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the unity of the fable, we read: “It is requisite, therefore, that as in other imitative arts one imitation is the imitation of one thing, thus also, the fable, since it is an imitation of action, should be the imitation of one action, and of the whole of this, and that the parts of the transactions should be so arranged, that any one of them being transposed or taken away, the whole would become different and changed. For that which when present or not present produces no sensible difference, is not a part of the fable.”
Here we have enunciated the theory of the unity of action, a theory that almost up to our own day has been accepted as forming the basis of intelligent and constructive dramatic criticism. In practice, at least, succeeding dramatists did not always agree with Aristotle in laying the principal emphasis on action or plot and making the characters subordinate and even incidental-certainly Molière did not in his comedies of manners like Tartuffe and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme-but critics have been all but unanimous in accepting the unity of action as a matter of course, as a postulate essential to any well ordered and well advised appreciation of any sort of dramatic offering.
But what of the other unities, those of time and place? They were "educed" from the Poetics by writers on the drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of Aristotle's apparently casual statements of fact—that tragedy endeavors as far as possible to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun (Poetics, chap. v)was elaborated into a rule by certain Italian critics. Giraldi Cinthio (1504-1573) held that the action of a play should not extend over a greater period than twenty-four hours, Francesco Robortelli (1516-1567) reduced Cinthio's time limit by one half, and Gian-Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550) held the unity of time to be accepted by all save unlearned writers.
Learned writers were supposed to be aware that the unity of time was observed in the Greek drama. For the most part it was; perhaps, as Lessing suggests,” because the members of the chorus who impersonated Athenian citizens or Argive maidens could hardly be expected to remain out of their houses for more than several consecutive hours; but there are several instances where the time represented in a Greek play occupies more than a single revolution of the sun. As Butcher points out:
i Hamburgische Dramaturgie.
"In the Eumenides months or years elapse between the opening of the play and the next scene. The Trachiniae of Sophocles and the Supplices of Euripides afford other and striking instances of the violation of the so-called rule. In the Agamemnon, even
, if a definite interval of days cannot be assumed between the firesignals announcing the fall of Troy and the return of Agamemnon, at any rate the conditions of time are disregarded and the march of events is imaginatively accelerated.”
The unity of place was first suggested by Joseph Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558). The most doughty champion of the unities in Italy was Lodovico Castelvetro (1505-1571), who, in his commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle (1561), not only insists upon the neces
( sity of the unity of time and the unity of place, but even subordinates to them the unity of action. All three unities are necessary, he says, but the unity of action is made necessary by the unity of time and the unity of place. "And so," as Professor Saintsbury picturesquely remarks, "the Fatal Three, the Weird Sisters of dramatic criticism, the vampires that sucked the blood out of nearly all European tragedy, save in England and Spain, for three centuries, make their appearance.
Just when “the Fatal Three” crossed over into France, we do not know; but we do know that they were unsightly hags in the eyes of at least one playwright and critic-François Ogier, of whose personality we know little but of whose attitude toward the unities there can be no doubt. As early as 1628—and the date has a special importance in view of the fact that Chapelain is commonly credited with having introduced the theory of the unities into France—there appeared a play entitled Tyr et Sidon by an obscure writer whose name was de Schélandre d’Anchères, with a preface by Ogier. That preface, antedating the production of Corneille's Cid by eight years, is written in a key of revolt against the unities. Ogier recognizes their sway-"cette règle que nos critiques veulent nous faire guarder si religieusement à cette heure”--but chafes under the yoke. He is rabidly anti-classical. He shows that the alleged unity of time is violated by Sophocles in the Antigone. He protests against the extraordinary conicidences whereby, "comme par art de magie," the characters in the Greek drama appear at the psychological moment. He
* Aristotle's Theory of Poetry, ch. vii, p. 291.
concedes that the Greek theater and its rules may have served well enough for its time and its people, but he insists that with other times and climes and folks should come other rules of dramaturgy.
We have given François Ogier more attention than at first sight he might seem to deserve; but he is worth while, first, because his preface shows that the theory of the unities had found favor in France earlier than has been hitherto supposed; and secondly, because he is an example in the literary world of one born out of due time, a premature advocate of a reaction that had not as yet set in—"sports" botanists would call such-somewhat as Chatterton prematurely sensed the spirit of the Romantic revolt in English poetry. It need hardly be added, in the light of the classical tendencies of the seventeenth century in France, that Ogier's protests had little if any influence; he was verily the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In the very next year appeared Sophonisbe, the first "classical” French tragedy, from the pen of Jean de Mairet (1604-1686).
When, under the patronage of the great Cardinal Richelieu, the formation of the French Academy and the influence of artistic coteries typified by the Hotel Rambouillet, literary criticism became a favorite mode of expression on the part of scholars and writers, adherence to the unities was the touchstone of good form. Of course, it was Richelieu himself who was mainly responsible for bringing this about. We are told that the cardinal first heard of the unities in a conversation with Jean Chapelain (1595-1674), his dependent and faithful henchman, in 1632. A quarter of a century later that man of many parts, François Hédelin, Abbé d'Aubignac, the preceptor of the cardinal's nephew, the Duc de Fronsac, made a plea in favor of the unities in his Practique du Théâtre. It is interesting in this connection to observe that when the Abbé wrote plays to exemplify his conceptions of the classical rules he failed to achieve even so much as a succès d'estime. An unkind but succulent bit of criticism-sometimes attributed to the great Condé, sometimes to the Prince de Rohan-Guémené was elicited by d'Aubignac's tragedy, Zénobie, in 1647. The author boasted that the play had been written in the light of principles derived from Aristotle. “I cannot excuse Aristotle," the critic said, "for having made the Abbé write such a tragedy." The production of Le Cid in 1636, a play from the pen of one of Richelieu's "five poets,” Pierre Corneille (1606-1687), who in that moment sprang into the front rank among the dramatists of France and of the world, focused attention more than ever upon the question of the unities. We cannot here enter upon any details concerning the controversy that then arose regarding a drama which some of the learned professed to sneer at but to which the masses were quick to testify their admiration. Richelieu and the Academy condemned Le Cid, and Chapelain had thrust upon the task of condemning, in the name of the Academy, one of the dramatic masterpieces of the world because it did not conform to the "classical” unities. The bitterness engendered by Corneille's sin against the unities was not mollified by the fact that he had sinned with wide open eyes. Professor Matthews, when he tells us that “when he [Corneille) wrote this play (Le Cid), he had never even heard of the doctrine of the unities,” overlooks the preface to Clitandre, where Corneille says: “Si j'ai renfermé cette pièce dans la règle d'un jour, ce n'est pas que je me repente de n'y avoir point mis Mélite, ou que je me sois résolu à m'y attacher dorénavant. Aujourd'hui, quelques-uns adorent cette règle, beaucoup la méprisent; pour moi, j'ai voulu seulement montrer que si je m'en éloigne, ce n'est pas faute de la connaître." That was in 1630, six years before the Le Cid. But some twenty years later, Corneille, in his Discours du poëme dramatique, de la tragédie, des trois unités, professed himself, with reservations, a convert to the classical view of the dramatic art. It is to be feared that his poverty rather than his will consented to this change of literary faith, that his conversion was little more spontaneous than was the conversion of Shylock.
3 Pellisson et d'Olivet, Histoire de l'Académie française.
The most succinct and inclusive presentation of the French conception of the unities is given us in the Art Poétique (1674) of Boileau (1636-1711):
"Qu'en un lieu, qu'en un jour, un seul fait accompli
Tienne jusqu'à la fin le théâtre rempli.” There the devotees of the classical" unities found their inspiration and their text; and there too they found their ideal:
"Mais nous, que la raison à ses règles engage,
Sentiments de l'Académie sur le Cid, 1638.
There Racine (1639-1699) found a medium of expression which fitted admirably his dramatic genius; there Molière (1621-1673) found a Procrustean bed, comfortable for the most part, perhaps, but which proved inadequate to support Don Juan; there, for two hundred years, the writers for the French stage found a strange god to worship until Romanticism asserted itself and Victor Hugo, in the preface to Cromwell (1827) and the premier of Hernani (1830) blasted the "classical" shrine.
Though in Spain the theory of the unities of time, place, and action was not carried into practice, it was known to Spanish writers years before it had caused a battle of the books in France. Here, for instance, is Cervantes (1547-1616)-a neo-classicist in theory though a romanticist in practice--protesting, through the mouth of the curate in Don Quixote (part I, chap. xlviii), against the violation of the unities on the part of dramatic writers including Cervantes himself. It is unfortunate, he contends, for foreigners who with great precision observe the laws of the drama “nos tienen por bárbaros é ignorantes.” The impropriety of babes in arms raising whiskers, which later on was to shock Boileau and scandalize burly Ben Jonson, meets with the curate's spirited censure:
"Qué mayor disparate puede ser en el sujeto que tratamos, que salir un niño en mantillas en primera escena del primer acto, y en la segunda salir ya hecho hombre barbado? . Qué diré pues de la observancia que guardan en los tiempos en que puedan ó podian suceder las acciones que representan, sino que he visto comedia que la primera jornada comenzó en Europa, la segunda en Asia, la tercera se acabó en Africa, y aun si fuera de cuatro jornades, la cuarta acabara en America . ?”
Thus wrote Cervantes—we may venture to suspect with his tongue in his cheek-a good quarter of a century prior to the quarrel concerning Le Cid. Breitingers cites numerous other proofs that the unities, before they had been generally recognized in France, were in Spain knowingly honored in the breach. The sprightly Tirso de Molina (1571-1648) includes in his Cigarrales de Toledo a discussion of one of his own dramas, El Vergonzoza en Palacio. In the course of the discussion one character castigates Tirso for his insolence in overstopping “the salutary limits assigned
6 Unités d'Aristote avant le Cid de Corneille.