History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Early French 18th
- 1 Pierre de Marivaux
- 2 Philippe Néricault Destouches
- 3 Alain-René Lesage
- 4 Jean-François Regnard
- 5 Charles Rivière Dufresny
- 6 Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset
- 7 Voltaire
- 8 Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon
Pierre de Marivaux
The dominant figure in early 18th century French theatre is Pierre de Marivaux (1688-1763), whose main comedies include "La seconde surprise de l'amour" (Love's second surprise, 1727), "Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard" (The game of love and chance, 1730), and "Les fausses confidences" (False confidences, 1737).
"Love's second surprise"
Time: 1720s. Place: France.
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A widowed marquise feels she has lost everything. Looking at her countenance, her servant, Lisette, seeks to change her view of the world, she grows afraid. "You make me tremble: are all men dead?" she asks ironically. To pass the time, the marquise has hired Hortensius to buy and read books for her, though he bears an "ignorant doctrine", according to Lisette. A knight, having lost the woman he loves, Angelique, escaped to a convent to prevent her father's choice in marriage, asks the marquise to convey a final letter to her. In his distracted state, the knight did not seal it, but says she may read it. The marquise loves the letter and encourages him to stay with her and thereby promote a sympathy in sorrow between them. "If I stayed, I would break off with everyone and would like to see only you," he gallantly comments. "Yes, I would sympathize with you and you with me, which renders pain more tolerable," she agrees. Hortensius might read to both. The knight and the marquise believe that they have renounced love. "Your friendship will be everything for me if you are sensitive to mine," he declares. The knight encounters a count whom Lisette wishes to marry her mistress, perhaps with the knight's help, who responds that if he is involved in such a matter, he may spoil all. Moreover, the count does not seem to need him. The count and Lisette are surprised at this manner of reasoning. The count leaves the knight coldly, whereby Lisette reflects that the latter might be willing to love her, too, which he ambiguously denies. In regard to choice of reading, the pedantic antiquity-loving Hortensius proposes "a treatise on patience, chapter one: widowhood," whereby the marquise impatiently retorts: "Nothing makes me lose my patience more than works which speak of it," preferring something on "the praise of friendship". She scolds Lisette for encouraging marriage prospects with two men of whom she knows nothing. Lisette responds that the apparent refusal of the knight might be insincere. Otherwise why did he refuse to help the count? The marquise informs the knight that she does not love the count. He laughs, surprised at being the receiver of such intimate sentiments. She then heard that he answered Lisette's offer of her hand with disdain, whereby he indignantly answers: "Here is what one may call a fable, an impossibility." He specifies that it is her unwillingness to love that attracted him to her, although she would have been able to console him for the loss of Angelique, were she willing. "I have no proof of that," she responds, "because that repugnance of which I do not complain, should it have been expressed so openly?" Once more, the knight denies he felt any repugnance. "If I did not love Angelique...the only thing you need fear is for my friendship to turn into love," he avers. "That would be too much," she responds. "It must not be, knight, it must not be." His unwillingness to pursue her in that way is due to his assumption that she loves the count, an answer which pleases her. As a result, she dismisses Hortensius and intends never to see the count again. On learning this, the count asks the knight whether he loves the marquise. He answers that their relations are friendly and is surprised to find so persistent a suitor as the count when it is obvious she feels so indifferent to him. Because the count still considers the knight as his rival, he proposes his sister as the knight's wife. Alone with the marquise, the knight says he accepts this offer of marriage and that he may now speak on the count's behalf. But the marquise is unhappy on both counts. She encounters his servant, who gives her a love-letter his master is hesitant to send. She reads that letter to the knight, who is surprised to hear his own unsent letter, stating that he leaves with as much love for her as he previously had for Angelique. "What do you wish should become of me?" he asks. "I'm blushing, knight; that's your answer," she responds.
"The game of love and chance"
Time: 1730s. Place: France.
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To sound Dorante's personality for a possible marriage, Sylvia substitutes herself with her servant, Lisette. But Sylvia's father, Orgon, finds out that Dorante has the same idea. Disguised as servants and unconscious of each other's true identities, Sylvia and Dorante are immediately smitten with each other, the former much less so with his servant, her supposed suitor, Harlequin. A worried Lisette soon informs Orgon of Harlequin's attentions towards her person and is pleasantly surprised to learn that he does not in the least object. Sylvia interrupts Harlequin's verbal love-making towards Lisette to say she is displeased she has not already dismissed "that animal". Lisette answers her father has forbid that. Dorante draws Sylvia apart to reveal his love, who answers she neither loves nor hates him. The lover on his knees begs her to believe it, discovered in this posture by Orgon and his son, Mario. Orgon recommends Dorante to speak better of his master than he has done so far, then asks his daughter whether her bad opinion of the master is due to the attractiveness of the servant. She denies it. To be certain of this, he recommends her to persist in her disguise. Mario predicts she will marry Dorante. After both men leave, unable to tolerate the situation and unable to deceive her longer, Dorante reveals his true identity to Sylvia, which she is glad to hear, though without revealing her own. Later, Harlequin begs his master not to impede the course of his love. A frustrated Dorante retorts: "You deserve one hundred strokes of a stick." His sister having informed him of Dorante's secret, Mario pretends to be her lover and Dorante's rival, at which the latter leaves in pain, to the amusement of Mario and his father. To promote her own happiness, Lisette asks Sylvia whether she consents to yield Harlequin to her, and, to her joy, her mistress does, but first she must reveal her condition. So must Harlequin, who does so hesitantly and gradually: "Madam, is your love's constitution robust? Will it support the fatigue I will give it? Does a bad lodging frighten it?" he asks Lisette tentatively. Finally, he admits his low social condition, which angers her at first and then makes her laugh. When Harlequin reports he has won Sylvia, Dorante cannot believe his ears. He rushes to see Sylvia and is reassured she loves neither Harlequin nor Mario. instead, she leaves him to guess her feelings. "Judge of my feelings towards you, judge of the case I made of your heart by the delicateness with which I tried to acquire it." The amazed Dorante at last discovers Sylvia is the mistress, not the servant. "What enchants me most," he concludes, "are the proofs I gave of my tender feelings towards you."
Time: 1730s. Place: France.
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Remy wants his nephew, Dorante, to marry Marton, more of a friend than servant to Araminte, a rich widow. On Remy's recommendation as her lawyer, Araminte hires Dorante as a steward. One day, a dispute flares up about land rights between her and Count Dorimont. To prevent a trial in court and to raise her daughter's rank, Argante would like Araminte to marry the count. Argante orders Dorante to tell her daughter that, independently of her rights, she is sure to lose the trial, but is irritated on finding Dorante hesitate to obey her. Soon after, Marton tells him the count promised her a thousand ecues the day the marriage contract is signed between him and Araminte. Dorante informs Araminte of her mother's plan and his resistance to it, which pleases her. In cahoots with Dorante, Dubois, Araminte's servant and previously Dorante's, imparts to her mistress a secret: Dorante is insanely in love with her. At first Araminte considers dismissing Dorante, then changes her mind and asks him to examine her papers. His opinion is that she is likely to win the trial. Remy thanks Araminte for hiring his nephew, but something new has turned up. One of his rich clients has noticed Dorante and wishes to marry him. Remy is stunned on learning he refuses to see this client, his heart being secretly devoted to Araminte. Remy is even more exasperated when Marton, assured that Dorante sighs for her own person, is even very thankful at the news. While she is conversing with the count, a portrait of a woman is delivered to Dorante. The count, Araminte, and Argante want to know more about this portrait. Marton assures them it is a portrait of her, but it is a portrait of Araminte. Dorante's new servant, Harlequin, quarrels with Dubois about Araminte's portrait he wanted to take out from Dorante's room. For various reasons, the count, Argante, and Marton are all unhappy with Dorante's behavior, but Amarinte has no reason to dismiss him. Amarinte tests him by announcing she will marry Dorimont, whereby his face grows pale and he cannot find the very paper in front of his eyes. He writes trembling on her behalf that she accepts the count's offer of marriage. Because of Dorimante's refusal of a richer marriage, Marton asks him to explain his intentions to their mistress. Dorante tells Araminte he does not think of Marton, but loves another, whose portrait he has painted. She wishes to see it. He prefers not to show it to her. She thinks she has already seen it. Dubois rejoices to hear her say she has noticed nothing particular about his master's behavior. He has a plan: revealing to Marton that Harlequin is carrying a letter from Dorante, which she is meant to intercept. Meanwhile, Argante tells her daughter she wants Dorante out, which makes her laugh aloud. Marton shows them the intercepted letter, revealing that Dorante expects to be fired because of his love of his mistress. Dubois pretends to work against his master by crying out "All the world has been a witness to his folly." He adds: "You would have laughed too hard to see him sigh; nevertheless, I pitied him-" Aramante is so angry on learning that Dubois advised Marton to intercept the letter that she wishes never to see him again. Very sadly, Marton feels the obligation of asking her mistress to dismiss her. Araminte might accept her resignation or not, as she wishes, but Marton admits she entirely misjudged the case, that Dorante loves Araminte "more than any ever did". As Dorante prepares to leave, he requests his portrait back. In Araminte's view, that would be an acknowledgment of love. "And yet," she admits, "that is what is happening to me." He then reveals the entire truth about Dubois' role in the proceedings, which she accepts. To her mother's outrage, she then turns to the count to say she declines to marry him. He sadly promises to accept an out-of-court settlement to their contention. As the masters leave, Dubois brags to Harlequin that in this story he has come off well. "My glory weighs heavily on me," he declares.
Philippe Néricault Destouches
Second only to Marivaux' comedies in the period are those of Philippe Néricault Destouches (1680-1754), nearer Molière's style than Mariavaux is, notably when using verse rather than prose. Moreover, themes and manner of presentation resemble Molière's. The play often has a focus on a main character whose major flaw ends in defeating him, as in Molière's "The misanthrope" (1666), "The miser" (1668), and "The bourgeois gentleman" (1670). This form is copied in Destouches' first four plays: "The curious impertinent" (1710), "The ingrate" (1712), "The irresolute" (1713), and "The scandal-monger" (1715). "The curious impertinent" concerns a man's suspicions of his intended who requests his friend to tempt her to bed, a subject handled with superior acumen by Shakespeare in "Cymbeline" (1610) in regard to a man's relation with his wife. Destouches' dialogue flowed at maximal peaks in "Le glorieux" (The glorious one, 1732), in which the rich middle class begins to get the upper hand over the shiftless aristocracy. The upper class is all the more the target of satire in later works such as “The false Agnes” (1759) containing a baron, a count, and a judge with their wives. The baron is a dupe led to believe he governs his wife when the case is the reverse. The count is a drunk who tries to seduce the judge’s wife in front of her husband’s face and considers his rank a sufficient defense. The title of the play refers to the Agnes of Molière’s “The school for wives” (1662), made stupid by her tutor’s restrictive upbringing. In Destouches’ play, the shrewd Agnes pretends to be stupid to disengage herself from marrying her parent’s choice, a pretentious lout fancying himself as a poet.
"The glorious one"
Time: 1730s. Place: Paris, France.
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Lisimon proposes to his servant, Lisette, that she be made available to him for sexual favors, but she refuses at once, preferring to remain loyal to his wife. As he reaches out his hand in frustration, she cries out and is heard by his son, Valère, to whom Lisimon's behavior is all too familiar. An angry Lisimon goes away. Valère has his own views on Lisette, has promised marriage, but her dependent condition makes her doubt whether that the match possible, especially considering that his parents are unlikely to approve. A friendly old man whom she knew long ago, Lycander, interrupts her meditations, surprised to find her in a dependent condition. Although she trusts him to take her away safely, he refuses, assuring her that she is of high descent and that her father himself will soon take her away. Despite her promise to keep the knowledge of her high birth secret, she nevertheless divulges this information to Valère, now both hopeful of the eventual result. Another point of uncertainty is the marriage prospect of her mistress, Isabel, daughter to Lisimon, pursued by two suitors but preferring the count of Jupière over his rival, the timid Philinte, the count bring always confident of his superior condition despite being poor. Despite the latter's attempts to please Isabel, the two can only talk about trivial matters. The count has the advantage of being Lisimon's choice in the matter, but Lisimon's wife prefers Philinte. Although the count finds Lisimon excessivelly familiar, he nevertheless deigns to follow him for a hearty drinking bout. Isabel herself prefers the count but is flustered over his exaggerated opinion of himself, considering that they should to know each other better before marrying. When Jupière discovers Philinte's existence, he asks Valère to warn his rival that should this rival win, a duel will ensue. Seeing the count lose ground in her mistress' eyes because of his excessive hauteur, Lisette proposes to help out. "Chase away one's nature and it comes gallopping back, but at least constrain yourself," she advises him. After hearing of the count's challenge, Philinte refuses to back off, each facing the other with hand on sword, but they are interrupted by Lisimon, who insists that the latter remove his suit. Although Philinte refuses, Lisimon's wife eventually yields and Lisimon joyfully prepares his daughter's wedding. Meanwhile, Lycander reveals to Lisette that her father several years ago was led through pride to take part in a duel and killed his opponent. When false witnesses maligned his behavior before the king, he had to escape to England. Since then, powerful friends have rehabilitated him. He further reveals he is himself her father and also father to the count. When he presents himself before his son, the latter begs him to defer showing himself to the others until after the wedding. Although first presented as his steward, Lycander reveals himself to everyone, preferring to chasten his son's excessive pride. After the count acknowledges him as his father, Lycander proposes a double marriage, calling forth not Lisette but Constance to marry Valère, a match approved by Lisimon.
A third satiric author of interest is Alain-René Lesage (1668-1747), known for "Turcaret" (1709), concerning fraudulent activities occurring high and low in society.
Time: 1700s. Place: Paris, France.
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The baroness' fortune, at a low ebb since her husband's death, is helped by Turcaret, her suitor and an usurer, who, with his usual generosity, gives her a money order for the high sum 10,000 ecues. Despite the advice of her servant, Marina, the baroness removes a diamond ring from her finger so that her other suitor, a knight, in dire financial straits, may pawn it for ready cash. To obtain more of Turcaret's money, the baroness asks the knight to borrow his clever servant, Frontin, so that she may place him in the service of Turcaret. She also requests the knight to take out her diamond ring with the money order just received. Turcaret returns to the baroness in an angry mood, breaking a mirror and some porcelain vases, after being told by Marina, whom she fired from her employ for her insolence, about the true state of the knight's presence, not her cousin as he was told, and about her giving the knight her ring. But when the baroness shows him the ring, Turcaret becomes contrite, now certain Marina lied, and asks her pardon. The baroness pardons him. "You would be less jealous had you less love and the excessive nature of the first makes one forget the violence of the other," she says while pretending sympathy. Turcaret will replace her broken porcelain and agrees to hire Frontin as an office boy. A conversation between Turcaret and the baroness is interrupted by a marquis, who, to the usurer's consternation, describes to her Turcaret's shady business practices. "He likes men's money and women's honor," the marquis comments. The baroness pretends not to believe him. To help her out in ruining Turcaret, Frontin suggests to his new master that he should buy her a horse-drawn carriage, to which he reluctantly agrees. Frontin next suggests a country-house they later hope to have him furnish, together with a large debt he is fraudulently led to believe she owes from her husband's lifetime. The baroness then receives the visit of Turcaret's sister, by whom she learns her suitor is married, not a widower as she was led to believe. During a dinner offered by the knight paid for by Turcaret, the marquis arrives with a supposed countess, a woman previously rejected by the knight but actually Mrs Turcaret, first abashed by the knight's entrance, then by her husband's sister's, and finally by her husband's, but worse befalls the latter as he is seized by creditors for the large sums he owes. Frontin is also arrested, who reports he lost the baroness' money order as well as the money fraudulently obtained from Turcaret. The knight's despair at the loss of money opens the baroness' eyes, who repulses both him and Turcaret. When everybody but a baroness' female servant leaves, Frontin declares he was never searched, and is thereby able to escape with her along with the stolen money.
Of equal interest are the comedies of Jean-François Regnard (1655-1709), especially "Le légataire universel" (The universal legatee, 1708), which concerns the deplorable events occurring as family members wish for one's death. As in the novels of Honoré de Balzac one century later, Regnard provides a heavy emphasis on money-related matters in this and other plays such as "The gamester" (1696), evident also in one-act plays such as "The serenade" (1694), "The ball" (1700), and "The unexpected return" (1700).
"The universal legatee"
Time: 1700s. Place: Paris, France.
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Eraste hopes to obtain the legacy of his uncle, Geronte, and thereby marry Isabelle according to the wish of her mother, Argante. But Geronte, whom Eraste thought dying, surprises him by wanting to marry Isabelle himself. Eraste pretends to be overjoyed at this bit of news. Though Isabelle recognizes her duty to her mother, she is far from keen on the match. To curry favor with his uncle, Eraste pretends to agree with the idea. As they discuss the matter, Geronte must leave because of a pressing need of nature. "O power of love!" exclaims his servant, Lisette. But to Argante, Eraste renews his wish to marry her daughter. Argante assures him that if his uncle grants him the legacy, he will indeed obtain her hand and sends Geronte a letter stating she has changed her mind about the marriage. Because of health problems, Geronte is relieved at this and tells Eraste he will make him his universal legatee. Eraste pretends to be saddened by the thought of his uncle's death and pretends to approve of his generous legacy of 40,000 ecues to another nephew along with a niece, both of whom he has never even seen. To thwart the nephew's legacy, Eraste's servant, Crispin, disguises himself as that nephew, a country gentleman from Normandy. Crispin shows himself grossly eager to obtain the legacy. Shocked by his attitude, Geronte now says he will disinherit him. To thwart the niece's legacy, Crispin disguises himself as the niece, who swears she heard Geronte was "a drunk, a gambler...haunting day and night places where honesty suffers and modesty moans" and that he has had many children by Lisette, all of which she comes to correct. Offended, Geronte orders her out, a gesture Eraste warmly approves. Shaken by this experience, a weak Geronte leaves the room and has a fainting spell in his chamber. Having had no time to change the will, the nephew and the two servants are extremely alarmed about his condition. Crispin proposes to put his hands on all the goods he can. After looking about the house, Eraste is able to salvage 40,000 ecues. To fool the notaries into changing the will, Crispin disguises himself as the dying Geronte and names Eraste as the universal legatee. "O too bitter pain!" Eraste cries out, pretending to be moved. But to Eraste's horror, the insolent servant grants 2,000 ecues to Lisette and 1,500 francs to himself. The notaries are fooled, but, as they leave, Lisette re-enters in great fright, having discovered "Geronte on his legs". Not knowing much what to do, Eraste hands the money over to Argante and Isabelle. Feeling better, Geronte calls his notary over and is puzzled on learning that the will has already been changed that very day, but assumes it is the result of his lethargy. He is not surprised about Eraste being named as his universal legatee, but is stunned on learning about the sums destined for the two servants and about the lost ready money he carried on his person. Eraste assures him that, according to his commands, he handed the money over to Isabelle. The uncle is distraught and refuses to approve of the will unless the money is found. To the relief of all, Isabelle arrives with the money.
Charles Rivière Dufresny
Charles Rivière Dufresny (1648-1724) is another comic dramatist of note, especially for "Le double veuvage" (The double widowing, 1702).
"The double widowing"
Time: 1700s. Place: Paris, France.
Dorante and Thérèse wish to marry but have no money. To provide them with some, a countess devises a plot. Thérèse's aunt is told that her husband, the countess' intendant, has died while on duty to serve his mistress. "When news of her husband's death were given, I perceived that his death only afflicted her face," the countess reports. After four days of pretended grieving, the countess asks the supposed widow for money on behalf of Dorante and Thérèse. The aunt declines, saying that the state of widowhood would make her niece too unhappy. The real reason is that she wants Dorante as a husband for herself. The countess specifies she expects 10,000 ecues from her. Otherwise, she threatens to take money away from her, because she has not signed all the business papers regarding her husband. The intendant arrives one day earlier than expected. Thinking his mistress too frivolous, Dorante is overjoyed at seeing Thérèse's unhappiness at this hindrance to their plot. Seeing Dorante and others in mourning clothes, the intendant is puzzled as to who has died and deduces that it his wife, a notion that is not contradicted by the countess' majordomo, Gusman. The intendant pretends to be full of sorrow but yet appears stoic. "You withstand all this like a Caesar," Gusman declares. He then tells him she died on learning of his death. The intendant is truly touched by this piece of news, but becomes angry after learning that she perhaps died of joy. In love with Thérèse himself, the intendant is worried on finding out that she is about to marry Dorante this very day. To prevent his interference, Thérèse asks him to protect her, pretending that she does not wish to marry Dorante because he is too poor. The countess requests her intendant to give his nephew money so that he can marry. But he is hopeful that Thérèse will marry him instead, having obtained her promise to do so. Meanwhile, the supposed widow begins to flirt with Dorante, who shows no interest though without offending her. At last she agrees to give Thérèse the money provided her husband is not Dorante. When Gusman sees the intendant approach the supposed widow, he turns off the lights to delay their being able to recognize each other. In the dark, the intendant thinks he hears Thérèse's voice and the widow thinks she hears Dorante's voice. When she names Dorante, the intendant is angry at what appears to be Thérèse's betrayal. He learns that his wife is alive and loves Dorante at the same moment she learns that her husband is alive and loves Thérèse. Both are outraged. Each wish to send away their rivals, but when the countess agrees to send both away, husband and wife are chagrined. To resolve the matter, the countess agrees to provide the money and both agree to the marriage proposal between Dorante and Thérèse.
Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset (1709-1777) wrote "Le méchant" (The villain, 1747), concerning a man's gratuitous plots of scandal-mongering amid a peace-loving family.
Time: 1740s. Place: Provinces outside Paris, France.
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Geronte wants Chloe, the daughter of his sister, Florise, to marry Valère, Chloe's childhood friend. Thereby, he senses he will have the "authority of a father" towards the young man. Moreover, he wants to avoid being taken to court by his sister, since the question of their parents' inheritance is unclear. In addition, his friend, Cleon, seems to approve of his choice, as does Valère's mother. However, Florise resists, because should Geronte die before her, all his fortune will go to the young couple instead of her. Nevertheless, she is willing to agree should Cleon, a man whose wisdom she trusts and on whom she has an eye to marry, consider favorably her brother's choice. If not, Chloe will be sent to a convent. As Chloe enters, her mother coldly says that her hairdo is horrible and then leaves. A dispirited Chloe wonders what has she ever done to displease her mother. Cleon has no love for Florise, but is nevertheless willing to entertain the possibility of marrying her should they be assured of her brother's money. He would more particularly like to seduce Chloe. In any event, he enjoys causing trouble for no reason. He therefore commands his servant, Frontin, to write two unsigned negative letters on Valère's character to Florise and Geronte and at the same time pretends to be his friend. "Silly people are here below for our little pleasures," he points out to a bewildered Frontin. He assures Florise that, contrary to what Geronte thinks, he disapproves of the planned marriage. He also assures her of his love and encourages her to take Geronte to court. However, she is unwilling to go to this extreme. Considering him to be his friend, Valère joyously greets Cleon. When asked about his mother's plan to marry him off, Valère assures him he has no such intention, preferring a young man's free and easy-going life. However, Chloe's servant, Lisette, desires a marriage for her instead of a life in the convent. Lisette cautions her lover, Frontin, if he still wishes to marry her, to disobey his master's order by not going to Paris. Valère's mother sends over her brother's friend, Ariste, to finalize the marriage plans. Cleon hypocritically agrees with both Geronte and Ariste on that question. However, the marriage plan seems dashed when Valère enters. To Geronte's disgust, the young man appears frivolous. Even worse, the young man entertains the possibility of dismantling his property after his death. After reading the anonymous letter on Valère's character, his mind is made up: no more talk of marriage! A little later, Valère meets Chloe and realizes almost at once his mistake. Lisette suspects Cleon's work in Geronte's rejection of the marriage proposal and assures Valère and Chloe, also suddenly smitten by love, of her willingness to help. Lisette proposes to her mistress that she hide herself while she speaks of her to Cleon. She agrees. To her astonishment, Cleon reveals his true feelings, calling her "ridiculous" and "odious". Lisette next recommends Frontin to write a letter to his master announcing that he is quitting his service, as she intends him to follow Valère. With a specimen of the servant's writing in hand, Ariste discovers that he was the scrivener of the anonymous letter on Cleon's behalf. When told this, Geronte considers it the work of the knavish servant, but when Florise shows him Cleon's letter to his lawyer requesting help in suing him, Geronte shows Cleon the door and agrees to Valère's marriage with his niece.
For 18th century tragedy, there is Voltaire (1694-1778), with "Mahomet le prophète" (Mohammed the prophet, 1741), a worthy study based on historic sources. Voltaire also wrote "L'orphelin de la Chine" (The Chinese orphan, 1755), best described as a tragicomedy.
"Mohammed the prophet"
Time: 7th century AD. Place: Mecca, Arabia.
Mohammed, ruler of Medina, heads an army towards Mecca, defended by Zopir, who considers his enemy an "artisan of error". They have many reasons to hate each other, in particular Zopir killed Mohammed's son while Mohammed killed Zopir's wife. Nevertheless, Mohammed would like to take back Zopir's daughter, Palmira, who considers him a second father to her, because as his captive fifteen years ago, she loved his religion, to which Zopir cries out: "O superstition! Your inflexible rigors remove human feelings from the most sensitive hearts." Mohammed's envoy, Omar, arrives in Mecca and succeeds in convincing part of the senate to accept a peace offer, while another member of the army, Seid, arrives to free Palmira from Zopir's grasp. Seid is all the more motivated to do so, because he and Palmira love each other. Thanks to Omar's orations, a cease-fire is declared and, after 15 years of exile, Mohammed re-enters Mecca. However, he disapproves of Seid's attentions towards Palmira. "I have banished far from me that treacherous liquid which nourishes humans with brutal softness," Mohammed confesses. Though acknowledging that "love is Mohammed's god," he informs Omar that Palmira and Seid are offspring of Zopir. Despite the offered peace, Zopir confronts Mohammed with hard words: "Only you divide families," he accuses. Mohammed is ambitious for the sake of his people. In his view, the Arabian people have "buried their glory in deserts", but he will take them out. "You ravish the earth and pretend to instruct it," Zopir counters, to which Mohammed retorts: "I know your people; they require error. Whether true or false, my cult is necessary." He informs Zopir that his two sons are still alive but in prison. He proposes to return Zopir's sons to him and become his son-in-law provided he subscribe to his plans. "You must help me cheat the universe," Mohammed adds. Zopir refuses, preferring not to "enslave his country with his cult". Omar warns Mohammed that, despite the peace agreement, half the senate intend to assassinate him and suggests that Seid be the instrument of Zopir's murder, since as his hostage he has the freest access to him. While Zopir prays with "frivolous incense and fanciful oaths" before the pagan gods, Seid is the perfect choice for murder, because "religion fills him with fury". Zopir greets Seid in a friendly fashion, offering his house should he need protection, although "anything outside of mohammedism is a crime" according to his prisoner. He pardons Seid's attraction towards Mohammed, but asks aloud: "Can we believe in a God who orders us to hate?" Omar approaches Seid as Zopir receives a letter from Hercid, revealing that Seid and Palmira are his long-lost children, Hercid being the one responsible for taking them away. But before Zopir can inform Seid and Palmira of this, his son, encouraged by his daughter, stabs him to death behind an altar. Arriving too late, Zopir's attendant and Hercid's messenger, Phanor, exclaims: "O crime! Awful mystery! Unhappy assassin, know your father." Palmira wishes the dagger had struck her own breast for encouraging her brother to the fatal deed. "For us, incest was the reward of parricide," she moans. Omar treacherously arrests Seid for the murder as Mohammed's army approaches Mecca's ramparts. Before he even killed, Seid was given a slow-acting poison and is expiring in his prison cell. Mohammed asks to see Palmira, who now sees in him only a "blood-stained impostor" and "feeble childhood's infamous seductor". The people of Mecca agree and violently rebel with the dying Seid as their leader. Though in a weakened condition, Seid enters with a band of followers to attack Mohammed and his men. But yet he falls, a sign, Mohammed suggests, that heaven is on the side of the invaders, a suggestion Seid's followers adhere to, superstitiously retiring and thereby assuring Mohammed of victory. In despair, Palmira takes her brother's knife and stabs herself to death, concluding that "the earth belongs to tyrants".
"The Chinese orphan"
Time: 13th century. Place: Peking, China.
After the death of the emperor of China at the hands of Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongolian tribes, Zanti saved the emperor's son, hiding him among his ancestors' tombs, eventually to be given to the ruler of Korea and avenge his father. Knowing that the emperor's son is still alive, Genghis Khan orders Zanti to yield him. Preferring loyalty to the state than to his family, Zanti yields instead his own son. His wife, Idame, discovers his "horrible virtue" and retrieves her son from the soldiers. Learning that his captive is not the emperor's son, Genghis Khan orders Idame in his presence to find out the truth. He remembers her as a long-lost love of his. "A poison entirely new surprised me in these places; the tranquil Idame carried it in her eyes," he says. But now he is thankful of having been refused. "Happiness would have destroyed me," he admits. Amazed, Genghis Khan finds the woman he once asked for marriage and was refused to be the same as the one he requested to see. Genghis listens to the wife's story and then husband's, uncertain on how to proceed. "I forget her, she comes, she triumphs, and I love," he muses. Alone with her, he renews his love-suit. "The world's conqueror to you alone submits," he declares, to which Idame retorts: "Your destinies have changed, but mine cannot be." Since only Idame can move about freely where Zanti cannot, he asks her to be loyal to the state. "Be the mother of your unhappy king," he pleads. On the point of yielding the prince to the invading Korean army, she is found out by Genghis. "Abjure your marriage," he proposes, "and, at the same time, I will place your son among my children." Idame counters that she wants no love from him but justice. Angrily, he threatens to kill the prince, her husband, and her son. For all of these "will pay with their blood your rebellious pride," he warns. "You had a lover, now you have only a master." He threatens her one last time: for Zanti either divorce or else death. Her response is to hand over to her husband a dagger. "May the tyrant see it and be jealous of it," she affirms. Zanti hesitates long enough to be stopped in time by Genghis, who yields entirely to their demands. "Once I was a conqueror," he says, "now by you transformed into a king."
Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon
In addition to Voltaire, Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674-1762) wrote a worthy tragedy in "Rhadamiste et Zénobie" (Rhadamistus and Zenobia, 1711). There is a raw, untamed power in "Rhadamistus and Zenobia" difficult to match in 18th century tragedy. Crébillon unleashes considerable force in depicting love-inspired torment and upheavals in nature. Witness the opening scene of Idomeneus (1705) when the protagonist describes a storm at sea: "From a deluge of fire the waves as if lighted seemed to roll over us a sea inflamed, and angry Neptune to so many unfortunates offered as salvation only awful boulders."
"Rhadamistus and Zenobia"
Time: Ist century AD. Place: Artanissa, Iberia.
Text at ?
Wishing to gain sovereignty, Pharasmanes rebelled against his reigning brother and seized the crown. Pharasmanes' son, Rhadamistus, helped him to achieve that aim, killing his uncle and taking possession of the uncle's daughter, Zenobia, in marriage. Pretending to be angry at his brother's murder but in fact jealous of his son's power, Pharasmanes attempts to kill him. He thinks to have done it, but Rhadamistus escapes. Having killed her father, Rhadamistus cannot agree with Zenobia, and is so angry at this that he attempts to kill her. He thinks to have done it, but Zenobia escapes, only to become a captive of Pharasmanes, king of Iberia under an assumed name. Unconscious that she is still Rhadamistus' wife, Pharasmanes wishes to make her his queen. However, Arsames, second son to Pharasmanes, proposes to take her away and marry her himself. Suspecting Arsames as his rival, Pharasmanes leads her quickly away to be wed, but Zenobia wants Arsames as her husband. "Since love has made the woes of my life, what other than love must avenge Zenobia?" she reasons. At his point, Rome's ambassador arrives to know the Iberian king's intentions regarding Armenia. He is actually Rhadamistus in disguise, made king of Armenia by Rome's emperor, Nero. Though "criminal with no motive, virtuous with no plan," he presents himself to Pharasmanes, who does not recognize his son. Rhadamistus claims that Rome will not allow the Iberian king to take Armenia, but Pharasmanes defies Rome. As a result, Rhadamistus seeks his brother's help to incite a rebellion against his father's throne, but is unsuccessful. Not knowing he is speaking to his brother and Zenobia's husband, Arsames only wishes to escape with her. When Zenobia arrives, she and Rhadamistus are astonished at seeing each other, especially the latter, who thought she was dead. Because he is her husband and despite having killed her father and almost her, Zenobia chooses to follow him, not his brother, to Armenia. While Zenobia waits for Rhadamistus at night, Arsames enters for the same purpose. Zenobia beseeches him to go away, since he lies in utmost danger from a rival's anger. Arsames wants to know who the rival is. She reveals it is Rhadamistus, his own brother, who enters in an angry mood at hearing his secret disclosed, yet still willing to take her away. Arsames is suddenly arrested under orders from his father, who suspects him of having agreed with the ambassador and Zenobia to cheat him. Pharasmanes accuses Arsames of treason and calls for the ambassador to confound him, at which point he learns that the ambassador escaped with Zenobia. Arsames is at the point of revealing the ambassador's name as Pharasmanes walks out in a deadly fury. He returns with news that he stabbed with his own hands the ambassador, only to learn, when Rhadamistes is brought in bleeding, that he mistakenly murdered his son instead. Bitterly regretting the deed, Pharasmanes abandons any further thought of marrying Zenobia, proposing instead that Arsames lead her away to Armenia as his wife.