A New and Complete Translation

Essay 86

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 26 February 1768[86.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For example, Diderot claimed[*] that in human nature there are at most only a dozen truly comic, boldly delineated characters, and that the small differences in men’s characters cannot be handled as successfully as the pure, unmixed characters.[86.2] He thus suggested bringing social standing rather than characters to the stage, and wanted to make the treatment of the former the particular business of serious comedy.[86.3] “Until now,” he says, “character has been the main object of comedy, and social standing has been accidental; but social standing really should be the main focus, and character accidental.[86.4] The whole plot used to arise out of character; in general, the circumstances under which character best expressed itself were sought, and these circumstances were linked together. Going forward, a man’s social standing, with its duties, its advantages, and its inconveniences, must serve as the foundation for the work. To me, this source appears far more fruitful, more extensive, and more beneficial than the source of character. If the character were even a bit too exaggerated, the spectator could say to himself: that is not me. But he cannot possibly deny that the social standing portrayed is his own; he cannot possibly mistake his own duties. He must necessarily apply what he hears to himself.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Palissot’s objection[†] to this is not baseless.[86.5] He denies that nature has such a paucity of original characters that comic writers could have exhausted the supply. Molière still envisioned sufficient numbers of new characters, and believed he had treated scarcely the smallest part of them. The passage in which he sketches out many of them in rapid succession is as extraordinary as it is instructive, insofar as it allows us to suppose that The Misanthrope would hardly have remained his non plus ultra of high comedy had he lived longer.[‡][86.6] Palissot himself is not unsuccessful in adding a few new characters from his own observation: the dumb patron, with his groveling clients; the man in the wrong place; the suspicious man, whose elaborate attacks are thwarted by the naïveté of a trusting and upright man; the false philosopher; the singular man, whom Destouches is said to have missed; the hypocrite of social virtues, because religious hypocrites are somewhat out of fashion.[86.7] – These are truly uncommon views that infinitely extend a far-reaching vision. There is harvest enough here for the few reapers who dare take it on!

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 And even if, Palissot says, there really are so few comic characters, and all these few really have been worked into plays, would social position remedy this dilemma? Let us choose one; for example, the position of the judge. Will I not have to give the judge some stamp of character? Will he not need to be sad or merry, serious or lighthearted, affable or volatile? Won’t it be this character alone that lifts him out of the category of metaphysical abstraction and makes him into a real person? Consequently, won’t the foundation of the plot and moral of the play still rest on character? Consequently, won’t the social position once again be merely coincidental?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 To be sure, Diderot could respond to this: Yes, the person that I invest with social position must also have his individual moral character; but I want to ensure that it does not clash, but rather harmonizes as well as possible, with the duties and relationships of his social standing. Thus, if this person is a judge, then it is not up to me whether I want to make him serious or lighthearted, affable or volatile; he must necessarily be serious and affable to the degree required by the business at hand.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I say Diderot could answer so, but at the same time he would have approached another precipice: namely, the precipice of the perfect character. Characters based on his social positions would never do anything other than what they must do according to duty and conscience, they would do everything according to the book. Do we expect that in comedy? Could such representations be sufficiently appealing? Will the benefits we might hope to gain from them be sufficiently great to justify the trouble of establishing a new genre and writing a poetics for it?[86.8]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It seems to me that in general Diderot has not sufficiently reconnoitered the precipice of the perfect character.[86.9] In his plays he steers pretty much directly toward it, and in his critical navigation charts there is absolutely no caution against it.[86.10] On the contrary, there are things there that advise steering right to it. We need only remember what he says about the contrast between the characters in Terence’s The Brothers.[§][86.11] “The two contrasting fathers in it are drawn with such similar intensity, that it would defy the most subtle critic to tell whether Micio or Demea is the main character.[86.12] If he makes his judgment before the last scene, he might easily be amazed that the character he has considered a reasonable man through a full five acts is nothing but a fool, and that the one he considered a fool could very well be the reasonable man. One could almost say, at the beginning of the fifth act, that the difficulty of the contrast forced the author to abandon his purpose and reverse the whole interest of the play. But what is the result? It is that we no longer know who we should be interested in. From the beginning we have been for Micio and against Demea, and at the end we are for neither of them. We ought almost to demand a third father, who occupied the middle between these two characters and demonstrated both their faults.”

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Not I! I reject him, this third father, whether he be in the same play, or by himself. Where is there a father who does not believe he knows how a father should be? We all believe ourselves to be on the right path; we only ask to be warned about the wrong paths on either side from time to time.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Diderot is correct: it is better if the characters are merely different, rather than being contrasted. Contrasted characters are less natural and augment the romantic tone that is all too common in dramatic events. For every social group in real life where the contrast between characters manifests itself as prominently as the comic writer requires, there are always a thousand in which those characters are only different. Very correct! But isn’t a character who always sticks exactly to that path prescribed to him by reason and virtue a much rarer phenomenon? For every twenty social groups in real life, we will sooner find ten with fathers who take completely contradictory paths in the upbringing of their children than one that could boast a true father. In addition, this true father is always the same, always singular, while the variations on him are infinite. Consequently, plays that feature the true father will not only be more unnatural individually, but will also be collectively more uniform than those that introduce fathers with different principles. It also goes without saying that the characters who seem merely different in peaceful society begin to polarize as soon as a conflicting interest sets them in motion. Indeed, it is natural that they should then try to make themselves even more different from each other than they really are. The lively man becomes fire and flame against the man who strikes him as too tepid, and the tepid man becomes as cold as ice in order to provoke the other to as many rash acts as might serve his purposes.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [*]See the “Conversations” appended to The Natural Son.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [†] Petites Lettres sur de grands Philosophes, Lettre II.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [‡] (Impromptu de Versailles Sc. 4). “Eh! mon pauvre Marquis, nous lui (à Molière) en fournirons toujours assez, et nous ne prenons guère le chemin de nous rendre sages pour tout ce qu’il fait et tout ce qu’il dit. […] Crois-tu qu’il ait épuisé dans ses comédies tout le ridicule des hommes? et, sans sortir de la Cour, n’a-t-il pas encore vingt caractères de gens où il n’a point touché? N’a-t-il pas, par exemple, ceux qui se font les plus grandes amitiés du monde, et qui, le dos tourné, font galanterie de se déchirer l’un l’autre? N’a-t-il pas ces adulateurs à outrance, ces flatteurs insipides, qui n’assaisonnent d’aucun sel les louanges qu’ils donnent, et dont toutes les flatteries ont une douceur fade qui fait mal au cœur à ceux qui les écoutent? N’a-t-il pas ces lâches courtisans de la faveur, ces perfides adorateurs de la fortune, qui vous encensent dans la prospérité et vous accablent dans la disgrâce? N’a-t-il pas ceux qui sont toujours mécontents de la Cour, ces suivants inutiles, ces incommodes assidus, ces gens, dis-je, qui pour services ne peuvent compter que des importunités, et qui veulent que l’on les récompense d’avoir obsédé le Prince dix ans durant? N’a-t-il pas ceux qui caressent également tout le monde, qui promènent leurs civilités à droit et à gauche, et courent à tous ceux qu’ils voient avec les mêmes embrassades et les mêmes protestations d’amitié? […] Va, va, Marquis, Molière aura toujours plus de sujets qu’il n’en voudra, et tout ce qu’il a touché jusqu’ici n’est rien que bagatelle au prix de ce qui reste.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [§]In On Dramatic Poetry, appended to The Father of the Family.

  • 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
  • [86.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [86.2] Lessing continues his discussion, from [84] and [85], of Diderot’s dramatic theory. At the end of [85], he begins a critique of Diderot’s Entretiens sur le Fils naturel [Conversations on the Natural Son] (1757); see also [84.5].
  • [86.3] The eighteenth-century saw the introduction of a number of “middle genres” situated between the extremes of tragedy and comedy, but differentiated from the “mixed” genre of tragicomedy. In his theory, Diderot seeks to establish a new “serious” genre, with “serious comedy” focusing on virtue and human duties. See Diderot, Entretiens sur le Fils naturel 184–5; Diderot, “Conversations on The Natural Son” 46–51. See also Diderot, De la Poésie Dramatique 229–34; Diderot, “Discourse on Dramatic Poetry” 57–9.
  • [86.4] See Diderot, Entretiens sur le Fils naturel 208–9; “Conversations on The Natural Son” 60.
  • [86.5] Charles Palissot de Montenoy; for his criticism of Le Fils naturel, see Palissot, Petites Lettres sur de grands Philosophes 18–73.
  • [86.6] Lessing, in his footnote, provides an excerpt from Molière’s one-act comedy L’Impromptu de Versailles [The Versailles Impromptu] (1663), a self-referential response to his critics in which Molière and his company are rehearsing a new play for the king; the “rehearsal” is repeatedly interrupted, allowing Molière to comment on contemporary playwriting and performance. See Molière, L’Impromptu de Versailles 30–1; Molière, The Versailles Impromptu 221–2. Tr. note: Lessing has excerpted this quotation from Palissot’s Petites Lettres, replicating Palissot’s textual errors, which we have corrected. The Misanthrope (1666): generally considered Molière’s masterwork. non plus ultra: the pinnacle of achievement.
  • [86.7] “The singular man”: refers to Destouches’ comedy L’homme singulier [The Singular Man] (1754). “The hypocrite of social virtues”: Palissot’s original reads “le Tartuffe de société” (“the Tartuffes of social conventions”), referring to Molière’s titular hypocrite (the comment that religious hypocrites are “out of fashion” is Lessing’s). For this list of characters, see Palissot 69–70.
  • [86.8] The new comic genres of the eighteenth century deviated from earlier comedies that offered characters up for ridicule, presenting instead exemplary characters that provided a model to follow, rather than behavior to be eschewed.
  • [86.9] Perfect characters: as evidenced in his discussions of Aristotle, Lessing’s dramatic and performance theory, which insists on a “sympathetic resonance” between actors and spectators, necessitates that characters be consistent, but neither totally good nor totally bad, in order for them to have the proper emotional effect on an audience.
  • [86.10] navigation charts: strictures of dramatic theory.
  • [86.11] Lessing extensively discusses Terence’s comedy The Brothers in essays [70] – [73]. See [70.7] for a plot synopsis.
  • [86.12] Micio, Demea: brothers of different temperaments; each is raising a son. Tr. note: our English translation is of Lessing’s (fairly accurate) translation of the French into German. See Diderot, De la Poésie Dramatique 310–11.
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