The Litigants Essay - Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

Jean Racine

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

LES PLAIDEURS is the only comedy of Racine. It was written largely by the inspiration of contemporary quarrels and a desire of the author to mock specific contemporaries. It was at first received poorly, then very well, after people heard that the king had laughed during its presentation at court. One tradition has it that Moliere (an enemy of Racine) considered it “excellent,” while another tradition, more probable, stated that Moliere felt the play was “worthless.” In any case, it has been remarkably successful since, and is often performed.

The play mocks limited social attitudes by exaggerating them, as is common in satire. Here the judgmental compulsion of Dandin, or the need of Chicanneau and La Comtesse to litigate is pushed to the point of absurdity. The exaggerated, cliched thinking of these characters dominates the play. The relative sanity of Leandre and Isabelle is obliged to engage in the absurdities of their parents in order to assure their marriage. But it is notable that there is no real reconciliation, merely a successful adaptation and manipulation by the young couple. The two servants, Petit Jean and L’Intime, are, for the most part, merely bantied about by their masters’ foolishness.

There is very little psychological depth to the characters. Leandre and Isabelle have, at least, two concerns—their love, and dealing with their parents. But Dandin’s compulsive judging and the litigiousness of Chicanneau and La Comtesse are so cut-off from complex motives as to seem self-generated, and therefore all the more ridiculous. La Comtesse, who has received a pension which forbids her further litigating, complains, “But to live without litigating, is that happiness?” This lack of depth creates a great “aesthetic distance.” What might be seen as viciousness, were it connected to deeper motives, passes for mere foolishness.

As Henry Fielding says in his preface to JOSEPH ANDREWS (1742), satire derives from highlighting the one-sidedness of the victim’s views of things. This play is perhaps a classic example of such a strategy because the three victims convert all experience into an instance of litigation with the same restless and absurd energy of the keystone cop. Mechanically, and delightfully, they pursue the mere physical object on a delightful and wild chase.