Alain-René Lesage Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2676

Although Alain-René Lesage is probably best remembered for his novels, some critics argue that his dramatic works made a significant contribution to the French theater. His two best-known plays, Crispin, Rival of His Master and Tucaret, enjoyed popularity with audiences if not with critics.

Crispin, Rival of His Master

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Although Alain-René Lesage is probably best remembered for his novels, some critics argue that his dramatic works made a significant contribution to the French theater. His two best-known plays, Crispin, Rival of His Master and Tucaret, enjoyed popularity with audiences if not with critics.

Crispin, Rival of His Master

Too much has been made of the debt which Crispin, Rival of His Master owes to Spanish drama. In fact, it owes much more to Molière—especially to the late Molière, the author of plays such as Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (pr. 1669; English translation, 1704) and the comédies-ballets from which long monologues have disappeared and in which rapid-fire dialogues give rise to a frenetic atmosphere of festive madness—and to Dancourt than to any foreign literature or influence.

Though the witty and sparkling dialogues and the astounding peripeteias are definite assets of this fast-paced one-act comedy, its originality lies in the creation of the titular hero, Crispin. He is not the only delineated character, but he does dominate. With quick, bold strokes, Lesage presents a broad array of pawns that Crispin will manipulate almost at will. One is quickly made to feel that one knows the gullible bourgeois, all the easier to fool because they think themselves to be keen judges of people and as shrewd as it is possible to be; the silly old mother-in-law-to-be, “between twenty-five and sixty,” who believes any piece of flattery and sees the sense only of the last opinion she encounters, however much it may contradict what she has heard—and accepted—just before; the silly lover, Valère, without a cent or a conscience, who is readily tricked because he believes himself to be a consummate trickster; and Crispin’s colleague, Labranche, who believes in honor among thieves, especially if one’s fellow thief is as formidable as Crispin.

The notion of servants seconding the love interests of their young masters was already a comedic cliché at the time of the creation of Crispin, Rival of His Master; so was the idea of such servants acting like their masters, and even being caught up in the game. It had been a staple of the commedia dell’arte when Molière borrowed it for his Les Précieuses ridicules (pr. 1659, pb. 1660; The Affected Young Ladies, 1732). What is new in this play is that Crispin sees the possibilities of the role he is assigned and decides to emancipate himself from the inept tutelage of his master. From the outset, he plans to take his master’s place, wooing the young lady coveted by that penurious employer, not so as to win her heart but her dowry, with which he plans to abscond before anyone is the wiser. Boastful of his quick wit, of his ability to turn any situation to his immediate advantage, and above all of his lack of morals and of conscience, he is more than the wearer of Scapino’s mantle. He foreshadows Frontin and even the less brutal but more revolutionary Figaro. Cynical, irreverent, a skillful manipulator of people and of events, the resourceful Crispin talks himself into and out of one tight spot after another. Only the circumstances of a very cleverly contrived and resolved plot foil him (even so, he manages to survive). Only Figaro will have more brio, more wit used in the unequal fight with the powerful of his society. Like Figaro, Crispin is a survivor; just as amoral, but less grating, his immediate successor Frontin will do more than merely survive—he will conquer.

Turcaret

Insofar as the borrowings of Lesage for Turcaret are concerned, much the same can be said as for Crispin, Rival of His Master: The case, however legitimate, has been overstated. To be sure, one can find traces, in Turcaret, of La Bruyère’s indignation, of the violent diatribes of the diverse pamphlets launched against financiers, as well as echoes of previous comedies, from those of Molière to the more contemporary ones of Dancourt. Such roots and echoes are inevitable in any work of art dealing with manners and character, and Molière is not considered a lesser dramatist for having borrowed from comedic predecessors. What matters is what Lesage did with his gleanings, and there his contribution is undeniable and sizable. Turcaret is a powerful synthesis of all the aforementioned elements, containing not the lifeless puppets that merrily flit through the dramas of Dancourt, but real, living characters. The situations and conditions are as vivid today as they were in 1708, though perforce some of the satire has lost the bite of its topicality. Most important of all, if one remains aware of what Molière called le jeu du théâtre, then one sees that for all its topicality, Turcaret remains a fairly funny play. It is intended to moralize, to castigate mores, but through laughter, though it must be conceded that at times the authorial presence is too heavy and too ironically manifest to give free rein to uninhibited laughter.

For the modern reader, much of the humor has lost its edge; the topicality of the satire, an asset in 1708, has dated the work. At the time of the creation of Turcaret, the aristocracy was in decline, and the bourgeoisie, particularly the financiers, tax collectors, and speculators, were in full swing. Furthermore, the aristocracy had lost its values as well as its wealth: Politeness, the caricaturesque façade that Molière had mocked as the pretense of true nobility, had become the norm. It is this shallow, callous society, totally amoral and cynical, that Turcaret depicts. As such, it is a comedy of manners, or seems that way to the modern reader. To the contemporaries of Lesage, it was more, a comédie d’actualité, full of references to current events and situations, people and ploys. The expenses incurred by the crown had put it at the mercy of the financiers and tax farmers, who had become all-powerful. The wars of Louis XIV had made their rise possible: They were exploited by the aristocracy, but in exchange were given the right to exploit the people, and this they did ruthlessly. Turcaret is not simply a description of mores and manners; it is a polemical piece. Whereas Crispin, Rival of His Master is breathless in its dazzling speed, a string of delightful lazzi and witticisms (“Real justice is of such beauty that one should be willing to buy it at any price”), Turcaret is heavier, more massive in its caricature and its indictment. In form, it is a classical comedy; in intent, it is a vaudeville, as savage as any but not as lively. It elicits some genuine laughter; much of it must have grated at the time; some of it still does.

If the play has been able to survive in spite of its heavy steeping in topicality, that is in large part attributable to its fine structure. Some critics have blamed Lesage for applying a novelistic pattern to his drama, and indeed Turcaret displays the sort of linear narrative that one expects in a picaresque novel, though it is here open-ended: Turcaret is ruined—more as a result of the vengeful intervention of an angry playwright than anything else, it would seem—and is replaced by Frontin; the world has not changed, only the players. For all its linearity, it is that structure that provides the vis comica of the play. Each act begins with a coup de théâtre, a sensational moment, and ends with a statement or situation that leaves the audience in suspense, speculating on what is to follow. As the tension is heightened by this coherent and fluid movement, one cannot help but sense that the entire play is a well-choreographed ballet, moving to music that is ever increasing in tempo and nervousness, and that not all the sorcerer’s apprentices will be able to keep up with it. The characters are beautifully balanced for this frenetic dance: The Chevalier is the antithesis of the Marquis, as Frontin’s cleverness is in stark contrast to Flamand’s mental clumsiness. This is why there can be no denouement, no unraveling from within. The characters cannot by themselves bring about the crisis that the audience feels has been brewing for a long time. Caught in the tempo of their dance, they merely flow with the tide. Some are submerged by it, while others, such as Frontin, make good use of it. The crisis therefore leads to a change of cast, but one which has no bearing on the fundamental social order.

This flow is part of a dual rhythm. If the metaphor of a tide is to be used, it must be viewed as one with a multiplicity of currents—the two most obvious ones being the rise of Frontin and the fall of Turcaret—currents that may have been set in motion by the characters but that they cannot always control, though some adapt remarkably well. The play’s reduced description of manners is the counterpoint of this demonic music. It reveals the characters and thus explains their balletic pantomime. The manners, in other words, are not there for the sake of realism but as a means of adding configuration to characters that in turn are expositors of a way of life, the ultimate expression of mores.

In this teeth-grinding comedy, all the characters are either insipid or distasteful, which is in itself a revelation. Turcaret is ridiculous; he is also odious. Above all, he is stupid and the architect of his own downfall. His success in business had been less a question of brains than of ruthlessness, and in love, a one-on-one human relationship, he reveals himself to be a fool and ready prey. One might think that his downfall reflects an optimistic Weltanschauung (worldview) on the part of Lesage were it not for Frontin. Not as gratingly vicious as Crispin, Frontin is more efficiently amoral—rather than gleefully immoral—a no less chilling consideration. As a character, he is not an innovation; rather, this servant who is proud of his class and who offers apologies neither for his station nor for his methods of improving it is the perfection of a type, of a tradition, that of the cynical, devious, and self-serving valet. He has been called a future Turcaret; that is not entirely accurate. Turcaret is ruthless, but inept; Frontin has wit, even finesse. Turcaret is odious; Frontin superficially appeals, at least to those who admire quick-witted mordancy, but if one thinks of his amalgam of intelligence and amorality, the possibilities are chilling and test the limits of comicality. Turcaret’s fall is caused in large part by his stupidity; one senses that Frontin will not make the mistakes of his predecessor. Throughout Turcaret, there are occasions for laughter; as the final echoes of Frontin’s ultimate challenge—heralding the beginning of his reign—bring down the curtain, that laughter must yield to some rather sobering thoughts about the society of 1708—or of any other time.

The Arlequin Plays

In 1680, the two French theaters remaining in Paris merged to form the Comédie-Française nd obtained a royal monopoly which only the Italian players, by virtue of their nationality, escaped. There were two major fairs in Paris at the time, that of Saint-Germain (February to Easter) and that of Saint-Laurent (August to September or October), and at both fairs the usual jugglers, tumblers, and marionette shows constantly tried to expand their dramatic activities beyond the restrictions imposed on them by varying edicts. When the Italian players were expelled in 1697, the forains tried to fill the void, unleashing an immediate war with the established players of the Comédie. Backed by the powers-that-be, the latter saw to it that the players of the foires were forbidden to use dialogue. The forains got around this by having a character leave the stage immediately after the delivery of his speech, to reappear when it was time for him to speak again; the play was thus a series of monologues, and within the law. The Comédie saw that its rivals would not yield as readily as it had hoped and spurred the police to greater severity. The result was that the forains were forbidden to use any words; they responded with panels unfurled from overhead, or simply pulled out of pockets, on which were printed words read by the public. Eventually, the actors began to sing what they could not speak, and when the Opéra objected, for it too had a monopoly, they again used the panels and mimed while the public sang the words on the panels to popular tunes, taking particular delight in those songs that satirized such petty restrictions. These “vaudevilles,” also dubbed opéra comique (a title eventually sanctioned by the Académie Royale de Musique) became increasingly popular, a popularity enhanced by the savagery of the parodies of the more “serious” companies. Spoken dialogues did slip into the performances with fair frequency, the complaints of the Comédie and the surveillance of the police notwithstanding. In 1719, the forains were obliged to suspend their dramatic activities, but by 1721 they were flourishing again, with greater vitality than ever.

Originally, the theater of the fairs was a rather crude enterprise, appealing to the lowest instincts of a motley crowd. The first author really to see the potential of the limitations imposed on the forains was Lesage, and he can therefore be credited if not with giving birth to the Opéra comique, at least of raising it to a worthy artistic level. His first few efforts were as crude as any, but in 1713, he contributed Arlequin roi de Sérendib, in three acts, to the Foire Saint-Germain, and two one-act plays, Arlequin Thétis and Arlequin invisible, to the Foire Saint-Laurent, all three panel comedies sung by the audience. Most of his subsequent contributions to the fairs were sung on stage. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the genre is that he readily perceived that to keep within the restrictions imposed on the players and producers, the scenario had to be as simple as possible. Like Jean Racine, he saw that creativity would have to consist of “making something of nothing.” His genius does not reveal itself through intricate plots or profound characterizations, but by means of sparkling parodic wit and sharp social commentary. Arlequin roi de Sérendib, for example, must have obtained most of its laughter from the audience recognizing the parody of Iphigénie en Tauride (1704), a terrible opera by Joseph-François Duché de Vancy and Antoine Danchet, the implausible aspects of the original stretched ludicrously beyond the last possible shred of verisimilitude. He parodied not only opera but also the actors and works of the Comédie-Française, keeping in mind no doubt that this group had rejected him and that it was the major source of vexation for the forains—but conveniently forgetting that, when writing for the Comédie, he had been quite unkind to the forains with his scornful sallies.

Though Lesage added a few characters to those he inherited from the Italians, and though he toned down the vulgarity of the latter, it cannot be said that he was truly innovative in the realm of characterization. It is he, however, who must be credited with reducing the purely physical elements (juggling, tumbling, dancing) and making them subservient to the business of the play. Although the Théâtre de la Foire did not give posterity a single great masterpiece, it pleased a large audience, and a surprisingly varied one—which included the regent, who invited the forains to perform in his palace—and thus had a noteworthy influence on future dramatic currents. Though it was fused with the Théâtre Italien later in the eighteenth century, it must be credited with much of what went into the creation of nineteenth century vaudeville, and no less with softening the elitist tendencies of the Comédie-Française. To do that, it had to achieve a certain respectability; Lesage’s works performed that service.

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