Jean-François Regnard’s fame as a dramatist rests on his mature plays—the seven major comedies that he wrote for the Comédie-Française. Of the seven plays, four still remain in the repertory of this famous theater company. They are, in order of production, Le Joueur (1696), Les Folies amoureuses (1704), Les Ménechmes (1705), and The Universal Legatee (1708). After nearly three centuries, Regnard’s seven verse plays still retain their original liveliness as well as their infectious humor. An overview of these comedies shows the influence of the Italian commedia dell’arte, particularly in the use of stock characters (such as clever valets, old misers, and foolish lovers) and comic leitmotifs (such as mistaken identities, disguises, quid pro quos, and so on). The ultimate goal in all the plays is marriage. In terms of plot structure, the action is primarily built on the removal of numerous obstacles confronting the protagonists. In this period, it was common practice for playwrights to borrow ideas, lines, and sometimes entire scenes from a predecessor or a contemporary, presenting them as one’s own work. Regnard was no different from other dramatists of the time in this respect, but the changes that he wrought on his source material reveal his distinctive gifts. Regnard also displayed ingenuity in his handling of verbal comic devices: The vivacity of his language has seldom been equaled in French comedy.
Some critics consider the first of Regnard’s major comedies, Le Joueur, to be his masterpiece. As the title indicates, the play concerns a chronic gambler, Valère, who is torn between his love of gambling and his love for his mistress, Angélique. Regnard took the subject of gambling from a play by Florent Carton Dancourt, La Désolation des joueuses (1687). Le Joueur resembles in many ways the Le Chevalier joueur (1697), which was acted two months later and written by his former collaborator, Dufresny. Each playwright accused the other of plagiarizing his work, and scholarly research has never been able to prove satisfactorily who borrowed what from whom, but Regnard’s play is unquestionably superior to his rival’s. The major character, Valère, returns home one evening penniless after a gambling bout and immediately inquires what efforts his valet has made to get him more money. His valet informs him that his fiancé, Angélique, weary of his gambling habit, is ready to break off the engagement and marry his uncle, Dorante, instead. She finally gives in to Valère’s protestations, and as a sign of their reconciliation gives him her portrait. He immediately pawns it and does not redeem it when he has the chance. Valère loses everything in another game and seeks consolation from his fiancé, but he is unable to produce the missing portrait when requested to do so. He accuses his servant of having misplaced it. His uncle, who is also his rival, has come into possession of the portrait and now shows it to Angélique. The latter reproaches Valère and expresses her intention to marry the uncle. A dejected Valère departs despairingly, still hoping that someday gambling will change his fortune.
The play is more a comedy of manners than of character (gambling as a mania plagued France at the end of the seventeenth century). The manners of gamblers are depicted, various card games are described, and a number of gaming expressions are used. The structure of the play itself reflects the fluctuations of a gambler’s fortunes, as the action shifts back and forth—loss of money, remorse, love, a gift, winning, and eventually losing both girl and money. The scenes are skillfully arranged. Regnard develops to the full the play’s amusing aspects. His dry humor is shown in several scenes, notably in act 1, scene 2 and act 4, scene 13. He parodies a tragic tirade when he has the servant describe his master’s melodramatic speeches in scene 2 of act 4; a pseudomarquis makes an absurd entrance in scene 4 of act 2, and in act 4, this boastful marquis evokes laughter by poking fun at the new class of parvenus. Regnard maintains a lighthearted tone throughout his play, which is a prime example of good theater and good entertainment.
Regnard’s next comedy, Le Distrait, was first performed on December 2, 1697. The play is based on one of Jean de La Bruyère’s “characters,” Ménalque, an absentminded type. The play is not a satire of contemporary manners but rather a caricature, a comic portrait. Léandre is in love with Clarice, but in order to inherit money from his wealthy uncle, he has signed a contract to marry Isabelle. The latter is loved by a chevalier, the brother of Clarice. He and Clarice have an uncle, Valère, who wishes for them to marry according to their wishes. In his absentmindedness, Léandre forgets that a marriage contract has been signed. This infuriates his rich uncle, who disinherits him shortly before dying. Isabelle’s mother now refuses to let her daughter marry Léandre. Valère, by offering to make the chevalier his heir, wins her consent to the proposed marriage between her daughter and the chevalier. Valère also promises a considerable sum to Clarice, removing the financial obstacle to her marriage to Léandre. She consents to the marriage and is ready to reconcile herself to the fact of Léandre’s distractions and absentmindedness. The chief merit of the plot is to accentuate the peculiar trait of the protagonist, Léandre, in amusing scenes, as when, for example, he does not notice that his stocking is down, asks for gloves when he already has them on, takes someone else’s carriage, throws away his watch, writes a letter to one lady and sends it to another, forgets an important communication, and even forgets that his marriage contract has been signed. Still, when the plot depends on a series of incidents, however amusing, the action is bound to languish. In terms of plot structure, then, Le Distrait is perhaps the least successful of Regnard’s major plays. This fact notwithstanding, the language in the play remains vintage Regnard. There are many witty, graceful phrases, and the overall tone is that of light banter. Irony and parody abound, especially in the Léandre-chevalier exchange in act 4, scene 6. The author indulges his love of wordplay by interspersing Latin jargon, military idioms, musical expressions, and legal phrases rather conspicuously throughout his rhyme scenes. The play had a very short run when it was first produced (only four performances), but was successfully restaged in 1731 and continued in the repertory of the Comédie-Française well into the twentieth century.
Regnard’s third full-length comedy, Démocrite, was markedly different from the two that preceded it. He intended it to be a more serious play. The action takes place in Greece, and the plot contains run-of-the-mill Romanesque elements not found in his previous plays. It had its premiere on January 12, 1700. Regnard was initially disappointed with the public’s response, but he persuaded the actors and the theater management to keep the play running. He was soon vindicated when it was performed seventeen times in succession. The plot is a variation of the familiar theme of a royal princess identified by means of a valuable bracelet. Criséis, the adopted daughter of the peasant, Thaler, is the pupil of the misanthropic philosopher Démocrite. One day, Agélas and Agénor, king and prince of Greece, meet by chance Criséis, Thaler, Démocrite, and the latter’s disciple, Strabon. The king falls in love with the girl and invites them all to court. When he proposes marriage, his betrothed, Isabelle, protests. Because of the bracelet and the recollections of Thaler and Cléanthis, who was involved in the substitution of the young girl at birth, Criséis is identified as the long-lost daughter of the King of Athens. According to a previous pact, she must now marry Agélas. Isabelle will marry Prince Agénor instead. Strabon and Cléanthis, who are attracted to each other, also decide to live together. As the play ends, Démocrite is left alone to pine over the loss of Criséis, whom he had secretly loved all along. He returns to his desert cave to ponder over the vicissitudes of life and to laugh at the follies of others. Although Démocrite gives his name to the comedy, his role is not well-developed. He has little in common with the historical Greek philosopher, Democritus. Like Alceste in Molière’s play, he is in love, but he is a reluctant lover who makes excuses for his passion and human weakness. The play is still a comedy of manners, in spite of the Romanesque elements. The Athenian court is a parody of the court of...
(The entire section is 3596 words.)