In the history of French tragedy only one name of importance—that of Crébillon—is to be found in the interval between Racine and Voltaire. Campistron feebly, Danchet formally and awkwardly, imitated Racine; Duché followed him in sacred tragedy; La Grange-Chancel (author of the Philippiques, directed against the Regent) followed him in tragedies on classical subjects. If any piece deserves to be distinguished above the rest, it is the Manlius (1698) of La Fosse, a work—suggestive rather of Corneille than of Racine—which was founded on the Venice Preserved of Otway. The art of Racine languished in inferior hands. The eighteenth century, while preserving its form, thought to reanimate it by the provocatives of scenic decoration and more rapid and more convulsive action.
PROSPER JOLYOT DE CRÉBILLON (1674-1762), a diligent reader of seventeenth-century romances, transported the devices of romance, its horrors, its pathetic incidents, its disguises, its surprises, its discoveries, into the theatre, and substituted a tragedy of violent situations for the tragedy of character. His Rhadamiste et Zénobie (1711), which has an air of Corneillean grandeur and heroism, notwithstanding a plot so complicated that it is difficult to follow, was received with unmeasured enthusiasm. To be atrocious within the rules was to create a new and thrilling sensation. Torrents of tears flowed for the unhappy heroine of La Motte's Inès de Castro (1723), secretly married to the Prince of Portugal, and pardoned only when the fatal poison is in her veins. Voltaire's effort to renovate classical tragedy was that of a writer who loved the theatre, first for its own sake, afterwards as an instrument for influencing public opinion, who conceived tragedy aright as the presentation of character and passion seen in action. His art suffered from his extreme facility, from his inability (except it be in Zaïre) to attain dramatic self-detachment, from the desire to conquer his spectators in the readiest ways, by striking situations, or, at a later date, by the rhetoric of philosophical doctrine and sentiment.
There is no one, with all his faults, to set beside Voltaire. Piron and Gresset are remembered, not by their tragedies, but each by a single comedy. Marmontel's Memoirs live; his tales have a faded glory; as for his tragedies, the ingenious stage asp which hissed as the curtain fell on his Cléopâtre, was a sound critic of their mediocrity. Lemierre, with some theatrical talent, wrote ill; as the love of spectacle grew, he permitted his William Tell to shoot the apple, and his widow of Malabar to die in flames upon the stage.
Saurin in Spartacus (1760) declaimed and dissertated in the manner of Voltaire. De Belloy at a lucky moment showed, in his Siège de Calais (1765), that rhetorical patriotism had survived the Seven Years' War; he was supposed to have founded that national, historic drama which the President Hénault had projected; but with the Siège de Calais the national drama rose and fell. Laharpe (1739-1803) was the latest writer who compounded classical tragedy according to the approved recipe. In the last quarter of the century Shakespeare became known to the French public through the translation of Letourneur. Before that translation began to appear, JEAN-FRANÇOIS DUCIS (1733-1816), the patron of whose imagination was his "Saint Guillaume" of Stratford, though he knew no English, had in a fashion presented Hamlet (1769) and Romeo and Juliet to his countrymen; King Lear, Macbeth, King John, Othello (1792) followed. But Ducis came a generation too soon for a true Shakespearian rendering; simple and heroic in his character as a man, he belonged to an age of philosophers and sentimentalists, an age of "virtue" and "nature." Shakespeare's translation is as strange as that of his own Bottom. Ophelia is the daughter of King Claudius; the Queen dies by her own hand; old Montague is a Montague-Ugolino who has devoured his sons; Malcolm is believed to be a mountaineer's child; Lear is borne on the stage, sleeping on a bed of roses, that he may behold a sunrise; Hédelmone (Desdemona) is no longer Othello's wife; Iago disappears; Desdemona's handkerchief is not among the properties; and Juliet's lark is voiceless. Eighteenth-century tragedy is indeed a city of tombs.
Comedy made some amends. Before the appearance of Regnard, the actor Baron, Molière's favourite pupil, had given a lively play—L'Homme à bonne Fortune (1686). JEAN-FRANÇOIS REGNARD (1655-1709) escaped from his corsair captors and slavery at Algiers, made his sorry company of knaves and fools acceptable by virtue of inexhaustible gaiety, bright fantasy, and the liveliest of comic styles. His Joueur (1696) is a scapegrace, possessed by the passion of gaming, whose love of Angélique is a devotion to her dowry, but he will console himself for lost love by another throw of the dice. His Légataire Universel, greedy, old, and ailing, is surrounded by pitiless rogues, yet the curtain falls on a general reconciliation. Regnard's morals may be doubtful, but his mirth is unquestionable.
Dancourt (1661-1725), with a far less happy style, had a truer power of observation, and as quick an instinct for theatrical effects; he exhibits in the Chevalier à la Mode and the Bourgeoises à la Mode, if not with exact fidelity, at least in telling caricature, the struggle of classes in the society around him, wealth ambitious for rank, rank prepared to sell itself for wealth. The same spirit of cynical gaiety inspires the Double Veuvage of Charles Rivière Dufresny (1655?-1724), where husband and wife, each disappointed in false tidings of the other's death, exhibit transports of feigned joy on meeting, and assist in the marriage of their respective lovers, each to accomplish the vexation of the other. Among such plays as these the Turcaret (1709) of Lesage appears as the creation of a type, and a type which verifies itself as drawn with a realism powerful and unfaltering.
In striking contrast with Lesage's bold and bitter satire are the comedies of Marivaux, delicate indeed in observation of life and character, skilled in their exploration of the byways of the heart, brilliant in fantasy, subtle in sentiment, lightly touched by the sensuality of the day. Philippe Néricault Destouches (1680-1754) had the ambition to revive the comedy of character, and by its means to read moral lessons on the stage; unfortunately what he lacked was comic power. In his most celebrated piece, Le Glorieux, he returns to the theme treated by Dancourt of the struggle between the ruined noblesse and the aspiring middle class. Pathos and something of romance are added to comedy.
Already those tendencies which were to produce the so-called comédie larmoyante were at work. Piron (1689-1773), who regarded it with hostility, undesignedly assisted in its creation; Les Fils Ingrats, named afterwards L'École des Pères, given in 1728, the story of a too generous father of ungrateful children, a play designed for mirth, was in fact fitter to draw tears than to excite laughter. Piron's special gift, however, was for satire. In La Métromanie he smiles at the folly of the aspirant poet with all his cherished illusions; yet young Damis with his folly, the innocent error of a generous spirit, wins a sympathy to which the duller representatives of good sense can make no claim. It is satire also which gives whatever comic force it possesses to the one comedy of Gresset that is not forgotten: Le Méchant (1747), a disloyal comrade, would steal the heart of his friend's beloved; soubrette and valet conspire to expose the traitor; but Cléon, who loves mischief in the spirit of sport, though unmasked, is little disconcerted. Brilliant in lines and speeches, Le Méchant is defective in its composition as a whole.
The decline in a feeling for composition, for art, for the severity of outline, was accompanied by a development of the emotional or sentimental element in drama. As sensibility was quickened, and wealth and ease increased, little things came to be felt as important. The middle class advanced in prosperity and power. Why should emperors and kings, queens and princesses occupy the stage? Why neglect the joys and griefs of every-day domestic life? If "nature" and "virtue" were to be honoured, why not seek them here? Man, the new philosophy taught, is essentially good; human nature is of itself inclined to virtue; if it strays through force of circumstance into vice or folly, should not its errors be viewed with sympathy, with tenderness? Thus comedy grew serious, and tragedy put off its exalted airs; the genius of tragedy and the genius of comedy were wedded, and the comédie larmoyante, which might be named more correctly the bourgeois drama, was born of this union.
In the plays of NIVELLE DE LA CHAUSÉE (1692-1754) the new type is already formed. The relations of wife and husband, of father and child, form the theme of all his plays. In Mélanide, father and son, unrecognised, are rivals in love; the wife and mother, supposed to be dead, is discovered; the husband returns to her arms, and is reconciled to his son. It is the victory of nature and of innate goodness; comic intention and comic power are wholly absent. La Chausée's morals are those of an optimist; but those modern domestic tragedies, the ethics of which do not err by over-sanguine views of human nature, may trace their ancestry to Mélanide.
For such serious comedy or bourgeois drama the appropriate vehicle, so Diderot maintained, is prose. Diderot, among his many gifts, did not possess a talent for dramatic writing. But as a critic his influence was considerable. Midway between tragedy and comedy he perceived a place for the serious drama; to right and left, on either side of the centre, were spaces for forms approximating, the one to tragedy, the other to comedy. The hybrid species of tragi-comedy he wholly condemned; each genre, as he conceived it, is a unity containing its own principle of life. The function of the theatre is less to represent character fully formed than to study the natural history of character, to exhibit the environments which determine character. Its purpose is to moralise life, and the chief means of moralisation is that effusive sensibility which is the outflow of the inherent goodness of human nature.
Diderot attempted to justify his theory by examples, and only proved his own incapacity as a writer for the stage. His friend SEDAINE (1719-97) was more fortunate. Of the bourgeois drama of the eighteenth century, Le Philosophe sans le savoir alone survives. It is little more than a domestic anecdote rendered dramatic, but it has life and reality. The merchant Vanderk's daughter is to be married; but on the same day his son, resenting an insult to his father, must expose his life in a duel. Old Antoine, the intendant, would take his young master's place of danger; Antoine's daughter, Victorine, half-unawares has given her heart to the gallant duellist. Hopes and fears, joy and grief contend in the Vanderk habitation. Sedaine made a true capture of a little province of nature. When Mercier (1740-1814) tried to write in the same vein, his "nature" was that of declamatory sentiment imposed upon trivial incidents. Beaumarchais, in his earlier pieces, was tearful and romantic; happily he repented him of his lugubrious sentiment, and restored to France its old gaiety in the Barbier de Séville and the inimitable Mariage de Figaro; but amid the mirth of Figaro can be heard the detonation of approaching revolutionary conflict.