Harvard Classics, Volume 26: Continental Drama

This volume of the Harvard Classics is a set of six plays from Spain, France and Germany. These span the time period from the 17th to Early 19th centuries.

The first play in this collection is Barca’s Life is a Dream, in which a Polish king imprisons his newborn son over an ill prophecy. The play starts with the King and old man, and his son a young adult. The King, facing a succession crisis, decides to invite his son to the palace and see how he’ll act. The son immediately begins a course for a tyrannical rule, trying to seize his father’s throne and to execute all of those responsible for his inprisonment. The Prince is subdued and taken back to his border prison cell where he is convinced the whole interlude in the palace was a dream. When a foreign army arrives to install the Prince on his father’s throne, the Prince, thinking it is perhaps another dream, takes up arms, seizes the throne but ends up being merciful because of his experience in the “dream”. This play speaks to the degree to which the past is a parable by which we orient our future actions. It also speaks to how the same set of events can have different impacts on us if they are fact or fiction.

The next play was the first of three French plays, Polyeucte by Corneille. This play stays very true to the Aristotlean conception of the ideal drama. The action of the play is the tumult surrounding the conversion of Saint Polyeuctus during the persecution of Christians under Decius. There’s tension between Polyeucte and his father-in-law, the local governor. Polyeucte’s wife, Pauline is split between devotion to her husband, the affections of a Roman general and loyalty to her father. In the end, Polyeucte receives the death of a martyr but his example moves the hearts of the pagans, who embrace Christ.

The second French play is a reinterpretation of Euripide’s play Hippolytus, called Phaedra, written by Racine. This play shifted the details of the myth compared to Euripide’s version, which appeared earlier in the Harvard Classics. The play was still very much over-dramatic for my tastes, but I enjoyed this version more than the first. The central conflict lies between an elderly Theseus, his bastard son, Hippolytus and Theseus’ young wife Phaedra. Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, Theseus appears to die, Phaedra pursues Hippolytus, but when Theseus returns, Phaedra claims she had been seduced, and Theseus puts his son to death. Phaedra then tells Theseus her lie and commits suicide.

Moving on from the high drama of Phaedra, the final of the French plays is Moliere’s classic Tartuffe. This is one of the classic comedy of manners, poking fun at the foibles of upper class French society, which provides an endless source of material. The titular character plays himself off as a pious beggar and the master of a French manor, as well as the dowager, fall under his spell and help him get on his feet and defer to him on every occasion. Eventually, the daughter of the house is promised to Tartuffe in marriage. This causes such outrage, that the other members of the house plan to ensnare Tartuffe into making a pass at the wife of his benefactor. Tartuffe dutifully attempts to seduce her, but when accused, Tartuffe uses reverse psychology to convince his benefactor that he had done no wrong. Embarrassed, Orgon, the master of the house and Tartuffe’s benefactor, gives Tartuffe all of his legal possessions and the deed to his estate. When Tartuffe makes another pass at Orgon’s wife, Orgon is hiding under a table in the room and throws Tartuffe out of his house. Tartuffe sends the police to extract Orgon and his family from the house that rightfully now belongs to Tartuffe, but the intercession of the King sets things right in the end.

The fifth play in this collection is another comedy, Minna Van Barnhelm, by Lessig, the first of two German works. This play tells a story of two lovers who met during the Seven Years War who are reunited. They both still love each other, but the former Major is now destitute, disgraced, and crippled and so he refused to go forward with their betrothal. A back and forth continues when news reaches Minna that the Major is about to be wealthy and respected once again, she hides this from him and instead pretends to be destitute and disgraced herself. The Major rejoices at her sorry state, because he feels comfortable in marrying her, however the tables are turned when the Major finds out that he has been restored to his former position following a dispute with the government. Minna chides him before ending the ruse and they get married, both with high status and plenty of money.

The final play is the most epic in scope and length, Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. The legend of William Tell, forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, who then took revenge on the Imperial viceregent who had forced him to do it, is weaved into the story of Swiss independence. Written at the height of Napoleon’s reign, the play aligns itself with the political struggles of the day and praises the German and Anglo-American type of freedom over the French version. This freedom is the freedom to set your own destiny, to be ruled lightly and locally, and to live and die by your own skill. The play is showcases a love of nature and simple life, and merges these themes well with the ideals of the Swiss Confederation. This play was very reminiscent of Goethe’s Egmont in theme and tenor. No surprise given that Goethe both directed the first production and gave the initial idea to Schiller.

This volume marks the last bit of proper literature for some time in the Harvard Classics. Philosophy, science, history and essays will make up the next 13 volumes, with the exception of a selection from Sir Thomas Malory. The next two volumes are a collection of English and American essays covering writers starting in the Elizabethan era, and finishing with an essay on Lincoln’s final two years. This is followed by Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and a collection of important scientific papers.

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