Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/539

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


516
[MODERN FRENCH
DRAMA

certain other European nations; but it must be allowed that a new poetic will have to be constructed if the freedom of development which the dramatic, like all other arts, is entitled to claim is to be reconciled to laws deducible from the whole previous history of the drama. The reaction towards earlier forms has asserted itself in various ways—through the poetic plays of the later years of F. Coppée; in the success (notable for reasons other than artistic) of Vicomte H. de Bornier’s first tragedy; and of late more especially in the dramas—highly original and truly romantic in both form and treatment—of E. Rostand.

The art of acting is not altogether dependent upon the measure of contemporary literary productivity, even in France, where the connexion between dramatic literature and the stage has perhaps been more continuously intimate than in many other countries. Talma and Mlle Mars flourished in one of the most barren ages of the French literary drama; and though this cannot be asserted of the two most brilliant stars of the French 19th century tragic stage, Rachel and Sarah Bernhardt, or of their comic contemporaries from Frédérick-Lemaître down to types less unique than the “Talma of the boulevards,” the constantly accumulating experience of the successive schools of acting in France may here ensure to the art a future not less notable than its past. Moreover, the French theatre has long been, and is more than ever likely to continue, an affair of the state as well as of the nation; and the judicious policy of not leaving the chief theatres at the mercy of shifting fashion and the base demands of idleness and sensuality will remain the surest guarantee for the maintenance of a high standard both in principle and in practice. So long as France continues to maintain her ascendancy over other nations in matters of taste, and in much else that adorns, brightens and quickens social life, the predominant influence of the French theatre over the theatres of other nations is likewise assured. But dramatic literature is becoming international to a degree hardly dreamt of half a century ago; and the distinctive development of the French theatre cannot fail to be affected by the success or failure of the national drama in retaining and developing its own most characteristic qualities. Its history shows periods of marvellously rapid advance, of hardly less swift decline, and of frequent though at times fitful recovery. Its future may be equally varied; but it will remain not less dependent on the conditions which in every people, ancient or modern, have proved to be indispensable to national vigour and vitality.

(A. W. W.)

Recent French Drama.—The last twenty-five years of the 19th century witnessed an important change in the constructive methods, as well as in the moral tendencies, of the French playwrights. Of the two leading dramatists who reigned supreme over the haute comédie in 1875, one, Émile Augier, had almost ended his career, but the other, Alexandre Dumas, was to maintain his ascendancy for many years longer. Sardou’s fertility of invention, and extraordinary cleverness at manipulating a complicated intrigue, were also greatly admired, and much was expected from Edouard Pailleron’s brilliant and—as it seemed—inexhaustible wit in satirizing the whims and weaknesses of high-born and highly-cultured society. Alexandre Dumas had created and still monopolized the problem play, of which Le Demi-monde, Le Fils naturel, La Question d’argent, Les Idées de Madame Aubray, La Femme de Claude, Monsieur Alphonse, La Visite de noces, L’Étrangère, Francillon and Denise may be mentioned as the most characteristic specimens. The problem play is the presentation of a particular case, with a view to a general conclusion on some important question of human conduct. This afforded the author, who was, in his way, a moralist and a reformer, excellent opportunities for humorous discussions and the display of that familiar eloquence which was his greatest gift and most effective faculty. Among other subjects, the social position of women had an all-powerful attraction for his mind, and many of his later plays were written with the object of placing in strong relief the remarkable inequality of the sexes, both as regards freedom of action and responsibility, in modern marriage. Like all the dramatists of his time, he adhered to Scribe’s mode of play-writing—a mixture of the drame bourgeois, as initiated by Diderot, and the comedy of character and manners, long in vogue—from the days of Molière, Regnard, Destouches and Marivaux, down to the beginning of the 19th century. In his prefaces Dumas often undertook the defence of the system which, in his estimation, was best calculated to serve the purpose of the artist, the humorist and the moralist—a dramatist being, as he conceived, a combination of the three.

Though the majority of French playgoers continued to side with him, and to cling to the time-honoured theatrical beliefs, a few young men were beginning to murmur against the too elaborate mechanism and artificial logic. Scribe and his successors, whose plays were a combination of comedy and drama, were wont to devote the first act to a brilliant and witty presentation of personages, then to crowd the following scenes with incidents, until the action was brought to a climax about the end of the fourth act, invariably concluding, in the fifth, with an optimistic dénouement, just before midnight, the time appointed by police regulations for the closing of playhouses. At the same time a more serious and far-reaching criticism was levelled at the very principles on which the conception of human life was then dependent. A new philosophy, based on scientific research, had been gradually gaining ground and penetrating the French mind. A host of bold writers had been trying, with considerable firmness and continuity of purpose, to start a new kind of fiction, writing in perfect accordance with the determinist theories of Auguste Comte, Darwin and Taine. The long-disputed success of the Naturalistic School carried everything before it during the years 1875-1885, and its triumphant leaders were tempted to make the best of their advantage by annexing a new province and establishing a footing on the stage. In this they failed signally, either when they were assisted by professional dramatists or when left to their own resources. It became evident that Naturalism, to be made acceptable on the stage, would have to undergo a special process of transformation and be handled in a peculiar way. Henry Becque succeeded in embodying the new theories in two plays, which at first met with very indifferent success, but were revived at a later period, and finally obtained permanent recognition in the French theatre—even with the acquiescence of the most learned critics, when they discovered, or fancied they discovered, that Becque’s comedies agreed, in the main, with Molière’s conception of dramatic art. In Les Corbeaux and La Parisienne the plot is very simple; the episodes are incidents taken from ordinary life. No extraneous character is introduced to discuss moral and social theories, or to acquaint us with the psychology of the real dramatis personae, or to suggest humorous observations about the progress of the dramatic action. The characters are left to tell their own tale in their own words, which are sometimes very comical, sometimes very repulsive, but purport to be always true to nature. Human will, which was the soul and mainspring of French tragedy in the 17th century, and played such a paramount part in the drame bourgeois and the haute comédie of the 19th, appears in M. Becque’s plays to have fallen from its former exalted position and to have ceased to be a free agent. It is a mere passive instrument to our inner desires and instincts and appetites, which, in their turn, obey natural laws. Thus, in Becque’s comedies, as in the old Greek drama, destiny, not man, is the chief actor, the real but unseen protagonist.

Becque was not a prolific writer, and when he died, in 1899, it was remarked that he had spent the last ten years of his life in comparative inactivity. But during these years his young and ardent disciples had spared no effort in putting their master’s theories to the test. It had occurred to a gifted and enterprising actor-manager, named André Antoine, that the time had come for trying dramatic experiments in a continued and methodical manner. For this purpose he gathered around him a number of young authors, and produced their plays before a select audience of subscribers, who had paid in advance for their season-tickets. The entertainment was a strictly private one. In this way Antoine made himself independent of the censors, and at the same time was no longer obliged to consider the requirements