Alfred de Musset Essay - Critical Essays


Alfred de Musset himself divided his theater into three distinct categories: comédies, proverbes, and historical drama. The bulk of the plays fall under the rubric of “comedies,” with The Follies of Marianne, Fantasio, No Trifling with Love, and Il ne faut jurer de rien heading the list in terms of critical and popular esteem. The so-called proverbe dramatique was a one-act form inherited from the eighteenth century (originating in family and salon theatricals) in which the action was devised to illustrate a well-known aphorism. Musset, typical of his refusal to dismiss summarily the literary and dramatic inheritance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (a repudiation common among romantic writers and propagandists), adapted and enlarged the scope of the form, perfecting it in such plays as A Caprice, A Door Must Be Either Open or Shut, and One Can Not Think of Everything. Of the final category, historical drama, there are only two examples, both of whose subjects are drawn from the late Italian Renaissance: André del Sarto and Lorenzaccio. Of his dramatic oeuvre, the four plays written in the span of two years, 1833 and 1834, The Follies of Marianne, Fantasio, No Trifling with Love, and Lorenzaccio, are now generally acknowledged as Musset’s finest and most enduring contributions to dramatic literature.

Theoretical pronouncements regarding the nature of drama abounded in early nineteenth century France, but the age, active as it was in actual composition of new plays, left relatively little in the way of a viable repertory. Musset, however, was no theorist. He did not leave behind any manifestos à la Hugo, nor did he intend to bequeath a body of dramatic literature conceived for stage production. The disastrous premiere of The Venetian Night had turned his attention to the composition of plays meant to be enjoyed exclusively as literature. In part because he created those plays in a condition of freedom from the demands and limitations of produced drama, as his age conceived it, Musset generally avoided the pitfalls and shortcomings which, in retrospect at least, damaged the viability of the theater of his contemporaries. Moreover, it was Musset’s closet drama that most successfully realized romantic conceptions of and aspirations for drama, particularly the desire to revive a Shakespearean theater that comingled tragic, comic, and fantastic elements. Without necessarily intending it, Musset was in the avant-garde in the most significant sense: He was a visionary capable of realizing theory in actual artistic practices.

Whatever freedom Musset displayed in matters of theory and dramatic construction, in terms of thematic concern his theater remained loyal to the great concerns of the romantic stage. Particularly characteristic is Musset’s examination of the place and the role of the man of imagination (the artist) in society and of the disparity between the ideal and the real, between what is aspired to and what is achieved. Even more idiosyncratic is the “youth-oriented” perspective of much of Musset’s theater. It has often been remarked apropos of Musset’s verse that his great overriding theme is the perpetually reiterated drama of youth: the fears of approaching adulthood and responsibility and a sense of the impending betrayal of youth’s idealism and energy. Where in the poetry, however, there is a tendency toward the puerile and the mawkishly sentimental, in the plays, Musset seems to have discovered the most effective medium for the exploration of his views on this theme. The very dialectical impulse inherent in the nature of dramatic dialogue (one character speaks, another reacts) perhaps accounts for Musset’s ability to avoid overly simplistic thematic statements while providing a sense of irony that, at least to modern readers, seems a breath of fresh air for the romantic theater.

Critical investigation has been slow to appreciate and evaluate Musset’s achievement. Scholars and theater literary managers alike hardly knew what to make of this “stage of dreams.” What they sensed as inattention to the demands of actual production could be excused only because of the literary aspirations of the plays; stageworthy they could not be. In modern times, however, critical estimation and an ever-increasing number of appearances on the boards (in France) made amends for tentative beginnings, and Musset has come to be generally considered the most significant and innovative playwright of French Romanticism. In the best of his theater, Musset realized many of the theoretical aspirations of dramaturgy in his day. Perhaps the most significant of his achievements, however, was his sensitivity in depicting the darker recesses of the human heart and mind, and his comprehension of and sympathy for the human condition.


Fantasio, first published in Revue des Deux Mondes in January of 1834, is the least performed of the major comedies, and its production history is typical of the early fate of most of Musset’s plays. The play first appeared at the Comédie-Française nine years after Musset’s death, revised by the playwright’s brother, Paul, who tampered with the order of several scenes, expanded the original two acts into three, and altered the nature of the relationship between Fantasio and Elsbeth into something approaching a more conventional love interest. Both theatrical producers and literary critics throughout the rest of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mistook this inept, structurally and spiritually unfaithful version for the original, and the play received little serious consideration. It was not until later productions that the piece was performed using the original text. Critics have additionally, and perhaps misguidedly, expended immense energy in the examination of the play as a depiction of the author’s emotional and psychological state, a habit characteristic of Musset criticism (admittedly amply generated by the author’s frequent informal pronouncements on the relationship of his life and work).

The action is divided into two acts and occurs in Munich; the time is unspecified. In the first act, the King of Bavaria has arranged a marriage of political convenience between his daughter, Elsbeth, and the Prince of Mantua, a man personally unknown either to the king or to the princess. An abrupt change of scene finds three young men carousing in the street, drinking and discussing the forthcoming royal wedding. The youths are joined by a handsome young companion, Fantasio, who immediately confesses to a state of spiritual and intellectual ennui. He is not only pursued by his creditors but is also prey to a decidedly cynical perspective of the world, in which both God and love are dead, and a life of true adventure is no longer possible. Presently, a funeral procession passes by: It is for the king’s jester, Saint-Jean. A taunting remark by one of the pallbearers provokes Fantasio to masquerade as a new jester for the court. In the meantime, on his arrival at an inn outside the city, the Prince of Mantua confides to Marinoni, his aide-de-camp, a scheme to switch roles and costumes in order to observe incognito his future wife and father-in-law.

The second act opens with Elsbeth’s avowal of dismay at the arranged marriage and her sorrow at the death of the beloved Saint-Jean. Fantasio appears in the palace gardens in the disguise of the hunchbacked jester himself and engages the princess in a witty conversation, using the traditional liberties of the jester’s role to comment disparagingly on arranged marriages. Later, when Fantasio catches sight of her weeping, he decides to help Elsbeth out of her unfortunate personal situation. Several scenes follow in which the prince and Marinoni so fumble their assumed roles that they deeply offend the king and the princess. Fantasio stations himself in a window, seizing the opportunity to snatch off the prince’s wig as he passes on the street below. The enraged prince demands the jester’s imprisonment and declares war on Bavaria. When Elsbeth visits Fantasio in prison, she discovers his true identity. In return for releasing her from an unbearable personal situation, she frees the young man, promising to allow him to return as jester whenever he tires of the everyday world of creditors and responsibility.

Fantasio has all the appearance of a whimsical potpourri of political satire, social commentary, philosophy, sentiment, fantasy, and farce. There is an almost improvisational air created by the rapid shifts of scene and the general absence of dramatic action. The very “weight” of the two acts seems capricious: The first act is divided into three scenes, the second act into seven. Moreover, the first act is almost entirely expository (the lengthy second scene functions somewhat in the manner of a philosophical dialogue), and there is no real action until the second act. In spite of its chameleonlike surface, the play is bound together by several features, notably its delight in linguistic play and its obvious thematic emphasis on the concept of the self (signaled by the costume switches and role reversals among the characters).

In the long scene of act 1, even before Fantasio has the inspiration for his change of roles, his mind is clearly occupied by the philosophical implications of human role-playing and the conflict between external appearances and internal reality:That gentleman passing by is charming. Look at him: What lovely silk breeches! What delightful red flowers on his waistcoat. . . . I am positive that that very man has a million ideas in his head which are absolutely foreign to me: his essence is peculiar to him alone. Alas! everything men say to one another amounts to the same thing; the ideas they propose are almost invariably identical from conversation to conversation; but somewhere deep inside these individual machines, what creases, what hidden crannies! Each man carries an entire world inside him. An unremarked...

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