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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

May trace their ancestry to Melanide


The

decline in a feeling for composition, for art, for the severity of outline, was accompanied by a development of the emotional or sentimental element in drama. As sensibility was quickened, and wealth and ease increased, little things came to be felt as important. The middle class advanced in prosperity and power. Why should emperors and kings, queens and princesses occupy the stage? Why neglect the joys and griefs of every-day domestic life? If "nature" and "virtue" were to be honoured, why not seek them here? Man, the new philosophy taught, is essentially good; human nature is of itself inclined to virtue; if it strays through force of circumstance into vice or folly, should not its errors be viewed with sympathy, with tenderness? Thus comedy grew serious, and tragedy put off its exalted airs; the genius of tragedy and the genius of comedy were wedded, and the _comedie larmoyante_, which might be named more correctly the bourgeois drama, was born of this union.

In the plays of NIVELLE DE LA CHAUSEE (1692-1754) the new type is already formed. The relations of wife and husband, of father and child, form the theme of all his plays. In _Melanide_, father and son, unrecognised, are rivals in love; the wife and mother, supposed to be dead, is discovered; the husband returns to her arms, and is reconciled to his son. It is the victory of nature and of innate goodness; comic intention and comic power are wholly absent. La Chausee's morals are those

of an optimist; but those modern domestic tragedies, the ethics of which do not err by over-sanguine views of human nature, may trace their ancestry to _Melanide_.

For such serious comedy or bourgeois drama the appropriate vehicle, so Diderot maintained, is prose. Diderot, among his many gifts, did not possess a talent for dramatic writing. But as a critic his influence was considerable. Midway between tragedy and comedy he perceived a place for the serious drama; to right and left, on either side of the centre, were spaces for forms approximating, the one to tragedy, the other to comedy. The hybrid species of tragi-comedy he wholly condemned; each genre, as he conceived it, is a unity containing its own principle of life. The function of the theatre is less to represent character fully formed than to study the natural history of character, to exhibit the environments which determine character. Its purpose is to moralise life, and the chief means of moralisation is that effusive sensibility which is the outflow of the inherent goodness of human nature.

Diderot attempted to justify his theory by examples, and only proved his own incapacity as a writer for the stage. His friend SEDAINE (1719-97) was more fortunate. Of the bourgeois drama of the eighteenth century, _Le Philosophe sans le savoir_ alone survives. It is little more than a domestic anecdote rendered dramatic, but it has life and reality. The merchant Vanderk's daughter is to be married; but on the same day his son, resenting an insult to his father, must expose his life in a duel. Old Antoine, the intendant, would take his young master's place of danger; Antoine's daughter, Victorine, half-unawares has given her heart to the gallant duellist. Hopes and fears, joy and grief contend in the Vanderk habitation. Sedaine made a true capture of a little province of nature. When Mercier (1740-1814) tried to write in the same vein, his "nature" was that of declamatory sentiment imposed upon trivial incidents. Beaumarchais, in his earlier pieces, was tearful and romantic; happily he repented him of his lugubrious sentiment, and restored to France its old gaiety in the _Barbier de Seville_ and the inimitable _Mariage de Figaro_; but amid the mirth of _Figaro_ can be heard the detonation of approaching revolutionary conflict.


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