Ironically, it was not the theater that first attracted François Ponsard to literature. It was George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose Manfred (1817) he translated into French in 1837, some twenty-three years after he was born in Vienne, a small town just south of Lyons and northwest of Grenoble. As a young man, he studied law and eventually became a lawyer, but when he first saw Rachel on the stage at Lyons in the classical tragedies of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, he knew the theater was where his heart lay.
Toward the end of the year 1842, the reading committee of the Théâtre de l’Odéon accepted Lucrèce, a tragedy by an unknown author, for presentation on the stage. Until that time, Ponsard’s name had not been heard beyond the confines of his native town of Vienne, where the young lawyer had already achieved a modest literary renown for several articles in the local journal Revue de Vienne, including poems, a “proverb,” and a short assessment of the classical versus the Romantic theater. In writing Lucrèce, Ponsard was motivated by a desire to move from the drame romantique back to the “pure” classical style of the seventeenth century.
The various Parisian literary journals of the time were seemingly unrestrained in their interest in the upcoming play, proclaiming its author “a new Racine” possessing a brilliance accorded by God to the rarest of authors. The evening of the premiere of Lucrèce, Parisian society arrived in droves, expecting, on one hand, the revelation of a new Corneille or Racine and a return to the strict classical formula that had been superseded by Romanticism, and, on the other hand, an even greater and more resounding defeat of the Romantic theater than the drubbing it had received with the failure of Les Burgraves.
Few were disappointed. The author saw his play greeted with thunderous applause and repeated kudos from critics willing to pardon him the many Romantic elements and undeniable weaknesses in the play. Yet, while many would have placed Ponsard immediately in the same pantheon as that inhabited by Molière, Corneille, and Racine, others were less impressed. Victor Hugo, understandably, found Lucrèce unoriginal; the great novelist Honoré de Balzac noted in a letter to his future wife that Lucrèce was not only mediocre at best but also childish, sophomoric, and boring. Alfred de Vigny, the great poet and dramatist, pointed out that while Ponsard was attempting with his tragedy to revive the classical theater and destroy the Romantic, its success was a result, precisely, of the Romantic elements therein, along with inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608) and Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600). The poet and critic Charles Baudelaire also characterized Ponsard as far more Romantic in his play than was suspected at large.
In any case, following on the heels of the premiere, all the best salons of Paris opened their doors to Ponsard, the “messiah” of the French theater, who had trouble finding time to answer the many invitations he received, including one from the monarch himself, Louis-Philippe. Two important consequences of his monumental early success are worth noting: First, he did make some important contacts ( Alphonse de Lamartine, for one) in the world of literature, politics, and society, receiving a sinecure as librarian of the Senate. Second, he was introduced into the milieu of the upper bourgeoisie, to whose values and norms he would adapt his works.
In 1845, the Académie Française awarded Lucrèce its prize for best tragedy. It was time for Ponsard to present a new play to the public, lest it be decided...
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