Of Antient and Modern Tragedy


There never were so many Rules to write a good Tragedy by; and yet so few good ones are now made, that the Players are oblig’d to revive and act all the old ones. I remember that the Abbé d’Aubignac wrote one according to the Laws he had imperiously prescrib’d for the Stage1. This Piece had no success : notwithstanding which he boasted in all companies, that he was the only French Writer who had exactly follow’d the precepts of Aristotle : whereupon the Prince of Condé said wittily, I am oblig’d to M. d’Aubignac for having so exactly follow’d Aristotle’s Rules; but I will never forgive the Rules of Aristotle, for having put M. d’Aubignac upon writing so bad a Tragedy.

It must be acknowledged, that Aristotle’s Art of Poetry is an excellent Work : but however, there’s nothing so perfect in it, as to be the standing rule of all Nations and all Ages. Descartes and Gassendi have found out truths, that were unknown to Aristotle. Corneille has discover’d beauties for the Stage, of which Aristotle was ignorant : and as our Philosophers have observ’d errors in his Physicks, our Poets have spy’d out faults in his Poeticks, at least with respect to us; considering what great change all things have undergone since his time.

The Gods and Goddesses amongst the Antients brought about every thing that was great and extraordinary upon the Theatre, either by their Hatred or their Friendship; by their Revenge, or by their Protection; and among so many supernatural things, nothing appear’d fabulous to the People, who believ’d there pass’d a familiar correspondence between Gods and Men. Their Gods, generally speaking, acted by human Passions: their men undertook nothing without the Counsel of their Gods; and executed nothing without their Assistance. Thus in this mixture of the Divinity and Humanity, there was nothing which was not credible. But all these wonders are downright Romance to us, at this time of day. The Gods are wanting to us, and we are wanting to the Gods; and if, in imitation of the Antients, an Author would introduce Angels and Saints upon our Stage, the devouter sort of people would be offended at it, and look on him as a profane person; and the Libertines wou’d certainly think him weak. Our Preachers wou’d by no means suffer a confusion of the Pulpit and Theatre; or that the People should go and learn those matters from the mouth of Comedians, which themselves deliver in their Churches, with authority to the whole People.

Besides this, it wou’d give too great an advantage to the Libertines, who might ridicule in a Comedy those very things which they receive at Church, with a seeming submission; either out of respect to the Place where they are deliver’d, or to the Character of the Person that utters them.

But let us put the case, that our Doctors should freely leave all holy matters to the liberty of the Stage : let us likewise take it for granted, that men of the least devotion would hear them with as great an inclination to be edified, as Persons of the profoundest resignation; yet certain it is, that the soundest Doctrines, the most Christian Actions, and the most useful Truths, wou’d produce a kind of Tragedy that wou’d please us the least of any thing in the world.

The spirit of our Religion is directly opposite to that of Tragedy. The humility and patience of our Saints carry too direct an opposition to those heroical Virtues, that are so necessary for the Theatre. What zeal, what force is there which Heaven does not bestow upon Nearchus and Polieuctes? and what is there wanting on the part of these new Christians, to answer fully the end of these happy gifts? The passion and charms of a young lovely Bride, make not the least impression upon the mind of Polieuctes. The politick considerations of Felix, as they less affect us, so they make a less impression. Insensible both of Prayers and Menaces, Polieuctes hasa greater desire to die for God, than other men have to live for themselves. Nevertheless, this very subject, which wou’d make one of the finest Sermons in the world, wou’d have made a wretched Tragedy, if the conversation of Paulina and Severus, heightened with other sentiments and other passions, had not preserved that reputation to the Author, which the Christian Virtues of our Martyrs had made him lose.

The Theatre loses all its agreeableness when it pretends to represent sacred things; and sacred things lose a great deal of the religious opinion that is due to them, by being represented upon the Theatre. To say the truth, the Histories of the Old Testament are infinitely better suited to our Stage. Moses, Sampson, and Joshuah, wou’d meet with much better success, than Polieuctes and Nearchus : for the wonders they wou’d work there, wou’d be a fitter subject for the Theatre. But I am apt to believe, that the Priests wou’d not fail to exclaim against the Profanation of these sacred Histories; with which they fill their ordinary Conversations, their Books, and their Sermons : and to speak soberly upon the point, the miraculous passage thro’ the Red-Sea; the Sun stopt in his career by the Prayer of Joshuah; and whole Armies defeated by Sampson with the Jaw-bone of an Ass; all these Miracles, I say, wou’d not be credited in a Play, because we believe them in the Bible; but we would be rather apt to question them in the Bible, because we should believe nothing of them in a Play. If what I have deliver’d is founded on good and solid Reasons, we ought to content our selves with things purely natural, but, at the same time, such as are extraordinary; and in our Heroes to chuse the principal Actions which we may believe possible as human; and which may cause admiration in us, as being rare and of an elevated character. In a word, we shou’d have nothing but what is great, yet still let it be human : in the human, we must carefully avoid mediocrity; and fable, in that which is great.

I am by no means willing to compare the Pharsalia to the Æneis; I know the just difference of their value : but as for what purely regards elevation, Pompey, Cesar, Cato, Curio, and Labienus, have done more for Lucan, than Jupiter, Mercury, Juno, Venus, and all the train of the other Gods and Goddesses, have done for Virgil.

The ideas which Lucan gives us of these great men, are truly greater, and affect us more sensibly than those which Virgil gives us of his Deities. The latter has clothed his Gods with human infirmities, to adapt them to the capacity of Men : the other has raised his Heroes so, as to bring them into competition with the Gods themselves :

Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

In Virgil, the Gods are not so valuable as the Heroes : in Lucan, the Heroes equal the Gods. To give you my opinion freely, I believe that the Tragedy of the Antients might have suffer’d a happy loss in the banishment of their Gods, their Oracles, and Soothsayers.

For it proceeded from these Gods, these Oracles, and these Diviners, that the Stage was sway’d by a Spirit of Superstition and Terror, capable of infecting mankind with a thousand errors, and overwhelming them with more numerous mischiefs. And if we consider the usual impressions which Tragedy made at Athens in the minds of the Spectators, we may safely affirm, that Plato was more in the right, who prohibited the use of them, than Aristotle who recommended them : for as their Tragedies wholly consisted in excessive motions of Fear and Pity, was not this the direct way to make the Theatre a School of Terror and Pity, where People only learnt to be affrighted at all dangers, and to abandon themselves to despair upon every misfortune.

It will be a hard matter to persuade me, that a soul accustomed to be terrified for what regards another, has strength enough to support the misfortunes that concern it self. This perhaps was the reason why the Athenians became so susceptible of the impressions of fear; and that this spirit of terror, which the Theatre inspired into them with so much art, became at last but too natural to their Armies.

At Sparta and Rome, where only examples of Valour and Constancy were publickly shewn, the People were no less brave and resolute in Battle, than they were unshaken and constant in the Calamities of the Republick. Ever since this art of fearing and lamenting was set up at Athens, all those disorderly Passions which they had as it were imbibed at their publick representations, got footing in their Camps, and attended them in their Wars.

Thus a spirit of Superstition occasion’d the defeat of their Armies; as a spirit of Lamentation made them sit down contented with bewailing their great Misfortunes, when they ought to have found out proper remedies for them. For how was it possible for them not to learn despair in this pitiful School of Commiseration? The Persons they usually represented upon it, were examples of the greatest Misery, and subjects but of ordinary Virtues.

So great was their desire to lament, that they represented fewer virtues than misfortunes; lest a Soul rais’d to the admiration of Heroes, should be less inclin’d to pity the Distressed. And in order to imprint these sentiments of Affliction the deeper in their Spectators, they had always upon their Theatre a Chorus of Virgins, or of old Men, who furnish’d them, upon every event, either with their Terrors, or their Tears.

Aristotle was sensible enough what prejudice this might do the Athenians; but he thought he sufficiently prevented it by establishing a certain Purgation, which no one hitherto has understood; and which, in my opinion, he himself never fully comprehended. For, can any thing be so ridiculous, as to form a Science which will infallibly discompose our minds, only to set up another, which does not certainly pretend to cure us? Or to raise a perturbation in our Souls for no other end, than to endeavour afterwards to calm it, by obliging it to reflect upon the dejected condition it has been in?

Among a thousand Persons that are present at the Theatre, perhaps there may be six Philosophers who are capable of recovering their former Tranquility, by the assistance of these prudent and useful Meditations : but the multitude will scarce make any such judicious Reflections; and we may be almost assured, that what we see constantly represented on the Theatre, will not fail, at long run, to produce in us a habit of these unhappy motions.

Our Theatrical Representations are not subject to the same inconveniencies, as those of the Antients were; since our fear never goes so far as to raise this superstitious Terror, which produc’d such ill effects upon Valour. Our Fear, generally speaking, is nothing else but an agreeable Uneasiness, which consists in the suspension of our Minds; ’tis a dear concern, which our Soul has for those subjects that draw its affection to them.

We may almost say the same of Pity, as ’tis used on our Stage. We divest it of all its weakness; and leave it all that we call charitable and human. I love to see the Misfortune of some great unhappy person lamented; I am content, with all my heart, that he should attract our Compassion, nay, sometimes command our Tears : but then I would have these tender and generous Tears paid to his Misfortunes and Virtues together; and that this melancholy sentiment of Pity be accompanied with vigorous Admiration, which shall stir up in our Souls a sort of an amorous desire to imitate him.

We were oblig’d to mingle somewhat of Love in the new Tragedy, the better to remove those black Ideas which the antient Tragedy caused in us by Superstition and Terror. And in truth, there is no Passion that more excites us to every thing that is noble and generous, than a virtuous Love. A man who may cowardly suffer himself to be insulted by a contemptible Enemy, will yet defend what he loves, tho to the apparent hazard of his Life, against the attacks of the most valiant. The weakest and most fearful Creatures; those Creatures that are naturally inclin’d to fear and to run away, will fiercely encounter what they dread most, to preserve the object of their Love. Love has a certain heat which supplies the defect of Courage in those who want it most! But to confess the truth, our Authors have made as ill an use of this noble Passion, as the Antients did of their Fear and Pity : for if we except eight or ten Plays, where its impulses have been managed to great advantage; we have no Tragedies in which both Lovers and Love are not equally injur’d.

We have an affected Tenderness where we ought to place the noblest sentiments. We bestow a softness on what ought to be most moving; and sometimes, when we mean plainly to express the graces of Nature, we fall into a vicious and mean Simplicity.

We imagine we make Kings and Emperors perfect Lovers, but in truth we make ridiculous Princes of them; and by the complaints and sighs which we bestow upon them, where they ought neither to complain nor sigh, we represent them weak, both as Lovers and as Princes. Our great Heroes upon the Theatre, do often make love like Shepherds; and thus the innocence of a sort of rural Passion, supplies with them the place of Glory and Valour.

If an Actress has the art to weep and bemoan herself after a moving lively manner, we give her our tears, at certain places which demand gravity; and because she pleases best when she seems to be affected, she shall put on grief all along, indifferently.

Sometimes we must have a plain, unartificial, sometimes a tender, and sometimes a melancholy whining Love, without regarding where that Simplicity, Tenderness, or Grief is requisite : and the reason of it is plain; for as we must needs love every where, we look for diversity in the manners, and seldom or never place it in the Passions.

I am in good hopes we shall one day find out the true use of this Passion, which is now become too common : that which ought to sweeten cruel or calamitous accidents; that which ought to affect our very Souls, to animate our Courage, and raise our Spirits, will not certainly be always made the Subject of a little affected Tenderness, or of a weak Simplicity. Whenever this happens, we need not envy the Antients; and without paying too great a respect to Antiquity, or being too much against the present Age, we shall not set up the Tragedies of Sophoclesand Euripides, as the only models for the Dramatick Compositions of our times.

However, I don’t say that these Tragedies wanted any thing that was necessary to recommend them to the palate of the Athenians : but shou’d a man translate even the Oedipus, the best performance of all Antiquity, into French, with the same spirit and force as we see it in the original, I dare be bold to affirm, that nothing in the world would appear to us more cruel, more opposite to the true sentiments which mankind ought to have.

Our Age has, at least, this advantage over theirs, that we are allow’d the liberty to hate Vice and love Virtue. As the Gods occasion’d the greatest crimes on the Theatre of the Antients, these crimes captivated the respect of the Spectators; and the People durst not find fault with those things which were really abominable. When they saw Agamemnon sacrifice his own Daughter, and a Daughter too that was so tenderly belov’d by him, to appease the indignation of the Gods, they only consider’d this barbarous Sacrifice as a pious obedience, and the highest proof of a religious submission.

Now in that superstitious Age, if a man still preserv’d the common sentiments of Humanity, he could not avoid murmuring at the cruelty of the Gods, like an impious person; and if he wou’d show his Devotion to the Gods, he must needs be cruel and barbarous to his own Fellow-Creatures : he must, like Agamemnon, offer the greatest violence both to Nature, and to his own Affection :

Tantum Relligio potuit suadere malorum,

says Lucretius, upon the account of this barbarous Sacrifice.

Now-a-days we see men represented upon the Theatre without the interposition of the Gods; and this conduct is infinitely more useful both to the Publick, and to private Persons : for in our Tragedies we neither introduce any Villain who is not detested, nor any Heroe, who does not cause himself to be admired. With us, few Crimes escape unpunished, and few Virtues go off unrewarded. In short, by the good Examples we publickly represent on the Theatre, by the agreeable Sentiments of Love and Admiration, which are discreetly interwoven with a rectified Fear and Pity, we are in a capacity of arriving to that perfection which Horace desires :

Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci :

which can never be effected by the rules of the Antient Tragedy.

I shall conclude with a new and daring Thought of my own, and that is this : we ought in Tragedy, before all things whatever, to look after a Greatness of Soul well express’d, which excites in us a tender Admiration. By this sort of Admiration our Minds are sensibly ravished, our Courages elevated, and our Souls deeply affected.


1. Francis Hedelin, Abbot d’Aubignac, publish’d in the year 1657, a Treatise intitled, La Pratique du Theatre, or the Practise of the Stage.