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by Gresset; Nanine, l'Enfant prodigue, l'Ecossaise by Voltaire, le Pere de Famille by Diderot; le Philosoplie sans le savoir by Sedaine; Melanie by la Harpe; la Mere Coupable by Beaumarchais, a sequel to his admirable comedies le Barbier de Seville, and Figaro, with many which decidedly belong to the only genre which Voltaire calls bad, the 'genre ennuyeux.' The list of great operas is very long; and that of the minor productions would be interminable.
The revolution, whose agency upon the minds of Frenchmen has shown itself in such multiplied forms, has maintained the pre-eminency which the theatre formerly claimed over every other species of poetry: and the success of about two hundred dramatic pieces, thirty of which at least were tragedies, could not be paralleled in any other branch of French literature, during the same epocha. But never perhaps was this ascendancy so remarkable as since the restoration of the Bourbons; for in almost every other literary or scientific pursuit, a kind of languor has succeeded to the feverish activity which prevailed in the reigns of anarchy and usurpation, while the stage has swarmed with successful productions.
The species of literary composition which is the most analogous to the French character, is certainly the dramatic. 'Natio comoeda est.' The French have a peculiar talent for playing any part they please. They can assume any humours, and counterfeit any manners. They never are themselves; every boudoir, every saloon is a theatre where every individual is at once an actor and a spectator; and society is a vast stage where every man and every woman ceases to be natural, unless indeed personation be nature. The province of every Frenchman when produced before the world is to differ from himself, when before himself alone: and his politeness consists in simulation and dissimulation.
The region which a people, so volatile, so little domestic, so much made up for show, so insensible to comfort, so eager for pleasure, so indifferent to happiness, delights in, must be that which shows them counterfeit in action. A public theatre unites all that can fascinate a Frenchman. It offers him something like occupation in the shape of amusement; an appearance of study in a diversified and lively assembly; and takes, from the one, its application, from the other, its solitude. It displays a living active picture of human beings; and gratifies curiosity by letting him into the secrets of their lives, and the recesses of their hearts. It brings with it all the splendour which ambition can covet, and all the illusions which fancy can delight in. It is a magical fairy ground which can be trodden without effort; and equally enchanting, chanting, whether we admire the author, the actor, or the audience. It contains, whether in pit, boxes, gallery or stage, the most bewitching seductions of society, united with the richest charms of literature. There, the poet does not apply to every plodding reader, one by one, that cons his verses, and turns over and over, twenty times, each dog-eared leaf; he collects his clients, night after night, into one common hall, and rushes, dauntless, into their presence. He does not wait till the slow approbation of his divided admirers is instilled, drop by drop, into his ears, from all the dark and lazy corners of the metropolis; he receives his recompense in thunders, shouts and clamours, all at once, in the face of patent lamps—perhaps of gas lights—and drinks large torrents of intoxicating plaudits. For persons who derive more satisfaction from such hasty and noisy applause as that bestowed in a theatre, than from the slow approbation conferred upon other branches of literature, the stage, in all its departments, has peculiar attractions; and it is there that literary ambition will always endeavour to find its vent in France.
But ambition alone is not sufficient to ensure success; and either there must have been a considerable fund of genius in that country, to succeed, as it appears by theatrical registers that French poets have succeeded; or else the walk itself must not have been encumbered by any of the ponderous difficulties, which are removable, by such minds only, as nature delights to form at long intervals, and, as it were, to give the world occasional assurance of her power. Some general strictures upon the French stage, and the principles which govern it, will put this in a clearer light; and also help us to ground an opinion upon some of the dramatic pieces which have succeeded, of late, in the metropolis of France.
The French theatre is the purest and most legitimate descendant of the Greek stage, that is now extant. With a timid respect for the general practices of the Athenians, the French have not ventured to enlarge upon them; and the most material difference they have introduced, and which at best is a negative improvement, relating merely to the form, is the abolition of the chorus. But the Greek stage was itself an infant production of the vast dramatic art. It rose at a time when the human soul scarcely knew itself, or had scanned the faculties which it possessed. This may appear a hazardous assertion, when made concerning men who were the children of those to whom Homer had sung. But a moment's reflexion will strip it of its apparent temerity; for surely none will assert that, since the days of Sophocles, the whole state of man and of society has not been progressive; and that, the domain even of our senses, the first of all
the powers which are developed ir. us, has not been, in some measure, extended. How much more then have the faculties which wait upon observation, comparison and reflection, been enlarged i and what resources, unknown before, must not the only art which represents the human being in a state of successive action, thought and passion, have found, in the more complete development of his moral endowments, and their endless combinations! Besides this, many other arts, now employed as auxiliaries to the theatre, were not familiar; and representations on the Athenian stage, if we could behold them as they were in the ninety-third Olympiad, would necessarily appear to modern eyes —perhaps to the French themselves—inferior in attractions to the generality of European performances. If this be not admitted, we must either deny the general progress of the species; or assert that, by some inexplicable caprice, the stage alone, and its productions, have been excepted from the common law of improvement.
Without stopping to consider the mechanical part of dramatic representation, in which so many things have combined to give all moderns, who choose to take advantage of them, a decided superiority, we shall attach ourselves to the poem only; and endeavour to prove that an adherence to the practices of the Greek dramatic writers must be nearly as prejudicial to the progress of the stage, as too servile an attachment to the methods of Euclid would have been, to the more efficient modes of analysis, adopted by modern geometricians.
The Greeks had, if we may so say, no positive antiquity, and but a limited ancestry. They had no traditions which could be relied upon, and no history but fable. No recollections furnished them with pictures of real men, bound together, or separated, by such various interests and passions as now prevail; and they could learn the mysteries of the heart from no records, and in no school, but the observation of the moment. Their great object was public life; for they had not yet so far subsided from political cares, as to allow to privacy such a share in their mind as it now possesses. Gods and heroes occupied their entire attention. Thus then their world was circumscribed to a narrower time and space; and from it was banished much of what now forms the charm of life; domestic relations, domestic joys and sorrows; the sympathies of ordinary men, and the feelings which nature inspires directly, in the first and nearest connections which she establishes among her creatures.
The mythology of the Greeks has been called imaginative. It is perhaps rather imitative. It certainly belongs less to imagination than to imitation, to compose a pantheon out of all the
frailties frailties collected from weak humanity; than to imagine one great omnipotent Being, with attributes all his own, and all infinite. Divinities whom man has created are not proper objects for the drama; for, while they are divinities, they are above our sympathy, and when they cease to be so they fall below our respect. For a similar reason, they are not proper agents for unravelling catastrophes; they are either too great, or too little, to interfere in the unequal conflict of mortal interests and passions. But the Greeks, ill versed in human nature on its widest scale, cut the knot which they could not solve: and gave up to their gods, who were little more than a privileged aristocracy of vice and weakness, the solution of every dramatic difficulty.
But these and other disadvantages were inseparable from the situations of early men. They were the necessary results of the infancy of the world; of the narrowness of its civilized portion; and of the absence of many feelings and sympathies, which have been expanded as generations spread over wider regions. The Athenians had the excuse of necessity, for labouring under imperfections which they could not avoid; but, so far from considering them as masters, and taking them as models in the dramatic art, modern nations, while paying them every tribute of respect and admiration, should endeavour to enlarge its sphere; and, by generalising its principles, to raise it to the level which all modern knowledge, compared with ancient, has attained.
It is not to be understood that the Greeks acted in contradiction to nature. Quite the reverse. They followed all that they knew concerning her; and it was she who was circumscribed. But a nation that, at this day, should do as the Greeks did, and admit nothing into its theatre which was not to be found in Sophocles or Euripides, would indeed be acting contrary to nature, and cutting away the most admirable portion of her works—that of which the most advanced civilization and intellect appreciate the value.
Now this is very nearly what the French have done, during their whole dramatic career. They have looked back to the infancy of the art, and held it to be maturity. They have raised fictitious limits to a boundless space; and all beyond those limits they hardly consider as of this world. What was indispensable in the ancient dramatists, the French have adopted voluntarily; and, with the blindest servility, rejecting even the analogies of their situation, copied the strictest letter of the imperfections which the Greeks could not avoid. The Greeks took the subjects of their tragedies entirely from their own records and traditions. Even with a foreign title, the story of the Persae of iEschylus was Grecian. The family of the Atrida: was an inexhaustible exhaustible fund; and the adventures of the demigods and heroes of Greece completed the store of dramatic subjects. But the French did not liberate themselves from the very first trammels they met with on their way; and never recollecting that Sophocles and Euripides took their subjects from Greece, because Greece was their native country, and the most improved of antiquity, they conceived that none but Grecian stories were fit for the stage; that none else were worthy of poetry; that nothing could be pleasing to moderns, except the fables of antiquity; that fatalism was necessary to explain the passions of men abandoned wholly to themselves, and that mythology must be the most interesting theme to Christians! They thus bound the art inseparably to its former defects; and mistaking its inability for its want of will, its imperfections for its rules, they left themselves no means to enlarge the sphere, within which they are content to set themselves down for ever.
Nations in their infancy, like school-boys of the upper form, who have learned little of the world, and mingled little in the concerns of men, may indeed be dazzled with antiquity: but much of this admiration ceases as they become acquainted with a more advanced state of society. We have had former occasions to mention the characteristics of French intellect; and to assert that invention, imagination, induction, upon a large scale, are not among the number. It is most particularly in poetry that the deficiency of these qualities, as well as their want of true and enlarged taste, is perceptible. There really is no other method by which their obstinacy, in adhering to antiquated forms and infant spirits in the drama, can be explained; and, though at the risk of exciting their indignant wonder, we must make the unqualified assertion, that a defect of originality, of genius, of creative power, has doomed them to be copyists; that a want of taste conceals from them the misfortune of being chained to imitation; and that a want of strong and mighty feeling has led them to bow before rules, in the name of Aristotle, of which Aristotle never dreamed; and which, had he and his countrymen possessed more experience in the art which represents the human world in action, they would have rejected with disdain.
Dramatic representations took their origin in France, as in most other countries, from religious ceremonies. Mysteries and Moralities first occupied the stage there, as elsewhere; and in them the devil played the principal part, as he does at this moment in the autos sacramentales of the Spanish theatre. The tribe of poets who composed such Mysteries is almost as numerous as that which has flourished since Corneille. Among the first attempts at a regular theatre, were some translations from