"IN a truly great dramatist the situations spring from the characters, but in Hugo's plays, as in Calderon's and Corneille's, the situation dominates the characters." This fault will be found alike in Hugo's first produced play, Cromwell, which appeared when its author was only twenty-five years old, and his two greatest stage successes, Hernani and Ruy Blas. The critic remarks further: "The situation in Hernani is strained and dramatically unreal, the sentiment is mawkish, the oratory grandiloquent; but a throbbing life and intensely expressed emotion maintain the interest, though this is a lyric rather than a dramatic one." The same might be said of Ruy Blas. Yet these two dramas are still played in France and go far toward explaining Hugo's contemporary popularity.
Hugo's father was an officer in the French army, and most of his early life was spent in Paris with the exception of a year in Madrid where his father's military duties had taken him. This youthful experience left its imprint both on Hernani and Ruy Blas.
Hugo's interest in literature began young. In his early teens he was already entering poetical contests and was occasionally successful. At seventeen he founded a fortnightly journal which, however, was short-lived. At nineteen he wrote a play, Amy Robsart, taken for the most part from Scott's Kenilworth. This was put aside, and when at twenty-five, his Cromwell was successfully produced, he did not consider it fitting that his earlier effort on a borrowed subject should appear under his own name. He gave Amy Robsart to his brother-in-law, Paul Foucher, but when the latter produced it anonymously it was enthusiastically hissed. The youthful Hugo promptly claimed his share of the failure, a welcome character contrast to his later years which were "devoid of humor and filled with a self-glorifying vanity."
When Hugo was twenty-eight his much fought-over Hernani was produced, playing for 100 nights to audiences almost equally divided between disapproving classicists and adherents of the new romanticism. His thirtieth year saw the production of L' roi s'amuse which later became the libretto for Verdi's opera, Rigoletto. A great many critics consider Ruy Blas which appeared in 1838 his best dramatic effort, although, if popularity be the test, the laurels must rest with Hernani.
When Hugo died in Paris at the age of eighty-three his funeral became a pageant any sovereign might envy. He is probably better known to posterity as the author of the lengthy novel, Les Miserables, than as a successful playwright.