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 NINETEENTH
AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES

Madame de Staël combines a good deal of the eighteenth century--Diderot and Rousseau in particular--with the new spirit of Romanticism. The result of her association with the German writers, the Schlegels in particular, was her book De l'Allemagne ( 1810), which brought over the seeds of the movement which was soon to blossom forth in the plays of Victor Hugo. It was of course not altogether due to her work that the Romanticism of 1830 came when and as it did, but her books-- De la Littérature, etc. ( 1800) should be added to the first--went far to interest the writers of the time. Her chapter De l'art dramatique in the book on Germany was obviously an echo of the Romanticists in Germany. Her contemporary, Chateaubriand, touches upon the drama in his epoch-making Le Génie du Christianisme ( 1802)--second part. Doubtless the French Revolution, with its attempts to establish a popular theater (see the decrees of the Committee of Public Safety)1 had its share in influencing the artistic ideals of the time, though these were not fully developed until Michelet, and by Romain Rolland toward the end of the century. Népomucène Lemercier did a good deal of his work in the Revolutionary period, and his Cours de littérature générale was published in 1817. Alexandre Duval Réflexions sur l'art de la comédie ( 1820) might be mentioned in passing. A more or less complete treatise on the theater is J.-L. Geoffroy Cours de littérature dramatique ( 1819-20). The earliest of the more detailed Romantic criticisms of drama are in the work of Benjamin Constant ( Réflexions sur la tragédie, etc., 1829, and his Quelques Réflexions on Schiller and the German drama, 1809); Henri Beyle (Stendhal) ( Racine et Shakespeare, 1822); and Sainte-Beuve ( Tableau historique et critique de la Poésie française et du théâtre français au XVIe siècle 1828). This book aroused great interest in early French literature and drama. Sainte- Beuve, who is said to have disliked the theater, wrote little purely dramatic criticism, though his essays on Corneille and Racine, and some others, are acute and interesting. (See Causeries du Lundi ( 1851-62); Portraits littéraires ( 1862-64); Port-Royal ( 1840-60); Premiers Lundis ( 1875); and Nouveaux Lundis ( 1863-72).) The Romantic dramatists, with Victor Hugo at their head, exposed their theories at great length. Hugo himself in the celebrated Préface to Cromwell ( 1827) called the younger poets to arms, and gave them a rallying standard. Nearly all his plays were preceded by prefaces, which appeared for the most part between 1827 and 1840. His William Shakespeare was published in 1864. Alexandre Dumas, in his Mémoires ( 1852-54), his various prefaces (in the many volumes of his Théâtre complet) and Souvenirs dramatiques ( 1868) is full of interesting matter. Alfred de Vigny clearly set forth his ideas in the Avant-Propos de l'édition de 1839 of Le More de Venise and in the Lettre à Lord * * * sur la soirée de 24 octobre, 1829, et sur un systéme dramatique, and in the preface to his play Chatterton, written in 1834. Théophile Gautier, another Romantic, exposed his theories in his Histoire du Romantisme ( 1874), Les Grotesques ( 1844), and his Histoire de l'art dramatique, etc. ( 1858-59). A large number of writers, better known as poets, novelists, and miscellaneous essayists, wrote copiously on the theater, and a casual ref

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1
See Romain Rolland, Le Théâtre du peuple ( Paris, 1903), for quotations from various Revolutionary documents.--Ed.

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