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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Jean francois ducis 1733 1816


PROSPER JOLYOT DE CREBILLON (1674-1762), a diligent reader of seventeenth-century romances, transported the devices of romance, its horrors, its pathetic incidents, its disguises, its surprises, its discoveries, into the theatre, and substituted a tragedy of violent situations for the tragedy of character. His _Rhadamiste et Zenobie_ (1711), which has an air of Corneillean grandeur and heroism, notwithstanding a plot so complicated that it is difficult to follow, was received with unmeasured enthusiasm. To be atrocious within the rules was to create a new and thrilling sensation. Torrents of tears flowed for the unhappy heroine of La Motte's _Ines de Castro_ (1723), secretly married to the Prince of Portugal, and pardoned only when the fatal poison is in her veins. Voltaire's effort to renovate classical tragedy was that of a writer who loved the theatre, first for its own sake, afterwards as an instrument for influencing public opinion, who conceived tragedy aright as the presentation of character and passion seen in action. His art suffered from his extreme facility, from his inability (except it be in _Zaire_) to attain dramatic self-detachment, from the desire to conquer his spectators in the readiest ways, by striking situations, or, at a later date, by the rhetoric of philosophical doctrine and sentiment.

There is no one, with all his faults, to set beside Voltaire. Piron and Gresset are remembered, not by their tragedies, but each by a single comedy. Marmontel's Memoirs live; his tales have a faded glory; as for his tragedies, the ingenious stage asp which hissed as the curtain fell on his _Cleopatre_, was a sound critic of their mediocrity. Lemierre, with some theatrical talent, wrote ill; as the love of spectacle grew, he permitted his William Tell to shoot the apple, and his widow of Malabar to die in flames upon the stage.

Saurin in _Spartacus_ (1760) declaimed and dissertated in the manner of Voltaire. De Belloy at a lucky moment showed, in his _Siege de Calais_ (1765), that rhetorical patriotism had survived the Seven Years' War; he was supposed to have founded that national, historic drama which the President Henault had projected; but with the _Siege de Calais_ the national drama rose and fell. Laharpe (1739-1803) was the latest writer who compounded classical tragedy according to the approved recipe. In the last quarter of the century Shakespeare became known to the French public through the translation of Letourneur. Before that translation began to appear, JEAN-FRANCOIS DUCIS (1733-1816), the patron of whose imagination was his "Saint Guillaume" of Stratford, though he knew no English, had in a fashion presented Hamlet (1769) and Romeo and Juliet to his countrymen; King Lear, Macbeth, King John, Othello (1792) followed. But Ducis came a generation too soon for a true Shakespearian rendering; simple and heroic in his character as a man, he belonged to an age of philosophers and sentimentalists, an age of "virtue" and "nature." Shakespeare's translation is as strange as that of his own Bottom. Ophelia is the daughter of King Claudius; the Queen dies by her own hand; old Montague is a Montague-Ugolino who has devoured his sons; Malcolm is believed to be a mountaineer's child; Lear is borne on the stage, sleeping on a bed of roses, that he may behold a sunrise; Hedelmone (Desdemona) is no longer Othello's wife; Iago disappears; Desdemona's handkerchief is not among the properties; and Juliet's lark is voiceless. Eighteenth-century tragedy is indeed a city of tombs.


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