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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

He is condemned to death by his father Venceslas


The

drama of Corneille deals with what is extraordinary, but in what is extraordinary it seeks for truth. He finds the marvellous in the triumphs of the human will. His great inventive powers were applied to creating situations for the manifestation of heroic energy. History attracted him, because a basis of fact seemed to justify what otherwise could not be accepted as probable. Great personages suited his purpose, because they can deploy their powers on the amplest scale. His characters, men and women, act not through blind, instinctive passion, but with deliberate and intelligent force; they reason, and too often with casuistical subtlety, about their emotions. At length he came to glorify the will apart from its aims and ends, when tending even to crime, or acting, as it were, in the void. He thought much of the principles of his art, and embodied his conclusions in critical dissertations and studies of his own works. He accepted the rule of the unities of place and time (of which at first he was ignorant) as far as his themes permitted, as far as the rules served to concentrate action and secure verisimilitude. His mastery in verse of a masculine eloquence is unsurpassed; his dialogue of rapid statement and swift reply is like a combat with Roman short swords; in memorable single lines he explodes, as it were, a vast charge of latent energy, and effects a clearance for the progress of his action. His faults, like his virtues, are great; and though faults and virtues may be travestied,
both are in reality alike inimitable.

Alone among Corneille's dramatic rivals, if they deserve that name--Du Ryer, Tristan, Scudery, Boisrobert, and others--JEAN ROTROU (1610-50) had the magnanimity to render homage to the master of his art. While still a boy he read Sophocles, and resolved that he would live for the dramatic art. His facility was great, and he had the faults of a facile writer, who started on his career at the age of nineteen. He could not easily submit to the regulation of the classical drama, and squandered his talents in extravagant tragi-comedies; but his work grew sounder and stronger towards the close. _Saint Genest_ (1645), which is derived, but in no servile fashion, from Lope de Vega, recalls _Polyeucte_; an actor of the time of Diocletian, in performing the part of a Christian martyr, is penetrated by the heroic passion which he represents, confesses his faith, and receives its crown in martyrdom. The tragi-comedy _Don Bernard de Cabrere_ and the tragedy _Venceslas_ of the following year exhibit the romantic and passionate sides of Rotrou's genius. The intemperate yet noble Ladislas has rashly and in error slain his brother; he is condemned to death by his father Venceslas, King of Poland, and he accepts his doom. The situation is such as Corneille might have imagined; but Rotrou's young hero in the end is pardoned and receives the kingdom. If their careless construction and unequal style in general forbade the dramas of Rotrou to hold the stage, they remained as a store from which greater artists than he could draw their material. His death was noble: the plague having broken out at Dreux, he hastened from Paris to the stricken town, disregarding all affectionate warnings, there to perform his duty as a magistrate; within a few days the inhabitants followed Rotrou's coffin to the parish church.


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