This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 9. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 18-19.

The contest between the Romanticists (daily growing bolder) and the gray-beard Classicists (who felt their power slipping from them) had to be decided in the theatre, then the supreme court of literature in France. Hugo's predilection for the drama has already been seen. Now he became leader of the enthusiastic Romanticists who had formed the Cénacle or club in 1824. To exemplify his views of what the drama ought to be, he made a sketch of his Cromwell, intending the character for Talma, the greatest actor of his time. Talma heard him recite some scenes and accepted the part. But before the drama was finished the actor died, and Hugo decided to publish the play without having it performed. It was, indeed, considerably enlarged so that its length made it unfit for acting, and Hugo prefixed a dissertation in which he proclaimed his views and methods. Swinburne, poet and critic of high order, indulges in extravagant praise of Cromwell for "poetry and thought, passion and humor, subtle truth of character, stately perfection of structure, facile force of dialogue and splendid eloquence of style." What more can be needed to make it the greatest drama of the nineteenth century? And yet it certainly is not that. It is, on the other hand, a splendid attempt of a youthful genius to combine the merits and power of the English and the French ideals of the drama without the necessary preliminary practice in either. Its first line was a shock to classic taste, for it was merely a date, an echo of an almanac. Contrary to French tradition, the play brings a large number of persons on the stage, and, while it does not widely depart from the unities of time and place, it fails to preserve the much more essential unity of action. The play turns on the question: Will the Protector become king of England? Each successive act answers it in a contradictory way until it is decided finally in the negative. It departs widely from the facts of history, and has little regard for the truth of character. The main personages are set in unnatural, overwrought contrast, and the minor excite little interest or none at all. The action is forced and the effect melodramatic. And yet the whole is unmistakably a great work of a great poet.



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