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...
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