Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée’s drama, which set the scene for later generations of bourgeois drama, is significant for its place in the development of comedy; it also affords insights into the cultural interests of his day. His numerous dramatic devices weave around his appealing plots, in accordance with the audience-pleasing philosophy of his first play, La Fausse Antipathie. Amusing the middle class and flattering their pretensions and aspirations, he enjoyed a full decade of success in the theater.
Critics, however, have judged La Chaussée’s work mediocre at best. Usually considered an inspired follower of public taste rather than a true innovator, La Chaussée has been criticized for improbable plots, vague, pretentious style, and dull poetry. His comedy does not focus on character analysis in the fashion of Molière; it is predicated rather on a comedy of situation. His characters are distinguished mainly by their high degree of sensibilité and virtue, which are brought to the fore through circumstances of the plot. Despite a plot structure complicated by numerous peripeteia, characters incognito, fortuitous scenes of recognition, superfluous scenes of dépit amoureux (loving spite), the denouement typically involves the revelation of a secret that quickly resolves the main conflict; the other plot elements merely serve to delay this resolution. La Chaussée’s character development and subtlety bow to the studied exposé of a moral lesson. This tendency results in long speeches full of moral sentences that, general in tone, apply only obliquely to the particular situation: The character’s voice becomes that of the preaching, ever-present author.
La Chaussée’s best-known play is doubtless Fashionable Prejudice, presented in 1735. Its great success lasted throughout the author’s lifetime, both in France and abroad. The “prejudice” on which the action of the play is based appears incredible to a modern audience: Durval loves his wife, Constance, yet dares not declare his love for fear that society will consider him ridiculous—such is the prejudice against conjugal love. Literary historians have debated whether the penchant for affairs outside marriage among the nobility actually created such disdain for fidelity in marriage. Given the moralistic resonance of La Chaussée’s work, it would appear that he was assailing a fashionable prejudice that actually existed.
Durval’s fear is such that he feigns indifference and scorn toward the virtuous, sensitive, and loving Constance. For her part, she refuses to reveal her despair to Durval. Durval has sent magnificent presents to her without daring to disclose their origin; this merely exacerbates Constance’s suffering, for she attributes the presents to two foppish admirers, Clitandre and Damis. She believes that her husband is pursuing other women, which he in fact has done to conform to society’s expectations. Durval’s friend and confidant Damon urges him to admit his love, but Durval continues to prevaricate. He is about to declare himself to his wife when the two fops enter, poking fun at another husband, who has abandoned society to live alone with his wife in the country. Durval, ever the fearful conformist, joins in this merriment and even agrees to play the role of the faithful husband in a satiric farce called “The Husband in Love with his Wife.” Contemptuous of this project, Damon urges Durval ever more strongly to end his wife’s suffering by avowing his love. Durval finally decides to send a letter, accompanied by a gift, to Constance. At the last moment, however, he withdraws the letter and sends only the gift. On receiving the gift, which she believes to be from an unknown lover, Constance is doubly wounded, for she has just received a packet of love letters that Durval had sent to a certain duchesse; it is obvious to her that her marriage is a sham.
At this point in the play, the action rebounds: Durval participates in a conversation with Damis and Clitandre in which each one boasts that Constance loves him. Damis reveals a miniature of Constance, thus “proving” that Constance prefers him. Although Damis has in reality stolen the portrait, Durval suspects the ever-faithful Constance of infidelity and, furious, confronts her with his suspicions. She, in a near faint, drops the packet of letters incriminating Durval, on which he immediately seizes as further proof of Constance’s inconstance. The entire household, including Constance’s father Argent, his niece Sophie, and Damon (who loves Sophie), gathers to discover why Durval is shouting. Durval triumphantly opens the...
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