Sociology of Eighteenth Century French Drama. by G. V. Plechanov

Part 1.

The choice of heroes from the ancient world was one of the numerous manifestations of the passion for the old, which itself was an ideological reflection of the struggle of the newly blossoming social state with feudalism. From the time of the Renaissance this love for the old civilisation passed over to the age of Louis XIV, which, as we know, has been compared to that of August. But when the bourgeoisie began to be imbued with an antithetical frame of mind, when in its heart “hatred together with a thirst for justice” began to grow, then the fascination of ancient heroes— fully shared by its educated representatives —appeared antedated, and the events of ancient history seemed to be insufficiently instructive. The hero of the bourgeois drama is “the man of the middle state,” more or less idealised by the ideology of the bourgeoisie. This characteristic case, of course, could not harm the portrayal.

Let us go further. A true creator of the bourgeois drama in France was La Chaussee. Now what do we see in his many productions. An opposition to this or other sides of aristocratic psychology, a struggle with these or other prejudices—or, if you choose, vices—of the nobility. The contemporaries valued, above all, the moral preaching these productions embodied. And from this point of view the tearful comedy was true to its origin.

It is known that the ideologists of the French bourgeoisie who aimed to give its portrayal in their dramatic productions, did not display much originality. The bourgeois drama was not created by them, but was carried over to France from England. In England this kind of dramatic production sprang up at the end of the seventeenth century as a reaction against the awful looseness which then predominated on the stage, and which was a reflection of the moral fall of the English aristocracy. The bourgeoisie—struggling with the aristocracy—wanted the comedy to become “worthy of the Christians,” and began to preach in it the mores of its class. The French literary innovators of the eighteenth century, borrowing extensively from English literature everything which corresponded to the conditions and feelings of the French bourgeoisie, carried to France this characteristic of the English tearful comedy. The French bourgeois drama, no less than the English, preaches the virtues of the bourgeois family. This is one of the secrets of its success. At first glance, it seems entirely inconceivable that the French bourgeois drama, which, around the middle of the eighteenth century, appeared to be an established literary production, fell to the background even before the classic tragedy, which, from all logic, should have receded before the bourgeois tragedy.

We shall shortly see how this strange circumstance is explained, but, before, let us say this;

Diderot, who, thanks to his passionate desire for innovation, could not but be attracted to the bourgeois drama, and who, as we know, participated in the new literary field (recall his Le fils naturalle in 1757, and his La pere de famille in 1758) demanded that the stage give a representation, not of a character, but of a condition—particularly a social condition. He was replied to in the following manner: Social conditions do not define a person.  “What is,” he was asked, “a judge in himself (le jugen soi)? What is a merchant in himself (le negociant eti soi)?” But here was a wide misunderstanding. Diderot talked not about the merchant en soi, but about the merchant of that time, and especially about the judge of that period. And that judges gave much of instructive material for very realistic scenic representation is best seen in the famous comedy, Le marriage de Figaro. Diderot’s demand was only a literary reflection of the revolutionary aims of the French “middle state” of that era.

(To be continued.)