Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Romantic Drama

If you’re interested in romantic drama, painting or poetry, check out I stumbled across it by accident as I was searching for something unrelated. Serendipity! The site doesn’t explain if it’s part of a college course or what.

The complete texts of Hugo’s Hernani and Ruy Blas are there as well as Rostand’s Chantecler and The Princess Far-Away. As one who has prowled used bookstores for some 25 years looking for romantic dramas, I can assure you that these plays are not always easy to find, especially The Princess Far-Away. Here they are for free. Where was the internet when I was in college?

The 20th century bias against romantic drama might be ending. Recently, Derek Jacobi has starred as King Philip II in Schiller’s Don Carlos. (I just ordered the translation from amazon. It’s only 128 pp., so they must have cut a huge amount from the play. I’ll report on this version after I have read it.) As Playbill writes, plays by Schiller and Rattigan surprisingly made a profit recently, inspiring producers to do another play by each author.

19th century drama is a vast, undiscovered country. Once naturalism took hold in the 20th century, romanticism was sneered at as worthless melodrama. Scholars stopped studying it. Theaters stopped playing it. Romanticism fell off the face of the earth.

Schiller was one of the most influential writers in the 19th century. He was read by everyone. 15 years ago it was hard to find his plays in a bookstore; now you see one or two books in the plays section. (Of course, online bookstores are the only place to look if you want someone relatively obscure like Schiller.)

Eugene Scribe, famous for the “well made play,” wrote hundreds of plays, but you can only find one or two in english. Sardou, a playwright once famous, is now unknown except as the writer of Tosca, which Puccini immortalized in an opera. Shaw dismissed Sardou’s romanticism as “sardoodledom.” As far as the 20th century was concerned, Shaw’s insult was the last word on Sardou.

In 100 years I believe the situation will be reversed. The plays of Schiller, Hugo, Dumas, Ibsen, and Rostand will be everywhere. The plays of Miller, Williams, Beckett and Ionesco will be unknown.

The 17th century playwright Pierre Corneille will also be revived. Although he is one of the two or three greatest dramatists of all time, he is if anything more obscure than the romanticists now. Theater students can go through four years of college without hearing his name. He is known as a neo-classicist, not a romanticist. I call him a proto-romantic because he showed the world how to set up intense value-conflicts in drama. He is the master of value-conflict, which is the essence of drama.

A good example of value-conflict is the Mata Hari story. Mata Hari is a spy for the Germans. She falls in love with an English soldier. Her two highest values, patriotism and the man she loves, are in direct conflict (and her life is in danger). That’s drama. Good plots are built with value-conflict.

With the rise of naturalism, plots were devalued in serious literature. Instead, showing a slice of life “as it really it is” was considered better. A writer could focus on anything -- character, ideas, style, setting -- anything but plot.

A lot of modern art began as a reaction to and rebellion against romanticism. Now modern art is the establishment and romanticism is forgotten. Someday the rebellion against modernism will begin. Then the old ways that have been forgotten will be rediscovered.

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