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DECLINE OF DRAMATIC POETRY IN ITALY.

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altogether to have lost all sense of dramatic connexion : they are perfectly satisfied with seeing the same evening two acts from different operas, or even the last act of an opera before the first.

We believe, therefore, that we are not going too far if we affirm, that both dramatic poetry and the histrionic art are in a lamentable state of decline in Italy, that not even the first foundations of a true national theatre have yet been laid, and that there is no prospect of it, till the prevailing ideas on the subject shall have undergone a total change.

Čalsabigi attributes the cause of this state to the want of permanent companies of players, and of a capital. In this Last reason there is certainly some foundation: in England, Spain, and France, a national system of dramatic art has been developed and established; in Italy and Germany, where there are only capitals of separate states, but no general metropolis, great difficulties are opposed to the improvement of the theatre. Calsabigi could not adduce the obstacles arising from a false theory, for he was himself under their influence.

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DRAMATIC LITERATURE OF THE FRENCH.

LECTURE XVII.

Antiquities of the French Stage-Influence of Aristotle and the Imitation

of the Ancients—Investigation of the Three Unities—What is Unity of Action ?-Unity of Time-Was it observed by the Greeks ?— Unity of Place as connected with it.

We

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We now proceed to the Dramatic Literature of France. have no intention of dwelling at length on the first beginnings of Tragedy in this country, and therefore leave to French critics the task of depreciating the antiquities of their own literature, which, with the mere view of adding to the glory of the later age of Richelieu and Louis XIV., they so zealously enter upon. Their language, it is true, was at this time first cultivated, from an indescribable waste of tastlessness and barbarity, while the harmonious diction of the Italian and Spanish poetry, which had long before spontaneously developed itself in the most beautiful luxuriance, was rapidly degenerating. Hence we are not to be astonished if the French lay such great stress on negative excellences, and so carefully endeavour to avoid everything like impropriety, and that from dread of relapse into rudeness this has ever since been the general object of their critical labours. When La Harpe says of the tragedies of Corneille, that “their tone rises above flatness, only to fall into the opposite extreme of affectation,” judging from the proofs which he adduces, we see no reason to differ from him. The publication recently of Legouvé's Death of Henry the Fourth, has led to the reprinting of a contemporary piece on the same subject, which is not only written in a ludicrous style, but in the general plan and distribution of the subject, with its prologue spoken by Satan, and its chorus of pages, with its endless monologues and want of progress and action, betrays the infancy of the dramatic art; not a naïve infancy, full of hope and proinise, but one disfigured by the most pedantie bombast and absurdity. For a character of the earlier tragical attempts of the French in

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INFLUENCE OF ARISTOTLE.

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the last half of the sixteenth and the first thirty or forty years of the seventeenth century, we refer to Fontenelle, La Harpe, and the Mélanges Littéraires of Suard and André. We shall confine ourselves to the characteristics of three of their most celebrated tragic poets, Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, who, it would seem, have given an immutable shape to their tragic stage. Our chief object, however, is an examination of the system of tragic art practically followed by these poets, and by them, in part, but by the French critics universally, considered as alone entitled to any authority, and every deviation from it viewed as an offence against good taste. If only the system be in itself the right one, we shall be compelled to allow that its execution is masterly, perhaps not to be surpassed But the great question here is: how far the French tragedy is in spirit and inward essence related to the Greek, and whether it deserves to be considered as an improvement upon it?

Of the earlier attempts it is only necessary for us to observe, that the endeavour to imitate the ancients showed itself from the very earliest period in France. Moreover, they considered it the surest method of succeeding in this enleavour to observe the outward regularity of form, of which their notion was derived from Aristotle, and especially from Seneca, rather than from any intimate acquaintance with the Greek models themselves. In the first tragedies that were represented, the Cleopatra and Dido of Jodelle, a prologue and chorus were introduced; Jean de la Peruse translated the Medea of Seneca; and Garnier's pieces are all taken from the Greek tragedies or from Seneca, but in the execution they bear a much closer resemblance to the latter. The writers of that day, moreover, modelled themselves diligently on the Sophoniste of Trissino, in good confidence of its classic form. Whoever is acquainted with the procedure of true genius, how it is impelled by an almost unconscious and immediate contemplation of great and important truths, and in no wise by convictions obtained mediately, and by circuitous deductions, will be on that ground alone extremely suspicious of all activity in art which originates in an abstract theory. But Corneille did not, like an antiquary, execute his ilramas as so many learned school exercises, on the model of the ancients. Seneca, it is true, led him astray, but he knew and loved the

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IMITATION OF THE AXCIENTS.

Spanish theatre, and it had a great influence on his mind. The first of his pieces, with which, according to general adniission, the classical æra of French tragedy commences, and which is certainly one of his best, the Cid, is well known to have been borrowed from the Spanish. It violates in a great degree the unity of place, if not also that of time, and it is animated throughout by the spirit of chivalrous love and honour. But the opinion of his contemporaries, that a tragedy must be framed in strict accordance with the rules of Aristotle, was so universally predominant, that it bore down all opposition. Almost at the close of his dramatic career, Corneille began to entertain scruples of conscience, and in a separate treatise endeavoured to prove that, although in the composition of his pieces he had never even thought of Aristotle, they were yet all accurately written according to his rules. This was no easy task, and he was obliged to have recourse to all manner of forced explanations. If he had been able to establish his case satisfactorily, it would but lead to the inference that the rules of Aristotle must be very loose and indeterminate, if works so dissimilar in spirit and form as the tragedies of the Greeks and those of Corneille are yet equally true to them.

It is quite otherwise with Racine: of all the French poets he was, without doubt, the one who was best acquainted with the ancients; and not merely did he study them as a scholar, he felt them also as a poet. He found, however, the practice of the theatre already firmly established, and he did not, for the sake of approaching these models, undertake to deviate from it. He contented himself, therefore, with appropriating the separate beauties of the Greek poets; but, whether from deference to the taste of his age, or from inclination, he remained faithful to the prevailing gallantry so alien to the spirit of Greek tragedy, and, for the most part, made it the foundation of the complication of his plots.

Such, nearly, was the state of the French theatre before the appearance of Voltaire. His knowlelge of the Greeks was very limited, although he now and then spoke of them with enthusiasm, in order, on other occasions, to rank them below the more modern masters of his own nation, including himself; still, he always felt himself bound to preach up the grand severity and simplicity of the Greeks as essential to Tragedy.

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VOLTAIRE: HIS INNOVATIONS ON THE STAGE.

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He censured the deviations of his predecessors therefrom as mistakes, and insisted on purifying and at the same time enlarging the stage, as, in his opinion, from the constraint of court manners, it had been almost straitened to the dimensions of an antechamber. He at first spoke of Shakspeare's bursts of genius, and borrowed many things from this poet, at that time altogether unknown to his countrymen; he insisted, too, on greater depth in the delineation of passion -on a stronger theatrical effect; be called for a scene more majestically ornamented; and, lastly, he frequently endeavoured to give to his pieces a political or philosophical interest altogether foreign to poetry. His labours have unquestionably been of utility to the French stage, although in language and versification (which in the classification of dramatic excellences ought only to hold a secondary place, though in France they alone almost decide the fate of a piece), he is, by most critics, considered inferior to his predecessors, or at least to Racine. It is now the fashion to attack this idol of a bygone generation on every point, and with the most unrelenting and partial hostility. His innovations on the stage are therefore cried down as so many literary heresies, even by watchmen of the critical Zion, who seem to think that the age of Louis XIV. has left nothing for all succeeding time, to the end of the world, but a passive admiration of its perfections, without a presumptuous thought of making improvements of its own. For authority is avowed with so little disguise as the first principle of the French critics, that this expression of literary heresy is quite current with them.

In so far as we have to raise a doubt of the unconditional authority of the rules followed by the old French tragic authors, of the pretended affinity between the spirit of their works and the spirit of the Greek tragedians, and of the indispensableness of many supposed proprieties, we find an ally in Voltaire. But in many other points he has, without examination, nay even unconsciously, adopted the maxims of his predecessors, and followed their practice. He is alike implicated with them in many opinions, which are perhaps founded more on national peculiarities than on human nature and the essence of tragic poetry in general. On this account we may include him in a common examination with them; for we are bere concerned not with the execution of particular

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