Louis-Sébastien Mercier was born into and reared in the bourgeois class that, during his lifetime, would bring about the French Revolution. Social and political reforms were dominant themes in all his writing. He demonstrated his literary inclinations early, writing in a popular poetic genre before his twentieth year. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Mercier turned to prose, arguing that it was a more natural means of expression. He would be one of the first dramatists to write in prose.
Before he was twenty-five, Mercier proved his scholarly abilities and was named professor of rhetoric at the College of Bordeaux, but he missed being at the center of activity and soon returned to Paris. He had not been back long before he won a prize for eloquence, given by the French Academy. In the years that followed, he made money doing translations, and he completed his first novel, L’An 2440 (1770; Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred, 1772). In this genre, he gained both his first recognition and his first notoriety as an author: The book was very popular, but it was banned by the authorities.
Mercier did not begin to work for the theater until he was twenty-nine years old, but he became immediately impassioned in his new occupation. His first dramas were taken directly from German and English plays, including those of William Shakespeare. Mercier had always preferred these works to the neoclassical tragedies of his immediate predecessors, and in his first original dramas he incorporated many foreign elements. A number of his contemporary French critics considered these plays too experimental, however, and they did not meet with the success that he would have liked. His treatise Du théâtre: Ou, Nouvel essai sur l’art dramatique was in large measure an expression of this dissatisfaction.
The essay created such a scandal that the Comédie-Française halted preparations for his play Natalie. When the playwright countered with fierce attacks in pamphlets, the institution took away his membership. Infuriated, he took the directors of the institution to court and lost, but he refused to be beaten. He began to publish his dramas, and they met...
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