, and also in order to deck out his drama in a sprightly and variegated dress, made use of all manner of means, however foreign to his art: such as the allegorical opening scenes of the opera prologues, musical intermezzos, in which he even introduced Italian and Spanish national music, with texts in their own language; ballets, at one time sumptuous and at another grotesque; and even sometimes mere vaulting and capering. He knew how to turn everything to profit: the censure passed upon his pieces, the defects of rival actors imitated to the life by himself and his company, and even the embarrassment in not being able to produce a theatrical entertainment as quickly as it was required by the king,—all became for him a matter for amusement. The pieces he borrowed from the Spanish, his pastorals and tragi-comedies, calculated merely to please the eye, and also three or four of his earlier comedies, which are even versified, and consequently carefully laboured, the critics give up without more ado. But even in the farces, with or without ballets, and intermezzos, in which the overcharged, and frequently the self-conscious and arbitrary comic of buffoonery prevails, Moliere has exhibited an inexhaustible store of excellent humour, scattered capital jokes with a lavish hand, and drawn the most amusing caricatures with a bold and vigorous pencil. All this, however, had been often done before his time; and I cannot see how, in this department, he can stand alone, as a creative and altogether original artist: for example, is Plautus' braggadocio soldier less meritorious in grotesque characterization than the Bourgeois Gentilhomme? We shall immediately examine briefly whether Moliere has actually improved the pieces which he borrowed, in whole or in part, from Plautus and Terence. When we bear in mind that in these Latin authors we have only a faint and faded copy of the new Attic Comedy, we shall then be enabled to judge whether he would have been able to surpass its masters had they come down to us. Many of his shifts and inventions, I am induced to suspect, are borrowed; and I am convinced that we should soon discover the sources, were we to search into the antiquities of farcical literature [Footnote: The learned Tiranoschi (Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Lib. III. S 25) attests this in very strong language: "Moliere," says he, "has made so much use of the Italian comic writers, that were we to take from him all that he has taken from others, the volumes of his comedies would be very much reduced in bulk."]. Others are so obvious, and have so often been both used and abused, that they may in some measure be considered as the common stock of Comedy. Such is the scene in the Malade Imaginaire, where the wife's love is put to the test by the supposed death of the husband—an old joke, which our Hans Sachs has handled drolly enough. [Footnote: I know not whether it has been already remarked, that the idea on which the Mariage Force is founded is borrowed from Rabelais; who makes Panurge enter upon the very same consultation as to his future marriage, and receive from Pantagruel just such a sceptical answer as Sganarelle does from the second philosopher.] We have an avowal of Moliere's, which plainly shows he entertained no very great scruples of conscience on the sin of plagiarism. In the undignified relations amidst which he lived, and in which every thing was so much calculated for dazzling show, that his very name did not legally belong to him, we see less reason to wonder at all this.
And even when in his farcical pieces Moliere did not lean on foreign invention, he still appropriated the comic manners of other countries, and more particularly the buffoonery of Italy. He wished to introduce a sort of masked character without masks, who should constantly recur with the same name. They did not, however, succeed in becoming properly domiciliated in France; because the flexible national character of the French, which so nimbly imitates every varying mode of the day, is incompatible with that odd originality of exterior to which in other nations, where all are not modelled alike by the prevailing social tone, humorsome and singular individuals carelessly give themselves up. As the Sganarelles, Mascarilles, Scapins, and Crispins, must be allowed to retain their uniform, that every thing like consistency may not be lost, they have become completely obsolete on the stage. The French taste is, generally speaking, little inclined to the self-conscious and arbitrary comic, with its droll exaggerations, even because these kinds of the comic speak more to the fancy than the understanding. We do not mean to censure this, nor to quarrel about the respective merits of the different species. The low estimation in which the former are held may perhaps contribute the more to the success of the comic of observation, And, in fact, the French comic writers have here displayed a great deal of refinement and ingenuity: in this lies the great merit of Moliere, and it is certainly very eminent. Only, we would ask, whether it is of such a description as to justify the French critics, on account of some half a dozen of so- called regular comedies of Moliere, in holding in such infinite contempt as they do all the rich stores of refined and characteristic delineation which other nations possess, and in setting up Moliere as the unrivalled Genius of Comedy.
If the praise bestowed by the French on their tragic writers be, both from national vanity and from ignorance of the mental productions of other nations, exceedingly extravagant; so their praises of Moliere are out of all proportion with their subject. Voltaire calls him the Father of Genuine Comedy; and this may be true enough with respect to France. According to La Harpe, Comedy and Moliere are synonymous terms; he is the first of all moral philosophers, his works are the school of the world. Chamfort terms him the most amiable teacher of humanity since Socrates; and is of opinion that Julius Caesar who called Terence a half Menander, would have called Menander a half Moliere.—I doubt this.
The kind of moral which we may in general expect from Comedy I have already shown: it is an applied doctrine of ethics, the art of life. In this respect the higher comedies of Moliere contain many admirable observations happily expressed, which are still in the present day applicable; others are tainted with the narrowness of his own private opinions, or of the opinions which were prevalent in his age. In this sense Menander was also a philosophical comic writer; and we may boldly place the moral maxims which remain of his by the side at least of those of Moliere. But no comedy is constructed of mere apophthegms. The poet must be a moralist, but his personages cannot always be moralizing. And here Moliere appears to me to have exceeded the bounds of propriety: he gives us in lengthened disquisitions the pro and con of the character exhibited by him; nay, he allows these to consist, in part, of principles which the persons themselves defend against the attacks of others. Now this leaves nothing to conjecture; and yet the highest refinement and delicacy of the comic of observation consists in this, that the characters disclose themselves unconsciously by traits which involuntarily escape from them. To this species of comic element, the way in which Oronte introduces his sonnet, Orgon listens to the accounts respecting Tartuffe and his wife, and Vadius and Trissotin fall by the ears, undoubtedly belongs; but the endless disquisitions of Alceste and Philinte as to the manner in which we ought to behave amid the falsity and corruption of the world do not in the slightest respect belong to it. They are serious, and yet they cannot satisfy us as exhausting the subject; and as dialogues which at the end leave the characters precisely at the same point as at the beginning, they are devoid in the necessary dramatic movement. Such argumentative disquisitions which lead to nothing are frequent in all the most admired pieces of Moliere, and nowhere more than in the Misanthrope. Hence the action, which is also poorly invented, is found to drag heavily; for, with the exception of a few scenes of a more sprightly description, it consists altogether of discourses formally introduced and supported, while the stagnation is only partially concealed by the art employed on the details of versification and expression. In a word, these pieces are too didactic, too expressly instructive; whereas in Comedy the spectator should only be instructed incidentally, and, as it were, without its appearing to have been intended.
Before we proceed to consider more particularly the productions which properly belong to the poet himself, and are acknowledged as master- pieces, we shall offer a few observations on his imitations of the Latin comic writers.
The most celebrated is the Avare. The manuscripts of the Aulularia of Plautus are unfortunately mutilated towards the end; but yet we find enough in them to excite our admiration. From this play Moliere has merely borrowed a few scenes and jokes, for his plot is altogether different. In Plautus it is extremely simple: his Miser has found a treasure, which he anxiously watches and conceals. The suit of a rich bachelor for his daughter excites a suspicion that his wealth is known. The preparations for the wedding bring strange servants and cooks into his house; he considers his pot of gold no longer secure, and conceals it out of doors, which gives an opportunity to a slave of his daughter's chosen lover, sent to glean tidings of her and her marriage, to steal it. Without doubt the thief must afterwards have been obliged to make restitution, otherwise the piece would end in too melancholy a manner, with the lamentations and imprecations of the old man. The knot of the love intrigue is easily untied: the young man, who had anticipated the rights of the marriage state, is the nephew of the bridegroom, who willingly renounces in his favour. All the incidents serve merely to lead the miser, by a gradually heightening series of agitations and alarms, to display and expose his miserable passion. Moliere, on the other hand, without attaining this object, puts a complicated machine in motion. Here we have a lover of the daughter, who, disguised as a servant, flatters the avarice of the old man; a prodigal son, who courts the bride of his father; intriguing servants; an usurer; and after all a discovery at the end. The love intrigue is spun out in a very clumsy and every-day sort of manner; and it has the effect of making us at different times lose sight altogether of Harpagon. Several scenes of a good comic description are merely subordinate, and do not, in a true artistic method, arise necessarily out of the thing itself. Moliere has accumulated, as it were, all kinds of avarice in one person; and yet the miser who buries his treasures and he who lends on usury can hardly be the same. Harpagon starves his coach- horses: but why has he any? This would apply better to a man who, with a disproportionate income, strives to keep up a certain appearance of rank. Comic characterization would soon be at an end were there really only one universal character of the miser. The most important deviation of Moliere from Plautus is, that while the one paints merely a person who watches over his treasure, the other makes his miser in love. The love of an old man is in itself an object of ridicule; the anxiety of a miser is no less so. We may easily see that when we unite with avarice, which separates a man from others and withdraws him within himself, the sympathetic and liberal passion of love, the union must give rise to the most harsh contrasts. Avarice, however, is usually a very good preservative against falling in love. Where then is the more refined characterization; and as such a wonderful noise is made about it, where shall we here find the more valuable moral instruction?—in Plautus or in Moliere? A miser and a superannuated lover may both be present at the representation of Harpagon, and both return from the theatre satisfied with themselves, while the miser says to himself, "I am at least not in love;" and the lover, "Well, at all events I am not a miser." High Comedy represents those follies which, however striking they may be, are reconcilable with the ordinary course of things; whatever forms a singular exception, and is only conceivable amid an utter perversion of ideas, belongs to the arbitrary exaggeration of farce. Hence since (and it was undoubtedly the case long before) the time of Moliere, the enamoured and avaricious old man has been the peculiar common-place of the Italian masked comedy and opera buffa, to which in truth it certainly belongs. Moliere has treated the main incident, the theft of the chest of gold, with an uncommon want of skill. At the very beginning Harpagon, in a scene borrowed from Plautus, is fidgetty with suspicions lest a slave should have discovered his treasure. After this he forgets it; for four whole acts there is not a word about it, and the spectator drops, as it were, from the clouds when the servant all at once brings in the stolen coffer; for we have no information as to the way in which he fell upon the treasure which had been so carefully concealed. Now this is really to begin again, not truly to work out. But Plautus has here shown a great deal of ingenuity: the excessive anxiety of the old man for his pot of gold, and all that he does to save it, are the very cause of its loss. The subterraneous treasure is always invisibly present; it is, as it were, the evil spirit which drives its keeper to madness. In all this we have, an impressive moral of a very different kind. In Harpagon's soliloquy, after the theft, the modern poet has introduced the most incredible exaggerations. The calling on the pit to discover the theft, which, when well acted, produces so great an effect, is a trait of the old comedy of Aristophanes, and may serve to give us some idea of its powers of entertainment.
The Amphitryon is hardly anything more than a free imitation of the Latin original. The whole plan and order of the scenes is retained. The waiting-woman, or wife of Sosia, is the invention of Moliere. The parody of the story of the master's marriage in that of the servant is ingenious, and gives rise to the most amusing investigations on the part of Sosia to find out whether, during his absence a domestic blessing may not have also been conferred on him as well as on Amphitryon. The revolting coarseness of the old mythological story is refined as much as it possibly could without injury to its spirit and boldness; and in general the execution is extremely elegant. The uncertainty of the personages respecting their own identity and duplication is founded on a sort of comic metaphysics: Sosia's reflections on his two egos, which have cudgelled each other, may in reality furnish materials for thinking to our philosophers of the present day.
The most unsuccessful of Moliere's imitations of the ancients is that of the Phormio in the Fourberies de Scapin. The whole plot is borrowed from Terence, and, by the addition of a second invention, been adapted, well or ill, or rather tortured, to a consistency with modern manners. The poet has indeed gone very hurriedly to work with his plot, which he has most negligently patched together. The tricks of Scapin, for the sake of which he has spoiled the plot, occupy the foremost place: but we may well ask whether they deserve it? The Grecian Phormio, a man who, for the sake of feasting with young companions, lends himself to all sorts of hazardous tricks, is an interesting and modest knave; Scapin directly the reverse. He had no cause to boast so much of his tricks: they are so stupidly planned that in justice they ought not to have succeeded. Even supposing the two old men to be obtuse and brainless in the extreme, we can hardly conceive how they could so easily fall into such a clumsy and obvious snare as he lays for them. It is also disgustingly improbable that Zerbinette, who as a gipsy ought to have known how to conceal knavish tricks, should run out into the street and tell the first stranger that she meets, who happens to be none other than Geronte himself, the deceit practised upon him by Scapin. The farce of the sack into which Scapin makes Geronte to crawl, then bears him off, and cudgels him as if by the hand of strangers, is altogether a most inappropriate excrescence. Boileau was therefore well warranted in reproaching Moliere with having shamelessly allied Terence to Taburin, (the merry-andrew of a mountebank). In reality, Moliere has here for once borrowed, not, as he frequently did, from the Italian masks, but from the Pagliasses of the rope-dancers and vaulters.
We must not forget that the Rogueries of Scapin is one of the latest works of the poet. This and several others of the same period, as Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, and even his last, the Malade Imaginaire, sufficiently prove that the maturity of his mind as an artist did not keep pace with the progress of years, otherwise he would have been disgusted with such loose productions. They serve, moreover, to show that frequently he brought forth pieces with great levity and haste, even when he had full leisure to think of posterity. If he occasionally subjected himself to stricter rules, we owe it more to his ambition, and his desire to be numbered among the classical writers of the golden age, than to any internal and growing aspiration after the highest excellence.
The high claims already mentioned, which the French critics make in behalf of their favourite, are principally founded on the Ecole des Femmes, Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, and Les Femmes Savantes; pieces which are certainly finished with great care and diligence. Now, of these, we must expressly state in the outset, that we leave the separate beauties of language and versification altogether to the decision of native critics. These merits can only be subordinate requisites; and the undue stress which is laid in France on the manner in which a piece is written and versified has, in our opinion, been both in Tragedy and Comedy injurious to the development of other and more essential requisites of the dramatic art. We shall confine our exceptions to the general spirit and plan of these comedies.
L'Ecole des Femmes, the earliest of them, seems to me also the most excellent; it is the one in which there is the greatest display of vivacious humour, rapidity, and comic vigour. As to the invention: a man arrived at an age unsuitable for wedlock, purposely educating a young girl in ignorance and simplicity, that he may keep her faithful to himself, while everything turns out the very reverse of his wishes, was not a new one: a short while before Moliere it had been employed by Scarron, who borrowed it from a Spanish novel. Still, it was a lucky thought in him to adapt this subject to the stage, and the execution of it is most masterly. Here we have a real and very interesting plot; no creeping investigations which do not carry forward the plot; all the matter is of one piece, without foreign levers and accidental intermixtures, with the exception of the catastrophe, which is brought about somewhat arbitrarily, by means of a scene of recognition. The naive confessions and innocent devices of Agnes are full of sweetness; they, together with the unguarded confidence reposed by the young lover in his unknown rival, and the stifled rage of the old man against both, form a series of comic scenes of the most amusing, and at the same time of the most refined description.
As an example how little the violation of certain probabilities diminishes our pleasure, we may remark that Moliere, with respect to the choice of scene, has here indulged in very great liberties. We will not inquire how Arnolph frequently happens to converse with Agnes in the street or in an open place, while he keeps her at the same time so carefully locked up. But if Horace does not know Arnolph to be the intended husband of his mistress, and betrays everything to him, this can only be allowable from Arnolph's passing with her by another name. Horace ought therefore to look for Arnolph in his own house in a remote quarter, and not before the door of his mistress, where yet he always finds him, without entertaining any suspicion from that circumstance. Why do the French critics set such a high value on similar probabilities in the dramatic art, when they must be compelled to admit that their best masters have not always observed them?
Tartuffe is an exact picture of hypocritical piety held up for universal warning; it is an excellent serious satire, but with the exception of separate scenes it is not a comedy. It is generally admitted that the catastrophe is bad, as it is brought about by a foreign means. It is bad, too, because the danger which Orgon runs of being driven from his house and thrown into prison is by no means such an embarrassment as his blind confidence actually merited. Here the serious purpose of the work is openly disclosed, and the eulogium of the king is a dedication by which the poet, even in the piece itself, humbly recommends himself to the protection of his majesty against the persecutions which he dreaded.
In the Femmes Savantes raillery has also the upper hand of mirth; the action is insignificant and not in the least degree attractive; and the catastrophe, after the manner of Moliere, is arbitrarily brought about by foreign means. Yet these technical imperfections might well be excused for the sake of its satirical merit. But in this respect the composition, from the limited nature of its views, is anything but equal throughout. We are not to expect from the comic poet that he should always give us, along with the exhibition of a folly, a representation also of the opposite way of wisdom; in this way he would announce his object of instructing us with too much of method. But two opposite follies admit of being exhibited together in an equally ludicrous light. Moliere has here ridiculed the affectation of a false taste, and the vain-gloriousness of empty knowledge. Proud in their own ignorance and contempt for all higher enlightenment, these characters certainly deserve the ridicule bestowed on them; but that which in this comedy is portrayed as the correct way of wisdom falls nearly into the same error. All the reasonable persons of the piece, the father and his brother, the lover and the daughter, nay, even the ungrammatical maid, are all proud of what they are not, have not, and know not, and even what they do not seek to be, to have, or to know. Chyrsale's limited view of the destination of the female sex, Clitander's opinion on the inutility of learning, and the sentiments elsewhere advanced respecting the measure of cultivation and knowledge which is suitable to a man of rank, were all intended to convey Moliere's own opinions himself on these subjects. We may here trace in him a certain vein of valet-de-chambre morality, which also makes its appearance on many other points. We can easily conceive how his education and situation should lead him to entertain such ideas; but they are hardly such as entitle him to read lectures on human society. That, at the end, Trissotin should be ignominiously made to commit an act of low selfishness is odious; for we know that a learned man then alive was satirized under this character, and that his name was very slightly disguised. The vanity of an author is, on the whole, a preservative against this weakness: there are many more lucrative careers than that of authorship for selfishness without a feeling of honour.
The Misanthrope, which, as is well known, was at first coldly received, is still less amusing than the two preceding pieces: the action is less rapid, or rather there is none at all; and there is a great want of coherence between the meagre incidents which give only an apparent life to the dramatic movement,—the quarrel with Oronte respecting the sonnet, and its adjustment; the decision of the law-suit which is ever being brought forward; the unmasking of Celimene through the vanity of the two Marquisses, and the jealousy of Arsinoe. Besides all this, the general plot is not even probable. It is framed with a view to exhibit the thorough delineation of a character; but a character discloses itself much more in its relations with others than immediately. How comes Alceste to have chosen Philinte for a friend, a man whose principles were directly the reverse of his own? How comes he also to be enamoured of a coquette, who has nothing amiable in her character, and who entertains us merely by her scandal? We might well say of this Celimene, without exaggeration, that there is not one good point in her whole composition. In a character like that of Alceste, love is not a fleeting sensual impulse, but a serious feeling arising from a want of a sincere mental union. His dislike of flattering falsehood and malicious scandal, which always characterise the conversation of Celimene, breaks forth so incessantly, that, we feel, the first moment he heard her open her lips ought to have driven him for ever from her society. Finally, the subject is ambiguous, and that is its greatest fault. The limits within which Alceste is in the right and beyond which he is in the wrong, it would be no easy matter to fix, and I am afraid the poet himself did not here see very clearly what he would be at. Philinte, however, with his illusory justification of the way of the world, and his phlegmatic resignation, he paints throughout as the intelligent and amiable man. As against the elegant Celimene, Alceste is most decidedly in the right, and only in the wrong in the inconceivable weakness of his conduct towards her. He is in the right in his complaints of the corruption of the social constitution; the facts, at least, which he adduces, are disputed by nobody. He is in the wrong, however, in delivering his sentiments with so much violence, and at an unseasonable time; but as he cannot prevail on himself to assume the dissimulation which is necessary to be well received in the world, he is perfectly in the right in preferring solitude to society. Rousseau has already censured the ambiguity of the piece, by which what is deserving of approbation seems to be turned into ridicule. His opinion was not altogether unprejudiced; for his own character, and his behaviour towards the world, had a striking similarity to that of Alceste; and, moreover, he mistakes the essence of dramatic composition, and founds his condemnation on examples of an accidentally false direction.
So far with respect to the famed moral philosophy of Moliere in his pretended master-piece. From what has been stated, I consider myself warranted to assert, in opposition to the prevailing opinion, that Moliere succeeded best with the coarse and homely comic, and that both his talents and his inclination, if unforced, would have determined him altogether to the composition of farces such as he continued to write even to the very end of his life. He seems always to have whipped himself up as it were to his more serious pieces in verse: we discover something of constraint in both plot and execution. His friend Boileau probably communicated to him his view of a correct mirth, of a grave and decorous laughter; and so Moliere determined, after the carnival of his farces, to accommodate himself occasionally to the spare diet of the regular taste, and to unite what in their own nature are irreconcileable, namely, dignity and drollery. However, we find even in his prosaic pieces traces of that didactical and satirical vein which is peculiarly alien to Comedy; for example, in his constant attacks on physicians and lawyers, in his disquisitions upon the true correct tone of society, &c., the intention of which is actually to censure, to refute, to instruct, and not merely to afford entertainment.