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History is in fact not interesting far beyond the pale of those whose actions make history, and whose fortunes are affected by it. History would not be widely interesting in a country where the great mass of the people were slaves and mendicants, without honours to gain or property to lose. History would be widely interesting in a country where the great bulk of the people were proprietors, and where there was no post in the state which every citizen might not reasonably hope to obtain. In the one case it is an idle speculation to be studied from curiosity; in the other it is a practical lesson to be looked to for examples. With the general diffusion of honours, of employments, and more especially with the general diffusion of property, on which the diffusion of honours and employments mainly depends, has been diffused the interest of history.
The small herd of encyclopædists and courtiers, who once listened to the historian, are now cut up, as it were, into an immense crowd of journalists, shopkeepers, soldiers, and mechanics.
This division and diffusion of property, bringing up a fresh class of feelings upon the surface of Franceinverting the usual order of events-creating a new society when we might have been looking to the mature caducity of an old one-turning an aristocracy of readers into a democracy of readers—has made the historian a popular orator where he was formerly a wit and a metaphysician. Addressing a more numerous, a more impassioned, a less reasoning class of readers than his predecessor, he has assumed a more vehement, a more impassioned, a more powerful style of writing
Have spoken of History-Speak of the Drama-But one step from
Racine to Victor Hugo and M. A. 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 anothert 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. This was a great period of the human mind, and since 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 Raciné. The republican Chenier, erect and firm before the tyranny of Bonaparte, bowed before the tyranny of the academy; the translations of Ducis were a homage to the genius of Shakspeare, 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,I who * Corneille.
+ Racine. More known for his very remarkable romance, “ Cinq Mars," and the publication of Stello.
has written La Maréchale d'Ancre ;* I pass by M. Soulier, who has written Clotilde ;t I pass by the followers to arrive at the chiefs of the new drama, M. V. Hugo and M. A. Dumas,two young men--two rivals,
The plot of “La Maréchale d'Ancre," a title taken from the well known favourite of Mary 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 rasca! 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.
1 The father of M. Victor Hugo was a general. One of his relations of the same name still holds the same rank, and conimands 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 while at college; afterward 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 Berry, on the baptism of the Duc de Bordeaux, and on the death of Louis XVIII., and also one on Napoleon.
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.
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 for
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 here 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 Spaintruly Spanish--in Hernani you find the old Spaniard, jealous and vindictive, 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 keen-eyed duenna have been invented to check. tune, 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 dra. matic inspirations.
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 afterward 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. At 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, which finishes by Hernani and his bride both taking the poison that Don Gomez brings, and the lovers die in each other's arms. Charles V. character, particularly in his wild and early days, is painted with a very masterly hand.
Better go seek to rob the fiercest tigress
the soft and timid maiden.
And yet forgive ine!
That measures not its wording. 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 sympathize.
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 that this author has brought upon the stage.