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times in which he creates them-why the persons, for whom he is indebted to history, should stand forth in their historical characters-why the countries of which he speaks should be spoken of with a knowledge of their manners--why the events that take place in the drama should not be wholly unnatural in their comparison with the events of real life.
It is in these, the finer parts of their pursuit, that the present dramatic writers of France are universally defective. If M. V. Hugo and M. Dumas were school. boys, and told to write about English history in the time of Marie Tudor, or English manners and laws at the present time, they would have been whipped for the ridiculous faults that they have both committed. These are not faults of genius ; they are purely and entirely faults of negligence or ignorance.
I turn, then, from this first inquiry to the second-viz. how far these subjects offend, what every
dramatist is most bound to protect, the laws and the interests of morality. King Lear is a horrid subject--Macbeth is a horrid subject. Do they offend the morals of an audience? It is of the rules of morality as of the rules of art: it is not the horrid nature of a subject that offends either the one or the other; it is in the manner in which that subject is treated that its beauty as a piece of composition, or its value as a lesson of virtue, depends. The immorality of M. V. Hugo and of M. Dumas is, not in having brought Marion de Lorme and Antony upon the stage, but in affecting to breathe a mawkish interest over the infamy of the prostitute, and attaching a romantic heroism to the adulterous seducer of female honour. The inverted philosophy of M. Hugo appears to me, as I have frankly said, a kind of unphilosophic madness, with which I have no sympathy, for which I think there is no excuse; and what I say of the intentional follies of M. V. Hugo, I say of the wild and whining vice of M. Dumas.
And why is this? Why, M. Dumas, instead of attempting to breathe a false poesy into the grovelling amours of a Parisian salon, or holding up for imitation a political profligacy--which, thank God, is yet untrue--in the public men, and the parliament of Great Britain,—why have you sought for no truer, no better, no brighter models for the emulation of those ardent youths who admire your talent and worship your career? Are there no characters you can take from the heroes of July, or the enthusiasts of June ? Are there no models of female heroism and devotion you can draw from the revolution of 1789, and the restoration of 1815 ? Have Madame Roland and Madame Lavalette lived in vain ? Have you had no men in France who have been disinterested and brave? Have you had no women in France who have been noble and virtuous ? Must you fill your stage with sickly-faced apothecaries in the frontispiece attitude of Lord Byron, and fourth-rate fine ladies vulgarly imitating the vices and the ton of Mde. de Mirepoix ? Why should you invent imaginary personages in the representation of your age who are exceptions to your
Why should you make as the heroes and heroines of your drama the creatures whom it would sicken you to meet in the commerce of daily life?
And you, M. V. Hugo !--you, the promise of whose youth was so generous—in whose ‘odes breathed a spirit no less remarkable for its purity than its poesy -you, who seemed by instinct to have caught the chivalry and the grace of the old knightly time, with the popular language that goes to the heart of the present day-have you no better mode of elevating your countrywomen than by teaching them to be good mothers by the example of Lucrèce Borgia, or devoted mistresses by the example of Marion de Lorme ? What! have you found no cleverer mode of elevating the people in their own esteem than by telling every unwashed apprentice that a countess wishes to marry him--not because he is a good man, and a steady apprentice-Oh, no! simply because he is an apprentice, because he is a working man?
Is not this stuff! Is not this prostrate and dust-lick
ing flattery! Can you talk of the ringing of a courtier to his monarch, when you bow thus slavishly before the meanest of your mob? Nor is my praise or censure indifferent to you--if I, a foreigner, far away from all your petty jealousies and rival cliques--if Í, who not even as a man of letters, a title to which I have not the honour to pretend—if I, who neither as a countryman, nor even as a literary man, can possibly have any rivalry with you--if I, who honour your talents, love your country, and approve of many of your principles--if I, who, if any wish were stirring in my mind, can only have the wish to propitiate your friends, to obtain and enjoy the pleasure and honour of your acquaintance-if I have allowed words to be wrung out from me, words of reproach, strong words, words expressive of more than my regret at the manner in which you have allowed ignorance, and prejudice, and adulation, and negligence, and indifference, and immorality to obscure and to tarnish the lustre of talents for which such a country, and such a time, as that in which you live, opened so great, and so noble, and so heart-cheering a path to fame--if I have had language such as that which I have used, unwillingly, I declare, extorted from me--is it not possible, that far away from that feeble chorus of easily-enchanted friends, who, like the bird in the Arabian Nights, pass their lives in repeating“ there is but one poesy, and Dumas and Victor Hugo are its true prophets !"--is it not possible, I say, that, far away from these sicklied sounds, there is an opinion rising, gathering, swelling-an opinion which shall be the opinion of Europe, the opinion of posterity--an opinion which might have raised you in a new time to such pedestals as those of the old time occupy--an opinion which shall break as busts of clay what you might have made statues of stone and of marble—an opinion which shall leave you the lions of a drawing-room, and which might have made you the landmarks of an epoch?
But I pass from this. And now, having expressed an opinion in respect to the present French drama,
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 greater 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 shud. dered 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.
t Rousseau Lettre à D'Alembert.