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If Molière can not make us insensible to the inherent defects of French dramatic poetry, still less can Corneille and Racine. Corneille has energy and nobility, Racine an often Virgilian sweetness and pathos. But while Molière, in depth, penetrativeness, and powerful criticism of life, belongs to the same family as Sophocles and Shakespeare, Corneille and Racine are quite of another order. We must not be misled by the excessive estimate of them among their own countrymen. I remember an answer of M. Sainte-Beuve, who always treated me with great kindness, and to whom I ventured to say that I could not think Lamartine a poet of very high importance. "He was important to us," answered M. Sainte-Beuve. In a far higher degree can a Frenchman say of Corneille and Racine, "They were important to us." Voltaire pronounces of them, "These men taught our nation to think, to feel, and to express itself" (Ces hommes enseignèrent à la nation à penser, à sentir et à s'exprimer). They were thus the instructors and formers of a society in many respects the most civilized and consummate that the world has ever seen, and which certainly is not inclined to underrate its own advantages. How natural, then, that it should feel grateful to its formers, and should extol them! 'Tell your brother Rodolphe," writes Joseph de Maistre from Russia to his daughter at home, "to get on with his French poets; let him have them by heart, the inimitable Racine above all, never mind whether he understands him or not. I did not understand him when my mother used to come and sit on my bed, and repeat from him, and put me to sleep with her beautiful voice to the sound of this incomparable music. I knew hundreds of lines of him before I could read; and that is why my ears, having drunk in this ambrosia betimes, have never been able to endure common stuff since." What a spell must such early use have had for riveting the affections; and how civilizing are such affections, how honorable to the society which can be imbued with them, to the literature which can inspire them! Pope was in a similar way, though not at all in the same degree, a forming and civilizing influence to our grandfathers, and limited their literary taste while he stimulated and formed it. So, too, the Greek boy was fed by his mother and nurse with Homer; but then in this case it was Homer!
We English had Shakespeare waiting to open our eyes, whensoever a favorable moment came, to the insufficiencies of Pope, but the French had no Shakespeare to open their eyes to the insufficiencies of Corneille and Racine. Great artists like Talma and Rachel, whose power as actors was far superior to the power as poets of the
dramatists whose work they were rendering, filled out with their own life and warmth the parts into which they threw themselves, gave body to what was meager, fire to what was cold, and themselves supported the poetry of the French classic drama rather than were supported by it. It was easier to think the poetry of Racine inimitable when Talma or Rachel was seen producing in it such inimitable effects. Indeed, French acting is so good that there are few pieces, excepting always those of Molière, in the repertory of a company such as that which we have just seen, where the actors do not show themselves to be superior to the pieces they render, and to be worthy of better.
“Phèdre” is a work of much beauty, yet certainly one felt this in seeing Rachel in the part of Phèdre. I am not sure that one feels it in seeing Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt as Phèdre, but I am sure that one feels it in seeing her as Doña Sol. The tragedy of M. Victor Hugo has always, indeed, stirring events in plenty, and, so long as the human nerves are what they are, so long will things like the sounding of the horn in the famous fifth act of "Hernani " produce a thrill in us. But so will Werner's "Twentyfourth of February," or Scott's "House of Aspen." A thrill of this sort may be raised in us, and yet our poetic sense may remain profoundly dissatisfied. So it remains in "Hernani." M. Sarcey, a critic always acute and intelligent, and whom one reads with profit and pleasure, says that we are fatigued by the long speeches in "Hernani," and that we do not appreciate what delights French people in it, the splendor of the verse, the wondrous beauty of the style, the poetry. Here recurs the question as to the adequacy of the French Alexandrine as tragic verse. If this form is vitally inadequate for tragedy, then to speak absolutely of splendor of verse and wondrous beauty of style in it when employed for tragedy is misleading. Beyond doubt M. Victor Hugo has an admirable gift for versification. So had Pope. But to speak absolutely of the splendor of verse and wondrous beauty of style of the "Essay on Man" would be misleading. Such terms can be properly used only of verse and style of an altogether higher and more adequate kind, a verse and style like that of Dante or Milton. Pope's brilliant gift for versification is exercised within the limits of a form inadequate for true philosophic poetry, and by its very presence excluding it. M. Victor Hugo's brilliant gift for versification is exercised within the limits of a form inadequate for true tragic poetry, and by its very presence excluding it. But, if we are called upon to prove this from the poetry itself, instead of inferring it from the
form, our task, in the case of "Hernani," is really only too easy. What is the poetical value of this famous fifth act of "Hernani"? What poetical truth, or verisimilitude, or possibility has Ruy Gomez, this chivalrous old Spanish grandee, this venerable nobleman, who, because he can not marry his niece, presents himself to her and her husband upon their wedding night, and insists on the husband performing an old promise to commit suicide if summoned by Ruy Gomez to do so? Naturally the poor young couple raise difficulties, and the venerable nobleman keeps plying them with Bois! Allons! Le sépulcre est ouvert, et je ne puis attendre! J'ai hate! Il faut mourir! This is a mere character of Surrey melodrama. And Hernani, who, when he is reminded that it is by his father's head that he has sworn to commit suicide, exclaims:
modern life, the drama of which the "Sphinx" and the "Etrangère" and the "Demi-Monde" are types, and which was the most strongly attractive part, probably, of the feast offered to us by the French company? The first thing to be said of these pieces is that they are admirably acted. But then, constantly, as I have already said, one has the feeling that the French actors are better than the pieces which they play. What are we to think of this modern prose drama itself, the drama of M. Octave Feuillet, and M. Alexandre Dumas the younger, and M. Augier? Some of the pieces composing it are better constructed and written than others, and much more effective. But this whole drama has one character common to it all; it may be best described as the theatre of the homme sensuel moyen, the average sensual man, whose country is France, and whose city is Paris, and whose ideal life is the free, gay, pleasurable life of Paris. Of course "Mon père ! mon père !-Ah! j'en perdrai la there is in Paris much life of another sort too, as
there are in France many men of another type
and who, when Doña Sol gets the poison away than that of the homme sensuel moyen. But for from him, entreats her to return it—
Par pitié, ce poison,
many reasons, which I need not enumerate here, the life of the free, confident, harmonious development of the senses, all round, has been able to
Rends-le-moi! Par l'amour, par notre âme im- establish itself among the French, and at Paris, mortelle !"
"Le duc a ma parole, et mon père est là-haut.” The poetry! says M. Sarcey; and one thinks of the poetry of "Lear." M. Sarcey must pardon me for saying that in
"Le duc a ma parole, et mon père est là-haut "
we are not in the world of poetry at all, hardly even in the world of literature, unless it be the literature of "Bombastes Furioso."
as it has established itself nowhere else, and the ideal life of Paris is this sort of life triumphant. And of this ideal the modern French drama, works like the "Sphinx" and the "Etrangère " and the 66 Demi-Monde," are the expression; it is the drama, I say, of the homme sensuel moyen, the average sensual man. It represents the life of the senses developing themselves all round without misgiving, a life confident, fair, and free, with fireworks of fine emotions, grand passions and dévouement, lighting it up when necessary.
We in England have no modern drama at all. We have our Elizabethan drama. We have Our sense for what is poetry and what is not, a drama of the last century and of the latter part the attractiveness of the French plays and players of the century preceding, a drama which may be must not make us unlearn. We may retain our called our drama of the town, when the town old conviction of the fundamental insufficiency, was an entity powerful enough, because homoboth in substance and in form, of the classic "geneous enough, to evoke a drama embodying tragedy of the French. We may keep, too, what its notions of life. But we have no modern in the main has always been the English esti- drama. Our vast society is not homogeneous mate of Molière: that he is a man of creative enough, not sufficiently united, even any large and splendid power, a dramatist whose work is portion of it, in a common view of life, a comtruly delightful, edifying, and immortal; but that mon ideal, capable of serving as basis for a even he, in poetic drama, is hampered and has modern English drama. We have apparitions not full swing, and, in consequence, leaves us of poetic and romantic drama (as the French, somewhat dissatisfied. Finally, we poor old peo- too, have their charming Gringoire), which are ple should pluck up courage to stand out yet, always possible, because man has always in his for the few years of life that remain to us, against nature the poetical fiber. Then we have numberthat passing illusion of the turbulent young gen- less imitations and adaptations from the French. eration around us, that M. Victor Hugo is a poet All of these are at the bottom fantastic. We of the race and lineage of Shakespeare. may truly say of them that "truth and sense and What are we to say of the prose drama of liberty are flown." And the reason is evident.
They are pages out of a life which the ideal of the homme sensuel moyen rules, transferred to a life where this ideal does not reign. For the attentive observer the result is a sense of incurable falsity in the piece as adapted. Let me give an example. Everybody remembers "Pink Dominoes." The piece turns upon an incident possible and natural enough in the life of Paris. Transferred to the life of London, the incident is unreal, and its unreality makes the whole piece, in its English form, fantastic and absurd.
Still that does not prevent such pieces, and the theatre generally, from exercising a great attraction. For we are at the end of a period, and have to deal with the facts and symptoms of a new period on which we are entering; and prominent among these fresh facts and symptoms is the irresistibility of the theatre. We know how the Elizabethan theatre had its cause in an ardent zest for life and living, a bold and large curiosity, a desire for a fuller, richer existence, pervading this nation at large, as they pervaded other nations, after the long mediæval time of obstruction and restraint. But we know, too, how the great middle class of this nation, alarmed at grave symptoms which showed themselves in the movement, drew back, made choice for its spirit to live at one point instead of living, or trying to live, at many, entered, as I have so often said, the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned upon its spirit there for two hundred years. It forsook the theatre. The theatre reflected the aspiration of a great community for a fuller and richer sense of human existence no more. It came afterward to reflect the aspirations of "the town." It developed a drama to suit these aspirations; while it also recalled and reëxhibited the Elizabethan drama, so far as "the town" wanted it and liked it. Finally, as "the town" ceased to be homogeneous, the theatre ceased to develop anything expressive. It still repeated the old with more or less of talent, but the mass of the British middle class kept quite aloof from the whole thing. I remember that, happening to be at Shrewsbury twenty years ago, and finding the whole Haymarket company acting there, I went to the theatre. Never was there such a scene of desolation. Scattered at very distant intervals through the boxes were some half dozen chancecomers, like myself; there were some soldiers and their friends in the pit, and a good many riffraff in the upper gallery. The real townspeople, the people who carried forward the business and life of Shrewsbury, and who filled its churches and chapels on Sundays, were entirely absent. I pitied the excellent Haymarket company; it must have been like acting to one's self upon an iceberg. Here one had a good example, as I thought at the time, and as I have often thought
since, of the complete estrangement of the British middle class from the theatre.
What is certain is that a signal change is coming over us, and that it has already made great progress. It is said that there are now forty theatres in London. Even in Edinburgh, where in old times a single theatre maintained itself under protest, there are now, I believe, over half a dozen. The change is not due only to an increased liking in the upper class and in the working class for the theatre. Their liking for it has certainly increased, but this is not enough to account for the change. The attraction of the theatre begins to be felt again, after a long interval of insensibility, by the middle class also. Our French friends would say that this class, long petrified in a narrow Protestantism and in a perpetual reading of the Bible, was beginning at last to grow conscious of the horrible unnaturalness and ennui of its life, and was seeking to escape from it. Undoubtedly the type of religion to which the British middle class has sacrificed the theatre, as it has sacrificed so much besides, is defective. But I prefer to say that this great class, having had the discipline of its religion, is now awakening to the sure truth that the human spirit can not live right if it lives by one point only; that it can and ought to live by several points at the same time. The human spirit has a vital need, as we say, for conduct and religion; but it has the need also for expansion, for intellect and knowledge, for beauty, for social life and manners. The revelation of these additional needs brings the middle class to the theatre.
The revelation was indispensable, the needs are real, the theatre is one of the mightiest means of satisfying them, and the theatre, therefore, is irresistible. That conclusion, at any rate, we may take for certain. But I see our community turning to the theatre with eagerness, and finding the English theatre without organization, or purpose, or dignity, and no modern English drama at all except a fantastical one. And then I see the French company from the chief theatre of Paris showing themselves to us in London-a society of actors admirable in organization, purpose, and dignity, with a modern drama not fantastic at all, but corresponding with fidelity to a very palpable and powerful ideal, the ideal of the life of the homme sensuel moyen in Paris, his beautiful city. I see in England a materialized upper class, sensible of the nullity of our own modern drama, impatient of the state of false constraint and of blank to which the Puritanism of our middle class has brought our stage and much of our life, delighting in such drama as the modern drama of Paris; the emancipated youth of both sexes delighting in it; the new and clever newspapers, which push on the work of emanci
pation and serve as devoted missionaries of the gospel of the life of Paris and of the ideal of the average sensual man, delighting in it. And in this condition of affairs I see the middle class beginning to arrive at the theatre again after its abstention of two centuries and more; arriving eager and curious, but a little bewildered.
Now, lest at this critical moment such drama as the "Sphinx" and the "Etrangère" and the Demi-Monde," positive as it is, and powerful as it is, and pushed as it is, and played with such prodigious care and talent, should too much rule the situation, let us take heart of grace and say that as the right conclusion from the unparalleled success of the French company was not that we should reverse our old notions about the tragedy of M. Victor Hugo, or about French classic tragedy, or even about the poetic drama of the great Molière, so neither is it the right conclusion that we should be converted and become believers in the legitimacy of the ideal of the life of the homme sensuel moyen, and in the sufficiency of its drama. This is not the occasion to deliver a moral discourse. It is enough to revert to what has been already said, and to remark that the French ideal and its theatre have the defect of leaving out too much of life, of treating the soul as if it lived at one point or group of points only, of ignoring other points, or groups of points, at which it must live as well. And herein the conception of life shown in this French ideal and in its drama really resembles, different as in other ways they are, the conception of life prevalent with the British middle class, and has the like defect both conceptions of life are too narrow. Sooner or later, if we adopt either, our soul and spirit are starved, and go amiss, and suffer.
What are we to learn, then, from the marvelous success and attractiveness of the performances at the Gaiety Theatre? what is the consequence which it is right and rational for us to draw? Surely it is this: "The theatre is irresistible; organize the theatre." Surely if we wish to stand less in our own way, and to have clear notions of the consequences of things, it is to this conclusion that we should come.
The performances of the French company show us plainly, I think, what is gained the theatre being admitted to be an irresistible need for civilized communities-by organizing the theatre. Some of the drama played by this company is, as we have seen, questionable. But in the absence of an organization such as that of this company it would be played more; it would, with a lower drama still to accompany it, almost if not altogether reign; it would have far less correction and relief by better things. An older and better drama, containing many things of high merit, some things of surpassing merit, is
kept before the public by means of this company, is given frequently, is given to perfection. Pieces of truth and beauty, which emerge here and there among the questionable pieces of the modern drama, get the benefit of this company's skill, and are given to perfection. The questionable pieces themselves lose something of their unprofitableness and vice in their hands; the acting carries us into the world of sound and pleasing art if the piece does not. And the type of perfection fixed by these fine actors influences for good every actor in France.
Secondly, the French company shows us not only what is gained by organizing the theatre, but what is meant by organizing it. The organization in the example before us is simple and rational. We have a society of good actors, with a grant from the state on condition of their giving with frequency the famous and classic stage-plays of their nation, and with a commissioner of the state attached to the society and taking part in the council with it. But the society is to all intents and purposes self-governing. In connection with it is the school of dramatic elocution of the Conservatoire, a school with the names of Regnier, Monrose, Got, and Delaunay on its roll of professors.
The Society of the French Theatre dates from Louis XIV. and from the great century, and has traditions, effect, consistency, and a place in the public esteem, which are not to be won in a day. But its organization is such as a judicious man, desiring the results which have been by this time won, would naturally have devised; and it is such as a judicious man, desiring in another country to secure like results, would naturally imitate.
We have in England everything to make us dissatisfied with the chaotic and ineffective condition into which our theatre has fallen. We have the remembrance of better things in the past, and the elements for better things in the future. We have a splendid national drama of the Elizabethan age, and a later drama which has no lack of pieces conspicuous by their stagequalities, their vivacity, and their talent, and interesting by their pictures of manners. We have had great actors. We have good actors not a few at the present moment. But we have been unlucky, as we so often are, in the work of organization. In the essay at organization which we had, in the patent theatres with their exclusive privilege of acting Shakespeare, we find by no means an example, such as we have in the constitution of the French theatre, of what a judicious man, seeking the good of the drama and of the public, would naturally devise. We find rather such a machinery as might be devised by a man prone to stand in his own way,
and devoid of clear notions of the consequences of things. It was inevitable that the patent theatres should provoke discontent and attack; they were attacked and their privilege fell. Still to this essay, however imperfect, of a public organization for the English theatre, our stage owes the days of power and greatness it has enjoyed. So far as we have had a school of great actors, so far as our stage has had tradition, effect, consistency, and a hold on public esteem, it had them under the system of the privileged theatres. The system had its faults, and was abandoned; and then, instead of devising a better plan of public organization for the English theatre, we gladly took refuge in our favorite doctrines of the mischief of state interference, of the blessedness of leaving every man free to do as he likes, of the impertinence of presuming to check any man's natural taste for the bathos and to press him to relish the sublime. We left the English theatre to take its chance. Its present impotence is the result.
It seems to me that every one of us is concerned to find a remedy for this melancholy state of things, and that the pleasure we have had in the visit of the French company is barren, unless it leaves us with the impulse to do so, and with the lesson how alone it can be rationally done. "Forget"-can we not hear these fine artists saying in an undertone to us, amid their graceful compliments of adieu ?—“forget your clap-trap, and believe that the state, the nation in its collective and corporate character, does well to concern itself about an influence so important to national life and manners as the theatre. Form a company out of the materials ready to your hand in your many good actors or actors of promise. Give them Drury Lane Theatre. Let them have a grant from your Science and Art Department; let some intelligent and accomplished man, like our friend Mr. Pigott, your present Examiner of Plays, be joined to them as Commissioner from the Department, to see that the conditions of the grant are observed. Let the conditions of the grant be that a repertory is agreed upon, taken out of the works of Shakespeare and out of the volumes of the Modern British Drama, and that pieces from this reper
tory are played a certain number of times in each season; as to new pieces, let your company use its discretion. Let a school of dramatic elocution and declamation be instituted in connection with your company; it may surprise you to hear that elocution and declamation are things to be taught and learned, and do not come by nature, but it is so. Your best and most serious actors" (this is added with a smile) "would have been better if in their youth they had learned elocution. These recommendations, you may think, are not very much; but, as your divine William says, they are enough; they will serve. Try them. When your institution in the west of London has become a success, plant a second of like kind in the east. The people will have the theatre; then make it a good one. Let your two or three chief provincial towns institute, with municipal subsidy and coöperation, theatres such as you institute in the metropolis, with state subsidy and coöperation. So you will restore the English theatre, and then a modern drama of your own will also, probably, spring up among you, and you will not have to come to us for pieces like 'Pink Dominoes.'"
No, and we will hope, too, that the modern English drama, when it comes, may be something different from even "The Sphinx" and the "Demi-Monde." For my part, I have all confidence, that if it ever comes, it will be different and better. But let us not say a word to wound the feelings of those who have given us so much pleasure, and who leave to us as a parting legacy such excellent advice. For excellent advice it is, and everything we saw these artists say and do upon the Gaiety stage inculcates it for us, whether they exactly formulated it in words or no. And still, even now that they are gone, when I pass along the Strand and come opposite to the Gaiety Theatre, I see a fugitive vision of delicate features under a shower of hair and a cloud of lace, and hear the voice of Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt saying in its most caressing tones to the Londoners: The theatre is irresistible; organize the theatre!
MATTHEW ARNOLD, in the Nineteenth Cen