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 confessions, 1737). He also wrote "Love's surprise" (1722) on a similar theme to the more accomplished 1727 version.
In "Love's second surprise", compared with “Love’s first surprise” (1722), “one senses a more polished mastery of thought and style...The marquise and the knight are drawn together by an understanding of each other’s sorrow. [They] wander blindly through the unchartered pathways to the exquisite realization of love” (McKee, 1968 pp 101-102). "When the marquise reads aloud the knight’s letter to Angelique, the two discover an exquisite community of feeling and soon agree to console each other; a pure friendship will be their resource in their common affliction. Each holds a romantic image of the eternally faithful lover, withdrawn from the social whirl; consequently neither realizes the strong physical element in the mutual attraction. The basic data of the play is then the conflict between the physical desires of the pair and the conscious image they have of themselves. For either to propose transforming friendship into love will be difficult, since it will involve destruction of the image and possibly loss of face...[In contrast,] unencumbered by images of themselves which need to be protected and maintained, [the servants] arrive rapidly at mutual comprehension, revealing in advance what will happen to their masters” (Greene, 1965 pp 113-115). “It is interesting to note that [in the reading scene], each measures the other by means of comparison with the previous beloved: the marquise implied that the knight resembles her dead husband because he writes like him; the knight compares the marquise with Angelique...both compare favorably...(Brady, 1970 pp 192-193) “It is through the servants that the marquise [is made to feel jilted. She] will ask the knight, at the first opportunity, for a straightforward explanation. The result of this explanation...is that the protagonists make a step further towards avowal” (Brady, 1970 pp 233-234). “While the intrusion of the count gives an impetus to...a dramatic excitement which was not in the first ‘Surprise’, it does not alter the basic tone. The principal lovers are still hesitant, diffident and interdependent, and when at the end the knights’ feelings can no longer be concealed, the marquise still does not bring herself to utter the word ‘love’...yet her response...is clear enough” (Brereton, 1977 pp 200-201).
“By its formal perfection, the richness and the definitive quality of the text, the complexity and truth of the characters, the variety of the action- alternating emotional tension with exuberance and comic verve, blending the real and the ideal- in almost every way 'The game of love and chance' has proved itself to be a masterpiece of comedy...[Critics recognize] Silvia’s central importance but [misunderstand] what she wants to accomplish...The criticism is that...with Dorante’s revelation of his identity, she should have told him who she was...Critics...see Silvia exactly as do Orgon and Mario...What these critics should add is that Silvia’s long speech in Act 3 Scene 8 is pure histrionics...What Silvia accomplishes in Act 3, through the prolonging of her disguise, is to force Dorante to become fully aware of her as a person of her own right, and to decide that as such she is worth more to him than would be a conventional Orgon’s daughter. Moreover, as Lisette, she is able to say things to Dorante which the proprieties would have made impossible for Orgon’s daughter” (Greene, 1965 pp 126-131). “The new idea is Dorante’s willingness to cut across social lines and marry a servant. The spectators know that when the time comes, he will not be reduced to this extremity; but in his own mind he is willing to do so, and the mere proposal of such a radical innovation was bold for 1730” (McKee, 1968 pp 131-132). Dorante “is the only one who has passed the test successfully, whose heart fought against his social upbringing and won; he is the only one who was prepared to face society, family and their opposition. Silvia’s conflict was real only until the moment he revealed his identity, and she had only gone as far as admitting to him that she could love him under certain conditions: fortune, rank, and so on” (Brady, 1970 p 168). "Marivaux's theatre shows us not only a polarity between love and self-love, as countless critics have made clear, but also between love and friendly feelings. The verb ‘aimer’ hides many an ambiguity, which the cognate substantives force into the open. A relationship based on friendship is not wounding to one’s pride, since it does not call for a battle, a conquest, a defeat. In the two 'Surprises de l'amour', the lovers are able for a time to pretend to this fictitious relationship, but eventually the demands made by love become too insistent and force them to the limit of sincerity; and it is precisely at this point that the discrepancy between words and feelings becomes properly comic...In ‘Love’s second surprise’, it is this mask of friendship which must be removed" (Mason, 1967 p 242). The double courtship does “much to complicate the tangled web of sentiment. Its disentanglement between Arlequin and Lisette provides an outstanding scene of human comedy [worthy] of Molière...With Act 2...Silvia still has her game to play- a more dangerous game than in her self-confidence, she thinks- in which she stakes relative happiness for...total happiness...None of Marivaux’ heroines is more spirited, more subtle, more clandestinely vulnerable than this one, his finest stage creation” (Brereton, 1977 pp 202-205). Marivaux' style has been dubbed "marivaudage", when a character talks without meaning anything, a deliberate ploy on the part of the author to exhibit how often we deceive ourselves. "What appeared to be trivialities were pursued ad infinitum and the ultimate meaning of these ‘verbal acrobatics’, maintained the critics, remained elusive and ill-defined...The Marivaudian hero is in constant dialogue with himself and with others, unwilling to recognize his real self on the level of being, and playing a role on the level of seeming...He avoids admitting a ‘truth’ which would destroy this role...As one deceives others, one undergoes self-deception as well. Silvia and Dorante, each disguised as servants, engage in "marivaudage" to avoid the inevitable admission that they love each other. Although each knows the truth, their pride prevents them from admitting or accepting that truth. A battle of nerves results to see who can hold out the longest. During her ‘badinage’ with Dorante, Silvia states that a prediction has informed her that she will only marry a gentleman and Dorante, being a valet, is therefore excluded. Dorante responds: ‘You do very well, Lisette; this type of pride becomes you marvelously, and though it ends my trial, I am still happy to see it; I hoped for it as soon as I saw you; you had also to add that grace and I console myself to have lost it because by such means you win’. A concrete prediction is transformed into an abstract concept; the pride is further extended to constitute an asset to Silvia's other graces; the image is continued on the economic level of gains and losses. This mental ‘game’ not only serves as a delaying tactic, for neither really wants to admit loving the other, but by dealing with every aspect of love except love itself, it becomes a contest in wit and rhetorical expertise...[part of] Marivaux's attempts to create a faithful representation of the thought-process involved in a character's becoming" (Sturzer, 1975 pp 212-218).
"False confessions" introduced a subject new to comedy, the romance of a poor young man making good (Bernbaum, 1915 p 190). "One must stress the cynicism that abounds in the heart of Dubois, who is even more competent at deception than Flaminia, for he himself does not become caught in the web that he is spinning. The assault which he directs upon Araminte [in ‘The double inconstancy’] is carried out with a generous amount of scorn for all around him, master Dorante included. To Dorante's hesitations and fears he returns a clear-cut answer...he is certain [Dorante] will win...The end of each act highlights Dubois rather than Dorante or Araminte...He is willing to deceive, not only Araminte in what might broadly be termed her own interest, but also Marton in nobody's interest but his own. This deception he justifies to himself when he finds that her motives too are interested, but this is invented [after the fact] and reeks of bad faith...What are we to make of the confident assertions uttered by Dubois in Les Fausses Confidences and Flaminia in La Double Inconstance as to the outcome of the intrigues they are directing? Not only do these not destroy the lovers' dignity...they are also less a denigration of any particular human beings than an assertion of the laws of nature to which all human beings are susceptible...In Marivaux's plays the pathos is never very far distant if one reflects upon the characters, their world, and its implications. But this is to extrapolate and thereby to deform in the manner indicated at the beginning of this paper. In general, Marivaux reduces sensibility to the minimum, and where he must allow it a place in order to give the play its proper balance, as in the final scene between Araminte and Marton in Les Fausses Confidences (II,x), or in the scenes from L'Epreuve, where Angelique suffers the mortification of finding that Frontin and not Lucidor is her suitor, he quickly re-establishes a comic atmosphere" (Mason, 1967 pp 240-246). “This is the first play in the French theater that ends by a marriage that cuts across social lines, [though] Araminte and Dorante spring from the same class...Araminte is undoubtedly one of the most ingratiating characters created by Marivaux...She is a dignified yet an utterly delightful person, kindly disposed toward everyone, with no trace of rancor or spite, even toward those who despitefully use her...Dorante has all the grace, all the appealing passion of other Marivaux heroes. As an impecunious young man whose love leads him to seek marriage into a wealthy family he creates much sympathy; and the sincerity of his affection only underscores his admirable traits. But he presents something of an enigma in that he allows his judgment and the course of his romance to be controlled by Dubois...[who] is a transition figure between Scapin and Figaro, [but nearer the latter], for his tricks have less of the buffoonery of Scapin and more of the calculating reason of Figaro...[Few have commented on] Marton, who was as much wronged as Araminte, although the stakes were not so high in her case. She is perhaps only an injured bystander, but to herself her wounds are as sore as those of her mistress; her heart is twisted and her pride is hurt, [and she is] left disenchanted” (McKee, 1968 pp 209-212). “Dubois...has identified himself with his young master...While chasing about Paris, plotting...he fell in love with [Araminte] himself- vicariously. His age, his class, put him out of the running, but he can marry her in the person of his master...From the start...Araminte is subconsciously on the side of Dorante-Dubois, but she has to contend with all the ideas and individuals existing in her conscious mental world, [especially] her mother...a social climber...Although [Araminte] instinctively makes her choice the moment she lays eyes on Dorante, it is a long road from that point to the moment of fully conscious realization that her manager is the man she wants. The moment is one of the finest scenes in French comedy...Remy furnishes a whole set of complications and conflicts, most of them unwittingly. A gruff, hard-headed lawyer, he believes that a successful life must be firmly based on tangible assets...[When Remy realizes that his nephew has been shooting after bigger game], he defends him vigorously against Argante, another of the comic highlights of the play” (Greene, 1965 pp 211-215). The play “is a kind of apotheosis of the servants’ abilities and talents. Dubois is the man who holds the strings in the game:...his recounting to Araminte of Dorante’s love, his participation in the public dispute with Arlequin, his contribution to the interception of Dorante’s letter” (Brady, 1970 pp 238-240). “On a number of occasions throughout the play, we are reminded of the fact that socially Dorante and Araminte are well-matched and that she would not be making a misalliance, if it were not for the money...The whole plot is based on [money]...Almost everyone talks about money...Marton, in spite of her attachment to her mistress...is prepared for the sum of 1,000 ecues to contribute to a marriage in which Araminte’s happiness could be at stake...Even the sweet Araminte...like a good business woman hires a manager to look carefully into the question of [her mother’s lawsuit]” (Brady, 1970 pp 171-173). “Without Dorante’s subterfuge, the possibilities of their coming together are practically non-existent, because they are separated by a real difference in economic status...He hesitates before undertaking this enterprise...But this hesitation is not motivated by moral scruples: it is fear of failure and ridicule...Dorante may well be...a fortune-hunter, but he also is the man who suffers genuinely” (Brady, 1970 pp 330-338).
"The great feature of Marivaux as a dramatist is that he is at once more natural, and more artificial, than the writers who endeavoured to copy the classical model. He consistently employed prose, in preference to verse; nor did he depend for his effects upon such crude contrasts as that between the noblesse and the bourgeoisie. His characters move on much the same plane of life which he himself had successfully invaded; and thus his lords and ladies are treated like human beings, and not like monsters of extravagance and insolence whom chance or necessity has driven into an unaccustomed world. His plays are not written to expose some particular failing, and the absence of a predominating characteristic leaves room for that mixture of foibles which is the rule rather than the exception in ordinary life. On the other hand, the atmosphere of his plays is one generated by a fundamentally sophisticated society. His personages disdain the simplicity and frankness which have always characterised the apolaustic type of aristocracy. Self-examination is everybody's pastime and the critical moments of the action are indicated by exclamations like Silvia's 'Ah, I see clearly in my heart.' Love is the theme on which Marivaux plays all his variations; but we miss the ring of genuine passion, of straightforward affection, which we are sometimes able to catch in Destouches. His heroines, their attendants, and even the subsidiary womankind, are never tired of exhibiting the waves of emotion and the cross-currents of feeling which sweep through their bosoms...They possess individuality, and, though all are more or less coquettes, they are not cast in the same mould. Meticulous psychology is, perhaps, more adapted to the closet than to the stage, and Marivaux has made his influence felt more powerfully in fiction than behind the footlights. Yet it may justly be said that no subsequent dramatist has probed deeper in a certain type of female character, and that not the most psychological, or metaphysical, of latter-day playwrights has placed upon the stage a heroine comparable for vivacity and charm to Araminte or Silvia" (Millar, 1902 pp 237-238).
"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 early 18th century are those of Philippe Néricault Destouches (1680-1754), yet nearer Molière's style than Mariavaux', notably when using verse rather than prose. Moreover, themes and manner of presentation resemble Molière's "The misanthrope" (1666), "The miser" (1668), and "The bourgeois gentleman" (1670) in presenting a main character whose major flaw ends in defeating him, 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. Destouches is “a playwright always ready and able to please and not seldom rising to the dignity of creative force” (Van Laun, 1883 vol 3 p 9).
In "The glorious one", "The Comte de Tufiere, whose leading characteristic gives the piece its name, is conceived in the true spirit of Molière, and so is Pasquin his valet...The great merit of Destouches is his excellent common-sense. His ambition was to approximate to what he considered the true pattern of comedy; and this ambition he realised with a success far from despicable. To say that he is habitually decent in tone is to single him out for no special distinction. It is a remarkable, but none the less certain, fact that the whole of the French comedy of our period- or at least all of it which is worth considering as literature- is scrupulously void of offence, without being in the least puritanical or prudish. The conjugal no less than the parental relation enjoys an enviable immunity from serious attack" (Millar, 1902 pp 233-234).
“The vindication of marriage based on heart-felt love becomes a background feature in ‘The glorious one’, Destouches’ most outstanding play...It hinges on the punishment and eventual reform of an arrogantly vain young man, the count of Tufière. His conceit and presumption are represented as aristocratic in contrast to the simpler manners of other characters...Lycandre is more than an affectionate paterfamilias. He is a wealthy nobleman who lost his estates and was forced into exile in England by his late wife’s ‘presumption’ which involved him in a duel and political disgrace...In class terms, the play shows the aristocracy criticizing itself for the arrogance of some of its members. The father image, perfect in Lycandre, is somewhat tarnished in Lisimon, who is attracted to young Lisette and offers in an early scene to set her up in a house of her own as his mistress (he has a wife who does not appear on the stage)...He is nevertheless treated with respect as the father of the second girl, Isabelle” (Brereton, 1977 pp 218-220).
"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, Lycandre, 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 Tufière 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, Lycandre 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, Lycandre reveals himself to everyone, preferring to chasten his son's excessive pride. After the count acknowledges him as his father, Lycandre 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), deservedly known for "Turcaret" (1709), concerning fraudulent activities occurring in high and low society. The Turcaret character resembles the Jourdain character in Molière's "The bourgeois gentleman" (1670) in his desire to lift himself above his social station, except that Jourdain harms mostly himself while Turcaret harms both himself and others.
"Turcaret" is a contractor-merchant-moneylender who lives in luxury amid the destitution of war. He is generous only to his mistress, who bleeds him as sedulously as he bleeds the people. 'I marvel at the course of human life,' says the valet Frontin; 'we pluck a coquette; the coquette devours a man of affairs; the man of affairs pillages others; and all this makes the most diverting chain of knaveries imaginable'" (Durant and Durant, 1965 vol 9 p 29).
“The pitiless amasser of wealth, Turcaret, is himself the dupe of a coquette, who in her turn is the victim of a more contemptible swindler. Lesage, presenting a fragment of the manners and morals of his day, keeps us in exceedingly ill company, but the comic force of the play lightens the oppression of its repulsive characters. It is the first masterpiece of the eighteenth-century comedy of manners” (Dowden, 1904 p 267). “Turcaret is a big businessman with the wealth and influence which go with that position. His main weakness is his simplicity in human relationships...[With Frontin escaping with the money in company of Lisette], a dubious character,...not the straightforward follower of so many other comedies...so members of the servant class, already distinguished by their sharper intelligence and grasp of material values, are now climbing the social ladder to financial power...[‘Turcaret’ is] a comedy fast-moving after Act 1 and is distinguished by the wit of the dialogue based on irony” (Brereton, 1977 pp 189-191).
Lesage “was a satirical dramatist of no mean power ; and, as a matter of fact, the success of his second comedy, 'Turcaret', was too great to allow him to prosecute it farther in the same direction. This play was aimed against the financiers, who, towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV, wished to make money at any price, and whom Lesage had studied when he was clerk to one of them. They certainly afforded ample material for satire, and Lesage ridiculed them to some purpose, and with greater bitterness than he generally uses” (Van Laun, 1883 vol 3 p 11).
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 losing 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).
Schlegel (1846) complained that "The universal legatee" is as "enlivening as the grin of a death’s head. What a subject for mirth: a feeble old man in the very arms of death, teased by young profligates for his property, has a false will imposed on him while he is lying insensible, as is believed, on his death-bed! If it be true that those scenes have always given rise to much laughter on the French stage, it only proves the spectators to possess the same unfeeling levity which disgusts us in the author. We have elsewhere shown that, with an apparent indifference, a moral reserve is essential to the comic poet, since the impressions which he would wish to produce are inevitably destroyed whenever disgust or compassion is excited" (pp 320-321).
“The presumed death awakens echoes of Jonson’s ‘Volpone' and of Molière’s ‘The imaginary invalid’...but with the difference that in both cases the dead man is playing a trick on his heirs, while in 'The universal legatee' the trick is played on him...The play is predominantly Crispin’s...Some of the language is mock-tragic. On learning of Geronte’s recovery, he utters the unmistakenly Racinian line: ‘And avaricious Acheron again lets go its prey’”(Brereton, 1977 pp 180-181).
"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 illness, 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 was already changed that very day, but assumes it is the result of his lethargy. He is content 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).
In "The double widowing", "husband and wife, each disappointed in false tidings of the other's death, exhibit transports of feigned joy on meeting, and assist in the marriage of the irrespective loves, each to accomplish the vexation of the other” (Dowden, 1904 p 262). “The double widowing" "deserves remembering as the classic of realism on the married state and sentimental love...Under the mockery of the old-style lover, one can sense the beginnings of the new and lighter love which Marivaux will develop. [At the start], Theresa is not really as heartless as she appears...But it is a very timid beginning and the main emphasis of the play runs against the sensitivity or tenderheartedness which Dorante alone shows...If even the young lovers are allowed few illusions, the cynicism of the older characters is complete...This realistically heartless play pleased contemporaries...There is certainly no moral lesson or intention...a kind of comedy new in tone and manner, not a comedy of character...,[one] that Dufresny broke free from” (Brereton, 1977 pp 184-187).
"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) is especially remembered for "Le méchant" (The villain, 1747), concerning a man's gratuitous plots of scandal-mongering amid a peace-loving family.
Schlegel (1846) complained that "The villain" "is one of those gloomy comedies which might be rapturously hailed by a Timon as serving to confirm his aversion to human society, but which, on social and cheerful minds, can only give rise to the most painful impression. Why paint a dark and odious disposition which, devoid of all human sympathy, feeds its vanity in a cold contempt and derision of everything, and solely occupies itself in aimless detraction? Why exhibit such a moral deformity, which could hardly be tolerated even in tragedy, for the mere purpose of producing domestic discontent and petty embarrassments? (p 325)
"The foible which Gresset selected for his theme was the mania for fashionable life which sometimes possesses the young, and even the middle-aged and elderly. Valère, the hero, is an amiable young gentleman of property with no serious failings, but so bitten with this craze that he is ready to sacrifice his mistress and her money for the sake of 'fins soupers' and kindred diversions...He has become imbued with these sentiments by Cleon, whose leading characteristic supplies the piece with its title. Cleon himself is thoroughly used; he finds the pleasures of Paris extremely tiresome; but he is full of the cant of the 'philosophes', and has no difficulty in proving to Valere's satisfaction that duty of every description is a mere convention. 'Everyone one is for himself' is his motto and by dint of a little seasonable ridicule he keeps Valère in the way in which he should not go. Ultimately, the duplicity of Cleon is exposed, and Valère returns to reason and to Chloé. The real interest of the play lies in the attack upon the life of Paris. So set is Gresset upon pursuing this topic, that, with perhaps less good judgment than Piron would have shown, he puts his strongest condemnation of the capital into the mouth of Cleon himself" (Millar, 1902 pp 229-230).
It is “a character play with an exciting plot...Cleon is a bad man in every sense. He stirs up trouble partly through self-interest, partly through sheer malice. He courts insincerely the immature Florise, then aims at her sweet young daughter, Chloe. He is attracted by her uncle’s money, but equally and perversely by the charm of her pure simplicity. He misleads his trusting friend, Chloe’s true lover, in an attempt to betray him. He poisons other relationships and is ready to use a legal weapon to ruin the uncle figure, Geronte. He is the sum of wild young men of previous plays, but...dangerous until the end...His badness is presented as inherently temperamental and never analysed...He is bad, but not evil...representing all the anti-bourgeois qualities in an extreme form: sexual promiscuity, contempt of marriage, contempt of the family...and with that, the corruption of smart society in Paris. Uncle Geronte is immensely proud of his house with its landscaped park and garden, he never tires of showing visitors round them. As Cleon remarks to another: ‘you must prepare to follow him everywhere...He will not spare you from a head of lettuce.’ But the country virtues are the true ones...[In the play, the word ‘wit’ has degenerated] to superficial cleverness...The ingenuous young heroine totally lacks wit in any sense of the word, [her overriding concern being] to please her mother” (Brereton, 1977 pp 228-230). One may argue that in addition to sheer malice, the villain is motivated by a wish to decrease his sense of boredom.
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, and "L'orphelin de la Chine" (The Chinese orphan, 1755), best described as a tragicomedy.
In "Mohammed the prophet", transformations from historical facts known in Voltaire’s time included as follows: “Abusofian, after defeating Mohamed in battle and resisting for a long time, finally became his disciple...Seid becomes Abusofian’s son, brought up by the prophet; and there are many additions to the role of Palmira, the negotiations between Abusofian and the senate, the plot that results in Seid’s murder of his father, and the cleverly devised miracle of the dénouement...The tragedy remains a highly original creation, one of the most striking protests ever written against the evils of fanaticism and yet, despite its moral content, a highly artistic creation...[Mohamed’s] relation with others reveal his powerful personality, his zeal for conversion, and his hypocritical use of religion to further his ambition...He did not bring up Seid with the purpose of making him kill his father...He is rather an opportunist in crime...Seid oscillates between [Mohamed and Abusofian], between fanaticism and humanity. Youthful, brave, naïve, he is eager to fight with the prophet’s cause, but he is impressed by Abusofian’s highmindedness...He is more than anyone else the dupe of fanaticism...[Act 4] is the most impressive of the acts, one of the best Voltaire ever composed, combining to a remarkable degree suspense, horror, and pity. After it, the 5th, may seem to produce an anticlimax, but its brevity and the manner in which Mohamed creates a miracle make it thoroughly effective...[Voltaire] was attacking any religion that claimed a monopoly of virtue and sought by inhuman or untruthful methods to gain its ends” (Lancaster, 1950 pp 203-208). "Voltaire pictured Mahomet as a conscious deceiver who foists his new religion upon a credulous people, uses their faith as a spur to war, and conquers Mecca by ordering his fanatical devotee, Seide, to assassinate the resisting sheik, Zopir (Durant and Durant, 1965 vol 9 p 380). Christian authors resent Voltaire as the author of "Mohammed the prophet" and other works, for example Schlegel (1846): "the end of his Mahomet was to portray the dangers of fanaticism, or rather, laying aside all circumlocution, of a belief in revelation. For this purpose, he has most unjustifiably disfigured a great historical character, revoltingly loaded him with the most crying enormities, with which he racks and tortures our feelings. Universally known, as he was, to be the bitter enemy of Christianity, he bethought himself of a new triumph for his vanity" (p 281). "Want of true singleness? of purpose has fearfully avenged itself on the artist. He may affirm us much as he pleases that his aim was directed solely against fanaticism; there can be no doubt that he wished to overthrow the belief in revelation altogether, and that for that object he considered every means allowable. We have thus a work which is productive of effect; but an alarmingly painful effect, equally repugnant to humanity, philosophy, and religious feeling. The 'Mahomet" of Voltaire makes two innocent young persons, a brother and sister, who, with a childlike reverence, adore him as a messenger from God, unconsciously murder their own father, and this from the motives of an incestuous love in which, by his allowance, they had also become unknowingly entangled; the brother, after he has blindly executed his horrible mission, he rewards with poison, and the sister he reserves for the gratification of his own vile lust. This tissue of atrocities, this cold-blooded delight in wickedness, exceeds perhaps the measure of human nature; but, at all events, it exceeds the bounds of poetic exhibition, even though such a monster should ever have appeared in the course of ages. But, overlooking this, what a disfigurement, nay, distortion, of history! He has stripped her, too, of her wonderful charms; not a trace of oriental colouring is to be found. Mahomet was a false prophet, but one certainly under the inspiration of enthusiasm, otherwise ho would never by his doctrine have revolutionized the half of the world. What an absurdity to make him merely a cool deceiver! One alone of the many sublime maxims of the Koran would be sufficient to annihilate the whole of these incongruous inventions" (Schlegel, 1846 pp 301-302). “Occasionally, Voltaire displays a breadth of historical vision, a firm grasp of the essence of a matter, and a sweep of imagination that cannot be matched even in Corneille and Racine...No less magnificent than Lausignan’s celebrated appeal to his daughter...is a scene in ‘Mohamed’ between the prophet (depicted...as a deliberately fraudulent self-seeker) and his mortal enemy, Abusofian...The rest of the play...is merely the usual tissue of melodrama...Thus in Voltaire are genius and charlatanry mixed” (Lockert, 1958 pp 495-504). “Throughout the first two acts of this play, Mohamed has been shown to be a callous and scheming hypocrite who has brought death and destruction, sorrow and strife to countless numbers under the veil of piety and religion. But the real depths of his inequity are only demonstrated when he reveals, at the end of the second act, that he had kept from Seid and Palmira the knowledge that Abusofian (Zopir)...is their father. He has not only encouraged an incestuous love between them, but he has also destined Seid to be the unwilling assassin of his own father...In spite of the warning of instinct, the attack takes place...[But] Mohamed can be made to suffer from the results of filial piety. Palmira, his beloved, kills herself” (Cherpack, 1958 pp 111-114). “Mohamed is presented as an unscrupulous and manipulative fanatic...The struggle, physical and verbal, between the fanaticism of Mohamed and the humanity of Abusofian and his family forms the basic conflict...Voltaire was clearly attacking any religion that advanced its goals to inhumane or untruthful means” (Carlson, 1998 pp 54-55).
For "The Chinese orphan", “Voltaire credits his inspiration to a 14th century Chinese play, 'The orphan of the House of Chao’...Voltaire's ’The Chinese orphan’, involving the confrontation of two non-Christian cultures but still dealing with moral issues, demonstrated...the natural connection between reason and morality...and the existence of a natural morality outside Christianity” (Carlson, 1998 pp 99-100). “Idame...puts loyalty to her husband ahead of marriage to a conqueror she had once loved and whose mother love is stronger than her devotion to the imperial family...Austere and loyal Zamti shows some emotion over his son and some admiration for his wife, but his role inspires little sympathy. He is bent upon saving the prince, even if he has to sacrifice his son, and, in order that Idame may marry Genghis, he is willing to lose his life...Genghis is referred to as a ruthless conqueror, but he appears to us in a milder role. In his youth he has been impressed by Idame’s charm and by the civilization that has produced her. When she declines to divorce Zamti, he is moved to anger, but he awakens to the fact that one can be heroic without being a warrior and that civilization brings something that he and his comrades lack...Octar is brutal in his speeches to the captives outspoken in the advice he gives his master...Asselli is similarly blind to the motives that keep her mistress from accepting the conqueror’s offer of marriage. Voltaire sought to emphasize the manners of opposing nations and to set forth the spiritual victory of the conquered...The Tartars...are crude, cruel, without art or culture, but mighty in war...The peaceful and law-abiding Chinese have built up such a civilization that they make Pekin the capital of the world...They respect parenthood, men of learning, and the monarchial principle...Their government is based on wisdom rather than on force” (Lancaster, 1950 pp 408-409).
"Mohammed the prophet"
Time: 7th century AD. Place: Mecca, Arabia.
Mohammed, ruler of Medina, heads an army towards Mecca, defended by Abusofian (Zopir), who considers his enemy an "artisan of error". They have many reasons to hate each other, in particular Abusofian killed Mohammed's son while Mohammed killed Abusofian's wife. Nevertheless, Mohammed would like to take back Abusofian's daughter, Palmira, who considers him a second father to her, because as his captive fifteen years ago, she loved his religion, to which Abusofian 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 Abusofian'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 Abusofian's offsprings. Despite the offered peace, Abusofian 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," Abusofian counters, to which Mohammed retorts: "I know your people; they require error. Whether true or false, my cult is necessary." He informs Abusofian that his two sons are still alive but in prison. He proposes to return Abusofian'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. Abusofian 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 Abusofian's murder, since as his hostage he has the freest access to him. While Abusofian prays with "frivolous incense and fanciful oaths" before the pagan gods, Seid is the perfect choice for murder, because "religion fills him with fury". Abusofian 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 Abusofian 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 Abusofian can inform Seid and Palmira of this, his son, encouraged by his daughter, stabs him to death behind an altar. Arriving too late, Abusofian'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 a dagger over to her husband. "May the tyrant see it and be jealous of it," she says. 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."
“Over the well-worn subjects of Greek mythology he cast the shadow and the glare of a morbidly tragic mind, which pursued and gibbeted sin with the zeal of a fury, anc! burned its impressions upon the hearts of the spectators by the sheer force of the horror which his pictures inspired. Therein, no doubt, was art and genius, if not of a very refined order. And in fact Crébillon was not refined. He had made the fastidious Boileau shudder at his earlier efforts; the roughness of his work makes them read almost like burlesque. Better than most of his dramas is 'Rhadamistus and Zenobia', which might entitle him to be the Ford of the French stage, provided we deny him just that superiority of style which is generally to be accorded to the Frenchman over the Englishman in comparing two authors of similar spirit and tendency" (Van Laun, 1883 vol 3 p 11).
"Rhadamistus and Zenobia", "which has an air of Corneillean grandeur and heroism, notwithstanding a plot so complicated that it is difficult to follow, was received with unmeasured enthusiasm. To be atrocious within the rules was to create a new and thrilling sensation” (Dowden, 1904 p 260). “Rhadamistes...hopes...to enlist Arsames’ aid in the plot against Pharasmanes, who, as Rhadamistes says ‘merits but the blood that resembles him’. But the hero’s despair and self-hatred deepened when Arsames refuses to consider acting against his father...And when he learns who Rhadamistes is, his impulses contrast sharply with those of his brother in whom corrosive jealousy continually stifles natural affection...What more dramatic and moving punishment than that [Rhadamistes and Pharasmanes] should feel too late the tender instinct of consanguinity...[Pharasmanes cries out:] ‘Nature, ah, avenge yourself, it is my son’s blood.’ And nature has indeed avenged herself on both of them” (Cherpack, 1958 pp 100-101).
"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.