Although most people think of Victor Hugo primarily as a novelist, he had a tremendous impact on the Romantic stage, both as a theorist and as a playwright. By the time he wrote the verse drama Cromwell in 1827, Hugo had already established himself as a prolific poet. He wanted the play (which runs more than 400 pages) to be performed, but when that proved impossible for political reasons as well as the obvious practical ones, he had it published. First, though, he penned a lengthy preface that was destined to have a greater impact on theatre than the play itself.
The ideas Hugo celebrates in the preface, the breaking down of civilization into successive stages, the glorification of Shakespeare, the embracing of the comic and grotesque, were not unique to him. Scholars have noted predecessors in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Horace Walpole, and the Italian writer Count Girolamo Gratiani, who wrote his own play based on the life of Oliver Cromwell more than a century earlier. The fact that Hugo borrowed ideas from other theorists, however, should not take away from his achievement in penning a vital manifesto of Romanticism.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the popular theatres of Paris were experimenting with innovative melodramas that appealed to sentiment and utilized sophisticated and exciting staging. The old guard, however, as typified by the Comedie-Francaise, subsisted almost entirely on a diet of Racine and his pale imitators. With Cromwell, Hugo declared the theatre's independence from Neo-classical rules. From now on, he argued, plays should be judged on how well they work, not on how well they mirror the ideals of some theorist.
The preface divides history into three epochs: primitive times, represented by the ode, for which the great literary work was the book of Genesis; ancient times, represented by the epoch, for which the great writer was Homer; and modern times, for which the ideal literary form is the drama. Instead of revering Racine, the preface holds up Shakespeare as the ideal writer. The Bard, like all great dramatists, "unites the grotesque and the sublime, the terrible and the ridiculous, the tragic and the comic," Hugo said.
Cromwell, for all its faults, strives to live up to these ideals. In the fourth act, for instance, a group of Cromwell's fools hide and watch a sequence of extraordinarily dramatic events. When the action is over, they emerge from their hiding places and laugh at it all. The play is both tragic and comic at the same time. Most of the characters, including Cromwell himself, are not simply heroes or villains, but rather quite a bit of both.
Hugo's lengthy preface might be a bit excessive. However, excess is part of the point. Hugo was trying to shake off the Neo-classical restrictions that were masquerading as good taste. He wanted dramatists to think big, and his writing style showed them precisely how they could do that. The old guard and their moderate, measured dramas were to be swept away by a new world of passion and feeling.
The old guard, however, was not about to go quietly. In the past, Hugo had been a staunch defender of the Bourbon monarchy that was restored after the fall of Napoleon. (His politics would change drastically, and he later became an equally staunch republican.) He enjoyed a royal pension and the support of King Charles X. Still, royal censors banned Hugo's play Marion de Lorme for allegedly anti-monarchal passages in its fourth act, even after the author personally presented a copy of the offending act to the king himself. As recompense, the government increased Hugo's pension by 4,000 francs, but the attempt to co-opt the writer backfired. In a public letter, Hugo spurned the money, writing, "I had asked for my play to be performed, and I ask for nothing else."
Hugo became the darling of the left, and his next play, Hernani, seemed so over-the-top that censors decided to let it be performed, figuring no one could take the ridiculous drama seriously. Hernani explores the simple (perhaps simplistic) theme of the importance of honor, as opposed to Cromwell, which contains a cynical analysis of power politics. The hero is a disinherited nobleman living the life of a bandit. Like Hugo, he rejects compromise and lives by his own code. Ultimately, the noble bandit accepts death rather than going back on a promise in which he has pledged his honor.
On February 25, 1830, a few months before revolution would rock the streets of Paris, Hernani opened at the Comedie-Francaise. The play is only about 20 percent as long as Cromwell and has a fraction of the earlier play's gargantuan cast. (At one point, Cromwell infamously calls for the entire parliament of Great Britain to walk on stage.) In spite of some accounts to the contrary, Hugo apparently hired a claque to cheer at the right places. He then reinforced the claque with an army of young volunteers eager to thumb their noses at the establishment. Traditionalists were there in force, as well, and the stage was set for the so-called "Battle of Hernani."
To the disappointment of conservatives, there was no actual riot, which would have allowed the authorities to move against the young Romantic theatre fans. However, rival cheers and boos made the play difficult to hear, and fistfights broke out leading to a few arrests. The play ran a total of 39 performances, a considerable run for the time, and ended with a victory for the Romantic cause. That July, many of those who took part in the Battle of Hernani took part in very real battles in the streets as Charles X was overthrown and replaced by the liberal "citizen king" Louis-Philippe. Many contemporaries saw Hernani as an attack on the Bourbon monarchy, and now that monarchy was no more. A left-leaning king styled himself "King of the French" rather than "King of France" to emphasize his power came from the people.
It was a new era for the country, and a new era for Hugo as well. The following year, he published The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book would give him a new reputation not as a poet or playwright, but as a novelist. The year after The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published, Hugo wrote the play The King Amuses Himself, which was banned after a single performance. The play portrays the historical King Francis I as a womanizer, and censors felt this could be seen as a reflection on the current King Louis-Philippe. The incident won Hugo even more fame as a champion of liberalism. Giuseppe Verdi (who had already made an operatic version of Hernani) later turned the play into the opera Rigoletto, but the librettist had to change the character of the king into a fictional Duke of Mantua in order to please censors.
In 1838, Hugo wrote what many people consider his greatest play, Ruy Blas. The tragedy tells the story of a servant who gets dressed as a nobleman as part of a practical joke, but who then rises to become the lover and chief advisor of the queen. It opened not at the Comedie-Francaise but at the more populist Theatre de la Renaissance. After running for 50 performances it was taken off the boards to please one of the theatre's business partners. The fashion for Romantic dramas on sweeping historical themes was beginning to fade, and Hugo's next play, Les Burgraves, failed spectacularly.
The failure of Les Burgraves in 1843 came during a particularly hard year for Hugo. His eldest daughter, Leopoldine, drowned together with her new husband when the boat they were in capsized. Five years later, revolution swept France again, ousting King Louis-Philippe and establishing the Second Republic. In the presidential election that followed, Hugo supported Louis Napoleon-Bonaparte, nephew of the famous emperor. Hugo became increasingly suspicious of the politician, however, and his worst fears were confirmed in 1851 when the president initiated a coup d'etat. The president now held supreme power, and the following year he staged a sham election that proclaimed a new empire.
Hugo had made himself an enemy of Louis, who now styled himself Napoleon III in deference to a cousin who never actually reigned. In order to avoid arrest, Hugo fled to Brussels and then took up residence in the Channel Islands, first in Jersey and later in Guernsey. It was while in exile that he wrote Les Miserables, as well as a book on Shakespeare. Though originally intended as a preface for a translation of Shakespeare's plays into French, William Shakespeare grew to become another major theoretical work by Hugo. In addition to discussing the work of the great English playwright, it also delves into the literature of Homer, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, and others. As in the preface to Cromwell, Hugo argued for the importance of individual genius. His own genius, however, had led him to become an exile. The man hailed as France's greatest writer could not live in France.
That changed in 1870 when Napoleon III fell from power during the chaos of the Franco-Prussian War. Hugo returned to Paris, weathering the siege of the city. He gave moral support to the revolutionary Paris Commune, though he did not actually take part in it, and he fiercely condemned some of its methods. After the Commune was suppressed and a devastated, war-torn France hobbled back toward normalcy, Hugo could finally take his place as the nation's preeminent man of letters. The anti-establishment Hugo was now a part of the establishment.
It was a changed France, though. Gone were the crooked streets of Paris that Hugo had once made famous. During the Second Empire, the government had replaced the maze of strange, irregular roads and alleyways with broad, planned boulevards. (These straightened streets were what allowed the government to put down the Commune with such ruthless efficiency.) A new order, not Neo-classical, but modern, had taken root. Gone were the revolutionary ideas of Romanticism. Even revolutionaries these days were turning to stern, rationalistic theoreticians like Karl Marx.
Still, there were perks to being Victor Hugo. In 1877, Hernani was revived with Sarah Bernhardt playing the heroine, and the production ran 300 performances. In honor of Hugo entering his eighth decade, France held nation-wide celebrations. The government even changed the name of the street where he lived to Avenue Victor Hugo. The author of Cromwell could no longer claim his genius was unrecognized. When Hugo died in 1885 at the age of 83, he was given a state funeral, with his coffin placed under the Arc de Triomphe and then brought to the Pantheon where his remains were laid to rest.
In death, Hugo had one last swipe at the establishment. While he professed to be a devout believer in God, Hugo was also a harsh critic of organized religion. In his will, he forbade church services for his funeral, asking instead for each soul to pray for him. In true Romantic fashion, he remained faithful to his passion for the individual spirit. One last time, he rejected established institutions and took his exit in his own fashion.