a play in five acts by Edward Bulwyer-Lytton, First Baron Lytton,1803-1873
wrtten in 1839
“The administration of Cardinal Richelieu, whom (despite all his darker qualities) Voltaire and History justly consider the true architect of the French monarchy, and the great parent of French civilization, is characterised by features alike tragic and comic. A weak king; an ambitious favourite; a despicable conspiracy against the minister, nearly always associated with a dangerous treason against the State. These, with little variety of names and dates, constitute the eventful cycle through which, with a dazzling ease, and an arrogant confidence, the great luminary fulfilled its destinies. Blended together in startling contrast, we see the grandest achievements and the pettiest agents; — the spy — the mistress — the capuchin — the destruction of feudalism — the humiliation of Austria — the dismemberment of Spain.
Richelieu himself is still what he was in his own day, a man of two characters. If, on the one hand, he is justly represented as inflexible and vindictive, crafty and unscrupulous; so, on the other, it cannot be denied that he was placed in times in which the low impunity of every license required stern examples; that he was beset by perils and intrigues, which gave a certain excuse to the subtlest inventions of self-defence; that his ambition was inseparably connected with a passionate love for the glory of his country; and that, if he was her dictator, he was not less her benefactor. It has been fairly remarked, by the most impartial historians, that he was no less generous to merit than severe to crime; that, in the various departments of the State, the Army, and the Church, he selected and distinguished the ablest aspirants; that the wars which he conducted were, for the most part, essential to the preservation of France, and Europe itself, from the formidable encroachments of the Austrian House; that, in spite of those wars, the people were not oppressed with exorbitant imposts; and that he left the kingdom he had governed in a more flourishing and vigorous state than at any former period of the French history, or at the decease of Louis XIV.
The cabals formed against this great statesman were not carried on by the patriotism of public virtue, or the emulation of equal talent: they were but court struggles, in which the most worthless agents laid recourse to the most desperate means. In each, as I have before observed, we see combined the two-fold attempt to murder the minister and to betray the country. Such, then, are the agents, and such the designs, with which truth, in the Drama as in History, requires us to contrast the celebrated Cardinal; not disguising his foibles or his vices, but not unjust to the grander qualities (especially the love of country), by which they were often dignified, and, at times, redeemed.
The historical drama is the concentration of historical events. In the attempt to place upon the stage the picture of an era, that license with dates and details, which Poetry permits, and which the highest authorities in the Drama of France herself have sanctioned, has been, though not unsparingly, indulged. The conspiracy of the Duc de Bouillon is, for instance, amalgamated with the denouement of The Day of Dupes; and circumstances connected with the treason of Cinq Mars (whose brilliant youth and gloomy catastrophe tend to subvert poetic and historic justice, by seducing us to forget his base ingratitude and his perfidious apostasy) are identified with the fate of the earlier favourite Baradas, whose sudden rise and as sudden fall passed into a proverb. I ought to add, that the noble romance of Cinq Mars suggested one of the scenes in the fifth act; and that for the conception of some portion of the intrigue connected with De Mauprat and Julie, I am, with great alterations of incident, and considerable if not entire reconstruction of character, indebted to an early and admirable novel by the author of Picciola.”
London, March, 1839.