Alain-René Lesage was born in Sarzeau, on the peninsula of Rhuys in the north of France. His father, Claude Le Sage, was a combined notary, advocate, and registrar of the royal court of Rhuys, which was a legal district. Both parents died when Lesage was very young, and his patrimony was thieved and squandered by guardians. He studied with the Jesuits until he was eighteen years old; he was called to the Paris bar in 1692. Anything beyond these few facts about his early years is conjecture. In August, 1694, Lesage married Marie Élisabeth Huyard; though beautiful, she had little dowry, and his practice was failing as well.
On the advice of Danchet, an old classmate, Lesage turned to literature, beginning as a translator. His first effort, a French translation of the Epistles of Aristaenetus in 1695, met with a thud of indifference. (Even the otherwise tolerant commentator George Saintsbury wondered why Lesage bothered.) Soon, however, Lesage found a patron in the Abbé de Lyonne, who, in addition to giving him six hundred livres annually, advised Lesage to forget translating the classics and to turn his efforts to Spanish literature instead.
Plays by Francisco de Rojas Zorilla, Lope de Vega Carpio, and other Spaniards were Lesage’s main prey as translator. Lesage’s adaptations of their works, Le Traître puni and Le Point d’honneur (from Rojas) and Don Félix de Mendoce (from Vega) were all acted or published around the turn of the eighteenth century. In 1704, Lesage brought out the French version of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda’s sequel to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615)—Saintsbury did not appreciate this choice, either—and in 1707 adapted Calderón’s Peor está que estaba (1630) as Don César Ursin. Neck or Nothing, however, was the farce that gained for him, at the age of thirty-eight, his first real fame; then, in this annus mirabilis, The Devil upon Two Sticks was published and went through many editions until Lesage altered it and improved it, rendering it in its present form. In spite or perhaps because of Lesage’s growing popularity, the actors were displeased with him, rejecting a...
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