Alain-René Lesage Essay - Critical Essays

Alain-René Lesage Drama Analysis

Although Alain-René Lesage is probably best remembered for his novels, some critics argue that his dramatic works made a significant contribution to the French theater. His two best-known plays, Crispin, Rival of His Master and Tucaret, enjoyed popularity with audiences if not with critics.

Crispin, Rival of His Master

Too much has been made of the debt which Crispin, Rival of His Master owes to Spanish drama. In fact, it owes much more to Molière—especially to the late Molière, the author of plays such as Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (pr. 1669; English translation, 1704) and the comédies-ballets from which long monologues have disappeared and in which rapid-fire dialogues give rise to a frenetic atmosphere of festive madness—and to Dancourt than to any foreign literature or influence.

Though the witty and sparkling dialogues and the astounding peripeteias are definite assets of this fast-paced one-act comedy, its originality lies in the creation of the titular hero, Crispin. He is not the only delineated character, but he does dominate. With quick, bold strokes, Lesage presents a broad array of pawns that Crispin will manipulate almost at will. One is quickly made to feel that one knows the gullible bourgeois, all the easier to fool because they think themselves to be keen judges of people and as shrewd as it is possible to be; the silly old mother-in-law-to-be, “between twenty-five and sixty,” who believes any piece of flattery and sees the sense only of the last opinion she encounters, however much it may contradict what she has heard—and accepted—just before; the silly lover, Valère, without a cent or a conscience, who is readily tricked because he believes himself to be a consummate trickster; and Crispin’s colleague, Labranche, who believes in honor among thieves, especially if one’s fellow thief is as formidable as Crispin.

The notion of servants seconding the love interests of their young masters was already a comedic cliché at the time of the creation of Crispin, Rival of His Master; so was the idea of such servants acting like their masters, and even being caught up in the game. It had been a staple of the commedia dell’arte when Molière borrowed it for his Les Précieuses ridicules (pr. 1659, pb. 1660; The Affected Young Ladies, 1732). What is new in this play is that Crispin sees the possibilities of the role he is assigned and decides to emancipate himself from the inept tutelage of his master. From the outset, he plans to take his master’s place, wooing the young lady coveted by that penurious employer, not so as to win her heart but her dowry, with which he plans to abscond before anyone is the wiser. Boastful of his quick wit, of his ability to turn any situation to his immediate advantage, and above all of his lack of morals and of conscience, he is more than the wearer of Scapino’s mantle. He foreshadows Frontin and even the less brutal but more revolutionary Figaro. Cynical, irreverent, a skillful manipulator of people and of events, the resourceful Crispin talks himself into and out of one tight spot after another. Only the circumstances of a very cleverly contrived and resolved plot foil him (even so, he manages to survive). Only Figaro will have more brio, more wit used in the unequal fight with the powerful of his society. Like Figaro, Crispin is a survivor; just as amoral, but less grating, his immediate successor Frontin will do more than merely survive—he will conquer.


Insofar as the borrowings of Lesage for Turcaret are concerned, much the same can be said as for Crispin, Rival of His Master: The case, however legitimate, has been overstated. To be sure, one can find traces, in Turcaret, of La Bruyère’s indignation, of the violent diatribes of the diverse pamphlets launched against financiers, as well as echoes of previous comedies, from those of Molière to the more contemporary ones of Dancourt. Such roots and echoes are inevitable in any work of art dealing with manners and character, and Molière is not considered a lesser dramatist for having borrowed from comedic predecessors. What matters is what Lesage did with his gleanings, and there his contribution is undeniable and sizable. Turcaret is a powerful synthesis of all the aforementioned elements, containing not the lifeless puppets that merrily flit through the dramas of Dancourt, but real, living characters. The situations and conditions are as vivid today as they were in 1708, though perforce some of the satire has lost the bite of its topicality. Most important of all, if one remains aware of what Molière called le jeu du théâtre, then one sees that for all its topicality, Turcaret remains a fairly funny play. It is intended to moralize, to castigate mores, but through laughter, though it must be conceded that at times the authorial presence is too heavy and too ironically manifest to give free rein to uninhibited laughter.

For the modern reader, much of the humor has lost its edge; the topicality of the satire, an asset in 1708, has dated the work. At the time of the creation of Turcaret, the aristocracy was in decline, and the bourgeoisie, particularly the financiers, tax collectors, and speculators, were in full swing. Furthermore, the aristocracy had lost its values as well as its wealth: Politeness, the caricaturesque façade that Molière had mocked as the pretense of true nobility, had become the norm. It is this shallow, callous society, totally amoral and cynical, that Turcaret depicts. As such, it is a comedy of manners, or seems that way to the modern reader. To the contemporaries of Lesage, it was more, a comédie d’actualité, full of references to current events and situations, people and ploys. The expenses incurred by the crown had put it at the mercy of the financiers and tax farmers, who had become all-powerful. The wars of Louis XIV had made their rise possible: They were exploited by the aristocracy, but in exchange were given the right to exploit the people, and this they did ruthlessly. Turcaret is not simply a description of mores and manners; it is a polemical piece. Whereas Crispin, Rival of His Master is breathless in its dazzling speed, a string of delightful lazzi and witticisms (“Real justice is of such beauty that one should be willing to buy it at any price”), Turcaret is heavier, more massive in its...

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