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The merits of M. V. Hugo.—His theory.-M. V. Hugo aims at unattainable
things.-M. Dumas at attainable things.- Translation from Antony.
I HAVE preferred thus copiously translating from Lucrèce Borgia to writing a more formal description, with short and imperfect extracts, of M. V. Hugo's different dramatic productions. In the first place, I thus give a tolerable idea of one of this writer's principal dramas. In the next place, by selecting a popular performance, I obtain the right to judge the audience which applauded that performance; and, lastly, by selecting for criticism a work which was written on a particular plan, and which, written on that plan, has succeeded, it cannot be said that I have taken an unfair opportunity of judging and condemning this plan itself.
As far as the talent of the author is concerned in Lucrèce Borgia, I own that I admire the dark, and terrible, and magnificent,-though coarse and furious energy that he has here brought upon the stage. The last act—the act in which
you see the wine-cup and the bier, in whieh you hear the bacchanal and the dirge, in which, mingled with the voluptuaries garlanded with roses stalk forth the cowled instruments of assassination and religion ;—the last act, in the wild mixture of death and luxury, of murder and superstition, exhibits one of the most striking, the most terrific, the most tremendous, pageants that has yet been brought upon the modern stage.
The author of Hernani and Lucrèce Borgia is not only a writer of extraordinary powers, but a writer of extraordinary powers in that very branch of composition wherein he has generally been deemed the least successful. M. Victor Hugo might aspire to the place (under a total change of the circumstances of life, and therefore under a total change in the rules of art) which Corneille or Racine once held upon the stage of his country, and, I had almost said, to a place near that which Shakspeare once held upon our own. But why then—why is it that some of his attempts have been such signal failures ? —why is it that, in some of his dramas, without ever soaring to the sublime, he has groveiled amidst the ridiculous, while even in the last piece I have quoted, in one of those where there is the most to admire, I confess that there appears to me at least as much to forgive.
It is not that M. Victor Hugo is incapable of being a great dramatist, but that he has laid down a set of rules which almost render it impossible that he should be one. The system which spoils the romance of “ Notre Dame,'
"' * has been carried out to the most extravagant extent, where it is still less calculated to succeed; and, what is most extraordinary, M. Hugo lays it down with all the solemnity of profound wisdom, that the great art of exciting interest and propagating morality is to take for your heroes and your heroines the most atrocious characters, and to inspire them with some one most excessive virtue. : It is hardly to be believed that such a doctrine should be gravely stated: but let us hear M. Victor Hugo himself !
“What is the secret thought of " Le Roi s'amuse ?” This. —Take the most monstrous physical deformity, place it in the meanest and most degraded social position. + Well; give this creature a soul, and breathe into this soul the sentiment of paternity. The degraded creature will become sublime, the little ereature will become great, the depraved creature will become beautiful.
“This is Le Roi s'amuse. And what is Lucrèce Borgia ? Now take the moral deformity, the most hideous, the most disgusting, the most complete ; put it, where it is most remarkable, in the breast of a woman, and plant in this breast the purest sentiment a woman can possess—the sentiment of maternity--and the monster will interest you, and the monster
* A beautiful romance-in which the most interesting person, however, is described as the likeness of a grotesque figure in a gothic church-and one of the most delicate females ever drawn by the pen of romance, trembles like-a galvanized frog !
† Triboulet, the well-known buffoon of Francis the First. The play turns on the grief of this wretch, painted by M. V. Hugo himself as the vilest of mankind, at his daughter's being seduced by the king, a misfortune which, according to his character and the character of his times, he would have been too happy to undergo.
will make you weep, and that soul so deformed will be replete with grace and loveliness . ... The author will not bring Marion Delorme * on the stage without ennobling her with a pure affection, nor Triboulet without making him an excellent father; nor Lucrèce Borgia without making her a devoted mother.” True, if there were any law to oblige a dramatist to choose the characters of Marion Delorme, and Triboulet, and Lucrèce Borgia, and awake in the mind of his audience an affectionate interest for such characters—if there were such a barbarous law as this-it might then be very well, and perhaps very right for the author to say—“I'll soften the characters I am obliged to use in this manner, and since 1 must make them as interesting, I will make them as virtuous, as I can.” — It is very true, moreover, that a vicious buffoon may possibly love his daughter, that a depraved woman of the town may have a chaste and noble passion, that a murderess and assassin may adore her son. But when an author can choose any personage he thinks proper, and can give to that personage any part he things proper—if he wish to interest us with a tale of extraordinary filial affection, he should not take a villainous buffoon for his hero, any more than, if he wish to interest us in a tale of pure and romantic love, he should take a harlot for his heroine.
In allying things hideous with things beauteous, things vicious with things virtuous, instead of ennobling ugliness by the beauty, vice by the virtue, you connect with it, you too frequently make that ridiculous and ignoble which should be kept sacred, venerated, and religious.
“ Affix God to the gibbet,” says M. Victor Hugo," and you have the cross.” We know that punishment does not constitute crime, that God does not cease to be God for his crucis fixion : but, to prove the value of M. Victor Hugo's theory, it would be necessary to show--not that Christ remained Christ after he was crucfied—but that he actually became Christ by the very act of his crucifixion.
Nothing can be so absurd as to attempt to arrive at a particular effect in opposition the natural sympathies that produce
The famous prostitute of the time of Louis XIII. The force of the drama consists in the pure and passionate attachment of this lady for a youth, to save whom from prison she sacrifices once more her oft-sacrificed honour.
it. It is very true that a young man may be attached to an ugly old woman. We have all known instances of this; yet, if Romeo had killed himself for Juliet's aunt, or Juliet's duenna, or Juliet's grandmother, it is very doubtful whether the audience would not have been quite as much inclined to laugh at him for a consummate fool as to weep for him as a romantic lover. It is the grace, the beauty, the tender years of Julietit is this which makes us feel all the passion, and comprehend all the despair, of the Italian youtbe The wonderful art of Shakspeare is that, without distorting a character into a caricature, he always takes care that it produces in us a right effect. We view Richard III. with horror, and yet he is a great captain a wise and provident monarch—valiant-intelligent. The deformities of the usurper are not exaggerated, his merits are allowed; but still, in spite of the admiration we feel for his gallantry as a soldier, for his sagacity as a prince, we despise him as a hypocrite, and hate him as an assassin.
M. V. Hugo would have made us love him in spite of his bump, in spite of his murders, in spite of his dissembling, in spite of all these defects and a hundred others, if he had them; nay, on account of these very defects themselves, he would have selected him just as the person that we should love, that we must love, and this for some peculiar virtue, the very last we should have suspected him of.
If M. V. Hugo were to wish to inspire you with terror, reader, be would try to frighten you with a sheep; if he were to wish to give you an idea of swiftness, he would prefer doing it by a tortoise.
Lucrèce Borgia met with very deserved success, but this was in spite of the principle it was written upon, and not on account of it; it was on account of the vivid colouring, the passionate energy, the quick succession of action, the force and the magnificence of two or three dramatic situations, and in spite of the sentimental whining of an Italian mercenary after an unknown mother who had abandoned him, and the ridicuous and puling affection of such a woman as Lucrèce Borgia for her incestuous offspring, that this piece succeeded.
I remember a story, told in some learned nursery book, of a contest between the archers of King Richard and those of Robin Hood. The archers of King Richard, rather too confident perhaps in their skill, preferred showing it by shooting at the moon, while the shrewder archers of Robin Hood slot at the terget. It is hardly necessary to say that the arehers of Robin Hood carried off all the prizes. This is just the difference between M. Victor Hugo and M. Dumas. The one aims at attainable, the other at unattainable objects. The one looks to the success he is to obtain, the other at the theory through which he is determined to obtain it. For strength and poesy of language, for force ayd magnificence of conception, there can be no comparison between M. V. Hugo and M. Dumas. The first has nobler and loftier elements for the composition of a dramatic poet, the second produces a more perfect effect from inferior materials. M. V. Hugo never steps out of the sublime without falling at once into the absurd-however triumphant the piece you are listening to may be in a particular passage, you never feel sure that it will succeed as a whole-. some word, some phrase surprises and shocks you when you least expect it. From the moment that the curtain is raised until the moment it falls, the author is in a perpetual struggle with his audience—now you are inclined to smile, and he suddenly forces you to admire,—now you are inclined to admire, and again you are involuntarily compelled to laugh.
In nothing is M. V. Hugo consistent —careless of applause, as you would suppose, and night really believe, from the plan he pursues—at times he testifies the most vulgar desire for a cheer—and a Lady declares to the pit at the Porte St. Martin, that there is something finer than being the Countess of Shrewsbury, viz. being the wife of a cutler's apprentice!!
Recondite in his research after costume and scenery, this writer despises and confounds, in the most painful manner, historical facts. In Marie Tudor,* Mary of England, whose
* It is very difficult to make the plan of Marie Tudor intelligible, more especially since the author has not succeeded in doing so. Marie Tudor, just before her marriage with Philip, has for paramour an Italian adventurer Fabiani. · This Italian adventurer seduces a young woman betrothed to a cutler's apprentice, who appears to be in the lowest state of life, but who is in reality a Talbot, a Countess of Shrewsbury, and the Lord knows what besides, The queen, discovering this intrigue, is determined to be avenged, and, in order to be so, she asks the apprentice, as the reward for her recognizing the rights of the new Countess of Shrewsbury, to pretend to stab her (the queen), and accuse Fabiani of having bribed him to do it, in which case he and Fa