In another place Aristotle requires the same unity of action from the epic as from the dramatic poet; he repeats the preceding definitions, and says that the poet must not resemble the historian, who relates contemporary events, although they have no bearing on one another. Here we have still a more express demand of that connexion of cause and effect between the represented events, which before, in his explanation of the parts of a whole, was at most implied. He admits, however, that the epic poet may take in a much greater number of events connected with one main action, since the narrative form enables him to describe many things as going on at the same time; on the other hand, the dramatic poet cannot represent several simultaneous actions, but only so much as is going on upon the stage, and the part which the persons who appear there take in one action. But what if a different construction of the scene, and a more skilful theatric perspective, should enable the dramatic poet, duly and without confusion, although in a more compressed space, to develope a fable not inferior in extent to the epic poem? Where would be the objection, if the only obstacle were the supposed impossibility?
This is nearly all that is to be found in the Poetics of Aristotle on Unity of Action. A short investigation will serve to show how very much these anatomical ideas, which have been stamped as rules, are below the essential requisites of poetry.
Unity of Action is required. What is action? Most critics pass over this point, as if it were self-evident In the higher, proper signification, action is an activity dependent on the will of man. Its unity will consist in the direction towards a single end; and to its completeness belongs all that lies between the first determination and the execution of the deed.
This idea of action is applicable to many tragedies of the ancients (for instance, Orestes' murder of his mother, Oedipus' determination to discover and punish the murderer of Laius), but by no means to all; still less does it apply to the greater part of modern tragedies, at least if the action is to be sought in the principal characters. What comes to pass through them, and proceeds with them, has frequently no more connexion with a voluntary determination, than a ship's striking on a rock in a storm. But further, in the term action, as understood by the ancients, we must include the resolution to bear the consequences of the deed with heroic magnanimity, and the execution of this determination will belong to its completion. The pious resolve of Antigone to perform the last duties to her unburied brother is soon executed and without difficulty; but genuineness, on which alone rests its claim to be a fit subject for a tragedy, is only subsequently proved when, without repentance, and without any symptoms of weakness, she suffers death as its penalty. And to take an example from quite a different sphere, is not Shakspeare's Julius Caesar, as respects the action, constructed on the same principle? Brutus is the hero of the piece; the completion of his great resolve does not consist in the mere assassination of Caesar (an action ambiguous in itself, and of which the motives might have been ambition and jealousy), but in this, that he proves himself the pure champion of Roman liberty, by the calm sacrifice of his amiable life.
Farther, there could be no complication of the plot without opposition, and this arises mostly out of the contradictory motives and views of the acting personages. If, therefore, we limit the notion of an action to the determination and the deed, then we shall, in most cases, have two or three actions in a single tragedy. Which now is the principal action? Every person thinks his own the most important, for every man is his own central point. Creon's determination to maintain his kingly authority, by punishing the burial of Polynices with death, is equally fixed with Antigone's determination, equally important, and, as we see at the end, not less dangerous, as it draws after it the ruin of his whole house. It may be perhaps urged that the merely negative determination is to be considered simply as the complement of the affirmative. But what if each determines on something not exactly opposite, but altogether different? In the Andromache of Bacine, Orestes wishes to move Hermione to return his love; Hermione is resolved to compel Pyrrhus to marry her, or she will be revenged on him; Pyrrhus wishes to be rid of Hermione, and to be united to Andromache; Andromache is desirous of saving her son, and at the same time remaining true to the memory of her husband. Yet nobody ever questioned the unity of this piece, as the whole has a common connexion, and ends with one common catastrophe. But which of the actions of the four persons is the main action? In strength of passion, their endeavours are pretty nearly equal—in all the whole happiness of life is at stake; the action of Andromache has, however, the advantage in moral dignity, and Racine was therefore perfectly right in naming the piece after her.
We see here a new condition in the notion of action, namely, the reference to the idea of moral liberty, by which alone man is considered as the original author of his own resolutions. For, considered within the province of experience, the resolution, as the beginning of action, is not a cause merely, but is also an effect of antecedent motives. It was in this reference to a higher idea, that we previously found the unity and wholeness of Tragedy in the sense of the ancients; namely, its absolute beginning is the assertion of Free-will, and the acknowledgment of Necessity its absolute end. But we consider ourselves justified in affirming that Aristotle was altogether a stranger to this view; he nowhere speaks of the idea of Destiny as essential to Tragedy. In fact, we must not expect from him a strict idea of action as a resolution and deed. He says somewhere—"The extent of a tragedy is always sufficiently great, if, by a series of probable or necessary consequences, a reverse from adversity to prosperity, or from happiness to misery, is brought about." It is evident, therefore, that he, like all the moderns, understood by action something merely that takes place. This action, according to him, must have beginning, middle, and end, and consequently consist of a plurality of connected events. But where are the limits of this plurality? Is not the concatenation of causes and effects, backwards and forwards, without end? and may we then, with equal propriety, begin and break off wherever we please? In this province, can there be either beginning or end, corresponding to Aristotle's very accurate definition of these notions? Completeness would therefore be altogether impossible. If, however, for the unity of a plurality of events nothing more is requisite than casual connexion, then this rule is indefinite in the extreme, and the unity admits of being narrowed or enlarged at pleasure. For every series of incidents or actions, which are occasioned by each other, however much it be prolonged, may always be comprehended under a single point of view, and denoted by a single name. When Calderon in a single drama describes the conversion of Peru to Christianity, from its very beginning (that is, from the discovery of the country) down to its completion, and when nothing actually occurs in the piece which had not some influence on that event, does he not give us as much Unity in the above sense as the simplest Greek tragedy, which, however, the champions of Aristotle's rules will by no means allow?
Corneille was well aware of the difficulty of a proper definition of unity, as applicable to an inevitable plurality of subordinate actions; and in this way did he endeavour to get rid of it. "I assume," says he, "that in Comedy, Unity of Action consists in Unity of the Intrigue; that is, of the obstacles raised to the designs of the principal persons; and in Tragedy, in the unity of the danger, whether the hero sinks under, or extricates himself from it. By this, however, I do not mean to assert that several dangers in Tragedy, and several intrigues or obstacles in Comedy, may not be allowable, provided only that the personage falls necessarily from one into the other; for then the escape from the first danger does not make the action complete, for it draws a second after it, as also the clearing up of one intrigue does not place the acting persons at their ease, because it involves them in another."
In the first place the difference here assumed between tragic and comic Unity is altogether unessential. For the manner of putting the play together is not influenced by the circumstance, that the incidents in Tragedy are more serious, as affecting person and life; the embarrassment of the characters in Comedy when they cannot accomplish their design and intrigues, may equally be termed a danger. Corneille, like most others, refers all to the idea of connexion between cause and effect. No doubt when the principal persons, either by marriage or death, are set at rest, the drama comes to a close; but if nothing more is necessary to its Unity than the uninterrupted progress of an opposition, which serves to keep up the dramatic movement, simplicity will then come but poorly off: for, without violating this rule of Unity, we may go on to an almost endless accumulation of events, as in the Thousand and One Nights, where the thread of the story is never once broken.
De la Motte, a French author, who wrote against the Unities in general, would substitute for Unity of action, the Unity of interest. If the term be not confined to the interest in the destinies of some single personage, but is taken to mean in general the direction which the mind takes at the sight of an event, this explanation, so understood, seems most satisfactory and very near the truth.
But we should derive but little advantage from groping about empirically with the commentators on Aristotle. The idea of One and Whole is in no way whatever derived from experience, but arises out of the primary and spontaneous activity of the human mind. To account for the manner in which we in general arrive at this idea, and come to think of one and a whole, would require nothing short of a system of metaphysics.
The external sense perceives in objects only an indefinite plurality of distinguishable parts; the judgment, by which we comprehend these into an entire and perfect unity, is in all cases founded on a reference to a higher sphere of ideas. Thus, for example, the mechanical unity of a watch consists in its aim of measuring time; this aim, however, exists only for the understanding, and is neither visible to the eye, nor palpable to the touch: the organic unity of a plant or an animal consists in the idea of life; but the inward intuition of life, which, in itself uncorporeal, nevertheless manifests itself through the medium of the corporeal world, is brought by us to the observation of the individual living object, otherwise we could not obtain it from that object.
The separate parts of a work of art, and (to return to the question before us,) the separate parts, consequently, of a tragedy, must not be taken in by the eye and ear alone, but also comprehended by the understanding. Collectively, however, they are all subservient to one common aim, namely, to produce a joint impression on the mind. Here, therefore, as in the above examples, the Unity lies in a higher sphere, in the feeling or in the reference to ideas. This is all one; for the feeling, so far as it is not merely sensual and passive, is our sense, our organ for the Infinite, which forms itself into ideas for us.
Far, therefore, from rejecting the law of a perfect Unity in Tragedy as unnecessary, I require a deeper, more intrinsic, and more mysterious unity than that with which most critics are satisfied. This Unity I find in the tragical compositions of Shakspeare, in as great perfection as in those of Aeschylus and Sophocles; while, on the contrary, I do not find it in many of those tragedies which nevertheless are lauded as correct by the critics of the dissecting school.
Logical coherence, the causal connexion, I hold to be equally essential to Tragedy and every serious drama, because all the mental powers act and react upon each other, and if the Understanding be compelled to take a leap, Imagination and Feeling do not follow the composition with equal alacrity. But unfortunately the champions of what is called regularity have applied this rule with a degree of petty subtlety, which can have no other effect than that of cramping the poet, and rendering true excellence impossible.
We must not suppose that the order of sequences in a tragedy resembles a slender thread, of which we are every moment in anxious dread lest it should snap. This simile is by no means applicable, for it is admitted that a plurality of subordinate actions and interests is inevitable; but rather let us suppose it a mighty stream, which in its impetuous course overcomes many obstructions, and loses itself at last in the repose of the ocean. It springs perhaps from different sources, and certainly receives into itself other rivers, which hasten towards it from opposite regions. Why should not the poet be allowed to carry on several, and, for a while, independent streams of human passions and endeavours, down to the moment of their raging junction, if only he can place the spectator on an eminence from whence he may overlook the whole of their course? And if this great and swollen body of waters again divide into several branches, and pour itself into the sea by several mouths, is it not still one and the same stream?
So much for the Unity of Action. With respect to the Unity of Time, we find in Aristotle no more than the following passage: "Moreover, the Epos is distinguished from Tragedy by its length: for the latter seeks as far as possible to circumscribe itself within one revolution of the sun, or to exceed it but little; the Epos is unlimited in point of time, and in that respect differs from Tragedy. At first, however, the case was in this respect alike in tragedies and epic poems."
We may in the first place observe that Aristotle is not giving a precept here, but only making historical mention of a peculiarity which he observed in the Grecian examples before him. But what if the Greek tragedians had particular reasons for circumscribing themselves within this extent of time, which with the constitution of our theatres no longer exist? We shall immediately see that this was really the case.
Corneille with great reason finds the rule extremely inconvenient; he therefore prefers the more lenient interpretation, and says, "he would not scruple to extend the duration of the action even to thirty hours." Others, however, most rigorously insist on the principle that the action should not occupy a longer period than that of its representation, that is to say, from two to three hours.—The dramatic poet must, according to them, be punctual to his hour. In the main, the latter plead a sounder cause than the more lenient critics. For the only ground of the rule is the observation of a probability which they suppose to be necessary for illusion, namely, that the actual time and that of the representation should be the same. If once a discrepancy be allowed, such as the difference between two hours and thirty, we may upon the same principle go much farther. This idea of illusion has occasioned great errors in the theory of art. By this term there has often been understood the unwittingly erroneous belief that the represented action is reality. In that case the terrors of Tragedy would be a true torture to us, they would be like an Alpine load on the fancy. No, the theatrical as well as every other poetical illusion, is a waking dream, to which we voluntarily surrender ourselves. To produce it, the poet and actors must powerfully agitate the mind, and the probabilities of calculation do not in the least contribute towards it. This demand of literal deception, pushed to the extreme, would make all poetic form impossible; for we know well that the mythological and historical persons did not speak our language, that impassioned grief does not express itself in verse, &c. What an unpoetical spectator were he who, instead of following the incidents with his sympathy, should, like a gaoler, with watch or hour-glass in hand, count out to the heroes of the tragedy, the minutes which they still have to live and act! Is our soul then a piece of clock-work, that tells the hours and minutes with infallible accuracy? Has it not rather very different measures of time for agreeable occupation and for wearisomeness? In the one case, under an easy and varied activity, the hours fly apace; in the other, while we feel all our mental powers clogged and impeded, they are stretched out to an immeasurable length. Thus it is during the present, but in memory quite the reverse: the interval of dull and empty uniformity vanishes in a moment; while that which marks an abundance of varied impressions grows and widens in the same proportion. Our body is subjected to external astronomical time, because the organical operations are regulated by it; but our mind has its own ideal time, which is no other but the consciousness of the progressive development of our beings. In this measure of time the intervals of an indifferent inactivity pass for nothing, and two important moments, though they lie years apart, link themselves immediately to each other. Thus, when we have been intensely engaged with any matter before we fell asleep, we often resume the very same train of thought the instant we awake and the intervening dreams vanish into their unsubstantial obscurity. It is the same with dramatic exhibition: our imagination overleaps with ease the times which are presupposed and intimated, but which are omitted because nothing important takes place in them; it dwells solely on the decisive moments placed before it, by the compression of which the poet gives wings to the lazy course of days and hours.
But, it will be objected, the ancient tragedians at least observed the Unity of Time. This expression is by no means precise; it should at least be the identity of the imaginary with the material time. But even then it does not apply to the ancients: what they observe is nothing but the seeming continuity of time. It is of importance to attend to this distinction—the seeming; for they unquestionably allow much more to take place during the choral songs than could really happen within their actual duration. Thus the Agamemnon of Aeschylus comprises the whole interval, from the destruction of Troy to his arrival in Mycenae, which, it is plain, must have consisted of a very considerable number of days; in the Trachiniae of Sophocles, during the course of the play, the voyage from Thessaly to Euboea is thrice performed; and again, in the Supplices of Euripides, during a single choral one, the entire march of an army from Athens to Thebes is supposed to take place, a battle to be fought, and the General to return victorious. So far were the Greeks from this sort of minute and painful calculations! They had, however, a particular reason for observing the seeming continuity of time in the constant presence of the Chorus. When the Chorus leaves the stage, the continuous progress is interrupted; of this we have a striking instance in the Eumenides of Aeschylus, where the whole interval is omitted which was necessary to allow Orestes to proceed from Delphi to Athens. Moreover, between the three pieces of a trilogy, which were acted consecutively, and were intended to constitute a whole, there were saps of time as considerable as those between the three acts of many a Spanish drama.
The moderns have, in the division of their plays into acts, which, properly speaking, were unknown to Greek Tragedy, a convenient means of extending the period of representation without any ill effect. For the poet may fairly reckon so far on the spectator's imagination as to presume that during the entire suspension of the representation, he will readily conceive a much longer interval to have elapsed than that which is measured by the rhythmical time of the music between the acts; otherwise to make it appear the more natural to him, it might be as well to invite him to come and see the next act to-morrow. The division into acts had its origin with the New Comedy, in consequence of the exclusion of the chorus. Horace prescribes the condition of a regular play, that it should have neither more nor less than five acts. The rule is so unessential, that Wieland thought Horace was here laughing at the young Pisos in urging a precept like this with such solemnity of tone as if it were really of importance. If in the ancient Tragedy we may mark it as the conclusion of an act wherever the stage remains empty, and the chorus is left alone to proceed with its dance and ode, we shall often have fewer than five acts, but often also more than five. As an observation that in a representation, between two or three hours long, such a number of rests are necessary for the attention, it may be allowed to pass. But, considered in any other light, I should like to hear a reason for it, grounded on the nature of Dramatic Poetry, why a drama must have so many and only so many divisions. But the world is governed by prescription and tradition: a smaller number of acts has been tolerated; to transgress the consecrated number of five [Footnote: Three unities, five acts: why not seven persons? These rules seem to proceed according to odd numbers.] is still considered a dangerous and atrocious profanation.
As a general rule, the division into acts seems to me erroneous, when, as is so often the case in modern plays, nothing takes place in the intervals between them, and when the persons at the beginning of the new act are exhibited in exactly the same situation as at the close of the foregoing one. And yet this stand-still has given much less offence than the assumption of a considerable interval, or of incidents omitted in the representation, because the former is merely a negative error.
The romantic poets take the liberty even of changing the scene during the course of an act. As the stage is always previously left empty, these also are such interruptions of the continuity, as would warrant them in the assumption of as many intervals. If we stumble at this, but admit the propriety of a division into acts, we have only to consider these changes of scene in the light of a greater number of short acts. But then, it will perhaps be objected, this is but justifying one error by another, the violation of the Unity of Time by the violation of the Unity of Place: we shall, therefore, proceed to examine more at length how far the last- mentioned rule is indispensable.
In vain, as we have already said, shall we look to Aristotle for any opinion on this subject. It is asserted that the rule was observed by the ancients. Not always, only generally. Of seven plays by Aeschylus, and the same number by Sophocles, there are two, the Eumenides and the Ajax, in which the scene is changed. That they generally retain the same scene follows naturally from the constant presence of the chorus, which must be got rid of by some suitable device before there can be a change of place. And then, again, it must not be forgotten, that their scene represented a much wider extent than in most cases ours does; not a mere room, but the open space before several buildings: and the disclosing the interior of a house by means of the encyclema, may be considered in the same light as the drawing a back curtain on our stage.
The objection to the change of scene is founded on the same erroneous idea of illusion which we have already discussed. To transfer the action to another place would, it is urged, dispel the illusion. But now if we are in reality to consider the imaginary for the actual place, then must stage decoration and scenery be altogether different from what it now is. [Footnote: It is calculated merely for a single point of view: seen from every other point, the broken lines betray the imperfection of the imitation. Even as to the architectural import, so little attention do the audience in general pay to these niceties, that they are not even shocked when the actors enter and disappear through a wall without a door, between the side scenes.] Johnson, a critic who, in general, is an advocate for the strict rules, very justly observes, that if our imagination once goes the length of transporting us eighteen hundred years back to Alexandria, in order to figure to ourselves the story of Antony and Cleopatra as actually taking place before us, the next step, of transporting ourselves from Alexandria to Rome, is easier. The capability of our mind to fly in thought, with the rapidity of lightning, through the immensity of time and space, is well known and acknowledged in common life; and shall poetry, whose very purpose it is to add all manner of wings to our mind, and which has at command all the magic of genuine illusion, that is, of a lively and enrapturing fiction, be alone compelled to renounce this universal prerogative?
Voltaire wishes to derive the Unity of Place and Time from the Unity of Action, but his reasoning is shallow in the extreme. "For the same reason," says he, "the Unity of Place is essential, because no one action can go on in several places at once." But still, as we have already seen, several persons necessarily take part in the one principal action, since it consists of a plurality of subordinate actions, and what should hinder these from proceeding in different places at the same time? Is not the same war frequently carried on simultaneously in Europe and India; and must not the historian recount alike in his narrative the events which take place on both these scenes?
"The Unity of Time," he adds, "is naturally connected with the two first. If the poet represents a conspiracy, and extends the action to fourteen days, he must account to me for all that takes place in these fourteen days." Yes, for all that belongs to the matter in hand; all the rest, being extraneous to it, he passes over in silence, as every good storyteller would, and no person ever thinks of the omission. "If, therefore, he places before me the events of fourteen days, this gives at least fourteen different actions, however small they may be." No doubt, if the poet were so unskilful as to wind off the fourteen days one after another with visible precision; if day and night are just so often to come and go and the characters to go to bed and get up again just so many times. But the clever poet thrusts into the background all the intervals which are connected with no perceptible progress in the action, and in his picture annihilates all the pauses of absolute stand-still, and contrives, though with a rapid touch, to convey an accurate idea of the period supposed to have elapsed. But why is the privilege of adopting a much wider space between the two extremes of the piece than the material time of the representation important to the dramatist, and even indispensable to him in many subjects? The example of a conspiracy given by Voltaire comes in here very opportunely.
A conspiracy plotted and executed in two hours is, in the first place, an incredible thing. Moreover, with reference to the characters of the personages of the piece, such a plot is very different from one in which the conceived purpose, however dangerous, is silently persevered in by all the parties for a considerable time. Though the poet does not admit this lapse of time into his exhibition immediately, in the midst of the characters, as in a mirror, he gives us as it were a perspective view of it. In this sort of perspective Shakspeare is the greatest master I know: a single word frequently opens to view an almost interminable vista of antecedent states of mind. Confined within the narrow limits of time, the poet is in many subjects obliged to mutilate the action, by beginning close to the last decisive stroke, or else he is under the necessity of unsuitably hurrying on its progress: on either supposition he must reduce within petty dimensions the grand picture of a strong purpose, which is no momentary ebullition, but a firm resolve undauntedly maintained in the midst of all external vicissitudes, till the time is ripe for its execution. It is no longer what Shakspeare has so often painted, and what he has described in the following lines:—
Between the acting of a dreadful thing, And the first motion, all the interim is Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream: The genius, and the mortal instruments, Are then in council; and the state of man, Like to a little kingdom, suffers then The nature of an insurrection.
But why are the Greek and romantic poets so different in their practice with respect to place and time? The spirit of our criticism will not allow us to follow the practice of many critics, who so summarily pronounce the latter to be barbarians. On the contrary, we conceive that they lived in very cultivated times, and were themselves highly cultivated men. As to the ancients, besides the structure of their stage, which, as we have already said, led naturally to the seeming continuity of time and to the absence of change of scene, their observance of this practice was also favoured by the nature of the materials on which the Grecian dramatist had to work. These materials were mythology, and, consequently, a fiction, which, under the handling of preceding poets, had collected into continuous and perspicuous masses, what in reality was detached and scattered about in various ways. Moreover, the heroic age which they painted was at once extremely simple in its manners, and marvellous in its incidents; and hence everything of itself went straight to the mark of a tragic resolution.
But the principal cause of the difference lies in the plastic spirit of the antique, and the picturesque spirit of the romantic poetry. Sculpture directs our attention exclusively to the group which it sets before us, it divests it as far as possible from all external accompaniments, and where they cannot be dispensed with, it indicates them as slightly as possible. Painting, on the other hand, delights in exhibiting, along with the principal figures, all the details of the surrounding locality and all secondary circumstances, and to open a prospect into a boundless distance in the background; and light and shade with perspective are its peculiar charms. Hence the Dramatic, and especially the Tragic Art, of the ancients, annihilates in some measure the external circumstances of space and time; while, by their changes, the romantic drama adorns its more varied pictures. Or, to express myself in other terms, the principle of the antique poetry is ideal; that of the romantic is mystical: the former subjects space and time to the internal free-agency of the mind; the latter honours these incomprehensible essences as supernatural powers, in which there is somewhat of indwelling divinity.
Mischief resulting to the French Stage from too narrow Interpretation of the Rules of Unity—Influence of these rules on French Tragedy—Manner of treating Mythological and Historical Materials—Idea of Tragical Dignity— Observation of Conventional Rules—False System of Expositions.
I come now to the influence which the above rules of Unity, strictly interpreted and received as inviolable, have, with other conventional rules, exercised on the shape of French tragedy.
With the stage of a wholly different structure, with materials for the most part dissimilar, and handled in an opposite spirit, they were still desirous of retaining the rules of the ancient Tragedy, so far as they are to be learnt from Aristotle.
They prescribed the same simplicity of action as the Grecian Tragedy observed, and yet rejected the lyrical part, which is a protracted development of the present moment, and consequently a stand-still of the action. This part could not, it is true, be retained, since we no longer possess the ancient music, which was subservient to the poetry, instead of overbearing it as ours does. If we deduct from the Greek Tragedies the choral odes, and the lyrical pieces which are occasionally put into the mouths of individuals, they will be found nearly one-half shorter than an ordinary French tragedy. Voltaire, in his prefaces, frequently complains of the great difficulty in procuring materials for five long acts. How now have the gaps arising from the omission of the lyrical parts been filled up? By intrigue. While with the Greeks the action, measured by a few great moments, rolls on uninterruptedly to its issue, the French have introduced many secondary characters almost exclusively with the view that their opposite purposes may give rise to a multitude of impeding incidents, to keep up our attention, or rather our curiosity, to the close. There was now an end therefore of everything like simplicity; still they flattered themselves that they had, by means of an artificial coherence, preserved at least a unity for the understanding.
Intrigue is not, in itself, a Tragical motive; to Comedy, it is essential, as we have already shown. Comedy, even at its close, must often be satisfied with mere suppositions for the understanding; but this is by no means the poetic side of this demi-prosaic species of the Drama. Although the French Tragedy endeavours in the details of execution to rise by earnestness, dignity, and pathos, as high as possible above Comedy, in its general structure and composition, it still bears, in my opinion, but too close an affinity to it. In many French tragedies I find indeed a Unity for the Understanding, but the Feeling is left unsatisfied. Out of a complication of painful and violent situations we do, it is true, arrive at last, happily or unhappily, at a state of repose; but in the represented course of affairs there is no secret and mysterious revelation of a higher order of things; there is no allusion to any consolatory thoughts of heaven, whether in the dignity of human nature successfully maintained in its conflicts with fate, or in the guidance of an over- ruling providence. To such a tranquillizing feeling the so-called poetical justice is partly unnecessary, and partly also, so very questionably and obliquely is it usually administered, very insufficient. But even poetical justice (which I cannot help considering as a made-up example of a doctrine false in itself, and one, moreover, which by no means tends to the excitation of truly moral feelings) has not unfrequently been altogether neglected by the French tragedians.
The use of intrigue is certainly well calculated to effect the all-desired short duration of an important action. For the intriguer is ever expeditious, and loses no time in attaining to his object. But the mighty course of human destinies proceeds, like the change of seasons, with measured pace: great designs ripen slowly; stealthily and hesitatingly the dark suggestions of deadly malice quit the abysses of the mind for the light of day; and, as Horace, with equal truth and beauty observes, "the flying criminal is only limpingly followed by penal retribution." [Footnote: Rar antecedentem scelestum Deseruit pede paena claudo.—TRANS.] Let only the attempt be made, for instance, to bring within the narrow frame of the Unity of Time Shakspeare's gigantic picture of Macbeth's murder of Duncan, his tyrannical usurpation and final fall; let as many as may be of the events which the great dramatist successively exhibits before us in such dread array be placed anterior to the opening of the piece, and made the subject of an after recital, and it will be seen how thereby the story loses all its sublime significance. This drama does, it is true, embrace a considerable period of time: but does its rapid progress leave us leisure to calculate this? We see, as it were, the Fates weaving their dark web on the whistling loom of time; and we are drawn irresistibly on by the storm and whirlwind of events, which hurries on the hero to the first atrocious deed, and from it to innumerable crimes to secure its fruits with fluctuating fortunes and perils, to his final fall on the field of battle. Such a tragic exhibition resembles a comet's course, which, hardly visible at first, and revealing itself only to the astronomic eye, appears at a nebulous distance in the heavens, but soon soars with unheard-of and accelerating rapidity towards the central point of our system, scattering dismay among the nations of the earth, till, in a moment, when least expected, with its portentous tail it overspreads the half of the firmament with resplendent flame.
For the sake of the prescribed Unity of Time the French poets must fain renounce all those artistic effects which proceed from the gradually accelerated growth of any object in the mind, or in the external world, through the march of time, while of all that in a drama is calculated to fascinate the eye they were through their wretched arrangement of stage- scenery deprived in a great measure by the Unity of Place. Accidental circumstances might in truth enforce a closer observance of this rule, or even render it indispensable. From a remark of Corneille's [Footnote: In his Premier Discours sur la Posie Dramatique he says: "Une chanson a quelquefois bonne grce; et dans les pices de machines cet ornement est redevenu ncessaire pour remplir les oreilles du spectateur, pendant que les machines descendent."] we are led to conjecture that stage- machinery in France was in his time extremely clumsy and imperfect. It was moreover the general custom for a number of distinguished spectators to have seats on both sides of the stage itself, which hardly left a breadth of ten paces for the free movements of the actors. Regnard, in Le Distrait, gives us an amusing description of the noise and disorder these fashionable petit-matres in his day kept up in this privileged place, how chattering and laughing behind the backs of the actors they disturbed the spectators, and drew away attention from the play to themselves as the prominent objects of the stage. This evil practice continued even down to Voltaire's time, who has the merit of having by his zealous opposition to it obtained at last its complete abolition, on the appearance of his Semiramis. How could they have ventured to make a change of scene in presence of such an unpoetical chorus as this, totally unconnected with the piece, and yet thrust into the very middle of the representation? In the Cid, the scene of the action manifestly changes several times in the course of the same act, and yet in the representation the material scene was never changed. In the English and Spanish plays of the same date the case was generally the same; certain signs, however, were agreed on which served to denote the change of place, and the docile imagination of the spectators followed the poet whithersoever he chose. But in France, the young men of quality who sat on the stage lay in wait to discover something to laugh at; and as all theatrical effect requires a certain distance, and when viewed too closely appears ludicrous, all attempt at it was, in such a state of things, necessarily abandoned, and the poet confined himself principally to the dialogue between a few characters, the stage being subjected to all the formalities of an antechamber.
And in truth, for the most part, the scene did actually represent an antechamber, or at least a hall in the interior of a palace. As the action of the Greek tragedies is always carried on in open places surrounded by the abode or symbols of majesty, so the French poets have modified their mythological materials, from a consideration of the scene, to the manners of modern courts. In a princely palace no strong emotion, no breach of social etiquette is allowable; and as in a tragedy affairs cannot always proceed with pure courtesy, every bolder deed, therefore, every act of violence, every thing startling and calculated strongly to impress the senses, as transacted behind the scenes, and related merely by confidants or other messengers. And yet as Horace, centuries ago remarked, whatever is communicated to the ear excites the mind far more feebly than what is exhibited to the trusty eye, and the spectator informs himself of. What he recommends to be withdrawn from observation is only the incredible and the revoltingly cruel. The dramatic effect of the visible may, it is true, be liable to great abuse; and it is possible for a theatre to degenerate into a noisy arena of mere bodily events, to which words and gestures may be but superfluous appendages. But surely the opposite extreme of allowing to the eye no conviction of its own, and always referring to something absent, is deserving of equal reprobation. In many French tragedies the spectator might well entertain a feeling that great actions were actually taking place, but that he had chosen a bad place to be witness of them. It is certain that the obvious impression of a drama is greatly impaired when the effects, which the spectators behold, proceed from invisible and distant causes. The converse procedure of this is preferable,—to exhibit the cause itself, and to allow the effect to be simply recounted. Voltaire was aware of the injury which theatrical effect sustained from the established practice of the tragic stage in France; he frequently insisted on the necessity of richer scenical decorations; and he himself in his pieces, and others after his example, have ventured to represent many things to the eye, which before would have been considered as unsuitable, not to say, ridiculous. But notwithstanding this attempt, and the still earlier one of Racine in his Athalie, the eye is now more out of favour than ever with the fashionable critics. Wherever any thing is allowed to be seen, or an action is performed bodily before them, they scent a melodrama; and the idea that Tragedy, if its purity, or rather its bald insipidity, was not watchfully guarded, would be gradually amalgamated with this species of play, (of which a word hereafter,) haunts them as a horrible phantom.
Voltaire himself has indulged in various infractions of the Unity of Time; nevertheless he has not dared directly to attack the rule itself as unessential. He did but wish to see a greater latitude given to its interpretation. It would, he thought, be sufficient if the action took place within the circuit of a palace or even of a town, though in a different part of them. In order however, to avoid a change of scene, he would have it so contrived as at once to comprise the several localities. Here he betrays very confused ideas, both of architecture and perspective. He refers to Palladio's theatre at Vicenza, which he could hardly have ever seen: for his account of this theatre, which, as we have already observed, is itself a misconception of the structure of the ancient stage, appears to be altogether founded on descriptions which clearly he did not understand. In the Semiramis, the play in which he first attempted to carry into practice his principles on this subject, he has fallen into a singular error. Instead of allowing the persons to proceed to various places, he has actually brought the places to the persons. The scene in the third act is a cabinet; this cabinet, to use Voltaire's own words, gives way (without—let it be remembered—the queen leaving it), to a grand saloon magnificently furnished. The Mausoleum of Ninus too, which stood at first in an open place before the palace, and opposite to the temple of the Magi, has also found means to steal to the side of the throne in the centre of this hall. After yielding his spirit to the light of day, to the terror of many beholders, and again receiving it back, it repairs in the following act to its old place, where it probably had left its obelisks behind. In the fifth act we see that the tomb is extremely spacious, and provided with subterraneous passages. What a noise would the French critics make were a foreigner to commit such ridiculous blunders. In Brutus we have another example of this running about of the scene with the persons. Before the opening of the first act we have a long and particular description of the scenic arrangement: the Senate is assembled between the Capitoline temple and the house of the Consuls, in the open air. Afterwards, on the rising of the assembly, Arons and Albin alone remain behind, and of them it is now said: qui sont supposs tre entrs de la salle d'audience dans un autre appartement de la maison de Brutus. What is the poet's meaning here? Is the scene changed without being empty, or does he trust so far to the imagination of his spectators, as to require them against the evidence of their senses, to take for a chamber a scene which is ornamented in quite a different style? And how does that which in the first description is a public place become afterwards a hall of audience? In this scenic arrangement there must be either legerdemain or a bad memory.
With respect to the Unity of Place, we may in general observe that it is often very unsatisfactorily observed, even in comedy, by the French poets, as well as by all who follow the same system of rules. The scene is not, it is true, changed, but things which do not usually happen in the same place are made to follow each other. What can be more improbable than that people should confide their secrets to one another in a place where they know their enemies are close at hand? or that plots against a sovereign should be hatched in his own antechamber? Great importance is attached to the principle that the stage should never in the course of an act remain empty. This is called binding the scenes. But frequently the rule is observed in appearance only, since the personages of the preceding scene go out at one door the very moment that those of the next enter at another. Moreover, they must not make their entrance or exit without a motive distinctly announced: to ensure this particular pains are taken; the confidants are despatched on missions, and equals also are expressly, and sometimes not even courteously, told to go out of the way. With all these endeavours, the determinations of the places where things take place are often so vague and contradictory, that in many pieces, as a German writer [Footnote: Joh. Elias Schlegel, in his Gedanken zur Aufnahme des Dnischen Theatres.] has well said, we ought to insert under the list of the dramatis personae—"The scene is on the theatre."
These inconveniences arise almost inevitably from an anxious observance of the Greek rules, under a total change of circumstances. To avoid the pretended improbability which would lie in springing from one time and one place to another, they have often involved themselves in real and grave improbabilities. A thousand times have we reason to repeat the observation of the Academy, in their criticism on the Cid, respecting the crowding together so many events in the period of twenty-four hours: "From the fear of sinning against the rules of art, the poet has rather chosen to sin against the rules of nature." But this imaginary contradiction between art and nature could only be suggested by a low and narrow range of artistic ideas.
I come now to a more important point, namely, to the handling of the subject-matter unsuitably to its nature and quality. The Greek tragedians, with a few exceptions, selected their subjects from the national mythology. The French tragedians borrow theirs sometimes from the ancient mythology, but much more frequently from the history of almost every age and nation, and their mode of treating mythological and historical subjects respectively, is but too often not properly mythological, and not properly historical. I will explain myself more distinctly. The poet who selects an ancient mythological fable, that is, a fable connected by hallowing tradition with the religious belief of the Greeks, should transport both himself and his spectators into the spirit of antiquity; he should keep ever before our minds the simple manners of the heroic ages, with which alone such violent passions and actions are consistent and credible; his personages should preserve that near resemblance to the gods which, from their descent, and the frequency of their immediate intercourse with them, the ancients believed them to possess; the marvellous in the Greek religion should not be purposely avoided or understated, but the imagination of the spectators should be required to surrender itself fully to the belief of it. Instead of this, however, the French poets have given to their mythological heroes and heroines the refinement of the fashionable world, and the court manners of the present day; they have, because those heroes were princes ("shepherds of the people," Homer calls them), accounted for their situations and views by the motives of a calculating policy, and violated, in every point, not merely archaeological costume, but all the costume of character. In Phaedra, this princess is, upon the supposed death of Theseus, to be declared regent during the minority of her son. How was this compatible with the relations of the Grecian women of that day? It brings us down to the times of a Cleopatra. Hermione remains alone, without the protection of a brother or a father, at the court of Pyrrhus, nay, even in his palace, and yet she is not married to him. With the ancients, and not merely in the Homeric age, marriage consisted simply in the bride being received into the bridegroom's house. But whatever justification of Hermione's situation may be found in the practice of European courts, it is not the less repugnant to female dignity, and the more indecorous, as Hermione is in love with the unwilling Pyrrhus, and uses every influence to incline him to marriage. What would the Greeks have thought of this bold and indecent courtship? No doubt it would appear equally offensive to a French audience, if Andromache were exhibited to them in the situation in which she appears in Euripides, where, as a captive, her person is enjoyed by the conqueror of her country. But when the ways of thinking of two nations are so totally different, why should there be so painful an effort to polish a subject founded on the manners of the one, with the manners of the other? What is allowed to remain after this polishing process will always exhibit a striking incongruity with that which is new- modelled, and to change the whole is either impossible, or in nowise preferable to a new invention. The Grecian tragedians certainly allowed themselves a great latitude in changing the circumstances of their myths, but the alterations were always consistent with the general and prevalent notions of the heroic age. On the other hand, they always left the characters as they received them from tradition and an earlier fiction, by means of which the cunning of Ulysses, the wisdom of Nestor, and the wrath of Achilles, had almost become proverbial. Horace particularly insists on the rule. But how unlike is the Achilles of Racine's Iphigenia to the Achilles of Homer! The gallantry ascribed to him is not merely a sin against Homer, but it renders the whole story improbable. Are human sacrifices conceivable among a people whose chiefs and heroes are so susceptible of the tenderest emotions? In vain recourse is had to the powerful influences of religion: history teaches that a cruel religion invariably becomes milder with the softening manners of a people.
In these new exhibitions of ancient fables, the marvellous has been studiously rejected as alien to our belief. But when we are once brought from a world in which it was a part of the very order of things, into a world entirely prosaical and historically settled, then whatever marvel the poet may exhibit must, from the insulated state in which it stands, appear only so much the more incredible. In Homer, and in the Greek tragedians, everything takes place in the presence of the gods, and when they become visible, or manifest themselves in some wonderful operation, we are in no degree astonished. On the other hand, all the labour and art of the modern poets, all the eloquence of their narratives, cannot reconcile our minds to these exhibitions. Examples are superfluous, the thing is so universally known. Yet I cannot help cursorily remarking how singularly Racine, cautious as he generally is, has on an occasion of this kind involved himself in an inconsistency. Respecting the origin of the fable of Theseus descending into the world below to carry off Proserpine for his friend Pirithus, he adopts the historical explanation of Plutarch, that he was the prisoner of a Thracian king, whose wife he endeavoured to carry off for his friend. On this he grounds the report of the death of Theseus, which, at the opening of the play, was current. And yet he allows Phaedra [Footnote: Je l'aime, non point tel que l'ont vu les enfers, Volage adorateur de mille objets divers, Qui va du dieu des morts dshonorer la couche.] to mention the fabulous tradition as an earlier achievement of the hero. How many women then did Theseus wish to carry off for Pirithus? Pradon manages this much better: when Theseus is asked by a confidant if he really had been in the world below, he answers, how could any sensible man possibly believe so silly a tale! he merely availed himself of the credulity of the people, and gave out this report from political motives.
So much with respect to the manner of handling mythological materials. With respect to the historical, in the first place, the same objection applies, namely, that the French manners of the day are substituted to those which properly belong to the several persons, and that the characters do not sufficiently bear the colour of their age and nation. But to this we must add another detrimental circumstance. A mythological subject is in its nature poetical, and ever ready to take a new poetical shape. In the French Tragedy, as in the Greek, an equable and pervading dignity is required, and the French language is even much more fastidious in this respect, as very many things cannot be at all mentioned in French poetry. But in history we are on a prosaic domain, and the truth of the picture requires conditions, circumstances, and features, which cannot be given without a greater or less descent from the elevation of the tragical cothurnus; such as has been made without hesitation by Shakspeare, the most perfect of historical dramatists. The French tragedians, however, could not bring their minds to submit to this, and hence their works are frequently deficient in those circumstances which give life and truth to a picture; and when an obstinate prosaical circumstance must after all be mentioned, they avail themselves of laboured and artificial circumlocutions.
Respecting the tragic dignity of historical subjects, peculiar principles have prevailed. Corneille was in the best way of the world when he brought his Cid on the stage, a story of the middle ages, which belonged to a kindred people, characterized by chivalrous love and honour, and in which the principal characters are not even of princely rank. Had this example been followed, a number of prejudices respecting the tragic Ceremonial would have disappeared of themselves; Tragedy from its greater verisimilitude, and being most readily intelligible, and deriving its motives from still current modes of thinking and acting, would have come more home to the heart: the very nature of the subjects would alone have turned them from the stiff observation of the rules of the ancients, which they did not understand, as indeed Corneille never deviated so far from these rules as, in the train, no doubt, of his Spanish model, he does in this very piece; in one word, the French Tragedy would have become national and truly romantic. But I know not what malignant star was in the ascendant: notwithstanding the extraordinary success of his Cid, Corneille did not go one step further, and the attempt which he made found no imitators. In the time of Louis XIV. it was considered as a matter established beyond dispute, that the French, nay generally the modern European history was not adapted for the purposes of tragedy. They had recourse therefore to the ancient universal history: besides the Romans and Grecians, they frequently hunted about among the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians, for events which, however obscure they might often be, they could dress out for the tragic stage. Racine, according to his own confession, made a hazardous attempt with the Turks; it was successful, and since that time the necessary tragical dignity has been allowed to this barbarous people, among whom the customs and habits of the rudest despotism and the most abject slavery are often united in the same person, and nothing is known of love, but the most luxurious sensuality; while, on the other hand, it has been refused to the Europeans, notwithstanding that their religion, their sense of honour, and their respect for the female sex, plead so powerfully in their behalf. But it was merely modern, and more particularly French names that, as untragical and unpoetical, could not, for a moment, be tolerated; for the heroes of antiquity are with them Frenchmen in everything but the name; and antiquity was merely a thin veil beneath which the modern French character might be distinctly recognized. Racine's Alexander is certainly not the Alexander of history; but if under this name we imagine to ourselves the great Cond, the whole will appear tolerably natural. And who does not suppose that Louis XIV. and the Duchess de la Vallire are represented under the names Titus and Berenice? The poet has himself flatteringly alluded to his sovereign. Voltaire's expression is somewhat strong, when he says that in reading the tragedies which succeeded those of Racine we might fancy ourselves perusing the romances of Mademoiselle Scuderi, which paint citizens of Paris under the names of heroes of antiquity. He alluded herein more particularly to Crebillon. Corneille and Racine, however, deeply tainted as they were with the way of thinking of their own nation, were still at times penetrated with the spirit of true objective exhibition. Corneille gives us a masterly picture of the Spaniards in the Cid; and this is conceivable enough, for he drew his materials from the fountain-head. With the exception of the original sin of gallantry, he succeeded also pretty well with the Romans: of one part of their character, at least, he had a tolerable conception, their predominating patriotism, and unbending pride of liberty, and the magnanimity of their political sentiments. All this, it is true, is nearly the same as we find it in Lucan, varnished over with a certain inflation and self-conscious pomp. The simple republican austerity, and their religious submissiveness, was beyond his reach. Racine has admirably painted the corruptions of the Romans of the Empire, and the first timid outbreaks of Nero's tyranny. It is true, as he himself gratefully acknowledges, he had in this Tacitus for a predecessor, but still it is a great merit so ably to translate history into poetry. He had also a just perception of the general spirit of Hebrew history; here he was guided by religious reverence, which, in greater or less degree, the poet ought always to bring with him to his subject. He was less successful with the Turks: Bajazet makes love quite in the style of an European; the bloodthirsty policy of Eastern despotism is well portrayed, it is true, in the Vizier: but the whole resembles Turkey upside down, where the women, instead of being slaves, have contrived to get possession of the government, which thereupon assumes so revolting an appearance as to incline us to believe the Turks are, after all, not much to blame in keeping their women under lock and key. Neither has Voltaire, in my opinion, succeeded much better in his Mahomet and Zaire; throughout we miss the glowing colouring of Oriental fancy. Voltaire has, however, this great merit, that as he insisted on treating subjects with more historical truth, he made it also the object of his own endeavours; and farther, that he again raised to the dignity of the tragical stage the chivalrous and Christian characters of modern Europe, which since the time of the Cid had been altogether excluded from it. His Lusignan and Nerestan are among his most truthful, affecting, and noble creations; his Tancred, although as a whole the invention is deficient in keeping, will always, like his namesake in Tasso, win every heart. Alzire, in a historical point of view, is highly eminent. It is singular enough that Voltaire, in his restless search after tragic materials, has actually travelled the whole world over; for as in Alzire he exhibits the American tribes of the other hemisphere, in his Dschingiskan he brings Chinese on the stage, from the farthest extremity of ours, who, however, from the faithful observation of their costume, have almost the stamp of comic or grotesque figures.
Unfortunately Voltaire came too late with his projected reformation of the theatre: much had been already ruined by the trammels within which French Tragedy had been so long confined; and the prejudice which gave such disproportionate importance to the observance of external rules and proprieties was, at it appears, established firmly and irrevocably.
Next to the rules regarding the external mechanism, which without examination they had adopted from the ancients, the prevailing national ideas of social propriety were the principal hindrances which impeded the French poets in the exercise of their talents, and in many cases put it altogether out of their power to reach the highest tragical effect. The problem which the dramatic poet has to solve is to combine poetic form with nature and truth, and consequently nothing ought to be included in the former which is inadmissible by the latter. French Tragedy, from the time of Richelieu, developed itself under the favour and protection of the court; and even its scene had (as already observed) the appearance of an antechamber. In such an atmosphere the spectators might impress the poet with the idea that courtesy is one of the original and essential ingredients of human nature. But in Tragedy men are either matched with men in fearful strife, or set in close struggle with misfortune; we can, therefore, exact from them only an ideal dignity, for from the nice observance of social punctilios they are absolved by their situation. So long as they possess sufficient presence of mind not to violate them, so long as they do not appear completely overpowered by their grief and mental agony, the deepest emotion is not as yet reached. The poet may indeed be allowed to take that care for his persons which Caesar, after his death-blow, had for himself, and make them fall with decorum. He must not exhibit human nature in all its repulsive nakedness. The most heart- rending and dreadful pictures must still be invested with beauty, and endued with a dignity higher than the common reality. This miracle is effected by poetry: it has its indescribable sighs, its immediate accents of the deepest agony, in which there still runs a something melodious. It is only a certain full-dressed and formal beauty, which is incompatible with the greatest truth of expression. And yet it is exactly this beauty that is demanded in the style of a French tragedy. No doubt something too is to be ascribed to the quality of their language and versification. The French language is wholly incapable of many bold flights, it has little poetical freedom, and it carries into poetry all the grammatical stiffness of prose. This their poets have often acknowledged and lamented. Besides, the Alexandrine with its couplets, with its hemistichs of equal length, is a very symmetrical and monotonous species of verse, and far better adapted for the expression of antithetical maxims, than for the musical delineation of passion with its unequal, abrupt, and erratic course of thoughts. But the main cause lies in a national feature, in the social endeavour never to forget themselves in presence of others, and always to exhibit themselves to the greatest possible advantage. It has been often remarked, that in French Tragedy the poet is always too easily seen through the discourses of the different personages, that he communicates to them his awn presence of mind, his cool reflections on their situation, and his desire to shine on all occasions. When most of their tragical speeches are closely examined, they are seldom found to be such as the persons speaking or acting by themselves without restraint would deliver; something or other is generally discovered in them which betrays a reference to the spectator more or less perceptible. Before, however, our compassion can be powerfully excited, we must be familiar with the persons; but how is this possible if we are always to see them under the yoke of their designs and endeavours, or, what is worse, of an unnatural and assumed grandeur of character? We must overhear them in their unguarded moments, when they imagine themselves alone, and throw aside all care and reserve.
Eloquence may and ought to have a place in Tragedy, but in so far as it is in some measure artificial in its method and preparation, it can only be in character when the speaker is sufficiently master of himself; for, for overpowering passion, an unconscious and involuntary eloquence is alone suitable. The truly inspired orator forgets himself in the subject of his eloquence. We call it rhetoric when he thinks less of his subject than of himself, and of the art in which he flatters himself he has obtained a mastery. Rhetoric, and rhetoric in a court dress, prevails but too much in many French tragedies, especially in those of Corneille, instead of the suggestions of a noble, but simple and artless nature; Racine and Voltaire, however, have come much nearer to the true conception of a mind carried away by its sufferings. Whenever the tragic hero is able to express his pain in antitheses and ingenious allusions, we may safely reserve our pity. This sort of conventional dignity is, as it were, a coat of mail, which prevents the pain from reaching the inmost heart. On account of their retaining this festal pomp in situations where the most complete self-forgetfulness would be natural, Schiller has wittily enough compared the heroes in French Tragedy to the kings in old engravings who lie in bed, crown, sceptre, robes and all.
This social refinement prevails through the whole of French literature and art. Social refinement sharpens, no doubt, the sense for the ludicrous, and even on that account, when it is carried to a fastidious excess, it is the death of every thing like enthusiasm. For all enthusiasm, all poetry, has a ludicrous aspect for the unfeeling. When, therefore, such a way of thinking has once become universal in a nation, a certain negative criticism will be associated with it. A thousand different things must be avoided, and in attending to these, the highest object of all, that which ought properly to be accomplished, is lost sight of. The fear of ridicule is the conscience of French poets; it has clipt their wings, and impaired their flight. For it is exactly in the most serious kind of poetry that this fear must torment them the most; for extremes run into one another, and whenever pathos fails it gives rise to laughter and parody. It is amusing to witness Voltaire's extreme agony when he was threatened with a parody of his Semiramis on the Italian theatre. In a petition to the queen, this man, whose whole life had been passed in turning every thing great and venerable into ridicule, urges his situation as one of the servants of the king's household, as a ground for obtaining from high authority the prohibition of a very innocent and allowable amusement. As French wits have indulged themselves in turning every thing in the world into ridicule, and more especially the mental productions of other nations, they will also allow us on our part to divert ourselves at the expense of their tragic writers, if with all their care they have now and then split upon the rock of which they were most in dread. Lessing has, with the most irresistible and victorious wit, pointed out the ludicrous nature of the very plans of Rodogune, Semiramis, Merope, and Zaire. But both in this respect and with regard to single laughable turns, a rich harvest might yet be gathered. [Footnote: A few examples of the latter will be sufficient. The lines with which Theseus in the Oedipus of Corneille opens his part, are deserving of one of the first places: Quelque ravage affreux qu'tale ici la peste L'absence aux vrais amans est encore plus funeste. The following from his Otho are equally well known: Dis moi donc, lorsqu' Othon s'est offert Camille, A-t-il paru contraint? a-t-elle t facile? Son hommage auprs d'elle a-t-il eu plein effet? Comment l'a-t-elle pris, et comment l'a-t-il fait? Where it is almost inconceivable, that the poet could have failed to see the application which might be made of the passage, especially as he allows the confidant to answer, J'ai tout vu. That Attila should treat the kings who are dependent on him like good-for-nothing fellows: Ils ne sont pas venus, nos deux rois; qu'on leur die Qu'ils se font trop attendre, et qu' Attila s'ennuie Qu'alors que je les mande ils doivent se hter: may in one view appear very serious and true; but nevertheless it appears exceedingly droll to us from the turn of expression, and especially from its being the opening of the piece. Generally speaking, with respect to the ludicrous, Corneille lived in a state of great innocence; since his time the world has become a great deal more witty. Hence, after making all allowances for what he cannot justly be blamed for, what, namely, arises merely from his language having become obsolete, we shall still find an ample field remaining for our ridicule. Among the numerous plays which are not reckoned among his master-pieces, we have only to turn up any one at random to light upon numerous passages susceptible of a ludicrous application. Racine, from the refinement and moderation which were natural to him, was much better guarded against this danger; but yet, here and there, expressions of the same kind escape from him. Among these we may include the whole of the speech in which Theramenes exhorts his pupil Hippolytus to yield himself up to love. The ludicrous can hardly be carried farther than it is in these lines: Craint-on de s'garer sur les traces d'Hercule? Quels courages Venus n'a-t-elle pas domts? Vous mme, o seriez vous, vous qui la combattez, Si toujours Antiope, ses loix oppose, D'une pudique ardeur n'eut brl pour Thse? In Berenice, Antiochus receives his confidant, whom he had sent to announce his visit to the Queen, with the words: Arsace, entrerons- nous? This humble patience in an antechamber would appear even undignified in Comedy, but it appears too pitiful even for a second-rate tragical hero. Antiochus says afterwards to the queen: Je me suis t cinq ans Madame, et vais encore me taire plus long-tems— And to give an immediate proof of his intention by his conduct, he repeats after this no less than fifty verses in a breath.
When Orosman says to Zaire, whom he pretends to love with European tenderness, Je sais que notre loi, favorable aux plaisirs Ouvre un champ sans limite nos vastes dsirs: his language is still more indecorous than laughable. But the answer of Zaire to her confidante, who thereupon reminded her that she is a Christian, is highly comic: Ah! que dis-tu? pourquoi rappeler mes ennuis? Upon the whole, however, Voltaire is much more upon his guard against the ludicrous than his predecessors: this was perfectly natural, for in his time the rage of turning every thing into ridicule was most prevalent. We may boldly affirm that in our days a single verse of the same kind as hundreds in Corneille would inevitably ruin any play.] But the war which Lessing carried on against the French stage was much more merciless, perhaps, than we, in the present day, should be justified in waging. At the time when he published his Dramaturgie, we Germans had scarcely any but French tragedies upon our stages, and the extravagant predilection for them as classical models had not then been combated. At present the national taste has declared itself so decidedly against them, that we have nothing to fear of an illusion in that quarter.
It is farther said that the French dramatists have to do with a public not only extremely fastidious in its dislike of any low intermixture, and highly susceptible of the ludicrous, but also extremely impatient. We will allow them the full enjoyment of this self-flattery: for we have no doubt that their real meaning is, that this impatience is a proof of quickness of apprehension and sharpness of wit. It is susceptible, however, of another interpretation: superficial knowledge, and more especially intrinsic emptiness of mind, invariably display themselves in fretful impatience. But however this may be, the disposition in question has had both a favourable and an unfavourable influence on the structure of their pieces. Favourable, in so far as it has compelled them to lop off every superfluity, to go directly to the main business, to be perspicuous, to study compression, to endeavour to turn every moment to the utmost advantage. All these are good theatrical proprieties, and have been the means of recommending the French tragedies as models of perfection to those who in the examination of works of art, measure everything by the dry test of the understanding, rather than listen to the voice of imagination and feeling. It has been unfavourable, in so far as even motion, rapidity, and a continued stretch of expectation, become at length monotonous and wearisome. It is like a music from which the piano should be altogether excluded, and in which even the difference between forte and fortissimo should, from the mistaken emulation of the performers, be rendered indistinguishable. I find too few resting-places in their tragedies similar to those in the ancient tragedies where the lyric parts come in. There are moments in human life which are dedicated by every religious mind to self-meditation, and when, with the view turned towards the past and the future, it keeps as it were holiday. This sacredness of the moment is not, I think, sufficiently reverenced: the actors and spectators alike are incessantly hurried on to something that is to follow; and we shall find very few scenes indeed, where a mere state, independent of its causal connexion, is represented developing itself. The question with them is always what happens, and only too seldom how happens it. And yet this is the main point, if an impression is to be made on the witnesses of human events. Hence every thing like silent effect is almost entirely excluded from their domain of dramatic art. The only leisure which remains for the actor for his silent pantomime is during the delivery of the long discourses addressed to him, when, however, it more frequently serves to embarrass him than assists him in the development of his part. They are satisfied if the web of the intrigue keeps uninterruptedly in advance of their own quickness of tact, and if in the speeches and answers the shuttle flies diligently backwards and forwards to the end.
Generally speaking, impatience is by no means a good disposition for the reception of the beautiful. Even dramatic poetry, the most animated production of art, has its contemplative side, and where this is neglected, the representation, from its very rapidity and animation, engenders only a deafening tumult in our mind, instead of that inward music which ought to accompany it.
The existence of many technical imperfections in their tragedy has been admitted even by French critics themselves; the confidants, for instance. Every hero and heroine regularly drags some one along with them, a gentleman in waiting or a court lady. In not a few pieces, we may count three or four of these merely passive hearers, who sometimes open their lips to tell something to their patron which he must have known better himself, or who on occasion are dispatched hither and thither on messages. The confidants in the Greek tragedies, either old guardian-slaves and nurses, or servants, have always peculiar characteristical destinations, and the ancient tragedians felt so little the want of communications between a hero and his confidant, to make us acquainted with the hero's state of mind and views, that they even introduce as a mute personage so important and proverbially famous a friend as a Pylades. But whatever ridicule was cast on the confidants, and however great the reproach of being reduced to make use of them, no attempt was ever made till the time of Alfieri to get rid of them.
The expositions or statements of the preliminary situation of things are another nuisance. They generally consist of choicely turned disclosures to the confidants, delivered in a happy moment of leisure. That very public whose impatience keeps the poets and players under such strict discipline, has, however, patience enough to listen to the prolix unfolding of what ought to be sensibly developed before their eyes. It is allowed that an exposition is seldom unexceptionable; that in their speeches the persons generally begin farther back than they naturally ought, and that they tell one another what they must both have known before, &c. If the affair is complicated, these expositions are generally extremely tedious: those of Heraclius and Rodogune absolutely make the head giddy. Chaulieu says of Crebillon's Rhadamiste, "The piece would be perfectly clear were it not for the exposition." To me it seems that their whole system of expositions, both in Tragedy and in High Comedy, is exceedingly erroneous. Nothing can be more ill-judged than to begin at once to instruct us without any dramatic movement. At the first drawing up of the curtain the spectator's attention is almost unavoidably distracted by external circumstances, his interest has not yet been excited; and this is precisely the time chosen by the poet to exact from him an earnest of undivided attention to a dry explanation,—a demand which he can hardly be supposed ready to meet. It will perhaps be urged that the same thing was done by the Greek poets. But with them the subject was for the most part extremely simple, and already known to the spectators; and their expositions, with the exception of the unskilful prologues of Euripides, have not the didactic particularising tone of the French, but are full of life and motion. How admirable again are the expositions of Shakspeare and Calderon! At the very outset they lay hold of the imagination; and when they have once gained the spectator's interest and sympathy they then bring forward the information necessary for the full understanding of the implied transactions. This means is, it is true, denied to the French tragic poets, who, if at all, are only very sparingly allowed the use of any thing calculated to make an impression on the senses, any thing like corporeal action; and who, therefore, for the sake of a gradual heightening of the impression are obliged to reserve to the last acts the little which is within their power.
To sum up all my previous observations in a few words: the French have endeavoured to form their tragedy according to a strict idea; but instead of this they have set up merely an abstract notion. They require tragical dignity and grandeur, tragical situations, passions, and pathos, altogether simple and pure, and without any foreign appendages. Stript thus of their proper investiture, they lose much in truth, profundity, and character; and the whole composition is deprived of the living charm of variety, of the magic of picturesque situations, and of all those ravishing effects which a light but preparatory matter, when left to itself, often produces on the mind by its marvellous and spontaneous growth. With respect to the theory of the tragic art, they are yet at the very same point that they were in the art of gardening before the time of Lenotre. All merit consisted, in their judgment, in extorting a triumph from nature by means of art. They had no other idea of regularity than the measured symmetry of straight alleys, clipped edges, &c. Vain would have been the attempt to make those who laid out such gardens to comprehend that there could be any plan, any hidden order, in an English park, and demonstrate to them that a succession of landscapes, which from their gradation, their alternation, and their opposition, give effect to each other, did all aim at exciting in us a certain mental impression.
The rooted and lasting prejudices of a whole nation are seldom accidental, but are connected with some general want of intrinsic capacities, from which even the eminent minds who read the rest are not exempted. We are not, therefore, to consider such prejudices merely as causes; we must also consider them at the same time as important effects. We allow that the narrow system of rules, that a dissecting criticism of the understanding, has shackled the efforts of the French tragedians; still, however, it remains doubtful whether of their own inclination they would ever have made choice of more comprehensive designs, and, if so, in what way they would have filled them up. The most distinguished among them have certainly not been deficient in means and talents. In a particular examination of their different productions we cannot show them any favour; but, on a general view, they are more deserving of pity than censure; and when, under such unfavourable circumstances, they yet produce what is excellent, they are doubly entitled to our admiration, although we can by no means admit the justice of the common-place observation, that the overcoming of difficulty is a source of pleasure, nor find anything meritorious in a work of art merely because it is artificially composed. As for the claim which the French advance to set themselves up, in spite of all their one-sidedness and inadequacy of view, as the lawgivers of taste, it must be rejected with becoming indignation.
Use at first made of the Spanish Theatre by the French—General Character of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire—Review of the principal Works of Corneille and of Racine—Thomas Corneille and Crebillon.
I have briefly noticed all that was necessary to mention of the antiquities of the French stage. The duties of the poet were gradually more rigorously laid down, under a belief in the authority of the ancients, and the infallibility of Aristotle. By their own inclination, however, the poets were led to the Spanish theatre, as long as the Dramatic Art in France, under a native education, had not attained its full maturity. They not only imitated the Spaniards, but, from this mine of ingenious invention, even borrowed largely and directly. I do not merely allude to the earlier times under Richelieu; this state of things continued through the whole of the first half of the age of Louis XIV.; and Racine is perhaps the oldest poet who seems to have been altogether unacquainted with the Spaniards, or at least who was in no manner influenced by them. The comedies of Corneille are nearly all taken from Spanish pieces; and of his celebrated works, the Cid and Don Sancho of Aragon are also Spanish. The only piece of Rotrou which still keeps its place on the theatre, Wenceslas, is borrowed from Francisco de Roxas: Molire's unfinished Princess of Etis is from Moreto, his Don Garcia of Navarre from an unknown author, and the Festin de Pierre carries its origin in its front: [Footnote: And betrays at the same time Molire's ignorance of Spanish. For if he had possessed even a tolerable knowledge of it, how could he have translated El Convidado de Piedra (the Stone Guest) into the Stone Feast, which has no meaning here, and could only be applicable to the Feasts of Midas?] we have only to look at the works of Thomas Corneille to be at once convinced that, with the exception of a few, they are all Spanish; as also are the earlier labours of Quinault, namely, his comedies and tragi-comedies. The right of drawing without scruple from this source was so universal, that the French imitators, when they borrowed without the least disguise, did not even give themselves the trouble of naming the author of the original, and assigning to the true owner a part of the applause which they might earn. In the Cid alone the text of the Spanish poet is frequently cited, and that only because Corneille's claim to originality had been called in question.
We should certainly derive much instruction from a discovery of the prototypes, when they are not among the more celebrated, or already known by their titles, and thereupon instituting a comparison between them and their copies. We must, however, go very differently to work from Voltaire in Heraclius, in which, as Garcia de la Huerta [Footnote: In the introduction to his Theatro Hespaol.] has incontestably proved, he displays both great ignorance and studied and disgusting perversions. If the most of these imitations give little pleasure to France in the present day, this decision is noways against the originals, which must always have suffered considerably from the recast. The national characters of the French and Spanish are totally different; and consequently also the spirit of their language and poetry. The most temperate and restrained character belongs to the French; the Spaniard, though in the remotest West, displays, what his history may easily account for, an Oriental vein, which luxuriates in a profusion of bold images and sallies of wit. When we strip their dramas of these rich and splendid ornaments, when, for the glowing colours of their romance and the musical variations of the rhymed strophes in which they are composed, we compel them to assume the monotony of the Alexandrine, and submit to the fetters of external regularities, while the character and situations are allowed to remain essentially the same, there can no longer be any harmony between the subject and its mode of treatment, and it loses that truth which it may still retain within the domain of fancy.
The charm of the Spanish poetry consists, generally speaking, in the union of a sublime and enthusiastic earnestness of feeling, which peculiarly descends from the North, with the lovely breath of the South, and the dazzling pomp of the East. Corneille possessed an affinity to the Spanish spirit but only in the first point; he might be taken for a Spaniard educated in Normandy. It is much to be regretted that he had not, after the composition of the Cid, employed himself without depending on foreign models, upon subjects which would have allowed him to follow altogether his feeling for chivalrous honour and fidelity. But on the other hand he took himself to the Roman history; and the severe patriotism of the older, and the ambitious policy of the later Romans, supplied the place of chivalry, and in some measure assumed its garb. It was by no means so much his object to excite our terror and compassion as our admiration for the characters and astonishment at the situations of his heroes. He hardly ever affects us; and is seldom capable of agitating our minds. And here I may indeed observe, that such is his partiality for exciting our wonder and admiration, that, not contented with exacting it for the heroism of virtue, he claims it also for the heroism of vice, by the boldness, strength of soul, presence of mind, and elevation above all human weakness, with which he endows his criminals of both sexes. Nay, often his characters express themselves in the language of ostentatious pride, without our being well able to see what they have to be proud of: they are merely proud of their pride. We cannot often say that we take an interest in them: they either appear, from the great resources which they possess within themselves, to stand in no need of our compassion, or else they are undeserving of it. He has delineated the conflict of passions and motives; but for the most part not immediately as such, but as already metamorphosed into a contest of principles. It is in love that he has been found coldest; and this was because he could not prevail on himself to paint it as an amiable weakness, although he everywhere introduced it, even where most unsuitable, either out of a condescension to the taste of the age or a private inclination for chivalry, where love always appears as the ornament of valour, as the checquered favour waving at the lance, or the elegant ribbon-knot to the sword. Seldom does he paint love as a power which imperceptibly steals upon us, and gains at last an involuntary and irresistible dominion over us; but as an homage freely chosen at first, to the exclusion of duty, but afterwards maintaining its place along with it. This is the case at least in his better pieces; for in his later works love is frequently compelled to give way to ambition; and these two springs of action mutually weaken each other. His females are generally not sufficiently feminine; and the love which they inspire is with them not the last object, but merely a means to something beyond. They drive their lovers into great dangers, and sometimes also to great crimes; and the men too often appear to disadvantage, while they allow themselves to become mere instruments in the hands of women, or to be dispatched by them on heroic errands, as it were, for the sake of winning the prize of love held out to them. Such women as Emilia in Cinna and Rodogune, must surely be unsusceptible of love. But if in his principal characters, Corneille, by exaggerating the energetic and underrating the passive part of our nature, has departed from truth; if his heroes display too much volition and too little feeling, he is still much more unnatural in his situations. He has, in defiance of all probability, pointed them in such a way that we might with great propriety give them the name of tragical antitheses, and it becomes almost natural if the personages express themselves in a series of epigrammatical maxims. He is fond of exhibiting perfectly symmetrical oppositions. His eloquence is often admirable from its strength and compression; but it sometimes degenerates into bombast, and exhausts itself in superfluous accumulations. The later Romans, Seneca the philosopher, and Lucan, were considered by him too much in the light of models; and unfortunately he possessed also a vein of Seneca the tragedian. From this wearisome pomp of declamation, a few simple words interspersed here and there, have been often made the subject of extravagant praise. [Footnote: For instance, the Qu'il mourt of the old Horatius; the Soyons amis, Cinna: also the Moi of Medea, which, we may observe in passing, is borrowed from Seneca.] If they stood alone they would certainly be entitled to praise; but they are immediately followed by long harangues which destroy their effect. When the Spartan mother, on delivering the shield to her son, used the well-known words, "This, or on this!" she certainly made no farther addition to them. Corneille was peculiarly well qualified to portray ambition and the lust of power, a passion which stifles all other human feelings, and never properly erects its throne till the mind has become a cold and dreary wilderness. His youth was passed in the last civil wars, and he still saw around him remains of the feudal independence. I will not pretend to decide how much this may have influenced him, but it is undeniable that the sense which he often showed of the great importance of political questions was altogether lost in the following age, and did not make its appearance again before Voltaire. However he, like the rest of the poets of his time, paid his tribute of flattery to Louis the Fourteenth, in verses which are now forgotten.
Racine, who for all but an entire century has been unhesitatingly proclaimed the favourite poet of the French nation, was by no means during his lifetime in so enviable a situation, and, notwithstanding many an instance of brilliant success, could not rest as yet in the pleasing and undisturbed possession of his fame. His merit in giving the last polish to the French language, his unrivalled excellence both of expression and versification, were not then allowed; on the stage he had rivals, of whom some were undeservedly preferred before him. On the one hand, the exclusive admirers of Corneille, with Madame Sevign at their head, made a formal party against him; on the other hand, Pradon, a younger candidate for the honours of the Tragic Muse, endeavoured to wrest the victory from him, and actually succeeded, not merely, it would appear, in gaining over the crowd, but the very court itself, notwithstanding the zeal with which he was opposed by Boileau. The chagrin to which this gave rise, unfortunately interrupted his theatrical career at the very period when his mind had reached its full maturity: a mistaken piety afterwards prevented him from resuming his theatrical occupations, and it required all the influence of Madame Maintenon to induce him to employ his talent upon religious subjects for a particular occasion. It is probable that but for this interruption, he would have carried his art still higher: for in the works which we have of him, we trace a gradually advancing improvement. He is a poet in every way worthy of our love: he possessed a delicate susceptibility for all the tenderer emotions, and great sweetness in expressing them. His moderation, which never allowed him to transgress the bounds of propriety, must not be estimated too highly: for he did not possess strength of character in any eminent degree, nay, there are even marks of weakness perceptible in him, which, it is said, he also exhibited in private life. He has also paid his homage to the sugared gallantry of his age, where it merely serves as a show of love to connect together the intrigue; but he has often also succeeded completely in the delineation of a more genuine love, especially in his female characters; and many of his love-scenes breathe a tender voluptuousness, which, from the veil of reserve and modesty thrown over it, steals only the more seductively into the soul. The inconsistencies of unsuccessful passion, the wanderings of a mind diseased, and a prey to irresistible desire, he has portrayed more touchingly and truthfully than any French poet before him, or even perhaps after him. Generally speaking, he was more inclined to the elegiac and the idyllic, than to the heroic. I will not say that he would never have elevated himself to more serious and dignified conceptions than are to be found in his Britannicus and Mithridate; but here we must distinguish between that which his subject suggested, and what he painted with a peculiar fondness, and wherein he is not so much the dramatic artist as the spokesman of his own feelings. At the same time, it ought not to be forgotten that Racine composed most of his pieces when very young, and that this may possibly have influenced his choice. He seldom disgusts us, like Corneille and Voltaire, with the undisguised repulsiveness of unnecessary crimes; he has, however, often veiled much that in reality is harsh, base, and mean, beneath the forms of politeness and courtesy. I cannot allow the plans of his pieces to be, as the French critics insist, unexceptionable; those which he borrowed from ancient mythology are, in my opinion, the most liable to objection; but still I believe, that with the rules and observations which he took for his guide, he could hardly in most cases have extricated himself from his difficulties more cautiously and with greater propriety than he has actually done. Whatever may be the defects of his productions separately considered, when we compare him with others, and view him in connexion with the French literature in general, we can hardly bestow upon him too high a meed of praise.