Fifth Lecture by M. Doumic.
Romanticism was most successful in lyric poetry; naturally it was least so on the stage. Classic tragedy was dead. Shakespeare and Schiller were used as models. Mme. de Stael wrote "L'Allemagne," Stendhal wrote "Racine et Shakespeare." Victor Hugo in his "Preface de Cromwell" defined the drama as a mixture of the tragic and the comic with an historic stage setting and with out the three unities. But these are not the real signs of the romantic drama. In fact there was a style of play which was increasing in popular favor as tragedy declined; this was the melodrama. Romantic drama is merely well written melodrama. We shall show this by the example of Victor Hugo's plays.
Melodrama is the play of the people fashioned by them to suit their own taste. The people does not trouble itself with logic. They like their sensibility touched and their nerves shaken. They are in revolt against every form of authority.
We may find in Victor Hugo's plays all the stage setting and accessories of melodrama, grey cloaks, daggers and assorted poisons. We notice in his plays:
First, a want of logic, almost absurdity. characters say the opposite of what they would naturally say, and do the opposite of what they would naturally do. They do not speak; they declaim. The situations are exceptional and extraordinary. The characters are all conventional: The old man, the young man pursued by fate, the traitor, the mysterious man who knows everything.
Second, history for Victor Hugo is merely stage setting. For neither his facts nor his sentiments are exact. But this use of history allows the poet to vary his scenes and costumes. And there is plenty of physical suffering in his plays.
Third, the feeling of revolt against the authorities of history, especially of French history, revolt against the social order of the present time. All Victor Hugo's heroes are drawn from the outcasts of society, banditti, illegitimate children and courtizans.
The plays of Victor Hugo are good only by reason of their form,- their lyric quality, in "Hernani" and "Ruy Blas,"- their epic character in the "Burgraves," which was a forerunner of "La Legende des Siecles."