(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In his memoirs, Guilbert de Pixérécourt speaks of his inspiration and his artistic intentions: “C’est avec des idées religieuses et providentielles; c’est avec des sentiments moraux que je me suis lancé dans la carrière épineuse du théâtre” (I launched out into the thorny career of theater with religious and providential ideas and with moral sentiment). Pixérécourt accomplished what he set out to do; a high moral purpose uplifts all of his works. In the struggle between good and evil that dominates the plots of the melodramas, good always triumphs, and in its victory the virtues of generosity, charity, and love are constantly rewarded while the vices of avarice, egotism, and hatred are scorned.

With this moral basis in mind, Pixérécourt invented a dramatic system that would achieve his ethical objectives while pleasing the audience by encouraging participation and evoking both laughter and tears. Rejecting the neoclassical preference for artificial, formal language—which, he said, made the peasant sound like the prince—Pixérécourt was nevertheless fundamentally conservative in his dramaturgy. He was not eager to overturn all vestiges of theatrical tradition, such as the three unities that had governed classical drama; instead, he adapted these elements according to the requirements of each plot in an attempt to render the play convincing and well organized. Pixérécourt not only insisted on careful preparation and high standards in artistic composition but also required professionalism in his actors and recommended constant interaction among author, director, producer, stage manager, and actors. He believed that the playwright should be present at all rehearsals.

The Tale of Mystery

Pixérécourt achieved his objectives in his first melodrama. The Tale of Mystery, enthusiastically received more than three hundred times in Paris and more than one thousand times in the provinces and translated into several foreign languages as well, serves as an excellent and in many ways typical example of Pixérécourt’s melodrama. Although he did not invent the genre of melodrama, he was praised by one critic as having begun a renaissance in the theater with this play.

The principal appeal of the play resides in its successfully communicated message and colorful and musical staging. Indeed, Pixérécourt rarely invented new material; instead, he borrowed his protagonists and situations from history, contemporary life, or popular novels. In the case of The Tale of Mystery, he took his theme from a novel written in 1798 by François-Guillaume Ducray-Duminil. Notwithstanding the thematic borrowing, which because of name recognition heightened interest in the play, The Tale of Mystery is not a subservient imitation. Pixérécourt transformed the story into a lively performance filled with music, dance, colorful scenery, pantomime, and rapid dialogue. The author embodies the polarized concepts of good and evil in his protagonists; virtuous qualities are exemplified in the innocent Coelina, whose parents are dead and who is threatened with the loss of her inheritance to her uncle, the evil Truguelin, who is conspiring for his niece to marry his son Marcan. Coelina is surrounded by her cousin Stephany, who loves her; Tiennette, her confidante and housekeeper to her uncle, with whom she lives; and a devoted mute beggar, Francisque, who is eventually revealed as her real father. Truguelin is assisted in his ambitions by an obedient servant.

The spectators, knowing the outcome in advance, can applaud the virtuous throughout the play and await the final happy union of Coelina and Stephany with pleasant anticipation. Nevertheless, the expectation of a triumphant conclusion does not exclude suspense. Pixérécourt holds the spectator in a state of uncertainty as the villain Truguelin’s sinister plans constantly threaten the lives and happiness of the innocent. Interest is further heightened by staccato dialogues in single alternate lines that underscore moments of conflict and fear. In contrast to the rapid colloquy that casts the antagonist against the heroine and her supporters, longer and majestically placed grandiloquent statements on virtue serve to strengthen the moral communication of the play. Moreover, the delineation of good and evil is reinforced by a tremolo from the...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)