let me come to a yet more interesting consideration, and inquire what the present French drama proves in respect to the present French public.

Does it follow as a matter of course, that if eater atrocities than formerly were exhibited on the French stage, the French people would be more atrocious ? Does it follow as a matter of course, that because there is less delicacy than formerly used in mentioning, and less ceremony than formerly used in manifesting, on the stage all the possible circumstances connected with adultery and seduction, there are, really more cases of adultery and seduction ?

At first sight there is, I admit, a strong coincidence between the number of murders, the number of rapes, the number of suicides, the number of natural children in France, and various scenes which are represented on the stage. But the connection is not so easily established, nor so easily traced, as we may at once be induced to imagine ; for the representations of the stage are far less influenced by the morals of a people than by their manners.

A refined audience will do many things that it will not bear to see represented; a vulgar audience will see a great many things represented that it would not do.

The people of Athens, who were a dissolute people, would have been shocked at the spectacles of the Lacedæmonian people, who were a sober people.

The courtier of Louis XV., who would have shuddered at poor Mademoiselle Angèle's being brought to bed upon the stage, would have been far more likely to seduce her than the bourgeois of Louis Philippe, who smiles in very decent complacency at this interesting spectacle. The English, who tolerated all the stabbings and the poison-takings of Shakspeare on their stage, committed hardly any crimes during the fervour of that civil war which let loose all the political and religious passions of two hostile parties. The French would have been horror-struck at a drop of blood theatrically spilt at the moment that they were sending fifty of their fellow-citizens every day to the guillotine.

We should be the more cautious in forming wrong and hasty conclusions upon this subject, since it was from conclusions exactly similar that the French did us for many years the honour to very seriously believe that we were little better than a set of barbarians, whose nature, as Fielding says, rendered acts of blood and murder, duels and assassinations, a sort of necessary amusement.

But what renders it more clear than any thing which I might yet continue to say, that the scenes of the present French stage do not prove a great increase of atrocious crimes in real life, is—the fact, which every public document gives us, that crimes of this nature, in France, are very much on the decrease.*

But, indeed, notwithstanding all that has been said, it is not in their subjects themselves that the great difference between the old and the new drama exists. We shall find, on referring to the old and classic French theatre, that at times it represented the same things, or things even more shocking than any represented now—the great difference being in the manner--the more delicate and less shocking manner in which these things were represented. What was the subject of Phædre and of Edipe, that the chaste imagination of the critic should repudiate the loves where, by-theway the incest is unintentional, of Queen Marguerite and her sons? “Our tragedy," says Rousseau, "presents us with such monstrous characters, that neither is the example of their vices contagious, nor that of their virtues instructive.”+ This is what Rousseau said of the stage in his time, and so far I agree with Rousseau, that the exhibition of those terrible passions which seldom visit us are less likely to have an influence upon our character, because they enter less into the relations of our life, than others of a more ordinary and household nature. But mark! The very subjects

* There are some curious documents that prove how long even suicides have been prevalent among the French people, contrary to the vulgar belief.

f Rousseau Lettre à D'Alembert.

which Rousseau condemns, because they do not affect human actions, are those very subjects which modern critics have condemned with the greatest fury, as most likely to affect national morals.

From what we see of the French stage, and what succeeds on the French stage, we are fairly justified in saying that the audience has become less refined than formerly, but there is nothing that can induce us to say that it is more immoral ; in fact, the same causes that have given more energy and life to history have given more force, and extravagance, and coarseness to

The same mass that go to history for information go to the theatre for amusement; but to one they go singly, to the other collectively. The historian speaks to each, the dramatist speaks to all.*

“ There are a thousand images of the grotesque, and only one of the beautiful,” says an author 1 have largely quoted from.t

The French were ever a nation devoted to effect. The ancient courtier was satisfied with the painter who drew a god in the attitude of a dancing-master; and the modern mob admire the author whose hero is writhed into the grotesque contortions of a devil. The old drama was calculated for effect-the new drama is

the stage.

* The same man who is merely animated and picturesque in conversation is apt to become bombastic and extravagant before a popular assembly.

+ M. Victor Hugo says this, when he prefers the first to the last ; i. e. the grotesque to the beautiful. The beautiful-regular, chaste, symmetrical in its proportions, growing into magnificence as you gaze upon it, rather than startling you into admiration at a first glance--the beautiful, such as the classic and dreamy days of antiquity have bequeathed it to us, and which always wanted for its admiration a quiet and a repose of disposition ill suited to the artificial and ostentatious character of the French-the beautiful certainly is little calculated for the restless, agitated, adventurous, and vulgar crowd, that expects to be startled at once, and cannot afford the time to have its feelings gradually and quietly developed.

The unity of the beautiful is the consequence of its perfection; but the round and graceful dome of a Greek temple, the fu!l image of which swells out, as it were, over your mind while you examine it, neither surprises nor arrests your attention like the thousand and one figures of a Gothic cathedral, which strike you as much by their variety as their horror.

calculated for effect. The old drama was calculated for effect in the reign of Louis XIV.—the new drama is calculated for effect in the reign of Louis Philippe. The writer, as I began by saying, is not to blame for writing differently to a different audience—the audience is not to blame, because, derived from different habits, different pursuits, different educations, it has different feelings. * I do not blame the audience, then, for being less refined in its taste ; I do not even blame the writer for being violent in the energy and ostentatious in the colouring of his piece. The milliner on Ludgate-hill does not make up the same goods for her customers as the milliner near Berkeley-square. I blame the dramatic author in France, not for the materials he uses, but-I return to the accusation for the use he makes of those materials. I blame him, because with the same energy of action, with the same floridity of colouring, he might be moral and magnificent where he is immoral and extravagant; he might elevate his audience where he abases it ; he might instruct his audience where he misleads it. I blame him for saying, that, “ as the political revolution of 1789 must have had its scaffolds, so the literary revolution of the present day must have its nightmares."* I blame him for saying this, because I believe that the one was no more necessary to publie liberty than the other to dramatic excellence.

But do we not see here, and in all I have just been saying, the effects of that diffusion of property of which I spoke before ? Do we not see that it is this which has removed the critics who governed the state from the stage? Do we not see that it is this which has made the persons to please, who were formerly a small set, more easily shocked by errors than struck by beauties, a great crowd, composed of that class who in every country are most struck by the marvellous, and most inclined to mistake the extraordinary for the sublime ? Do we not see that it is this which has taken away the few who criticised to leave the many who applaud ?

+ M. Victor Hugo. VOL. II.--K


When the energy which had been born of a new epoch, and the equality which was based, not merely on the statute, but on the soil--when that energy

and that equality were drawn into the armies of the empire, those armies, whatever the character of their chief, were inspired by popular passions, and formed and conducted upon popular principles. It is the passions and the principles which animated the armies of France that animate her drama—the same persons who are to have the honours and enjoyments of the one that had the honours and the dangers of the other. You must look at every thing in inodern France with the recollection, that it is for no polished or privileged class, but for an immense plebeian public. You must look at every thing in modern France with the remembrance that almost every Frenchman has some interest in the property of France, and expects to have some influence in her honours, emoluments, and amusements.

“ But how is this?” I can fancy my reader saying ; “you have shown us the advantages that the division of property has had upon one branch of literature, and now you point out to us the defects as well as the beauties—the extravagance as well as the force that it has given to another! I thought, at all events, when you entered upon the subject, that you had some startling theory to develop, and that you would prove that this division of property produced every evil or every good.” This is not what I believe; and, indeed, my object was to show not so much how this great and pervading cause had affected the modern French literature as to show that it had affected that literature ; for if it has affected the literature, it has still more deeply affected the philosophy, the religion, the society, the agriculture, the industry, the government of France; and it is only when I have traced it through all these, and balanced its various advantages and disadvantages together, that I can be justified in giving an opinion upon one of the most important problems that modern society has to solve.

I wished to have shown in this book the literature of

« VorigeDoorgaan »