Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée’s fame rests solely on the so-called comédies larmoyantes (tearful comedies) listed above, his first publication of note was a nondramatic work, Épître de Clio, à Monsieur B . . . (epistle of Clio to Monsieur B . . .), published in 1731. In this verse polemic of approximately nine hundred lines, La Chaussée defends tradition and classical principles, including the use of verse in tragedy, against their detractor Antoine Houdar de La Motte. During the 1720’s, La Chaussée composed a series of Contes (tales in verse). His first dramatic efforts were a number of parades , rather obscene, satiric farces that were very popular in his time. One such parade, entitled Le Repatriage, was published posthumously in 1762.

Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Critics generally credit Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée for popularizing a new genre in French drama: the comédie larmoyante. Gustave Lanson, the influential nineteenth century French critic, defines the genre:The comédie larmoyante is an intermediary genre between comedy and tragedy, which presents ordinary people, virtuous or nearly so, in a serious action, occasionally arousing pathos, and which excites us to virtue, moves us by virtue’s misfortunes, and makes us applaud at its triumph.

The “tearful comedy” of La Chaussée deviates from the strict separation of genres, a cardinal principle of French seventeenth century dramaturgy. Although dramatists of the classical period occasionally created generically hybrid plays (the comédies héroïques or the more numerous tragi-comédies, for example), purist critics attacked La Chaussée’s highly popular work as a “bastard genre,” saying “Thalia must laugh; a comedy which provokes tears is against reason.” Despite this opposition from influential writers such as Voltaire, the comédie larmoyante marks a turning point in the evolution of French theater. Its popularity paved the way for the drame bourgeois of Denis Diderot and Michel-Jean Sedaine later in the century. Portraying the domestic problems of middle-class families, the sentimental drame bourgeois preached social reform with a moral basis and led in turn to the romantic social plays of such writers as Alexandre Dumas, fils, in the nineteenth century.

The comédie larmoyante also represents a deviation from the comic norm in France since the death of Molière in 1673: Substituting emotion for laughter, La Chaussée’s comedy stresses a moral appeal to the audience based on sentiment, or sensibilité. The notion of sensibilité characterizes many aspects of eighteenth century literature; it is a kind of self-conscious exercise in emotional display, and La Chaussée’s comédie larmoyante was written particularly to elicit a sentimental response from its audience. La Chaussée’s characters are above all sensible (sensitive), and this sensibilité manifests their innate goodness and virtue. Although it was the mainspring of his art, La Chaussée did not create the concept; he merely exploited a shift in taste. Whereas Molièresque comedy elicited laughter at the expense of vice, La Chaussée’s moralistic theater provoked tears on behalf of virtue.

Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brereton, Geoffrey. French Comic Drama from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. London: Metheun, 1977. Brereton examines the comedic drama of France from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, touching on La Chaussée.

Connon, Derek, and George Evans, eds. Essays on French Comic Drama from the 1640s to the 1780s. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. These essays focus on French comedic drama during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. La Chaussée made a significant contribution to French comedic drama with his comédie larmoyante.

Weber, Caroline. “Overcoming Excess: Jouissance and Justice in Nivelle de la Chaussée’s L’École des mères.” Weber challenges the view of La Chaussée as overly and uncritically emotional in her analysis of L’École des mères.