1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ducis, Jean François

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DUCIS, JEAN FRANÇOIS (1733-1816), French dramatist and adapter of Shakespeare, was born at Versailles on the 22nd of August 1733. His father, originally from Savoy, was a linen-draper at Versailles; and all through life he retained the simple tastes and straightforward independence fostered by his bourgeois education. In 1768 he produced his first tragedy, Amélise. The failure of this first attempt was fully compensated by the success of his Hamlet (1769), and Roméo et Juliette (1772). Œdipe chez Admète, imitated partly from Euripides and partly from Sophocles, appeared in 1778, and secured him in the following year the chair in the Academy left vacant by the death of Voltaire. Equally successful was Le Roi Lear in 1783. Macbeth in 1783 did not take so well, and Jean sans peur in 1791 was almost a failure; but Othello in 1792, supported by the acting of Talma, obtained immense applause. Its vivid picturing of desert life secured for Abufas, ou la famille arabe (1795), an original drama, a flattering reception. On the failure of a similar piece, Phédor et Vladimir ou la famille de Sibérie (1801), Ducis ceased to write for the stage; and the rest of his life was spent in quiet retirement at Versailles. He had been named a member of the Council of the Ancients in 1798, but he never discharged the functions of the office; and when Napoleon offered him a post of honour under the empire, he refused. Amiable, religious and bucolic, he had little sympathy with the fierce, sceptical and tragic times in which his lot was cast. “Alas!” he said in the midst of the Revolution, “tragedy is abroad in the streets; if I step outside of my door, I have blood to my very ankles. I have too often seen Atreus in clogs, to venture to bring an Atreus on the stage.” Though actuated by honest admiration of the great English dramatist, Ducis is not Shakespearian. His ignorance of the English language left him at the mercy of the translations of Pierre Letourneur (1736-1788) and of Pierre de la Place (1707-1793); and even this modified Shakespeare had still to undergo a process of purification and correction before he could be presented to the fastidious criticism of French taste. That such was the case was not, however, the fault of Ducis; and he did good service in modifying the judgment of his fellow countrymen. He did not pretend to reproduce, but to excerpt and refashion; and consequently the French play sometimes differs from its English namesake in everything almost but the name. The plot is different, the characters are different, the motif different, and the scenic arrangement different. To Othello, for instance, he wrote two endings. In one of them Othello was enlightened in time and Desdemona escaped her tragic fate. Le Banquet de l’amitié, a poem in four cantos (1771), Au roi de Sardaigne (1775), Discours de réception à l’académie française (1779), Épître à l’amitié (1786), and a Recueil de poésies (1809), complete the list of Ducis’s publications.

An edition of his works in three volumes appeared in 1813; Œuvres posthumes were edited by Campenon in 1826; and Hamlet, Œdipe chez Admète, Macbeth and Abufar are reprinted in vol. ii. of Didot’s Chefs-d’œuvre tragiques. See Onésime Leroy, Étude sur la personne et les écrits de Ducis (1832), based on Ducis’s own memoirs preserved in the library at Versailles; Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, t. vi., and Nouveaux lundis, t. iv.; Villemain, Tableau de la litt. au XVIIIe siècle.