Other Literary Forms
Victor Hugo, one of the titanic figures of nineteenth century literature, produced major works in every genre. He is among the greatest lyric poets in French literature; two of his many novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833) and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862), are classics of world literature; and his remaining works are prodigious in their variety and their ambition, ranging from literary criticism, biography, and philosophical reflection to impassioned polemics on social and political issues—notably capital punishment, against which Hugo was a tireless crusader.
Victor Hugo is regarded by many critics as the preeminent figure in nineteenth century French literature. As a playwright, he ranks with Alexandre Dumas, père, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset as one of the most representative authors of the romantic theater. At least one critic sees him as the essential link between the classical theater of Jean Racine and the modern twentieth century revival. As Molière raised farce to true comedy, so Hugo brought the melodrama to the level of authentic literary drama.
Although Hugo wrote some of the finest plays of the romantic period, especially Hernani and Ruy Blas, he is best appreciated as a theorist of the theater. The preface to Cromwell served as the manifesto of romantic liberation for French drama, calling for the Shakespearean tradition rather than the classical, the abolition of the unities of time and place, and the fusion of the sublime and the grotesque. It is, in fact, for his appreciation and creation of the grotesque that his dramatic theories are best known. He calls for the joyful grotesque of the carnivals, in the manner of Mikhail Bakhtin; the grotesque of the cathedrals; and the revival of the buffoons Scaramouche, Sganarelle, and Harlequin, for “beauty has only one face; ugliness has thousands.” His own theater was to produce several buffoons: Flibbertigibbet, Triboulet, and Don César are among the best.
Because Hugo was a great poet, his theater is essentially lyric. He writes with ease, charm, and poetic beauty. His lines are musical, and the Alexandrine carries the tragic and fatal revenge that marks every play or it expresses the delicate love of Hugo’s young heroes or heroines. Rapidity of dialogue and quick exchange of wit contribute to the poetic schema as well, for the fragmented Alexandrine and the enjambments that he used and abused become the vehicle for the comic theme that Hugo considered indispensable to drama. Even the dramas in prose, such as Lucretia Borgia, Marie Tudor, and Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, have a rhythmic character that makes them unmistakably Hugoesque.
Hugo saw the theater as a vocation and as the best way of influencing the public. In this he resembles Voltaire, although his desire to please makes him the heir of Molière. He was determined to conquer the rigid structure of outdated classical models. He was thwarted by the conservative Restoration government’s censure of Marion de Lorme, although he had triumphed with Hernani. He was thwarted again when The King Amuses Himself was banned under King Louis-Philippe. Hernani is better known for the furor it provoked than for its intrinsic literary merit, which is also great. Hugo installed his friends Théophile Gautier, Honoré de Balzac, Luis-Hector Berlioz, and Prosper Mérimée in the audience among others in informal attire, so their applause would triumph over the conservatives such as Mme Récamier and Chateaubriand. He succeeded, and the thirty-eight repeated performances of Hernani that same year assured the victory of romanticism in the theater.
Essentially a visionary, Hugo saw life in terms of a metaphysical conflict between good and evil. Although a rebel against classicism, he inherited the Greek perception of humanity moving in the grip of destiny. The Burgraves has often been seen as an Aeschylean tragedy , the Titans...
(The entire section is 2,426 words.)