Some Thoughts on the Dramatic Arts
There is an impression
I have about Horace that I wish to share with you, not because of
a liking for paradox but through simple sincerity. It is
understood amongst scholars of a certain rank that local colour
is totally missing in XVIIth century tragedy. On this both
classicists and romanticists agree; the only difference is that
one says it better and the other so much the worse. Well, it
seems to me that nothing could be more Roman than Horace. I have
neither the time not the pretension to explain it to you at great
length: but observe, please, the thoroughly Roman character of
the old Horace. First of all, he sacrifices everything to the
interests of Rome, which, by the way, is also common to the young
Horace. Now, is he sufficiently pater familias, this old
warrior? Do we really think he has the right of life and death
over his children?
Is he sufficiently terrible and sufficiently Roman when he "testifies to the gods the supreme powers", that he is going to kill his son who has fled? I have been told that Saint-Marc Girardin has observed this character of pater familias. So, I have an authority. Finally, do you not find that, the consciousness of the greatness of the life eternal does not vibrate in these virile and solid verses as much as the love of Rome? Do you not think that Horace must have had as much Romanism as the Aeneid, so that we cannot but laugh, (not with Paul Mounet) on hearing an actor declaim: "The gods promised this glory to our Aeneid". One scruple stops me in the end. Perhaps I am mistaken. Because I was going to give you in conclusion, as a supremely Roman character, that of Valère. You know that d'Aubigné did not like his long speech for the defence in act 5, long refuted: he wanted a duel. Corneille responded that a Frenchman would fight but a Roman would debate and argue! So that the local colour in Corneille (I do not need to say that it is totally moral, totally interior, totally in character) is reasoned, foreseen, intentional. But I tell myself: this Roman characteristic of defence council, this genius of advocacy, is that of Corneille's. Rodrigue is a barrister, as is Chimène, Don Diègue and Géronte as well, and all the rest. Well then I am wrong. What I took for local colour is nothing but an inexplicable atavism, and if Corneille gives his heroes the soul that we identify with the ancient Romans, it is because that soul is his own, at the same time both sublime and subtle, born of heroism and reason, the soul of a patriotic soldier and a patient advocate. Nevertheless, it is again the only one with local colour. After so many contradictions I dare not make any further conclusion...
Le Lundi, 5 December 1887.
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