Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, France on 26 February 1802. Unlike his older brothers, Abel and Eugène, the newborn Hugo was small and weak. His health worried both of his parents. His father, Léopold Hugo, was a military officer who spent much of his time living abroad. In 1807 Sophie Hugo, Victor's mother, visited her husband, who was stationed in Naples. The trip through the war-torn Italian countryside made a deep impression on the young Hugo. Unable to get along with her husband, Sophie returned to France while her husband was sent to Spain, where he was promoted to general in 1809. A year later King Joseph granted him the title of count and, in recognition of his bravery, named him governor of two Spanish provinces. During the summer of the following year Sophie and the three sons joined the general in Madrid. The names of two cities that they visited while en route, Ernani and Torquemada, became titles for two of the future playwright's dramas.
When once again the parents could not reconcile their differences, Sophie and the children returned to Paris in the spring of 1812. During the next few years Victor pursued his studies, first at the boarding school Cordier, then at the Parisian high school Louis-le-Grand, where he wrote his first play in 1816. In 1819 he received a prestigious award for an ode that he had composed. Toward the end of that year he and his brothers founded the Conservateur littéraire, a royalist review that enjoyed considerable success until March 1821, when it ceased publication. In addition to contributing articles to the Conservateur littéraire, Hugo continued to write plays and poetry.
In October 1822 Hugo married Adèle Foucher, the daughter of family friends. The writer Alfred de Vigny was his best man. During the next six years Hugo and Adèle had five children, the first of whom died shortly after birth. It was also during this period that the aspiring author developed friendships with such writers as François Auguste-René de Chateaubriand and Charles Nodier. The young Hugo spent much of his time writing plays, poems, and his first novels, Han d'Islande (1823; translated as Hans of Iceland, 1825) and Bug-Jargal (1826; translated as The Slave King, 1833). During the 1830s he wrote the Romantic dramas for which he is primarily remembered in French theatrical history. He also continued to compose poetry and finished Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833). Meanwhile, Adèle began her relationship with the writer Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and Hugo began his with the actress Juliette Drouet. He and Drouet traveled not only in France but also to Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. Many of France's literary figures, including Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, and Gérard de Nerval, frequented Hugo's home. In 1841 Hugo was elected to the Académie Française after several unsuccessful nominations. In 1843 his play Les Burgraves (The Burgraves) failed at the Comédie-Française, and he stopped writing for the stage for many years. Les Burgraves was the last of his plays to be staged in his lifetime.
In September 1843 Hugo was struck by tragedy when his beloved daughter Léopoldine and her husband drowned in an accident in the Seine. In 1845 Hugo was named a peer of France. During this time he had several love affairs and continued to write, beginning work on what later became the novel Les Misérables (1862; translated, 1862). After the fall of Louis-Philippe in February 1848, Hugo became politically active. In June he was elected to the National Assembly and in 1849 to the Legislative Assembly. When his son Charles was imprisoned for having written an article critical of the death penalty, Hugo did not hesitate to oppose Napoleon openly. After the latter's coup d'état on 2 December 1851, Hugo, fearing for his life, disguised himself as a worker and fled France for Brussels. His stay was short-lived because he wrote a pamphlet titled Napoléon-le-petit (Napoleon the Little, 1852) that angered the new emperor. Hugo and his family sought refuge on the island of Jersey, where they lived until 1855. While on Jersey, Hugo and those close to him held seances during which they claimed to communicate with the dead. The family finally settled on the island of Guernsey, where Hugo purchased a residence, Hauteville-House. Juliette moved in next door. From 1851 to 1870 Hugo continued to write plays, poems, critical works, and novels. He also wrote many letters, corresponding with people such as Théodore de Banville, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Paul Verlaine. He remained politically active, opposing Napoleon III and his repressive policies whenever the opportunity arose. He and Juliette traveled to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. In 1868 Adèle died. During 1869 Hugo was busy writing plays and overseeing the publication of L'Homme qui rit (translated as The Man Who Laughs, 1869).
After the fall of the emperor, Hugo ended his long exile on the island of Guernsey and returned to Paris on 5 September 1870. He was elected to the National Assembly the next year but resigned for political reasons. His son Charles died in 1871; another son, François-Victor, died in 1873. Hugo was elected to the Senate in 1876. During this time his relationship with Juliette was often compromised because of his interest in other women. She died in 1883. After his return to France, Hugo never stopped writing. Many of his theatrical works from the 1830s were staged again with great success in Paris. On 22 May 1885 Victor-Marie Hugo died. The National Assembly and the Senate voted to honor him with a period of national mourning. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe on 31 May and 1 June before being accompanied by two million admirers to the Panthéon for burial.
Hugo's writings for the theater fall into three basic groups: the plays of his youth, written from 1816 to 1819; his Romantic dramas, created from 1827 to 1843; and his post-Romantic works, composed from 1854 to 1873. He actually began writing for the stage in 1812, at the age of ten. Two unfinished works, L'Enfer sur terre (Hell on Earth) and Le Château du diable (The Devil's Castle) date from that year.
From July to December 1816, while still in high school, Hugo wrote his first complete play, a five-act tragedy, Irtamène (1934). Its 1,508 lines of poetry relate how Zobéir, king of Egypt, regains his throne. Given the political climate of the time and the young author's devotion to the monarchy, it is not surprising that Hugo depicted a dethroned sovereign who, with the support of his devoted subjects and officers, returns to power. Although Irtamène remains faithful in many ways to the classical tradition of theater, it contains elements of what eventually typify Hugo's dramatic productions: characters with little psychological development; improbable, if not unbelievable, situations; cavalier treatment of the rules of dramatic composition governing place and time; long monologues and speeches; and the use of hyperbole.
During the months of September, October, and November 1817, Hugo, still a student at the Parisian high school Louis-le-Grand, wrote two acts of a second tragedy, "Athélie, ou les Scandinaves" (Athélie, or the Scandinavians). After abandoning this work he began and completed another play in December, a comic opera or vaudeville called A.Q.C.H.E.B. (A quelque chose hasard est bon) (1934). In twenty-four acts, or "scenes," the reader is treated to a typical love story with all its complications: a young couple unable to wed because of a marriage arranged by the girl's father, a hero unaware of his family background, and the unexpected discovery that the two suitors are in fact brothers. The dialogue is regularly interrupted by songs and duets.
The final work of this initial period of dramatic creativity is a melodrama, probably written in 1819, Inez de Castro . This work fits the mold of the genre to which it belongs: it dramatizes a fight between good and evil, with the triumph of the former; it contains disguises, chains, poison, and murder; and it has a prison, a crypt with a casket, and a ghost accompanied by angels. In 1822 Hugo submitted his melodrama to a theatrical company that decided to produce it, but the royal censors, offended by the portrayal of a weak king, forbade its production. For the next six years the young author devoted his time to writing poems and two novels, Han d'Islande and Bug-Jargal. In 1825 he composed the first four scenes of Corneille, a five-act play that was never completed.
In early 1822 Alexandre Soumet, a well-known poet and dramatist, asked Hugo to co-author a play based upon Sir Walter Scott's novel Kenilworth (1821). Hugo was to write the first three acts, Soumet the last two. When Hugo read his contribution to Soumet, the latter did not find it to his liking and abandoned the project. Hugo also set aside the work, which was titled Amy Robsart, until either 1826 or early 1827, when he finally finished it. To give an impetus to the literary career of his brother-in-law, Paul Foucher, Hugo agreed that the play should bear the younger man's name. The premiere at the Théâtre de l'Odéon on 13 February 1828 was a disaster. The beautiful costumes designed by Eugène Delacroix and the fine acting of a gifted cast of actors could not save the play that spectators began booing before the curtain went up. Amy Robsart was withdrawn from the bill after one performance. The critics attacked the work for its story line, which too closely imitated Scott's; for its style, which was seen as being in bad taste; and for the dramatic principles upon which it was based, the French public viewing the latter as contrary to current theatrical practice.
Because Hugo borrowed the plot of Amy Robsart from Scott, it is of little interest to summarize it here. It is useful to note, however, various dramatic, thematic, and stylistic elements found within the play that characterize much of Hugo's later Romantic theater. The historical setting of the play is comparatively recent, the action taking place in sixteenth-century England. The theme is quite simple: Amy and Count Leicester, who are secretly married, love one another, but various characters around them are opposed to this union and will stop at nothing to destroy it. Queen Elizabeth, the reigning monarch, wields ultimate power but does not control the world around her. She is duped more than once by those who are supposed to serve her. The development of the plot depends upon secrets, misunderstanding, lies, treachery, and murder. The costumes and stage settings are described in some detail. Instead of evolving psychologically, the characters remain static; they represent ideas and principles. As for the style, Hugo used a rich and varied vocabulary. Metaphors, similes, and lengthy developments of thoughts and images are abundant.
During the first eight months of 1826 Hugo spent considerable time thinking about what became his first great historical drama, Cromwell (1827). In keeping with what became his regular practice, he did extensive research, taking notes whenever necessary. He wrote the first four acts from August to October. The fifth act, begun on 28 October, was not finished until the end of September 1827, almost one year later, during which time he wrote an important preface. In spite of the length of Cromwell (more than sixty-seven hundred lines, more than three-and-one-half times that of Hugo's regular plays in poetic form) and its impressive list of characters (more than ninety), the play is readable. Its plot is straightforward: will Oliver Cromwell be crowned king before his enemies succeed in killing him? All subplots are of minor importance. Hugo makes ample use of traditional theatrical devices associated with the comic and melodramatic genres, which include eavesdropping, a stolen letter, a letter accidentally given in the place of another, disguises, a sleeping potion, and mistaken identities. Local color plays a preponderant role in this historical drama. Hugo, a consummate set and costume designer, re-creates the period in question through detailed stage directions. Moreover, his role as director is clearly evident. He never hesitates to let the actors know how he expects a scene to be played.
Stylistically, Cromwell contains much of the best and the worst of Hugo the poet. He regularly satisfies his penchant for rare, unfamiliar proper names, for alliterations that are occasionally a bit cacophonous, and for rhymes that shock the ear. The copious use of asides reduces the dramatic quality of many scenes. While no speech equals in length the one delivered by Don Carlos in the fourth act of Hernani (1830), there are five in Cromwell that are longer than seventy lines. To his credit it must be noted that Hugo makes every attempt to liberate the alexandrine from its classical constraints, dividing it into four, five, even six separate exchanges of dialogue. Unwilling to remain within the limits imposed upon the use of language by his classical predecessors, he introduces all sorts of vocabulary heretofore unheard in serious works on the French stage, ranging from the most common terms to the most erudite. Anaphore, antithesis, and enjambment assume their rightful place in his stylistic repertory. Songs are interspersed throughout the play. Comic relief abounds. Humor is found not only in the judicious use of language but also in the discerning juxtaposition of characters and situations. For the first time Hugo mixes amusing and serious subject matter. The success of entire scenes depends upon what he calls in his preface the "theory of the grotesque," which involves combining comic and tragic elements in the same work.
Cromwell is far from being a perfect play. It does merit, however, careful analysis because it is Hugo's first original historical drama, because it amply illustrates many of the basic principles of his great works, and because it deals with themes that recur in his later writings. Hugo knew that no theater director would produce Cromwell. In its preface he admits that the current literary and political climate, and the play's length, make its staging impossible. To this day Cromwell has never been acted.
The Préface de Cromwell, written mainly in October 1827, is an important and integral part of Hugo's theatrical production. It was published at a critical moment in the battle for the heart and soul of the French stage, a battle being waged by the traditionalists and the Romantics. When the preface appeared on 5 December 1827, writers such as Alessandro Francesco Tommaso Antonio Manzoni, Friedrich von Schlegel, Mme Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker de Staël, and Stendhal had already published books dealing with theatrical reform, works that Hugo had read and used as sources for his own preface.
The most original concept developed in the Préface is Hugo's "theory of the grotesque." He sees "the grotesque" as the basis of all comedy and uses several words to explain the term, including "the deformed," "the horrible," "the ugly," "the comical," "the farcical," "the ridiculous," and "the depraved." Characters who embody the "grotesque" are many: gluttons, hypocrites, lechers, misers, meddlers, and phonies. The beau, or sublime, the opposite of the grotesque, is what is good in the human spirit. It is characterized by all that is charming, graceful, and beautiful. According to Hugo, the grotesque and the sublime had never been portrayed together in any French theatrical work. Since both are found in nature and since all that is in nature should be in art, an author should be able to present both side by side in a play. Herein lies the beauty and the originality of Romantic drama as Hugo imagined it.
In the Préface Hugo categorically rejects the classical unities of place and time. By limiting the scene of the action to one place, an author is forced to relegate important parts of the play to the wings, to rely on récits (narratives) and descriptions to inform the spectator as to what has happened. Historically accurate stage settings are "silent" witnesses. By limiting a drama to one place an author writes an incomplete play. The unity of time is seen as ridiculous because all events cannot be reduced to a twenty-four-hour period. Hugo does plead in favor of the unity of action, warning the reader not to confuse it with simplicity. A play can have subplots as long as they remain subordinate to the main story line. Hugo condemns those who copy others because imitation can only result in mediocrity. He defines "local color" as that which is "characteristic" or "typical" and believes that drama must be bathed in it. The alexandrine, rhyme, and the choice of subjects need to be freed from the limits placed on them by the classical tradition. While Hugo prefers plays written in poetic form, he states that the choice between verse and prose is of secondary importance. Finally, he acknowledges that language constantly evolves, that seventeenth-century French is not the same as nineteenth-century French. Ideas need to be expressed in such a language that contemporary audiences can understand.
After Cromwell Hugo did not begin another play until the summer of 1829. Two different periods (Spain in the early sixteenth century and France during the reign of Louis XIII) and two different characters (Hernani and Marion de Lorme) occupied his thoughts. He finally opted in favor of a drama set in France and, as usual, researched the lives of the characters. He also drew upon his previous readings, finding inspiration in Scott's Kenilworth (1821) and Vigny's novel Cinq-Mars (1826). He began to write "Un Duel sous Richelieu" (A Duel under Richelieu), the first title of the play later called Marion de Lorme, on 2 June and finished it more than twenty days later on 26 June. This play was the first one to be written after the Préface de Cromwell and the first one that had any chance of being a theatrical success. A privileged few were invited to Hugo's home for a reading on 2 July 1829. Honoré de Balzac , Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas père, Prosper Mérimée , Alfred de Musset , Sainte-Beuve, and Vigny were present. The Théâtre de la Comédie-Française, Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, and Théâtre de l'Odéon pleaded with the author to allow them to stage the drama. Hugo finally chose Comédie-Française, which submitted the text to the government censors. Their reaction was categorical: without major changes the play would never be staged. Hugo acquiesced and made the necessary alterations. In spite of the modifications, the play was ultimately banned by the minister of the interior. Hugo went so far as to request and obtain an audience with Charles X, who refused to overrule his minister.
Marion de Lorme was not a typical love story. After having been the mistress of many Parisian aristocrats, Marion has sought refuge at Blois, where she has changed her name because she is in love with Didier, a young man who knows little about his own past and nothing about hers. Didier abhors courtesans, and therein lies the problem. In the second act he is condemned to death for having killed a man in a duel. So deep is his disappointment when he learns about Marion's earlier life that he hands himself over to the authorities, who imprison him. Marion does everything possible to obtain his freedom, including submitting to the amorous advances of the one person who can liberate the man whom she loves. When Didier learns what she has done, he rejects her; however, just before he is to die, he relents, admits his love for her, and pardons her. In the character of Marion, Hugo creates the first example of what became a regular figure in literature, the rehabilitated prostitute. Didier portrays yet another dramatic type who appeared in Hugo's later writings; he represents the fanatic who is ready to sacrifice everything, even the woman whom he loves, to remain faithful to his beliefs. Louis XIII continues the line of manipulated monarchs. Richelieu inaugurates the line of éminences grises. L'Angely picks up where the four jesters in Cromwell left off. In this historical drama Hugo deals with several themes that he treats in later works: the absolute monarchy, the death penalty, personal integrity, fanatical devotion to one's principles, and love and all that a person will do to protect and preserve it.
From a technical point of view Marion de Lorme was the first of Hugo's plays whose plot depends upon an ever increasing number of coups de théâtre, of people recognizing people whom they are seeking, of individuals being in the right or wrong place at the appropriate or inappropriate time. Faithful to the principles put forth in the Préface de Cromwell, Hugo ignored the unities of time and place while respecting the unity of action. He mixed the grotesque and sublime in various ways and continued to liberate the alexandrine by dividing it among various characters. Local color was present in the settings, costumes, themes, and attitudes expressed by the actors.
With Marion de Lorme banned from the stage, Hugo did not hesitate to start another historical drama. Begun on 29 August 1829, Hernani was finished less than a month later, on 24 September. Hugo drew his inspiration for this play from a variety of sources. In 1811 he, his brothers, and his mother had traveled to Spain to be with his father, General Hugo. Although Hugo lived in Madrid for only nine months, the color, history, and people of this country made a deep and lasting impression on his young mind and imagination. Spain played a role in later works, including Ruy Blas (1838) and Torquemada, written during the year 1869. As usual, Hugo also drew heavily upon his reading and borrowed from English, French, German, and Spanish books and plays. He also did new research.
Hernani has two subtitles that indicate major themes of the play. In the manuscript one reads "Tres para una" ("Three for One"). Doña Sol is betrothed to her elderly uncle, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. At the same time she has been secretly seeing a young outlaw named Hernani. Unbeknownst to doña Sol, King Carlos is in love with her. This triangle dominates the action of the drama. The second subtitle, "L'Honneur castillan" (Castilian Honor), is found in the first edition. At one point in the play don Ruy Gomez grants asylum to Hernani. When the king demands that he hand the young man over, he refuses to do so. At the end of the play, when Hernani has the choice between death and breaking his word, he chooses the former. Yet another important theme in the play is political in nature. At the beginning of Hernani the king is an unscrupulous monarch who will stop at nothing to attain his goals. During the fourth act, when he becomes emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he suddenly changes. He becomes a caring, generous, magnanimous sovereign who pardons his enemies and renounces his love for doña Sol.
After reading the play to an audience made up of many of those who had heard Marion de Lorme a month or so earlier, Hernani was submitted to the Comédie-Française, where the actors accepted it with great pleasure. The play then had to be sent to the government censors. Charles Brifaut, responsible for the interdiction of Marion de Lorme, wanted to avoid the same problems encountered earlier. He therefore charged a commission of dramatists with the task of approving or disapproving Hugo's latest dramatic work. While they criticized the play for many reasons, they felt that it should be played without changing a single word so that the public would be able to reject it. Baron Trouvé, who headed the Interior Ministry's office dealing with literature, theaters, and newspapers, did not agree and demanded modifications and deletions. Hugo naturally protested, both in writing and in person. After he begrudgingly made many of the changes, authorization was forthcoming during the last two weeks of February.
Even before permission to produce the drama had been granted, the Comédie-Française began rehearsals of Hernani in the fall. Some of the best-known actors of the period were in the play, including Mademoiselle Mars as doña Sol, Firmin as Hernani, Joanny as don Ruy Gomez, and Michelot as don Carlos. The premiere took place on 25 February 1830. Because Hugo did not want claqueurs (paid professionals) to applaud his play and thus assure its success, his wife and friends had to orchestrate the event carefully. To ensure that Hugo's supporters would have access to the theater, they were given red pieces of paper with the word Hierro (Spanish for iron) written on them. The doors were opened more than four hours before the play began. During this time Hugo's partisans ate, drank, laughed, and sang songs. When the play finally started the two warring factions, Hugo's admirers and those who despised him and the new Romantic movement, were prepared for the fight. Throughout the premiere the author's disciples made every attempt to drown out the laughter and jeers of the opposition. At the end the play was definitely a success; it remained on the bill until 21 November 1830.
The battle that had begun with the censors and had been continued during the premiere and its subsequent performances was also taken up by the press. Classical critics condemned Hernani while Romantics heaped praise upon it and its author. The critical question asked in 1830 and still discussed today remains: was the play's triumph passing in nature or truly significant in the history of French theater? Opinion remains divided. A distinction must be made between the play itself and the political, social, and literary context in which it was produced. As a drama Hernani is filled with contradictions. It illustrates the worst and the best of Hugo. On the one hand, the plot, with all its twists and turns, is filled with inconsistencies that often make it dramatically untenable. Characters do not evolve; they are driven by an excessive devotion to principle or duty, to an idea or a passion. They express themselves most eloquently; however, this eloquence is divorced from the action of the play, taking on a life of its own that relegates the dramatic development to the background. And yet this same eloquence is one of the play's major strengths. It is the powerfully poetic vehicle used by don Ruy Gomez to voice his anger, pain, and pride; by don Carlos to state his hopes and fears; and by doña Sol and Hernani to express their love for each other. The play is also noteworthy for its depiction of honor and generosity, for its sympathetic treatment of the love of an old man for a young girl, for the important role given to the readers' imagination, and for the dramatic power of the fifth act.
Other plays by Romantic authors had enjoyed considerable success in 1829: Dumas's Henri III et sa cour (Henry the Third and His Court) in February and Vigny's Othello in October. They did not, however, generate the interest, the passion, and the debate that were to surround Hernani. This play was Hugo's first work to be produced not only under his name but also at the Comédie-Française. It was viewed as the long-awaited "slap-in-the-face" to almost two centuries of theatrical tradition. The young Romantics identified with it because of its poetic and stylistic strength and beauty, because of the local color that brought another world to the stage in a most spectacular fashion, and because of the devotion to principle exemplified by Hernani, a hero, an homme fatal with whom they could identify. They also liked Hernani because it put on the stage an outlaw who dares challenge a king and because the unprincipled monarch becomes a benevolent emperor. They were not concerned with the play's imperfections. They needed a rallying point, and Hernani provided it. Did this play usher in a new direction for the French stage? While it did not accomplish this alone, it was the major impetus. Hernani represented the decisive battle in a literary war that opened the doors to more theatrical productions of a similar nature.
After the success of Hernani Hugo waited until 1831 before deciding to allow Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin to produce Marion de Lorme. In the meantime Charles X had been replaced by Louis-Philippe, and theaters were once again free to stage plays without fear of government censorship. In the preface to Marion de Lorme Hugo explained that he had withheld his drama because he did not want its eventual success to be political in nature. Marie Dorval, one of the leading actresses of the time, played the role of the heroine. Acceding to the criticisms formulated by some of his friends, Hugo rewrote the end of the play, changing his hero from the unyielding, unreasoning zealot into an understanding, pardoning lover. The premiere took place on 11 August 1831. As was the case with Hernani, the critics were divided in their opinions. Marion de Lorme was produced by the Comédie-Française in 1838 and became a standard part of its repertory. As was the case with all of Hugo's plays, it could not be staged during the reign of Napoleon III. It did not reappear on the bill until 1873. In 1885, at Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, Sarah Bernhardt played the role of Marion.
During the spring of 1832 Hugo was already thinking about his next play, Le Roi s'amuse (1832; translated as The King's Fool, 1841). He read books about his new subject and, as had become regular practice, took notes. He wrote the drama between 3 June and 23 June 1832. In July he wrote Lucrèce Borgia (1833). Rehearsals for Le Roi s'amuse began in September while Hugo was on vacation. Unlike works at private theaters, plays staged at the Comédie-Française could be reviewed by the government because it was a state-subsidized theater. When Monsieur d'Argout, the minister in charge of the supervision of theaters, heard about the subject of Le Roi s'amuse, he asked for a copy of it. Hugo refused to give him one. During a meeting with the minister, Hugo defended his play, stating that he was not attacking Louis-Philippe through his portrayal of Francis I. The matter was dropped, and the premiere took place on 22 November 1832. Many of the best-known authors, journalists, and actors, as well as the elite of Parisian society, were in attendance. In spite of the fact that Hugo had given free seats to many of his friends and admirers, the play was seen as a disaster; it was what some critics would call a "scandal," a "rout," the "Waterloo of Romanticism." The audience was shocked not by the political nature of the drama but rather by the preponderant role played by the grotesque. The next day the director of the Comédie-Française informed Hugo that the performances of Le Roi s'amuse had been suspended by the government. The play was officially banned from the stage on 10 December because it was considered an attack on public morality.
Although Hugo regularly eschewed the political arena, he felt that he had no choice. To make the government accountable for what it had done, Hugo brought suit against the Comédie-Française, with which he had signed a contract. He knew that he would never win, but he felt that he had to defend the fundamental liberties that were being threatened by Louis-Philippe's ministers. Before the trial began he wrote a preface to Le Roi s'amuse that was published with the text of the play on 3 December 1832. The preface, whose tone is clearly political, is an attack on the government. Hugo describes the minister's decision as "unbelievable," "unheard of," and "arbitrary." For Hugo the theater is a form of publication and therefore cannot be censored. Also, according to the Charter of 1830, the state no longer has the right to confiscate anything that belongs to its citizens. By banning this play the government has stolen property not only belonging to the author, but also to the public. Hugo accuses the state of having a hidden agenda because it fears future revolutions. He goes so far as to say that the next step would be to put him in the Bastille. He defends Le Roi s'amuse as a work of art, saying that there is nothing immoral in it. When Hugo arrived in court on 10 December, he was greeted by a round of applause. Neither his lawyer nor he could convince the judges to rule in his favor, but by speaking out as he did, Hugo forced the government to wait two years before officially reinstating the censorship of theatrical works. Le Roi s'amuse was not staged again until 22 November 1882, exactly fifty years after its premiere.
The plot of Le Roi s'amuse is somewhat complicated. King Francis I has seen a young lady whom he would like to seduce. His court jester, Triboulet, is hated by many aristocrats because they are often the butt of his jokes. When they discover that Triboulet might have a mistress, they decide to kidnap her in order to get even. What they do not know is that the young person in question, Blanche, is Triboulet's daughter and the young woman who has attracted the king's attention. The king forces himself upon Blanche, who falls in love with him. A month goes by during which Blanche remains with Francis and during which Triboulet pretends to have pardoned his master. In fact, the jester has been carefully preparing his revenge. He proves to his daughter that the king does not love her, that he is merely using her. Triboulet has hired an assassin, Saltabadil, whose sister, Maguelonne, is the latest object of Francis's desires. Saltabadil is to kill the king and place his body in a sack that Triboulet will throw into the Seine River. Blanche, who witnessed the king's declaration of love to Maguelonne earlier in the day, returns to the tavern that Maguelonne and her brother run and where the king is spending the night. Blanche overhears the two discussing how Francis is to be assassinated. Maguelonne does not want her brother to kill him, so he agrees to slay the first person who passes in the street. In order to save her father, who would be denounced by Saltabadil, and the king, whom she still loves, Blanche enters the inn and is stabbed. Triboulet arrives, drags the sack to the water's edge, and prepares to throw it in. When he hears the king's voice in the street, he opens the sack and discovers Blanche, who dies a few minutes later.
The play, written in verse form, contains many of the stylistic, thematic, and dramatic elements found in Hugo's earlier historical dramas. He increases the number of stage directions that are designed to tell the actors how to play their roles. And for the first time he presents a tragic jester and a deflowered virgin as principal characters. Yet Le Roi s'amuse was a theatrical failure. After the premiere Hugo, who had seen and heard the public's reaction, and had undoubtedly spoken with the actors, made several corrections the next day that did not fundamentally alter what had so shocked the audience--the role of the grotesque, of the ugly. He modified some expressions and eliminated certain lines, but he could not rewrite the basic story line, nor could he change the characters of the protagonists. The press was brutal in its assessment of the play. Le Roi s'amuse was said to be "unworthy of the stage," a "monstrous play." The grotesque was manifest in too many ways and to too much of an extreme. Reviewers criticized the liberties taken with the French language, the despicable portrayal of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the cavalier treatment of history, the choice of a mean-spirited jester as the representative of fatherly love, the unbelievably cruel denouement, and the harsh depiction of reality and of human nature. Not only was Hugo's talent as a dramatist openly questioned, but also his conception of Romantic drama. Although Le Roi s'amuse contained many beautiful lines and a few sympathetic characters, nothing could save it. Some of Hugo's supporters wondered whether any of his dramatic works would ever be played again.
While preparing to write Le Roi s'amuse, Hugo was also thinking about another play, "Le Souper à Ferrare" (Dinner at Ferrara). He saw the dramas as twin works. In the preface to "Le Souper à Ferrare" he says that the idea for the two plays came to him at the same time. In Le Roi s'amuse he wanted to show paternal love, the purest emotion that can exist in a man, in the ugliest person possible occupying the lowest rung of the social ladder. As the action unfolded, the deformed person would become beautiful. In "Le Souper à Ferrare" he wanted to do just the opposite. He placed in a morally deformed but physically beautiful woman belonging to the highest level of society the noblest feeling that a woman can ever experience--maternal love. He began writing what was eventually called Lucrèce Borgia on 9 July; he completed it on 29 July. For the first time since Amy Robsart he wrote in prose. Instead of dividing his new work into five acts, he chose to write three, the first two of which were separated into two parts. Even before it was known whether or not Hugo would win his case against the Comédie-Française, the director of the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin asked the author to allow him to stage his new work. Hugo did not hesitate; he signed the contract on 29 December. The rehearsals began with a cast that included the talented actress Mademoiselle George as Lucrèce and the gifted actor Frédérick Lemaître as Gennaro. Mademoiselle Juliette (Drouet) was to play the role of Princess Negroni. It was decided that music would be added. Hugo drew the plans for the stage settings. As was the case with all of Hugo's plays, people began discussing Lucrèce Borgia before its first performance. Classicists and Romantics alike were scandalized by the thought of an historical drama written in prose. Having given their all for Hernani and Le Roi s'amuse, Hugo's closest supporters had their doubts and asked to attend a reading of the play. Reassured by what they heard, they prepared themselves for another battle. The premiere took place on 2 February 1833. The play was a resounding theatrical and financial success. The sixty-two performances that took place during the months of February, March, and April earned Hugo close to Fr 11,000, a veritable fortune for the period.
Why did the public and the critics react so favorably to Lucrèce Borgia after having so vehemently rejected Le Roi s'amuse a few months earlier? The story line of the former play is simple. Gennaro, who lives in Ferrara, is a young soldier of fortune who is going to Venice with several of his close friends because they have been ordered to do so by their government. Lucrèce has come to Venice incognito because she wants to be near Gennaro, who does not know that she loves him. Gennaro, who is unaware of his family origins, speaks of the mother whom he has never met in eloquent terms. His friends unmask Lucrèce and insult her in Gennaro's presence. The site of the action moves to Ferrara where Lucrèce has already decided how she will get even with the five young men who offended her. Gennaro, who expresses his hatred for Lucrèce's family, uses his knife to remove the letter B from the name Borgia, which is carved on the palace wall. Furious, Lucrèce demands that her husband, the ruler of Ferrara, put to death the guilty party. Convinced that Gennaro is his wife's lover, he is more than happy to oblige. When Lucrèce discovers that she has been tricked by her husband, she pleads with him to spare Gennaro, but to no avail. Her husband offers her a choice: either she pours the poisoned wine that Genarro is to drink or one of his aides will kill him. She gives him the wine and, after her husband has left the room, produces the antidote, which he drinks. Instead of leaving Ferrara, Gennaro goes to a party with his friends, who are all poisoned by Lucrèce. When she learns that Gennaro is at the banquet, she tries to persuade him to drink the antidote, but this time he refuses to do so. As he stabs her, she tells him that she is his mother.
The grotesque plays an important role in this play. At the end there is both an infanticide and a matricide. Motherly love is found in the heart of a heroine accused of the most heinous of crimes. Violence is present as is talk of murder, incest, and revenge. Rulers are portrayed as unscrupulous individuals who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. Monks singing hymns appear onstage during an orgy that turns into a massacre of innocents. A quick perusal of the remarks made by the critics explains the reasons for which this play was such a success. First, the drama is almost classic in its execution. The plot is simple, subplots nonexistent. The development of the action is logical. The spectator is presented with a series of scenes dramatically linked by cause and effect. Fate, which plays such an important role in classical plays, takes center stage in Lucrèce Borgia. Instead of taking Hugo to task for abandoning the poetic form, the press praises his prose. It is an excellent vehicle that allows his characters to express their feelings without shocking the audience. By skillfully portraying the struggle between Lucrèce the loving mother and Lucrèce the unprincipled woman, Hugo redeems his monstrous heroine. She becomes dramatically acceptable. It should not be assumed that Lucrèce Borgia was universally praised by the critics. Some saw it as an immoral melodrama that should be banned from the stage. Such was not the case, however, and reviewers who questioned Hugo's ability as a dramatist a few months earlier now recognized his maturing skill.
When Harel, the director of the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, decided to replace Lucrèce Borgia with another play at the end of April, Hugo became angry. Harel reminded him that he was in charge of his theater and that he was waiting for Hugo's next work. The author said that he had never promised the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin another drama. On 1 May 1833 the two men were ready to fight a duel. Harel convinced Hugo that the death of either one of them would serve no purpose. He agreed to continue staging Lucrèce Borgia, and Hugo agreed to give him his next play. During the rehearsals and performances of Lucrèce Borgia Hugo had become enamored with Mademoiselle Juliette. Mademoiselle George was equally interested in the author. Hugo knew that he had to write a play with two important female roles. He had already taken many notes dealing with the history of England, so he did no additional research. Borrowing from the sources that he had studied, from other plays that he had read, and from his own historical dramas, he spent much of the month of August writing "Marie d'Angleterre" (Mary of England), finishing it on 1 September 1833. He decided to use prose and, in keeping with the Spanish Renaissance theatrical tradition, to divide the play into three journées (days), instead of five acts. For various personal and professional reasons, several individuals did everything possible to assure the failure of Marie d'Angleterre, whose name had been changed to Marie Tudor. Nodier, Mademoiselle George, Alexandre Dumas pere, and several of the actors were members of the cabal. In spite of their machinations and a last-minute attempt to replace Juliette Drouet by Ida Ferrier, Dumas's mistress and a fine actress, the play was ready for its premiere, which took place on 6 November. As had been the case with Lucrèce Borgia, Hugo had to allay the fears of some of his closest supporters, this time by inviting them to a rehearsal. As expected, the theater was filled with the author's friends and enemies. Opinion as to the success or failure of the premiere is divided. Parts of the play won the approval of the audience, while others were wildly booed. Drouet's acting was so bad that, beginning with the second performance, she was replaced by Ferrier. The drama was staged a total of forty-two times from November to March. Financially, the work was a moderate success.
With Marie Tudor Hugo once again wrote a play whose plot depends on many coups de théâtre, or fortunate discoveries and events. Gilbert, who is thirty-four, is in love with Jane, whom he intends to marry in a week. Jane is a seventeen-year-old orphan whom Gilbert has raised from infancy. Their friend Joshua is a jailer at the Tower of London. Queen Mary is in love with Fabio Fabiani, upon whom she has bestowed many titles and to whom she has given certain estates, including those belonging to the deceased Lord Talbot. During the first part of the play Jane admits that she does not love Gilbert, that she loves another, Fabiani. The public learns that Jane is the daughter of Lord Talbot and that Fabiani has seduced her to make sure that he will be able to keep the property given to him by the queen. Fabiani stabs a character who knows the whole truth. Just before he dies, he tells Gilbert everything that he has learned. Gilbert helps Fabiani dispose of the body in exchange for a purse filled with money.
At this point Fabiani tells Gilbert that he is going to visit his mistress, who happens to be the latter's fiancée. Simon Renard, an influential foreign ambassador, promises to help the brokenhearted Gilbert get revenge in exchange for his life. The second day's activities take place at the royal palace. Renard introduces Jane to the queen, who learns that Fabiani has seduced the teenager. Gilbert, who has heard Jane's confession, sets a trap for the queen. He will do anything that Mary asks of him if she promises to give all the titles and estates belonging to Lord Talbot to his rightful heir and to force Fabiani to marry her. When the queen realizes that she has been duped, it is too late. To rid herself of Fabiani, she accuses Gilbert of trying to kill her. He plays along with her and offers the purse given to him earlier as proof that Fabiani had hired him to assassinate Mary. The third day takes place one month later in two different rooms in the Tower of London. Jane admits that she really loves Gilbert and, with Renard's help, arranges for his escape. Mary has put off Fabiani's execution, but the people revolt and demand his death. He is to be beheaded, wearing a veil that will completely cover him. One of the jail keepers tells the queen that Gilbert has fled. She orders that he be captured and put in Fabiani's place. Renard, who has done everything to guarantee Fabiani's demise, interferes with the queen's plans and, at the end of the drama, Mary is informed that Fabiani has died.
The press reacted as it had in the past, praising or criticizing Marie Tudor for the same weaknesses and strengths that had been perceived in Hugo's other dramas. While few reviewers spoke about the grotesque, many complained that the characters did not evolve and that the success of the play depended too much on spectacle, on extravagant stage settings such as the one in the last scene when all of London is illuminated.
Busy with other literary endeavors, Hugo did not write for the stage for more than a year. Angry with Harel and those who had worked so hard to make Marie Tudor a failure, he left the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin for the Comédie-Française. He had written his next work, Angelo, tyran de Padoue (Angelo, the Tyrant of Padua) from 2 February to 19 February 1835. Once again he had composed an historical drama in prose that required the talents of two extremely gifted actresses. Mademoiselle Mars accepted the role of La Tisbe and Madame Dorval that of Catarina. The premiere, which took place on 28 April, was a resounding theatrical triumph, with the two actresses being called back for many encores. It was a great financial success as well.
As was the case with all his plays since Cromwell, Hugo situated the action in the not too distant past, this time in sixteenth-century Italy. The plot is uncomplicated. La Tisbe, an actress and courtesan, loves Rodolfo, who is in turn in love with and loved by Catarina, the wife of the ruler of Padua, Angelo. Angelo has led everyone to believe that he has been having an affair with La Tisbe. He is extremely jealous of his wife and decides to punish her when he learns of her feelings for Rodolfo. Homodei seeks to harm Catarina because she rejected his advances; he helps Rodolfo because the latter saved his life. All of the peripetia depend upon the nature of the relations of each woman with the three men. The play's appeal was in large part due to the successfully artistic combination of various dramatic traditions. Because of the reduced number of characters, the relative simplicity of the story line, the clarity of the prose, and the respect of two of the unities (those of time and action), the play is classical in nature. The grotesque and melodrama play important roles in the work. The political and historical dimensions of Angelo are reduced in favor of the moving portrayal of jealousy and love, of revenge and pardon, and of selfishness and sacrifice.
After Notre-Dame de Paris appeared in 1831, many composers asked Hugo to transform it into an opera. He began work on the libretto in 1832, finishing it in 1836. Hector Berlioz directed the rehearsals. The premiere of La Esmeralda, which took place on 14 November of the same year, was reasonably well received by the public. During subsequent productions, however, the spectators became more and more critical of the opera, as did the press. The opera was staged nineteen times between 1836 and 1839.
Angry with the directors of the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin and the Comédie-Française, Hugo knew that he had to look elsewhere if his dramatic works were to enjoy any success. Between 1835 and 1838 he did not write a single play; he did, however, devote time to looking for a new site where he and others could stage dramas free from the constraints with which they had been dealing. After receiving government authorization to open a new playhouse, one was found and rented in December 1837; it was baptized the Théâtre de la Renaissance (the Renaissance Theater). In addition to all the notes that he had been taking over the years dealing with Spain, Hugo consulted many other works before writing Ruy Blas from 8 July to 11 August 1838. While Hugo busied himself with designing the sets and giving advice about the costumes, he also directed the rehearsals. The premiere took place on 8 November, with Frédérick Lemaître in the role of Ruy Blas. The play was an outstanding success both onstage and at the box office.
Ruy Blas was successful for several reasons. Hugo's period of experimentation was over, and the playwright chose to return to the dramatic and stylistic principles stated in the Préface de Cromwell, applied in some preceding works and neglected in others. While ignoring the unities of time and place, he respected the unity of action. The plot is simple and develops in an uncomplicated manner. Ruy Blas, a valet, loves the queen. His master, don Salluste, has offended the queen, who has in turn ordered his exile. Before he leaves, he gives Ruy Blas a new identity, that of his cousin, don César, whom he manages to send secretly abroad. Don Salluste wants revenge; he is aware of Ruy Blas's feelings for the queen and believes that he will end up her lover. The entire plot of the play is based upon don Salluste's hatred and the young couple's love. At the end of the play Ruy Blas kills don Salluste and then kills himself because the queen will not pardon him for having concealed his true identity. Prose has given way to polished poetry. The grotesque is omnipresent; however, it does not manifest itself as pathetically as in Le Roi s'amuse nor as violently as in Lucrèce Borgia. When necessary, the tools of melodrama are used, yet not really abused. In the stage directions Hugo again reveals his talent as set and costume designer and as director. History and politics play a role, but not an overwhelming one. The weak king is never seen onstage; the queen is a prisoner of court etiquette; the dishonest ministers are ridiculed and dismissed; and the representative of the arrogant aristocracy is killed. He who shows courage, intelligence, and sensitivity comes from the lower class. His death at the end results not from politics but rather from fate. Inextricably interwoven with the theme of love is that of the role of the masses, of the people, represented by Ruy Blas. His demise is Hugo's pessimistic assessment of society as seen from the points of view of the individual, the social and the political. Any reader of Ruy Blas will find weaknesses in the work. Hugo did, however, manage to write a play that illustrated the best aspects of Romantic historical drama, and this explains in large part its success both in the nineteenth century and today.
The project for Hugo's next play dates from 1830. He had listed as a possible topic for a drama the story of the man in the iron mask. He actually began writing the play, which would be called "Les Jumeaux" (The Twins), at the end of July 1839. He stopped work on it on 23 August after having completed just three acts. Tired, sick, and lonely, he left on a trip that took him to Germany, Switzerland, and southern and eastern France. He published a collection of poems in May 1840. After another trip to Germany during the fall of that year he returned home filled with ideas for his last Romantic play, Les Burgraves. "Les Jumeaux" was never finished although there are subsequent references to the drama in other writings by Hugo.
After spending most of the first seven months of 1842 working on Le Rhin, Hugo began writing Les Burgraves in August, finishing it on 19 October. Although two months may seem a relatively short period for writing a drama that is nineteen hundred lines long, it was the most time that he had spent on the actual composition of any play. The action of Les Burgraves is situated in twelfth-century Germany. Emperor Frédéric Barberousse has been missing for twenty years. During his absence anarchy and decadence have replaced order and honor in Germany. Against this historical background Hugo develops the love between Regina and Otbert, the hatred and thirst for revenge of Guanhumara, and the generational and political conflicts that pit Job and his son Magnus against the latter's son, Hatto. In order to restore the country to its former greatness and to resolve the conflicts that are destroying its inhabitants, a savior, a messiah, is needed. It is only the surprise return of Frédéric Barberousse that guarantees a positive denouement. It is he who pardons his former enemies, liberates the slaves, imprisons the guilty, and restores hope in the future. Rehearsals for the new play went well. Considerable sums of money were spent on the settings and the costumes. The premiere took place on 7 March 1843. The public's reaction was not enthusiastic. Theatergoers were tired of the experimentation that had gone on during the 1830s; they clearly preferred classical tragedy to Romantic drama. Six weeks after the premiere Francis Ponsard's tragedy Lucrèce (1843) was staged for the first time, and the public abandoned Les Burgraves. After thirty-three performances, its run ended.
Although some critics praised the beauty of the play's poetry and dialogue, most of them attacked it with vehemence. They felt that it was "unplayable," that it was chaotic, unbelievable, and incomprehensible. They viewed Hugo's attempt at combining the lyric, the epic, the melodramatic, the satiric, and the dramatic as a total failure, as a "literary error." The press failed to understand that Hugo was not attempting to write an historical drama like Ruy Blas, that he was in fact trying to create something new and different. Unfortunately he was not sure of the direction that he wanted to take, and the public was not willing to wait for him to find it. As a result Les Burgraves was a failure, and Hugo stopped writing for the stage for many years; moreover, none of his later plays was staged during his lifetime. The failure of Les Burgraves brought to a close the second period of his life associated with the theater. He had set as a goal the creation of a new dramatic form, the historical drama. He had hoped to revolutionize the stage by freeing it from the classical sclerosis that had imposed upon French theaters pale imitations of the great dramatists of the seventeenth century. It took him years and many attempts to define what he believed the new genre to be, to write Ruy Blas, a play that illustrated the idea well and that pleased the public. He and other writers did produce many fine works during the 1830s; they did not, however, succeed in imposing their new genre on a fickle public that had finally decided that it preferred other forms of theatrical expression.
The third period during which Hugo wrote plays covers the years between 1854 and 1873. While fragments and sketches of theatrical works written before 1854 exist, it was during this year that he wrote La Forêt mouillée (The Wet Forest, 1930), his first complete play since 1842. Some critics refer to the works written during this period as Le Théâtre en liberté because a collection of plays bearing that title was published posthumously in 1886, because Hugo wrote most of them while living in exile, because the theme of liberty is often featured, and because the author did not feel limited by traditional theatrical constraints. This term is something of a misnomer, however, because not all of the plays written during these years were included in the volume that appeared in 1886. Les Deux Trouvailles de Gallus (Gallus's Two Discoveries), Welf, ou le castellan d'Osbor (Welf, or the Lord of Osbor), Torquemada (1882), Mille francs de récompense (The One-Thousand-Franc Reward, 1934), and L'Intervention (1950), were published separately. Théâtre en liberté did include Le Prologue, La Grand'mère (The Grandmother), L'Épée (The Sword), Mangeront-ils? (Will They Eat?), Sur la Lisière d'un bois (On the Edge of a Woods), and La Forêt mouillée. While many of the plays contain elements of his earlier dramatic writings, some of them are a startling departure from them. Many are quite short, ranging from 96 to 805 lines in length. The reader's imagination is given free reign, especially in La Forêt mouillée, where the plants and animals talk. Light humor and wit are evident throughout many of the works. Several plays produced during this period deserve special attention either because of their serious nature or because they have often been staged in the twentieth century.
Mille francs de récompense, which dates from 1861, is unique in Hugo's theatrical production. Written in prose and set in early-nineteenth-century Paris, it depicts contemporary society with many of the ills that affected it. Cyprienne, a young girl in love with Edgar Marc, lives with her mother and her elderly grandfather. The latter, a music teacher and the sole source of income for the family, has become ill. The loss of his students has brought about tremendous financial hardship. Since he cannot pay his bills, all of the family's possessions are to be sold at auction. Rousseline, the official in charge of the sale, has stolen money belonging to the grandfather. If Cyprienne agrees to marry him, he will stop the sale and return the funds that he has hidden. At the end of the play a former convict named Glapieu saves the day. In this one work Hugo puts on stage many characters not found in his earlier dramas. He depicts the plight of the unwed mother (Cyprienne's mother, Etiennette) who has been forced to hide the truth about her past. Glapieu was imprisoned at the age of sixteen for stealing "douze sous" (twelve cents). During his long and unfair incarceration he learned how to break into safes. Now that he is free, he is pursued by the police as a former convict. Rousseline represents the seamy side of the financial world. Guilty of a white-collar crime, he will stoop as low as necessary to achieve his ends. Mille francs de récompense was first published in 1934 and staged in 1961. It is a part of the repertory of the Comédie-Française, which produced it as recently as 1995.
Mangeront-ils? , finished in the spring of 1867, is written in verse form and is 1,582 lines in length. Lady Janet and Lord Slada, both relatives of the King of Man, have sought refuge in a cloister, where they have gotten married. As is often the case in Hugo's theater, the monarch also desires the young woman. He dares not touch the newlyweds because they are protected by the right of asylum. Their situation, however, is quite precarious because there is nothing to eat or drink within the cloister and because no religious person has the right to bring them succor. Their fate lies in the hands of two most interesting characters, Zineb, a one-hundred-year-old witch, and Aïrolo, a less-than-honest, fairylike inhabitant of the forest. The former sets a trap for the unsuspecting monarch, who becomes subservient to the latter. In the end the King of Man abdicates, and Lord Slada replaces him on the throne. In addition to being a well-written play with some fascinating characters, Mangeront-ils? treats several themes and situations seen in previous dramas in different and sometimes novel ways. It is the first time in Hugo's theater that a head of state is forced to obey a religious figure. In a message to the abbot of the cloister, the local bishop warns that he will deprive the King of Man of his throne if he attacks the church: "S'il touche à ton église, on touchera son trône" (If he touches your church, we will touch his throne). Neither of the lovers dies. The monarch, who represents all that is corrupt and abject, abdicates at the end, marshaling in a new order.
Les Deux Trouvailles de Gallus, a diptych based on the fable about the cock who, while looking for grain to eat, finds a pearl, was written during the first three months of 1869. In Margarita, the first of the two plays, Duke Gallus discovers a charming peasant woman whom he tries to seduce. Nella resists his advances, preferring George, a poor student who, without knowing it, happens to be the duke's nephew. At the end of the play Gallus abdicates in his favor. In Esca, the second of the works, Gallus once again comes upon a peasant girl who this time succumbs to his charm. He takes Zabeth to Paris, where she leads the life of a courtesan. She has a beautiful home, wealth, superb clothes, and many admirers, but she lacks what means the most to her: Gallus's respect and love. After decrying her humiliating lifestyle and revealing her love to the duke, Zabeth drinks poison and dies. Gallus in turn declares his love for her. In both works the women are in fact pearls. While Les Deux Trouvailles de Gallus constitutes a return to the melodramatic tradition of earlier plays, the dramas are written in beautiful poetic form and are a delight to read.
Hugo spent much of May, June, and July of 1869 writing what was his last great drama, Torquemada (1882). King Ferdinand fancies an adolescent named Rose, whom he has seen in a convent in the company of a young man named Sanche, to whom she is betrothed. The king discovers that Sanche is a distant relative who is a pawn in a political plot to get control of part of his realm. At the beginning of the play Torquemada is a simple monk who is condemned to death for his extreme views about man, his sinful state and his need to repent, or suffer and die. After being rescued by Rose and Sanche he goes to Italy, where he obtains pontifical approval to start anew the Inquisition. During the play he becomes the most powerful person in Spain. Not only does he put to death large numbers of Spaniards found guilty of religious crimes, but he also prevents the king from abducting Rose and from saving the Jews from exile. From a dramatic point of view Torquemada is on a par with Hugo's Romantic works. The main plotline, the rise to power of Torquemada and his subsequent use of his position, is carefully orchestrated. All subplots exist to develop it in one way or another: the love of Rose and Sanche, Ferdinand's lust for the young girl, the attempt to deprive the king of part of the country, the discovery by the Marquis de Fuentel that he is the grandfather of Sanche, and the Jews' desire to remain in Spain. As has always been the case with Hugo's theater, the characters incarnate ideas and principles and act accordingly. Poetically speaking, Torquemada contains passages that can only be described as some of the poet's finest writing. As for its principal theme, this play is Hugo's most eloquent description and condemnation of fanaticism. In reaction to the persecution of Russian Jews, Torquemada was published for the first time in May 1882.
This third period of dramatic composition brings to an end almost seventy years of writing for the stage. The inexperienced high-school dramatist who became a consummate dramatist after spending many years perfecting his craft never really closed the door on the theater. The plays written during the Romantic period constitute the most important part of what can be called a truly remarkable theatrical career.
Critics have never agreed on Hugo's exact place in the history of French theater. His ardent admirers view the Préface de Cromwell as the critical basis upon which all Romantic theater is founded. If he is not indeed the father of a new genre, the historical drama, he is without a doubt the one who perfected it. In their eyes Hernani occupies a place as important in the history of French theater as that of Pierre Corneille's Le Cid (1637). His poetry and prose surpass anything ever heard on the French stage. His fiercest detractors have little positive to say about his theatrical production. They lambaste his historical and geographical inaccuracies, his theory of the grotesque, his tendency to exaggerate, his pompous style, and his robotlike characters. For them his plays are little more than glorified melodramas.
While Hugo may never have been the undisputed leader of the Romantic period, he certainly was one of its guiding stars, both as theorist and practitioner. Many of his works served as lightning rods, attracting the reactions of the censors and the press, which in turn drew attention to the new movement and its writers, ideas, and plays. While attempting to hone and perfect his concept of the historical drama, Hugo wrote plays that merited criticism from the stylistic, technical, and dramatic points of view. He was, however, one of the first serious dramatists to recognize the importance of costumes, stage settings, and music, making every effort possible to grant them a central role in his works. He also recognized the importance of good acting. He regularly indicated how he expected his actors and actresses to play the scenes that he had written. While his characters are not depicted in great psychological detail like those of Corneille and Jean Racine, they are more than lifeless, one-dimensional representations of theatrical types and ideas. They function at various levels within the plays. Central characters such as Hernani and don Carlos or Ruy Blas and don Salluste are meant to incarnate entire social groups and classes. The sometimes complicated story lines put them in situations that serve to reveal the conflicts that exist between them. When they clash they come to life as individuals whom Hugo depicts with talent and insight. With unquestionable ability, he uses an arsenal of literary devices that allow his characters to express clearly and eloquently their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, their hatred and love. He paints their souls and all that troubles them. No one can deny that Hugo created some of the most memorable characters to have been seen on the French stage and wrote some of the most beautiful prose and verse passages to have been spoken by an actor or actress. While not all of his plays have aged well, many have done so with grace and continue to be applauded by audiences throughout the world.
From: Janc, John J. "Victor (Marie) Hugo." French Dramatists, 1789-1914, edited by Barbara T. Cooper, Gale, 1998. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 192.