Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, whatever their differences, were very much attuned to a new social order that was moving toward order, decorum, and polish, one in which there was little room for the self-centered artist or hero. There are some vestiges of the feudal ideal in Corneille; there are none in Racine. The French have rightfully enshrined these two great dramatists, but in so doing, they have set them up as standards by which all other writers are to be judged, extrapolating from their dramas rules that are the essence of these works but that were never meant as universal guidelines. Tristan L’Hermite, as a man and as an artist, did not belong to, and could not enter, the new order. To treat him as an incomplete Racine, or a precursor, is to be deaf to the specific timbre and tonality of this great writer. In every way, Tristan was a stranger in his own time, in his own land. His plays are populated with reflections of himself, noble souls out of tune with their milieus—strangers.
The tragic hero is, almost by definition, an idealist—whether his ideal be one of good or evil—lost in a practical world of relative values. Such a conflict is obviously insoluble, and the only suspense possible is not centered on “what” but on “how,” for it is only in his rejection of facile contingencies and compromises that the hero can achieve greatness—that is, fulfill his destiny, his essence. The wrong sacrifices, the wrong choices predicated on false values, these are the dangers confronting tragic heroes, evils they must reject by rejecting the world of contingencies. Racine’s heroes do reject the world but not its basic values. That is precisely what makes their farewells so long and agonizing. Tristan’s protagonists, on the contrary, reject the world because they cannot abide its values. The crux of the action, then, is not the crisis leading to a decision, but the crisis resulting from one. Walls are erected to preserve the integrity of a spirit; these walls frustrate those who would possess and so destroy the strangers. Thus, destiny, imposed but not accepted, may well crush a mortal; it cannot triumph over his will. As Blaise Pascal states in his Pensées (1670; Monsieur Pascal’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, 1688; best known as Pensées), at that fatal moment, the hero is triumphant, because he knows why he dies while the executioner lacks that understanding.
Tristan’s heroes are unable—or unwilling—to communicate with their fellow human beings. The resulting isolation is the basis of their tragic situation. These rebels, with concentrated introspection, seek to establish their own identities, to find answers within themselves to basic ontological questions, hoping to derive viable or at least acceptable modi operandi. In short, the typical Tristanian protagonist seeks to establish an authentic and dynamic moi in a fundamentally unauthentic and static world, a situation that can only lead to a nauseous and noxious anxiety. The greatness of these characters—what makes them so attractive, even to the modern reader—resides in their painful lucidity: Fully aware of the absurdity of the world, they refuse the balms of unconsciousness no less than those of compromise. They die because they willfully choose not to live a lie. In that sense, they are active contributors to their destiny, succumbing because of their intransigence, proud witnesses of their foes’ inferiority, and in the final analysis, they are victors over them because these foes must witness in turn the enshrinement of their victims’ superiority made inviolate by death.
Tristan wrote only five tragedies; not all are of equal value. It cannot be said that his dramaturgy was ever set in a firm mold, for he constantly experimented. He failed at times, but he always learned a lesson from these attempts. Therefore, even these lesser plays shed some light on the better ones.
Performed in 1636, La Mariane is a landmark in the transition of French tragedy from the stiff, rhetorical style of the humanistic theater to what is now known as the classical period. It had an instant and lasting success that not even the appearance of Corneille’s Le Cid (pr., pb. 1637; The Cid, 1637) some months later, was able to overshadow. Some have credited Mondory, creator of the role of Hérode, for the unusually large crowds that flocked to the theater, and indeed, some of the credit should go to that sterling actor who was struck down by apoplexy while playing this demanding role in 1637. It would be a mistake, however, to look no further, for his performance and following can in no way explain the ten editions of the play in the relatively few years remaining in Tristan’s short life; nor could they explain the fact that Molière’s troupe performed it more than thirty-four times between 1659 and 1680, while the Comédie-Française put it on more than thirty-eight times from 1680 to 1703. For the rest of the century, and well into the eighteenth, the play was very popular, both in France and abroad, as can be seen by the many translations that were published. A true psychological drama—the first theatrically viable one in France—it contains some of the best lines in French drama, and certainly the best before Corneille’s The Cid, though it is perhaps too declamatory and lyrical for modern tastes.
The story of Hérode and Mariane was well known at the time, and several dramatists had treated it before Tristan, both in France and elsewhere. Tristan’s innovation lies in that he readily understood what his predecessors had not—that a broad fresco of history, with a large cast of characters and a plethora of psychological entanglements, could not yield a cohesive and effective drama. He saw that the basic idea of two people misunderstanding each other, with others fostering that misunderstanding, was quite sufficient to give birth to an intensely dramatic nucleus. Critics weaned on less declamatory plays than those favored by pre-Cornelian spectators and readers often find the play static; there is some justification in this, but La Mariane is a dramatic poem of solitude, of estrangement. That is its limitation and also its beauty. It is to be fully enjoyed for its intrinsic merits, not compared to something it was never meant to be.
In the first act, Hérode declares his need for a physically absent yet psychologically omnipresent Mariane. The second act reverses the situation, and one readily realizes that Mariane and Hérode cannot live without each other. The tragedy resides precisely in the fact that Mariane, failing to see that Hérode is as necessary to her hatred as she is to his love, rejects all his overtures and makes communication impossible. For all of her words of rejection, her isolation is a posture: Her constant goading, as she taunts her husband with her moral superiority, cannot be aiming at isolation, but seeks a reaction, which eventually comes. When Hérode’s mounting frustration makes him blurt out words of hate, she welcomes these manifestations of a sentiment he does not harbor but which she desperately needs to feel truly free. Mariane is an eminently moral being in an amoral, Machiavellian world. To find inner peace, she opts for values in which she can believe and which demand the reaction she seeks from Hérode as well as make any externally imposed verdict meaningless. By her decision and the position she assumes, she forces Hérode into an impasse from which he can exit only by murdering the unbearable witness to his debasement. His reaction—rather, the reaction she dictated—and the ensuing death of Mariane enshrine Hérode’s impotence and dependence. Before he met her, he was nothing; without her, he goes mad.
Tristan’s second play, Panthée, managed to maintain itself in the repertoire some twenty-five years, but it cannot be considered a success, either on stage or in print. Part of its failure has been ascribed to the fact that Tristan had intended the play specifically for Mondory, who was incapacitated before the play could be staged. It is true that this play, like its predecessor, has some beautiful tirades; unfortunately, it does not have La Mariane’s dramatic cohesiveness. Badly disjointed, it has no single dramatic focus, no smooth rise to the necessary climax. That too may be blamed on Mondory’s apoplexy, but such considerations do not redeem the play.
In Xenophon’s Kurou Paideia (The Cyropaedia: Or, Education of Cyrus, 1560-1567), the story of Panthea is a political footnote to the history of Cirus’s reign. It deals with the reluctant betrayal of a cause by a husband desperately in love with a misguided wife and on the consequences of that betrayal. Tristan, in the employ of Gaston d’Orléans, could not keep that tack, since his master was frequently taking up arms against his royal brother for rather tenuous personal reasons. He therefore decided to reduce in importance the roles of the political figures, the husband and the king, and to center attention on the wife and a would-be lover, Araspe. An interesting political story was thus transformed into a drama of unhappy love. The problem does not stop there. Tristan had taken two episodes from Xenophon, but he failed to weld them together. The fault is perhaps not entirely his own: In the first three acts, Araspe plays a major role; in the last two acts, he has only twenty-eight lines. Most of the time, he is out of sight and out of mind, while the focus of the play changes radically. It is logical to surmise that the role, initially conceived for Mondory, was reduced when...
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