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- The Pretentious Young Ladies - 1/9 -


LES PRÉCIEUSES RIDICULES:

COMÉDIE EN UN ACTE.

1659.

* * * * *

THE PRETENTIOUS YOUNG LADIES:

A COMEDY IN ONE ACT.

(_THE ORIGINAL IN PROSE_.) 1659.

INTRODUCTORY NOTICE.

Molière began in _The Pretentious Young Ladies_ to paint men and women as they are; to make living characters and existing manners the ground-work of his plays. From that time he abandoned all imitation of Italian or Spanish imbroglios and intrigues.

There is no doubt that aristocratic society attempted, about the latter years of the reign of Louis XIII., to amend the coarse and licentious expressions, which, during the civil wars had been introduced into literature as well as into manners. It was praiseworthy of some high-born ladies in Parisian society to endeavour to refine the language and the mind. But there was a very great difference between the influence these ladies exercised from 1620 until 1640, and what took place in 1658, the year when Molière returned to Paris. The Hôtel de Rambouillet, and the aristocratic drawing-rooms, had then done their work, and done it well; but they were succeeded by a clique which cared only for what was nicely said, or rather what was out of the common. Instead of using an elegant and refined diction, they employed only a pretentious and conceitedly affected style, which became highly ridiculous; instead of improving the national idiom they completely spoilt it. Where formerly D'Urfe, Malherbe, Racan, Balzac, and Voiture reigned, Chapelain, Scudéry, Ménage, and the Abbé Cotin, "the father of the French Riddle," ruled in their stead. Moreover, every lady in Paris, as well as in the provinces, no matter what her education was, held her drawing-room, where nothing was heard but a ridiculous, exaggerated, and what was worse, a borrowed phraseology. The novels of Mdlle. de Scudéry became the text-book of the _précieux_ and the _précieuses_, for such was the name given to these gentlemen and ladies who set up for wits, and thought they displayed exquisite taste, refined ideas, fastidious judgment, and consummate and critical discrimination, whilst they only uttered vapid and blatant nonsense. What other language can be used when we find that they called the sun _l'aimable éclairant le plus beau du monde, l'epoux de la nature_, and that when speaking of an old gentleman with grey hair, they said, not as a joke, but seriously, _il a des quittances d'amour_. A few of their expressions, however, are employed even at the present time, such as, _châtier son style_; to correct one's style; _dépenser une heure_, to spend an hour; _revètir ses pensées d'expressions nobles_, to clothe one's thoughts in noble expressions, etc.

Though the _précieux and précieuses_ had been several times attacked before, it remained for Molière to give them their death blow, and after the performance of his comedy the name became a term of ridicule and contumely. What enhanced the bitterness of the attack was the difference between Molière's natural style and the affected tone of the would-be elegants he brought upon the stage.

This comedy, in prose, was first acted at Paris, at the Théâtre du Petit Bourbon, on the 18th of November, 1659, and met with great success. Through the influence of some noble _précieux_ and _précieuses_ it was forbidden until the 2d of December, when the concourse of spectators was so great that it had to be performed twice a day, that the prices of nearly all the places were raised (See Note 7, page xxv.), and that it ran for four months together. We have referred in our prefatory memoir of Molière to some of the legendary anecdotes connected with this play.

It has also been said that our author owed perhaps the first idea of this play to a scarcely-known work, _le Cercle des Femmes, ou le Secret du Lit Nuptial; entretiens comiques_, written by a long-forgotten author, Samuel Chapuzeau, in which a servant, dressed in his master's clothes, is well received by a certain lady who had rejected the master. But as the witty dialogue is the principal merit in Molière's play, it is really of no great consequence who first suggested the primary idea.

The piece, though played in 1659, was only printed on the 29th of January, 1660, by Guillaume de Luyne, a bookseller in Paris, with a preface by Molière, which we give here below:

A strange thing it is, that People should be put in print against their Will. I know nothing so unjust, and should pardon any other Violence much sooner than that.

Not that I here intend to personate the bashful Author, and out of a point of Honour undervalue my Comedy. I should very unseasonably disoblige all the People of Paris, should I accuse them of having applauded a foolish Thing: as the Public is absolute Judge of such sort of Works, it would be Impertinence in me to contradict it; and even if I should have had the worst Opinion in the World of my _Pretentious Young Ladies_ before they appeared upon the Stage, I must now believe them of some Value, since so many People agree to speak in their behalf. But as great part of the Pleasure it gave depends upon the Action and Tone of the Voice, it behooved me, not to let them be deprived of those Ornaments; and that success they had in the representation, was, I thought, sufficiently favorable for me to stop there. I was, I say, determined, to let them only be seen by Candlelight, that I might give no room for any one to use the Proverb; [Footnote: In Molière's time it was proverbially said of a woman, "_Elle est belle a la chandelle, mais le grand jour gate tout_." She is beautiful by candle-light, but day-light spoils everything.] nor was I willing they should leap from the Theatre de Bourbon into the _Galerie du Palais_. [Footnote: The _Galerie du Palais_ was the place where Molière's publisher lived.] Notwithstanding, I have been unable to avoid it, and am fallen under the Misfortune of seeing a surreptitious Copy of my Play in the Hands of the Booksellers, together with a Privilege, knavishly obtained, for printing it. I cried out in vain, O Times! O Manners! They showed me that there was a Necessity for me to be in print, or have a Law-suit; and the last evil is even worse than the first. Fate therefore must be submitted to, and I must consent to a Thing, which they would not fail to do without me.

Lord, the strange Perplexity of sending a book abroad! and what an awkward Figure an Author makes the first time he appears in print! Had they allowed me time, I should have thought it over better, and have taken all those Precautions which the Gentlemen Authors, who are now my Brethren, commonly make use of upon the like Occasions. Besides, some noble Lord, whom I should have chosen, in spite of his Teeth, to be the Patron of my Work, and whose Generosity I should have excited by an Epistle Dedicatory very elegantly composed, I should have endeavoured to make a fine and learned Preface; nor do I want books which would have supplied me with all that can be said in a scholarly Manner upon Tragedy and Comedy; the Etymology of them both, their Origin, their Definition, and so forth. I should likewise have spoken to my friends, who to recommend my Performance, would not have refused me Verses, either in French or Latin. I have even some that would have praised me in Greek, and Nobody is ignorant, that a Commendation in Greek is of a marvellous efficacy at the Beginning of a Book. But I am sent Abroad without giving me time to look about me; and I can't so much as obtain the Liberty of speaking two words, to justify my Intention, as to the subject of this Comedy. I would willingly have shewn that it is confined throughout within the Bounds of allowable and decent Satire, that Things the most excellent are liable to be mimicked by wretched Apes, who deserve to be ridiculed; that these absurd Imitations of what is most perfect, have been at all times the Subject of Comedy; and that, for the same Reason, that the truly Learned and truly Brave never yet thought fit to be offended at the Doctor or the Captain in a Comedy, no more than Judges, Princes, and Kings at seeing Trivelin, [Footnote: The Doctor and the Captain were traditional personages of the Italian stage; their parts need no further explanation; Trivelin was a popular Italian actor, who in a humorous and exaggerated way played the parts of Judges, Princes, and Kings.] or any other upon the Stage, ridiculously act the Judge, the Prince, or King; so the true _Précieuses_ would be in the wrong to be angry, when the pretentious Ones are exposed, who imitate them awkwardly. In a Word, as I said, I am not allowed breathing time; Mr. de Luyne is going to bind me up this Instant: ... let it be so, since the Fates so ordain it.

In the third volume of the "Select Comedies of M. de Molière," this comedy is called "The Conceited Ladies." It is dedicated to Miss Le Bas in the following words:---

MADAM, Addresses of this Nature are usually fill'd with Flattery: And it is become so general and known a Practice for Authors of every kind to bedeck with all Perfections Those to whom they present their Writings, that Dedications are, by most People, at Present, interpreted like Dreams, directly backwards. I dare not, therefore, attempt Your Character, lest even Truth itself should be suspected--Thus far, however, I'll venture to declare, that if sprightly blooming Youth, endearing sweet Good-nature, flowing gentile Wit, and an easy unaffected Conversation, maybe reckon'd Charms,--_Miss_ LE BAS is exquisitely charming.

The following COMEDY of _Monsieur_ MOLIERE, that celebrated Dramatick Writer, was, by him, intended to reprove a vain, fantastical, conceited and preposterous Humour, which about that time prevailed very much in _France_. It had the desir'd good Effect, and conduced a great deal towards rooting out a Taste so unreasonable and ridiculous.---As Pride, Conceit, Vanity, and Affectation, are Foibles so often found amongst the Fair Sex at present, I have attempted this Translation, in hopes of doing service to my pretty Country-Women.--And, certainly, it must have a double efficacy, under the Patronage of one who is so bright an Example of the contrary fine Accomplishments, which a large Fortune makes her not the less careful to improve.

I am not so presumptuous to imagine that my _English_ can do sufficient Justice to the sense of this admir'd AUTHOR; and, therefore, have caused the ORIGINAL to be placed against it Page for Page, hoping that, both together, may prove an agreeable and useful Entertainment.----But I have detain'd you too long already, and shall only add, that I am, with much respect, and every good Wish, MADAM, _Your most Obedient Humble Servant_, THE TRANSLATOR.

The _Précieuses Ridicules_ have been partly imitated in "_The Damoiselles à la Mode_, Compos'd and Written by Richard Flecknoe. London: Printed for the Author, 1667. To their graces the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, the Author dedicates this his comedy more humbly than by way of epistle." This gentleman, who was "so distinguished as a wretched poet, that his name had almost become proverbial," and who gave


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