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these scenes have always given rise to much laughter on the French stage, it only proves the spectators to possess the same unfeeling levity which disgusts us in the author. We have elsewhere shown that, with an apparent indifference, a moral reserve is essential to the comic poet, since the impressions which he would wish to produce are inevitably destroyed whenever disgust or compassion is excited.
Legrand the actor, a contemporary of Regnard, was ore of the first comic poets who gained celebrity for after-pieces in verse, a species of composition in which the French have since produced a number of elegant trifles. He has not, however, risen to any thing like the same height of posthumous fame as Regnard: La Harpe dismisses him with very little ceremony. Yet we should be disposed to rank him very high as an artist, even if he had composed nothing else than the King of Lubberland (Le Roi de Cocagne), a sprightly farce in the marvellous style, overflowing with what is very rare in France, a native fanciful wit, animated by the most lively mirth, which although carried the length of the most frolicsome giddinese, sports on and round all subjects with the utmost harmlessness. We might call it an elegant and ingenious piece of madness; an example of the manner in which the play of Aristophanes, or rather that of Eupolis*, who had also dramatised the tale of Lubberland, might be brought on our stage without exciting disgust, and without personal satire. And yet Legrand was, certainly, unacquainted with the Old Comedy, and his own genius (we scruple not to use the expression) led him to tho invention.
The execution is as careful as in a regular comedy; but to this title in the French opinion it can have no pretensions, because of the wonderful world which it represents, of several of the decorations, and of the music here and there introduced. The French critics show themselves in general indifferent, or rather unjust towards every snggestion of genuine fancy. Before they can feel respect for a work it must present a certain appearance of labour and effort. Among a giddy and light-minded people, they have appropriatel to themselves the post of honour of pedantry: they confound the levity of jocularity, which is quite compatible with profundity in art, with the levity of shallowness, which (as a natural gift or natural defect,) is so frequent among their countrymen. The eighteenth century produced in France a number of
* See page 167.
FRENCHI COMEDY DURING THE REGENCY.
comic writers of the second and third rank, but no distinguished genius capable of advancing the art a step farther; in consequence of which the belief in Molière's unapproachable excellence has become still more firmly riveted. As we have not space at present to go throngh all these separate productions, we shall premise a few observations on the general spirit of French Comedy before entering on the consideration of the writers whom we have not yet mentioned.
The want of easy progress, and over-lengthy disquisitions in stationary dialogue, have characterized more or less every writer since the time of Molière, on whose regular pieces also the conventional rules applicable to Tragedy have had an indisputable influence. French Comedy in verse has its tirades as well as Tragedy. Besides, there was another circumstance, the introduction of a certain degree of stiff etiquette. The Comedy of other nations has generally, from motives which we can be at no loss in understanding, descended into the circle of the lower classes; but the French Comedy is usually confined to the upper ranks of society. Here, then, we trace the influence of the court as the central point of the whole national vanity. Those spectators who in reality had no access to the great world, were flattered by being surrounded on the stage with marquises and chevaliers, and while the poet satirized the fashionable follies, they endeavoured to snatch something of that privileged tone which was so much the object of envy. Society rubs off the salient angles of character; its only amusement consists in the pursuit of the ridiculous, and on the other hand it trains us in the faculty of being upon our guard against the observations of others. The natural, cordial, and jovial comic of the inferior classes is thrown aside, and instead of it another description (the fruit of polished society, and bearing in its insipidity the stamp of so purpose less a way of living) is adopted. The object of these comedies is no longer life but society, that perpetual negotiation between conflicting vanities which never ends in a sincere treaty of peace: the embroidered dress, the hat under the arm, and the sword by the side, essentially belong to them, and the whole of their characterization is limited to painting the folly of the men and the coquetry of the women. The insipid uniformity of these pictures was unfortunately too often seasoned by the corruption of moral principles which, more especially after the age of Louis XIV., it becamc, under the
Regency of Louis XV., the fashion openly to avow. In this period the favourite of the women, the homme à bonnes fortunes, who in the tone of satiety boasts of the multitude of his conquests too easily won, was not a character invented by the comic writers, but a portrait accurately taken from real life, as is proved by the numerous memoirs of the last century, even down to those of a Besenval. We are disgusted with the unveiled sensuality of the love intrigues of the Greek Comedy: but the Greeks would have found much more disgusting the love intrigues of the French Comedy, entered into with married women, merely from giddy vanity Limits have been fixed by nature herself to sensual excess; but when vanity assumes the part of a sensuality already deadened and enervated, it gives birth to the most hollow corruption. And even if, in the constant ridicule of marriage by the petitmaîtres, and in their moral scepticism especially with regard to female virtue, it was the intention of the poets to ridicule a prevailing depravity, the picture is not on that account the less immoral. The great or fashionable world, which in point of numbers is the little world, and yet considers itself alone of importance, can hardly be improved by it; and for the other classes the example is but too seductive, from the brilliancy with which the characters are surrounded. But in so far as Comedy is concerned, this deadening corruption is by no means invariably entertaining; and in many pieces, in which fools of quality give the tone, for example in the Chevalier à la mode de Dancourt, the picture of complete moral dissoluteness which, although true, is nevertheless both unpoetical and unnatural, is productive not merely of ennui, but of the most decided repugnance and disgust.
From the number of writers to whom this charge chiefly, applies, we must in justice except Destouches and Marivaux, fruitful or at least diligent comic writers, the former in verseand the latter in prose. They acquired considerable distinction among their contemporaries in the first half of the eighteenth century, but on the stage few of their works survived either of them. Destouches was a moderate, tame, and well-meaning author, who applied himself with all his powers to the composition of regular comedies, which were always drawn out to the length of five acts, and in which there is nothing laughable, with the exception of the vivacity displayed in virtue of their situation, by Lisette and her lover
Frontin, or Pasquin. He was in no danger, from any excess of frolicsome petulance, of falling from the dignified tone of the supposed high comic into the familiarity of farce, which the French hold in such contempt. With moderate talents, without humour, and almost without vivacity, neither ingenious in invention, nor possessed of a deep insight into the human mind and human affairs, he has in some of his productions, Le Glorieux, Le Philosophe Marié, and especially L'Indecis, shewn with great credit to himself what true and unpretending diligence is by itself capable of effecting. Other pieces, for instance, L'Ingrat and L'Homme Singulier, are complete failures, and enable us to see that a poet who considers Tartuffe and The Misanthrope as the highest objects of imitation, (and with Destouches this was evidently the case,) has only another step to take to lose sight of the comic art altogether These two works of Molière have not been friendly beacons to his followers, but false lights to their ruin. Whenever a comic poet in his preface worships The Misanthrope as a model, I can immediately foretell the result of his labours. He will sacrifice every thing like the gladsome inspiration of fun and all truly poetical amusement, for the dull and formal seriousness of prosaic life, and for prosaical applications stamped with the respectable name of morals.
That Marivaux is a mannerist is so universally acknowledged in France, that the peculiar term of marivaudage has been invented for his mannerism. But this is at least his own, and at first sight by no means unpleasing. Delicacy of mind cannot be denied to Marivaux, only it is coupled with a certain littleness. We have stated it to be the most refined species of the comic of observation, when a peculiarity or property shows itself most conspicuously at the very time its possessor has the least suspicion of it, or is most studious to conceal it. Marivaux has applied this to the passions; and naïveté in the involuntary disclosure of emotions certainly belongs to the domain of Comedy. But then this naïveté is prepared by him with too much art, appears too solicitous for our applause, and, we may almost say, seems too well pleased with it himself. It is like children in the game of hide and seek, they cannot stay quiet in their corner, but keep popping out their heads, if they are not immediately discovered; nay, sometimes, which is still worse, it is like the squinting over a fan held up from affected modesty. In Marivaux we always
see his aim from the very beginning, and all our attention is directed to discovering the way by which he is to lead us to it. This would be a skilful mode of composing, if it did not degenerate into the insignificant and the superficial. Petty inclinations are strengthened by petty motives, exposed to petty probations, and brought by petty steps nearer and nearer to a petty conclusion. The whole generally turns on a declaration of love, and all sorts of clandestine means are tried to elicit it, or every kind of slight allusion is hazarded to hasten it. Marivaux has neither painted characters, nor contrived intrigues. The whole plot generally turns on an unpronounced word, which is always at the tougue's end, and which is frequently kept back in a pretty arbitrary manner. He is so uniform in the motives that he employs, that when we have read one of his pieces with a tolerable degree of attention we know all of them. However, we must still rank him above the herd of stiff imitators; something is to be learned even from him, for he possessed a peculiar though a very limited view of the essence of Comedy.
Two other single works are named as master-pieces in the regular Comedy in verse, belonging to two writers who here perhaps have taken more pains, but in other departments have given a freer scope to their natural talent: the Metromanie of Piron and the Mechant of Gresset. The Metromanie is not written without humorous inspiration. In the young man possessed with a passion for poetry, Piron intended in some measure to paint himself; but as we always go tenderly to work in the ridicule of ourselves, together with the amiable weakness in question, he endows his hero with talents, magnanimity, and a good heart. But this tender reserve is not peculiarly favourable for comic strength. As to the Mechant, it is one of those gloomy comedies which might be rapturously hailed by a Timon as serving to confirm his aversion to human society, but which, on social and cheerful minds, can only give rise to the most painful impression. Why paint a dark and odious disposition which, devoid of all human sympathy, feeds its vanity in a cold contempt and derision of everything, and solely occupies itself in aimless detraction? Why exhibit such a moral deformity, which could hardly be tolerated even in Tragedy, for the mere purpose of producing domestic discontent and petty embarrassments?
Yet, according to the decision of the French crities, there