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THE HISTRIONIC ART IN FRANCE,
be directed to the acting, and every faulty syllable meets in this way with immediate detection and reprobation.
In high comedy the social refinement of the nation afforde great advantages to their actors. But with respect to tragical composition, the art of the actor should also accommodate itself to the spirit of the poetry. I am inclined to doubt, how, ever, whether this is the case with the French actors, and whether the authors of the tragedies, especially those of the age of Louis XIV. would altogether recognise themselves in the mode in which these compositions are at present repre. sented.
The tragic imitation and recitation of the French oscillate between two opposite extremes, the first of which is occasioned by the prevailing tone of the piece, while the second seems rather to be at variance with it,-between measured formality and extravagant boisterousness. The first might formerly preponderate, but the balance is now on the other side.
Let us hear Voltaire's description of the manner in which, in the time of Louis XIV., Augustus delivered his discourse to Cinna and Maximus. Augustus entered with the step of a braggadocio, his head covered with a four-cornered peruque, which hung down to his girdle; the peruque was stuck full of laurel leaves, and above this he wore a large hat with a double row of red feathers. He seated himself on a huge fauteuil, two steps high, Cinna and Maximus on two low chairs; and the pompous declamation fully corresponded to the ostentatious manner in which he made his appearance. As at that time, and even long afterwards, tragedies were acted in a court-dress of the newest fashion, with large cravats, swords, and hats, no other movements were practicable but such as were allowable in an antechamber, or, at most, a slight waving of the hand; and it was even considered a bold theatrical attempt, when, in the last scene of Polyeucte, Severus entered with his hat on his head for the purpose of accusing Felix of treachery, and the latter listened to him with his hat under
However, there were even early examples of an extravagance of an opposite description. In the Mariamne of Mairet, an older poet than Corneille, the player who acted Herod, roared himself to death. This may, indeed, be called “out-heroding Herod!" When Voltaire was instructing an actress in some tragic part, she said to him, “Were I to play
TOE HISTRIONIC ART IN FRANCE-CONCLUSION.
in this manner, sir, they would say the devil was in me.”— “ Very right,” answered Voltaire, an actress ought to have the devil in her.” This expression proves, at least, no very keen sense for that dignity and sweetness which in an ideal composition, such as the French Tragedy pretends to be, ought never to be lost sight of, even in the wildest whirlwind of passion.
I found occasionally, even in the action of the very best players of the present day, sudden leaps from the measured solemnity in recitation and gesticulation which the general tone of the composition required, to a boisterousness of passion absolutely convulsive, without any due preparation or softening by intervening gradations. They are led to this by a sort of obscure feeling, that the conventional forms of poetry generally impede the movements of nature; when the poet any where leaves them at liberty, they then indemnify themselves for the former constraint, and load, as it were, this rare moment of abandonment with the whole amount of life and animation which had been kept back, and which ought to have been equally diffused over the whole. Hence their convulsive and obstreperous violence. In bravura they take care not to be deficient; but they frequently lose sight of the true spirit of the composition. In general, (with the single exception of the great Talma,) they consider their parts as a sort of mosaic work of brilliant passages, and they rather endeavour to make the most of each separate passage, independently of the rest, than to go back to the invisible central point of the character, and to consider every expression of it as an emanation from that point. They are always afraid of underdoing their parts; and bence they are worse qualified for reserved action, for eloqnent silence, where, under an appearance of outward tranquillity, the most hidden emotions of the mind are betrayed. However, this is a part which is seldom imposed on them by their poets; and if the cause of such excessive violence in the expression of passion is not to be found in the works themselves, they at all events occasion the actor to lay greater stress on superficial brilliancy than on a profound knowledge of character
* See a treatise of M. Von Humboldt the elder, in Goethe's Propyläen, on the French acting, equally distinguished for a retined and solid spirit of observation.
THE ENGLISH AND SPANISH DRAMA.
LECTURE XXII. Comparison of the English and Spanish Theatres—Spirit of the Romantic
Drama-Shakspeare-His age and the circumstances of his Life. In conformity with the plan which we laid down at the first, we shall now proceed to treat of the English and Spanish theatres. We have been, on various occasions, compelled in passing to allude cursorily, sometimes to the one and sometimes to the other, partly for the sake of placing, by means of contrast, many ideas in a clearer light, and partly on account of the influence which these stages have bad on the theatres of other countries. Both the English and Spaniards possess a very rich dramatic literature, both have had a number of prolific and highly talented dramatists, among whom even the least admired and celebrated, considered as a whole, display uncommon aptitude for dramatic animation, and insight into the essence of theatrical effect. The history of their theatres has no connexion with that of the Italians and French, for they developed themselves wholly out of the abundance of their own intrinsic energy, without any foreign influence: the attempts to bring them back to an imitation of the ancients, or even of the French, have either been attended with no success, or not been made till a late period in the decay of the drama. The formation of these two stages, again, is equally independent of each other; the Spanish poets were altogether unacquainted with the English; and in the older and most important period of the English theatre I could discover no trace of any knowledge of Spanish plays, (though their novels and romances were certainly known,) and it was not till the time of Charles II. that translations from Calderon first made their appearance.
So many things among men have been handed down from century to century and from nation to nation, and the human mind is in general so slow to invent, that originality in any department of mental exertion is everywhere a rare phenomenon. We are desirous of seeing the result of the efforts of inventive geniuses when, regardless of what in the same line has elsewhere been carried to a high degree of perfection, they set to work in good earnest to invent altogether for themselves; when they lay the foundation of the new edifice on uncovered ground, and draw all the preparations, all the
ORIGINAL AND NATIONAL CHARACTER.
building materials, from their own resources. We participate, in some measure, in the joy of success, when we see them advance rapidly from their first helplessness and need to a finished mastery in their art. The history of the Grecian theatre would afford us this cheering prospect could we witness its rudest beginnings, which were not preserved, for they were not even committed to writing; but it is easy, when we compare together Æschylus and Sophocles, to form some idea of the preceding period. The Greeks neither inherited nor borrowed their dramatic art from any other people; it was original and native, and for that very reason was it able to produce a living and powerful effect. But it ended with the period when Greeks imitated Greeks; namely, when the Alexandrian poets began learnedly and critically to compose dramas after the model of the great tragic writers. The reverse of this was the case with the Romans: they received the form and substance of their dramas from the Greeks; they never attempted to act according to their own discretion, and to express their own way of thinking; and hence they occupy so insignificant a place in the history of dramatic art. Among the nations of modern Europe, the English and Spaniards alone (for the German stage is but forming), possess as yet a theatre entirely original and national, which, in its own peculiar shape, has arrived at maturity.
Those critics who consider the authority of the ancients as models to be such, that in poetry, as in all the other arts, there can be no safety out of the pale of imitation, affirm, that as the nations in question have not followed this course, they have brought nothing but irregular works on the stage, which, though they may possess occasional passages of splendour and beauty, must yet, as a whole, be for ever reprobated as barbarous, and wanting in form. We have already, in the introductory part of these Lectures, stated our sentiments generally on this way of thinking; but we must now examine the subject somewhat more closely.
If the assertion be well founded, all that distinguishes the works of the greatest English and Spanish dramatists, a Shakspeare and a Calderon, must rank them far below the ancients; they could iu vo wise be of importance for theory, and would at most appear remarkable, on the assumption that the obstinacy of these nations in rofusing to comply with the rules, may have afforded a more ample field to the poets to
TUE SPIRIT OF POETRY.
display their native originality, though at the expense of art. But even this assumption, on a closer examination, appears extremely questionable. The poetic spirit requires to be limited, that it may move with a becoming liberty, within its proper precincts, as has been felt by all nations on the first invention of metre; it must act according to laws derivable from its own essence, otherwise its strength will evaporate in bonndless vacuity.
The works of genius cannot therefore be permitted to be (without form; but of this there is no danger. However, that we may answer this objection of want of form, we must understand the exact meaning of the term form, since most critics, and more especially those who insist on a stiff regularity, interpret it merely in a mechanical, and not in an organical sense. Form is mechanical when, through external force, it is imparted to any material merely as an accidental addition without reference to its quality; as, for example, when we give a particular shape to a soft mass that it may retain the same after its induration. Organical form, again, is innate; it unfolds itself from within, and acquires its determination contemporaneously with the perfect development of the germ. We everywhere discover such forms in nature throughout the whole range of living powers, from the crystallization of salts and minerals to plants and flowers, and from these again to the human body. In the fine arts, as well as in the domain of nature—the supreme artist, all genuine forms are organical, that is, determined by the quality of the work. In a word, the form is nothing but a significant exterior, the speaking physiognomy of each thing, which, as long
as it is not disfigured by any destructive accident, gives a true evidence of its hidden essence.
Hence it is evident that the spirit of poetry, which, though imperishable, migrates, as it were, through different bodies, must, so often as it is newly born in the human race, mould to itself, out of the nutrimental substance of an altered age, a body of a different conformation. The forms vary with the direction taken by the poetical sense; and when we give to the new kinds of poetry the old names, and judge of them according to the ideas conveyed by these names, the applicae tion which we make of the authority of classical antiquity is altogether unjustifiable. No one should be tried before a tribunat to which he is not amenable. We may safely admit.