Critical Essays Nineteenth-Century French Drama


During the Renaissance, France was slavishly following the classic patterns in its drama, particularly those laid down by Aristotle in his famous definition of tragedy. Plays observed the unities — of place (only one setting), time (twenty-four hours), and action (everything in the play points toward one major conflict). There was no violence on stage; battles and fights were told about, sometimes at great length. The plays concerned an important and heroic character, usually Roman or Greek, although one of the first French classic plays was Le Cid, by Corneille, which dealt with Spanish history. The heroes of these plays always had a tragic flaw and were dogged by fate. The plays were in verse. Racine, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, wrote such beautiful and perfect plays after this model that French drama of the eighteenth century was simply repetitious.

Romanticism was heralded in 1827, when Hugo published his "Preface" to Cromwell. He felt that although many of these classic plays were beautiful, they no longer expressed current tastes and needs in the theater and that there was a lack of development in the drama because of this slavish imitation. The first Romantic play to be performed in Paris was Hugo's Hernani, in 1830. Before the play was produced, he did all that he could to insure its success by reading it to his many friends. On opening night, the theater was full. Hugo had many supporters, and the classicists were also there in full force. Early in the play one of the characters drew his sword on stage, a breach of one of the cardinal rules of classic drama. The result of this defiance of the principles of the classic play was that a riot erupted in the theater, spreading rapidly to the streets of Paris. It was several hours before the gendarmes were able to subdue the warring classicists and romanticists. Later, this incident was to be called "The Battle of Hernani"; and it is interesting to note that the people who objected to showing violence on stage (among other things) were the ones who resorted to violence in the stalls of the theater.

The Romantics freed the French drama from the two unities of place and time. Hugo retained the unity of action, feeling that this was an artistic necessity. Local color was important in Romantic plays. The setting was more often Spain, though several plays were written about England and English historical characters, such as Cromwell and Mary, Queen of Scots. Violence was permitted on stage. The play often — indeed, usually — concerned a couple in love. Shakespeare was translated by Vigny during this period and became one of the idols of the French Romantics.

This new freedom in French drama was the beginning of much of the later development of drama in France and the world. Nineteenth-century France was not in a mood for much experimental drama, but the way was paved for the twentieth-century experimenters. The audiences in the nineteenth century in France were bourgeois, and they demanded entertainment of a rather light vein for their evenings at the theater. Consequently, with no intellectual (and wealthy) patrons to foot the bills for the playwrights, the theater became more commercial.

Some later developments in France in the latter part of the nineteenth century were naturalism and symbolism. Naturalism aimed at showing social conditions as they really were — usually as sordid as possible. Symbolists did not think that anything should be shown if it could be hinted at or symbolized. Closet drama, or static drama, was a development of this period. As little action as possible was shown on the stage, and the plays sometimes became very conversational.

Cyrano was written in 1897, and some people said that it marked a revival of Romanticism. It is a historical play. There is much local color in the various sets. There is action on the stage the sword fight in Act I is certainly violent, but it is also witty. It would be very difficult to imagine Cyrano without this display of his wit and courage and impromptu poetry. Very little else is shown, however, of violence. The fight with a hundred men is told about, as only the flamboyant Cyrano could tell it.

One of the earmarks of Romanticism is idealism. Certainly Cyrano is an idealistic person, and ideal takes precedence over common sense in his scheme of things.

Rostand never tried to imitate his success with Cyrano. Though there were other authors who did try to imitate it, it was not the revival of Romantic drama. It really did not belong to any school of drama that was current when it was written. Actually, if more of the truly Romantic plays had been of the quality of Cyrano, the period might have lasted longer.

Rostand does not seem to have been imitating the Romantics, though he used the freedom they had given to the French stage. He found an historical character that inspired him, an actor who could play the part, and the play resulted. While Cyrano is truly romantic in almost every sense of the word except that which denotes the French Romantic period, it does not fit into any school. It stands alone.

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