History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Late French 18th
- 1 Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
- 2 Collin d'Harleville
- 3 Fabre D'Églantine
- 4 Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon
- 5 Joseph Chénier
- 6 Denis Diderot
- 7 Michel-Jean Sedaine
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
The most important comic dramatist of late 18th century French theater is Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732 –1799), whose two main plays are "Le barbier de Séville" (The barber of Seville, 1775) and "Le mariage de Figaro" (The marriage of Figaro, 1784). In both, Figaro, servant of a duke, comically and insolently questions the authority, social position, and aristocratic privileges of his master in a fashion unheard of in European theater.
"The barber of Seville"
Time: 1770s. Place: Seville, Spain.
While awaiting beneath Rosina's window for the purpose of courting her, Count Almaviva is interrupted by his servant, Figaro, in the throes of musical composition, convinced that "what is unworthy to be said one can sing". Almaviva takes the occasion to remind his servant of his many faults. "Does your excellence know of many masters worthy to be servants?" retorts sarcastically his servant. From the balcony, Rosina drops her song-book for the count's benefit, containing a message expressing her interest in him but also asking about his intentions. Almaviva learns by the way that her protector, Doctor Bartolo, intends to marry her the next day, so that he will strictly follow Figaro's plot to remove her. Almaviva enters Bartolo's house disguised as a drunken military officer, handing him a letter with an order from a field marshal that he lodge him for a single night, to which Bartolo answers he is exempt from such duties. Almaviva pretends Rosina has dropped a letter, which she picks up, but is is actually his own. When the count leaves, Bartolo wishes to read this letter. Instead she substitutes it with an innocent one from her cousin's and gives him that. Almaviva next enters as a bachelor of arts on behalf of Bazile, her music teacher, and shows to Bartolo the contents of Rosina's letter, which he says was obtained from Almaviva's mistress and then shown to Rosina. Bartolo laughs approvingly at this and suggests the bachelor should replace Bazile as her teacher. To enable the lovers to speak alone together, Figaro breaks some glassware on the stairs, prompting Bartolo's hurried exit. Figaro obtains the key to the Venetian blinds in Rosina's room, but the three plotters are stunned on seeing the unexpected arrival of Bazile followed by Bartolo re-entering. Being partly a barber by profession, Figaro proposes to shave Bartolo's head to distract attention. Eventually, his fooleries cause all four to show him the door. Bartolo notices the bachelor suspiciously whispering something to his future wife. His suspicions make her angry and she leaves the room. At the dead of night, Bartolo shows her the letter given him by the bachelor, revealing, to her surprise, that it came from Count Almaviva, obtained from his mistress. Now convinced that the bachelor wooed her for the benefit of another man, Rosina accepts Bartolo's marriage proposal. She reveals that the key to her room has been stolen. Now alone, on hearing a noise at the window, she leaves the room as Almaviva and Figaro enter, but then, recovering her senses, comes back and learns that the bachelor is actually Count Almaviva, loved for his own person, not his title. In joy, Rosina half-faints in his arms: "Is not hating the most awful torture when one is meant to love?" she asks. The lovers are unable to escape because Bartolo removed the ladder. However, to their content, Bazile comes in with the notary meant for Bartolo's marriage. Bazile is surprised to find the count there but the count's purse is sufficient to quiet him. Although Bartolo arrives with an officer-of-law, they are too late to prevent the count and Rosina signing their marriage contract.
"The marriage of Figaro"
Time: 1780s. Place: Near Seville, Spain.
On their wedding day, to the servant Figaro and his fellow servant Suzanne there is one worry: their master, Count Almaviva, "has views on her". Was her dowry given by Almaviva because of Figaro's merits? If he thinks so, "how foolish are the witty!" exclaims Suzanne. Alamaviva possesses sexual rights on her by the ancient law of a lord's will on all female servants. The mere thought of that makes Figaro feel his "fertilized brow". Almaviva loses no time in trying to seduce her, at which point he discovers Cherubim, his page, hidden in her room, caught in this compromising situation out of panic. Suspecting that his page has views on several women of his domains including Rosina, his wife, he sends him away as a soldier in his legion. To make him jealous and distract him from Suzanne, Figaro writes the count an anonymous letter stating that during the wedding ball a gallant lover intends to seduce his wife. Figaro's second plan is to disguise Cherubim in Suzanne's clothes, preventing the count's access to her. Cherubim enters trembling in the countess' room, where Suzanne tries on him her clothes. When they hear her husband knocking, the page hurries off in the next room. Almaviva hears some noise within, but, unable to enter, goes off to find something to force open the door. This gives Cherubim time to jump out of the window and land safely on a melon patch. When the count returns, his wife says Cherubim is inside, but when the outraged count opens the door, he finds, confounded and ashamed, Suzanne instead. Suzanne's uncle, Antonio, a gardener, enters to complain that a man jumping from the window damaged his garden-plot. To protect Cherubim, Figaro says he was the one who jumped. Antonio is surprised, since the man he saw was much smaller, to which he counters: "Certainly, while jumping we crouch into a ball." The gardener then shows a sheet of paper that the jumper dropped, which the count seizes, interrogating his servant about its contents. Guided by the countess and Suzanne, Figaro reveals that the letter contains Cherubim's order for the army, given to him unsealed. As the wedding ceremony is underway, Marceline, previously engaged to be married to Figaro, arrives to break it up. The count promises to hear her complaints against Figaro in a tribunal. In view of the imminent danger of the count attempting to seduce Suzanne, Rosine proposes to take her place in bed. During the court-trial, Almaviva judges that Figaro must either pay money he owes Marceline or else marry her, but Figaro provides evidence that Marceline is her mother, and, according to her, Doctor Bartolo is the father. However, Bartolo refuses to acknowledge Figaro as his son. Because of this, Antonio refuses to give his niece's hand to him, till Bartolo, weakening, changes his mind. Bazile, Marceline's old lover, arrives to remind her she once promised him marriage should he find her long-lost child, but when he discovers it is Figaro, he think he sees the devil. At night during the festivities, Figaro suspects a secret meeting has been planned between Suzanne and the count. As he looks on from a hiding place, Cherubim mistakes the disguised countess for Suzanne and offers to kiss her, but the kiss is received by Almaviva instead. When the count moves forward to strike Cherubim, he strikes Figaro by mistake. The count then grows very amorous towards the disguised countess, mistaking her for Suzanne, but, on seeing Figaro, escapes quickly away. Affronted for suspecting her loyalty, Suzanne slaps Figaro, a sign of love that rejoices him. The count returns, looking for Suzanne again. He sees what he thinks is his wife with another man. Angered at that sight, he calls for his servants to attack the man, but at last recognizes his wife and Suzanne in each other's clothes, for which he is forced again to beg his wife's pardon.
Another comedy of note, "Le vieux célibataire" (The old bachelor, 1793), was written by Collin d'Harleville (1755-1806). One century before, William Congreve had written on a similar subject with the same title.
"The old bachelor"
Time: 1790s. Place: France.
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Knowing that Mr Dubriage’s servants have been stealing from him for many years, Armand, his nephew, enters his house disguised as a servant and chooses the name of Charles, a plot achieved thanks to George, an honest porter in the old bachelor’s service. When Charles meets Mrs Evrard, the widowed house-keeper. Unaware that she speaking to the disguised Armand, Mrs Evrard sounds him out by revealing that she has done her best to prevent her master’s sympathizing with Armand by intercepting the nephew’s letters to him. She asks Charles’ help in a plan to marry the old bachelor and get her hands on his rich estate. From Dubriage Charles learns that she has done even more: invented threatening letters on his part against his uncle. Mrs Evrard scolds Dubriage’s steward, Ambrose, for his excessive boldness while trying to obtain his wishes in their master’s presence. Ambrose is even bolder, hoping to marry her so that the two can combine their efforts to obtain their master’s riches, but she prefers to wait. In accordance with Charles’ plan, his wife, Laura, obtains a servant’s position alongside of him, which Ambrose accepts. Five of Dubriage’s cousins arrive, also for the purpose of getting his money, all made welcome by Charles, though against his interest, but not nearly in so friendly a manner by Mrs Evrard, who fears that they may succeed. To influence Dubriage, she schools George’s two children to make heart-warming overtures towards him and then insinuates her desire to marry him. Just as he is at the point of accepting, they are interrupted by Ambrose, who informs his master of Laura’s arrival. Fearing a younger rival, Mrs Evrard disagrees with his choice of servants, but Dubriage overrules her. While conversing with Laura, he inquires about her background, but they are interrupted by Mrs Evrard, who seeks to get rid of her. Unexpectedly, Dubriage refuses to accede to her wishes, preferring to keep Laura rather than herself. Mrs Evrard is forced to desist. When Dubriage resumes his discussion with Laura, she blurts out that she is Armand’ wife. He recommends her not to speak of this to his house-keeper. Still unaware of Charles’ identity, Mrs Evrard tells him she has learned of Laura’s, which they must prove to be false. To contradict Laura’s assertions and having still in her possession Armand’s old letters, she changes the date on one of them and reads its contents aloud to Dubriage. Learning about Laura’s assertions, Ambrose is now keen on getting rid of her as well, but the plans of both are foiled when Charles finally reveals with George’s support that he is Armand and welcomed as such by Dubriage.
Fabre D'Églantine (1750-1794) excelled in "L'intrigue épistolaire" (The epistolary intrigue, 1791).
"The epistolary intrigue"
Time: 1790s. Place: Paris, France.
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Following the death of her patents, Pauline is placed under the guardianship of Christopher Clénard, who wants to keep her fortune by marrying her. She refuses, but he does not accept her refusal. He discovers that, despite being under the watchful eye of her governess, she has managed to write letters to Louis Cléri, the man she loves and one who also loves her. Incensed at the news of a rival, Christopher swears they will be married the next day and asks his sister to watch over her. He learns that Louis' brother, Fougère, a painter, has debts he cannot pay and, as the bailiff in the case, sends a subordinate over to seize the man's properties. Desperate to communicate her plight to her lover, Pauline pretends to break the sister's glasses by mistake and then substitutes the sister's letter meant for another with her own. Uneasy about Louis' proximity, Christopher decides to leave town with his hoped-for bride. While Pauline looks over new dresses he proposes to her view, she notices a piece of paper stuck on his back, no other than the answer to her letter, which she quickly seizes. It says that Louis intends to disguise himself as the clerk of the notary responsible for marrying them. He requests her to take the print of her room-key with a piece of wax enclosed in the letter and send it back to him. Despite the imminence of the arrival of the bailiff's officers and his wife's anxieties, Fougère is quite cool as he finishes a painting based on a scene from Tasso's "Jerusalem delivered". Informed about these troubles, Louis assures his sister that he is able to obtain the money she needs this evening. However, he has a more pressing need: to hide from the law as he has just kidnapped Pauline under the nose of Christopher's sister. They are interrupted by Christopher's officers. Fearing detection, Louis and Pauline hide inside mannequins in the artist's studio, but they are discovered and taken away. While Christopher locks her up more securely than ever in the house, he hands over a golden cross she accidently dropped among the coach's cushions on their hurried way back here. A puzzled Pauline knows she never had the cross inside the coach but instead gave it to her lover's sister to keep. She discovers inside another message from Louis, beseeching her to pretend agreeing to the marriage, since he has matters under control in the form of his disguise as the notary's clerk. Meanwhile, Fougère arrives with the money he owes, a loan obtained as promised from his brother-in-law. Among the legal papers, Christopher discovers a letter from Louis meant for another, stating that a letter was enclosed to Pauline inside the golden cross about a plot concerning a notary's clerk, except that he failed to win the notary over on his side. He asks for his friend's help in obtaining a girl he would like to marry just for the money. When a triumphant Christopher shows this letter to Pauline, she seems sorely distressed. "Just heaven!" she exclaims, "I can barely breathe." However, she is already informed that her guardian's letter was faked so that the intended marriage may proceed as planned. Louis arrives with the marriage contract meant for himself and Pauline. However, they are interrupted by the arrival of the real clerk. Undeterred, Louis and Pauline pretend that the clerk is the disguised Louis. When Louis drops her room-key, he accuses the bewildered clerk of wanting to take her away. After retrieving from him the marriage contract and with Christopher's approval, they show him the door. An unsuspecting Christopher signs the marriage contract with Louis' name on it, to the joy of the loving couple.
Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon
Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1707-1777), Crébillon the Younger, may also be worthily mentioned for "La Nuit et le moment" (Night and the moment, 1755), a comedy with a similar structure as August Strindberg's tragedy, Miss Julie (1888), in that both consist in a dialogue between a man and woman along with one female servant.
"Night and the moment"
Time: 1750s Place: France.
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At a mutual friend's house, Cidalisa receives a visit from Clitander. She has heard that he is no longer with Araminta, she herself having separated from the disloyal Eraste. Because of the unhappy ending of that relation, she is unwilling to enter into a new one. Nevertheless, were she to love another, she could still maintain control. "I flatter myself that I could triumph over my feelings and even let the object of this love be unaware of them," she boasts. But she wants to hear more about Araminta. Clitander explains he lay with her "in a rather darkened grove" near Julia's house and repeated the performance in her room. As they talk of other love-matters, Clitander casually sits on her bed with Cidalisa in it, specifying that in regard to Araminta there was absolutely no love involved. Clitander begins to tremble, apparently from the cold, wearing nothing underneath his bath-robe. Cidalisa is scandalized that a man, though a professed friend, would enter her room so lightly clad. Clitander dismisses such feelings of delicacy and wants to enter the bed. "Is it possible you have a doubt of my respect for you?" he asks. "No," she answers, "I wish to believe you respect me, and since the idea flatters me, I will not put you in a position to make me lose it." Clitander dismisses that argument and enters in the bed. At first, this bold move angers her, but then she laughs, eventually requesting him to return to his room. He refuses on the pretext that, were he to meet someone in the corridor so late at night, everyone would infer they have lain together. When she reiterates her request, he reveals his love for her. Why did he not reveal this sooner? Because of her past relations, first with Damis, then with Eraste. "You were born tender," he assures her. Instead of pursuing this line of talk, she wants to hear more about Julia, to which he retorts there is little to say. He becomes bolder, she more indignant, until she breaks down. "Rejoice in your victory: I adore you," she cries out. "Here they come back, those cruel feelings that have made till now all the unhappiness of my life!" He at last obtains what he came for, at the end of which Cidalisa immediately thinks he will leave her. He tries to reassure her. She blames him for not revealing his love sooner, in which case she would never have known Eraste, then wants to hear more of his amours, notably his supposed love for Belisa. He denies loving Belisa, though he admits laying with her, as well as Julia, on a particularly hot day after seeing her lounge about in scant attire. Julia hypothesized that a man cannot possibly have an erection in the midst of such heat, but Clitander proved to her that her notions of male physiology were incorrect. They repeated their performance on a particularly cold day with the same positive result. What about Luscinda? He admits having lain with Luscinda in his carriage on her way back from Julia's house. "But her house is only one street away," Cidalisa reminds him. True, but he hired a slow driver. After laying with her, but unwilling to keep her, he attempted to guide Luscinda back to more tender feelings towards her estranged lover, Oronte, and was successful at the endeavor. To keep up appearances as morning breaks, Cidalisa asks the count to help her arrange the bedsheets. He does, but then destroys good housekeeping work by laying with her a second time.
In verse tragedy, Joseph Chénier (1764-1811) excelled in "Tibère" (Tiberius, 1819) based on "The annals of ancient Rome" by Tacitus (58-120) and mainly concerned with the life and death of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (44-43 BC-20 AD) during the reign (14-37 AD) of the Roman emperor, Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD).
Time: 20 AD. Place: Rome.
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Under orders from the Roman emperor, Tiberius, a senator named Piso led an army against Germanicus, the emperor's stepson imposed on him by his predecessor, Augustus Caesar. Germanicus was killed. Knowing that many people are enraged at the death of this noble warrior and pity the victim's wife, Agrippina, Tiberius seeks to cover up his involvement by sacrificing Piso. The emperor's favorite, Sejanus, declares that at least one senator will agree to prosecute and condemn Piso. "His willingness to please makes all his conscience," Sejanus assures the emperor. Confronted with the sight of Agrippina leading in Germanicus' remains, Tiberius does not defend Piso and no senator dares to contradict. Only Piso's son, Cneus, does so. Alone with the emperor, Agrippina requests his protection on behalf of her sons, whom she fears may be murdered, too, but he refuses. Although Piso knows that the senators are basely submissive to the emperor, he possesses written proof of the emperor's order to kill Germanicus. He assures Tiberius he will use it to defend himself. Anxious about this threat, Tiberius commands Sejanus to kill him and to bring him Cneus. He promises Cneus honors and his love, but the young man chooses instead to place his hopes on Agrippina, begging her to drop all charges. Recognizing that the main guilty party is the emperor, not Piso, she acquiesces. Nevertheless, Piso considers himself guilty, since he knew that Germanicus was treacherously poisoned by a slave. He rejects Agrippina's pardon and wants to declare his guilt and Tiberius' crime. Confident of the senate's vote of condemnation, Sejanus nourishes hopes that Piso's friends will seek revenge on Agrippina and her faction. When Agrippina requests Piso's pardon, Tiberius refuses and asks the senate to judge him. Sejanus enters with a bloody knife, pretending that Piso committed suicide though he did not. Cneus removes the knife from him. "My father was guilty but Tiberius even more so," Cneus affirms before stabbing himself to death.
In the late 18th century, a new form of theatrical genre developed: bourgeois drama, whose dramatic characters are taken from lower social levels than is usually the case in tragedies, with prose, not verse, being used, of which Denis Diderot (1713-1784) with "Le père de famille" (The father of the family, 1758) provides a representative example.
"The father of the family"
Time: 1750s. Place: France.
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D'Orbesson is very anxious about his son, Saint-Albin, who often goes out at night no one knows where. "If you are crazy about them when they are young," says D'Orbesson's brother, Commander D'Auvilé, on the subject of sons "you will become their martyrs when they will get bigger." When interrogated by his father, Saint-Albin explains that he rented an apartment next door to that of a poor woman, Sophie, accompanied by a servant, Mrs Hebert. Pretending to be as poor as they are, he then moved in with them and now begs his father to consent to their marriage. The father knows even before speaking with her that such a marriage is impossible, her social condition being too low. D'Orbesson tells Sophie that her so-called friend is his son, news which grieves her. He next proceeds to tell his son he has seen her, believes her wise, but as a matter of course he will not consent. "I, by a shameful weakness authorizing the disorder of society," he asks rhetorically, "the confusion of blood and rank, the degradation of families?" The commander agrees with his brother, promising his nephew money after his death to compensate for the loss of a wife. Let Saint-Albin use her as a mistress but not as a wife. Sophie, abashed and unwilling to enter a family that does not want her, relinquishes her dream and leaves her suitor. A friend of the family, Germeuil, in love with Saint-Albin's sister, Cecilia, despite the commander's disapproval, also advises him to submit to his father's decision, but Saint-Albin refuses. To help his friend, Germeuil asks Cecilia to see Sophie. Cecilia refuses but nevertheless accepts Sophie in her house, the latter lying dazed and confused at the attention from such a wealthy family. Angry at his nephew for disobeying him, the commander devotes his entire attention to Cecilia. He has changed his mind concerning Germeuil, now wishing him married to Cecilia, to whom intends to leave his fortune, but she refuses such a boon. When Saint-Albin despairs at finding Sophie, the commander informs him that with the help of Germeuil he has taken her away from him, but Germeuil reveals he has not done as his uncle wished. From Cecilia Saint-Albin learns that Germeuil has brought Sophie over to his house, but, to counter their plot, the commander does the same. He discloses these news to his pained brother, who hopes eventually that son, daughter, and friend will all plead for pity at his feet. "Pusillamous man, have you no shame?" the commander asks sneeringly. When the entire family meets Sophie, she discovers that the commander is her uncle. Although disgusted at not obtaining what he wished, the father forgives everyone. He consents that his son marry his niece and his daughter marry Germeuil. The commander is less generous than his brother, declaring that he hates Sophie and will disinherit his nephew. "Had you one hundred children, I would acknowledge none," he fumes.
In addition to Diderot, Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719-1797) provides a worthy example of middle-class drama with "Le philosophe sans le savoir" (The philosopher without knowing it, 1765).
"The philosopher without knowing it"
Time: 1760s. Place: France.
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When Antoine asks his daughter, Victorine, why she is crying, she answers: "My good father, sometimes young girls cry to rid themselves of boredom." The true cause is that she heard of a quarrel between Vanderk, the son of her father's friend, and a cavalry officer in a coffee-house. Vanderk's sister, Sophie, is to marry the next day. Vanderk denies that there is a quarrel, but nonetheless she is worried about him. Vanderk broaches the subject as to why his father is a merchant when he has just found out he is also of noble descent. The reason is that his father fought a duel in his youth, escaped to prevent punishment, and was befriended by a Dutch merchant, though whom he met Antoine, who facilitated his eventual marriage. Vanderk's father defends his profession, but his son does not like it. "What has it that is respectable?" he asks. Vanderk's aunt is even more prejudiced against commercial interests. When confronted with Victorine's anxieties about his approaching duel, he responds: "What does it matter?" Late at night when about to leave the house surreptitiously, Vanderk wakes up Antoine to obtain the keys of the main entry-door, but he does not have them, since they are in the possession of Vanderk's father. Vanderk asks Antoine to get them for him. Instead of Antoine, his father comes out. Vanderk is to fight a duel with a cavalry officer who insulted the merchant class. His father is sorrowful about this, but does not prevent his going, and does not embrace him either. Antoine learns of the duel and desires to take his place, but Vanderk's father wants him present at the duel without interfering in anything. If his son loses, he is to knock three times at the door. Vanderk's father then receives the visit of baron D'Esparville with a pressing need of cash, whom he helps in a commercial exchange. He discovers that D'Esparville is the father of the man his son is challenging, and while he is talking hears the three knocks at the door. Antoine confirms his son is dead, but, while talking with Victorine, Vanderk's father sees D'Esparville re-enter with both duellers, for Antoine only saw Vanderk's hat blown off by a bullet and assumed he was dead, both sons having agreed beforehand to fake a fight to keep up appearances.