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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Mairet in 1631 formulated the doctrine of the unities


At

the Hotel de Bourgogne, until 1599, the Confreres de la Passion still exhibited the mediaeval drama. It passed away when their theatre was occupied by the company of Valleran Lecomte, who had in his pay a dramatist of inexhaustible fertility--ALEXANDRE HARDY (_c_. 1560 to _c_. 1630). During thirty years, from the opening of the seventeenth century onwards, Hardy, author of some six or seven hundred pieces, of which forty-one remain, reigned as master of the stage.[1] A skilful improvisor, devoid of genius, devoid of taste, he is the founder of the French theatre; he first made a true appeal to the people; he first showed a true feeling for theatrical effects. Wherever material suitable for his purposes could be caught at--ancient or modern, French, Italian, or Spanish--Hardy made it his own. Whatever form seemed likely to win the popular favour, this he accepted or divined. The _Astree_ had made pastoral the fashion; Hardy was ready with his pastoral dramas. The Italian and Spanish novels were little tragi-comedies waiting to be dramatised; forthwith Hardy cast them into a theatrical mould. Writing for the people, he was not trammelled by the unities of time and place; the mediaeval stage arrangements favoured romantic freedom. In his desire to please a public which demanded animation, action, variety, Hardy allowed romantic incident to predominate over character; hence, though he produced tragedies founded on legendary or historical subjects, his special talent is seen rather
in tragi-comedy. He complicated the intrigue, he varied the scenes, he shortened the monologues, he suppressed or reduced the chorus--in a word, the drama in his hands ceased to be oratorical or lyrical, and became at length dramatic. The advance was great; and it was achieved by a hack playwright scrambling for his crusts of bread.

[Footnote 1: Or thirty-four pieces, if _Theagene et Cariclee_ be reckoned as only one.]

But to dramatic life and movement it was necessary that order, discipline, regulation should be added. The rules of the unities were not observed by Hardy--were perhaps unknown to him. But they were known to others. Jean de Schelandre (the pseudonym formed from the letters of his name being Daniel d'Ancheres), in his vast drama in two parts, _Tyr et Sidon_, claimed all the freedom of the mysteries in varying the scene, in mingling heroic matter with buffoonery. In the edition of 1628 a preface appears by Francois Ogier, a learned churchman, maintaining that the modern stage, in accordance with altered circumstances, should maintain its rights to complete imaginative liberty against the authority of the Greeks, who presented their works before different spectators under different conditions. Ogier's protest was without effect. Almost immediately after its appearance the _Sophonisbe_ of Jean de Mairet was given, and the classical tragedy of France was inaugurated on a popular stage. In the preface to his pastoral tragi-comedy _Sylvanire_, Mairet in 1631 formulated the doctrine of the unities. The adhesion of Richelieu and the advocacy of Chapelain insured their triumph. The "rules" came to be regarded as the laws of a literary species.


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