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Review of La Motte, Antoine Houdar de. Les Originaux ou L’Italien. Édition établie par Francis B. Assaf. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8233-6717-8. Pp. 76

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 94–95
Perry Gethner
Article Text: 

La Motte is best remembered today for his role in the second round of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. But he was also a prolific and gifted playwright who tried his hand at virtually every dramatic and operatic genre, as well as dramatic theory. Les Originaux, his first very work for the stage, composed at age 21, is a very entertaining comedy that gives us glimpses of his future potential. In addition, this play, destined for the Italian troupe, provides a fairly typical example of the type of comic entertainment they were providing Parisian audiences in the final decades of the century. It also shows how far from the original commedia dell’arte model this company had moved by 1693: only about one-third of the scenes are improvisations (in Italian), while the vast majority of the play consists of written-out scenes in French. At the same time, the comedy incorporates episodes of singing and dancing, sometimes combined with machine effects.

Arguably the comedy’s most original feature is the abundance of dra­matic and musical satire. Some of the allusions constitute a celebration of the great masters of the preceding generation, especially Molière, who is repeatedly named and imitated. One surprising touch is that the heroine, Colombine, not only displays a passion for drama and claims Molière as her favorite author, but also composes comedies and displays real ability. Although she is not a bas-bleu and admits that she is exaggerating her passion for wit in order to discourage her father in his attempts to marry her off, she may well signal La Motte’s appreciation for the women writ­ers of his day. At the same time, La Motte’s spokespersons in the play, who, startlingly, include Colombine’s tyrannical father, criticize both the lack of talent on the part of current playwrights and the lack of interest from audience members, who either spend their time in the theater flirting with the opposite sex or spend long periods away fighting in the war. Ref­erences to opera focus on the poor quality of the libretti and on the sameness of the recent works—a point Assaf underscores by listing the new operas produced in the three-year period preceding La Motte’s com­edy. Although La Motte feels that composers and poets working in the decade following the deaths of Lully and Quinault are sticking too closely to the consecrated models, that does not stop him from quoting directly from two of those masters’ operas.

Assaf provides a wealth of useful information that helps to explain the historical and cultural context, while identifying many of the numerous literary and musical allusions and explaining their pertinence. However, there are some that he fails to identify. These include the direct quoting of the hymn to liberty from Lully and Quinault’s Isis (III.5) at the start of the comedy’s final divertissement, and there are interesting structural and thematic parallels between the two works. The expression “la folle enchère” (III.12) must have been intended as a reference to the comedy by Mme Ulrich and Dancourt, performed just three years earlier. And the series of theatrical allusions in I.4 needs elucidation. As Lancaster noted, the recently deceased actor and playwright was probably Raymond Pois­son, and the authors of two comedies dealing with the Phaéton myth were Boursault and Palaprat. I suggest that the playwright who, after a series of tragedies set in Rome, chose a Byzantine subject is Campistron. The refer­ence to a “prodigue Boisset” in the passage from Colombine’s comedy that she reads aloud presumably was a topical reference, as well. If, as Assaf suggests, Colombine’s compositional activity was meant to refer to Mme de Villedieu, who had died ten years earlier but whose novels still retained their popularity, this could conceivably allude to her lover, An­toine de Boësset de Villedieu (whose name she would adopt, though they were never married).

The well-researched introduction combines relevant background in­formation (about the author, the history of commedia dell’arte companies in France, the makeup of the Italian troupe in 1693, the play’s initial re­ception) with a detailed, scene-by-scene analysis of the play. It could have been expanded to relate this dramatic debut to La Motte’s dramatic career as a whole. Les Originaux is in many respects a first draft of his Moderne position, especially given the praise of liberty, originality, and preference for contemporary writers and taste.

The text, presented in original spelling, is carefully presented and an­notated. Typos are rare, but three of them risk confusing the reader: a speech attributed to a wrong character (II.5), a faulty listing of characters in a scene heading (III.5), and a stage direction that is centered and printed in all capital letters (III.9). The bibliography is short but helpful, and the illustrations, showing the frontispieces and some of the original music, are a delight.

Francis Assaf is to be commended for reintroducing this charming and historically significant comedy to modern readers. The volume definitely belongs in every university library.

Perry Gethner, Oklahoma State University

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