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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Before the appearance of Regnard


Comedy

made some amends. Before the appearance of Regnard, the actor Baron, Moliere's favourite pupil, had given a lively play--_L'Homme a bonne Fortune_ (1686). JEAN-FRANCOIS REGNARD (1655-1709) escaped from his corsair captors and slavery at Algiers, made his sorry company of knaves and fools acceptable by virtue of inexhaustible gaiety, bright fantasy, and the liveliest of comic styles. His _Joueur_ (1696) is a scapegrace, possessed by the passion of gaming, whose love of Angelique is a devotion to her dowry, but he will console himself for lost love by another throw of the dice. His _Legataire Universel_, greedy, old, and ailing, is surrounded by pitiless rogues, yet the curtain falls on a general reconciliation. Regnard's morals may be doubtful, but his mirth is unquestionable.

Dancourt (1661-1725), with a far less happy style, had a truer power of observation, and as quick an instinct for theatrical effects; he exhibits in the _Chevalier a la Mode_ and the _Bourgeoises a la Mode_, if not with exact fidelity, at least in telling caricature, the struggle of classes in the society around him, wealth ambitious for rank, rank prepared to sell itself for wealth. The same spirit of cynical gaiety inspires the _Double Veuvage_ of Charles Riviere Dufresny (1655?-1724), where husband and wife, each disappointed in false tidings of the other's death, exhibit transports of feigned joy on meeting, and assist in the marriage of their respective lovers, each

to accomplish the vexation of the other. Among such plays as these the _Turcaret_ (1709) of Lesage appears as the creation of a type, and a type which verifies itself as drawn with a realism powerful and unfaltering.

In striking contrast with Lesage's bold and bitter satire are the comedies of Marivaux, delicate indeed in observation of life and character, skilled in their exploration of the byways of the heart, brilliant in fantasy, subtle in sentiment, lightly touched by the sensuality of the day. Philippe Nericault Destouches (1680-1754) had the ambition to revive the comedy of character, and by its means to read moral lessons on the stage; unfortunately what he lacked was comic power. In his most celebrated piece, _Le Glorieux_, he returns to the theme treated by Dancourt of the struggle between the ruined noblesse and the aspiring middle class. Pathos and something of romance are added to comedy.

Already those tendencies which were to produce the so-called _comedie larmoyante_ were at work. Piron (1689-1773), who regarded it with hostility, undesignedly assisted in its creation; _Les Fils Ingrats_, named afterwards _L'Ecole des Peres_, given in 1728, the story of a too generous father of ungrateful children, a play designed for mirth, was in fact fitter to draw tears than to excite laughter. Piron's special gift, however, was for satire. In _La Metromanie_ he smiles at the folly of the aspirant poet with all his cherished illusions; yet young Damis with his folly, the innocent error of a generous spirit, wins a sympathy to which the duller representatives of good sense can make no claim. It is satire also which gives whatever comic force it possesses to the one comedy of Gresset that is not forgotten: _Le Mechant_ (1747), a disloyal comrade, would steal the heart of his friend's beloved; soubrette and valet conspire to expose the traitor; but Cleon, who loves mischief in the spirit of sport, though unmasked, is little disconcerted. Brilliant in lines and speeches, _Le Mechant_ is defective in its composition as a whole.


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