Last modified on 28 December 2014, at 13:58

History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/French Romantic

French Romantic tragedy is ably represented by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) with "Hernani" (1830) and "Ruy Blas" (1838), Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) with "Lorenzaccio" (1833), based on the life of Lorenzo De Medici (1449-1492), and "On ne badine pas avec l'amour" (No trifling with love, 1834), as well as Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863) with "Chatterton" (1835), based on the life of the poet, Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), and Casimir Delavigne (1793-1843) with "Le paria" (The pariah, 1821). Together with many other 19th century dramatists, Hugo and Musset are heavily influenced by Shakespeare, including mixing of comic elements with tragedy, especially in "No trifling with love", less so in Delavigne, more Racine-like in outlook. Though written at the end of the century Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) wrote in the romantic vein, notably in "Cyrano de Bergerac" (Cyrano of Bergerac, 1897), based on the life of the 17th century writer and soldier (1619-1655).

Victor Hugo wrote two major tragedies of the Romantic period. Drawing by an unknown artist, 1829


"Hernani". Time: 16th century. Place: Spain and France.

"Hernani" text at

Ruy beholds his rival, Hernani, die along with his love, Dona Sol. Woodcut drawing

Out on a personal escapade, King Carlos V of Spain forces his way into the apartment of Dona Sol de Silva, soon to be married to her uncle, Ruy de Silva, duke of Pastrana. The king pays the servant for the chance of hiding inside Sol's wardrobe and spying on her meeting with her lover, Hernani. The lovers meet joyfully, though Hernani bemoans her upcoming marriage with an "icy specter". She agrees to follow Hernani, though an outlaw, the next day at midnight. Hearing this, the king, also in love with Sol, rushes out and dares Hernani to fight. They cross swords as the servant announces the duke's surprise return. The duke rails on finding two young men in Sol's apartment at night when to the astonishment of all, the king reveals himself. He came to announce to the duke the death of the emperor of Germany, a title he would like to claim for himself. Hernani has two reasons for hating the king: his love of Sol and revenge for his father, killed by Carlos' father. The following night, Carlos imitates Hernani's signal and seizes Sol, but she takes away his dagger till Hernani arrives, his men having secured the king's followers. The king refuses to duel with a bandit, so that Hernani is forced to let him go, but now has second thoughts concerning Sol, having to offer her but "half the gallows". "I'll follow you; I wish for my part of your shroud," Sol assures him. But he must leave her on hearing general alarms, as officers of the law hunt for him and his troops. On their wedding day, Ruy assures Sol that though an old man's forehead has wrinkles, yet "in our heart there is none," says he. There is a rumor that Hernani is dead, but he enters the duke's palace disguised as a pilgrim. After seeing Sol re-enter with her wedding dress, he removes his disguise. None of the duke's servant dares claim the bounty on his head. The duke retires, expecting to marry within an hour. Hernani considers that after all she would be better off rich with the duke than dead like his companions, but she desires still to follow him, exclaiming: "You are my lion, superb and generous." The duke re-enters. On hearing his expected bride say she loves Hernani, he stares and advises him to tremble, but, on hearing of the king's arrival, lets Hernani go through a secret passage. The king knows Hernani is hiding in the duke's castle, which the duke admits. The king then threatens to take Sol hostage unless he delivers the outlaw, but, since he is Hernani's host, whose duty is to protect any guest, he refuses. Sol follows the king, hiding a dagger on her person. After they leave, Rey challenges Hernani to a duel for having affronted his hospitality, but lets him go when the latter reveals his majesty loves Sol and after he swears to yield up his life whenever desired. He need only blow his horn. At Aix-La-Chapelle, among a troop of revolting noblemen, Hernani draws the winning lot to kill the king, which Ruy pleads to take away from him in exchange for his life. "Do you render her?" asks Hernani. Ruy declines. Three cannon shots announce Carlos is the new emperor as he emerges out of Charlemagne's tomb. He and his followers disarm the rebels. He orders the execution of dukes and counts and spares the rest. Hernani reveals himself as Juan of Aragon and a duke. Sol reveals herself married to him, begging Carlos for her husband's life, which he grants as well as to all the rebels. Amid fanfare in Saragossa, Hernani and Sol celebrate as newlyweds till the bridegroom hears the sound of the horn. Sol leaves for a moment as Rey, disguised as death, gives him poison. She returns and once more begs for her husband's life, but this time she is refused. In despair, she grabs the poisoned vial, drinks half of it, and hands Hernani the rest, but, after a while, asks him to desist: "That poison is alive..." she cries in pain. Nevertheless, Hernani drinks his fill. After his loved one dies, Ruy also commits suicide.

"Ruy Blas"Edit

"Ruy Blas". Time: 1690s. Place: Spain.

"Ruy Blas" text at

The queen, played by Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), discovers too late her love of her servant, Ruy Blas

Don Sallusto, a marquis, has been exiled by the queen for refusing to marry one of her servants he seduced. Sallusto asks his cousin, Cesare, a count, to help him take revenge on her, but he refuses. Angry, Sallusto commands alguazils to seize Cesare and then arranges to have corsairs take him away to slavery. Still for purposes of revenge, he engages the faith of his servant, Ruy Blas, an old boon companion of Cesare. Since Ruy Blas’ face is unknown at court, Ruy takes over Cesare’s identity. Struck by the queen's demeanor, Ruy sends love-letters to her anonymously. Her husband, King Charles II, is often absent, loving above all to hunt. Being most often neglected, she enjoys reading these letters. When Ruy in the shape of Cesare presents himself before her, Don Guritan, a courtier, notices his infatuation and, out of jealousy, challenges him to a duel. On learning about this, the queen sends Guritan away. When several nobles meet to exchange mutual favors at the expense of Spain's interest, Ruy interrupts their conversation by commenting sarcastically: "A pleasant appetite, gentlemen," as if they were carving up their own country. He goes on to enumerate a long list of abuses they have been guilty of, for which her majesty, emerging from hiding, thanks him. Ruy is so moved by her compliments that he at last declares openly his love for her. The queen is pleased but fearful. "To all I am the queen, to you only a woman," she confesses. As she leaves, Sallusto suddenly appears in the form of a servant. Knowing Ruy's love for the queen, he hopes to compromise her. Ruy begins to fear for her safety at the hands of Sallusto, who threatens to reveal Ruy's true identity to the queen. Ruy is thus forced to say nothing. Unexpectedly, Cesare returns, having gained his freedom from the pirates. He is surprised to receive a sum of money from Sallusto, meant for Ruy. He also receives the visit of Guritan, returned from the queen's mission, looking to renew his purposed duel with Cesare. They quarrel and, in the ensuing duel, Cesare kills him. On seeing the unexpected return of Cesare, Sallusto becomes petrified. He commands alguazils to lead him away again, this time pretending he is a well-known thief. Meanwhile, Ruy begins to have qualms about his deceiving the queen for so long. Still fearing for her safety, he sends her a note to warn her not to leave the palace, but she does not receive it in time. The two are surprised by Sallusto, who proposes that she relinquish her title as queen and leave the kingdom in company of Ruy. But, tired of deceiving her, Ruy reveals at last his true identity and kills Sallusto. When he asks her pardon for deceiving her so long, she retorts: "never" . In despair, Ruy drinks a vial of poison. Taken unawares, the queen cries out her true feelings of deep love: "Ruy Blas!" For only crying out his name he thanks her as he dies.

Alfred de Musset wrote two major dramas of the Romantic period. Portrait by Charles Landelle (1812-1908), 1854


"Lorenzaccio". Time: 16th century. Place: Florence, Italy.

"Lorenzaccio" text at

Lorenzo De Medici (1449-1492) is in a major conflict with his cousin. Painting of Lorenzaccio by Bronzino (1503-1572)

Alessandro de Medici, duke of Florence, with the help of Lorenzo de Medeci, his cousin, is waiting for a girl he paid for. Lorenzaccio suggests she is worth the waiting: "What a violent flow of a magnificent river underneath this layer of fragile ice, cracking at each step!" he exclaims. They head towards her garden pavilion. Seeing her going away, Maffio, her brother, wants to prevent it, but is stopped by one of the duke's men. He wishes to complain to the duke, but discovers that it is the duke who is taking her away. In the duke's palace, Lorenzaccio quarrels with Maurizio, a gentleman, but when the duke offers his cousin a sword, he is seized with anxiety, feels ill, and faints, to the duke's amusement. In Soderini's palace, his uncle Bindo Altoviti and Venturi, a gentleman, wish to know from Lorenzaccio whether he will join their conspiracy against the duke. Suddenly, the duke enters. Lorenzaccio invents good excuses for their presence, to their profit, a promotion as ambassador of Rome for the first and privileges for his cloth business for the other. They accept. Alessandro announces he has obtained the favors of the marquise of Cibo. Now he has eyes for Lorenzaccio's aunt, Catherine. In his palace, Alessandro serves as a model for a portrait while Lorenzaccio takes his coat of mail and wonders off to throw it in a well. One of the duke's men, Salviati, covered in blood, appears under his window, saying that Pietro Strozzi and his brother, Tomaso, attacked him after he said their sister loved the duke. The duke orders their arrest. After seeing her poisoned to death by one of Salviati's men, the Strozzi family rise to liberate them. Lorenzaccio proposes to his cousin his bedroom to seduce Catherine. Meanwhile, Pietri and Tomaso are freed. Returning to their house, they learn of their sister's death by poison. In hope of wordly advantages, the cardinal of Cibo scolds his sister-in-law for not being able to hold her lover for more than three days: "Have you not read Aretino?" he asks sarcastically. The marquise counters by exclaiming "To govern Florence by governing the duke, you would soon turn yourself into a woman for him, if you could." Unheeding his appeal to return to him, she reveals her adultery with the duke to her husband and then faints. On the night proposed for the duke's murder, Lorenzaccio warns three noblemen to prepare for a change in government, but none of them believe he is capable of it. Having heard Lorenzaccio has horses prepared and that he intends killing his cousin, a report supported by Maurizio, the cardinal warns the duke about him, but he dismisses their warnings and follows his cousin to his bedroom, where Lorenzaccio takes his sword and scabbard and tangles them up behind his back. As the duke stretches out in bed, Lorenzaccio kills him. On learning the news in the duke's palace, noblemen are worried that the people will seize this opportunity to revolt, so that Cosimo de Medici is hurriedly elected as the new duke. By the duke's death, the Strozzi conspiracy peters out, as do republican sentiments throughout the duchy, except for a small rising of students, when a hundred of them are massacred. Lorenzaccio is assassinated, after which the people drag his body into a lagoon. The cardinal gives the ducal crown to Cosimo de Medici on behalf of Pope Paul III and Emperor Charles V.

"No trifling with love"Edit

"No trifling with love". Time: 1830s. Place: France

"No trifling with love" text at

The baron wishes to marry his son, Perdican, returning from Paris with a doctor's degree, to his niece, Camille, "out of the best convent in France", so that both may live with him in his castle, but in their first meeting since childhood, the baron is disappointed by the coolness of her replies and her refusal to kiss him. After dinner, Blazius, his steward, reports to the baron that Bridaine, the curate, is a drunkard, which the baron considers impossible, but Blazius' own breath "smells horribly of wine", notices the baron. For his part, Bridaine reports he saw Perdican skip stones over the water with village children, another thing the baron finds it impossible to believe, till seeing it with his own eyes. Camille informs her cousin: "I came to recover my mother's possessions; I will return tomorrow to the convent." But before going, she asks Pluche, her governess, to carry a letter to him. Bridaine is sorrowful that Blazius has taken his place next to the baron, so that when it is his turn to eat "there will remain around the partridges neither cabbage nor carrots". Meanwhile, Perdican is friendly with Camille's foster sister, Rosette, kissing her often and once leaving a tear on her hand. Blazius has a second report for the baron, Pluche refusing to convey a love-letter, which the baron finds incomprehensible and impossible to believe. And to whom? One who flirts with a keeper of turkeys. Camille assigns a meeting with her cousin. She offers him her hand and kisses him, only to reveal she intends to become a nun. "How long did you love the one you loved the most?" she asks, but he does not remember. She asks his opinion about whether she should stay in the convent, to which he first answers no then yes. By her convent anecdotes, he wonders whether she believes in anything. She wants eternal love, at the moment the one on the crucifix she wears. Does he believe in love? "Here you are, bent near me, knees used up with kneeling on your mistresses' rugs, and you no longer know their names," she accuses. He counters that, having loved, he can at least say he lived. Meanwhile, Blazius is chased away for stealing a bottle of wine and for his suspicious accusations. He complains to Bridaine, overjoyed at this piece of news. When Blazius meets Pluche, he threatens to murder her unless she yields him a letter from Camille. Perdican prevents their dispute and seizes the letter, addressed to a nun in her convent, in which she writes that, despite her attempts at disgusting him, Perdican will never be consoled by her loss. He is so offended by this suggestion that he decides to flirt with Rosette in the same place where he usually meets Camille. With Camille hiding behind a tree, he confesses his love to Rosette, gives her a golden chain, throws Camille's ring into a fountain, and asks her to marry him. As a result, Camille tells Pluche she will not enter the convent after all. Bridaine announces to the baron that Perdican has given his golden chain to a peasant-girl, an absurd story which yet upsets him. Camille guesses that Perdican intercepted her letter. To prove Perdican lied, she suggests that Rosetta hide while she speaks to him. Camille tells him: "I would like to be courted-" and gives him the ring she recovered. Perdican is surprised. She then asks him: "Are you sure that everything in a woman lies when her tongue is lying?" Perdican says he never lies and that he loves her, at which point Camilla lifts the tapistry, revealing Rosette who has fainted. Camille next discloses Perdican's supposed love of Rosette to the baron. Affronted at the misalliance, he asks her to tell his son: "I have abandoned myself to grief, to see him marry a girl without a name." Camille is convinced the marriage is wrong for him and tells him so, calling it "a joke". Rosette requests him on her knees to desist from any further marriage talk, because, in the village, she has become a laughing-stock, everyone being convinced that Perdican and Camille love each other and are amusing themselves at her expense, which he denies. While at church, Camille finds herself unable to pray, while Perdican exclaims: "Pride, most fatal of human counselors, why did you come between this girl and me?" Indeed, they turned love, that "inestimable jewel", into "a toy", but now recognize their mistake and kiss, after which a loud scream is heard behind the altar. Camillo goes to find out what it is, Perdican praying it is not what he thinks it is. She returns to say in two sentences that Rosette is dead and that she bids him farewell.

Alfred de Vigny wrote a biographical drama of Chatterton, the English poet. Portrait of Vigny by an unknown artist


"Chatterton". Time: 1770s. Place: England.

"Chatterton" text at ?

Thomas Chatterton was tormented by his love of a married woman. Drawing by an unknown artist

A medical doctor and quaker living in the house of the manufacturer, John Bell, complains of his cruelty and indifference towards the condition of the workers. John retorts that the workers are lazy. The quaker mentions one who lost his arm while working on one of his machines. "Yes," answers he, "and he even broke it." John asks his wife, Kitty, to let him verify the house accounts and finds six guineas unaccounted for. She pretends not to why. It is a secret gift to another lodger, the poet Thomas Chatterton. The quaker also complains of him: "In you, continuous daydreaming has killed action." Thomas answers: "What does it matter, if one hour of this daydreaming produces more works than twenty days of action by others?" He himself with his poetry "wishes to add one pearl more to the English crown". He considers poetry "a harmful fairy, found no doubt in my rocker, the distraction". The quaker is also worried that he has turned away from religion, but Thomas assures him he is as harmless as a child. Thomas' Oxford companion, Lord Talbot, accompanied by other lords, greets him volubly. Kitty does not like the way he talks of her. Talbot being a lord, John encourages her to make much of him. After mentioning to Thomas these lords must be surprised to see him in so simple a house, he seems hurt. "Had one asked me to know my fortune, my name, and my life's history, I would never have entered," he comments. He appears progressively more despairing. One day, the quaker finds him with a vial filled with opium. "You do well to follow your project," says the quaker, "because that will rejoice your rivals...You do well to leave them your part of the empty bone of glory you all gnaw on." Thomas answers he has written to a friend of Talbot, the lord-mayor of London, about his wretched condition, which the quaker approves of, later declaring to the Bells and Talbot: "The only resource still left to Chatterton is his protection." But the mayor's proposal does not please Thomas, neither does his person, and he no longer wishes to continue writing. He drinks the contents of the vial and begins tearing up his papers as Kitty enters. Thomas reveals his love of her, at which she fearfully comments: "Ah, sir, if you say so, it is because you wish to die." She sees him reel upstairs towards his room. The quaker rapidly discovers what is wrong and climbs the stairs after him, followed by Kitty. What she sees so shakes her that she falls downstairs and the quaker is left bemoaning two deaths in the house.

Casimir Delavigne reached a high level of dramatic power in describing the woes of a pariah in India. Drawing by Marie-Alexandre Alophe (1812-1883) after Henry Scheffer (1798-1862)

"The pariah"Edit

"The pariah". Time: 1820s. Place: The woods near Benares, India.

"The pariah" text at ?

Idamore, leader of a band of warriors successful in their defense of followers of Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, reveals to his friend Alvar, a Portuguese Christian arrived for the purpose of conversion, but now almost a prisoner, that he is a pariah, an avoided and detested group in India. But he does not reveal this to his intended, Neala, priestess of Brahma, expected to be married by her father, Akebar. To Idamore's astonishment, Akebar wants to marry his daughter to him. Neala is elated at these news. "His power changes guilty ardor into pious duty," says he of Akebar. Unable to deceive her further, Idamore discloses he is a pariah. She runs to Brahma's statue and clings to it. "Their name is fatal, odious," she says, "it would sully the pure air we breathe in this place." She first asks him to go away, but then changes her mind. In despair, Idamore exclaims: "Everything is pain to me, even hope." Idamore's father, Zares, then arrives and asks his son to leave with him. Idamore accepts, but wants to see Neala one more time. Zares threatens to tell all should he fail him. Idamore asks Neala to leave immediately after the wedding. She is surprised but willing to do so. Zares is discovered as a pariah condemned by Akebar to death. Idamore can no longer remain silent, revealing himself as the pariah's son. A jury convened by Akebar condemns Idamore to be stoned to death and Zares to be exiled, to be cared for by Alvar. In distress for Idamore, Alvar asks him: "You leave him with a son: who will give me back a brother?" Zares is set to go but then learns from Alvar of his son's imminent death. Witnessing to their horror Alvar's loyalty to the pariah, the people kill both Idamore and Alvar. Neala is exiled. She decides to follow Idamore's father. A weeping Akebar curses his daughter for being disloyal to him and religion.

Edmond Rostand wrote a famous biographical drama on the life of Cyrano of Bergerac. Drawing of Rostand in the magazine "l'Illustration", 1889

"Cyrano of Bergerac"Edit

"Cyrano of Bergerac". Time: 17th century. Place: Paris, France.

"Cyrano of Bergerac" text at

Old and ailing, Cyrano is visited one last time by Roxane and a friend. 1898 drawing from the magazine "L'Illustration"

Cyrano of Bergerac interrupts a stage performance because of the main actor's appearance despite his order not to do so for one month. The viscount of Valvert advances towards Cyrano for this insolence, but he beats him off with his sword. On learning that one of his friends is threatened to death by a large crowd, he beats them all off, among whom eight men die. Afterwards, he receives a summons to meet the woman he loves, Roxane, his cousin. Before her, he loses all his bravado. She reveals she loves. To his joy, Cyrano thinks he is the chosen one, but it is Christian, a cadet-officer, though she has never yet spoken to him. Unwillingly, he promises to protect him. When telling the stories of his exploits, he is taunted of his long nose at every turn by Christian. Cyrano has a hard time restraining himself, but at last reveals he is Roxane's cousin. Overjoyed, Christian shakes his hand, but is saddened to learn he must write her a letter, for as a military man he is no good at that type of thing. Cyrano agrees to write in his place. When Roxane next meets her cousin, she says she is charmed by Christian's wit, surpassing even his. De Guiche, commander of the regiment of guards, arrives to warn her that, while they lay siege to Arras, he will take vengeance on Cyrano, a man under his orders. She counters that the best way to hurt Cyrano would be to deprive him of his regiment of guards, which De Guiche considers proof of her love for him, when it is Christian she would have remain in Paris. Christian accosts her and tells her that he loves her. She closes her eyes to hear more, but he is stuck at that one sentence. Roxane replies: "That's the theme. Embroider, embroider." When he is unable to, she cries out: "Delabyrinth your feelings." When still unable to, she shuts the door in his face. In despair, Christian calls to his friend for help, who places himself under her balcony and whispers eloquence to her ravished senses, first through Christian's voice, then his. A Capuchin friar delivers a letter from De Guiche, stating he expects to see her in the convent where he is hiding, but she tells the friar it is De Guiche's wish to have her marry Christian, which she does, the commander, thanks to Cyrano, arriving too late to prevent it, but yet ordering Christian off to war against the Spaniards. During the siege of Arras, De Guiche, to avoid being an obvious target to musket-fire, drops the white scarf indicating his rank, which Cyrano, at great risk, succeeds in recovering. While half the army moves away to obtain food provisions, De Guiche forms a plan to have the Spaniards attack the company of Gascon cadets. The soldiers are suddenly surprised by the arrival of a coach and even more so when they see emerging from it Roxane, with food provisions and a pastry-cook. Christian guesses that Cyrano loves Roxane and desires him to say so to her. He is about to but then hears news that his rival has been shot to death. "It is over," says he to himself. When the enemy charges, he exclaims: "I have two deaths to avenge: Christian and my happiness." Fifteen years later, Roxane is a nun in the habit of receiving a visitor every Saturday: Cyrano, now poor with many enemies and a damaged skull resulting from a heavy piece of wood thrown by from a window by one of these. One day, he arrives slightly later than his usual time for his date with Roxane, but, though fatally weakening, does not tell her about it. Roxane wears in a locket around her neck the last letter "Christian" wrote, which Cyrano asks to read aloud, in which he tells her: "I will die. It is tonight, I think, my loved one. My soul is heavy with unexpressed love, and I die." Roxane is surprised at the fervor of his tone. As he continues reading, she asks: "How can you continue reading it now? It is night." Amazed, she suddenly discovers the answer. "It was you," she says. He denies it. She counters miserably: "Though I loved only one, I lose him twice." He senses the coming of another type of woman, a grislier one, liable to make him "booted in marble, gloved in lead". Though recognizing death takes all, there is one thing she cannot take: "My panache," he asserts.