Listen to part of a lecture in a literature class.
So, urn, in France, you have the French Academy, which was created to uphold standards of literary taste.
It was a very conservative organization.
It tried to keep things a certain way...uh...resist change.
It dictated that French plays should be neoclassical in form, you know, have five acts, sophisticated language, etc.
But try as it might, it couldn't stop change.
French drama was changing, though the transition from neoclassical drama to Romantic drama was itself pretty uh … [vocal hesitation] dramatic.
Let's look at a play by Victor Hugo called Hernani—or, as the French would say, Hernani.
Although Hugo was a truly brilliant writer of essays, poems, novels, and plays, uh, his play, Hernani, isn't a great play in and of itself.
It's got a really confusing, convoluted storyline.
Critics back then were unimpressed by it, though it's likely that their own feelings about how plays should be—neoclassical or romantic—affected their opinions about it.
But its premiere—in Paris, in 1830—was anything but ordinary.
Hernani's opening night was probably one of the most important literary events in 19th century France!
What happened was...OK. [not much upspeak] Hugo was a romanticist, right?
He was part of a growing movement of—of young authors, and artists, who were rebelling against neoclassicism—against the conventions of neoclassicism.
And what this meant, is that Hugo opposed the neoclassical unities that French theater had inherited from Greek drama.
These unities were basically the unity of time, space and action, meaning that the entire play consisted of just one main event that was unfolding in just one specific place, usually in the course of one day.
And Hugo found this to be too constraining. He looked for inspiration in...well...OK.
Hugo is from the 19th century, but he looked to Shakespeare.
Several centuries in the past—long before neoclassicism.
For example, in Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play moves from indoors to outdoors, from the city to the forest and back again.
So there was a kind of mobility in...in the use of space and…Well, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, of course the action in that play takes place on a single summer's night.
But, in Shakespeare's other plays, in Hamlet, for example, time elapses, people travel, they go to other destinations and the action is not limited to one plot.
Hugo also opposed the neoclassical insistence on the separation of genres.
For a neoclassicist, a play could only be dramatic, and high art, or comic, light-hearted.
And in either case, there was still a sense of decorum; characters might make jokes and get into silly situations, but they’re still regular people, like not in disguise or anything.
There's still a certain amount of restraint in a neoclassical comedy.
Again, earlier works by Shakespeare provided very different models that Hugo found more appealing.
Many of Shakespeare's plays, even the tragedies, contain scenes with ridiculous, outlandish characters, like clowns, so that many of the plays have both qualities: a serious, dramatic side, and comedic scenes with the clowns that break the drama.
And Hugo, like other romantics, was also opposed to the artistic rules that the neoclassicists had inherited from the Enlightenment.
The romantics wanted a more passionate kind of theater and it was more rooted in the individual and the individual sensibility.
Romanticism was political as well—claiming that individuals, people, could govern themselves… without the need for kings and queens.
There was an ideological struggle, between a lot of young people, artists—people who wanted change—and people who didn't.
So, of course Romanticism was controversial.
Now, Hernani was a play that incorporated these romantic conventions.
Hugo suspected that neoclassical audiences would be hostile to this new form, and the ideas it represented.
So to protect himself, he rounded up his friends for opening night.
And hundreds of them came to the theater that night.
And Hugo writes about this arrival of the romantics, these wild and bizarre characters and their outlandish customs, which stupefied and infuriated the more conventional theater-goers.
So, the play that night took forever to finish because it was interrupted many times and there were these debates in the audience between Hugo's friends and supporters, the romantics, and the Neoclassicists, the supporters of the old school.
Lots of interruptions, and afterward, what had been a debate inside the theater spilled out onto the street and there were fist fights… it was a complete free-for-all. And this went on for the next forty-five nights.
Every night that the play was performed, there was this excitement and controversy that was, was really an expression of the kinds of passions that...uh...differences of aesthetics and political opinions, and taste could give rise to.