Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Early Drama.

“It is curious to trace the first rude attempts of the drama in various nations; to observe at that moment how crude is the imagination, and to trace the caprices it indulges; and that the resemblance in these attempts holds in the earliest essays of Greece, of France, of Spain, of England, and, what appears extraordinary, even of China and Mexico.”

The rude beginnings of the drama of Greece are sufficiently known, and the old mysteries of Europe have been exhibited in a former article. The progress of the French theatre has been this:—

Etienne Jodelle, in 1552, seems to have been the first who had a tragedy represented of his own invention, entitled Cleopatra — it was a servile imitation of the form of the Grecian tragedy; but if this did not require the highest genius, it did the utmost intrepidity; for the people were, through long habit, intoxicated with the wild amusement they amply received from their farces and moralities.

The following curious anecdote, which followed the first attempt at classical imitation, is very observable. Jodelle’s success was such, that his rival poets, touched by the spirit of the Grecian muse, showed a singular proof of their enthusiasm for this new poet, in a classical festivity which gave room for no little scandal in that day; yet as it was produced by a carnival, it was probably a kind of drunken bout. Fifty poets, during the carnival of 1552, went to Arcueil. Chance, says the writer of the life of the old French bard Ronsard, who was one of the present profane party, threw across their road a goat — which having caught, they ornamented the goat with chaplets of flowers, and carried it triumphantly to the hall of their festival, to appear to sacrifice to Bacchus, and to present it to Jodelle; for the goat, among the ancients, was the prize of the tragic bards; the victim of Bacchus, who presided over tragedy,

Carmine, qui tragico, vilem certavit ob hircum.

The goat thus adorned, and his beard painted, was hunted about the long table, at which the fifty poets were seated; and after having served them for a subject of laughter for some time, he was hunted out of the room, and not sacrificed to Bacchus. Each of the guests made verses on the occasion, in imitation of the Bacchanalia of the ancients. Ronsard composed some dithyrambics to celebrate the festival of the goat of Etienne Jodelle; and another, entitled “Our travels to Arcueil.” However, this Bacchaualian freak did not finish as it ought, where it had begun, among the poets. Several ecclesiastics sounded the alarm, and one Chandieu accused Ronsard with having performed an idolatrous sacrifice; and it was easy to accuse the moral habits of fifty poets assembled together, who were far, doubtless, from being irreproachable. They repented for some time of their classical sacrifice of a goat to Tragedy.

Hardi, the French Lope de Vega, wrote 800 dramatic pieces from 1600 to 1637; his imagination was the most fertile possible; but so wild and unchecked, that though its extravagances are very amusing, they served as so many instructive lessons to his successors. One may form a notion of his violation of the unities by his piece “La Force du Sang.” In the first act Leocadia is carried off and ravished. In the second she is sent back with an evident sign of pregnancy. In the third she lies in, and at the close of this act her son is about ten years old. In the fourth, the father of the child acknowledges him; and in the fifth, lamenting his son’s unhappy fate, he marries Leocadia. Such are the pieces in the infancy of the drama.

Rotrou was the first who ventured to introduce several persons in the same scene; before his time they rarely exceeded two persons; if a third appeared, he was usually a mute actor, who never joined the other two. The state of the theatre was even then very rude; the most lascivious embraces were publicly given and taken; and Rotrou even ventured to introduce a naked page in the scene, who in this situation holds a dialogue with one of his heroines. In another piece, ”Scedase, ou l’hospitalité violée,“ Hardi makes two young Spartans carry off Scedase’s two daughters, ravish them on the stage, and, violating them in the side scenes, the spectators heard their cries and their complaints. Cardinal Richelieu made the theatre one of his favourite pursuits, and though not successful as a dramatic writer, his encouragement of the drama gradually gave birth to genius. Scudery was the first who introduced the twenty-four hours from Aristotle; and Mairet studied the construction of the fable, and the rules of the drama. They yet groped in the dark, and their beauties were yet only occasional; Corneille, Racine, Molière, Crebillon, and Voltaire perfected the French drama.

In the infancy of the tragic art in our country, the bowl and dagger were considered as the great instruments of a sublime pathos; and the ”Die all“ and ”Die nobly“ of the exquisite and affecting tragedy of Fielding were frequently realised in our popular dramas. Thomas Goff, of the university of Oxford, in the reign of James I., was considered as no contemptible tragic poet: he concludes the first part of his Courageous Turk, by promising a second, thus:—

If this first part, gentles! do like you well,

The second part shall greater murthers tell.

Specimens of extravagant bombast might be selected from his tragedies. The following speech of Amurath the Turk, who coming on the stage, and seeing “an appearance of the heavens being on fire, comets and blazing stars, thus addresses the heavens,” which seem to have been in as mad a condition as the poet’s own mind:—

— How now, ye heavens! grow you

So proud, that you must needs put on curled locks,

And clothe yourselves in periwigs of fire!”

In the Raging Turk, or Bajazet the Second, he is introduced with this most raging speech:—

Am I not emperor? he that breathes a no

Damns in that negative syllable his soul;

Durst any god gainsay it, he should feel

The strength of fiercest giants in my armies;

Mine anger’s at the highest, and I could shake

The firm foundation of the earthly globe;

Could I but grasp the poles in these two hands

I’d pluck the world asunder.

He would scale heaven, and when he had

—— got beyond the utmost sphere,

Besiege the concave of this universe,

And hunger-starve the gods till they confessed

What furies did oppress his sleeping soul.

These plays went through two editions: the last printed in 1656.

The following passage from a similar bard is as precious. The king in the play exclaims —

By all the ancient gods of Rome and Greece,

I love my daughter! — better than my niece!

If any one should ask the reason why,

I’d tell them — Nature makes the stronger tie!

One of the rude French plays, about 1600, is entitled ”La Rebellion, ou meseontentment des Grenouilles contre Jupiter,“ in five acts. The subject of this tragi-comic piece is nothing more than the fable of the frogs who asked Jupiter for a king. In the pantomimical scenes of a wild fancy, the actors were seen croaking in their fens, or climbing up the steep ascent of Olympus; they were dressed so as to appear gigantic frogs; and in pleading their cause before Jupiter and his court, the dull humour was to croak sublimely, whenever they did not agree with their judge.

Clavigero, in his curious history of Mexico, has given Acosta’s account of the Mexican theatre, which appears to resemble the first scenes among the Greeks, and these French frogs, but with more fancy and taste. Acosta writes, “The small theatre was curiously whitened, adorned with boughs, and arches made of flowers and feathers, from which were suspended many birds, rabbits, and other pleasing objects. The actors exhibited burlesque characters, feigning themselves deaf, sick with colds, lame, blind, crippled, and addressing an idol for the return of health. The deaf people answered at cross-purposes; those who had colds by coughing, and the lame by halting; all recited their complaints and misfortunes, which produced infinite mirth among the audience. Others appeared under the names of different little animals; some disguised as beetles, some like toads, some like lizards, and upon encountering each, other, reciprocally explained their employments, which was highly satisfactory to the people, as they performed their parts with infinite ingenuity. Several little boys also, belonging to the temple, appeared in the disguise of butterflies, and birds of various colours, and mounting upon the trees which were fixed there on purpose, little balls of earth were thrown at them with slings, occasioning many humorous incidents to the spectators.”

Something very wild and original appears in this singular exhibition; where at times the actors seem to have been spectators, and the spectators were actors.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37