1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Drama

France
(Part 49)




FRENCH LITERATURE (cont.)

17th Century Drama


We have already seen how the mediaeval theatre was formed, and how in the second half of the 16th century it met with a formidable rival in the classical drama of Jodelle and Garnier. In 1588 mysteries had been prohibited, and with the prohibition of the mysteries the Confraternity of the Passion lost the principal part of its reason for existence. The other bodies and societies of amateur actors had already perished, and at length the Hôtel de Bourgogne itself, the home of the confraternity, had been handed over to a regular troop of actors, while companies of strollers, whose life has been vividly depicted in the Roman Comique of Scarron and the Capitaine Fracasse of Théophile Gautier, wandered all about the provinces. The old farce was for a time maintained or revived by Tabarin, a remarkable figure in dramatic history, of whom but little is known. The great dramatic author of the first quarter of the 17th century was Alexandre Hardy (1560-1631), who surpassed even Heywood in fecundity, and very nearly approached the portentous productiveness of Lope de Vega. Seven hundred is put down as the modest total of Hardy’s pieces, but not much more than a twentieth of these exist in print. From these latter we can judge Hardy. They are hardly up to the level of the worst specimens of the contemporary Elizabethan theatre, to which, however, they bear a certain resemblance. Marston’s Insatiate Countess and the worst parts of Chapman’s Bussy d’Ambois may give English readers some notion of them. Yet Hardy was not totally devoid of merit. He imitated and adapted Spanish literature, which was at this time to France what Italian was in the century before and English in the century after, in the most indiscriminate manner. But he had a considerable command of grandiloquent and melodramatic expression, a sound theory if not a sound practice of tragic writing, and that peculiar knowledge of theatrical art and of the taste of the theatrical public which since his time has been the special possession of the French playwright. It is instructive to compare the influence of his irregular and faulty genius with that of the regular and precise Malherbe. From Hardy to Rotrou is, in point of literary interest, a great step, and from Rotrou to Corneille a greater. Yet the theory of Hardy only wanted the genius of Rotrou and Corneille to produce the latter. Rotrou (1609-1650), has been called the French Marlowe, and there is a curious likeness and yet a curious contrast between the two poets. The best parts of Rotrou’s two best plays, Venceslas and St Genest, are quite beyond comparison in respect of anything that preceded them, and the central speech of the last-named play will rank with anything in French dramatic poetry. We must, despite the necessity of excluding personal details from this article, add that the noble personal character of this little known French dramatist, his generous acknowledgment of Corneille who succeeded and surpassed him, and the devotion with which he sacrificed his life to his official duty, are almost as admirable as his works. Contemporary with Rotrou were other dramatic writers of considerable dramatic importance, most of them distinguished by the faults of the Spanish school, its declamatory rodomontade, its conceits, and its occasionally preposterous action. Jean de Schélandre (d. 1635) has left us a remarkable work in Tyr et Sidon. Théophile de Viau in Pyrame et Thisbé and in Pasiphaé produced a singular mixture of the classicism of Garnier and the extravagancies of Hardy. Scudéry in L’Amour Tyrannique and other plays achieved a considerable success. The Marianne of Tristan (1601-1655) and the Sophonisbe of Mairet (1606-1688) are the chief pieces of their authors. Mairet resembles Marston in something more than his choice of subject. Another dramatic writer of some eminence is Du Ryer (1605-1648). But the fertility of France at this moment in dramatic authors was immense ; nearly 100 are enumerated in the first quarter of the century. The early plays of Corneille (1606-1684) showed all the faults of his contemporaries combined with merits to which none of them except Rotrou, and Rotrou himself only in part, could lay claim. His first play was Mélite, a comedy, and in Clitandre, a tragedy, he soon produced what may perhaps be not inconveniently taken as the typical piece of the school of Hardy. A full account of Corneille may be found elsewhere. It is sufficient to say her that his importance in French literature is quite as great in the way of influence and example as in the way of intellectual excellence. The Cid and the Menteur are respectively the fist examples of French tragedy and comedy which can be called modern. But his influence and example did not at first find many imitators. Corneille was a member of Richelieu’s band of five poets. Of the other four Rotrou alone deserves the title; the remaining three, Boisrobert, Colletet, and Lestoile, are as dramatists worthy of no notice, nor were they soon followed by others more worthy. Yet before many years had passed the examples which Corneille had set in tragedy and in comedy were followed up by unquestionably the greatest comic writer, and by one who long held the position of he greatest tragic writer of France. Beginning with mere farces of the Italian type, and passing from these to comedies still of an Italian character, it was in Les Précieuses Ridicules, acted in 1659, that Molière (1622-1673), in the words of a spectator, hit at last on "la bonne comédie." The next fifteen years comprise the whole of his best known work, the finest expression beyond doubt of a certain class of comedy that any literature had produced. The tragic masterpieces of Racine (1639-1699) were not far from coinciding with the comic masterpieces of Molière, for with the exception of the remarkable aftergrowth of Esther and Athalie, they were produced chiefly between 1667-1677. Both Racine and Molière fall into the class of writers who require separate mention. Here we can only remark that both to a certain extent committed, and, which is still more to our purpose, set the example of a fault which distinguished much subsequent French dramatic literature. This was the too great individualizing of one point in a character, and the making the man or woman nothing but a blunderer, a lover, a coxcomb, a tyrant, and the like. The very titles of French plays show this influence,—they are "Le Grondeur," "Le Joueur," &c. The complexity of human character is ignored. This fault distinguishes both Molière and Racine from writers of the very highest order ; and in especial it distinguishes the comedy of Molière and the tragedy of Racine from the comedy and tragedy of Shakespeare. In all probability this and other defects of the French drama, which are not wholly apparent in the work of Molière and Corneille, are shown in their most favourable light in those of Racine, and appear in all their deformity in the successors of the latter, arise from the rigid adoption of the Aristotelian theory of the drama with its unities and other restrictions, especially as transmitted by Horace through Boileau. This adoption was very much due to the influence of the French Academy, which founded in 1629, and which continued the tradition of Malherbe in attempting constantly to school and correct, as the phrase went, the somewhat disorderly instincts of the early French stage. It is difficult to say whether the subordination of all other classes of composition to the drama which has ever since been characteristic of French literature was or was not due to the predilection of Richelieu, the main protector, if not exactly the founder of the Academy, for the theatre. Among the immediate successors and later contemporaries of the three great dramatists we do not find any who deserve high rank as tragedians, though there are some whose comedies are more than respectable. It is at least significant that the restrictions imposed by the academic theory on the comic drama were far less severe than those which tragedy had to undergo. The latter was practically confined in respect of sources of attraction to the dexterous manipulation of the unities ; the interest of a plot attenuated as much as possible, an intended to produce, instead of pity a mild sympathy, and instead of terror a mild alarm (for the purists decided against Corneille that "admiration was not a tragic passion") ; and lastly the composition of long tirades of smooth but monotonous verses arranged in couples tipped with delicately careful rhymes. Only Thomas Corneille (1625-1706), the inheritor of an elder tradition and of a great name, deserve to be excepted from the condemnation to be passed on the lesser tragedians of this period. He was unfortunate in possessing has brother’s name, and in being, like him, too voluminous in his compositions ; but Camma, Ariane, Le Comte d’ Essex, are not tragedies to despised. On the other hand the names of Campistron (1656-1737) and Pradon (1632-1698) only serve to point injurious comparisons ; Duché (1660-1704) and La Fosse (1653-1708) are of still importance, and Quinault’s tragedies are chiefly remarkable because he had the good sense to give up writing them and to take to opera. The general excellence of French comedy, on the other hand, was sufficiently vindicated. Besides the splendid sum of Molière’s work, two great tragedians had each, in Le Menteur and Les Plaideurs, set a capital example to their successors, which was fairly followed. Brueys (1640-1723) and Palaprat (1650-1721) brought out once more the ever new Advocat Patelin. Quinault and Campistron wrote fair comdies. Dancourt (1661-1726), Dufresny (1684-1721), Boursault (1638-1701), were all comic writers of considerable merit. But the chief comic dramatist of the latter period of the 17th century was Regnard (1655-1709), whose Joueur and Légataire are comddies almost of the first rank.






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