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The violent emotions which urge tragic heroes to the commission of crime, the loves which make their joy and their torment, affect and move us to pity without rendering us uneasy. Our fears are removed, because we well know that we are not then ourselves exposed to dangers of this kind, and we enjoy, without scruple, the sight and proximity of those passions, which, as Nicole* well says, are turned into pleasures. There is, nevertheless, in this enjoyment something dangerous; and what makes the Theatre a subject of censure to such preachers and moralists as Bossuet, Nicole, and J. J. Rousseau, is the fact of our believing that in making the soul more tender it does not corrupt it, and that in stirring up the leaven of the passions it does not cause them to fer
The exhibition of human life, and the imitation of our sentiments and characters, is the principal source of dramatic pleasure. We will endeavor to show what are the means of producing it.
The first requisite of dramatic emotion is that the passion which it excites should be genuine. On the stage, nothing is true but what is general, and what every body feels. Of all the dramatic passions, love is the most affecting, because it is the most universal.† The heart is only moved by things which are common to all men: idiosyncracies, oddnesses, and exceptions, do not interest it. This constitutes the principal difference between the ancient and modern drama. The ancient drama takes for its subject the most universal passions of the human heart, such as love, maternal tenderness, jealousy, anger, and those passions which are simple. The modern drama, on the contrary, seeks for exceptions and bizarreries of character with as much care as the ancient drama avoided them.
In the Cid and Zaire, for example, love is simple and natural. It is not astonishing that Chimene should love Rodrigo. His love would only have to struggle against honor, which requires her to avenge upon Rodrigo the death of her father. The subject of the drama is singular and extraordinary, but the passions are, on the contrary, simple and na
* Essais de Morale.
† De cette passion la sensible peinture
Est pour aller au cœur, la route la plus sûr.
BOILEAU. Art poetique,
tural. In Zaire, the love which she has for Orasmene is ordinary and natural. The extraordinary is in the events, and in the struggle which they introduce between the love of Zaire and her respect for her father and his religion.
When the drama has exhausted the emotions which arise from simple love, it throws itself into those which are enthusiastic and eccentric. Then the singularity passes from events to sentiments; then commence the exceptions and caprices. Upon this road the declivity is slippery and the fall rapid. Racine, in Phedra, dared to represent an adulterous and incestuous love. Phedra blushes at her love for Hippolytus, and yet she is only his stepmother; she believes that her husband is dead, and yields to the power of Venus, fatal to her family. Campistron, going further than Racine, represents, in his Tiridate, the love of a brother for his sister. Ducis imitated without equalling him, in his Abufar; and Chateaubriand has caused the punishment of René to proceed from this criminal love. René has the restless and dreamy character which Lord Byron, after Chateaubriand, has given to his heroes, and which constitutes a school in literature, because he has permitted a strange and criminal passion to insinuate itself into their soul. It is this which throws them into that capricious and gloomy melancholy, for which Chateaubriand has made atonement, and which his imitators have made a sign of nobleness and grandeur. Indeed we may remark generally, that in ancient literature, Phedra, Tiridate, Abufar, René, and characters of this description, blush at their error, and that the rule is re-established by the remorse of the criminals; while, in our days, passion rebels against duty, and the exception is substituted for the rule.
The exceptions, such as Abufar and René, are the first attempts to represent strange and singular passions, instead of simple and natural ones. There is another refinement, which consists in putting love in a soul incapable of feeling it: as, for example, pure love in the bosom of a courtezan such as Marion de Lorme.* Not that such women are always incapable of feeling a pure and chaste love, but their habits do not generally admit of it. It is an accident, a contrast, and for this reason pleases curious and critical minds.
* See the play of Victor Hugo, the episode of Laura in the Nouvelle Heloise of J. J. Rousseau, and especially La Courtisane Amoureuse of La Fontaine.
This is what we mean by a spirit of curiosity and a taste for exception. A particular trait is seized, and a character is made of it. But the exceptions and curiosities in literature have two great faults, viz. monotony and exaggeration.
Exceptions and bizarreries soon become monotonous. Odd people are only amusing for an hour or two, because we become tired hearing their sentiments and ideas revolve in the same circle. Strange and singular characters, which it is the custom to introduce on the stage, and in romances, produce the same effect: they are tiresome because they are uniform, because their oddness is a kind of reservoir from which their thoughts and their actions are always drawn. There is, indeed, something worse than being like every body; it is that of being always the same. Ordinary people are better liked than monotonous people. Besides, oddness is easy to imitate. As it relates to a particular trait, as it consists in a detail, and not in things taken as a whole, it is easy to imitate and to reproduce it. The facility of imitation is in literature as in painting, the punishment of what is called mannerism.
The other fault of exceptions and singularities is, that they fall easily into exaggeration. When a dramatic author represents a simple and ordinary passion, he has a rule and a measure; he sees how the passions of men generally act, and he describes them just as he sees them. But when he represents a character or passion of exception, where is his rule and measure? Being forced to imagine what a man of this kind must do and say, he avoids the usual and common sentiments, that is to say, those which are real and natural. He believes that he cannot be too violent and passionate, and overleaps the object at which he aimed through fear of not being able to reach it. He then arrives at mania, which is, if we may so speak, the excess or sublime of the exceptional passions; and mania takes away from passion precisely that which causes it to be interesting. The passionate man affects us, because he touches and resembles us, because we were like him yesterday and might become so to-morrow. The maniac is an unfortunate one whom we send back to the madhouse, after the first glance of surprise and curiosity.
Let us not forget that the passions when they become exaggerated bear a strong resemblance to each other, and
that they no longer have a distinct name and character. Who can tell us when we enter a Theatre in the fifth act of a tragedy, and see the heroine a prey to a sort of convulsive frenzy; when we hear her cries and her sobs; when she wrings her hands and often falls down and rolls upon the stage, who can tell us if it is love, anger, or grief which drives her to this excess? The passions vary and differ from each other only when they are moderate to each of them belongs a peculiar language and gesture; then they become interesting on account of their diversity. When they are excessive they become uniform, and the exaggeration which they believe will exhibit the passion in bold relief, effaces and destroys it. The violence and wildness of the passions excite the senses rather than the mind; and this leads us to the second condition of dramatic emotion.
The second requisite of dramatic emotion is, that it should address itself to the understanding and not to the senses. Art ought to speak only to the mind; it is to the mind alone that it ought to give pleasure. If it seeks to excite the senses, it becomes degraded. This rule is applicable to all the arts. Even dancing is an art, when by steps and movements it pleases the soul, and creates in the mind the divine idea of gracefulness. It ceases to be an art and becomes a trade when it aims at exciting the passions. The arts are the language of the soul. If they are addressed to the senses, it is only for the purpose of recalling them to their proper vocation, which is that of being instrumental in enhancing the pleasures of the soul. They afford the greatest joy to man because they draw out all the faculties of his soul, because they occupy and fascinate at the same time his soul and his senses; and in the pleasure which they procure, they render the emotion of the senses subordinate to that of the mind, thereby placing supreme order in pleasure. It is this which causes them to be divine.
Of all the emotions which arise from the arts and which proceed from the imitation of human nature, dramatic emotion is the most perfect. No art can more nearly resemble reality than the dramatic art; and yet it is destroyed if it resembles it too closely and becomes confounded with it. Theatrical exhibitions should be the greatest of the illusions of art, but it must remain only an illusion.
The Greeks in order to be moved, were satisfied with
the fictions of their Theatre; and it is that which constitutes their dramatic glory. They confined themselves within the limits of illusion. At Rome, on the contrary, the people required gross exhibitions. The melancholy and harmonious moans of a Philoctetes or an Edipus did not touch the hearts of the Romans. They wanted to hear the cries of dying gladiators. Rome despised the petty terrors of the Greek tragedy and preferred the sports of the Circus, where men were fighting, wounding and killing each other, the arena red with blood and the earth shaken with the convulsions of the dying.
The literary education which we receive in modern society, does not always protect the soul from the grosser emotions of the body. În proportion as theatrical emotions become more common, the dramatic art becomes more gross ; and this is no longer confined to the upper classes of society, but it finds in spite of it its level among its auditory. There are two kinds of men who are capable of preferring the brutal pleasures of the Circus to the noble illusions of the Theatre: those whose minds are not cultivated, and those which are too highly cultivated,—the ignorant and the refined. They commence with the sensual emotions, and satiety soon succeeding, leads to brutality. It is said, that when the spectator first witnesses the Bull-fight in Spain, he trembles with horror, but after a short time becomes so fascinated that he can scarcely turn away his eyes. There is indeed in the sight of danger and suffering an irresistible attraction for men; but it is this emotion which we must endeavor to purify by the assistance of art, in restraining it within the limit of illusion.
St. Augustine in his Confessions* has admirably described the cruel pleasure which man experiences in witnessing physical suffering. One of his friends named Alipius had for a long time abandoned the exhibitions of the Circus. One day while at Rome, some of his friends wished him to see a fight between two gladiators. He at first refused, but they prevailed upon him, and he went. Having arrived at the Theatre, he sat down on a bench in the midst of his friends, and closed his eyes. He remained in this position for some time, when all at once the spectators commenced a great shouting. It was a gladiator who had just fallen, Confessions, b. vi. ch. viii.