Banned Works of Drama and Romance

By P. H. Ditchfield.


 Sir John Yorke and Catholic Plays—Abraham Cowley—Antoine Danchet—
Claude Crebillon—Nogaret—Francois de Salignac Fenelon.

Of the misfortunes of dramatists and romance-writers I have little to record, but it would not be safe to conclude that this subject always furnished a secure field for literary activity. However, the successes of the writers of fiction and plays in our own times might console the Muse for any indignities which her followers have suffered in the past.  In our own country the early inventors of dramatic performances—Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes—lived securely, their names being unknown. When penal laws were in force against Roman Catholics, plays inculcating their doctrines and worship were often secretly performed in the houses of Catholic gentry. The anonymous author was indeed safe, but Sir John Yorke and his lady were fined one thousand pounds apiece and imprisoned in the Tower on account of a play performed in their house at Christmas, 1614, containing “many foul passages to the vilifying of our religion and exacting of popery.”

Abraham Cowley was driven into retirement by his unfortunate play Cutter of Coleman Street, which was an improved edition of his unfinished comedy entitled The Guardian, acted at Cambridge before the Court at the beginning of the Civil War. After the Restoration he produced the revised version under the name of Cutter of Coleman Street, the principal character being a merry person who bore that cognomen. Some of the aspirants to royal favour persuaded the King that the play was a satire directed against him and his Court, and the poor poet, condemned by the enemies of the Muses, calumniated and deprived of all hopes of preferment, retired in disgust to a country retreat among the hills of Surrey. The disfavour of the Court was also increased by his Ode to Brutus, wherein he had extolled the genius of his hero, and praised liberty in language too enthusiastic for the Court of Charles II. The spirit of melancholy claimed Cowley for her own. Disappointment and disgust clouded his heart; ill-health followed, and soon the poor poet breathed his last. As is not unusual, the learned and the great mourned over and praised the dead poet whom when alive they had so cruelly neglected.

Antoine Danchet was one of the most famous of French dramatic writers, although his poetry was not of a very high order and lacked energy and colour. He was born at Riom, in Auvergne, in 1671; he distinguished himself at the college of the Oratorian fathers, and soon came to Paris to become a teacher of youths and to finish his studies at the Jesuit College. At a very early age he manifested a great love of poetry, and when he used to recite the whole of Horace he was rewarded by a wealthy patron with a present of thirty louis d’ors. He bore so noble a character and had such a reputation for learning that a certain noble lady on her death-bed entrusted him with the charge of her two sons, giving him a pension of two hundred livres, on the condition that he should never leave them. Soon after her death he was ordered to write some verses for a ballet produced at Court; this led him to acquire a taste for the theatre, and he produced in 1700 an opera entitled Hesione, which met with a great success. The relations of his pupils were aroused. It was scandalous that a teacher of youths should write plays. All the arguments that superstition could suggest were used against him. He must relinquish his charge; he must refund the pension which he had received from the mistaken mother. But Danchet saw no reason why he should conform to their demands, and refused to relinquish his charge. They urged him still more vehemently, but met with the same response. They at length refused to pay him the pension, and withdrew his pupils from his care. A troublesome law-suit followed, but at length the poet emerged triumphant from the troubles in which his love of the drama had involved him. He produced also the tragedies of Cyrus, Tyndarides, Heraclides, and Nitetis, but these did not meet with the success of his earlier work. He was a devoted son to his mother, depriving himself of even the necessaries of life in order to support her. He showed himself a kind and generous friend to all, and always took a keen interest in young men. One of these brought him an elegy written to his mistress and bewailing her misfortunes. The verses began with Maison qui renfermes l’objet de mon amour. “Is not that word maison rather feeble?” observed Danchet; “would not palais, beau lieu ... be better?” “Yes,” replied the poet, “but it is a maison de force, a prison!” A complete edition of his works was published after his death in 1751.

The younger Crebillon (Claude Prosper Jolyot) was confined in the Bastille on account of his satirical romance Tanzai et Neadarne (1734, 2 vols., in-12). His father, Prosper Crebillon, was a very famous French dramatic poet, and discarded the profession of the law for the sake of the Muses.  Idomeneus, Atreus Electra, Rhadamistus, and the Triumvirate were some of his works. The son possessed much of his father’s genius, and his wit and gaiety rendered him a pleasant companion. At one time he was a great favourite amongst the elite of Parisian society. But his satirical and licentious romances brought him into trouble, and the above-mentioned work conducted him to the Bastille, wherein so many authors have been incarcerated. He died in 1777.

The name is not known of a young man who came to Paris with a marvellous play which he felt sure would electrify the world and cover its author with glory. Unhappily, he met with a cold reception by a stern critic, who, with merciless severity, pointed out the glaring errors in his beloved work. The poor author, overcome with vexation, returned home with a broken heart, burnt his tragedy, and died of grief.

M. Nogaret is not the only author who has been unfortunate in the selection of a subject for a romance. He wrote a book entitled La Capucinade (1765), and the heroes of his story are the Capuchin monks, whom he treated somewhat severely. This work and his Memoires de Bachaumont conducted the author to the Bastille.

Few are ignorant of that most charming, graceful, and immortal work Telemache. Not only has it been studied and admired by every Frenchman, but it has been translated into German, English, Spanish, Flemish, and Italian. But in spite of the great popularity which the work has enjoyed, perhaps few are acquainted with the troubles which this poetic drama and romance brought upon its honoured author. Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon, born in the castle of his ancestors at Fenelon in 1651, was a man of rare piety, virtue, and learning, who deservedly attained to the highest ecclesiastical honours, and was consecrated Archbishop of Cambray.  He had previously been appointed by Louis XIV. tutor to the Dauphin, and his wit and grace made him a great favourite at the Court, and even Madame de Maintenon for a time smiled upon the noble churchman, whose face was so remarkable for its expressiveness that, according to the Court chronicler Saint Simon, “it required an effort to cease looking at him.” His Fables and Dialogues of the Dead were written for his royal pupil.  It is well known that the Archbishop sympathised strongly with Madame Guyon and the French mystics, that he did not approve of some of the extravagant expressions of that ardent enthusiast, but vindicated the pure mysticism in his famous work Maximes des Saints. This work involved him in controversy with Bossuet, and through the influence of Louis XIV. a bull was wrung from Pope Innocent XII. condemning the book, and declaring that twenty-three propositions extracted from it were “rash, scandalous, and offensive to pious ears, pernicious and erroneous.”

The Pope was very reluctant to pass this sentence of condemnation, and was induced to do so through fear of Louis, and not because he considered the book to be false.  With his usual gentleness, Fenelon accepted the sentence without a word of protest; he read the brief in his own cathedral, declaring that the decision of his superiors was to him an echo of the Divine Will. Fenelon had aroused the hatred of Madame de Maintenon by opposing her marriage with the King, which took place privately in 1685, and she did not allow any opportunity to escape of injuring and persecuting the Archbishop. At this juncture, through the treachery of a servant, Telemache was published. At first it was received with high favour at Court. It inculcated the truth that virtue is the glory of princes and the happiness of nations, and while describing the adventures of the son of Ulysses its author strove to establish the true system of state-craft, and his work is imbued with a sense of beauty and refinement which renders it a most pleasurable book to read. But Madame de Maintenon was grievously offended by its success, and by the praise which even Louis bestowed upon it. She easily persuaded him that the work was a carefully executed satire directed against the ministers of the Court, and that even the King himself was not spared. Malignant tongues asserted that Madame de Montespan, the King’s former mistress, might be recognised under the guise of Calypso, Mademoiselle de Fontanges in Eucharis, the Duchess of Bourgogne in Antiope, Louvois in Prothesilas, King James in Idomenee, and Louis himself in Sesostris. This aroused that monarch’s indignation.  Fenelon was banished from Court, and retired to Cambray, where he spent the remaining years of his life, honoured by all, and beloved by his many friends. Strangers came to listen to his words of piety and wisdom. He performed his episcopal duties with a care and diligence worthy of the earliest and purest ages of the Church, and in this quiet seclusion contented himself in doing good to his fellow-creatures, in spite of the opposition of the King, the censures of the Pope, and the vehement attacks of his controversial foes Bossuet and the Jansenists. In addition to his fatal book he wrote Demonstration de l’existence de Dieu, Refutation du Systeme de Malebranche, and several other works.

The Jansenist Abbe Barral, in his Dictionnaire Historique, Litteraire, et Critique, des Hommes Celebres, thus speaks of our author and his work:

“He composed for the instruction of the Dukes of Burgundy, Anjou, and Berri several works; amongst others, the Telemachus—a singular book, which partakes at once of the character of a romance and of a poem, and which substitutes a prosaic cadence for versification. But several luscious pictures would not lead us to suspect that this book issued from the pen of a sacred minister for the education of a prince; and what we are told by a famous poet is not improbable, that Fenelon did not compose it at Court, but that it is the fruits of his retreat in his diocese. And indeed the amours of Calypso and Eucharis should not be the first lessons that a minister ought to give to his scholars; and, besides, the fine moral maxims which the author attributes to the Pagan divinities are not well placed in their mouth. Is not this rendering homage to the demons of the great truths which we receive from the Gospel, and to despoil Jesus Christ to render respectable the annihilated gods of paganism? This prelate was a wretched divine, more familiar with the light of profane authors, than with that of the fathers of the Church.”

The Jansenists were most worthy men, but in their opinion of their adversary Fenelon they were doubtless mistaken.


This is taken from Books Fatal to Their Authors.


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