Denis Diderot Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339

Although Denis Diderot was in his mid-forties before he wrote his first play, his interest in drama was long-standing. Later in life, he commented that, “I myself, when I was young, hesitated between the Sorbonne and the Comédie. In winter, in the worst sort of weather, I used to recite...

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Although Denis Diderot was in his mid-forties before he wrote his first play, his interest in drama was long-standing. Later in life, he commented that, “I myself, when I was young, hesitated between the Sorbonne and the Comédie. In winter, in the worst sort of weather, I used to recite roles from Molière and [Pierre] Corneille out loud in the solitary walks of the Luxembourg [Gardens].” In his Lettre sur les sourds et muets (1751; Letter on the Deaf and Dumb, 1916), he again recalled his early fondness for and knowledge of drama: “Formerly I used to visit the theater very often, and I knew most of our good plays by heart.” He would astonish those sitting around him by putting his fingers in his ears—a way of testing his memory—and surprise them even more by weeping at the tragic parts even though he apparently could not hear anything being said onstage.

This interest in the theater is also evident in his early writing. The Indiscreet Toys criticizes the artificiality of the theater. Diderot imagines someone being told that he is going to witness the intrigues and actions at court; instead, he is led to a spot overlooking a stage. According to Diderot, the spectator would not be fooled for an instant because contemporary stagecraft lacked realism. Another of Diderot’s concerns emerges from a contribution of his to the third volume of the Encyclopédie. Under the heading “Comédiens,” he defends actors by stressing their ability to incite in audiences a love of virtue and a dread of vice.


By the time he wrote Dorval, then, Diderot had acquainted himself with the great French theatrical tradition of the seventeenth century as well as contemporary drama, and he had spent at least a decade thinking about the kind of plays he thought most appropriate for the stage. Dorval was the first of his two attempts to create an example that would illustrate his precepts. Thus, the play rejects the rigid distinction between comedy and tragedy. The piece ends happily, with the appropriate people marrying each other and a supposedly lost fortune recovered. Before this cheerful resolution, however, Dorval several times contemplates fleeing society and comes close to marrying his half sister, Rosalie. Also, Clairville narrowly escapes death in a duel and almost loses the woman he loves.

This serious treatment of middle-class characters was unconventional, though not unprecedented. It represented a new genre of serious comedy, which Diderot called drame, and it declared that the bourgeoisie was no longer to serve only as the butt of satire. Indeed, through Clairville, Diderot praises the commercial class, observing, “Commerce is almost the only endeavor in which great fortunes are proportional to the effort, the industry, and the dangers that render them honest.” Constance adds, “Our birth is given to us, but our virtues are truly ours,” suggesting that the only distinctions worth making among people derive from their behavior, not their inherited rank in society. A century earlier, the very title of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (pr. 1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675) would have made it clear to an audience that the play mocked middle-class pretensions. By the mid-eighteenth century, though, Diderot, the son of middle-class parents, portrays the middle class as dignified. Alexis de Tocqueville, in De la démocratie en Amérique (1835-1840; Democracy in America, 1835-1840), would observe that “the tastes and propensities natural to democratic nations, in respect to literature, will . . . first be discernible in the drama.” Diderot’s plays, along with those of his contemporaries, such as Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, Philippe Néricault Destouches, and Paul Landois, herald the ascendancy of the French middle class.

Dorval also puts into practice Diderot’s belief in the power of the stage to reform society. Although Dorval observes that people speak of virtue too much, none of the characters, Dorval included, tires of moralizing. The piece’s subtitle, “The Test of Virtue,” indicates the play’s moral theme, and Constance expresses Diderot’s view on the potential of the theater as a moral agency when she tells Dorval, “The effect of virtue on our soul is no less necessary, no less powerful, than that of beauty on our senses. There is in the heart of man a yearning for order . . . which makes us sensible of shame. . . . Imitation is natural to us, and there is no example that compels us more forcefully than that of virtue.”

This virtue that Diderot preaches in his play is less personal than social. Dorval is not condemned for being born out of wedlock, and the danger that Dorval escapes in renouncing Rosalie is less the union with his half sister than the betrayal of his best friend. Constance, his first love, persuades Dorval that personal inclinations must yield to duty, and Dorval agrees before he learns of his relationship to Rosalie. Constance repeats Diderot’s views about people’s social obligations when Dorval proposes to resolve his dilemma of loving both Constance and Rosalie by fleeing society completely. In a speech that ended a fifteen-year friendship between Diderot and the reclusive Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Constance tells Dorval, “You have received rare talents, and you must give an account of them to society. . . . I appeal to your heart. Ask it, and it will tell you that the good man belongs in society, and only the wicked person remains alone.”

Dorval was intended to instruct not only Diderot’s audiences but also the play’s performers. According to a preface that Diderot included in the published version of the work, all the actors are supposedly the people they are representing, and they are reenacting events that actually befell them. Moreover, the production is intended only for themselves; they are performing in a salon without an audience. Dorval does allow Diderot to observe, but no one else knows he is present. This elaborate fictional frame emphasizes Diderot’s belief that actors were paying too much attention to their audiences and so not behaving naturally. The result was a loss of realism, for the performers who were supposedly interacting with one another or meditating in private were always addressing the spectators. Hence, Diderot banished all asides from the play and included elaborate stage directions to encourage the players to behave as if the curtain had not risen. He wanted them to imagine an impenetrable barrier between themselves and the viewers, for Diderot believed that, paradoxically, only by ignoring the audience would an actor be able to please it.

A short time after its completion, the play was produced twice at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, twelve miles west of Paris, where the action of the piece supposedly occurred. The first performance was well attended; on October 1, 1757, Alexandre Deleyre, a minor contributor to the Encyclopédie, wrote to Rousseau that he had been at “the first performance, where I wept copiously, although not intending to.” According to Élie-Catherine Fréron, though, no one came to the second performance, and the Comédie-Française refused to produce the play until 1771.

The Father of the Family

Despite Diderot’s disappointment over this poor reception, he quickly penned a second, similar work, The Father of the Family. Like Dorval, this play revolves around a dual courtship: Saint-Albin woos the poor Sophie while the poor Germeuil pursues Saint-Albin’s sister, Cécile. Whereas in the first piece, the only obstacle to the marriages is the characters’ divided love—Dorval loves both Rosalie and Constance, and Rosalie loves both Clairville and Dorval—here, the Père de famille and his imperious brother, the Commander, object to the matches as unsuitable. Diderot draws on his own experiences for the plot, for his own father opposed his marriage to Anne-Toinette Champion precisely because she, like Sophie, was poor. Moreover, just as the Commander tries to use a lettre de cachet to separate the lovers by imprisoning Sophie, so Diderot was briefly locked in a monastery by his father.

Because Diderot portrays himself in Saint-Albin, one might expect that his sympathies would lie with the son rather than with the father. Instead, Diderot remains neutral, casting the play as a battle between parental prudence and youthful impetuosity. The Père is generous—he gives money to the poor and has willingly supported Germeuil; he is reasonable—he agrees to see Sophie before reaching any decision and then patiently explains his objections. He is also honest, dismissing a servant who lies to him. These good qualities become even more evident as Diderot contrasts the Père with his brother, who would achieve his ends by force rather than reason and who exhibits all the prejudices of the old regime. The Père opposes the marriage because of what he foresees as its negative social consequences, “the disorder of society, the confusion of blood and rank, the degradation of families.” In other words, the Père upholds solid bourgeois values. Happily, Sophie proves to be sufficiently wellborn to deserve Saint-Albin; in fact, she is his first cousin.

Like Constance in Dorval, the Père has urged that personal considerations yield to social responsibility. When Cécile says that she wants to enter a convent, again he places society ahead of the individual, asking her, “Who will repopulate society with virtuous citizens, if the women the most worthy of being mothers of families refuse that role?”

Once more, Diderot used the theater as a vehicle for demonstrating his critical as well as his social theories. The middle-class characters are treated seriously, and the piece emphasizes their station in life rather than their peculiarities. Diderot had objected to the tradition, dating from Roman times, of portraying such types as the miser, the braggart soldier, or the wily servant. Instead, he urged that actors present the father, the lawyer, and the tradesman as they should ideally behave, thus heightening realism and morality in the play.

Another dramatic concern evident in this play is the tableau. Believing that the theater should present a series of “living pictures,” Diderot provided numerous examples in this piece. His stage directions are so extensive as to remind the reader of George Bernard Shaw’s lengthy instructions. Diderot thought that French actors were so concerned with speaking that they did not perform, so he tried to introduce elements of the pantomime to redress the imbalance.

Although more successful than its predecessor, The Father of the Family still did not meet as favorable a reception as Diderot had hoped; it was the last play Diderot offered his contemporaries. Nevertheless, his interest in the theater did not diminish. In 1760, he worked on translating Edward Moore’s middle-class tragedy The Gamester (pr. 1753) and circulated the manuscript among his friends; the translation was finally published in 1819. He continued to write about the stage if not for it, and he used dramatic devices such as dialogue in his fiction. A number of these pieces have been successfully produced in this century: The Nun was made into a motion picture, and Rameau’s Nephew was staged in Paris in 1963 to warm reviews.

Est’il bon? Est’il méchant?

The work that has won for Diderot the most respect as a dramatist, however, is Est’il bon? Est’il méchant?, which began in 1775 as Plan d’un divertissement, progressed to La Pièce et le prologue in 1777, and in 1781 emerged as a four-act play. Unknown in his own lifetime and rejected repeatedly by the Comédie-Française in the nineteenth century, it is the only one of Diderot’s plays to be revived repeatedly in the twentieth. In this piece, Diderot made no attempt to instruct, no effort to implement his dramatic theories. Instead, he created a highly entertaining, fast-paced, witty comedy built around the crafty, semiautobiographical Hardouin.

Everyone asks favors of this person, and he obliges them, but in such a way as to raise the questions of the play’s title. Madame Bertrand wants to be able to transfer her pension to her son and turns to Hardouin to use his influence on her behalf. He succeeds by persuading his friend Poultier that Madame Bertrand’s son is also his (Hardouin’s) own, thus making Madame Bertrand appear to be an adultress and her son a bastard. De Crancy wants to marry Mademoiselle de Vertillac, and when the girl’s mother objects, he asks Hardouin to intercede. Hardouin does; he forges letters that convince the girl’s mother that Mademoiselle is pregnant and so should marry even De Crancy to avoid disgrace. Hardouin is involved in so many plots and deals with each so ingeniously that the audience constantly marvels at his cleverness. At the same time, one wonders how long the charade can continue. Eventually, everyone learns of the humiliating ways in which Hardouin has secured for them what they wanted, but in the climactic trial scene (act 4, scene 4), he is pardoned without being totally exonerated. Hence, the play’s title questions remain unanswered; each spectator must decide for himself whether Hardouin is good or wicked.

Absent from this play are the long, moralizing speeches and the tearful resolutions that mar Diderot’s earlier pieces. He had at last discovered that the true end of the theater is to entertain and to ask questions, not to answer them. Not that his other works are unimportant in the history of French theater. In 1759, for example, the Comédie-Française banished audiences from the stage for precisely the reason Diderot had given for ending the practice: It detracted from the realism of the performance. The genre of serious comedy that he advocated enjoyed some decades of popularity both on the Continent and in England, and his views on the didactic power of the stage remained influential well into the nineteenth century. One sees such ideas reflected even in the works of Henrik Ibsen and Shaw. Yet only when he abandoned theory in Est’il bon? Est’il méchant? could he himself create a work of sufficient stature to grant him his wish to be remembered as a first-rate dramatist.

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