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The Early Drama
by [?]

“It is curious to trace the first rude attempts of the drama in various nations; to observe at that moment how crude is the imagination, and to trace the caprices it indulges; and that the resemblance in these attempts holds in the earliest essays of Greece, of France, of Spain, of England, and, what appears extraordinary, even of China and Mexico.”

The rude beginnings of the drama of Greece are sufficiently known, and the old mysteries of Europe have been exhibited in a former article. The progress of the French theatre has been this:–

Etienne Jodelle, in 1552, seems to have been the first who had a tragedy represented of his own invention, entitled Cleopatra–it was a servile imitation of the form of the Grecian tragedy; but if this did not require the highest genius, it did the utmost intrepidity; for the people were, through long habit, intoxicated with the wild amusement they amply received from their farces and moralities.

The following curious anecdote, which followed the first attempt at classical imitation, is very observable. Jodelle’s success was such, that his rival poets, touched by the spirit of the Grecian muse, showed a singular proof of their enthusiasm for this new poet, in a classical festivity which gave room for no little scandal in that day; yet as it was produced by a carnival, it was probably a kind of drunken bout. Fifty poets, during the carnival of 1552, went to Arcueil. Chance, says the writer of the life of the old French bard Ronsard, who was one of the present profane party, threw across their road a goat–which having caught, they ornamented the goat with chaplets of flowers, and carried it triumphantly to the hall of their festival, to appear to sacrifice to Bacchus, and to present it to Jodelle; for the goat, among the ancients, was the prize of the tragic bards; the victim of Bacchus, who presided over tragedy,

Carmine, qui tragico, vilem certavit ob hircum.

The goat thus adorned, and his beard painted, was hunted about the long table, at which the fifty poets were seated; and after having served them for a subject of laughter for some time, he was hunted out of the room, and not sacrificed to Bacchus. Each of the guests made verses on the occasion, in imitation of the Bacchanalia of the ancients. Ronsard composed some dithyrambics to celebrate the festival of the goat of Etienne Jodelle; and another, entitled “Our travels to Arcueil.” However, this Bacchaualian freak did not finish as it ought, where it had begun, among the poets. Several ecclesiastics sounded the alarm, and one Chandieu accused Ronsard with having performed an idolatrous sacrifice; and it was easy to accuse the moral habits of fifty poets assembled together, who were far, doubtless, from being irreproachable. They repented for some time of their classical sacrifice of a goat to Tragedy.

Hardi, the French Lope de Vega, wrote 800 dramatic pieces from 1600 to 1637; his imagination was the most fertile possible; but so wild and unchecked, that though its extravagances are very amusing, they served as so many instructive lessons to his successors. One may form a notion of his violation of the unities by his piece “La Force du Sang.” In the first act Leocadia is carried off and ravished. In the second she is sent back with an evident sign of pregnancy. In the third she lies in, and at the close of this act her son is about ten years old. In the fourth, the father of the child acknowledges him; and in the fifth, lamenting his son’s unhappy fate, he marries Leocadia. Such are the pieces in the infancy of the drama.

Rotrou was the first who ventured to introduce several persons in the same scene; before his time they rarely exceeded two persons; if a third appeared, he was usually a mute actor, who never joined the other two. The state of the theatre was even then very rude; the most lascivious embraces were publicly given and taken; and Rotrou even ventured to introduce a naked page in the scene, who in this situation holds a dialogue with one of his heroines. In another piece, “Scedase, ou l’hospitalite violee,” Hardi makes two young Spartans carry off Scedase’s two daughters, ravish them on the stage, and, violating them in the side scenes, the spectators heard their cries and their complaints. Cardinal Richelieu made the theatre one of his favourite pursuits, and though not successful as a dramatic writer, his encouragement of the drama gradually gave birth to genius. Scudery was the first who introduced the twenty-four hours from Aristotle; and Mairet studied the construction of the fable, and the rules of the drama. They yet groped in the dark, and their beauties were yet only occasional; Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Crebillon, and Voltaire perfected the French drama.