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23 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2)

... of course, the answer might simply be that all their fine words about artistic value are almost immediately undermined by their panicked reaction when there's any kind of threat to their gravy train.

But the purpose of this post is to note a contribution to the debate on vraisemblance. In Act 1 Scene 2, the Dancing Master proposes a musical sketch featuring shepherds and shepherdesses. Why is it always shepherds? Jourdan asks.

Lorsqu’on a des personnes à faire parler en musique, il faut bien que pour la vraisemblance on donne dans la bergerie. Le chant a été de tout temps affecté aux bergers ; et il n’est guère naturel en dialogue, que des princes, ou des bourgeois chantent leurs passions.

which is obviously a parody of  a certain theory of theatre. But it's basically true in recognising that what is accepted as realistic is very changeable.

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Since writing the above, I've finished the play and what has struck me most is the slightness, the inconsequentiality of the plot. Jourdain's clumsy attempts to woo Dorimene come to nothing, as do his attempts to marry his daughter to Dorante. It all falls apart much too easily, with very little real peril. Jourdain is made to look a bit of a fool, but is materially pretty much unaffected. As with Amphitryon, it's as if the narrative itself gets bored and calls a halt. Perhaps that's why I found I had little memory of the story, but just recognised a few smart phrases. I don't even remember being upset by the lack of plot-complication: didn't we notice it?

If you were to compare this play with The Alchemist for example, you'd see exactly what I mean. Clearly a French 17th century comedy was a quite different thing to an English one. Perhaps it's just intended to be a series of amusing scenes, interspersed with music and dance, and we shouldn't expect anything else. So any coherent "plot" is a bonus, or even a distraction. Maybe, too, there's an influence of the orthodox 17th century French view that tragedy and comedy don't mix.

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