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9-08-2015, 17:49

Literature and drama

Scientists, philosophers, and political theorists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not limit themselves to formal treatises or learned articles, but also wrote poetry, fi ction, plays, satires, and other imaginative works. Francis Bacon wrote The New Atlantis (published in 1627 after his death), describing an imaginary island called Bensalem where families headed by fathers with absolute power devote themselves to science. Galileo wrote poetry and plays, and attempted to map hell as described by Dante in the Inferno in the same way as cartographers were mapping real landscapes. Montesquieu fi rst gained attention with the witty and satirical Persian Letters (1721), in which two fi ctional Persian aristocrats on a visit to Paris comment on French social life, religious practices, literary skills, and political activities. Diderot wrote novels, including The Nun (1760) and Jacques the Fatalist (1773), along with plays that called for greater realism in staging and acting, a call taken up by later playwrights. These works were often very popular and sold widely, another way in which new scientifi c and philosophical notions were shared. Political events as well as scientifi c and philosophical currents shaped literature. In Germany, the horrors of the Thirty Years War were captured in Hans Jakob von Grimmelshausen’s The Adventurous Simplicissimus (1669) and several sequels. These tell the story of a naïve young man caught up in the horrors of the war; like Candide, Simplicissimus fi nally fi nds peace by retreating from the world. Grimmelshausen’s sympathetic hero, linguistic skills, searing social criticism, and black humor made his works popular with nobles and middle-class readers, though they also commented on his graphic violence. Political developments in seventeenth-century England had direct effects on literature, particularly drama. In the fi rst decades of the seventeenth century, public theatres increasingly offered tragicomedies – serious plays with happy endings – while elaborate masques with stage scenery, lavish costumes, and complex musical scores were performed at court. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the public theatres were closed, though private performances continued, especially of “closet” dramas designed to be read rather than staged. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the theatres opened again, and audiences fl ocked to satirical “comedies of manners” that both criticized and celebrated excessive behavior, and to heroic tragedies with fl owery speeches and violent action. Female parts were increasingly played by women, and particular actors or actresses became wealthy celebrities. English prose fi ction and poetry also refl ected political, social, and economic changes. During the Civil War period, royalist sympathizers masked their praise of kings and nobles in fantasy romances focusing on gallant aristocrats, while ballads and popular poems satirizing rulers and government ministers circulated orally, in manuscript, or as single-page printed broadsheets. Such works continued after the Restoration, though they were sometimes a bit more muted; John Dryden’s political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681), for example, depicts enemies of the future James II as evil biblical characters. John Milton (1608–74) wrote a number of political works, including an attack on censorship in Areopagitica (1644), a defense of the lawfulness of executing the king in Eikonoklastes (1649), and a condemnation of the imminent restoration of the monarchy in The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660). He served as a government offi cial during the period of parliamentary rule – keeping his position after he grew blind – and was imprisoned briefl y after 1660, but was allowed simply to retire from court. Milton’s greatest work is the epic poem Paradise Lost (1667, revised 1674), which addresses basic questions about freedom and evil as it tells the story of creation, Satan’s rebellion against God, and the fall of Adam and Eve. Issues surrounding the slave trade emerge in Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688), by Aphra Behn ( c . 1640–89), the fi rst woman in England to make her living by writing. Behn tells the story of an African prince who leads a slave rebellion in the South American colony of Surinam. Behn had lived in Surinam as a young woman, and used her experiences to provide details about the natural setting and the slave system. Behn and others were gradually creating a new literary form, the novel, which involves a long and complex plot that develops through the thoughts and actions of distinctive characters. Daniel Defoe’s Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels were other early novels that incorporated overseas voyages into their stories, as did Candide . Spanish literature of the seventeenth century – that “Golden Age” in the eyes of literary scholars – is less overtly political than English literature. It includes the hundreds of plays of Lope de Vega, which often blend tragic, romantic, and comic elements. Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81) also wrote many plays about noble honor and cloakand- dagger intrigue, but became best known for his more serious works, including about seventy autos sacramentales , allegorical religious dramas on the theme of the Eucharist. These plays were performed during the Feast of Corpus Christi outdoors on wagons or more permanent stages, by troupes of professionals hired by church or city offi cials. In many of his autos sacramentales , Calderón tackles the issue of the limits of human understanding that so concerned Descartes, Locke, and Calvinist theologians; he resolves it by advocating unquestioning obedience to the monarch and intense devotion to the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, this made Calderón very popular at court, where his plays were staged as costly and elaborate spectacles; after the death of his mistress, he became a priest, and later the royal chaplain. His plays, and those of Lope de Vega, continued to be performed throughout the eighteenth century, although in 1765 church authorities in Madrid forbade Corpus Christi performances as they thought people were attending more for the increasingly bawdy comical interludes than the main devotional play. In France, political themes were portrayed in poetry and drama that emphasized the importance of the will, duty, and honor, a movement often termed “classicism.” Classical poets such as François de Malherbe (1555–1628) wrote clear and forceful lyrics on moral and patriotic subjects, as did the playwright Pierre Corneille (1606–84), whose fearless but remorseless heroes are often taken from Roman history. Jean Racine (1639–99) also adapted Greek and Roman subjects for his tragedies, with larger-thanlife heroes and heroines brought down by passions and internal confl icts they cannot control. Racine used simple and austere language and well-organized plots to drive along the downfall of his characters. He wrote several plays specifi cally for certain actresses or the girls’ school of St. Cyr, and the depth and complexity he gave to the doomed fi gure at their center has made them popular roles for stage actresses ever since. Molière (1622–73), the stage name of Jean Baptiste Poquelin, turned human failings into comedy instead of tragedy in plays that are still widely performed. An actor, theatre manager, and director as well as playwright, Molière favored plots that mocked social pretensions and religious hypocrisy, but in an amusing and good-natured way. Several of his plays, including Tartuffe (1664), were banned by offi cials of the French church, though Molière himself was protected by King Louis XIV and his brother, the duke of Orléans. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment values often emerge in plays and novels. The German playwright and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81), for example, created characters with which his audience could identify, centering his tragedies and comedies on realistic middle-class people rather than ancient kings or mythical heroes. In his plays and other works, Lessing considers central Enlightenment issues such as the role of reason in religion and the value of toleration; his last and most famous play, Nathan the Wise (1779), argues that the three major western religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – agree more than they differ on moral values and basic teachings. Lessing based the main character in this play on his lifelong friend Moses Mendelssohn. The French playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–99) wrote the satirical comedies The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784), both of which use the witty, irreverent barber Figaro to satirize aristocratic privilege. Both of these plays became the basis for later operas that are now part of the standard opera repertoire: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (1815).

SOURCE 29 Françoise de Graffi gny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman

In 1747, the French author Françoise de Graffi gny (1695–1758) published Letters from a Peruvian Woman in which a fi ctional Inca princess, Zilia, captured and brought to France, comments on French society and culture. Written as a series of letters from Zilia primarily to her far-away beloved, Aza, the novel embeds social commentary in a dramatic story of lovers’ separation, exile, and romantic confl ict. It became a bestseller in several languages, and appeared in more than 130 reprints, editions, and translations. As Graffi gny herself explains in the introduction to the novel, she had learned about the Incas in a history of Peru written in the early seventeenth century by El Inca Garcilosa de la Vega, which had been translated into French. Zilia’s position as both a woman and a non-European reverses the standard point of view for comparisons between cultures, which was part of the novel’s appeal to readers. It is not without genuine regret, dearest Aza, that I pass from wonder at the genius of the French to contempt for the use they make of it. I took honest pleasure from judging this nation charming, but I cannot deny the evidence of its faults . . . Upon making the slightest inquiry, one needs neither skill nor insight to discern that their unbridled taste for the superfl uous has corrupted their reason, their hearts, and their spirit, that it has built illusory riches upon the ruins of the necessary, that it has substituted a veneer of politeness for good manners, and that it has replaced common sense and reason with the false sparkle of wit. The greatest pretense among the French is to appear lavishly wealthy. Genius, the arts, and perhaps even the sciences all relate back to ostentation and contribute to the destruction of fortunes. And as if the fecundity of their genius were not enough to multiply the objects on which to apply it, I have it on their own authority that they contemptuously turn their backs on those solid, pleasant objects produced in abundance by France itself, instead extricating from all parts of the world and at great expense the fragile, useless furnishings that decorate their houses, the dazzling garments with which they are covered, and even the very food and drink of which their meals are composed . . . The same depravity that has transformed the solid assets of the French into so many useless trifl es has not rendered the ties binding society any less superfi cial. The most sensible among them, who groan at this depravity, have assured me that in the past, as among us, honor was in the soul and humanity in the heart. That may be, but at present, what they call politeness takes the place of sentiment for them. The politeness consists of countless words without meaning, marks of respect without esteem, and pains taken without affection . . . In Peru, dearest Aza, we know that to prepare humans for the practice of virtue, one must inspire in them from childhood valor and a certain steadfastness of spirit that form in them a decisive character. This is unknown in France. From the earliest age, children appear destined only for the amusement of their parents and those who look after them. . . In France, the self respect with which we go to such pains to fi ll the hearts of our young Virgins is practically unknown. Here this generous sentiment, which makes us the harshest judges of our own thoughts and deeds and becomes a reliable principle when it is truly felt, is unavailable to women. Going by the little attention paid to women’s souls, one would be tempted to believe that the French are prey to the error of certain barbarous peoples who deny them one… Starting from such principles, they expect their women to practice virtues with which they do not acquaint them…But what is harder to conceive is the way parents and husbands complain to one another of the contempt for their wives and daughters while at the same time perpetuating its cause from generation to generation through ignorance, lack of ability, and poor education. Oh my dear Aza! May the glittering vices of a nation so seductive in other ways not cause us to lose in any way our taste for the natural simplicity of our manners. (Source: Françoise de Graffi gny, Letters from a Peruvian Woman, translated by David Kornacker [New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1993], pp. 122–3, 127, 142–3, 144, 145, 151.) Lessing was not the only author to create sympathetic characters in ordinary circumstances who triumphed over misfortunes or were just as doomed by their own fl aws as Racine’s classical protagonists. The heroine in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740–1) is hired as a servant by a man who is her social superior; he tries to rape her – a scenario that, according to court records in cases of pregnancy outside wedlock, was very common in real life – but she resists. Over the course of the very long novel, written in the form of letters, he is convinced by the virtuousness of the heroine that he should marry her instead. Richardson’s novel became wildly popular, inspiring Pamela dolls and other merchandise, though it also led several novelists to write parodies that skewer its ideas about virtue, including Eliza Heywood’s viciously satiric Anti-Pamela (1741) and Henry Fielding’s pointed yet very funny Shamela (1741). Toward the very end of the eighteenth century, playwrights and poets in Germany associated with what they called the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement both extended and opposed Enlightenment ideas, in a similar way to that of Rousseau in France. Plays such as Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers (1781) brashly called for immediate reforms and greater liberty, radicalizing Enlightenment ideas. At the same time, the writer, folklorist, and philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) defended German tastes for the emotional and extreme against French classicism and rationalism, arguing that each cultural group was unique and that there was no such thing as universal reason.

 

 

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