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Have spoken of History.—Speak of the Drama.—But one step from Racine to
Victor Hugo and M. Alexandre Dumas.-" Hernani.”—Proceed to “Lucrèce Borgia.”
I have spoken of history, that branch of French literature the least known to us, and in which the French of the modern day have most succeeded. I would now speak of the drama, that branch of French literature which we have most criticised, and in which the later successes of the French have been most disputed.
There are but two epochs in the French drama. Louis XIV. was on the throne, and in the declining shadow of one man* you yet saw the feudal vigour of the Fronde, and in the rising genius of another + you caught the first colouring of that royal pomp, of that Augustan majesty, which reigns in the verse of Virgil and the buildings of Versailles. And all things were then stamped with the great kingly seal. The orator was in the chair what the writer was on the stage. a great period of the human mind, and from this period to our own, tragedy has taken but one giant stride. The genius which governed the theatre stood unappalled when the genius which had founded the throne lay prostrate. The reign of Robespierre did not disturb the rule of Racine. The republican Chénier, erect and firm before the tyranny of Bonaparte, bowed before the tyranny of the Academy; the translations of Ducis were an homage to the genius of Sbakspeare, but no change in the dramatic art.
In M. Delavigne you see the old school modernized, but it is the old school. I pass by M. de Vigny, who has written
† Racine. More known for his very remarkable romance, “Cinq-Mars," and the pubblication of “Stello."
La Maréchale d'Ancre ;* I pass by M. Soulier, who has written Clotilde ; † I pass by the followers to arrive at the chiess of the new drama, M. V. Hugof and M. A. Dumas, S
The plot of “La Maréchale d’Ancre," a title taken from the well-known favourite of Marie de Medicis, turns upon a passion which this lady smothers for a Corsican adventurer, the bitter enemy of Concini, her husband; the love of Concini for this Corsican's wife, whose name he is ignorant of; and the divided feelings of the Corsican himself, who at once hates and pursues Concini, and loves and relents when he thinks of Concini's wife. Another passion also works in the drama--the jealousy of the Corsican's wife, who finds out that her husband is in love with the Maréchale, and appears in consequence as evidence against her on her trial for sorcery and witchcraft. This play, which falsifies history in making its heroine, the Maréchale, beautiful and amiable, which is just what she was not, is written nevertheless with great spirit, and contains some very eloquent passages and powerful situations.
+ This is the subject of “ Clotilde:"-Christian, an adventurer, is to marry her on such a day, and receive with her a large fortune; but in order to do this he must show himself to be the possessor of a certain sum. To obtain this sum, he murders the Jew who would not lend it him. Clotilde, however, who is passionately attached to him, quits her father's house at the very time he commits this murder, in order to live with him even as his mistress : this she rather inexplicably continues to do after the murder has been committed. At last Christian, who is about as great a rascal as one could desire to meet, determines on marrying an intriguante who can make him secretary of embassy, and quitting Clotilde. Clotilde, in despair at this treachery, and acquainted by his dreams with the crime of Christian, informs against him. He is condemned to death. She is in despair, and forces her way into the prison to see him. "What have you brought me?" says Christian. “Poison," says Clotilde; and they poison themselves together. The play is full of absurdities, but powerfully written.
The father of M. Victor Hugo was a general. One of his relations of the same name still holds the same rank, and commands in one of the departments. In his early days his opinions were directly opposed to those he has since and now professes. On leaving college, he and his brother published a small newspaper of the same opinions as the “Censor;" it existed but a very short time. M. V. Hugo next published a novel which he had written whilst at college; afterwards a variety of odes appeared, on the Virgins of Verdun, on La Vendée, on the death of Louis XVII., on the death of the Duc de Berri, on the baptism of the Duc de Bordeaux, and on the death of Louis XVIII., and also one on Napoléon.
M. Victor Hugo received a pension from Louis XVIII. Charles X. wished to increase this pension; M. V. Hugo, in a letter which I have seen, honourably refused this addition.
S M. Dumas, the son of a general also, has written his own life; as a portrait taken from the gallery of ‘young France,' this life is too interesting to be crowded into a note, and I hope to have another opportunity of alluding to it. Coming up to Paris to make his fortune, the Chamber and the Theatre before him on one side, the Morgue and the Seine on the other, M. Dumas was placed, through the interest of General Foy, in one of the bureaux of the Duke of Orléans, where he improved his education and first received his dramatic inspirations.
two young men, two rivals ; each has his enthusiastic partisans, but their talents are entirely different; and there is no reason why these writers, or their friends, should suppose that the success of one is incompatible with the reputation of the other. The first drama which M. Victor Hugo brought on the stage (for he had written Cromwell, a clever but cold performance some years before) was Hernani,* and as it has been already translated, it would be useless to enter bere into any lengthened criticism upon its merits. Among M. V. Hugo's plays, however, Hernani stands alone. No other of his dramas has the same tenderness, the same gentleness, the same grace, the same nature ; for Hernani was written by M. Hugo before he laid down for himself the extraordinary rules which I shall presently have to speak of.
In Hernani, then, you find the characters of Spain truly Spanish-in Hernani you find the old Spaniard, jealous and vindicative, and the young Spanish noble, high-minded, adventurous, and romantic, and the Spanish maiden ardent, fond, with all the love and all the enthusiasm which the warm sun of her country begets, and which the dark convent and the keeneyed Duenna have been invented to check.
Better go seek to rob the fiercest tigress
More fortunate than many of his predecessors, his career was from the commencement a series of theatrical triumphs, and he almost immediately quitted the desk for the stage.
* The play turns on the love of Dona Sol, a young Spanish lady, for Hernani, first known to her as a bandit, but who afterwards proves to be a grandee of Spain. Dona Sol, however, is also beloved by her uncle, Don Gomez de Silva, whom she was originally engaged to marry. Don Gomez saves Hernani, in the early part of his career, from the vengeance of Charles V.,
and Hernani promises the old Spanish noble to give him the life he has saved whenever he shall ask for it. Towards the end of the play Charles pardons Hernani, on discovering his birth, and gives him Dona Sol in marriage. It is on the wedding-night of the young couple that the old uncle comes and claims Hernani's promise. This last scene is the best part of the play, and cludes by Hernani and his bride both taking the poison that Don Gomez brings the lovers die in each other's arms. Charles the Fifth's character, particularly in his wild and early days, is painted with a very masterly hand.
But see you now this eye? it weeps with rage ;
And yet, forgive me !
Such is the heroine of the piece—such is the passion which she feels a passion for the chosen of her heart—for her husband whom she marries when a noble-but whom she loved, whom she selected, whom she would have followed, when a bandit. With such a heroine, and with such a passion, we can sympathise.
But I will preface what I shall have to say of M. V. Hugo, and the observations I shall subsequently venture to submit on the present state of the French Drama, by translating certain parts of one of the most popular and recent pieces tbat this author has brought upon the stage.
LUCRÈCE Borgia is in only three acts. It begins at Venice. You are at Venice—it is Venice's gay time, and you see her carnival, her masked revels—and there—on the terrace of the Barbarigo palace, are some young nobles—and at the bottom of this terrace flows the canal de la Zueca, on which, through the darknesss visible' of a Venetian night, you see pass the gondola, and the masquerade, and the musicians.
Twenty years have gone by since the death of Jean Borgia. The young nobles speak of that awful assassination, and of the body plunged into the Tiber, and perceived by a boatman, involuntary witness of the crime--and Comte de Belverana, supposed to be a Spanish seigneur, joins in the conversation, and seems indeed, to the surprise of the Venetians, better acquainted than any of them with the history of Italy. One young cavalier alone is inattentive, and even sleeps, while the rest pass their conjectures on the fate of the boy, son of Lucrèce Borgia, by Jean Borgia, who had perished in the manner described—victim, as it was said, of the wrath and jealousy of his brother and his rival, Cæsar.
At last the Comte de Belverana is left alone upon the stage with the young man who is still sleeping, and whose indifference to the conversation that had been going on has already been accounted for by his companions, on the ground that, ignorant alike of his father and mother, he could not feel an interest in those family stories which then agitated Italy, and had more or less affected every one of themselves.
A masked lady enters and addresses the Spaniard by the name of Gubetta. He reminds her of his disguise, and warns her also to be cautious.
“If they don't know me,” says the lady, “caution is of little consequence—if they do, it is they who have cause to fear.” It is easy to see that Gubetta, or Comte de Belverana, is an Italian bravo in the service of this dame, who now says that, for the future, she means to be all virtue and clemency, and that her only desire is to obtain the affections of the young man who is sleeping. Gubetta shrugs up his shoulders at what he seems to consider a very startling change of disposition, and thinks it better, under these circumstances, to leave his mistress and the sleeper together. Lucrèce, for the lady is no other, takes off her mask, and kisses the forehead of the youth; but in doing so she has been seen by two strangers, who had been watching herone her husband,* the other a gentleman attached to his service, and of the same honourable profession as Gubetta. Gennaro (this is the name of the personage hitherto so quiescent) now awakes. He tells Lucrèce that he is a soldier of fortune, an orphan ignorant of his parents, and that he only lives to discover his mother, and to make himself worthy of her.
* The Duke of Ferrara.