Louis-Sébastien Mercier Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In his study Du théâtre: Ou, Nouvel essai sur l’art dramatique, Louis-Sébastien Mercier put forward the high expectations he had for the stage. Like almost every viewpoint he put forward, his theories on drama must be considered in relation to his political, moral, and social ideas. Associating classical tragedy with the nobility and the monarchy, Mercier stated that the genre’s characters, settings, feelings, and modes were alien to the lives of average Frenchmen. In its place, he argued for a theatrical form that would reflect values common to all economic classes. Echoing his fellow reformers, he argued that protagonists in drama should be modeled after honest people from all walks of life, and he asserted that, for the sake of realism, they should speak in prose rather than in verse. In addition, he believed that the theater should open people’s lives to new experiences. With particular eloquence, he urged his fellow dramatists to celebrate those moments of greatness and nobility that any person might experience, and he argued with vehemence that theater should serve society’s common interests by promoting high moral values.

In practice, the dramatist met a number of these theoretical objectives. For example, he succeeded in staging provocative situations, investing the lives of what would otherwise be termed ordinary characters with dramatic interest. At the same time, however, his plays were by no means provincial. He brought the experience of his wide travels to the Parisian stage, utilizing diverse settings and cosmopolitan casts of characters. Above all, he ensured that his plays promoted moral values, and often his spectators or readers are moved to empathize with the victims of unjust social institutions. At his best, Mercier dramatizes a social problem through the use of well-conceived plots, as in one of his earliest efforts, The Point of Honor. Though the play’s effect is often diminished by an exaggerated sentimentality, the young deserter’s plight exemplifies the inadequacy of an arbitrary military code. In plays such as The Merchant of Guadeloupe, Mercier achieves a powerful effect through the opposition of contrasts. In The Distressed Family, in which one act is played in the poor family’s quarters and another in the rich man’s abode, the contrast is sharply portrayed through the visual medium.

To the detriment of his work, however, Mercier was often tempted to subordinate dramatic considerations, using the stage as a platform to air his social and political convictions. This fault is displayed in all his dramas, and sometimes asserts itself as their dominant mode. In the last half of Jean Hennuyer, Bishop of Lisieux, for example, the lead character speaks as if he is reading one of Mercier’s philosophical papers. Although these plays were very popular when first published and produced, the public’s interest in them did not last. Ironically, it is most likely because of the success of the eighteenth century’s social and political reforms that these plays can no longer find an audience: There is no longer any novelty in what were, at one time, revolutionary ideas. In many of Mercier’s dramas, the playwright’s desire to depict life accurately conflicts with a stronger impulse to present moral exemplars. Although it can be argued that characters such as the selfless notary in The Distressed Family are sometimes found in everyday life, the veracity of such thoroughly morally perfect characters as the vinegar merchant in La Brouette du vinaigrier is sometimes called into question.

The Point of Honor

The second original play that Mercier wrote, The Point of Honor, was his first to be performed, and it was a huge popular success. It was eventually given a private audience before the royal family. When Mercier offered the play for performance, the question of how to treat deserters was being widely debated; the military’s solution was an automatic death penalty. In The Point of Honor, Mercier successfully dramatized his reasons for opposing this severe punishment. The action is situated in a small town on the border between France and Germany, where a young deserter, Durimel, has been staying as a boarder in the home of a German woman, Madam Luzère. In the opening scene, an older man, Mr. Hoctau, is asking Madam Luzère for the hand of her daughter, Clary. Though the woman insists that her daughter has already been promised to Durimel, Mr. Hoctau persists because the younger man is French and has no prospects. Insisting that money and nationalism are more important than love is, Mr. Hoctau immediately takes on the role of villain, and his intolerant behavior sets a tone against which the young deserter will appear favorable. In the scenes that follow, Durimel is shown to be a brave and sensitive young man. To Madam Luzère, he explains the reasons for his desertion: When an authoritarian captain for no reason humiliated him, he lashed back in uncontrollable rage; subsequently fearing for his life, he ran.

The play’s central conflict begins when the French army comes to occupy the German town, and it becomes necessary to hide Durimel. In the role of villain, Mr. Hoctau turns Durimel over to the French authorities. The action is complicated by the appearance of two officers in the French army, St. Franc and Valcour. Madam Luzère learns that the captain, St. Franc, lost his son when the boy was very young, but she does not suspect that the son could be Durimel. So much of the play is devoted to this revelation, however, that the audience can have no doubt. St. Franc eventually finds his son, only to learn of the impending execution, but in spite of the young soldier’s understandable reasons for deserting, there is nothing the captain can do. In this way, Mercier successfully demonstrates a potential problem inherent in the inflexible law. In addition, the...

(The entire section is 2429 words.)