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way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet and bring hither the fatted calf and kill it; and let us eat and be merry: for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was ost and is found."
In this narrative, in which we perceive nothing of the rebellious stirring of the passions, which the stage is disposed to substitute for the genuine emotions of the heart, all is said, or rather all is anticipated, both how much the father suffered in the absence of his son, and what wishes he expresses for his return; for he was not less sorry than Menedemus, and was not less anxious than he to receive his son; but it is in this that is manifested the moral superiority of the paternal clemency which the Gospel teaches: that pardon is granted to the Prodigal Son, only because he has returned to virtue; for he was dead and is alive again. Menedemus is willing to receive his son with his vices, if he returns with them. He only wishes to see and to embrace him. His paternal instinct urges him on, and he loves his son whether he be good or bad. In the Gospel, on the contrary, the paternal affection of the father has foreseen the moral regeneration of his child; and although he has not heard the touching resolution which his son has made in his misery and solitude, to go to find his father, and to humble himself before him; yet as soon as he sees him at a distance he knows his repentance, and runs to him and embraces him. And what is so beautiful in this pardon, at once so sudden and so just, is, that paternal clemency is in the Gospel the symbol of divine mercy. To enable us to comprehend the infinite mercy of God towards us, the Gospel could not have made a more just comparison than to compare it to the clemency of a father; and at the same time, it shows by this beautiful story, how well it understands the heart of a father, to whom repentance suffices without confession, and who, like God himself, hears the penitent before he has spoken. Thus, there is no dialogue between the father and the son, and no explanations; all is accomplished in a silent and profound embracing.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the two sentiments of the human heart, which have between them a secret and divine sympathy, are elevated to the highest degree of perfection to which they can attain, and they elevate in supporting each other; affording an admirable example of infinite mercy, which does not compromise justice, and of an infinite repentance, which detracts nothing from the blessedness of reconciliation.
The narrative of the Prodigal Son, which in the Gospel is only a parable, has in all times delighted the popular imagination. In the middle ages the old church windows, and in our days the coarse paintings which are sold in the country villages, have admirably represented the adventures of the Prodigal Son. The sermons of the preacher and the popular tracts of the day, have treated this subject with a sort of predilection. Voltaire has made a comedy, or rather a drama of it; for all the comedies of Voltaire run into the drama, when they do not become dull and tiresome. It is this drama which we propose cursorily to examine.
Voltaire has given to his Prodigal Son the costume and manners of the eighteenth century. We do not here perceive the Prodigal Son such as we find him in the Gospel, tending swine, and in his wretchedness envying them their miserable food. Euphémon is a libertine of the eighteenth century. He has gambled, has kept mistresses, contracted debts, and has even robbed his father to enrich a prostitute; and in this Voltaire has gone too far; for if Euphémon the son must excite our interest, it is necessary to give him only the vices which the world pardons; but robbery places people out of good company, and consequently out of the interest of the drama. Having soon become ruined, Euphémon arrives at Cognac, where his father has been for some time established. Jasmin, formerly his valet, now his equal, in consequence of their common misery, accompanies him.
Yes, my friend, you were once my master;
I have served you for two years without knowing you;
Your poverty has rendered me your equal.
Fêted, surrounded, and run after by the women,
All is lost. Obliterate from your memory
Act iii. scene 1.
In this we see a misery of our times, that is, a misery which the sufferings of vanity especially manifest! Euphémon, the son, endeavors in vain to be a philosopher, as becomes a gallant man of the eighteenth century; it is in vain that he recognizes that Jasmin is his equal, since he is a man; it is this equality nevertheless, which for him, as for us, is the characteristic feature of his misery. The Prodigal Son of Voltaire suffers not only in his vanity, he suffers also in his love; another moral pain, another chagrin of people who are not entirely under the yoke of misery, which scarcely leaves them the leisure to love. He has loved Lise, the daughter of Rondon, a merchant of Cognac, and was loved by her; but very soon abandoned her to follow his more easy amours, and now the young Lise becomes betrothed to Fiérenfat, the brother of Euphémon. This idea drives the Prodigal Son to despair, who, as a well-instructed hero of the stage, is more sensible to the pains of love than to the sufferings of poverty:
See all my misfortunes, know their depth; (says he to Jasmin,)
The just anger of a loved father,
To be cursed, to be disinherited,
To feel the horrors of beggary,
To see my fortune pass to a younger brother,
To be compelled in my disgrace
To serve him, when he has taken all from me;
But would you believe that in the midst of suffering,
Act iii. scene 5.
These are fine verses; but we are far from the Prodigal Son of the Gospel. It is no longer between the father and the son that the interest of the drama is concentrated, it is between Lise and her old lover; and it is no longer a question of paternal clemency, but the passionate indulgence of love. We witness a scene of reconciliation between two lovers; a touching scene, and where the prayers of Euphé
mon have a tone of repentance calculated to touch the heart of Lise. But how easy is repentance towards a beloved object! How the heart rejoices while still humbling itself! How the hope of a pardon which it is already sweet to solicit, controls remorse for a fault, corrects the bitterness and diminishes the weight of it! Lise has loved Euphémon, she still loves him, and it is for this reason that she yet pardons him; it is for this reason that she intercedes with the old Euphémon. Moreover, it seems that according to Voltaire, this is the first pardon which Lise has granted, which leads to the second, and that the father should only be indulgent after the example of the mistress:
Follow, follow, for this unfortunate one,
Act v. scene 6.
This is to degrade, or rather to undervalue paternal love, to place it below another sentiment, more passionate perhaps, but certainly less strong and less permanent. It is to detract from the Prodigal Son the grandeur which he possesses in the Gospel; to make Euphémon one of those tender and lachrymose fathers, who, in pardoning, yield less to the repentance of their sons than to this weakness of heart which makes us pardon easily what we love, as Lise the young Euphémon; it is, in a word, to return to the Menedemus of Terence, of which the Euphémon of Voltaire has not in other respects the true and pathetic tenderness, and to quit the finest and most amiable model of paternal love to take one less elevated, without succeeding in attaining it.
THE PATERNAL CHARACTER IN COMEDY-THE FATHER OF A FAMILY OF DIDEROT-THE UNGRATEFUL SONS OF PIRON-THE TWO SONSIN-LAW OF ETIENNE.
WE have seen how the father expressed his anger against the ingratitude of his children; we have also seen how he pardoned their faults. But when the events are of a serious and tragical nature, the paternal character easily preserves, either in its anger or clemency, all the majesty which belongs to it. In comedy, on the contrary, where the events are humorous or trivial, the dignity of the paternal character is not at its ease.
We must require of each art only that which it can accomplish. The art of comedy is to amuse us, and to make us laugh at the expense of vice, and not to inspire us with the respect and love of virtue. Fathers, in comedy, can then scarcely preserve all their dignity; they must be proportioned to the frame of the picture in which they are represented. In a word, comedy, to express ourselves fully, is not respectful in its nature; it readily attaches disgrace to the ingratitude of sons or sons-in-law, but is embarrassed in the respect which it ought to entertain for fathers. All that can be expected of it is that, when it takes part against a ridiculous father, it does not at the same time condemn all fathers, and does not discredit the paternal character itself, in making us laugh at a Géronte or a Harpagon.
Comedy, accustomed as she is to censure fathers, does still greater injury to the paternal character, when she undertakes to defend it. It is even a bad sign for the paternal authority, when comedy takes its cause in hand: it is usually an indication that this authority has lost its influence. When sophistry begins to shake the authority of fathers and husbands in the world, comedy then gives them an important