"Embarrassment Of Riches"
Context: To us the expression "An embarrassment of riches" means "Too much to choose from"; that is, the more alternatives we have, the more difficult is our choice. Although a literal translation from the French, it is one in which the meaning does not survive the transition: in its original form it refers to the burden of wealth. Its first appearance in print seems to have been as the title of d'Allainval's comedy, usually given as L'embarras des richesses. The play was popular in France, and an English translation by John Ozell opened at the Haymarket Theater October 9, 1738. In it Harlequin, the stock comic character of French drama, is a gardener. His singing irritates Mr. and Mrs. Midas; Midas is a financier who worships Plutus, the god of wealth. Plutus answers their prayers, and punishes Harlequin by giving him a treasure. Harlequin is utterly corrupted by this gift; he puts on airs, abandons the pastoral Chloe, who loves him, gives himself over to vanity and display, and is in continual terror lest his treasure be stolen from him. He finally gives it up after he has become utterly miserable; the lovers are then reunited, and Harlequin becomes his old self again. The implication here is that wealth is a burden, especially to those who are not born to it; and the play's title had probably become a commonly used figure of speech by the time Voltaire used it in its context in another comedy, Le Droit du Seigneur, which was given in Paris in 1762 in five acts under the title L'Ecueil du Sage (The acquisition of wisdom), and revived in 1778, after the author's death. In it Mathurin, a farmer who has come into some money, abandons the pastoral Colette and pursues Acante, who is obviously too good for him. Her foster parents agree to let Mathurin marry her, and Acante is desperate. She wishes to take refuge with friends in a ruined château. The lord will be arriving soon, and Acante will appeal to him; she is unaware of "Le droit du seigneur." This "right of the lord" is an old French custom whereby the lord, when one of his vassals marries, spends the wedding night with the bride. In Act II, scene vi, the cavalier is telling Champagne, a servant, that he has been sent ahead by the marquis; his mission is to see that Mathurin does not get to Acante first. He suggests they take advantage of the great man's dignity, gravity, and slowness: they will abduct Acante and take her to a ruined château nearby. Champagne reminisces about the old lady who lives there:
CHAMPAGNEThe old girl was young once.I remember your madcap of a fatherHad a certain affair with her,Wherein each of them made a poor bargainFaith, he was a debauched master,Exactly like you, drinking, loving the girls,Carrying them off, and then making fools of them;He devoured everything and left you nothing.LE CHEVALIERI have a marquis, and that is a good thing.With no worries of my own, I live off his bounty.I want nothing to do with the responsibility of riches:He who can always play is rich enough.The first good, believe me, is pleasure.