Critics divide Victor Hugo’s theater into four categories, excluding the plays before Cromwell. The first group constitutes his romantic dramas in verse: Cromwell, Marion de Lorme, Hernani, The King Amuses Himself, and Ruy Blas. Romantic dramas in prose include Amy Robsart, Lucretia Borgia, Marie Tudor, and Angelo, Tyrant of Padua. The Burgraves and Torquemada form his epic theater, while Théâtre en liberté is lyric comedy. Although there is a distinct evolution, particularly in the development of the plot after Cromwell, and a greater integration of themes after Ruy Blas, all of Hugo’s plays have definite characteristics that mark them as his own dramatic creations.
After 1830, the role of woman becomes more important, possibly because of Juliette Drouet’s influence in Hugo’s life. At the same time, the populist theme grows in importance, culminating in the character of Ruy Blas, the man of the people. Hugo usually portrayed royalty in decline or dissipation, and Ruy Blas emphasizes this theme. Hugo’s earlier works tend to have tragic, melodramatic endings, while in his later works he moves to more human themes, and in La Grand-mère and Mangeront-ils?, maternal and conjugal love triumph.
The exposition is straightforward and usually takes place in the first few scenes. Even mysteries and disguises are made evident to the audience without diminishing interest. It is obvious, for example, that Lucretia Borgia is Gennaro’s mother, and that the masked intruder in Hernani is Don Carlos, who will not succeed in winning the beautiful Doña Sol. The exposition usually reveals a trait of character that does not change throughout the play. Hernani personifies Castilian honor; Don Salluste, revenge; Amy Robsart, love. A notable exception is Cromwell, one of the most complex and fully realized characters in Hugo’s theater. Acts, or journées (days), usually bear the title of a character and reveal the essential message of the section.
Hugo portrays the situation clearly and immediately and proceeds at once to action, which dominates his theater. The action converges on the resolution of the problem and is often produced by melodramatic devices: poison, disguise, hidden stairways, closets, and other such coups de théâtre. Poison is Hugo’s most common method; he uses it more than all the other romantic playwrights combined; hardly a play is without it. Yet in all cases, the real obstacle that necessitates the tragic resolution is fate, and the melodramatic devices are actually symbols for human powerlessness against the all-pervading destiny that thwarts humankind.
At the center of almost every drama there is a couple, young, handsome, and passionately in love. Their love is pure and fatal: Amy Robsart and Dudley, Doña Sol and Hernani, and Regina and Otbert. In the earlier plays, they form the heart of the drama; later, they are merely accessory.
In contrast to the ideal woman and her valiant hero is the villain. The portrayal of villainy gave Hugo full scope for his delight in the grotesque, and some of his most memorable creations are of this type. The villains in his early plays recall the cloak-and-dagger melodrama, while later types lean more to the demoniac, culminating in Torquemada, as John Peter Houston describes him, “the satanic enemy of Satan.” The grotesque is also embodied in the buffoon: the deformed Triboulet or the comic Flibbertigibbet, Cromwell’s four fools, or the best and most convincing character, Don César in Ruy Blas. Finally, in his later years, Hugo successfully combined the sublime and the grotesque in the chameleonlike Aïrolo in Mangeront-ils?, with a Shakespearean touch.
Of the six verse dramas written before 1830, the two most significant are Cromwell and Marion de Lorme. The other early verse dramas are tragedies in imitation of classical models, a comic-opera, and a melodrama. None of the six was staged before 1830. Cromwell, published in 1827, was unstageable by its very length. It was presented for the first time in 1956, in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre, in an adaptation by Jean Cocteau. Marion de Lorme was censored by the conservative government of Charles X but was successfully staged in 1831 at the Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin.
Cromwell, depicting the vast panorama of a giant historical figure, is the story of a failed attempt to assassinate Oliver Cromwell by both Puritans and Cavaliers. Profiting from a flirtation of Lord Rochester with his daughter Francis, Cromwell succeeds in escaping from his enemies by drugging Rochester and disguising himself as a soldier. In the end, Cromwell thwarts all his enemies by refusing the crown. The play is a complex study of Cromwell’s character, and an attempt by Hugo to capture Cromwell’s personality from every side. Cromwell is less a depiction of the real historical personage than a fictitious mélange of Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, yet Hugo’s dramatic creation is his best characterization. The play is written in liberated verse with the introduction of several other important Hugoesque techniques, among them, the characterization of the buffoon.
The significance of the play itself, however, has been overshadowed by that of its preface, the manifesto of romanticism in the French theater. Dividing history into three ages—patriarchal, theocratic, and modern—Hugo develops the concept of the grotesque as particularly appropriate for modern times. In the same way, he sees drama as complete poetry, a combination of comedy and tragedy, with only unity of action as necessary from among the three classical unities. Hugo proclaims liberty of creation and of versification in the drama and urges writers not to choose the beautiful but rather the characteristic. Art for him is divine, and its aim is the imitation of nature and truth.
Marion de Lorme
Both in Cromwell and Marion de Lorme, Hugo attempted to put these rules into practice. Marion de Lorme, shorter and therefore stageable, is the story of a courtesan redeemed by a pure love for Didier, a melancholy hero of unknown origin. He is the unconscious victim of Cardinal Richelieu’s edict against duels, as he challenges Marion’s former lover, Saverny, to a duel from which both escape, yet for which...
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