Sociology of Eighteenth Century French Drama. by G. V. Plechanov

< Part I

Part II—continued

A child of the aristocracy, the classic tragedy, unlimitedly and indisputably reigned on the French stage while the aristocracy predominated socially in the bounds assigned by the constitutional monarchy, which itself was a historic result of the lasting and embittered struggle of classes in France. When the supreme position of the aristocracy began to be a subject of dispute, when people of “the middle state” were possessed of a rebellious frame of mind, the extant literary conceptions began to appear to these people unsatisfactory, and the old theatre not instructive, enough. And then, simultaneous with the gradual fall of the classic tragedy, the bourgeois drama made itself evident. In the bourgeois drama the French “man of middle state” set his family virtues against the deeply-spoiled aristocracy. But that social contradiction, which France then had to solve, could not be decided by the aid of moral preaching. The subject was then not about the removal of aristocratic vices, but the removal of the aristocracy itself. It is understood that this could not come to pass without embittered struggle, and it is not less clear that the father of the family, in all fervent esteem of his bourgeois morality, could not serve as the model of an untiring and intrepid martyr. The literary portrayal of the bourgeoisie did not inspire heroism. And yet the opponents of the old order felt the need of heroism, were conscious of the necessity of the development of civic virtues in the Third Estate. Where was it possible, then, to find models of such virtue? There — where they searched before for standards of literary taste : in the ancient world.

So again the reversion to heroes of the old civilisations. Now the opponent of the aristocracy says no more — like Beaumarchais—“Of what concern to me, a citizen of a monarchical state of the eighteenth century, are the events of Athens and Rome?” Now the Athenian and Roman events re-awakened in the public the liveliest interest. But this interest took on another character.

If the young ideologists of the bourgeoisie were interested now in sacrificing a young princess of Aulis, they were interested in it mainly as a source of material for revealing superstition; if their attention could be attracted by the “death of some Pelopennesian tyrant,” then this attraction was due, not so much to its psychologic as its political side. Nor were they attracted by the monarchical age of August, but by the republican heroes of Plutarch. Plutarch became the text-book of the young bourgeois ideologists, as the memoirs of Mme. Rolland show. And this love for the republican heroes once more revived an interest in ancient life. Imitation of antiquity became the fashion, and it put a deep imprint upon all French art of the time. We shall note that, in addition, this same imitation weakened the interest in the bourgeois drama, because of the prosaicness of its substance, and for a long time delayed the death of the classic tragedy.

Historians of French literature frequently have asked themselves in surprise: what is the explanation of the fact that the plotters and workers of the great French Revolution remained conservatives in the domain of literature? And why did classicism fall only a long time after the fall of the old order? But in reality the literary conservatism of the innovators of that time was only external. If tragedy did not change as a form, then it suffered a necessary change in the matter of content.

Let us take Spartacus, the tragedy of Sorraine, which appeared in 1760. Its hero, Spartacus, is full of yearning for freedom. For the sake of his great idea he even refuses to marry the girl he loves, and all through the play he continues to talk about freedom and humanity. In order to write such tragedies and praise them, it was absolutely essential that one be not a literary conservative. An entirely new and revolutionary substance was poured into the old literary leather flasks.

Tragedies like those of Sorraine and Lemverre exemplify one of the most revolutionary demands of the literary innovator Diderot: they depict, not characters, but social conditions, and especially the revolutionary social tendencies of the time. And if this new wine was poured into old leather flasks, then it is to be explained by the fact that these leather flasks were overshadowed by the same antiquity, the general love for which was one of the most significant, most characteristic symptoms of the new social mood. Side by side with the diverse types of the classic tragedy, according to Beaumarchais, the bourgeois drama could not but seem too poor, too insipid, too conservative in its content.

The bourgeois drama was brought to life by the opposite attitude of the French bourgeoisie, and no longer was suitable for the expression of its revolutionary inclination. The literary portrayal accurately defined the transition of the bourgeois; therefore the characterisations ceased being interesting when the bourgeoisie’ lost these features and when these features ceased to seem pleasant.

The classic tragedy existed close to the time when the French bourgeoisie finally triumphed over the defenders of the new order, and when the love for the republican heroes of antiquity lost all social significance for the bourgeoisie. And when this time came, the bourgeois drama received new impetus, and suffered some necessary changes according to the peculiarities of the new social condition, but these changes were not important nor definite enough to prevent the drama’s asserting itself on the French stage.

Even those who refused to acknowledge any consanguineous relation between the romantic drama and the bourgeois drama of the eighteenth century would have to agree that the dramatic productions of, for instance, the son of Alexandre Dumas represent the bourgeois drama of the nineteenth century.

In the productions of art and literary tastes of a given time is expressed the social psychology; and in the psychology of a society which is divided into classes much will remain vague and paradoxical to us if we continue to ignore—as the historical idealists do, despite the best intentions of the bourgeois historical scientists—the mutual relation of classes and the class struggle.

(Translated for Modern Quarterly by Bessie Peretz.)