A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 2.


While the influence of Malherbe was thus cramping and withering poetry proper in France, it combined with some other causes to enable drama to attain the highest perfection possible in the particular style practised. In non-dramatic poetry, the only name of the seventeenth century which can be said even to approach the first class is that of La Fontaine, whose verse, except for its technical excellence, is almost as near to prose as to poetry itself. But the names of Corneille, Racine, and Molière stand in the highest rank of French authors, and their works will remain the chief examples of the kind of drama which they professed. Nor is this difference in any way surprising. It has been already shown that the style of drama introduced into France by the Pléiade, and pursued with but little alteration afterwards, was a highly artificial and a highly limited kind. It lent itself successfully to comparatively few situations; it excluded variety of action on the stage; it gave no opening for the display of complicated character. But these very limitations made it susceptible of very high polish and elaboration within its own limited range, and made such polish and elaboration almost a necessity if it was to be tolerable at all. The correct and cold language and style which Malherbe preached; the regularity and harmony of versification on which he insisted; the strict attention to rule rather than impulse which he urged, all suited a thing in itself so artificial as the Senecan tragedy. They were not so suitable to the more libertine genius of comedy. But here, fortunately for France, the regulations were less rigid, and the abiding popularity of the indigenous farce gave a healthy corrective. The astonishing genius of Molière succeeded in combining the two influences — the lawless freedom of the old farce, and the ordered decency of the Malherbian poetry. Even his theatre shows some sign of the taint with which 'classical' drama is so deeply imbued, but its force and truth almost or altogether redeem the imperfections of its scheme.


We have seen that the early tragedy, which was more or less directly reproductive of Seneca, attained its highest pitch in the work of Garnier. This pitch was on the whole well maintained by Antoine de Montchrestien, a man of a singular history and of a singular genius. The date of his birth is not exactly known, but he was the son of an apothecary at Falaise, and belonged to the Huguenot party. Duels and lawsuits succeed each other in his story, and by some means or other he was able to assume the title of Seigneur de Vasteville. In one of his duels he killed his man, and had to fly to England. Being pardoned, he returned to France and took to commerce. But after the death of Henri IV. he joined a Huguenot rising, and was killed in October 1621. Montchrestien wrote a treatise on Political Economy (he is even said to have been the first to introduce the term into French), some poems, and six tragedies, Sophonisbe, or La Cartaginoise, Les Lacènes, David, Aman, Hector, and L'Écossaise. Racine availed himself not a little of Aman, but L'Écossaise is Montchrestien's best piece. In it he set the example to a long line of dramatists, from Vondel to Mr. Swinburne, who have since treated the story of Mary Queen of Scots. It is not part of the merit of Montchrestien to have improved on the technical defects of the Jodelle-Garnier model. His action is still deficient, his speeches immoderately long. But his choric odes are of great beauty, and his tirades, disproportionate as they are, show a considerable advance in the power of indicating character as well as in style and versification. Beyond this, however, the force of the model could no further go, and some alteration was necessary. Indeed it is by no means certain that the later plays of this class were ever acted at all, or were anything more than closet drama.

Minor predecessors of Corneille.

For a not inconsiderable time the fate of French tragedy trembled in the balance. During the first thirty years of the seventeenth century the most prominent dramatist was Alexandre Hardy233. He is the first and not the least important example in French literary history of a dramatic author pure and simple, a playwright who was a playwright, and nothing else. Hardy was for years attached to the regular company of actors who had succeeded the Confrérie at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and wrote or adapted pieces for them at the tariff (it is said) of fifty crowns a play. His fertility was immense; and he is said to have written some hundreds of plays. The exact number is variously stated at from five to seven hundred. Forty-one exist in print. Although not destitute of original power, Hardy was driven to the already copious theatre of Spain for subjects and models. His plays being meant for acting and for nothing else, the scholarly but tedious exercitations of the Pléiade school were out of the question. Yet, while he introduced a great deal of Spanish embroilment into his plots, and a great deal of Spanish bombast into his speeches, Hardy still accepted the general outline of the classical tragedy, and, though utterly careless of unity of place and time, adhered for the most part to the perhaps more mischievous unity of action. His best play, Mariamne, is powerfully written, is arranged with considerable skill, and contains some fine lines and even scenes; but, little as Hardy hampered himself with rules, it still has, to an English reader, a certain thinness of interest. A contemporary of Hardy's, Jean de Schélandre, made, in a play234 which does not seem ever to have been acted, a remarkable attempt at enfranchising French tragedy with the full privileges rather of the English than of the Spanish drama; but this play, Tyr et Sidon, had no imitators and no influence, and the general model remained unaltered. But during the first quarter of the century the theatre was exceedingly popular, and the institution of strolling troops of actors spread its popularity all over France. Nearly a hundred names of dramatic writers of this time are preserved. Most of these, no doubt, were but retainers of the houses or the troops, and did little but patch, adapt, and translate. But of the immediate predecessors of Corneille, and his earlier contemporaries, at least half-a-dozen are more or less known to fame, besides the really great name of Rotrou. Mairet, Tristan, Du Ryer, Scudéry, Claveret, and D'Aubignac, were the chief of these. Mairet has been called the French Marston, and the resemblance is not confined to the fact that both wrote tragedies on the favourite subject of Sophonisba. The chief work of Tristan, who was also a poet of some merit, was Marianne (Mariamne), very closely modelled on an Italian original, and much less vigorous, though more polished than Hardy's play on the same subject. Du Ryer had neither Mairet's vigour nor Tristan's tenderness, but he made more progress than either of them had done in the direction of the completed tragedy of Corneille and Racine. Scudéry's Amour Tyrannique is vigorous and bombastic. Claveret and D'Aubignac (the latter of whom was an active critic as well as a bad playwright) principally derive their reputation, such as it is, from the acerbity with which they attacked Corneille in the dispute about the Cid; nor should the name of Théophile de Viaud be passed over in this connection. His Pyrame et Thisbé is often considered as almost the extreme example (though Corneille's Clitandre is perhaps worse) of the conceited Spanish-French style in tragedy. The passage in which Thisbe accuses the poniard with which Pyramus has stabbed himself of blushing at having sullied itself with the blood of its master is a commonplace of quotation. Yet, like all Théophile's work, Pyrame et Thisbé has value, and so has the unrepresented tragedy of Pasiphaé.


Among these forgotten names, and others more absolutely forgotten still, that of Rotrou235 is pre-eminently distinguished. Jean de Rotrou (the particle is not uniformly allowed him) was born at Dreux in 1609, and was thus three years younger than Corneille. He went earlier to Paris, however, and at once betook himself to dramatic poetry, his Hypocondriaque being represented before he was nineteen. He formed with Corneille, Colletet, Bois-Robert, and L'Etoile, the band of Richelieu's 'Five Poets,' who composed tragedies jointly on the Cardinal's plans236. He also worked unceasingly at the theatre on his own account. Thirty-five pieces are certainly, and five more doubtfully, attributed to him. For some time he had to work for bread, and the only weakness charged against him, a mania for gambling, left him poor, and perhaps prevented him from devoting to his work as much pains as he might otherwise have given. After a time, however, he was pensioned, and appointed to various legal posts which members of his family had previously held at Dreux. His fidelity to his official duty was the cause of his death. He was at Paris when a violent epidemic broke out at Dreux. All who could left the town, and Rotrou was strongly dissuaded from returning. But he felt himself responsible for the maintenance of order, likely at such a time to be specially endangered. He returned at once, caught the infection, and died. Rotrou's plays are too numerous for a complete list of them to be here given, and by common consent two of them, Le Véritable Saint Genest and Venceslas, greatly excel the rest, though vigorous verse and good scenes are to be found in almost all. These plays, it should be observed, were not written until after the publication of Corneille's early masterpieces, though Rotrou had exhibited a play the year before the appearance of Mélite. The two poets were friends, and though Corneille in a manner supplanted him, Rotrou was unwavering throughout his life in expressions of admiration for his great rival. Of the two plays just mentioned, Venceslas is the more regular, the better adapted to the canons of the French stage, and the more even in its excellence. Saint Genest is perhaps the more interesting. The central idea is remarkable. Genest, an actor, performs before Diocletian a part in which he represents a Christian martyr. He is miraculously converted during the study of the piece, and at its performance, after astonishing the audience by the fervour and vividness with which he plays his part, boldly speaks in his own person, and, avowing his conversion, is led off to prison and martyrdom. Many of the speeches in this play are admirable poetry, and the plot is far from ill-managed. The play within a play, of which Hamlet and the Taming of the Shrew are English examples, was, at this transition period, a favourite stage incident in France. Corneille's Illusion is the most complicated example of it, but Saint Genest is by far the most interesting and the best managed.


There is every reason to believe that though, as has been said, Rotrou's best pieces were influenced by Corneille, the greater poet owed something at the beginning of his career to the example of his friend. Pierre Corneille237 was born at Rouen in 1606. His father, of the same name, was an official of rank in the legal hierarchy; his mother was named Marthe le Pesant. He was educated in the Jesuits' school, went to the bar, and obtained certain small legal preferments which he afterwards sold. He practised, but 'sans goût et sans succès,' says Fontenelle, his nephew and biographer. His first comedy, Mélite, is said to have been suggested by a personal experience. It succeeded at Rouen, and the author took it to Paris. His next attempt was a tragedy or a tragi-comedy, Clitandre, of a really marvellous extravagance. It was followed by several other pieces, in all of which there is remarkable talent, though the author had not yet found his way. He found it at last in Médée, where the famous reply of the heroine 'Que vous reste-t-il?' 'Moi,' struck at once the note which no one but Corneille himself and Victor Hugo has ever struck since, and which no one had ever struck before. Corneille, as has been said above, was one of Richelieu's five poets, but he was indocile to the Cardinal's caprices; and either this indocility or jealousy set Richelieu against Le Cid. This great and famous play was suggested by, rather than copied from, the Spanish of Guillem de Castro. It excited an extraordinary turmoil among men of letters, but the public never went wrong about it from the first. Boileau's phrase —

Tout Paris pour Chimène a les yeux de Rodrigue,

is as sound in fact as it is smart in expression. The Cid appeared in 1636, and for some years Corneille produced a succession of masterpieces. Horace, Cinna, Polyeucte, Le Menteur (a remarkable comic effort, to which Molière acknowledged his indebtedness), and Rodogune, in some respects the finest of all, succeeded each other at but short intervals. Half-a-dozen plays, somewhat inferior in actual merit, and which had the drawback of coming before a public used to the author and his method, followed, and the last and least good of them, Pertharite, was damned. Corneille, always the proudest of writers, was deeply wounded by this ill-success, and publicly renounced the stage. He devoted himself for some years to a strange task, the turning of the Imitation of A'Kempis into verse. At last Fouquet, the Mæcenas of the day, prevailed on him to begin again. He did so with Œdipe, which was successful. It was followed by many other plays, which had varying fates. Racine, with a method refined upon Corneille's own, and a greater sympathy with the actual generation, became the rival of the elder poet, and Corneille did not obey the wise maxim, solve senescentem. Yet his later plays have far more merit than is usually allowed to them.

The private life of Corneille was not unhappy, though his haughty and sensitive temperament brought him many vexations. His gains were small, never exceeding two hundred louis for a play, and though this was supplemented by occasional gifts from rich dedicatees and by a scanty private fortune, the total was insufficient. 'Je suis saoul de gloire et affamé d'argent' is one of the numerous sayings of scornful discontent recorded of him. He had a pension, but it was in his later days very ill paid. Nor was he one of the easy-going men of letters who console themselves by Bohemian indulgence. In general society he was awkward, constrained, and silent: but his home, which was long shared with his brother Thomas — they married two sisters — seems to have been a happy one. He retained till his death in 1684, if not the favour of the King and the general public, that of the persons whose favour was best worth having, such as Saint-Evremond and Madame de Sévigné, and his own confidence in his genius never deserted him.

Corneille's dramatic career may be divided into four parts; the first reaching from Mélite to L'Illusion Comique; the second (that of his masterpieces), from the Cid to Rodogune; the third, from Théodore to Pertharite; the fourth, that of the decadence, from Œdipe to Suréna. The following is a list of the names and dates (these latter being sometimes doubtful and contentious) of his plays. Mélite, 1629, a comedy improbable and confused in incident and overdone with verbal pointes, but much beyond anything previous to it. Clitandre, 1630, a tragedy in the taste of the time, one of the maddest of plays. La Veuve, 1634, a comedy, well written and lively. La Galerie du Palais (same year), a capital comedy of its immature kind, bringing in the humours of contemporary Paris. La Suivante, a comedy (same year), in which the great character of the soubrette makes her first appearance. La Place Royale, a comedy, 1635, duller than the Galerie du Palais, which it in some respects resembles. Médée, a tragedy (same year), incomparably the best French tragedy up to its date. L'Illusion Comique, 1636, a tragi-comedy of the extremest Spanish type, complicated and improbable to a degree in its action, which turns on the motive of a play within a play, and produces, as the author himself remarks, a division into prologue (Act i), an imperfect comedy (Acts ii-iv), and a tragedy (Act v). Le Cid, 1636, the best-known if not the best of Corneille's plays, and, from the mere playwright's point of view, the most attractive. Horace, 1639, often, but improperly, called Les Horaces, in which the Cornelian method is seen complete. The final speech of Camille before her brother kills her was as a whole never exceeded by the author, and the 'qu'il mourût' of the elder Horace is equally characteristic. Cinna, 1639, the general favourite in France, but somewhat stilted and devoid of action to foreign taste. Polyeucte, 1640, the greatest of all Christian tragedies. La Mort de Pompée, 1641, full of stately verse, but heavy and somewhat grandiose. Le Menteur, 1642, a charming comedy, followed by a Suite du Menteur, 1643, not inferior, though the fickleness of public taste disapproved it. Théodore, 1645, a noble tragedy, which only failed because the prudery of theatrical precisians found fault with its theme — the subjection of a Christian virgin to the last and worst trial of her honour and faith. Rodogune, 1646, the chef-d'œuvre of the style, displaying from beginning to end an astonishing power of moving admiration and terror. This play marks the climax of Corneille's faculty. In Héraclius, 1647, no real falling-off is visible; indeed, the character of Phocas stands almost alone on the French stage as a parallel in some sort to Iago. Andromède, 1650, introduced a considerable amount of spectacle and decoration, not unhappily. Don Sanche d'Aragon, 1651, Nicomède, 1652, and Pertharite, 1653 (each of which may possibly be a year older than these respective dates), show what political economists might call the stationary state of the poet's genius. The first two plays produced after the interval, Œdipe, 1659, and La Toison d'Or, 1660, both show the benefit of the rest the poet had had, together with certain signs of advancing years. La Toison d'Or, like Andromède, includes a great deal of spectacle, and is rather an elaborate masque interspersed with regular dramatic scenes than a tragedy. It is one of the best specimens of the kind. In Sertorius, 1662, there are occasional passages of much grandeur and beauty, but Sophonisbe, 1663, is hardly a success, nor is Othon, 1664. Agésilas, 1666, and Attila, 1667, have been (the latter unfairly) damned by a quatrain of Boileau's. But Tite et Bérénice, 1670, must be acknowledged to be inferior to the play of Racine in rivalry with which it was produced. Pulchérie, 1672, and Suréna, 1674, are last-fruits off an old tree, which, especially the second, are not unworthy of it. Nor was Corneille's contribution to the remarkable opera of Psyché, 1671, inconsiderable. This completes his dramatic work, which amounts to thirty pieces and part of another. It should be added that, to all the plays up to La Toison d'Or, he subjoined in a collected edition very remarkable criticisms of them, which he calls Examens.

The characteristics of this great dramatist are perhaps more uniform than those of any writer of equal rank, and there can be little doubt that this uniformity, which, considering the great bulk of his work, amounts almost to monotony, was the cause of his gradual loss of popularity. We shall not here notice the points which he has in common with Racine, as a writer of the French classical drama. These will come in more suitably when Racine himself has been dealt with. In Corneille the academic criticism of the time found the fault that he rather excited admiration than pity and terror, and it held that admiration was 'not a tragic passion.' The criticism was clumsy, and to a great extent futile, but it has a certain basis of truth. It is comparatively rare for Corneille to attempt, after his earliest period, to interest his hearers or readers in the fortunes of his characters. It is rather in the way that they bear their fortunes, and particularly in a kind of haughty disdain for fortune itself, that these characters impress us. Sometimes, as in the Cléopâtre of Rodogune, this masterful temper is engaged on the side of evil, more frequently it is combined with amiable or at least respectable characteristics. But there is always something 'remote and afar' about it, and the application by La Bruyère of the famous comparison between the Greek tragedians is in the main strictly accurate. It follows that Corneille's demand upon his hearers or readers is a somewhat severe one, and one with which many men are neither disposed nor able to comply. It was a greater misfortune for him than for almost any one else that the French and not the English drama was the Sparta which it fell to his lot to decorate. His powers were not in reality limited. The Menteur shows an excellent comic faculty, and the strokes of irony in his serious plays have more of true humour in them than appears in almost any other French dramatist. Had the licence of the English stage been his, he would probably have been able to impart a greater interest to his plays than they already possess, without sacrificing his peculiar faculty of sublime moral portraiture, and certainly without losing the credit of the magnificent single lines and isolated passages which abound in his work. The friendly criticism of Molière on these sudden flashes is well known. 'My friend Corneille,' he said, 'has a familiar who comes now and then and whispers in his ear the finest verses in the world, but sometimes the familiar deserts him, and then he writes no better than anybody else.' The most fertile familiar cannot suggest fifty or sixty thousand of these finest lines in the world; and the consequence is that, what with the lack of central interest which follows from Corneille's own plan, with the absence of subsidiary interest and relief which is inevitable in the French classical model, and with the drawbacks of his somewhat declamatory style, there are long passages, sometimes whole scenes and acts, if not whole plays of his, which are but dreary reading, and could hardly be, even with the most appreciative and creative acting, other than dreary to witness. It was Corneille's fault that, while bowing himself to the yoke of the Senecan drama, he did not perceive or would not accept the fact that there is practically but one situation, by the working out of which that drama can be made tolerable to modern audiences. This situation is love-making, which in real life necessitates a vast deal of talking, and about which, even on the stage, a vast deal of talking is admissible. The characters of the French classic or heroic play are practically allowed to do nothing but talk, and the author who would make them interesting must submit himself to his fate. Corneille would not submit wholly and cheerfully, though he has, as might be expected, been obliged to introduce love-making into most of his plays.

To a modern reader the detached passages already referred to, and the magnificent versification which is displayed in them, make up the real charm of Corneille except in a very few plays, such as the Cid, Polyeucte, Rodogune, and perhaps a few others. Du Bartas, D'Aubigné, and Regnier, had indicated the capacities of the Alexandrine; Corneille demonstrated them and illustrated them almost indefinitely. He did not indulge in the pedantry of rimes difficiles, by which Racine attracted his hearers, nor was his verse so uniformly smooth as that of his younger rival. But what it lacked in polish and grace it more than made up in grandeur and dignity. The best lines of Corneille, like those of D'Aubigné, of Rotrou, from whom, comparatively stammering as was the teacher, Corneille perhaps learnt the art, and of Victor Hugo, have a peculiar crash of sound which hardly any other metre of any other language possesses. A slight touch of archaism (it is very slight) which is to be discovered in his work assists its effect not a little. The inveterate habit which exists in England of comparing all dramatists with Shakespeare has been prejudicial to the fame of Corneille with us. But he is certainly the greatest tragic dramatist of France on the classical model, and as a fashioner of dramatic verse of a truly poetical kind he has at his best few equals in the literature of Europe.


The character, career, and work of Racine were curiously different from those of Corneille. Jean Racine238 was more than thirty years younger than his greater rival, having been born at La Ferté Milon, at no great distance from Soissons, in 1639. His father held an official position at this place, but he died, as Racine's mother had previously died, in the boy's infancy, leaving him without any fortune. His grandparents, however, were alive, and able to take care of him, and they, with other relatives, willingly undertook the task. He was well educated, going to school at Beauvais, from 1650 (probably) to 1655, and then spending three years under the care of the celebrated Port Royalists, where he made considerable progress. A year at the Collège d'Harcourt, where he should have studied law, completed his regular education; but he was always studious, and had on the whole greater advantages of culture than most men of letters of his time and country. For some years he led a somewhat undecided life. His relations did their best to obtain a benefice for him, and in other ways endeavoured to put him in the way of a professional livelihood; but ill-luck and probably disinclination on his part stood in the way. He wrote at least two plays at a comparatively early age which were refused, and are not known to exist, and he produced divers pieces of miscellaneous poetry, especially the 'Nymphe de la Seine,' which brought him to the notice of Chapelain. At last, in 1664, he obtained a pension of six hundred livres for an ode on the king's recovery from sickness, and the same year La Thébaïde was accepted and produced. For the next thirteen years plays followed in rapid, but not too rapid succession. Racine was the favourite of the king, and consequently of all those who had no taste of their own, as well as of some who had, though the best critics inclined to Corneille, between whom and Racine rivalry was industriously fostered. The somewhat indecent antagonism which Racine had shown towards a man who had won renown ten years before his own birth was justly punished in his own temporary eclipse by the almost worthless Pradon. He withdrew disgusted from the stage in 1677. About the same time he married, was made historiographer to the king, and became more or less fervently devout. Years afterwards, at the request of Madame de Maintenon, he wrote for her school-girls at St. Cyr the dramatic sketch of Esther, and soon afterwards the complete tragedy of Athalie, the greatest of his works. Then he relapsed into silence as far as dramatic utterance was concerned. He died in 1699. Thus he presented the singular spectacle, only paralleled by our own Congreve, and that not exactly, of a short period of consummate activity followed by almost complete inaction. That this inaction was not due to exhaustion of genius was abundantly shown by Esther and Athalie. But Racine was of a peculiar and in many ways an unamiable temper. He was very jealous of his reputation, acutely sensitive to criticism, and envious to the last degree of any public approbation bestowed on others. Having made his fame, he seems to have preferred, in the language of the French gaming table, faire Charlemagne, and to run no further risks. He had, however, worse failings than any yet mentioned. Molière gave him valuable assistance, and he repaid it with ingratitude. With hardly a shadow of provocation he attacked in a tone of the utmost acrimony the Port Royal fathers, to whom he was under deep obligations. The charge of hypocrisy in religious matters which has been brought against him is probably gratuitous, and, in any case, does not concern us here. But his character in his literary relations is far from being a pleasant one.

The following is a list of Racine's theatrical pieces. La Thébaïde, 1664, indicates with sufficient clearness the lines upon which all Racine's plays, save the two last, were to be constructed — a minute adherence to the rules, very careful versification and subordination of almost all other interests to stately gallantry — but it is altogether inferior to its successors. In Alexandre le Grand, 1665, the characteristics are accentuated, and what Corneille disdainfully called —

Le commerce rampant de soupirs et de flammes

is more than ever prominent. In Andromaque, 1667, an immense advance is perceptible. The characters become personally interesting (Hermione is perhaps more attractive than any of Corneille's women), and a power of passionate invective not unworthy to be compared with Corneille's, but with more of a feminine character about it, appears. This was followed by Racine's only attempt in the comic sock, Les Plaideurs, 1668, a most charming trifle which has had, and has deserved, more genuine and lasting popularity than any of his tragedies. He returned to tragedy, and rapidly showed the defects of the stereotyped mannerism inevitably imposed on him by his plan. Britannicus, 1669, Bérénice, 1670, Bajazet, 1672, and Mithridate, 1673, with all their perfection of technique, announce, as clearly as anything can well do, the fatal monotony into which French tragedy had once more fallen, and in which it was to continue for a century and a half. Iphigénie, 1674, has much more liveliness and variety, the deep pathos and terror of the situation making even Racine's interminable love casuistry natural and interesting. But Phèdre, 1677, the last of the series, is unquestionably the most remarkable of Racine's regular tragedies. By it the style must stand or fall, and a reader need hardly go farther to appreciate it. Britannicus was indeed preferred by eighteenth-century judges; but for excellence of construction, artful beauty of verse, skilful use of the limited means of appeal at the command of the dramatist, no play can surpass Phèdre; and if it still is found wanting, as it undoubtedly is by the vast majority of critics (including nowadays a powerful minority even among Frenchmen themselves), the fault lies rather in the style than in the author, or at least in the author for adopting the style. Esther, 1689, and Athalie, 1691, on the other hand, while retaining a certain similarity of form and machinery, are radically different from the other plays. It is evident that Racine before writing them had attentively studied the sixteenth-century drama, to the strict form of which with its choruses he returns, and from which he borrows, in some cases directly, the Aman of Montchrestien having clearly suggested passages in Esther. His great poetical faculty has freer play; he escapes the monotonous 'soupirs et flammes' altogether, and the result is in Esther on the whole, in Athalie wholly, admirable.

Racine's peculiarities as a dramatist have been already indicated, but may now be more fully described. He was emphatically one of those writers — Virgil and Pope are the other chief notable representatives of the class — who, with an incapacity for the finest original strokes of poetry, have an almost unlimited capacity for writing from models, for improving the technical execution of their poems, and for adjusting the conception of their pieces to their powers of rendering. These writers are always impossible without forerunners, and not usually possible without critics of the pedagogic kind. Racine was extraordinarily fortunate in his forerunner, and still more fortunate in his critic. He was able to start with all the advantages which thirty years of work on the part of his rival, Corneille, gave him; and he had for his trainer, Boileau, one of the most capable, if one of the most limited and prejudiced, of literary schoolmasters. Boileau was no respecter of persons, and arrogant as he was, he was rather an admirer of Racine than of Corneille; yet, according to a well-known story, he distinguished between the two by saying that Corneille was a great poet, and Racine a very clever man, to whom he himself had taught the knack of easy versification with elaborate rhyming. It is indeed in his versification that both the strength and the weakness of Racine lie, and in this respect he is an exact analogue to the poets mentioned above. He treated the Alexandrine of Corneille exactly as Pope treated the decasyllable of Dryden, and as Virgil treated the hexameter of Lucretius. In his hands it acquired smoothness, softness, polish, and mechanical perfections of many kinds, only to suffer at the same time a compensatory monotony which, when the honied sweetness of it began to cloy, was soon recognised as a terrible drawback. The extraordinary estimation in which Racine is held by those who abide by the classical tradition in France depends very mainly on the melody of his versification and rhymes, but it does not depend wholly upon this. There must also be taken into account the perfection of workmanship with which he carries out the idea of the drama which he practised. What that ideal was must therefore be considered.

It must be remembered that the object of the French drama of Racine's time was not in the least to hold the mirror up to nature. The model which, owing to admiration of the classics, the Pléiade had almost at haphazard followed, rendered such an object simply unattainable. The so-called irregularity of the English stage, which used to fill French critics with alternate wonder and disgust, is nothing but the result of an unflinching adherence to this standard. It is impossible to reproduce the subtilitas naturae in its most subtle example — the character of man — without introducing a large diversity of circumstance and action. That diversity in its turn cannot be produced without a great multiplication of characters, a duplication or triplication of plot, and a complete disregard of pre-established 'common form.' Now this 'common form' was the essence of French tragedy. Following, or thinking that they followed, the ancients, French dramatists and dramatic critics adopted certain fixed rules according to which a poet had to write just as a whist-player has to play the game. There was to be no action on the stage, or next to none, the interest of the play was to be rigidly reduced to a central situation, subsidiary characters were to be avoided as far as possible, the only means afforded to the personages of explaining themselves was by dialogue with confidantes — the curse of the French stage — and the only way of informing the audience of the progress of the action was by messengers. Corneille accepted these limitations partially, and without too much good-will, but he evaded the difficulty by emphasising the moral lesson. The ethical standard of his plays is perhaps higher on the whole than that of any great dramatist, and the wonderful bursts of poetry which he could command served to sugar the pill. But Racine was not a man of high moral character, and he was a man of great shrewdness and discernment. He evidently distrusted the willingness of audiences perpetually to admire moral grandeur, whether he did or did not hold that admiration was not a tragic passion. Probably he would have put it that it was not a passion that would draw. Love-making, on the contrary, would draw, and love-making accordingly is the staple of all his plays. But the defect which has attended all French literature, which was aggravated enormously by this style of drama, and which is noticeable even in his greater contemporaries, Corneille and Molière, manifested itself in his work almost inevitably. If there is one fault to be found with the creations of French literary art, it is that they run too much into types. It has been well said that the duty of art is to give the universal in the particular. But to do this exactly is difficult. It is the fault of English and of German literature to give the particular without a sufficient tincture of the universal, to lose themselves in mere 'humours.' It is the fault of French literature to give the type only without differentiation. An ill-natured critic constantly feels inclined to alter the lists of Racine's dramatis personae, and instead of the proper names to substitute 'a lover,' 'a mother,' 'a tyrant,' and so forth. So great an artist and so careful a worker as Racine could not, of course, escape giving some individuality to his creations. Hermione, Phèdre, Achille, Bérénice, Athalie, are all individual enough of their class. But the class is the class of types rather than of individuals. After long debate this difference has been admitted by most reasonable French critics, and they now confine themselves to the argument that the two processes, the illustration of the universal by means of the particular, and the indication of the particular by means of the universal, are processes equally legitimate and equally important. The difficulty remains that, by common consent of mankind — Frenchmen not excluded — Hamlet, Othello, Falstaff, Rosalind, are fictitious persons far more interesting to their fellow-creatures who are not fictitious than any personages of the French stage. There is, moreover, a simple test which can be applied. No one can doubt that, if Shakespeare had chosen to adopt the style, and had accepted the censorship of a Boileau, he could easily have written Phèdre. It would be a bold man who should say that Racine could, with altered circumstances but unaltered powers, have written Othello.

Minor Tragedians.

The style of tragedy which was likely to be successful in France had been pointed out so clearly by Corneille and by Racine that it could not fail to find imitators. As usual, the weakness of the style was more fully manifested by these imitators than its strength. The best of them was Thomas Corneille, the younger brother of Pierre. A much more facile versifier than his brother, he produced a large number of plays, of which Camma, Laodice, Ariane, Le Comte d'Essex, have considerable merit. Thomas Corneille succeeded his brother in the Academy, and died at a great old age. He was an active journalist and miscellaneous writer as well as a dramatist, and his principal misfortune was that he had a brother of greater genius than himself. Pradon, whose success against Phèdre so bitterly annoyed Racine, was a dramatist of the third, or even the fourth class, though he enjoyed some temporary popularity. Campistron, a follower rather than a rival of Racine, was a better writer than Pradon, but pushed to an extreme the softness and almost effeminacy of subject and treatment which made Corneille contemptuously speak of his younger rival and his party as 'les doucereux.' Quinault, before writing good operas and fair comedies, wrote bad tragedies. The only other authors of the day worth mentioning are Duché and Lafosse. Lafosse is a man of one play, though as a matter of fact he wrote four. In Manlius he gave Roman names and setting to the plot of Otway's Venice Preserved, and achieved a decided success.

Development of Comedy.

The history of French comedy is remarkably different from that of French tragedy. In the latter case a foreign model was followed almost slavishly; in the former the actual possessions of the language received grafts of foreign importation, and the result was one of the capital productions of European literature. Whether the popularity of the indigenous farce of itself saved France from falling into the same false groove with Italy it is not easy to say, but it is certain that at the time of the Renaissance there was some danger. At first it seemed as if Terence was to serve as a model for comedy just as Seneca served as a model for tragedy. The first comedy, Eugène, is strongly Terentian, though even here a greater freedom of movement, a stronger infusion of local colour is observable than in Didon or Cléopâtre. So, too, when the Italian Larivey adapted his remarkable comedies the vernacular savour became still stronger. Yet it was very long before genuine comedy was produced in France. The farces continued, and kinds of dramatic entertainment, lower even than the farce, such as those which survive in the work of the merry-andrew Tabarin239, were relished. The Spanish comedy, with its strong spice of tragi-comedy, was imitated to a considerable extent. A few examples of the Commedia erudita, or Terentian play, continued to be produced at intervals; and the stock personages of the Commedia dell'arte, Harlequin, Scaramouch, etc., at one time invaded France, and, under cover of the comic opera and the Foire pieces, made something of a lodgment. In the earlier years of the seventeenth century, moreover, a considerable number of fantastic experiments were tried. We have a Comédie des Proverbes, in which the action is altogether subordinate to the introduction of the greatest possible number of popular sayings; a Comédie des Chansons spun out of a vast and precious collection of popular songs; a Comédie des Comédies, which is a cento made up of extracts from Balzac, the moralist and letter-writer; a Comédie des Comédiens, in which the famous actors of the day are brought on the stage in their own persons240, etc., etc. While French comedy was thus endeavouring to find its way in all manner of tentative and sometimes grotesque experiments, dramatists of talent occasionally struck, as if by accident, into some of the side paths of that way, and directed their successors into the way itself. The early comedies of Corneille have been spoken of; despite the improbability of their Spanish plots, they show a distinct feeling after real excellence. The eccentric Cyrano de Bergerac, especially in his Pédant Joué, furnished Molière with hints, and displayed considerable comic power. Scarron, a not dissimilar person, whose Roman Comique shows the interest he felt in the theatre, also wrote comedies, the chief of which were extremely popular, the character of Jodelet in the play of the same name (1645) becoming for the time a stock one both in name and type. Scarron's other chief pieces were Don Japhet d'Arménie, L'Héritier ridicule, La Précaution inutile. It was in the Menteur of Corneille that Molière himself considered that true comedy had been first reached, and it was this play which set him on the track. But French comedy of the seventeenth century, before Molière, is one of the subjects which have hardly any but a historical and antiquarian interest. Although far less artificial than contemporary tragedy, it is inferior as literature. It was attempted by writers of less power, and it is disfigured by too frequent coarseness of language and incident. It was on the whole the lowest of literary styles during the first half of the century. With Molière it became at one bound the highest.


Jean Baptiste Poquelin241, afterwards called Molière, was born at Paris, probably in January 1622, in the Rue St. Honoré. The Poquelin family seem to have come from Beauvais. Some hypotheses as to a Scotch origin have been disproved. Molière's father was an upholsterer, holding an appointment in the royal household, and of some wealth and position. Molière himself had every advantage of education, being at school at the famous Jesuit Collége de Clermont, and afterwards studying philosophy (under Gassendi) and law. He was, according to some accounts, actually called to the bar. At his majority he seems to have received a considerable share of his mother's fortune, and thus to have become independent. He joined some other young men of fair position in establishing a theatrical company called L'Illustre Théâtre, which, however, failed with heavy loss to him, notwithstanding the assistance of a family of professional actors and actresses, one of whom, Madeleine Béjart, figures prominently in his private history. He was not to be thus disgusted with his profession. In 1646 he set out on a strolling tour through the provinces, and was absent from the capital for nearly thirteen years. The notices of this interesting part of his career which exist are unfortunately few, and, like many other points connected with it, have given rise to much controversy. It is sufficient to say that he returned to Paris in 1658, and on the 24th of October performed with his troupe before the court. He had long been a dramatist as well as an actor, and had written besides minor pieces, most of which are lost, the Étourdi and the Dépit Amoureux. Molière soon acquired the favour of the king, and the Précieuses Ridicules, the first of his really great works, gained for him that of the public. In 1662 he married Armande Béjart, the younger sister of Madeleine — a marriage which brought him great unhappiness, though it was probably not without influence on some of his finest work. The king was godfather to the first child of the marriage, and Molière was a prosperous man. He became valet-de-chambre to Louis, and it was some insolence of his noble colleagues which is alleged, in a late and improbable though famous story, to have occasioned the incident of his partaking of the king's en cas de nuit. The highest point of his genius was shortly reached; Tartuffe, the Festin de Pierre, and Le Misanthrope being the work of three successive years, 1664-6. Tartuffe brought him some trouble because it was supposed to be irreligious in tendency, or at least to satirise the profession of religion. These, his three greatest comedies, were not all warmly received, and he fell back upon lighter work, producing in rapid succession farce-comedies for the public theatre, and divertissements of divers kinds for the court until his death in February 1673, which happened almost on the stage.

The following is a complete list of Molière's work which has come down to us. During his provincial sojourn he had written many slight pieces half-way in kind between the Italian comedy and the native farce. Of these two only survive, Le Médecin Volant and La Jalousie du Barbouillé. Both have considerable merit, and Molière subsequently worked up their materials, as no doubt he did those of the lost pieces. L'Étourdi, 1653, is a regular comedy in five acts, still strongly Italian in style and somewhat improbable in circumstances, but full of sparkle and lively action and dialogue. Le Dépit Amoureux, 1654, is even better and more independent. Nothing had yet been seen on the French stage so good as the quarrels and reconciliation of the quartette of master, mistress, valet, and soubrette. But Les Précieuses Ridicules, 1659, struck an entirely different note. The stage had been employed often enough for personal satire, but it had not yet been made use of for the actual delineation and criticism of contemporary manners as manners and not as the foibles of individuals. The play was directed against the affectations and unreal language of the members of literary coteries which, with that of the Hôtel Rambouillet as the chief, had long been prominent in French society. It has but a single act, but in its way it has never been surpassed either as a piece of social satire or a piece of brilliant dialogue illustrating ludicrous action and character. Sganarelle, 1660, relapses into the commonplaces of farce, and has no moral or satirical intention, but is amusing enough. Don Garcie de Navarre, 1661, may be called Molière's only failure. He styles it a comédie héroïque, and it is in fact a kind of anticipation of Racine's manner, but applied to less serious subjects. The jealousy of the hero is, however, the only motive of the piece, and its exhibition is rather tiresome than anything else. The play is monotonous and unrelieved by action. The genius of the author reappeared in its appropriate sphere in L'École des Maris (same date), where a Terentian suggestion is adapted and carried out with the greatest skill. Then, still in the same prolific year, Molière returned to social satire in Les Fâcheux, an audacious lampoon on the forms of fashionable boredom common among the courtiers of the time. In 1662 appeared L'École des Femmes, which is generally considered the best of Molière's plays before Tartuffe. A certain slyness about the character of Agnes is its only drawback. This gave occasion to the brilliant and most amusing Critique de L'École des Femmes, 1663. Here the author is once more the satirist of contemporary society, which he introduces as criticising his own work. L'Impromptu de Versailles (same date), according to a curious habit which Molière did not originate, brings the author himself and his troupe in their own names and persons before the spectator. Le Mariage Forcé, 1664, a slight piece, was worked up into a ballet for the court. La Princesse d'Elide (same date) is Molière's most important court piece, or comédie-ballet, and, though necessarily artificial, has great beauty. Next in point of composition came The Hypocrite, that is to say Tartuffe, but the difficulties which this met with made Le Festin de Pierre, 1665, appear first. This is a tragi-comic working up of the Don Juan story, and is of a different class from any other of Molière's comedies. It has been thought, but without sufficient ground, that Molière here gave expression to a modified form of the freethinking which was so common at the time. It may, perhaps, be more truly regarded as an excursion into romantic comedy — the comedy which, like Shakespeare's work, is not directly satiric on society or on individuals, but tells stories poetically and in dramatic form with comic touches. It is noteworthy that Don Juan is of all Molière's heroes least exposed to the charge of being an abstraction rather than a man. The pleasant trifle, L'Amour Médecin (same date), was succeeded by Le Misanthrope, 1666. Here Molière's special vein of satire was worked most deeply and to most profit, though the reproach that the handling is somewhat too serious for comedy is not undeserved. Alceste the impatient but not cynical hero, Célimène the coquette, Oronte the fop, Éliante the reasonable woman, Arsinoé the mischief-maker, are all immortal types. The admirable farce-comedy of the Médecin malgré Lui (same date), founded upon an old fabliau, followed, and this was succeeded almost immediately by the graceful pastoral of Mélicerte, the amusing Pastorale Comique, and the slight sketch of Le Sicilien, ou L'Amour Peintre. At last, in 1667, Tartuffe got itself represented. It is a vigorous and almost ferocious satire on religious pretension masking vice, and many of its separate strokes are of the dramatist's happiest. Here however, more than elsewhere, is felt the drawback of the method. Comparing Tartuffe with Iago, we have all the difference between a skilful but not wholly probable presentation of wickedness in the abstract, and a picture of a wicked man. In Amphitryon, 1668, Molière measured himself with Plautus and produced an admirable play. George Dandin (same date), the working up of La Jalousie du Barbouillé, is one of the happiest of his sketches of conjugal infelicity. Then came L'Avare (same date), in which Molière was once more indebted to the ancients and to his French predecessors, but in which he amply justified his borrowings. At this time he extended his field and brought his knowledge of provincial and bourgeois life to bear. M. de Pourceaugnac, 1669, is an ingenious satire, pushed to the verge of burlesque and farce, on the country squires of France. Les Amants Magnifiques, 1670, shows the writer once more in his capacity of court playwright. But Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (same date) is the most audacious and by far the most successful of the wonderful extravaganzas in which a sound and perennial motive of satire on society is wrapped up, the theme this time being the bourgeoisie of Paris, of which the author was himself a member. Psyché, 1671, is, perhaps, the most remarkable example of collaboration in literature, Molière, Pierre Corneille, and Quinault, the greatest comic dramatist, the greatest tragic dramatist, and the greatest opera librettist of the day, having joined their forces with a result not unworthy of them. Les Fourberies de Scapin (same date) is again farce, but farce such as only Molière could write; and in La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas (same date) the theme of M. de Pourceaugnac is taken up with a certain heightening of colour and manner. Les Femmes Savantes, 1672, brings the reader back to what is as emphatically 'la bonne comédie' as its original Les Précieuses Ridicules. The tone and treatment are more serious than in the older piece and deal with a different variety of feminine coxcombry, but the effect is not less happy, and is free from the broader elements of farce. Lastly, Le Malade Imaginaire, 1673, the swan-song of Molière, combined both his greatest excellences, the power of raising audacious farce into the region of true comedy and the power of satirising social abuses with a pitiless but good-humoured hand. The main theme here is the absurdity of the current practice of medicine, but as usual the genius of the writer veils the fact of the drama being a drama with a purpose.

The unique individuality and the extraordinary merit of the various pieces which make up Molière's theatre have made it necessary to give a tolerably minute account of them, and that account will to a certain extent dispense us from dealing with his general characteristics at great length, especially as a few remarks on French comedy of the Molièresque kind as a whole will have to be given at the end of this chapter. Independently of the characters which Molière shares with all the great names of literature, his fertility and justness of thought, the felicity of the expression in which he clothes it, and his accurate observation of human life, there are two points in his drama which belong, in the highest degree, to him alone. One is the extraordinary manner in which he manages to imbue farce and burlesque with the true spirit of refined comedy. This manner has been spoken of by unfriendly critics as 'exaggerated,' but the reproach argues a deficiency of perception. Even the most roaring farces of Molière, even such pieces as M. de Pourceaugnac and the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, demand rank as legitimate comedy, owing to his unmatched faculty of intimating a general purpose under the cloak of the merely ludicrous incidents which are made to surround the fortunes of a particular person. This general purpose (and here we come to the second point) is invariably a moral one. Of all dramatists, ancient and modern, Molière is perhaps that one who has borne most constantly in mind the theory that the stage is a lay-pulpit and that its end is not merely amusement, but the reformation of manners by means of amusing spectacles. Occasionally, no doubt, he has pushed this purpose too far and has missed his mark. He has never given us, and perhaps could not have given us, such examples of dramatic poetry of the non-tragic sort as Shakespeare and Calderon have given. Indeed, it seems to be a mistake to call Molière a poet at all, despite his extraordinary creative faculty. He was too positive, too much given to literal transcription of society, too little able to convey the vague suggestion of beauty which, as cannot be too often repeated, is of the essence of poetry. But, if we are content to regard drama as a middle term between poetry and prose, he, with the two poets just named, must be appointed to the first place in it among modern authors. In brilliancy of wit he is, among dramatists, inferior only to Aristophanes and Congreve. But he took a less Rabelaisian licence of range than Aristophanes, and he never, like Congreve, allows his action to drift aimlessly while his characters shoot pleasantries at one another. If we leave purely poetic merit out of the question and restrict the definition of comedy to the dramatic presentment of the characters and incidents of actual life, in such a manner as at once to hold the mirror up to nature and to convey lessons of morality and conduct, we must allow Molière the rank of the greatest comic writer of all the world. Castigat ridendo mores is a motto which no one challenges with such a certainty of victory as he.

Although the number and the diversity of Molière's works were well calculated to encourage imitators, it was some time before the imitators appeared. Unlike Racine, whose method was at once caught up, Molière saw during his lifetime no one who could even pretend to be a rival. Those who are now classed as being in some degree of his time were for the most part in their cradles when his masterpieces were being acted. Regnard, the best of them, was born two years after the appearance of Le Dépit Amoureux and only three years before the appearance of Les Précieuses Ridicules. Baron was his pupil and adoring disciple. Dufresny was but just of age, and Dancourt but ten years old, at his death. Brueys and Palaprat (the Beaumont and Fletcher, mutatis mutandis, of the French stage) did not make up their curious association till long after that event, at the date of which Le Sage was five years old. Quinault, Boursault, and Montfleury alone were in active rivalry with him, and though none of them was destitute of merit, the merit of none of them was in the least comparable to his. He owed this advantage, for such it was, to his relatively early death and to the wonderfully short space of time in which his masterpieces were produced. Molière is identified with the age of Louis XIV., yet Les Précieuses Ridicules was written years after the king's nominal accession, and even after his actual assumption of the reins of government from the hands of Mazarin, while Le Malade Imaginaire was acted by its dying author more than forty years before the great king's reign ended.

Contemporaries of Molière.

The three authors just mentioned as actually contemporary with Molière require no very lengthy notice. Quinault may almost be said to have founded a new literary school (in which none of his pupils has surpassed him) by the excellence of his operas. Of these Armida is held the best. His comedies proper are not quite so good as his operas, but much better than his tragedies. One of them, L'Amant Indiscret, supplied Newcastle and Dryden with hints to eke out L'Étourdi, and most of them show a considerable command of comic situation, if not of comic expression. Montfleury, whose real name was Antoine Jacob, was, like Molière, an actor. He belonged to the old or rival company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and was born in 1640. He wrote sixteen comedies, partly on contemporary subjects and partly adaptations of Spanish originals. The two best are La Femme Juge et Partie and La Fille Capitaine. They belong to an older style of comedy than Molière's, being both extravagant and coarse, but there is considerable vis comica in them. Boursault, who was born in 1638 and died in 1701, had still more merit, though he too was an enemy of Molière. His Mercure Galant is his principal play, besides which Ésope à la Cour, Ésope à la Ville, and Phaeton may be mentioned. He was decidedly popular both as a man and a writer. Vanbrugh imitated more than one of his plays. In all these comedies a certain smack of the pre-Molièresque fancy for Comédies des Chansons and other tours de force may be perceived. Besides these three writers others of Molière's own contemporaries wrote comedies with more or less success. La Fontaine himself was a dramatist, though his dramas do not approach his other work in excellence. Thomas Corneille wrote comedies, but none of importance; and Campistron attained a certain amount of success in comic as in tragic drama. No one of these, however, approached the authors of the younger generation who have been mentioned.

The School of Molière-Regnard.

Jean François Regnard, the second of French comic dramatists in general estimation (though it is doubtful whether any single piece of his equals Turcaret), was born at Paris in 1656, and lived a curious life. He was heir to considerable wealth and increased it, singular to say, by gambling. He had also a mania for travelling, and when he was only two-and-twenty was captured by an Algerian corsair and enslaved. After some adventures of a rather dubious character he was ransomed, but continued to travel for some years. At last he returned to France, bought several lucrative offices and an estate in the country, and lived partly there and partly at Paris, writing comedies and indulging largely in the pleasures of the table. He died at his château of Grillon in 1710, apparently of a fit of indigestion; but various legends are current about the exact cause of his death. He wrote twenty-three plays (including one tragedy of no value) and collaborated with Dufresny in four others. Many of these pieces were comic operas. At least a dozen were represented by the 'Maison de Molière.' The best of them are Le Joueur, Le Distrait, Les Ménéchmes, Le Légataire, the first and the last named being his principal titles to fame. Regnard trod as closely as he could in the steps of Molière. He was destitute of that great dramatist's grasp of character and moral earnestness; but he is a thoroughly lively writer, and well merited the retort of Boileau (by no means a lenient critic, especially to the young men who succeeded his old friend), when some one charged Regnard with mediocrity, 'Il n'est pas médiocrement gai.'

Baron the actor was born in 1643 and died in 1729, after having long been the leading star of the French stage. He wrote, though it is sometimes said that he was aided by others, seven comedies. One of these, L'Andrienne, is a clever adaptation of Terence, and another, L'Homme aux Bonnes Fortunes, has considerable merit in point of writing and of that stage adaptability which few writers who have not been themselves actors have known how to master.

Charles Rivière Dufresny, a descendant of 'La Belle Jardinière,' one of Henri IV.'s village loves, was born in 1648 and died in 1724. He was a great favourite of Louis XIV. and a kind of universal genius, devoting himself by turns to almost every branch of literature and of the arts. He was, however, incurably desultory, and was besides a man of disorderly life. His comedies were numerous and full of wit and knowledge of the world, but somewhat destitute of finish. Besides those in which Regnard collaborated he was the author of eleven pieces, of which L'Esprit de Contradiction, Le Double Veuvage, La Coquette de Village, and La Réconciliation Normande are perhaps the best.

Florent Carton Dancourt was born in 1661 and died in 1725. He too was a favourite of Louis XIV., but, unlike Dufresny, he was an actor as well as an author. Towards the end of his days, having made a moderate fortune, he betook himself to a country life and to the practice of religious duties. His théâtre is considerable, extending to twelve volumes. The great peculiarity of his comedies is that they deal almost exclusively with the middle class. Les Bourgeoises de Qualité and Le Chevalier à la Mode, perhaps also Le Galant Jardinier and Les Trois Cousines, deserve mention.

The collaboration of Brueys and Palaprat resulted in the modern version of the famous mediaeval farce, L'Avocat Pathelin, and in an excellent piece of the Molière-Regnard type, Le Grondeur. Some other plays of less merit were written by the friends, while each is responsible for two independent pieces. Both were Provençals, David Augustin de Brueys having been born at Aix in 1640, Jean Palaprat at Toulouse ten years later. Brueys, who, as an abbé converted by Bossuet and engaged actively in propagating his new faith, had some difficulty in appearing publicly as a dramatic author, is understood to have had the chief share in the composition of the joint dramas.

Characteristics of Molièresque Comedy.

The general characteristics of this remarkable comedy are not hard to define. Based as it was, after Molière had once set the example, on the direct study of the actual facts of society and human nature, it could not fail to appeal to universal sympathy in a very different degree from the artificial tragedy which accompanied it. It was, moreover, far less trammelled by rules than the sister variety of drama. Unities did not press very heavily on the comic dramatist; his choice and number of characters, his licence of action on the stage, and so forth, were unlimited; he could write in prose or verse at his pleasure, and, if he chose verse, he was bound to a much less monotonous kind of it than his tragic brother. Consequently the majority of the objections which lie against the masterpieces of Corneille and Racine, and which make the work of their imitators almost unreadable, leave Molière and his followers unscathed. One drawback only remained, the drawback already commented on in the case of tragedy, and admitted by French critics themselves in some such terms as that Shakespeare took individuals, Molière took types. The advantage of the latter method for enforcing a moral lesson is evident; its literary disadvantages are evident likewise. It leads to an ignoring of the complexity of human nature and to an unnatural prominence of the 'ruling passion.' The highest dramatic triumphs of single character in comedy, Falstaff, Rosalind, Beatrice, become impossible. As it has been remarked, the very titles of these plays, Le Misanthrope, Le Joueur, Le Grondeur, show their defects. No man is a mere misanthrope, a mere gambler, a mere grumbler; and the dramatist who approaches comedy from the side of Molière is but too apt to forget the fact in his anxiety to enforce his moral and deepen the strokes of his general type.

233 Ed. Stengel. 5 vols. Marburg, 1884. Cf. Rigal, Alexandre Hardy. Paris, 1889.

234 This singular work has been published in vol. 8 of the Ancien Théâtre Français in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne. It consists of two parts (or, as the author calls them, days), and fills some two hundred pages. The traditions of the classical drama are thrown to the winds in it, and the liberty of action, the abundance of personages, the bustle and liveliness of the presentation are almost equal to those of the contemporary English theatre.

235 Ed. Viollet-le-Duc. Also in a convenient selection of his best plays, by L. de Ronchaud. Paris, 1882.

236 It is pretty generally known that Richelieu himself (besides other dramatic work) composed the whole, or nearly the whole, of a play Mirame, which he had sumptuously performed, and which was fathered by Desmarest. It possessed no merit.

237 Ed. Marty-Laveaux. 12 vols. Paris, 1862-67.

238 Ed. Mesnard. 8 vols. Paris, 1867.

239 The work of (or attributed to) this singular and obscure person has been edited by M. G. Aventin in 2 vols, of the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne (Paris, 1858). The name was certainly assumed, and the date and history of the bearer are quite uncertain. The third decade of the seventeenth century seems to have been his most flourishing time. He was the most remarkable of a class of charlatans, others of whom bore the names of Gaultier-Garguille, Gros-Guillaume, etc., and the work which goes under his name is typical of a large mass of facetiae. It consists of dialogues between Tabarin and his master, of farcical adventures in which figure Rodomont (the typical hero of romance) and Isabelle (the typical heroine), etc., etc.

240 These will be found in the dramatic collection of the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne already cited, as well as other pieces, of which the most remarkable is the Corrivaux of Troterel (1612). Saint-Evremond among his earlier works produced a Comédie des Académistes, satirising the then young Academy.

241 Ed. Moland. 7 vols. Paris, 1863. Ed. (in 'Grands Ecrivains' series) Despois, Regnier, and Mesnard. Paris (in progress).


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