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(Part 59)


18th Century Drama

The results of the cultivation of dramatic poetry at this time even less individually remarkable than those of the attention paid to poetry proper. Here again the astonishing power and literary aptitude of Voltaire gave value to his attempts in a style which, not withstanding that it counts Racine among its practitioners was none the less predestined to failure. Voltaire’s own efforts in this kind are indisputably as successful as they could be. Foreigners usually prefer Mahomet and Zaïre to Bajazet and Mithridate, though there is no doubt that no work of Voltaire’s comes up to Polyeucte and Rodogune, as certainly no single passgae in any of his plays can approach the best passages of Cinna and Les Horaces. But the remaining tragic writers of the century, with the single exception of Crébillon père, are scarcely third-rate Crébillon (1674-1763) himself had genius, and there are to be found in the work evidence of a spirit which had seemed to die away with St Genest, and was hardly to revive until Hernani. Of the imitators of Racine and Voltaire, La Motte (1672-1731) in Ines de Castro was not wholly unsuccessful. La Grange-Chancel copied chiefly the worst side of the author of Britannicus, and Saurin (1706-1781) and De Belloy (1727-1775) performed the same service for Voltaire. There was an infinity of tragic writers and tragic plays in this century, but hardly any others of them even deserve mention. The muse of comedy was decidedly more happy in her devotes. Molière was a far safer if a more difficult model than Racine, and the inexorable fashion which had bound down tragedy to a feeble imitation of Euripides did not similarly prescribe an undeviating adherence to Terrence. Tragedy had never been, has scarcely been since, anything but an exotic in France; comedy was of the soil and native. Very early in the century Le Sage (1668-1747), in the admirable comedy of Turcaret, produced a work not unworthy to stand by the side of all but his master’s best. Destouches (1680—1754) was also a fertile comedy writer in the early years of the century, and in Le Glorieux and Le Philosophe Marié achived considerable success. As the age went on, comedy, always apt to lay hold of passing events, devoted itself to the great struggle between the Philosophes and their opponents. Curiously enough, the partly which engrossed almost all the wit of France had the worst of it in this dramatic portion of the contest, if in no other. The Méchant of Gresset and the Métromanie of Piron (1689-1773) were far superior to anything produced on the other side, and the Philosophes of Palissot (1734-1814), though scurrilous and broadly farcical, had a great success. On the other hand, it was to a Philosophe that the invention of a new dramatic style was due, and still more the promulgation of certain ideas on dramatic criticism and construction, which after being filtered through the German mind, were to return to France and to exercise the most powerful influence on its dramatic productions. This was Diderot (1713-1784), the most fertile genius of the century, but also the least productive in finished and perfect work. His chief dramas, the Fils Natural and the Père de Famille, are certainly not great successes ; the shorter plays, Est-il bon? est-il méchant? and La Pièce et la Prologue, are better. But it was his follower Sédaine (1717-1779) who in Le Philosophe sans le savoir and other pieces produced the best examples of the bourgeois as opposed to the heroic drama. Diderot is sometimes credited or discredited with the invention of the Comédie Larmoyante, a title which indeed his own plays do not altogether refuse, but this special variety seems to be in its invention rather the property of La Chaussé (1692-1754). Comedy sustained itself, and even gained ground towards the end of the century ; at the extreme limit of our present period there appears the remarkable figure of Beaumachais (1732-1799). The Mariage de Figaro and the Barbier de Séville are well known as having had attributed to them no mean place among the literary causes and forerunners of the Revolution. Their dramatic and literary value would itself have sufficed to obtained attention for them at any time, though there can be no doubt their popularity was mainly due to their political appositeness. The most remarkable point about them, as about the school of comedy, of which Congreve was the chief master in England at the beginning of the century, was the abuse and superfluity of wit in the dialogue, indiscriminately allotted to all characters alike.

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