In many ways, the emotional situations of René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s melodramas reflect the upheavals and perils that he experienced firsthand. From his early youth until the end of his life, he was subject to dramatic events. Pixérécourt was born on January 22, 1773, into a noble provincial family, which included several distinguished members. His grandfather had served as adviser to Charles of Lorraine, and his uncle, for whom he was named, was a doctor of theology who had served as chaplain to King Stanislas of Poland. The family had received the title of nobility at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Although little is known about his mother, his father is characterized by Edmond Estève as having “une âme de féodal” (the soul of a feudal lord). Nicolas Charles Georges Guilbert, a former army officer, fully intended to rear his son in the strict manner of the ancien régime. Consequently, the young Pixérécourt’s upbringing was severe. “Ma première jeunesse a été arrosée de larmes” (my earliest youth was sprinkled with tears), the playwright reminisced in his declining years. He also observed that his sadness and need of affection in his childhood underlay the sentimental perspective of his plays.
Although the young Pixérécourt was interested in art and literature, he received neither encouragement nor recognition until he was in secondary school, where he won books as prizes for his academic excellence. The year 1785 was important because the book awards marked the beginning of a lifelong pleasure of book collecting and a step toward the definition of his career goals. During his school years, Pixérécourt also demonstrated a talent for drawing, which would help him to earn a living later in Paris and would attract his interest in the scenic design of his plays. He did not, however, pursue a career in the arts immediately but chose law as his future profession. Unfortunately, it was impossible for him to realize his plans, for at the conclusion of his studies, the Revolution erupted, and his family’s financial condition changed dramatically. Although Pixérécourt was horrified by revolutionary terror and abuses, he decided not to emigrate as other young men of aristocratic families were doing. Nevertheless, his father insisted on enrolling him in a royalist army in Coblentz. No doubt remembering the harsh military exercises of his childhood, Pixérécourt was repelled by army life and yearned to escape. He requested a month’s leave and, disguised as a beggar, returned to France. He was able to reach Nancy without incident but in continuing on to Paris encountered numerous obstacles. Having no money and in danger of...
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