A fourth play was now written, one of the most famous in dramatic annals--Hernani, ou l'Honneur Castillan. It was accepted by the censor and manager, and was first presented on Saturday night, February 25, 1830. Hugo announced that he would employ no claque or hired applauders, a customary practice in French theatres. But his partisans, roused for the conflict, assembled in full force. They wore red badges with the Spanish word hierro--iron--which Hugo himself had distributed. They were led by the enthusiastic Théophile Gautier, who had arrayed himself in extravagant style for the occasion--green trousers and crimson waistcoat, above which rose his long, yellow leonine mane. The Classics were not less numerous, and recalled their previous victories. The boxes were filled with persons distinguished in rank, letters or art, who joined in the tumult which arose as the play proceeded. The disorder proceeded from cries to blows, but Hugo's party rejoiced in a virtual, if not decisive, victory. The press generally condemned the play, but it was repeated night after night for two months. The bitter contest continued, often with serious outbreaks. In the end there was hardly a line that had not been the object of applause or hisses, or both. But the Romantics had won the right of having their new style of plays heard without molestation.
What now was the real character of this hotly contested drama? It is no longer familiar even on the French stage, but it has survived in the Italian opera Ernani. The story is entirely fictitious, this being a characteristic on which Hugo prided himself in all his great works. Don Carlos is intended to suggest the Emperor Charles V, but no incident in this illustrious sovereign's career bears any resemblance to the story here presented. Ruy Gomez, a grand example of the proud Spanish nobility, has, in spite of his advanced age, fallen deeply in love with his beautiful niece, Doña Sol; but she has given her youthful affection to the mysterious bandit, Hernani. The king himself has also felt the power of her charms and seeks her for his own. What more striking contrast can be presented than that among the lovers--the king, the noble, the bandit--emphasized by the differences in age and rank? Hernani comes into the power of Ruy Gomez, who spares his life on receiving his hunting-horn, with the pledge that the bandit shall take his own life whenever he hears that horn. The nobleman and bandit, seeking revenge against the king, form a conspiracy. The king, however, is elected Roman emperor, and is transformed in character by the honor. He surprises the conspirators, but with gracious magnanimity pardons their crime. Hernani is found to be a noble who had been unjustly deprived of his rank and possessions. They are restored to him with the title Don Juan of Aragon. The emperor has yielded his claim to Doña Sol, and she is wedded to her lover. But Ruy Gomez is implacable, and in the midst of their rapture, after the wedding feast, Hernani hears, from outside, the sound of the fatal horn. The poison, prepared by Ruy Gomez, is at hand. Hernani's honor has been pledged, and even though he sacrifices love as well as life, he must keep his word. He drinks from the fatal cup, but his wife drains the same, and they die in an ecstasy of devotion and self-sacrifice. To this powerful climax is no doubt largely due the decisive victory which finally ended the long vexed controversy between the Classic and Romantic schools of dramatists and novelists.
Few effects have ever been produced on the stage which exceed in power and pathos the climax of this great tragedy. No more thrilling catastrophe can be imagined than the swift plunge from the bliss of perfect happiness and security which the newly-wedded pair were entering and enjoying down to the fearful alternative of death or dishonor, forcibly signalled by the startling note of the fatal horn. But the abiding popularity of the play, when the storm of its launching had subsided, was due to its swiftness in action, the lyrical beauty of its poetry and the enchanting pictures of youthful love and fidelity, emphasized rather than destroyed by the heartrending catastrophe.