NOTICE OF LE SAGE
By Jules Janin
I SHALL at once place LE SAGE by the side of Moliere; he is a comic poet in all the acceptation of that great word,—COMEDY. He possesses its noble instincts, its good-natured irony, its animated dialogue, its clear and flowing style, its satire without bitterness; he has studied profoundly the various states of life in the heights and depths of the world. He is perfectly acquainted with the manners of comedians and courtiers,—of students and pretty women. Exiled from the Theatre Français, of which he would have been the honour, and less fortunate than Moliere, who had comedians under his direction, and who was the proprietor of his own theatre, Le Sage found himself obliged more than once to bury in his breast this Comedy, from want of a fitting stage for its exhibition, and actors to represent it. Thus circumstanced, the author of Turcaret was compelled to seek a new form, under which he might throw into the world the wit, the grace, the gaiety, the instruction which possessed him. In writing the biography of such men, there is but one thing to do, and that is to praise. The more humble and obscure have they been in their existence, the greater is the duty of him who tells the story of their lives, to heap upon them eulogy and honour. This is a tardy justice, if you will, but it is a justice nevertheless; and besides, of what importance, after all, are these vulgar events? All these biographies are alike. A little more of poverty, a little less of misery, a youth expended in energy, a manhood serious and filled with occupation, an old age respected, honourable; and, at the end of all these labours, all these troubles, all these anguishes of mind and heart, of which your great men alone have the secret,—the Académie—Française in perspective. Then, are you possessed of mediocre talents only? all doors are open to you;—are you a man of genius? the door opens with difficulty;—but, are you perchance one of those excelling spirits who appear but from century to century? it may turn out that the Académie—Française will not have you at any price. Thus did it with the great Moliere; thus also has it done for Le Sage; which, by-the-bye, is a great honour for the illustrious author of Gil Blas.
René Le Sage was born in the Morbihan, on the 8th of May, 1668*; and in that year Racine produced Les Plaiduers, and Moliere was playing his Avare. The father of Le Sage was a man slightly lettered,—as much so as could be expected of an honourable provincial attorney, one who lived from day to day like a lord, without troubling himself too much as to the future fortunes of his only son. The father died when the child was only fourteen years of age; and soon afterwards the youthful René lost his mother. He was now alone, under the guardianship of an uncle, and he was fortunate enough to be placed under the tutelage of those learned masters of the youth of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits, who subsequently became the instructors of Voltaire, as they have been of all France of the great age. Thanks to this talented and paternal teaching, our young orphan quickly penetrated into the learned and poetical mysteries of that classic antiquity, which is yet in our days, and will be to the end of time, the exhaustless source of taste, of style, of reason, and of good sense. It is to praise Le Sage to say that he was educated with as much care and assiduity as Moliere and Racine, as La Fontaine and Voltaire; they one and all prepared themselves, by severest study, and by respect for their masters, to become masters in their turn; and they have themselves become classic writers, because they reverenced their classic models,—which may, in case of need, serve as an example for the beaux-esprits of our own time.
*[NOTE: According to Moreri, in his Grand Dictionnaire Historique (folio, Paris, 1579), and he cites as his authority M. Titon de Tillet's second supplement to the Parnasse Français, Le Sage was born at Ruis in Brittany, in 1677. There is, however, every reason to believe that M. Jules Janin is correct, both as to the year and the place of his birth, notwithstanding that Mr. Chalmers, in his Biographical Dictionary, while he assigns to the former the year 1668, places the latter at Vannes, as does also the Biographie Universelle, which he appears to have followed.]
But, when this preliminary education was completed, and when he left these learned mansions, all filled with Greek and Latin, all animated with poetic fervour, Le Sage encountered those terrible obstacles that await invariably, as he emerges from his studies, every young man without family, and destitute of fortune. The poet Juvenal has well expressed it, in one of his sublimest verses; "They with difficulty rise, whose virtues are opposed by the pinching wants of home."
"Haud facile emergent, quorum virtutibus obstat
Res angusta domi."
But what matters poverty when one is so young,—when our hopes are so vast, our thoughts so powerful and rich? You have nothing, it is true; but the world itself belongs to you, the world is your patrimony; you are sovereign of the universe; and around you, the twentieth year touches every thing with its golden wand. Your clear and sparkling eye may look in the sun's bright face as dauntless as the eagle's. It is accomplished: all the powers of your soul are awakened, all the passions of your heart join in one swelling choir, to chant Hosanna in excelsis! What matter then that you are poor! A verse sublime, a noble thought, a well-turned phrase, the hand of a friend, the soft smile of some bright-eyed damsel as she flits across your path, there is a fortune for a week. Those who, at the commencement of every biography, enter into all sorts of lamentation, and deplore with pathetic voice the mournful destiny of their hero, are not in the secret of the facile joys of poetry, of the exquisite happiness of youth, the simpletons! They amuse themselves in counting, one by one, the rags that cover yonder handsome form; and they see not, through the holes of the cloak which envelopes it, those Herculean arms, or that athletic breast! They look with pity on that poor young man with well-worn hat, and beneath that covering deformed they see not those abundant, black and tended locks, the flowing diadem of youth! They will tell you, with heart-rending sighs, how happy Diderot esteemed himself, when to his crust of bread he joined the luxury of cheese, and how this poor René le Sage drank at his repasts but pure spring water;—a lamentable matter, truly! But Diderot, while he ate his cheese, already meditated the shocks of his Encyclopaedia; but this same clear fountain from which you drink, at twenty, in the hollow of your hand, as pure, will intoxicate more surely than will, after twenty other years, alas! the sparkling produce of Champagne, poured out in cups of crystal.
This is sufficient reason why we should not trouble ourselves overmuch as to the early life of Le Sage; he was young and handsome, and as he marched, his head upturned like a poet, he met as he went along with those first loves which one always meets when the heart is honest and devoted. A charming woman loved him, and he let her love him to her heart's content; and, without concerning himself as to his good fortune, more than would master Gil Blas have done on a similar occasion, these first amours of our poet lasted just as long as such sort of amours ought to last—long enough that they should leave no subject for regret, not long enough that they should evoke hatred. When, therefore, they had loved each other as much as they could, she and he, they separated, still to please themselves; she found a husband of riper age and better off than her lover; he took a wife more beauteous and less wealthy than his mistress. And blessings on the amiable and devoted girl who consented, with a joyous heart, to encounter all the risks, all the vexations, and also to expose herself to the seducing pleasures of a poetic life! Thus Le Sage entered, almost without thinking of it, into that laborious life in which one must daily expend the rarest and most charming treasures of his mind and soul. As a commencement, he made a translation of the Letters of Calisthenes, without imagining that he was himself possessed of more wit than all the Greeks of the fourth century. The work had no success, and it ought not to have had. He who has the genius of Le Sage must create original works, or not meddle in the craft. To translate is a trade of manual skill—to imitate, is one of plagiary. However, the failure of this first book rendered Le Sage less proud and haughty; and he accepted, what he would never have done had he at once succeeded, a pension from M. l'Abbé de Lyonne. This pension amounted to six hundred francs; and thereupon, the biographers of our author are in extacies at the generosity of the Abbé de Lyonne.
Six hundred francs! and when we reflect that had Le Sage lived in our day, depending only on his Theatre de la Foire, he would have gained thirty thousand francs a year! In our days, a romance like Gil Blas would not be worth less than five hundred thousand francs; Le Diable Boiteux would have brought him a hundred thousand, at least: still, we must not be angry with M. l'Abbé de Lyonne, for having bestowed a pension of six hundred on the author of Gil Blas. The abbé did more; he opened to Le Sage an admirable treasure of wit, of imagination, and of poetry; he taught him the Spanish tongue, that lovely and noble instructress of the great Corneille; and it is doubtless no slight honour for the language of Cervantes to have given birth in our land to the Cid and to Gil Blas. You may imagine with what delight Le Sage accepted this instruction, and how perfectly at home he found himself in those elegant and gracious manners; with what good will he studied that smiling gallantry, that loyal jealousy; those duennas in appearance so austere, in reality so accessible; those lovely women, their feet ensatined, their head in the mantilla; those charming mansions, all carved without, and within all silence; those exciting windows, lighted by smiles above, while concerts murmur at their feet! You may imagine if he adopted those lively and coquetish waiting-women, those ingenious and rascally valets, those enormous mantles so favourable to love, those ancient bowers so friendly to its modest Misses! Thus, when he had discovered this new world of poesy, of which he was about to be the Pizarro and the Fernando Cortes, and of which Corneille had been the Christopher Columbus, René le Sage clapped his hands for joy. In his noble pride, he stamped his feet on this enchanted land; he began to read, you may fancy with what delight, that admirable epic, Don Quixote, which he studied for its grace, its charms, its poetry, its passion; putting for the time aside its satire, and the sarcasm concealed in this splendid drama, as weapons for a later use, when he should attack the financiers. Certainly, the Abbé de Lyonne never dreamt that he was opening to the light this exhaustless mine for the man who was to become the first comic poet of France—since Molière is one of those geniuses apart, of whom all the nations of the earth, all literary ages, claim alike with equal right the honour and the glory.
The first fruit of this Spanish cultivation was a volume of comedies which Le Sage published, and in which he had translated some excellent pieces of the Spanish stage. It contained only one from Lopez de Vega, so ingenious and so fruitful; that was certainly too few: there was in it not one of Calderon de la Barca; and that was certainly not enough. In this book, which I have read with care, in search of some of those luminous rays which betoken the presence of the man of genius wherever he has passed, I have met with nothing but the translator. The original writer does not yet display himself: it is because style is a thing which comes but slowly; it is because, in this art of comedy more especially, there are certain secrets of trade which no talent can replace, and which must be learned at whatever cost. Those secrets Le Sage learned, as every thing is learned, at his own expense. From a simple translator as he was, he became an arranger of dramatic pieces, and in 1702 (the eighteenth century had begun its course, but with timid steps, and none could have predicted what it would become) Le Sage brought out at the Theatre Français, a comedy in five acts, Le Point d'honneur: it was a mere imitation from the Spanish. The imitation had small success, and Le Sage comprehended not this lesson of the public; he understood not that something whispered to the pit, so reserved in its applause, that there was in this translator an original poet. To avenge himself, what did Le Sage? He fell into a greater error still; he set to work translating,—will you believe it?—the continuation of Don Quixote, as if Don Quixote could have a continuation; as if there were a person in the world, even Cervantes himself, who had the right to add a chapter to this famous history! Verily it is strange indeed, that with his taste so pure, his judgment so correct, Le Sage should have ever thought of this unhappy continuation. This time, therefore, again his new attempt had no success; the Parisian public, which, whatever may be said to the contrary, is a great judge, was more just for the veritable Quixote than Le Sage himself; and he had once more to begin anew. However, he yet once more attempted this new road, which could lead him to nothing good. He returned to the charge, still with a Spanish comedy, Don Cesar Ursin, imitated from Calderon. This piece was played, for the first time, at Versailles, and applauded to the skies by the court, which deceived itself almost as often as the town. Le Sage now thought that the battle at last was won. Vain hope! it was again a battle lost; for, brought from Versailles to Paris, the comedy of Don Cesar Ursin was hissed off the stage by the Parisian pit, which thus unmercifully annihilated the eulogies of the court, and the first victory of the author. It was now full time to yield to the force of evidence. Enlightened by these rude instructions, Le Sage at last comprehended that it was not permitted to him, to him less than to all others, to be a plagiarist; that originality was one of the grand causes of success; and that to confine himself for ever to this servile imitation of the Spanish poets, was to become a poet lost.
Now, therefore, behold him determined in his turn to be an original poet. This time he no longer copies, he invents; he arranges his fable to his mind, and seeks no further refuge in the phantasmagoria of Spain. With original ideas, comes to him originality of style; and he at last lights on that wondrous and imperishable dialogue which may be compared to the dialogue of Molière, not for its ease, perhaps, but unquestionably for its grace and elegance. He found at the same time, to his great joy, now that he was himself—that he walked in the footsteps of nobody, he found that the business was much more simple; this time he was at his ease in his plot, which he disposed as it pleased him; he breathed freely in the space which he had opened to himself; nothing constrained his march, any more than his poetical caprice. Well! at last then we behold him the supreme moderator of his work, we behold him such as the pit would have him, such as we all hoped he was.
This happy comedy, which is, beyond all doubt, the first work of Le Sage, is intitled Crispin, Rival de son Maitre. When he had finished it, Le Sage, grateful for the reception which the court had given to Don Cesar Ursin, was desirous that the court should also have the first hearing of Crispin, Rival de son Maitre. He remembered, with great delight, that the first applauses he had received had been echoed from Versailles! Behold him then producing his new comedy before the court. But, alas! this time the opinion of the court had changed: without regard for the plaudits of Versailles, the pit of Paris had hissed Don Cesar Ursin; Versailles in its turn, and as if to take its revenge, now hissed Crispin, Rival de son Maître. We must allow that, for a mind less strong, here was enough to confound a man for ever, and to make him comprehend nothing either as to the success or the failure of his productions. Happily, Le Sage appealed from the public of Versailles to the pit of Paris; and as much as Crispin, Rival de son Maître had been hissed at Versailles, so much was this charming comedy applauded at Paris. On this occasion, it was not alone to give the lie to the court, that the pit applauded; Paris had refound, in truth, in this new piece, all the qualities of true comedy,—the wit, the grace, the easy irony, the exhaustless pleasantry, a noble frankness, much biting satire, and a moderate seasoning of love.
As to those who would turn into accusation the hisses of Versailles, they should recollect that more than one chef-d'œuvre, hissed at Paris, has been raised again by the suffrages of Versailles; Les Plaideurs of Racine, for instance, which the court restored to the poet with extraordinary applause, with the bursting laughter of Louis XIV., which came deliciously to trouble the repose of Racine, at five o'clock in the morning. Happy times, on the contrary, when poets had, to approve them, to try them, this double jurisdiction; when they could appeal from the censures of the court to the praises of the town, from the hisses of Versailles to the plaudits of Paris!
Now, we behold René le Sage, to whom nothing opposes; he has divined his true vocation, which is comedy; he understands what may be made of the human race, and by what light threads are suspended the human heart. These threads of gold, of silver, or of brass, he holds them at this moment in his hand, and you will see with what skill he weaves them. Already in his head, which bears Gil Blas and his fortune, ferment the most charming recitals of Le Diable Boiteux. Silence! Turcaret is about to appear,—Turcaret, whom Molière would not have forgotten if Turcaret had lived in his day; but it was necessary to wait till France should have escaped from the reign, so decorous, of Louis XIV., to witness the coming, after the man of the church, after the man of the sword, this man without heart and without mind,—the man of money. In a society like our own, the man of money is one of those bastard and insolent powers which grow out of the affairs of every day, as the mushroom grows out from the dunghill. We know not whence comes this inert force,—we know not how it is maintained on the surface of the world, and nothing tells how it disappears, after having thrown its phosphorus of an instant. It is necessary, in truth, than an epoch should be sufficiently corrupt, and sufficiently stained with infamy, when it replaces, by money, the sword of the warrior, by money the sentence of the judge, by money the intelligence of the legislator, by money the sceptre of the king himself. Once that a nation has descended so low, as to adore money on its knees,—to require neither fine arts, nor poesy, nor love, it is debased as was the Jewish people when it knelt before the golden calf. Happily, of all the ephemeral powers in the world, money is the most ephemeral; we extend to it our right hand, it is true, but we buffet it with our left; we prostrate ourselves before it as it passes along,—yes; but when it has passed, we kick it with our foot! This is what Le Sage marvellously comprehended, like a great comic poet as he was. He found the absurd and frightful side of those gilded men who divide our finances, menials enriched over-night, who, more than once, by a perfectly natural mistake, have mounted behind their own coaches. And such is Turcaret. The poet has loaded him with vices the most disgraceful, with follies the most dishonourable; he tears from this heart, debased by money, every natural affection; and, nevertheless, even in this fearful picture, Le Sage has confined himself within the limits of comedy, and not once in this admirable production does contempt or indignation take the place of laughter. It was then with good cause that the whole race of financiers, as soon as they had heard of Turcaret, caballed against this chef-d'œuvre; the cry resounded in all the rich saloons of Paris; it was echoed from the usurers who lent their money to the nobles, and re-echoed by the nobles who condescended to borrow from the usurers; it was a general hue and cry. Le Tartufe of Molière never met with greater opposition among the devotees than Turcaret experienced from the financiers; and, to make use of the expression of Beaumarchais in reference to Figaro, it required as much mind for Le Sage to cause his comedy to be played as it did to write it.
But, on this occasion, again, the public, which is the all-powerful manager in these matters, was more potent than intrigue; Monseigneur le Grand Dauphin, that Prince so illustrious by his piety and virtue, protected the comedy of Le Sage, as his ancestor, Louis XIV., had protected that of Molière. On this, the financiers, perceiving that all was lost as far as intrigue was concerned, had recourse to money, which is the last reason of this description of upstarts, as cannon is the ultima ratio of kings. This time again the attack availed not; the great poet refused a fortune that his comedy might be played, and unquestionably he made a good bargain by his resolve, preferable a hundred thousand times to all the fortunes which have been made and lost in the Rue Quincampoix.* The success of Turcaret (1709) was immense; the Parisian enjoyed with rare delight the spectacle of these grasping money-hunters devoted to the most cruel ridicule. What if Le Sage had deferred the production of this masterpiece! These men would have disappeared, to make room for others of the kind, and they would have carried with them into oblivion the comedy they had paid for. It would have been a chef-d'œuvre lost to us for ever; and never, that we know of, would the good men on 'Change have dealt us a more fatal blow.
[NOTE: Rue Quincampoix. In this street, in 1716, the famous projector Law established his bank; and the rage for speculation which followed, made it for a time the Bourse of Paris. A hump-backed man made a large fortune by lending himself as a desk, whereon the speculators might sign their contracts, or the transfer of shares. The Rue Quincampoix is still a leading street for business, but its trade is now confined to more honest wares, such as drugs and grocery.]
Who would credit it, however? After this superb production, which should have rendered him the master of French comedy, Le Sage was soon compelled to abandon that ungrateful theatre which understood him not. He renounced,—he, the author of Turcaret,—pure comedy, to write, as a pastime, farces, little one-act pieces mingled with couplets, which made the life of the Theatre de la Foire Saint Laurent, of the Theatre de la Foire Saint Germain. Unfortunate example for Le Sage to set, in expending without thought all his talent, from day to day, without pity for himself, without profit for anyone. What! the author. of Turcaret to fill exactly the same office as M. Scribe; to waste his time, his style, and his genius upon that trifling comedy which a breath can hurry away! And the French comedians were all unmoved, and hastened not to throw themselves at the feet of Le Sage, to pray, to supplicate him to take under his all-powerful protection that theatre elevated by the genius and by the toils of Molière! But these senseless comedians were unable to foresee anything.
Nevertheless, if he had renounced the Theatre Français, Le Sage had not abandoned true comedy. All the comedies which thronged his brain, he heaped them up in that grand work which is called Gil Blas, and which includes within itself alone the history of the human heart. What can be said of Gil Blas which has not already been written? How can I sufficiently eulogise the only book truly gay in the French language? The man who wrote Gil Blas has placed himself in the first rank among all the authors of this world; he has made himself, by the magic of his pen, the cousin-german of Rabelais and Montaigne, the grandfather of Voltaire, the brother of Cervantes, and the younger brother of Molière; he takes his place, in plenitude of right, in the family of comic poets, who have themselves been philosophers. In the same vein, he has further composed the Bachelier de Salamanque, which would be a charming book if Gil Blas existed not, if, above all, before writing his Gil Blas, he had not written this charming book, LE DIABLE BOITEUX.
And now, sauve qui peat! the Devil is let loose upon the town, a devil truly French, who has the wit, the grace, and the vivacity of Gil Blas. Beware! Look to yourselves, you, the ridiculous and the vicious, who have escaped the high comedy of the stage, for, by the virtue of this all-potent wand, not alone your mansions, but your very souls shall in a twinkling change to glass. Beware! I say; for Asmodeus, the terrible scoffer, is about to plunge his pitiless eye into those mysterious places which you deemed so impenetrable, and to each of you he will reveal his secret history: he will strike you without mercy with that ivory crutch which opens all doors, and all hearts; he will proclaim aloud your follies and your vices. None shall escape from that vigilant observer, who, astride upon his crutch, glides upon the roofs of the best secured houses, and divines their ambitions, their jealousies, their inquietudes, and above all, their midnight wakefulness. Considered with relation to its wit without bitterness, its satire which laughs at everything, and with regard to its style, which is admirable, Le Diable Boiteux is perhaps the book most perfectly French in our language; it is perhaps the only book that Molière would have put his name to after Gil Blas.
Such was this life, all filled with most delightful labour, as also with the most serious toil; thus did this man, who was born a great author, and who has raised to perfection the talent of writing, go on from chef-d'œuvre to chef-d'œuvre without pause. The number of his productions is not exactly known; at sixty-five years of age, he yet wrote a volume of melanges; and he died without imagining to himself the glories which were reserved for his name. An amiable and light-hearted philosopher, he was to the end full of wit and good sense; an agreeable gossiper, a faithful friend, an indulgent father, he retired to the little town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he became without ceremony a good citizen, whom every body shook by the hand without any great suspicion that he was a man of genius. Of three sons who had been born to him, two became comedians, to the great sorrow of their noble father, who had preserved for the players, as is plainly perceptible in Gil Blas, a well-merited dislike. However, Le Sage pardoned his two children, and he even frequently went to applaud the elder, who had taken the name of Monmenil; and when Monmenil died, before his father, Le Sage wept for him, and never from that time (1743) entered a theatre. His third son, the brother of these two comedians, was a good canon of Boulogne-sur-Mer; and it was to his house that Le Sage retired, with his wife and his daughter, deserving objects of his affection, and who made all the happiness of his latest days.
One of the most affable gentlemen of that time, who would have been remarkable by his talents, even though he had not been distinguished by his nobility, M. le Comte de Tressan, governor of Boulogne-sur-Mer, was in the habit of seeing the worthy old man during the last year of his life; and upon that fine face, shaded with thick white hairs, he could still discern that love and genius had been there. Le Sage rose early, and his first steps took him to seek the sun. By degrees, as the luminous rays fell upon him, thought returned to his forehead, motion to his heart, gesture to his hand, and his eyes were lighted with their wonted fire: as the sun mounted in the skies, this awakened intelligence appeared, on its side, more brilliant and more clear; so much so, that you beheld again before you the author of Gil Blas. But, alas! all this animation drooped in proportion as the sun declined; and, when night was come, you had before your eyes but a good old man, whose steps must be tended to his dwelling.
Thus died he, one day in summer. The sun had shown itself in heaven's topmost height on that bright day; and it had not quite left the earth when Le Sage called the members of his family around to bless them. He was little less than ninety when he died (1747).
To give you an idea of the popularity that this man enjoyed even during his life-time, I will finish with this anecdote: When the Diable Boiteux appeared, in 1707, the success of this admirable and ingenious satire upon human life was so great, the public esteemed the lively epigrams it contained so delightful, that the publisher was obliged to print two editions in one week. On the last day of this week, two gentlemen, their swords by their sides, as was then the custom, entered the bookseller's shop to buy the new romance. A single copy remained to sell: one of these gentlemen would have it, the other also claimed it; what was to be done? Why, in a moment, there were our two infuriated readers with their swords drawn, and fighting for the first blood, and the last Diable Boiteux.
But what, I pray you, had they done, were it question then of the DIABLE BOITEUX illustrated by TONY JOHANNOT?