A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 2.


Divisions of Drama.
La Motte.

At the beginning, and indeed during the whole course, of the eighteenth century, the theatre continued to enjoy all the vogue which the extraordinary brilliancy of the authors of the preceding age had conferred on it. There were three tolerably distinct kinds of dramatic work — tragedy, comedy, and opera — the latter either artificial or comic, and subdividing itself into a great many classes, from the dignified opera of the Comédie Française and the Comédie Italienne, down to the vaudevilles and operettas of the so-called 'fair' theatre, Théâtre de la Foire. Towards the middle of the century there grew up a fourth class, to which the not very appropriate and still less definite name of drame is applied. This was subdivided, also somewhat arbitrarily, into tragédie bourgeoise and comédie larmoyante. Thus the dramatic author had considerable liberty of choice except in tragedy proper, where the model of Racine was enforced on him with pitiless rigour. La Motte, who was, as has been said, a brilliant writer of prose, endeavoured to break these bonds, first, by decrying the alleged superiority of the ancients; secondly, by attacking the theory of the unities; and, lastly, by boldly denying the necessity of verse in tragedy, and still more the necessity of rhyme. He was, of course, answered, and the only one of the answers which has much interest for posterity is that which Voltaire prefixed to the second edition of Œdipe. This is, as always with its author, lively and ingenious, but ill-informed, destitute of true critical principles, and entirely inconclusive. La Motte himself wrote a tragedy, Inès de Castro, in which he did not venture to carry out his own principles, and which had some success. But the justice of his strictures was best shown by the increasing feebleness of French tragedy throughout the century. Were it not for the prodigious genius of Voltaire, not a single tragedy of the age would now have much chance of being read, still less of being performed; and were it not for that genius, and the unequal but still remarkable talent of Crébillon the elder, not a single tragedy of the age would be worth reading for any motive except curiosity, simple or studious.

Crébillon the Elder.

Crébillon was born in 1674, and lived to the age of eighty-nine. His family name was Jolyot, and the most remarkable thing about his private history is, that, being clerk to a lawyer, he was enthusiastically encouraged by his master in his poetical attempts. His first acted tragedy, Idoménée, appeared in 1703; his last, 'The Triumvirate,' more than fifty years later. In the interval he was irregularly busy, and the duel of tragedies, which in his old age his partisans got up between him and Voltaire, was not entirely in favour of the more famous and gifted writer. Crébillon's best works were Atrée, 1707, and Rhadamiste et Zénobie, 1711, the latter being his masterpiece. He had in the eyes of the minute critics of his time some technical defects of style and construction. But, despite the restraints of the French stage, he succeeded in being truly tragical and truly natural; and not a few of his verses have a grandeur which has been said to be hardly discoverable elsewhere in French tragedy between Corneille and Hugo.

Voltaire and his followers.

Voltaire's own tragedies have been very differently judged by different persons. It has been said that they owed their popularity chiefly to the adroit manner in which, without going too far, the author made them opportunities for insinuating the popular opinions of the time. Yet Zaïre at least is still a successful and popular play on the stage; and it is admitted that Voltaire had both a most intimate acquaintance with the objects and methods of the playwright, and an extraordinary affection for the theatre. If to this be added his astonishing dexterity as a literary workman, his acuteness in discerning the taste of the public, and his complete mastery of the language, and if it be remembered that the classical French tragedy is almost wholly a tour de force, it will appear that it would have been very surprising if he had not succeeded in it. His tragedies, however, are by no means of equal merit. The best is, beyond all doubt, the already-mentioned Zaïre, 1732, in which Voltaire took just so much from the Othello of that Shakespeare whom he was never tired of decrying as would suffice to animate and support his own skilful workmanship. The earlier play, Œdipe, 1718, was astonishingly successful, and is still astonishingly clever. La Mort de César, another Shakespearian adaptation, is less happy. In Alzire, a play written in the time of the poet's greatest intimacy with Madame du Châtelet, and dedicated to her, his extraordinary talent once more appears, as also in Le Fanatisme, better known as Mahomet, 1742. The best, however, of his plays, next to Zaïre, is probably Mérope, 1743, which is a prodigy of ingenuity. The author has deliberately eschewed the means whereby both Corneille and Racine respectively alleviated the dryness and dulness of the Senecan model — the heroic virtues of the one, and the sighs and flames of the other. The play probably is the most perfect carrying out of the model pure and simple, and its inferiority is the inferiority of the kind, not of the individual. Indeed it may be questioned whether, on the mere technical merits, Voltaire is not superior to both Corneille and Racine, though he is of course very far inferior to them as a poet, and as a draughtsman of character. Voltaire wrote many other plays, earlier and later, of which Tancrède is the only one which requires special mention. Nor, except Crébillon, do the tragic contemporaries and successors of Voltaire require more than very short notice. Le Franc de Pompignan wrote a respectable Didon; Saurin, who was in some sort a follower of Voltaire, a more than respectable Spartacus. The subject had perhaps the chief part in the success of the Siège de Calais of Pierre Burette, who called himself De Belloy, and who followed it up by other patriotic tragedies or dramas. But he had the merit of attempting, though not with much success, some innovations on the meagreness of the established model. The tragedies of La Harpe are written throughout with the cold correctness (as correctness was then held) which characterised his work generally. Almost all the men of letters of this time wrote plays of this kind, but they are for the most part valueless. Ducis is remarkable for a serious, and to a certain extent successful, attempt to inoculate the French tragedy with Shakespearian force. Versions of Hamlet, of Macbeth, and other plays appeared from his hands, which were also busy during a long life with dramatic work of all sorts. These versions have naturally been regarded in England as mere travesties, but there seems no reason to doubt that they really operated favourably as schoolmasters to bring their audience somewhat nearer to dramatic truth. The classical tragedy was indeed expiring of simple old age, and most of the names of its practitioners, which emerge during the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first of the nineteenth century, are those of innovators in their measure and degree, whose innovations, however, were obliterated and made forgotten by the great romantic reform. Marie Joseph Chénier followed Voltaire's manner very closely (substituting for Voltaire's bait of insinuated free-thinking that of republicanism more or less violently expressed) in Charles IX., Cyrus, Caius Gracchus, Henry VIII., Tibère, the last a work of some merit. Legouvé dramatised Gessner's Death of Abel on the principles of Boileau. Nepomucène Lemercier, the strange failure of a genius who has been already noticed in the last chapter, produced much more remarkable work. His Agamemnon, his Frédégonde et Brunehault and some others display his merits, and show that he was striving after something better. But, like most transitional work, they are unsatisfactory as a whole. The Hector of Luce de Lancival, the Templiers of Raynouard, and many other pieces, were once popular, but are now utterly forgotten.


The list of comic writers, along with whom, for convenience' sake, those of the authors of opera and drame may be included, is far longer and more important. It includes two men, Lesage and Beaumarchais, of European reputation, half-a-dozen others, Destouches, Marivaux, Piron, Gresset, Sedaine, who have produced work of remarkable character and merit, and a crowd of clever playwrights who amused their own times, and would amuse ours, if it were not that all comedy, save the very highest, is of its nature ephemeral. The list is worthily opened by Lesage, who, during the greater part of his life, earned by vaudevilles and operettas, composed either alone or in co-operation for the Théâtre de la Foire, the bread which his incomparable novels would hardly have sufficed to procure him. This lighter dramatic work is, it may be observed, among the chief products of the century, and it has continued up to the present day to form one of the staple elements in the journey-work of French literature. Little of it has permanent qualities, yet the remarkable talents of many of the men who composed it make it, ephemeral as it is, interesting historically and even intrinsically. It derived partly from the indigenous farce, partly from the Italian comedy of stock personages, and partly from the merry-andrew performances already mentioned. The theatres at which it was performed were the object of much jealousy from the Comédie Française, and restrictions of the most annoying kind were placed on it. Once an edict forbade more than a single actor to appear — a condition surmounted by the ingenuity of Piron. Sometimes it was confined to dumb show, illustrated by songs on placards which the audience chanted. Often the audience joined in the chorus, and it may be said generally that singing was always included. Besides this rapid and perishable kind of work Lesage has left two pieces in the true style of Molière. The more extravagant and farcical side of the master's genius is represented by Crispin Rival de son Maître, 1707, a lively piece, the subject of which is indicated by its title, and which carries off the extreme and probably intentional improbability of its plot by its brisk and rapid action, its vivid pictures of character, and the shower of wit which the dialogue everywhere pours out. Turcaret, 1709, is a regular comedy of the highest merit. It has been found fault with by some French critics, enamoured of the ruling passion and central situation theory; but this is really a testimony to its merit. Turcaret is in the strictest sense a criticism of life at the time, and the author shows the true prodigality of genius in filling his canvas. It is often described as a satire on the corruption and vices of the financiers, who were the curse of France at the time; and this it is in part. But there are combined with this satire of the loose morals of the nobility, the follies of provincial coteries, the meanness of the trading classes; while each character, instead of being an abstraction, is as sharp and individual as Gil Blas himself. Like Lesage, Piron worked much for the theatre; indeed he made his début, as has been said, by venturing on a task which even Lesage had declined — the writing of a comic opera with a single actor only. Like Lesage, too, he has left one comedy of durable reputation, La Métromanie, which, if it falls short of Turcaret in holding up the mirror to nature, equals it in wit, and has for a French audience the attraction of being written in very good verse, while Turcaret is in prose. With perhaps less genius than Piron, and certainly with less than Lesage, Destouches devoted himself to a higher class of work on the whole, and has left more pieces that are remembered. Le Philosophe Marié, 1727, and Le Glorieux, 1732, are among the classics of French comedy. Le Dissipateur, Le Tambour Nocturne, L'Obstacle Imprévu have also much merit; and if La Fausse Agnès has something of the farcical in it, it is farce of the right kind. Destouches wrote seventeen comedies; and, if bulk and general merit of work are taken together, he deserves the first place among the comic dramatists of the century in France.

Comédie Larmoyante. La Chaussée. Diderot.

In contrast to these three writers, who all followed the traditions of the comedy of Molière and Regnard, Nivelle de la Chaussée invented, or at least brought into fashion, what was called comédie larmoyante, or drame. La Chaussée was a good deal ridiculed by his contemporaries, notably by Piron, who devoted to him some of his most admirable epigrams. But he was popular, and not altogether undeservedly popular, though his drama occupied in French literary history something of the same place as that of Lillo and Moore in English. La Chaussée was followed by a greater writer, but a worse dramatist, than himself. While La Chaussée was a clever versifier and an adroit playwright, Diderot understood the theory both of poetry and of the theatre much better than he understood the practice. Thus L'École des Mères, La Gouvernante, Le Préjugé à la Mode are better plays than Le Père de Famille or Le Fils Naturel. It ought to be said that Diderot succeeded better in two small pieces, La Pièce et le Prologue and Est-il Bon? Est-il Méchant? which were never acted. It should perhaps also be explained that the peculiarity of what was almost indifferently called tragédie bourgeoise and comédie larmoyante is the choice of possible situations in real life, which neither of the two conventional treatments of heroic tragedy and comedy purely comic can afford. Many writers followed La Chaussée and Diderot. Of these the most important perhaps was Saurin, who, not content with regular tragedy and comedy, obtained much success with Beverley, an adaptation of Moore's Gamester, of which Diderot wrote an unacted version.

L'École des Bourgeois and L'Embarras des Richesses, by D'Allainval, one of the few French writers who experienced the privations of their English contemporaries in Grub Street, are good pieces, and so are the short La Pupille and the Originaux of Fagan, a clerk in the public service, who, like Lesage and Piron (Collé and Panard may be added), wrote vaudevilles, parades, etc. for the Théâtre de la Foire. In the titles of most of these pieces the close following of Molière, which was usual, and wisely usual, during the first half of the century, may be noticed.


The same tradition is observed in one of the best comedies of the century, the Méchant of Gresset, which, like his poem of Ver-Vert, had a great success, and deserved it, being equally good as literature and as drama. Marivaux, without, perhaps, attaining as positive an excellence, was more original, and very much more productive. The fullest edition of his dramatic works contains thirty-two pieces, and even this is not complete. Several of them, Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard, 1730, Le Legs, 1736, Les Fausses Confidences, 1737, have continued to be popular. All the work of Marivaux, dramatic and non-dramatic, is pervaded more or less by a peculiarity which at the time received the name of Marivaudage. This peculiarity consists partly in the sentiment, and partly in the phraseology. The former is characteristic of the eighteenth century, disguising a considerable affectation under a mask of simplicity, and the latter (sparkling with abundant, if somewhat precious wit) is ingeniously constructed to suit it and carry it off.

Of the three greatest literary names of the time, Diderot, it has been seen, tried the theatre not too happily. Voltaire, as successful in tragedy as his models permitted him to be, was not successful at all in comedy, and, indeed, rarely tried it. His best piece, Nanine, a dramatisation of Pamela, or at least suggested by it, is chiefly remarkable for being written in decasyllabic verse. The third, Rousseau, who lived to denounce the theatre, wrote a short operetta, Le Devin du Village, which is not without merit. Desmahis, a protégé of Voltaire, produced, in 1750, a good comedy, L'Impertinent, on a small scale; and La Noue, another of his favourites (for he was as indulgent to his juniors as he was jealous of men of his own standing), the Coquette Corrigée. A third member of the same class, Saurin, already twice mentioned, must be mentioned again, and still more deservedly, for Les Mœurs du Temps. The best dramatists, however, among the immediate followers of the Philosophes were Sedaine and Marmontel. Sedaine is, indeed, with the possible exception of Beaumarchais, the best dramatist of the last half of the century. Le Philosophe sans le Savoir, 1765, and La Gageure Imprévue, 1768, are both admirable pieces. The author, like many of his predecessors, was a constant worker for the Opéra Comique, and one of the best of the class. Marmontel also adopted this line of composition, to which the musical talent of Grétry gave, at the time, great advantages. His best light dramatic work is a kind of comedy vaudeville, the Ami de la Maison.


Beyond all doubt, however, the most remarkable, if not the best, dramatist of the late eighteenth century is Beaumarchais. Some critics have seen in the enormous success of the Barbier de Séville, 1775, and the Mariage de Figaro, 1784, nothing but a succès de circonstance connected with the political ideas which were then fermenting in men's minds. This seems to be unjust, or rather it is unjust not to recognise something very like genius in the manner in which the author has succeeded in shaping his subject, without choosing a specially political one, so as to produce the effect acknowledged. The wit of these two plays, moreover, is indisputable. But it may be allowed that Beaumarchais' other productions are inferior, and that his Mémoires, which are not dramatic at all, contain as much wit as the Figaro plays. As a satirist of society and a contributor of illustrations to history, Beaumarchais must always hold a very high place, higher perhaps than as an artist in literature. Of his life, it is enough to say that he was born in 1731; became music master to the daughters of Louis XV.; engaged in a law-suit, the subject of the Mémoires, with some high legal functionaries; made a fortune by speculating and by contracts in the American war, and lost it by further speculations, one of which was the preparation of a sumptuous edition of Voltaire. Besides the Figaro plays, his chief dramatic works are Eugénie, Les Deux Amis, and lastly, La Mère Coupable, in which the characters of his two famous works reappear.

After Beaumarchais, but few comic authors demand mention. Collin d'Harleville, one of the pleasantest writers of light comedies in verse, produced Les Châteaux en Espagne, L'Inconstant, L'Optimiste, and Le Vieux Célibataire, 1792, all sparkling pieces, which only need freeing from the restraints of rhyme. Andrieux, the author of Les Étourdis, 1787, Le Trésor, Le Vieux Fat, and others, has something of the same character. Nepomucène Lemercier distinguished himself in comedy, chiefly by Plaute, in irregular verse, and by a comedy-drama, Pinto, in prose. These have his usual characteristics of somewhat spasmodic genius. Fabre d'Eglantine, the companion of Danton and Camille Desmoulins on the scaffold, is better remembered for his death than for his life. But his Intrigue Epistolaire and Philinte de Molière shew talent. Le Sourd, by Desforges, is an amusing play.

Characteristics of Eighteenth-century Drama.

It will be seen that the positive achievements of drama during this period were considerably superior to those of poetry. The tragedies of Voltaire are prodigies of literary cleverness. In comedy proper Lesage produced work of enduring value; Destouches, Marivaux, Piron, Gresset, and some others, work which does not require any very great indulgence to entitle it to the name, in the right sense, of classical; Beaumarchais, work which is indissolubly connected with great historical events, and which is not unworthy the connection. Moreover, as a matter of general literary history, the drama during this time displays numerous evidences of life and promise, as well as of decadence. The gradual recognition of the vaudeville as a separate literary kind gave occasion to much work, the ephemeral character of which should not be allowed to obscure its real literary excellence, and founded a school which is still living and flourishing with by no means simulated life. The attempt of La Chaussée and Diderot to widen the range and break down the barriers of legitimate drama was premature, and not altogether well directed; but it was the forerunner of the great and durable reaction of nearly a century later. Still the actual dramatic accomplishment of this period, though in many ways interesting, and to a certain extent positively valuable, is not of the first class. It is made up either of clever imitations and variations of modes which had already been expressed with greater perfection, and with far greater genius, by the preceding century, or of what may be fairly called dramatic pamphleteering, or else of tentative and immature experiments in reform, which came to nothing, or to very little, for the time being. Even its most gifted practitioners regarded it as a kind of journey-work, which was understood to lead to honour and profit, rather than as an art, in which honour and profit, if not entirely to be ignored, are altogether secondary considerations. Hence, in a lesser degree, the drama of the eighteenth century shares the same disadvantage which has been noted as characterising its poetry. Its value is a value of curiosity chiefly, a relative value. Indeed, as a mere mechanical art, drama sank even lower than poetry proper ever sank; and for fifty years at least before the romantic revival it may be doubted whether a single play was written, the destruction of which need greatly grieve even the most sensitive and appreciative student of French literary history.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00