Thursday, April 21, 2011

Virgil of the French Drama

'It was not decoration and splendour alone which the French stage owed to Louis XIV. Its principal obligation was for that patronage which called forth in its service the talents of Corneille and Racine, the Homer and Virgil of the French Drama. However constrained by pedantic rules; however withheld from using that infinite variety of materials, which national and individual character presented to them; however frequently compelled by system to adopt a pompous, solemn, and declamatory style of dialogue—these distinguished authors still remain the proudest boast of the classical age of France, and a high honour to the European republic of letters. It seems probable that Corneille. if left to the exercise of his own judgment, would have approximated more to the romantic drama. The Cid possesses many of the charms of that species of composition. In the character of Don Gourmas, he has drawn a national portrait of the Spanish nobility, for which very excellence he was subjected to the censure of the Academy, his national court of criticism. In a general point of view, he seems to have been ambitious of overawing his audience by a display of the proud, the severe, the ambitious, and the terrible. Tyrants and conquerors have never sat to a painter of greater skill; and the romantic tone of feeling which he adopts in his more perfect characters is allied to that of chivalry. But Corneille was deficient in tenderness, in dramatic art, and in the power of moving the passions. His fame, too, was injured by the multiplicity 9f his efforts to extend it. Critics of his own nation have numbered about twenty of his Dramas, which have little to recommend them; and no foreign reader is very likely to verify or refute the censure, since he must previously read them to an end.

Racine, who began to write when the classical fetters were clinched and rivetted upon the French Drama, did not make that effort of struggling with his chains, which we observe in the elder dramatists; he was strong where Corneille evinced weakness, and weak in the points where his predecessor showed vigour. Racine delineated the passion of love with truth, softness, and fidelity; and his scenes of this sort, form the strongest possible contrast with those in which he, as well as Corneille, sacrificed to the dull Cupid of metaphysical romance. In refinement and harmony of versification. Racine has hitherto been unequalled; and his Athalie is, perhaps, likely to be generally acknowledged as the most finished production of the French Drama. '

The text above is included in Sir Walter Scott's "Essay on the Drama". French dramatist Jean Racine died on April 21, 1699.

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