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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Like Marion Delorme and Hernani


The

genius of Hugo was pre-eminently lyrical; the movement to which he belonged was also essentially lyrical, a movement for the emancipation of the personal element in art; it is by qualities which are non-dramatic that his dramas are redeemed from dishonour. When, in 1830, his _Hernani_ was presented at the Theatre Francais, a strange, long-haired, bearded, fantastically-attired brigade of young supporters engaged in a melee with those spectators who represented the tyranny of tradition. "Kill him! he is an Academician," was heard above the tumult. Gautier's truculent waistcoat flamed in the thickest of the fight. The enthusiasm of Gautier's party was justified by splendours of lyrism and of oratory; but Hugo's play is ill-constructed, and the characters are beings of a fantastic world. In _Marion Delorme_, in _Le Roi s'amuse_, in the prose-tragedy _Lucrece Borgia_, Victor Hugo develops a favourite theme by a favourite method--the moral antithesis of some purity of passion surviving amid a life of corruption, the apotheosis of virtue discovered in a soul abandoned to vice, and exhibited in violent contrasts. Marion is ennobled by the sacrifice of whatever remains to her of honour; the moral deformity of Lucrece is purified by her instinct of maternal love; the hideous Triboulet is beautiful by virtue of his devotion as a father. The dramatic study of character is too often replaced by sentimental rhetoric. _Ruy Blas_, like _Marion Delorme_ and _Hernani_, has extraordinary beauties;
yet the whole, with its tears and laughter, its lackey turned minister of state, its amorous queen, is an incredible phantasmagoria. _Angelo_ is pure melodrama; _Marie Tudor_ is the melodrama of history. _Les Burgraves_ rises from declamation to poetry, or sinks from poetry to declamation; it is grandiose, epic, or, if the reader please, symbolic; it is much that it ought not to be, much that is admirable and out of place; failing in dramatic truth, it fails with a certain sublimity. The logic of action, truth of characterisation, these in tragic creation are essentials; no heights or depths of poetry which is non-dramatic can entirely justify works which do not accept the conditions proper to their kind.

The tragedy of _Torquemada_, strange in conception, wonderful--and wonderfully unequal--in imaginative power, was an inspiration of Hugo's period of exile, wrought into form in his latest years. The dramas of the earlier period, opening with an historical play too enormous for the stage, closed in 1843 with _Les Burgraves_, which is an epic in dialogue. Aspiring to revolutionary freedom, the romantic drama disdained the bounds of art; epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy met and mingled, with a result too often chaotic. The desired harmony of contraries was not attained. Past ages were to be revived upon the stage. The historic evocation possessed too often neither historic nor human truth; it consisted in "local colour," and local colour meant a picturesque display of theatrical bric-a-brac. Yet a drama requires some centre of unity. Failing of unity in coherent action and well-studied character, can a centre be provided by some philosophical or pseudo-philosophical idea? Victor Hugo, wealthy in imagery, was not wealthy in original ideas; in grandiose prefaces he attempted to exhibit his art as the embodiment of certain abstract conceptions. A great poet is not necessarily a philosophical poet. Hugo's interpretations of his own art are only evidence of the fact that a writer's vanity can practise on his credulity.


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