Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The French Othello

In 1829, the French poet Alfred de Vigny asked the following question:

Will the French stage be receptive or not to a modern tragedy which offers the following: --in its conception, a large-scale portrait of life, rather than a narrow picture focused on a catastrophe and a plot; --in its composition, characters rather than roles, quiet scenes without drama intermingled with tragic and comic scenes; --in its execution, style which is familiar, comic, tragic, and sometimes epic?

The "modern" drama to which he referred was de Vigny's own The Moor of Venice, itself not a new work at all, but rather an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. Certainly, Othello has a large-scale portrait of life, full-blooded characters, and alternating scenes of comedy and tragedy. All of these things were anathema to French neoclassical tragedy.

Though neoclassicism was "harmonious," de Vigny argued that the old feudal and theocratic systems in France had been harmonious, as well, Just as the French Revolution had swept away the old political order, artists of the Romantic Revolution sought to sweep away the stultified art world of the early nineteenth century.

To do this, they needed Shakespeare. Not only were Shakespeare's plays antithetical to the ideas of neoclassicism, they were also universally acknowledged as works of genius. By bringing Shakespeare to the French stage, de Vigny was engaged in a revolutionary act.

Othello's road to the French stage was not an easy one. In his preface to The Moor of Venice, de Vigny recounts how difficult it was to get the French to tolerate even the use of a simple hand prop necessary for the story: the handkerchief. Voltaire's play Zaire, which bears some resemblances to Othello, replaces the handkerchief with a letter as the vital property. Ducis, who adapted a number of Shakespeare's plays into French, wrote a version of Othello in 1792, but he used a string of diamonds rather than a handkerchief, which must have seemed much more refined.

A handkerchief did appear onstage in Pierre Lebrun's adaptation of Schiller's Mary Stuart, but when the actors referred to it, the prop was called "gauze" and "gift"--anything but handkerchief! It was not until 1829 that de Vigny finally had to nerve to call a handkerchief a handkerchief.

It was the following year that Victor Hugo's play Hernani finally cast aside the neoclassical tradition for good. The success of Hernani, however, might not have been possible without Othello conquering the French stage first.