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THE FRENCA TRAGIC THEATRE-RACINE.

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was heard to say, “ These Turks are very much Frenchified.” The censure, as is well known, attaches principally to the parts of Bajazet and A talide. The old Grand Vizier is cer. tainly Turkish enough; and were a Sultana ever to become the Sultan, she would perhaps throw the handkerchief in the same Sultanic manner as the disgnsting Roxane. I have already observed that Turkey, in its naked rudeness, hardly admits of representation before a cultivated public. Racine felt this, and merely refined the forms without changing the main incidents. The mutes and the strangling were motives which in a seraglio could hardly be dispensed with; and so he gives, on several occasions, very elegant circumlocutory descriptions of strangling. This is, however, inconsistent; when people are so familiar with the idea of a thing, they usually call it also by its true name.

The intrigue of Mithridate, as Voltaire has remarked, bears great resemblance to that of the Miser of Molière. Two brothers are rivals for the bride of their father, who cunningly extorts from her the name of her favoured lover, by feigning a wish to renounce in his favour. The confusion of both sons, when they learn that their father, whom they had believed dead, is still alive, and will speedily make his appearance, is in reality exceedingly comic. The one calls out: Qu'avons nous fait ? This is just the alarm of school-boys, conscious of some impropriety, on the unexpected entrance of their master. The political scene, where Mithridates consults his sons respecting his grand project of conquering Rome, and in which Racine successfully competes with Corneille, is no doubt logically interwoven in the general plan; but still it is unsuitable to the tone of the whole, and the impression which it is intended to produce. All the interest is centred in Monime: she is one of Racine's most amiable creations, and excites in us a tender commiseration.

On no work of this poet will the sentence of German readers differ more from that of the French critics and their whole public, than on the Iphigenie. — Voltaire declares it the tragedy of all times and all nations, which approaches as near to perfection as human essays can; and in this opinion he is universally followed by his countrymen. But we see in it only a modernised Greek tragedly, of which the manners are inconsistent with the mythological traditions, its simplicity destroyed by the intriguing Eriphile, and in which the amo

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rous Achilles, however brave in other respects his behaviour may le, is altogether insupportable. La Harpe affirms that the Achilles of Racine is even more Homeric than that of Euripides. What shall we say to this? Before acquiescing in the sentences of such critics, we must first forget the Greeks.

Respecting Phedre I may express myself with the greater brevity, as I have already dedicated a separate Treatise to that tragedy. However much Racine may have borrowed from Euripides and Seneca, and however he may have spoiled the former without improving the latter, still it is a great advance from the affected mannerism of his age to a more genuine tragic style. When we compare it with the Phædra of Pradon, which was so well received by his conteniporaries for no other reason than because no trace whatever of antiquity was discernible in it, but every thing reduced to the scale of a modern miniature portrait for a toilette, we must entertain a higher admiration of the poet who had so strong a feeling for the excellence of the ancient poets, and the courage to attach him. self to them, and dared, in an age of vitiated and unnatural taste, to display so much purity and unaffected simplicity. If Racine actually said, that the only difference between liis Phædra and that of Pradon was, that he knew how to write, he did himself the most crying injustice, and must have allowed himself to be blinded by the miserable doctrine of his friend Boileau, which made the essence of poetry to consist in diction and versification, instead of the display of imagination and fancy.

Racine's last two pieces belong, as is well known, to a very different epoch of his life: they were both written at the same instigation; but are extremely dissimilar to each other. Esther scarcely deserves the name of a tragedy; written for the entertainment of well-bred young women in a pious seminary, it does not rise much higher than its purpose. It had, lowever, an astonishing success. The invitation to the repre sentations in St. Cyr was looked upon as a court favour; flattery and scandal delighted to discover allusions throughout the piece; Ahasuerus was said to represent Louis XIV; Esther, Madame de Maintenon; the proud Vasti, who is only incidentally alluded to, Madame de Montespan; and Hamaa the Minister Louvois. This is certainly rather a profane application of the sacred history, if we can suppose the poet

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to have had any such object in view. In Athalie, however, the poet exhibited himself for the last time, before taking leave of poetry and the world, in his whole strength. It is not only his most finished work, but, I have no hesitation in declaring it to be, of all French tragedies the one which, free from all mannerism, approaches the nearest to the grand style of the Greeks. The chorus is conceived fully in the ancient sense, though introduced in a different manner in order tu suit our music, and the different arrangement of our theatre. The scene has all the majesty of a public action. Expectation, emotion, and keen agitation succeed each other, and continually rise with the progress of the drama: with a severe abstinence from all foreign matter, there is still a display of the richest variety, sometimes of sweetness, but more frequently of majesty and grandeur. The inspiration of the prophet elevates the fancy to flights of more than usual boldness. Its import is exactly what that of a religious drama ought to be: on earth, the struggle between good and evil; and in heaven the wakeful eye of providence beaming, from unapproachable glory, rays of constancy and resolution. All is animated by one breath-the poet's pious enthusiasm, of whose sincerity neither his life nor the work itself allow us a moment to doubt. This is the very point in which so many French works of art with their great pretensions are, nevertheless, deficient: their authors were not inspired by a fervent love of their subject, but by the desire of external effect : and hence the vanity of the artist is continually breaking forth to throw a damp over our feelings.

The unfortunate fate of this piece is well known. Scruples of conscience as to the propriety of all theatrical representations (which appear to be exclusively entertained by the Gallican church, for both in Italy and Spain men of religion and piety have thought very differently on this subject,) prevented the representacion in St. Cyr; it appeared in print, and was universally abused and reprobated; and this reprobation of it long survived its author. So incapable of every thing serious was the puerile taste of the age.

Among the poets of this period, the younger Corneille deserves to be mentioned, who did not seek, like his brother, to excite astonishment by pictures of heroism so much as to win the favour of the spectators by " those tendernesses which,” to use the words of Pradon, "are so agreeable.” Of

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his numerous tragedies, two, only the Comte d'Essex and Ariadné, keep possession of the stage; the rest are consigned to oblivion. The latter of the two, composed after the model of Berenice, is a tragedy of which the catastrophe may, properly speaking, be said to consist in a swoon. The situation of the resigned and enamoured Ariadne, who, after all her sacrifices, sees herself abandoned by Theseus and betrayed by her own sister, is expressed with great truth of feeling. Whenever an actress of an engaging figure, and with a sweet voice, appears in this character, she is sure to excite our interest. The other parts, the cold and deceitful Theseus, the intriguing Phædra, who continues to the last her deception of her confiding sister, the pandering Pirithöus, and King ứnarus, who instantly offers himself in the place of the faithless lover, are all pitiful in the extreme, and frequently even laughable. Moreover, the desert rocks of Naxos are here smoothed down to modern drawing-rooms; and the princes who people them, with all the observances of politeness seek to out-wit each other, or to beguile the unfortunate princess, who alone has anything like pretensions to nature.

Crebillon, in point of time, comes between Racine and Voltaire, though he was also the rival of the latter. A numerous party wished to set him, when far advanced in years, on a par with, nay, even to rank him far higher than, Voltaire. Nothing, however, but the bitterest rancour of party, or the utmost depravity of taste, or, what is most probable, the two together, could have led them to such signal injustice. Far from having contributed to the purification of the tragic art, he evidently attached himself, not to the better, but the more affected authors of the age of Louis the Fourteenth. In his total ignorance of the ancients, he has the arrogance to rank himself above them. His favourite books were the antiquated romances of a Calprenede, and others of a similar stamp: from these he derived his extravagant and ill-connected plots. One of the means to which he everywhere has recourse, is the unconscious or intentional disguise of the principal characters under other names; the first example of which was given in the Heraclius. Thus, in Crebillon's Electra, Orestes does not become known to himself before the middle of the piece. The brother and sister, and a son and daughter of Ægisthus, are almost exclusively occupied with their double amours, which neither contribute to, nor injure, the main action; and

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Clytemnestra is killed by a blow from Orestes, which, without knowing her, he unintentionally and involuntarily inflicts. He abounds in extravagances of every kind; of such, for instance, as the shameless impudence of Semiramis, in persisting in her love after she has learnt that its object is her own son. A few empty ravings and common-place displays of terror, have gained for Crebillon the appellation of the terrible, which affords us a standard for judging of the barbarous and affected taste of the age, and the infinite distance from nature and truth to which it had fallen. It is pretty much the same as, in painting, to give the appellation of the majestic to Coypel.

LECTURE XX.

Voltaire-Tragedies on Greek Subjects : Edipe, Merope, Oreste-Tra

gedies on Roman Subjects : Brute, Morte de César, Catiline, Le Triumvirat-Earlier Pieces : Zaire, Alzire, Mahomet, Semiramis,

and Tancred. To Voltaire, from his first entrance on his dramatic career, we must give credit both for a conviction that higher and more extensive efforts remained to be made, and for the zeal pecessary to accomplish all that was yet undone. How far he was successful, and how much he was himself blinded by the very national prejudices against which he contended, is another question. For the more easy review of his works, it will be useful to class together the pieces in which he handled mythological materials, and those which he derived from the Roman history.

His earliest tragedy, Edipe, is a mixture of adherence to the Greeks* (with the proviso, however, as may be supposed, of improving on them,) and of compliance with the prevailing

* His admiration of them seems to have been more derived from foreign influence than from personal study. In his letter to the Duchess of Maine, prefixed to Oreste, he relates how, in his early youth, he had access to a noble house where it was a custom to read Sophocles, and to make extem. porary translations from him, and where there were men who acknowledged the superiority of the Greek Theatre over the French. In vain, in the present day, should we seek for such men in France, among people of any distinction, so universally is the study of the classics depreciated.

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