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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Oscar Kuhns (1856–1929)

By Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803)

ITALIAN literature during the eighteenth century, although it could boast of no names in any way comparable with those of Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso, showed still a vast improvement on the degradation of the preceding century. Among the most famous writers of the times—Goldoni, Parini, Metastasio—none is so great or so famous as Vittorio Alfieri, the founder of Italian tragedy. The story of his life and of his literary activity, as told by himself in his memoirs, is one of extreme interest. Born at Asti, on January 17th, 1749, of a wealthy and noble family, he grew up to manhood singularly deficient in knowledge and culture, and without the slightest interest in literature. He was “uneducated,” to use his own phrase, in the Academy of Turin. It was only after a long tour in Italy, France, Holland, and England, that, recognizing his own ignorance, he went to Florence to begin serious work.

At the age of twenty-seven a sudden revelation of his dramatic power came to him, and with passionate energy he spent the rest of his life in laborious study and in efforts to make himself worthy of a place among the poets of his native land. Practically he had to learn everything; for he himself tells us that he had “an almost total ignorance of the rules of dramatic composition, and an unskillfulness almost total in the divine and most necessary art of writing well and handling his own language.”

His private life was eventful, chiefly through his many sentimental attachments, its deepest experience being his profound love and friendship for the Countess of Albany,—Louise Stolberg, mistress and afterward wife of the “Young Pretender,” who passed under the title of Count of Albany, and from whom she was finally divorced. The production of Alfieri’s tragedies began with the sketch called ‘Cleopatra,’ in 1775, and lasted till 1789, when a complete edition, by Didot, appeared in Paris. His only important prose work is his ‘Autobiography,’ begun in 1790 and ended in the year of his death, 1803. Although he wrote several comedies and a number of sonnets and satires,—which do not often rise above mediocrity,—it is as a tragic poet that he is known to fame. Before him—though Goldoni had successfully imitated Molière in comedy, and Metastasio had become enormously popular as the poet of love and the opera—no tragedies had been written in Italy which deserved to be compared with the great dramas of France, Spain, and England. Indeed, it had been said that tragedy was not adapted to the Italian tongue or character. It remained for Alfieri to prove the falsity of this theory.

Always sensitive to the charge of plagiarism, Alfieri declared that whether his tragedies were good or bad, they were at least his own. This is true to a certain extent. And yet he was influenced more than he was willing to acknowledge by the French dramatists of the seventeenth century. In common with Corneille and Racine, he observed strictly the three unities of time, place, and action. But the courtliness of language, the grace and poetry of the French dramas, and especially the tender love of Racine, are altogether lacking with him.

Alfieri had a certain definite theory of tragedy which he followed with unswerving fidelity. He aimed at the simplicity and directness of the Greek drama. He sought to give one clear, definite action, which should advance in a straight line from beginning to end, without deviation, and carry along the characters—who are, for the most part, helplessly entangled in the toils of a relentless fate—to an inevitable destruction. For this reason the well-known confidantes of the French stage were discarded, no secondary action or episodes were admitted, and the whole play was shortened to a little more than two-thirds of the average French classic drama. Whatever originality Alfieri possessed did not show itself in the choice of subjects, which are nearly all well known and had often been used before. From Racine he took ‘Polynice,’ ‘Merope’ had been treated by Maffei and Voltaire, and Shakespeare had immortalized the story of Brutus. The situations and events are often conventional; the passions are those familiar to the stage,—jealousy, revenge, hatred, and unhappy love. And yet Alfieri has treated these subjects in a way which differs from all others, and which stamps them, in a certain sense, as his own. With him all is somber and melancholy; the scene is utterly unrelieved by humor, by the flowers of poetry, or by that deep-hearted sympathy—the pity of it all—which softens the tragic effect of Shakespeare’s plays.

Alfieri seemed to be attracted toward the most horrible phases of human life, and the most terrible events of history and tradition. The passions he describes are those of unnatural love, of jealousy between father and son, of fratricidal hatred, or those in which a sense of duty and love for liberty triumphs over the ties of filial and parental love. In treating the story of the second Brutus, it was not enough for his purpose to have Cæsar murdered by his friend; but, availing himself of an unproven tradition, he makes Brutus the son of Cæsar, and thus a parricide.

It is interesting to notice his vocabulary; to see how constantly he uses such words as “atrocious,” “horror,” “terrible,” “incest,” “rivers,” “streams,” “lakes,” and “seas” of blood. The exclamation, “Oh, rage!” occurs on almost every page. Death, murder, suicide, is the outcome of every tragedy.

The actors are few,—in many plays only four,—and each represents a certain passion. They never change, but remain true to their characters from beginning to end. The villains are monsters of cruelty and vice, and the innocent and virtuous are invariably their victims, and succumb at last.

Alfieri’s purpose in producing these plays was not to amuse an idle public, but to promulgate throughout his native land—then under Spanish domination—the great and lofty principle of liberty which inspired his whole life. A deep, uncompromising hatred of kings is seen in every drama, where invariably a tyrant figures as the villain. There is a constant declamation against tyranny and slavery. Liberty is portrayed as something dearer than life itself. The struggle for freedom forms the subjects of five of his plays,—‘Virginia,’ ‘The Conspiracy of the Pazzi,’ ‘Timoleon,’ the ‘First Brutus,’ and the ‘Second Brutus.’ One of these is dedicated to George Washington—‘Liberator dell’ America.’ The warmth of feeling with which, in the ‘Conspiracy of the Pazzi,’ the degradation and slavery of Florence under the Medici is depicted, betrays clearly Alfieri’s sense of the political state of Italy in his own day. And the poet undoubtedly has gained the gratitude of his countrymen for his voicing of that love for liberty which has always existed in their hearts.

Just as Alfieri sought to condense the action of his plays, so he strove for brevity and condensation in language. His method of composing was peculiar. He first sketched his play in prose, then worked it over in poetry, often spending years in the process of rewriting and polishing. In his indomitable energy, his persistence in labor, and his determination to acquire a fitting style, he reminds us of Balzac. His brevity of language—which shows itself most strikingly in the omission of articles, and in the number of broken exclamations—gives his pages a certain sententiousness, almost like proverbs. He purposely renounced all attempts at the graces and flowers of poetry.

It is hard for the lover of Shakespearean tragedy to be just to the merits of Alfieri. There is a uniformity, or even a monotony, in these nineteen plays, whose characters are more or less alike, whose method of procedure is the same, whose sentiments are analogous, and in which an activity devoid of incident hurries the reader to an inevitable conclusion, foreseen from the first act.

And yet the student cannot fail to detect great tragic power, somber and often unnatural, but never producing that sense of the ridiculous which sometimes mars the effect of Victor Hugo’s dramas. The plots are never obscure, the language is never trivial, and the play ends with a climax which leaves a profound impression.

The very nature of Alfieri’s tragedies makes it difficult to represent him without giving a complete play. The following extracts, however, illustrate admirably the horror and power of his climaxes.