Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1789
First produced: 1709
First published: 1709
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Social comedy
Time of work: Seventeenth century
M. Turcaret, a financier, in love with the Baroness
Mme Turcaret, his wife
The Baroness, a young widow and a coquette
Frontin, the Knight's valet
The Knight, a coxcomb
The Marquess, another coxcomb
Lisette, maidservants to the Baroness
Mme Jacob, a dealer in toilette necessaries, sister to M. Turcaret
Flamand, M. Turcaret's valet
In TURCARET, OR, THE FINANCIER action never lags; lines never drag. This type of French satirical comedy is marked by the main features of earthy realism, an almost didactic purpose, and photographic characterizations, and TURCARET is a classic of its kind. The satire is founded both in personalities and in national conditions. The title character is the profiteer, whose altruism is nonexistent and whose wealth is his only merit. Those who ingratiate themselves for favors from this parvenu are no more admirable than he is. Through the relationships of the various characters, Lesage presents a clear picture of the social disintegration which began in the last years of Louis XIV, of the clumsy fiscal system of seventeenth-century France, and of the demoralized attitude of the French resulting from the military disasters of the war with England and Austria.
M. Turcaret lavished gifts and immense sums of money upon the Baroness, whom he had asked to marry him. The Baroness in turn poured equal amounts into the pockets of the wheedling Knight. Marine admonished her mistress to use her reasoning. The discerning Marine knew the Baroness' motivation in keeping the Knight. He had been the first to offer her, a widow, love. Marine outlined a judicious pattern for the Baroness: drop the Knight, because M. Turcaret might not like the idea of her having "friends" and accept M. Turcaret's gifts. Then, should he not want to marry her, she would have wealth and possessions and could marry some needy gentleman. To be sure, the world might talk a little about her rejection by M. Turcaret, but a husband, needy or not, could restore her reputation by marriage.
An early gift was a small coffer, delivered by Flamand, M. Turcaret's valet. It contained two notes: one a bill of exchange for ten thousand crowns and written by M. Turcaret; the other a quatrain, dedicated to the Baroness. Marine was anxious to read the verse of the second to see whether it was as good as the prose of the first.
Enraged by her mistress' gullibility with the Knight, Marine quit her job with the Baroness. She announced, in quitting, that she would report to M. Turcaret that the Baroness was little more than the middleman for his money, as it passed from M. Turcaret to the Knight.
Frontin quipped that such a servant as Marine with all her righteousness was worse than a mother. As to her exposing them to M. Turcaret, Frontin added that waiting maids were like pious ladies performing their charitable deeds as a means of avenging themselves. Frontin knew exactly the young woman, Lisette, to replace Marine as the Baroness' maid.
To show her animosity for M. Turcaret and her kind thoughts for the Knight, the Baroness gave the Knight the ten-thousand-crown note given her by M. Turcaret to redeem her diamond ring (also a gift from M. Turcaret), which she had given the distraught Knight to pawn so that he might pay a gambling debt.
Frontin gave a succinct summary of the life of the times, when he traced the source of income. He and the Knight had a coquette who milked the man of affairs who made his money pillaging the taxpayers. It made, he thought, a diverting circumstance of trickery.
The Knight returned the ring, but not the change from the note. His action was timely, as M. Turcaret, having heard Marine's story of the Baroness' generosity toward the Knight, appeared and asked to see the ring. When the Baroness produced it, Marine's report to M. Turcaret was undermined. The ring incident served as prima facie evidence that the Baroness had the note also. M. Turcaret became putty in the Baroness' hands as she reprimanded him for believing Marine's report.
M. Turcaret's undisciplined character was demonstrated fully, just prior to this scene of abject apology, as he went about the Baroness' room smashing her largest mirror and her finest porcelains. This outburst, he said, gave him a little relief. He restored the damage with costly replacements.
Taking full advantage of M. Turcaret's subservience, the Baroness told him that she wished Frontin to replace Flamand in his service. M. Turcaret observed that Frontin's countenance was marked by honesty; he asked Frontin whether he had principles. Asked what he meant, M. Turcaret explained that he meant clerk's principles—such as knowledge of the single entry system. Frontin stated his qualifications as adeptness at two handwritings, ability with double entry, and a knowledge of preventing frauds or countenancing them—as M. Turcaret's advantage would require.
When Lisette reported as the Baroness' maid, it was apparent that she would be active in the financial intrigue. Frontin, having coached her in the finances and relationships among the various people, gave Lisette her cardinal responsibility to the Baroness: indefatigable compliance and unceasing flattery of the Baroness' infatuation for the Knight. Lisette was most capable in exercising her duties.
The Knight explained to Frontin that he had not been able to find the usurer to cash the ten-thousand-crown note, that Frontin was to find a moneychanger to effect the transaction so that the Baroness would not learn that they had not pawned her diamond. Further, the valet was to go to the restaurateur to make the arrangements for that night's dinner which the Knight was giving in honor of the Baroness and M. Turcaret.
Frontin's first move as M. Turcaret's valet was to maneuver, with Lisette's assistance, his employer into an outlay of sixty pistoles, the amount to be payment on a coach and horses for the Baroness. His second move involved his coming to the Baroness with a bailiff who had a deed signed by the Baroness and her late husband (Frontin's handwriting ability had been put to early use), assigning ten thousand livres to a horse merchant. The visit was well-timed. M. Turcaret was present and paid the sum due, rather than have the Baroness discomfited.
A countess from the country, whom the Marquess—the son of M. Turcaret's former master—brought to the Baroness' dinner, was Mme. Turcaret, who had not lived with her husband for ten years because of his meanness and ill manners. Mme. Turcaret had come to Paris to collect five quarters' support owed her by M. Turcaret. The Knight recognized her as the lady with whom he had had an affair. Mme. Jacob, who came on reference from one of the Baroness' friends to sell her a fashionable headdress, was M. Turcaret's sister.
In the midst of abuses and insults among the Turcarets and Mme. Jacob, M. Turcaret was called away to discuss a business matter with his partners. Sensing Turcaret's fiscal embroilments, the Baroness announced that she would give up M. Turcaret for his and Mme. Turcaret's happiness; the Marquess followed suit in severing connections with Mme. Turcaret. Frontin brought the news that the bailiffs had apprehended M. Turcaret, he being responsible for a pay-officer who had defaulted on two hundred thousand crowns. Mme. Jacob went to her brother's aid, not forgetting she was his sister. Mme. Turcaret went to him to bombard him with insults, not forgetting she was his wife.
Frontin reported that he had been searched by the bailiffs, who had confiscated the ten-thousand-crown note, which he had not yet been able to cash, and the ten-thousand-livre note which M. Turcaret had issued to relieve the Baroness of her debt on the bond. The Baroness, aware then that her diamond had never been pawned and that the note would never be returned to her, put the duping Knight and Frontin out of her life forever. The Knight denied Frontin future employment with him. Then he went off with the Marquess, to resume their old comradely habit of drinking all night and sleeping all day.
Left alone with Lisette, Frontin confessed that he had not been searched by the bailiffs. He had cashed the notes and had the forty thousand francs safely put away. If Lisette's ambition were satisfied with such a sum, Frontin proposed, they should start a stock of honest children. He was taking over in finances where M. Turcaret had left off.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
In TURCARET, plot is subordinated to the depiction of character, much in the manner of Moliere. The rich financier is revealed in all his diversity: gallant lover, jealous lover, rapacious businessman. The portrait of Turcaret reaches completion with the satirical touches in his character that render him not only obnoxious and ridiculous, but menacing. As a type, Turcaret represents everything that the people had come to detest in those difficult times: bad taste, execrable manners, alleged immorality, and especially easy success and influence. He worships money and uses any means to obtain it, including speculation, usury, and crooked deals.
The world in which Turcaret operates is depicted with exceptional acuity. It is a sort of no-man's-land between the middle class and the common people, whose denizens are of the most doubtful stripe; at the center is the Baroness, an adventurous coquette, around whom flutter suspicious businessmen, worldly young fops, a go-between, and dishonest valets. The Baroness, busily occupied with her plans to extract as much money as possible from Turcaret, herself appears ridiculous when the Knight easily fleeces her.
Lesage's TURCARET, although without the power of Moliere's psychological analysis, does offer a vivid picture of the manners of the time. The satire in the play is not very ferocious, but its low ethical tone does provide a unique style of humor; the characters all possess such loose moral codes that they cannot avoid preying upon one another, until they seem to be involved in a grotesque kind of dance. Although the play is episodic, the plot possesses a certain briskness, bringing Turcaret to an effective end. The greatest character in the play may be Frontin, a lively and unscrupulous rogue with quick wits and amoral ambitions; he suggests both Moliere's Scapin and Beaumarchais' Figaro. Despite whatever faults the play possesses, TURCARET is genuinely amusing, filled with acute observation, a rapid pace, and witty speeches. TURCARET shows life as Lesage saw it about him, without too much comment; he is content to let the story make its own point, without philosophizing, and to make it with that happiest of mediums, laughter.