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Where docks, bullrushes, waterflags, and mallows
FRENCH AND ENGLISH TRAGEDY. “Le Theatre est ce que l'esprit humain a jamais inventé de plus noble et de plus utile, pour former les mæurs et pour les polir: c'st la le chef-d'æuvre de la société."
VOLTAIRE, “I believe, upon a true definition of tragedy, it will be found that its work is to reform manners, by delightful representation of human life in great persons, by way of dialogue."
DRYDEN. It is curious and instructive to observe the French, with less of dramatic genius than the English, surpassing the English and every other nation, in perfecting the tragic drama. There is no subject, however, the impartial treatment of which will meet with less conformity of opinion. Even the proposition just stated contains two challenges to dispute. The countrymen of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, smile at an assumed superiority to them, of genius to invent, taste to embellish, or talent to extend. Amongst us, on the other hand, French tragedy is absolutely contemned by three descriptions of people ;-the smitten admirers of Germanism ; those literary antiquarians, who, seeking matter for paradox and refuge for conceit, in the accessible but neglected rude essays of our ancestors, enviously decry perennial literature, because they do not know it; lastly, some who, with judgments more enlightened, reproach the French poets with effeminacy and mannerism, and tolerate the grossness and extravagance of our own early dramatists, for the sake of that redeeming anomaly of force, grandeur, and fidelity to nature, which in them is the more striking and fascinating, from the effect of contrast and surprise. Here is a vast mass of the reading, and even writing population of the day, prepared to trample down the principles of classic criticism ; not caring, -some perhaps not knowing,—that they proscribe Euripides and Virgil with Racine—Sophocles, Aristotle, and Horace, with Voltaire. They, however, whose minds have been formed, and whose prejudices have been removed, by classical studies, and a European education, concurring in the censure of the French poets for occasional mannerism and effeminacy, produced by a too strict observance of rules, and a too sensitive refinement of taste, will, at the same time, accord to them the honour of having given to dramatic composition, correctness of design, beauty of form, and the other graces of fine art, in a civilized age.
But why is it that English tragedy, with its superiority of genius, its force, depth, free spirit, and variety, has remained comparatively unrefined? The following is the chief cause. The master-spirits of the drama in France produced their chefs-d'ouvre after the middle of the 17th and during the 18th centuries, when the French language had been already formed and polished, and French literature had reached its meridian splendour. In England, unhappily, the master-spirits, or rather the one transcendant master-spirit, appeared in an age, rich undoubtedly in the growth of great intellect, but whilst the language was yet rude, civilization less than imperfect, and the stage uncreated. Shakspeare's genius has not only immortalized his name ; but, as if to give proof of its extraordinary power, has consecrated grossness, impurity, unnatural conceits, the two extremes of baseness and bombast—in fine, all those lamentable vices of taste, which are properly not his, but of his time. It is from this leading circumstance, that tragedy in France and England bears a different impress of character, peculiar to the two nations respectively. A mere coup-d'ail of the progress of tragic composition in both countries will establish this fact. may also give, perhaps, juster notions of French tragedy than are at present generally entertained amongst us. The dramatic literature of our neighbours has often mingled with our own ; but, from the incapacity of our imitators and translators, and the natural disappointment of the public, its merits have never been fairly appreciated, and, indeed, its true character never understood. The progress of dramatic improvement in France is also curiously illustrative, by contrast, of the causes which have retarded the culture, or corrupted the principles of English theatric taste. And here a material error, but too generally prevalent, may be corrected at least stated, en passant. There is not, in this age of dissertation, a tyro, or a sage in criticism, who expends his judgment or his spleen on the passing literature of the stage, but opens with a lament upon the decay of
dramatic talent-a most mistaken idea, or more properly, the confusion of one idea with another. Never was our poetical literature more vivified and resplendent with the soul and genius of the drama. Boldness, variety, and force, in the invention of character and situation; a sounding and stirring of the passions to their utmost depth; a picturesque introduction of personages speaking and acting for themselves :-these are its main features. Even those great talents that have abandoned the classic for the romantic muse-but still preserve and cherish the sentiment of grandeur, beauty, and propriety, which never yet was found but in the classic models are only the more dramatic. But in the abundance of capable genius the theatre is barren; because the depravation of public taste has consigned the stage to a race of writers whom the poverty of their resources has condemned to move in the procession, at the tail of literature. This general proposition will be understood as subject to exception and qualification, in favour of some late tragedies; but it does justly and emphatically apply to the host of translators, adapters, and revivers, who import melodrame from the fantastic bedlam stage of Germany, or the Boulevards of Paris; or rake up buried rudeness from its grave; or else fix their fangs upon any new work which may be tortured into a drama-subsisting, like freebooters, upon the outskirts of literature, by prowling among the living, and profaning the dead-ignorant alike of conscience and of taste.
Minds of superior power, with reputations to lose, or to gain, will not risk the mortification of failure for a most precarious success. But why, it will be asked, do they not take possession of the stage, and raise and reform it? There is no longer the same incentive of ambition or interest. The vast diffusion of the faculty of reading among the people, has rendered the press just as rapid a vehicle to fame and fortune, without the same perils. The stage, moreover, has fallen into neglect, if not disrepute. Those who fill the high offices of state and the ranks of nobility, no longer adorn it by their talents, or protect it by their influence. Their patronage of literary dependants is not an equalizing communion in the worship of the Muses, but rather a pampering of political satellites and parasites. The softer sex too, whose influence is always so powerful in giving the tone, and whose organic sensibility and fineness of touch are so well calculated to exalt and refine the drama, have abandoned society and the stage for heartless,
revelry, a pedantic smattering of science, or what is more fatal though more difficult to blame, the fascinations of a sister art. Music has nearly banished conversation from the drawing-room, and seduced the fair votaries of intellectual pleasure from the national theatres to the Italian opera.
Vol. II, No. 7.-1821.
The drama, both in France and England, first sprang up in those two extremes of society and reclusion, where the tedium of life is most importunate-palaces and cloisters. Ennui became inventive for its own relief, and produced the monstrous farces called mysteries and moralities. The French have preserved many of those gross but curious monuments of European barbarism in the middle age. They are taken almost exclusively from the mysteries of the Christian faith, and the mythology of Paganism,—sometimes blended together, not only without scruple, but with equal reverence. The fantastic and varied invention, the gorgeous splendour, the resources of architecture and machinery, displayed in these exhibitions, on occasions of sacred or profane solemnity in the courts of princes, in an age so gross and ignorant, is truly wonderful. In 1313, Philip the Fair, of France, had a morality performed before him, at which our Edward II., his Queen, a Princess of France, and a splendid train of English nobility, were present by special invitation. This extraordinary spectacle consisted of three parts: the fable of the Fox and the Lion dramatized, and presenting the whole race of quadrupeds, with all the license of the Animali parlanti; the interior of Hell, with all its machinery of terror and torture employed upon the souls of the damned; and lastly, a view of the bliss of Paradise. An old chronicler, shortly after the same period, gives the following account of a morality performed at the marriage of a Prince Palatine of the Rhine with a Princess of England. ORPHEUS enters playing upon his lyre, with an assemblage of deputies from the whole brute creation, tame and savage, dancing at his heels. The firmament next opens, and the stars appear also dancing to his music. Mercury, who officiates as stage-manager, prays Jove that one half of the stars should be transformed to knights clad in flaming armour, the other into flame-clad beauties. The good-humoured “ father of gods and men” consents by a nod from the top of Olympus; the knights and dames join hands in the heavens, then descend from their empyreal abode to the banquet-hall, and dance celestial sarabands, with which the spectacle closes. The representation of the twelve labours of Hercules was a favourite morality; and it will seem rather strange to those who remember exactly what those labours were, that the son of Jupiter was not excused the representation of a single one of these memorable trials of his prowess. The mysteries, composed and acted almost exclusively in the beginning by monks and pilgrims, and consisting of the birth, life, and passion of our Saviour dramatized, were at first represented in monasteries, but subsequently exhibited publicly on religious festivals for the edification of the people. The stage was a temporary structure, with no illusion of scenery, but the orifice of hell, in the form of a dragon's mouth, through which the devils made their entrances and exits. There is something at once shocking and ludicrous in the blasphemous absurdity of these productions. The following passage, though selected for its decorum, will give some idea of the tone in which these holy personages treated topics the most sacred. It is taken from a inystery entitled “ The Conception.” It is Joseph who speaks :
Mon soulcy ne se peut deffaire
Ha! brief, je ne scay que penser! It may be thought that there is more of naïveté than profaneness in this curious monologue; but there are other passages so explicitly gross, and in so unequivocal a tone of impious pleasantry, as to leave no doubt but the two extremes of superstition and infidelity had met in the monasteries ; however the sacredness of the subject, and the authority of the performers, may have imposed on the multitude. Nor is this meeting of extremes unnatural or infrequent. Why they should endeavour to bestialize the common reason of mankind is no less easily accounted for. It is the policy, if not the instinct, of all tyranny, spiritual and temporal, to bow down the slaves of its power, in very wantonness, to the lowest abasement.
This profane buffoonery at length gave such public scandal, as to call for the interference of the civil magistrate: and, soon after, some advances were made towards introducing a better taste. LAZARE BAIF, a gentleman of Anjou, who had studied