“When I was young,” Diderot wrote, “I hesitated between the Sorbonne [priesthood] and the stage.”81 And in 1774: “For some thirty years I have against my taste made the Encyclopédie, and written only two plays.”82 He attached more importance to his plays than to his novels; and as most of his novels were published only after his death, his plays had the greater influence on his fame and his life. And they constituted almost a revolution in the history of the French theater.

He had read with emotion the novels of Richardson; in 1761 he wrote an Éloge de Richardson, rising to lyric praise of the Englishman for his evocation of feeling, his inculcation of virtue, his courage in picturing middle-class life as worthy of serious art. Moreover, Diderot had been impressed by George Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731), which had successfully brought the sentiments and tribulations of the business class to the English stage. He called the play “sublime,” even compared it with Sophocles; why should not broken hearts be worthy of tragic drama despite their lack of pedigree? When Diderot took to composing plays in the genre sérieux he startled French conventions by using middle-class characters and writing in prose. So in 1757 he sent to stage and pressLe Fils naturel, ou les épreuves de la vertu. It had no success on the boards; it was acted twice in the provinces (1757), not till 1771 in Paris, and then, apparently, only once. But in its printed form it became a cause célèbre.

The story was interesting enough. The virtuous, prosperous bastard Dorval finds himself falling in love with Rosalie, the betrothed of his host, Clairville. He perceives that she returns his affection; he resolves to absent himself rather than ruin the nuptials of his friend. As he is about to leave he sees Clairville attacked by armed assailants; he fights them and saves his friend’s life. When he learns that Rosalie’s merchant father has lost his fortune and can give her no dowry, he secretly makes up her loss. The bankrupt merchant turns out to be Dorval’s father as well as Rosalie’s; she reconciles herself to being his sister; she marries Clairville; Dorval marries Clairville’s sister Constance, and the play ends with everyone bathed in tears of joy. This was Diderot’s contribution to what critics had already termed la comédie larmoyante—the drama of tears.II

What gave the play a place in French history was a series of dialogues published with it, and later entitled Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel. The tradition of the French theater was that serious (as distinguished from comic) drama should concern itself only with personages of the nobility, and should be written in verse. Diderot now expounded his view that serious drama should not be afraid to use bourgeois characters and occupations, and scenes from domestic life, presented with realism and in prose. He proposed to show that the phrase bourgeois gentilhomme (middle-class gentleman) was not the laughable contradiction-in-terms that Molière had taken it to be, but a development of the new society in which the bourgeoisie was rising in wealth, status, and power. The dramatist, he argued, should present not so much studies in character as conditions of actual life—e.g., in the family, in the army, in politics, in the professions, even in industry. And as the middle classes were a chief repository of virtue in France, Diderot insisted that one function of the new drame (as he called it) should be “to inspire men with love of virtue and abhorrence of vice.” He branded a merely entertaining art as an idle-class luxury; every art should have a social function and use; and what better aim could the theater have than to make virtue charming?

The play and its accompanying pronunciamento divided intellectual Paris into hostile camps. Palissot and other antiphilosophes ridiculed Diderot’s ideas. Fréron did not merely criticize the play as dull didacticism wet with sentiment and unreal virtue, but he showed, in successive issues of his Année littéraire, a suspicious similarity between the first half of Le Fils naturel and the comedy Il vero amico (The True Friend) which Goldoni had staged at Venice in 1750. Diderot confessed:

I took possession of it as if it were a piece of property belonging to me. Goldoni has not been more scrupulous. He laid hold of L’Avare [Molière’s The Miser] without anyone taking it into his head to find that bad; and no one among us has dreamed of accusing Moliere or Corneille of plagiarism for having tacitly borrowed the idea of some play either from an Italian author or from the Spanish theater.83

Of course this was true of Corneille’s Le Cid and Molière’s Le Festin de pierre (Don Juan).

Encouraged by friends, defiant of his enemies, and amid the direst troubles of the Encyclopédie, Diderot wrote and published (1758) another play, Le Père de famille, and added to it a provocative “Discours sur la poésie dramatique”—a title reminiscent of the one that Dryden had used for a similar essay ninety years before. The Family Father was produced in Toulouse and Marseilles in 1760, and at the Théâtre-Français in Paris in February, 1761; there it ran for seven nights, which was considered a moderate success. Voltaire allowed performances of his tragedy Tancrède to be postponed to permit this run, and he wrote to his new rival: “Oh, my dear brother Diderot! I yield you my place with all my heart, and I should like to crown you with laurel.” Diderot replied: “Thank you, my dear master. I know how much you must have desired the success of your disciple, and I am touched by it. My affection and homage to the end of my life.”84 The play was successfully revived at the Théâtre-Français in 1769, and became a minor element in the triumph of the philosophes.

The plot was partly autobiographical. The father is a loving reminiscence of Didier Diderot, except that he preaches far more than that good man had been reported to do. The son, Saint-Albin (a fond portrait of Denis Diderot), seeks parental permission to marry Sophie, a girl of the working class. The father consents to see her, likes her, but refuses to let his son marry so poor a lass. After five acts, and by a coincidence that has served a thousand dramas, the young lady turns out to be a daughter of excellent family; the father relents; all is well. Fréron could be pardoned for calling the plot melodramatic, mechanical, and absurd. One critic pointed out that this ode to virtue was dedicated to Grimm, who had shared a prostitute with Rousseau and was now the lover of Mme. d’Épinay, and that Diderot had named the heroine after his mistress Sophie Volland. Voltaire, while complimenting the author on the “tender and virtuous things” in the play, wrote to Mme. du Deffand: “Have you had Le Père de famille read to you? Isn’t it ludicrous? In faith, our century is a poor one compared to that of Louis XIV.”85

Diderot, however, felt that the seventeenth-century French drama had been a thoroughly unnatural form—in its pompous, declamatory style, in its straitlaced unities of action, place, and time, and in its supine imitation of ancient classics rather than of living realities. His plays, unashamedly sentimental, were omens of the Romantic reaction against the intellectualism and emotional restraint of the classic age. Diderot’s influence was felt also in the increasing realism of scenic sets, in the historic veracity of the actors’ dress, in the nationalism of their delivery; and it shared with Voltaire’s campaign in clearing the French stage of spectators. “Every improvement in the art of production for the past 150 years,” said Gustave Lanson, “has sprung from Diderot”87—except that scenery now tends to be more imaginative than realistic. Germany too responded to Diderot, whom Sainte-Beuve called “the most German of Frenchman.” Lessing translated Le Père de famille and the dramatic discourses, and declared that “no more philosophical mind than Diderot’s has occupied itself with the theater since Aristotle.”88

He had his say also on the histrionic art. In a challenging essay, Paradoxe sur le comédien (1778), he argued that to move an audience the actor must not surrender himself to the emotion he expresses, but must remain completely self-possessed. This, of course, flew in the face of Horace’s advice to poets, “Si vis me flere, primum tibi flendum est” (If you wish me to weep you must first weep yourself). No, said Diderot; the actor

must have in himself an unmoved and disinterested onlooker. He must have penetration and no sensibility … If the actor were full, really full, of feeling, how could he play the same part twice running with the same spirit and success? Full of fire at the first performance, he would be worn out, or cold as marble, at the third.… Fill the front of the theater with tearful creatures, but I will have none of them on the boards.89

(A counsel hardly followed by those who acted Diderot’s plays.)

It was a paradox in Diderot himself, for in 1757 he had written: “Poets [and] actors … feel intensely, and reflect little.”90 Now he reversed himself, perhaps after watching David Garrick, in Paris (1763, 1770), simulate diverse emotions in quick succession and at will. Or he might have found his paradox in Hamlet’s bidding to the players at Elsinore: “In the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”91 Sir Henry Irving rejected Diderot’s analysis, but a modern critic believes that “it has remained to this day the most significant attempt to deal with the problem of acting.”92 Actors may be emotional in life, but not on the stage. (Perhaps their self-control on the stage leads to their emotional release in life; hence many sins must be forgiven them.) They must study the indicated feeling in its causes, and express it in their gestures and speech, but they must “remember” it “in tranquillity.”93 Diderot struck the balance in a letter to Mlle. Jodin: “An actor who has nothing but sense and judgment is cold; one who has nothing but verve and sensibility is mad.”94

Looking back upon this disorderly review of Diderot’s chaotic mind, we forgive his confusion in the literally magnanimous profusion of his ideas and the scope of his interests. Nothing human was alien to him except religion, and even there, as we have seen, he was not immune to religious feeling. It was characteristic of him to begin with mathematics and physics, and end with drama and music. He could not be a great scientist, being too impatient for research and experiment; he leaped too buoyantly to generalizations, but these were almost always illuminating. He knew enough about music to write a method of clavecin instruction and a treatise on harmony. He composed the most influential plays, and the best novels, of his time; in the short story he excelled all his contemporaries except Voltaire; and he surpassed Voltaire himself in giving to the short story that concentration of thought and action which determined the form into our own day. Addicted to conversation and trained in the salons, he developed the dialogue to a brilliance and vitality seldom equaled before or since. And he wrote philosophy not in a secret language for ivory towers, but as a living debate, on living themes, among men willingly caught in the stream of the world.

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