Critics generally credit Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée for popularizing a new genre in French drama: the comédie larmoyante. Gustave Lanson, the influential nineteenth century French critic, defines the genre:The comédie larmoyante is an intermediary genre between comedy and tragedy, which presents ordinary people, virtuous or nearly so, in a serious action, occasionally arousing pathos, and which excites us to virtue, moves us by virtue’s misfortunes, and makes us applaud at its triumph.
The “tearful comedy” of La Chaussée deviates from the strict separation of genres, a cardinal principle of French seventeenth century dramaturgy. Although dramatists of the classical period occasionally created generically hybrid plays (the comédies héroïques or the more numerous tragi-comédies, for example), purist critics attacked La Chaussée’s highly popular work as a “bastard genre,” saying “Thalia must laugh; a comedy which provokes tears is against reason.” Despite this opposition from influential writers such as Voltaire, the comédie larmoyante marks a turning point in the evolution of French theater. Its popularity paved the way for the drame bourgeois of Denis Diderot and Michel-Jean Sedaine later in the century. Portraying the domestic problems of middle-class families, the sentimental drame bourgeois preached social reform with a moral basis and led in turn to the romantic social plays of such writers as Alexandre Dumas, fils, in the nineteenth century.
The comédie larmoyante also represents a deviation from the comic norm in France since the death of Molière in 1673: Substituting emotion for laughter, La Chaussée’s comedy stresses a moral appeal to the audience based on sentiment, or sensibilité. The notion of sensibilité characterizes many aspects of eighteenth century literature; it is a kind of self-conscious exercise in emotional display, and La Chaussée’s comédie larmoyante was written particularly to elicit a sentimental response from its audience. La Chaussée’s characters are above all sensible (sensitive), and this sensibilité manifests their innate goodness and virtue. Although it was the mainspring of his art, La Chaussée did not create the concept; he merely exploited a shift in taste. Whereas Molièresque comedy elicited laughter at the expense of vice, La Chaussée’s moralistic theater provoked tears on behalf of virtue.