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...
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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 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...
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