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Merope? From maternal love. A mother does not know either what is courage or timidity; she only knows what can save her son. Merope has recovered and saved her son; her object is accomplished. She lives in hope, it is true, of seeing him reascend the throne of his ancestors; but before all, she desires to see him live; she attaches more importance to the life of Egisthe, than to his glory she is a mother. Egisthe prefers rather to avenge himself and to reign, than to live: he is a man.
Like his two predecessors, Alfieri, in his Merope, also wished to represent maternal love, and has dedicated his tragedy to his mother. But Alfieri did not know the natural march of the passions, and the ordinary progress of the feelings of the human heart; he was only acquainted with its emotions of rage and violence. Hence, in his tragedies, we perceive more abruptness than force; more precipitation than seductiveness; more movement than emotion.
Alfieri has taken care himself, in his Memoirs, to relate to us how he was induced to write his Merope. "I was seized with great indignation," says he, "in reading the Merope of Maffei, and in thinking that poor Italy was, in the matter of the drama, so poor and blind that they regarded this drama as the best of the Italian tragedies, and as the only good one; and immediately there flashed before my eyes the recollection of another tragedy of the same name, and upon the same subject, much more simple, and more full of passion and excitement than this." Alfieri at this time was at Rome, as happy as he ever could be. He inhabited the Villa Strozzi, near the Baths of Diocletian; during the morning, versifying at his leisure in the silence of those great Roman palaces, which already seemed to be a desert, fast hastening to ruin; during the evening, running on horseback "in those immense and dilapidated solitudes in the environs of Rome, which invite us to reflect, to weep, and to make verses;" and thus gratifying these two passions alternately which divided his heart: poetry and horses. It is there that he wrote his Merope. But neither the happiness which he enjoyed at Rome, nor the subject which he treated, unstrung the chords of his lyre; he had borrowed nothing from the solitudes of the Roman campagna, of their melancholy grandeur and their majestic repose, so well adapted to the expression of the sorrows of the antique Merope; he had acquired only, if we may so speak, their
aridity and barrenness. His tragedy is stiff, rather than simple; his Merope has more anger than grief, more violence than tenderness; she abuses Polyphon too much, and particularly in her reproaches, she seems to be more a citizen than a mother; for she seems to detect in Polyphon the oppressor of Messenum no less than the author of the misfortunes of her son.*
We have but one more reflection to make upon the character of Merope, such as it is represented by Torelli, Maffei, Voltaire, and Alfieri. In these four authors, Merope inspires us at the same time with pity and respect. She is a mother; she defends her son; she is a queen, she is virtuous, she is oppressed. She excites all kinds of interest; that which is attached to grandeur, to misfortune, to virtue, and to maternal tenderness. We can love or pity her at our pleasure; nothing is harsh in the sentiments with which she inspires us, nothing detracts from our esteem, nothing subdues our pity. The interest which she inspires is unique and perfect; it is neither divided nor disturbed. Do the virtues of Merope take away from the expression of maternal love any thing of its force and its energy? Is she less ardent and less passionate as a mother because, as a woman, she is pure and virtuous? Will she excite more pity if, in connection with this love for her son, which is a virtue, there should be nourished in her soul ungovernable vices? Will this mixture, and we may even say this antipathy of sentiments produce more effect than the moral unity which Torelli, Maffei, Voltaire, and Alfieri have given to the character of Merope? These are the questions which Victor Hugo has suggested by his drama of Lucrece Borgia.
OF MATERNAL LOVE-LUCRECE BORGIA.
WE can never forget the first representation of Lucrece Borgia. We followed with an ardent curiosity the development of this powerful drama. We did not weep, we were not moved; we were astonished and overwhelmed by it. These violent feelings, these multiplied theatrical tricks, these dramatic turns, kept us in continual suspense. We were not affected, but we felt ourselves oppressed by a heavy and imperious yoke which we could not shake off.
In speaking thus, we express, we know, the physical emotion which we experienced, rather than the moral emotion which we usually expect to find at the Theatre. But this drama has this peculiarity, that the moral and physical emotions are continually confounded. The ideas and sentiments seem to be no more the emotions of the mind or the soul, so impetuous and violent are they; they are the movements of instinct; and the passions of the human heart seem to be divested of their morality, as if of a last weakness, in order to find in a kind of deliberate brutality a new source of power and grandeur. Hence, as we are persuaded that dramatic literature has no other resources except the emotions of the human soul, we ask, in seeing this drama advance with temerity to this invisible, though certain, boundary, where sensation takes the place of sentiment, where pity becomes a suffering, where, in fine, illusion almost borders on reality; we ask, if this piece be not the last dramatic work possible, and if art has not exhausted its power in this last and terrible delivery.
You have already seen the kind of blame which we attach to the drama of Victor Hugo. The author has wished
to represent maternal love; but while Voltaire has taken care to give to Merope all the virtues which could still ennoble maternal tenderness, Victor Hugo, in Lucrece Borgia, has placed this sentiment in the midst of all the vices; not that they may be purified by this solitary virtue, or that they should extinguish it, but in order that they may serve as a contrast, being persuaded that it would shine out to more advantage across the darkness which surrounds it. He has wished, as he himself has said, to put the mother in the monster. What is the consequence? In Lucrece Borgia, maternal love is no longer a passion inspired by nature, approved by morality, and which becomes the purest and most ardent virtue of woman, but a blind and violent emotion which is excited by passion and caprice.
There are, in Lucrece Borgia, two parts, and they are joined together with much force and ability. In the first part, we see how the mother endeavors to save her son; in the second, how the son is induced to kill his mother. The first part resembles Merope, and the second Semiramis; for Victor Hugo has, if we may so speak, combined and concentrated in his drama, the interest of the two tragedies of Voltaire. We will follow, in these two phases of the drama, the development of the character of Lucrece Borgia.
Gennaro is the son of Lucrece Borgia; he is the fruit of her incestuous connection with her brother, John Borgia. She has for this son the tenderness of a mother, but she does not confess it. Gennaro has grown up without knowing his mother; he has become one of the bravest chiefs of the carriers (condottieri) of Italy, and he is in the service of the Republic of Venice. At Venice, he has met with Lucrece Borgia; and as soon as he has discovered who she was by the imprecations of his friends, he has abandoned her with horror. This is the first chastisement of Lucrece. The horror which she inspires, prevents her from disclosing to Gennaro that she is his mother, when she is insulted in his presence, and by him. Very soon after Gennaro comes to Ferrara; and as his friends joke him about the love with which he has, they say, inspired Lucrece Borgia, he effaces with his poniard the first letter of that name, which is engraved on the front of the Borgia palace. It remains orgia, the true device of this woman and this family. Lucrece Borgia, not knowing who offered this indignity to her name,
goes to complain of it to the Duke of Ferrara, her husband; and he, who knows the tenderness of Lucrece for Gennaro, and is mistaken as to the nature of this love, makes a solemn promise to her, that she shall be avenged as she requests.
Donna Lucretia. One word, sir, before the guilty man is brought in. Whoever this man may be, whether of your city or your house, Don Alphonso, pledge me your word of a crowned duke, that he shall not go hence alive.
Don Alphonso. I pledge it; I pledge it to you. Do you understand me well, madam?
Donna Lucretia. It is well. Ah! Doubtless I understand it. Introduce him now, that I may interrogate him myself. . . . (Seeing Gennaro enter.) Gennaro!
Don Alphonso (approaching her softly and smiling). Do you know this man?
Donna Lucretia (aside). Gennaro! What fatality, my God!
Then Lucrece demands of her husband a particular interview, and requests him to pardon Gennaro. Alphonso refuses. She urges him.
Donna Lucretia. You cannot? But why can you not grant me something as insignificant as the life of this captain ?
Don Alphonso. Do you ask me why?
Donna Lucretia. Yes, why?
Don Alphonso. Because the captain is your lover, madam !
Don Alphonso. Because you have been to seek him at Venice, because you would go to hell to find him. . . . because even now you regard him with looks full of tears and devouring passion!... Donna Lucretia. My Lord! my Lord! I entreat you on my knees and with my hands clasped together, in the name of Jesus and Mary, in the name of my father and mother; my Lord, I entreat you to save the life of this captain.
Don Alphonso. If you could read the fixed resolution which is in my soul, you would no more speak of him, than if he were already dead.
Donna Lucretia (rising). Ah! Take care of yourself, Don Alphonso of Ferrara, my fourth husband!
Neither the entreaties nor the menaces of Lucretia moved Alphonso: "I have left to your highness," says he, choice of the kind of death; decide!"
Donna Lucretia (wringing her hands). O, my God! O, my God! O, my God!