A New and Complete Translation

Essay 53

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [¥] 3 November 1767 [53.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 On the forty-first evening (Friday, the 10th of July) Cenie and The Man of the Clock were repeated.[*][53.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Cenie,” declares Chevrier,[†] “appears under the name of Mme. Graffigny, but it is a work by the Abbé de Voisenon.[53.3] It was originally in verse, but because Mme. Graffigny was fifty-four when she first had the notion to play author and had never written a verse in her life, she translated Cenie into prose.” “Mais l’Auteur,” he adds, “y a laissé 81 vers qui y existent dans leur entier.”[53.4] Doubtless that refers to individual lines strewn here and there that have lost their rhyme but retained the meter. Yet if Chevrier had no other proof that the play had been in verse, then we might reasonably find cause to doubt it. In general French verse comes so close to prose that it seems to require effort to write in a more elevated style without entire verses suddenly emerging that lack nothing but rhyme. And it is precisely from those who make no verses at all that such verses escape most readily, because they have no ear for meter and therefore understand as little how to avoid it as how to observe it.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 What other signs are there in Cenie to indicate that it did not flow from a woman’s pen? “Women, in general,” says Rousseau,[‡] “do not like any art, know nothing about any, and have no genius. They can succeed in little works which require only quick wit, taste, grace, and sometimes even a bit of philosophy and reasoning. They can acquire science, erudition, talents, and everything which is acquired by dint of work. But that celestial flame which warms and sets fire to the soul, that genius which consumes and devours, that burning eloquence, those sublime transports which carry their raptures to the depths of hearts, will always lack in the writings of women […].”[53.5]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 So are these lacking in Cenie? Or, if they are not lacking, then must Cenie necessarily be the work of a man? Rousseau himself would not draw this conclusion. Rather, he says that what he must deny to women in general, he would not challenge in any particular woman. (“Ce n’est pas à une femme, mais aux femmes que je refuse les talens des hommes.”[§])[53.6]And he says this precisely with respect to Cenie, precisely where he cites Graffigny as its author. And it should be noted that Graffigny was not his friend, that she had spoken ill of him, and that he complains about her in that very same passage.[53.7]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 All of this notwithstanding, he would rather declare her an exception to his rule than to allude in the least to Chevrier’s allegation, which he certainly would have had candor enough to do if he had not been convinced of the opposite.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Chevrier has more such disparaging privy information. This very Abbé, Chevrier wants us to know, worked for Favart.[53.8] He wrote the comic opera Annette and Lubin, not she, the actress who (he claims) could barely read.[53.9] His evidence is a popular tune about it that went around in Paris, and it is certainly true that the street ballads are some of the most credible documents in French history.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Why a man of the cloth would send an amorous light opera into the world under an alias is easy to understand. But why he would not want to own up to Cenie, which I would choose over most sermons, is difficult to see. After all, this Abbé already had more than one play performed and published, of which everyone knew him as the author, and which do not come even close to Cenie. If he wanted to extend a gallant gesture toward a fifty-four year old woman, is it likely that he would have done it with his very best work? –

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 On the forty-second evening (Monday, the 13th of July) Molière’s The School for Wives was performed.[53.10]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Molière had already written his The School for Husbands when he followed it with The School for Wives in 1662.[53.11]  One who does not know these plays would be very mistaken to believe that one delivers a sermon on duty to women and the other preaches similarly to men. They are both witty farces in which a pair of young girls, one of whom has been raised most strictly and the other of whom has grown up in complete simplicity, deceive a pair of old fools; both should have been called The School for Husbands if Molière had merely wanted to teach that the dumbest girl is always clever enough to deceive, and that coercion and control reap far less reward than lenience and freedom. There is really not much for the female sex to learn from The School for Wives, unless Molière meant this title to emphasize the “Marital Maxims” from the second scene of the third act, in which, however, the duties of women are made rather ludicrous.[53.12]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 “The two most successful subjects of tragedy and comedy,” Trublet says,[**] “are The Cid and The School for Wives. But both of these were treated by Corneille and Molière before these poets had reached their full force. I have this observation,” he adds, “from M. de Fontenelle.”[53.13]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 If only Trublet had asked M. de Fontenelle what he means by this. Or, if it were already comprehensible enough to him: if only he had taken a couple of words to make it understandable to his readers, too. For my part, I confess that I do not foresee where Fontenelle wished to go with this riddle. I think he misspoke, or Trublet misheard.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In any case, if, in these men’s opinion, the subject of The School for Wives is especially successful and Molière fell somewhat short in his execution, then he could not have taken much pride in the play as a whole. For the subject matter is not original to him, but taken partly from a Spanish story found in Scarron under the title The Useless Precaution, and partly from the playful The Nights of Straparola, in which a lover confides each day to one of his friends how far he has come with his beloved, without knowing that this friend is his rival.[53.14]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 “The School for Wives,” M. de Voltaire says, “was a whole new genre of play, in which everything is simply narrative, although it is such artful narrative that it all seems to be action.”[53.15]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 If the novelty consists in this, then it is best that the new genre be abandoned. Narrative remains narrative, regardless how artful, and in the theater we want to see real action. – But is it really true that everything is narrated in the play? Voltaire should not have rehashed this old accusation; or, instead of turning it into apparent praise, he should at least have included the response Molière himself furnished, which is very fitting. Namely, that, by virtue of the play’s intrinsic composition, its narratives are really actions; they have everything necessary for comic action, and it is just splitting hairs to deny them this name here.[††] [53.16] For the incidents that are related are less significant than the impression these incidents make on the deceived old man when he learns of them. Molière primarily wanted to depict the ridiculousness of this old man, so we must primarily see how he behaves in response to the misfortunes that threaten him; and we would not have seen this as clearly if the poet had made what he narrates happen before our eyes, and had instead narrated what he causes to occur. The vexation Arnolphe feels, the constraint he puts upon himself to hide this vexation, the derisive tone he adopts when he believes he has prevented Horace’s further progress, the astonishment and mute infuriation we see in him when he realizes that Horace nevertheless pursues his aims with success: these are actions, and much more comic actions than anything that occurs outside the scene.[53.17] Similarly, we find more action in Agnes’s narration of becoming acquainted with Horace than we would if we actually saw them become acquainted on stage.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Therefore, instead of saying of The School for Wives that everything in it appears to be action even though it is all only narration, I think it could be more correct to say that everything in it is action even though it all appears to be merely narration.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 [*] See the 23rd and 29th evenings.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [†] Observateur des Spectacles Vol. I, p. 211.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [‡] à d’Alembert p. 193.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [§] Ibid. p. 78.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 [**]  Essais de Litt. & de Morale Vol. IV, p. 295.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 [††] In the Critique of the School for Wives, in the person of Dorante: “Les recits euxmêmes y sont des actions suivant la constitution du sujet.

  • 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0
  • [¥] Text in blue indicates passages omitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [53.1] Actually published winter of 1768.
  • [53.2] Cénie, see [20]; The Man of the Clock, see [22].
  • [53.3] Claude-Henri de Fusée, abbé de Voisenon (1708–75): French playwright and author of libertine novels.
  • [53.4] “But the author left 81 of the original verses in their entirety.”
  • [53.5] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à d’Alembert Sur Les Spectacles 213–14; Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre 103.
  • [53.6] “And it is not to a woman that I refuse the talents of men, but to women.” See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à d’Alembert 100; Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert 48.
  • [53.7] Rousseau writes: “J’honore d’autant plus volontiers ceux de l’auteur de Cénie en particulier, qu’ayant à me plaindre de ses discours, je lui rends un hommage pur et désintéressé, comme tous les éloges sortis de ma plume” (100). In Bloom’s translation: “I am all the more willing to praise the talents of the author of Cénie in particular, because I have suffered from her words and can thus render her a pure and disinterested homage, as are all those issued from my pen” (48).
  • [53.8] Not Charles Simon Favart, but rather his collaborator and wife, Marie-Justine-Benoîte Favart (née Duronceray) (1727–72), a celebrated actress and singer.
  • [53.9]Chevrier claims that the Abbé de Voisenon, rather than Marie-Justine-Benoîte Favart, was the author of Annette and Lubin (1762), a one-act vaudeville comedy in verse. A published edition from 1782 lists Favart and Voisenon as co-authors, and Favart as the actress playing the lead role.
  • [53.10] L’École des femmes (1662): five-act comedy in verse. The translation used was Die Frauen-Schule (1752) by F. S. Bierling.
  • [53.11] L’École des maris [The School for Husbands] (1661): three-act comedy in verse.
  • [53.12] The Maxims of Marriage, or the Duties of the Married Woman, with her Daily Practice: a “useful tract” that Arnolphe, the main character, gives to Agnès, his intended bride. See Molière, The School for Wives 130–1.
  • [53.13] Abbé Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet (1697–1770): essayist and literary theorist, known for his friendship with de la Motte and with Bernard le Bouyer (or Bovier) de Fontenelle (1657–1757), playwright, moralist, and philosopher of the French Enlightenment (and also the nephew of Pierre and Thomas Corneille). See Trublet, Essais IV: 222.
  • [53.14] La précaution inutile [The Useless Precaution]: a comical novella (set in Spain) from the Nouvelles tragi-comiques (1655–57) by the French playwright and novelist Paul Scarron (1610–60). Le piacevoli notti [The Nights of Straparola] (lit. “Pleasant Nights”) (1550–3), a popular two-part collection of novellas by Italian author Gianfrancesco Straparola (c.1480–1557), which introduced numerous folktales into European literature; following Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of men and women tells stories over a succession of nights – Lessing refers to the fourth story told on the fourth night (see Straparola 199–207).
  • [53.15] See Voltaire, La Vie de Molière 419–20.
  • [53.16] Molière responded to his critics in the form of a one-act prose comedy, the Critique d’école des femmes [The Critique of the School for Wives] (1663), which Lessing quotes in his footnote (see Molière, The Critique of the School for Wives 199).
  • [53.17] Horace: a handsome younger man who pursues Agnès.
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