Alain-René Lesage (leh-sahzh), sometimes spelled Le Sage, was educated at Jesuit schools in Brittany. His parents died when he was young, and his guardians squandered the family finances. Lesage, like his father, pursued a career in law. In the 1690’s, however, while working as an attorney in Paris, he was influenced by the Abbé de Lionne to become a translator of Spanish works from the sixteenth century Golden Age. At this time he married Marie-Elisabeth Huyard, the daughter of a cabinet maker.
Lesage established himself as a prolific author of comedies written for the Théâtre de la Foire and for the Théâtre Forain. These plays were performed during holiday festivals, and all the manuscripts have disappeared. In 1707, his one-act farce Crispin, Rival of His Master was staged by the Comédie Française. Turcaret, based on an earlier comedy about tax collectors and financiers, was also well received.
Lesage’s greatest imprint on French literature came from two novels, The Devil upon Two Sticks and Gil Blas, both of which were revived and expanded in subsequent editions. The Devil upon Two Sticks is based on the popular Spanish novel El Diablo cojuelo, by Luis Vélez Guevara. In this satiric fable, a genie named Asmodée removes the rooftops of Madrid in order to expose the intimacies and absurdities of bourgeois life. Gil Blas—a sprawling picaresque novel also indebted to Spanish sources—represents in disguise the vivid panorama of early eighteenth century French culture. This work offers a compelling character study of the protagonist as an adaptable Everyman whose single fault, like Don Quixote’s, is that he does not learn from experience. The many interconnected stories that flow from the plot provide a series of literary portraits in a colorful style that is alternately ironic, astringent, and racy.
In order to support (without a literary patron) his family of three sons and a daughter, Lesage continued to borrow from Spanish authors in three other sensationalist novels: The Pleasant Adventures of Gusman of Alfarche, The Comical History of Estévanille Gonzalez, and The Bachelor of Salamanca. In a similar vein, The Adventures of Robert Chevalier offers exotic locales and improbable events. Lesage’s contributions to the development of the novel were widely appreciated by the British writers Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Tobias Smollett. Like Molière, Lesage trained his skeptical eye on the foibles and eccentricities of human nature while reserving moral judgment.
Born in 1668 into an old Breton family, Alain-René Lesage had a very comfortable early childhood. In 1677, however, his mother died, and his father died five years later. Lesage was then adopted by his uncles, who promptly dispossessed him. The resulting penury was to be a major factor in his subsequent literary vocation. In an effort to continue the family tradition, Lesage began to study law, first at the Jesuit collège in Vannes—where Father Baschard gave him his first taste of and for theater—and later in Paris. Admitted to the bar, he was forced by contingencies to settle in the lowest strata of the legal profession. This did not prevent him from frequenting higher social and literary circles, and from meeting literary figures such as Dancourt, with whom he started a lifelong friendship and who encouraged his tastes for the stage. In 1694, he met and married Marie-Élisabeth Huyard, the daughter of a humble carpenter. Beautiful, pleasant, and totally devoted to René—a fully reciprocated devotion—she was to give him an element of stability and peace that he enjoyed all his life. She also gave him three sons and a daughter. Two of...
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the sons were to become actors—one famous at the Comédie-Française, while the other disappeared into obscurity with a roving troupe in Germany—and the third became canon in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
In 1695, Lesage published his first literary endeavor, a translation of some letters from a Greek Sophist. The work of a careless hack, it went without reward of any kind. Some years later, Lesage met the Abbé de Lyonne, who became his protector, giving him a modest pension—which was to be paid until the death of that Maecenas in 1715—and urging him to learn Spanish so that he might translate some of the better plays of Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega Carpio. By 1700, Lesage had published his first translations from the Spanish. Two years later, the Comédie-Française accepted and played his Le Point d’honneur, an adaptation of No hay amigo para amigo (1636), by Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla. Originally in five acts, the adaptation was reduced to three by its author “to make it more lively,” to use his own words. The change was of no avail: The play was lustily booed and withdrawn after two performances. Five years later, fate was less fickle with its bounty. In March, 1707, the Française performed his Don César Ursin, another adaptation from the Spanish (this time, of Calderón’s Mejor esta, que estaba, 1630; From Bad to Worse, 1805)—and another utter failure—accompanied on the program by Crispin, Rival of His Master. During a performance at court, Crispin, Rival of His Master got the same treatment as Don César Ursin; not so in Paris, where it was warmly applauded. Later that same year, The Devil upon Two Sticks appeared, and the success of the novel eclipsed that of the play.
The following year, Lesage presented a one-act comedy, La Tontine, to the Comédie-Française, which rejected it. It was eventually performed (in 1714) by the actors of the Foire under the title Arlequin colonel. The Comédie was not to follow suit until 1732. In the meanwhile, undaunted by the rebuff of the comédiens, Lesage gave them his dramatic magnum opus, Turcaret, which they also rejected. This time, Lesage did not accept the verdict. Sensing that the rejection stemmed from reasons other than artistic, he enlisted the aid of every powerful person he knew. Finally, in early 1709, following a direct order from the Dauphin, the five-act comedy was performed at the Comédie-Française. Even so, the powerful lobby of the financiers won out, and after only seven performances, the play was withdrawn. Lesage was a proud man. The gate for the seven performances had been more than respectable, and he never forgave the Comédie for having caved in to pressures having nothing to do with dramatic considerations. He turned his back on them, and from that day on wrote exclusively for the Foire.
The year 1715 was to be an important one in the career of Lesage. The first six books of Gil Blas were published and obtained an immediate and resounding success. That year, Louis XIV died, and the Regent, taking interest in the players of the Foire, protected them and even invited them repeatedly to court, thus giving them a degree of legitimacy and standing that they had never before enjoyed. Though their struggle against established rivals such as the Comédie-Française and the Opéra were far from over, this protection did earn for them a certain emancipation from artistic restrictions. In the ensuing years, the crises in that conflict spurred Lesage to lampoon his former collaborators of the Comédie in delightful works such as La Querelle des théâtres (1718) and La Fausse Foire (1721), both prologues, and Le Rappel de la Foire à la vie (1721), a lively one-act play. Also in 1721 appeared the first volume of Le Théâtre de la Foire. Three years later, a second volume of this collaborative effort appeared, almost simultaneously with the appearance of the second part (books 7 through 9) of Gil Blas.
In 1730, Lesage’s oldest son (who, in spite of his father’s remonstrances, had earlier joined the Comédie-Française, thus causing a temporary rift between father and son) played in a revival of Turcaret. The production must have had a certain success, since Montmesnil—the stage name of the son—was still playing the role a year later, a success which undoubtedly had much to do with the reconciliation of the two. That year, 1731, another successful volume of the Théâtre de la Foire was published. One year later, in 1732, The Pleasant Adventures of Gusman of Alfarache was published, followed by another novel, Les Aventures de M. Robert Chevalier dit de Beauchesne (The Adventures of Robert Chevalier, 1745). Both enjoyed popular favor, though contemporary critics saw, particularly in the latter, the work of a tiring hack. The actors of the Française, hoping perhaps to cash in on Lesage’s popularity, finally decided to perform La Tontine; they proved only that their original rejection had not been without merit: The play was an utter failure.
This admixture of success and failure marks the years that follow. The volumes of the Théâtre de la Foire that came out in regular succession until 1734 owe much of their popularity to the contributions of Lesage; the last three volumes of Gil Blas (1735) were as popular as the preceding ones. On the other hand, The Bachelor of Salamanca did not get the same kind reception, and deservedly so. Lesage’s last work of fiction, La Valise trouvée, was similarly dismissed, and with equal justification. The talents of the old man were definitely abandoning him. In 1743, Montmesnil died quite suddenly. Lesage, extremely grieved and aware of his failing ability to earn a decent living with his pen, decided to retire. With his wife, he went to live with his second son, then canon in Boulogne-sur-Mer. He spent his remaining years there in domestic tranquillity and died on November 17, 1747, in the arms of his wife.