European Theories of the Drama: An Anthology of Dramatic Theory and Criticism from Aristotle to the Present Day

By Barrett H. Clark | Go to book overview

FRENCH DRAMATIC CRITICISM OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

It is not surprising to find in eighteenth century French dramatic criticism and theory a good deal of the philosophical spirit which runs through the Encyclopedie and the works of its many contributors. The seventeenth century was on the whole religious in spirit and if not anti-, at least, un-democratic. The Ancients and Moderns quarrel, begun in 1657, became acute in 1687, on the publication of Charles Perrault Siécle de Louis le Grand. La Fontaine, La Bruyère, Fontenelle, Boileau, and Fénelon, soon joined the discussion, some maintaining the superiority of the Ancients, some the Modems, and Fénelon standing midway between the two. Fontenelle, who wrote a few unsuccessful plays, is the author of a Vie de Corneille, a history of the French theater, and general prefaces to his collected plays (found respectively in volume 7 of the 1751 edition of his Œuvres and in volume 4 of the 1790 edition). His Remarques sur quelques comédies d'Aristophane, Sur le théâ- tre grec, and the Réfiexions sur la poétique, in the third volume of the latter, are his chief contributions to dramatic theory. Antoine Houdar de La Metre, a friend of Fontenelle, began one of the earliest literary disputes of the new century. His "up-to-date" version of the Iliad called forth the wrath of Madame Dacier; the quarrel became general, but La Motte was soon crushed by the straightforward reasoning of Voltaire. La Motte's theories were not confined to epic poetry; himself a dramatist (his Inès de Castro was produced with signal success in 1723), he evolved an interesting theory in discussing the Unities: the Unity of Interest. His Premier Discours sur la tragédie, the three Discours prefixed to the plays Romulus, Inès, and Œdipe, and the Suite des réfiexions sur la tragŕdie, attack from some point of view the various literary and dramatic questions of the early eighteenth century. Among the other precursors whose work is more or less directly concerned with the drama is Pierre Bayle, whose Dictionnaire historique et critique appeared in 1697. Bossuet Maximes et réfiexions sur la comédie which, while it is concerned chiefly with the moral point of view, is partially critical, was first published in 1694. This treatise and the similar works of Conti and Nicole ( Traité de la Comédie and Pensées sur les spectacles), corresponded with the puritanical outbursts by Collier and his followers in England. Cailhava Art de la comédie ( 1722), Crébillon Préface to Elèctre ( 1715) and other plays, the Abbé du Bos' Réfiexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture ( 1719), all contain historical, controversial, and critical matter touching upon the drama. Fénelon Lettre sur les occupations de l'Académie française ( 1717) contains a veritable Poetic on comedy and tragedy. The figure of Voltaire dominates the century. His first play, Œdipe, was produced in 1718. The standard editions include seven letters on the play, containing general remarks, with comparisons of the various ways in which the story had been treated in the past. There are about forty dedications, prefaces, etc., in which Voltaire discusses his theories of the drama; the Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique, Commentaires sur Corneille, and finally Lettres, which run to the number of ten thousand, are likewise full of references to drama. These are scattered throughout Voltaire's lifetime, and have a distinct bearing on his attempts to resuscitate tragedy to its position of former dignity and popularity. Meanwhile, other influences were at work: the spirit of philosophical inquiry, the quest for "truth," resulted in the compilation of the celebrated Encyclopédie, which was begun by Diderot

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