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AT the beginning of the eighteenth century the prestige of France in all matters relating to literature and art was unquestioned. The great reign of Louis XIV had brought the country into the foremost place as a center of culture and learning. Peace had been relatively secure, and men of letters had been encouraged. Molière, Corneille, and Racine had all died within the last twenty-seven years of the seventeenth century, but the splendor of their achievement had not yet waned. Encouraged by their success and by the establishment of permanent theaters, playwrights increased in number, and new types of plays began to appear. One of these new types was called, rather inappropriately, drame, meaning a serious work not quite in the class of conventional tragedy. In this group were included the tragédie bourgeoise, dealing with commonplace people and often ending in comparative happiness; also the sad or tearful pieces (comédie larmoyante) which, transplanted to England, became the sentimental comedy of Murphy or Kelly. There was also the comedietta, a short piece, sometimes with music, resembling the "one-acter" of vaudeville.

The writers who bridge the gap between the neo-classicists and Voltaire were often men of considerable talent, but there was no first-rate genius among them. Fontenelle, nephew of the great Corneille, was a writer of comedies, who broke away from the habit of writing in verse. Seven of his eight plays are in prose. Regnard sought to imitate Molière, but lacked the depth and earnestness which make an artist important. Dufresny, who collaborated with Regnard, consciously disengaged himself from the influence of Molière and attempted new themes and new situations. Dancourt was an actor whose prose plays definitely enlarged the field of comedy. He portrayed the world of business, the demi-monde, and the common occupations; and at the same time he revived the old, yet ever new, conflicts between the sour guardian and youth, pictured the rogue entrapped in his own roguery, and the wise man caught in his weaknesses. The ideas of Dancourt were in the right line, but his equipment as dramatist was not sufficient to give much weight to his work.

There were likewise writers of tragedy, well thought of and fairly successful in their day, who have left little trace in dramatic history. The most distinguished of these was Crébillon the Elder, whose Idoménée (1703) and Rhadamiste et Zénobie (1711) were far above the level of the majority of the dramatic offerings of his time. There was Pompignan, who again brought Dido from the dead; Saurin who wrote about Spartacus; and Belloy who, among other themes, dramatized the triumphs of Titus. It is evident that the genius of modern classicism had passed the peak of its development; the decline had set in. Before the low-water mark was reached, however, there rose a man of energy and intellect -- Voltaire -- who achieved a somewhat hectic career as a dramatist and gave his name to the period.


The young writer François Marie Arouet (1694-1778), who is said to have written his famous tragedy, Oedipe, at the age of nineteen, adopted the name Voltaire after the successful production of that play in 1718. He was born in Paris of a middle-class family and educated by Jesuit priests. From his earliest youth he seems to have breathed skepticism and a spirit of rebellion against intolerance. Twice he was imprisoned in the Bastille, and more than once he was forced to leave France. One of his periods of exile (1726-1728) was spent in England, where he shrewdly observed many contrasts to the customs in his own country. It was during that period that he sought out Congreve, who affected to disdain his visitor's admiration of him as a dramatist, saying he was but a "gentleman of the world." Voltaire promptly replied, "If you were but that, then I should not care to see you."

Voltaire's writings gained friends for him among the most distinguished people of Europe. In 1745 he became a member of the French Academy and was ennobled. Catherine of Russia corresponded with him, and Frederick of Prussia invited him to Berlin, where he remained for some years. The last twenty years of his life were spent on his estate at Ferney, near Geneva in Switzerland. When in 1778 he visited Pris again after a long absence, he was welcomed by throngs of the populace with an enthusiasm that spread throughout the city. Few kings of emperors were ever so honored. Voltaire, however, was then in his eighty-fourth year, and the presentations, visits, and ceremonies proved to be too great a strain on his health. He died in Paris, May 30, 1778.


With the success of Oedipe, Voltaire had won almost immediately the first place among living French dramatists. He continued to write for the stage for more than fifty years, producing something like twenty tragedies and a dozen comedies. He came near absolute failure in the latter species; but one of his pieces, L'Enfant prodigue, is still remembered. Such genius as he had for the stage lay in tragedy. Zaïre (1732) and Mérope (1743) are among the best of his plays. He obtained plot material from sources which before his time had never been touched, such as China, South America, and Mexico. Unfamiliar countries and ages attracted him; nevertheless, he did not overlook the conventional sources of supply. In Mérope he borrowed from the Italian Maffei; and Corneille, Calderón and Shakespeare all furnished him with ideas. He had the supreme theatrical gift of portraying a sharp conflict: between patriotism and love, as in Brutus; between love and religious duty, as in Zaïre; between love and filial obedience, as in Alzire and Tancrède. In the play L'orphelin de Chine, taken from an ancient Chinese story, the conflict between parental love and patriotic duty takes unusual turn. If a love interest were not present, he nearly always borrowed or invented one, Oreste being the only drama in which it is absent. In the best of his work the action is carried on with spirit and vigor; and if the original plot were not sufficiently striking, he created something to make it so.

Voltaire was greatly influenced by English drama, and in early life he expressed his admiration for Shakespeare. As he gained an authoritative position among men of letters in Europe, however, he became satirical about the practices of the English, calling Shakespeare "a savage with some imagination," and "a Corneille at London, elsewhere a great fool." He was annoyed by the English disregard for formality, by the exuberance of fancy, the mixture of comic and tragic elements in the same piece, the absence of the unities, and carelessness as to poetic form. Gradually he evolved what he considered to be a correct formula: namely, the use of the alexandrine rhymed verse, the observance of the unities, the differentiation between tragedy and comedy, and the presentation of people of importance as heroes. Sophocles, and after him Racine, were the true models. Addison's Cato was truly great, the only fine tragedy in English!

Superficially it would seem that Voltaire was attached to the classic mode; and in Oreste, it must be admitted, he actually followed his own theories to some extent, abolishing the love interest, the confidants, and other features which had been injected by Renaissance writers. The majority of his plays, however, reveal the fact that he was in practice very little troubled by rules classical or otherwise. Whenever the observance of the unities embarrassed him, he disregarded them; or, observing them, he caused an absurd foreshortening of events into an impossibly brief period of time. Only the shell of classicism -- pseudo-classicism -- was kept; its austere and noble tone, its reliance upon the deepest springs of human sympathy, its wholesome lessons of courage and endurance "purging the soul through pity and terror," --these things were forgotten in the desire to be sensational at any cost. Nevertheless, Voltaire as a dramatist stands head and shoulders above his fellow craftsmen. Writing of the eighteenth century, Saintsbury says: "Were it not for the prodigious genius of Voltaire, not a single tragedy of the age would 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."

In a peculiar way Voltaire was representative of his age. Skepticism, ardor for new things, rashness, zeal, keen sensibilities with comparatively little depth -- these were his characteristics. He was the crack journalist of his time. His great virtue was his courage in a fight; and his whole life was a battle for intellectual liberty, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech. The modern world would be infinitely poorer, more enslaved, had it not been for his courageous and lifelong rebellion against every sort of tyranny. Often he his teachings of independence into his plays. Lacking in the gift of poetry and an understanding of the human heart, he was unable to give his dialogue the accent of real life and passion; but he was able to dramatize a thrilling story and at the same time preach a sermon. Voltaire as dramatist was merely the greatest in a poverty-stricken age; but Voltaire, the banner-bearer of intellectual and personal liberty, is still marching on.


Although in his later years Voltaire scoffed at Shakespeare, yet he was instrumental in introducing the English dramatist into France; and many strange "adaptations" were seen. In making these changes, the adapters were influenced by the older classical writers, such as Racine. Characters which in the original performed bloody and hair-raising deeds on the open stage, in the Gallic version were sent behind the scenes, and their crimes were related by that pest, the Messenger. Hamlet was changed into a dutiful son; Lear, Macbeth, and Romeo were provided with happy endings. As to Lear, there was grave doubt about the propriety of introducing a king as crazy as he upon the Parisian stage, whatever his end might be. Shakespeare, however, survived the indiscretions of friends and enemies alike, and gained a firm foothold, six of his plays being translated by the writer Ducis alone.


The eighteenth century produced no Molière, but there were writers of acceptable comedy -- LeSage, Piron, Destouches, and a few others. LeSage, in his prose comedy Turcaret (1709), satirized the corruption of financiers, the loose morals of the nobility, the absurdities of provincial prise, and the mean ways of shopkeepers. Destouches left at least seventeen comedies, among them Le philosophe marié (1727) and Le glorieux (1732), both worthy of being remembered. Piron is said to have accomplished the difficult feat of composing a comic opera and using but a single actor.


More than thirty comedies remain from Pierre Carlet de Chamberlain de Marivaux (1688-1763), the romantic writer who gave his name to a special style of language, marivaudage, meaning a delicate but affected expression of emotion. Marivaux avoided violence, but displayed a wealth of wit, surprise, and entertainment. He gave the first place to the heart rather than to the intellect, and so insinuated a romantic interest into plots which had very little action. His plays enjoyed great popularity, and are even now known on the stage. The characters are more natural than those created by earlier writers; and at the same time they are sophisticated and elegant. The theme is always love; and the "big" scenes always portray the crisis of some affaire du coeur.


It has been said that the chief business of Pierre Claude de la Chaussée was to afford the public the luxury of tears. His name is inseparably connected with the comédie larmoyante. He had imbibed some of the philosophy of Rousseau, and his plays can often be reduced to the thesis: Whatever is sanctioned by love is right; unrestrained actions are a sign of force of character; the heart and its passions must rule. Unfortunately La Chaussée had not sufficient genius to prove his thesis. His plays were popular without being very highly regarded. Voltaire made fun of them; and other critics complained of their unreality and lack of strength. They are written in verse in which may be found many improving sentiments.


One of the important intellectual leaders of the eighteenth century was Diderot, who had definite ideas concerning the reformation of the drama. He was not an admirer of the high-riding style of Voltaire; but he was greatly interested in English plays such as The London Merchant and The Gamester, which took for their chief characters people of the middle class. Diderot claimed that the theater had been too remote from real life, that it should be used as an educational medium, that prose was the more natural vehicle, and that the fable should illustrate the duties, temptations and peculiarities of the special class of society in which the hero finds himself. In other words, the stage should be used to teach men how to conduct themselves in their own sphere. Diderot's two principal plays, Le fils naturel and Le père de famille, written soon after the middle of the century, are dull and rather priggish, but the theories they set forth found a response. With the drame borgeois, which may be said to begin with the appearance of Le fils naturel, the actions of kings and mythological heroes became, at last, of less importance than the experiences of Tom, Dick and Harry, who represent the common man. Follower's of Diderot's theory wrote pieces no less concerned with bourgeois virtues, but better suited to the stage than those of their master. Sedaine, La Harpe, and Mercier continued the use of common themes in plays which now seem dreary and absurd, but were stirring for their time. The French stage then, as for the century previous, was far cleaner and more decent than the English stage of the corresponding period. Wives, sisters, and mothers could witness the drame bourgeois not only without injury to their modesty, but with benefit to their education. The air of the theater became a bit heavy and oppressive with its domesticity, but at least it was "near to the people."


As Sheridan and Goldsmith afforded a brilliant exit for eighteenth century English drama, so Beaumarchais (Pierre Augustin Caron 1732-1799) in France relieved the general dramatic stodginess of the dying century. The career of Beaumarchais is sufficiently remarkable in itself to afford a theme for a playwright. As an inventive genius he devised a new escapement for timepieces, and became "clockmaker to the king," Louis XV. He took the name Beaumarchais from the wealthy widow whom he married. After her death he was appointed instructor in music to the daughters of the sovereign; and after a second marriage and widowhood, he was again made some sort of court official. He was involved in lawsuits, and made and lost a fortune in speculation. During the American Revolution he financed the shipping of supplies and ammunition to the colonists, sending out his own cruiser, named "Le fier Roderique," in the D'Estang fleet. During the reign of terror he resided in Holland, and upon returning found that his mansion had been destroyed. He died the same year as Washington, with his claims against the United States government still unsettled.

At about the age of thirty-five Beaumarchais became interested in Diderot's ideas of drama, and sought to touch a pathetic vein in the tragedy Eugénie (1767), which treats of everyday events in the life of the common people. The play was a failure; but in 1775 he won an extraordinary success with The Barber of Seville; only, however, after an initial failure and a revision of the first text. The plays is in five acts, in prose, and the chief character, Figaro, is the lying, intriguing servant familiar to us since the time of Plautus. The plot, though simple, is full of surprising and amusing turns, the wit flows, and the character study gives excellent opportunity for the actor.

Nine years after his first success Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro, which was so permeated with revolutionary ideas that public performance was forbidden. The author had to content himself with reading it in private houses. When in 1784 its presentation was permitted, the crowd at the Théâtre Français was so great that three people were crushed to death. Strangely enough, this "seditious" play in time became popular even with royalty. Enacted by amateurs of the court of Louis XV, the chief woman character was impersonated by Marie Antoinette. It is very amusing even now. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro are widely known and accepted as the most famous French comedies of the eighteenth century, and among the celebrated comedies of the world. They found a new sort of immortality in opera, The Barber of Seville being composed by Rossini, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart.

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 268-76.


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