Written in the Fall of 2011 for the publication of The Heir Apparent, David Ives’s “transladaptation” of La Légataire Universel, the early 18th-century rhymed verse comedy by Jean-François Regnard. -DL
Jean-François Regnard (1655-1709) was a playwright whose popularity in his own time has slipped into seeming obscurity to the modern reader. Widely recognized in his day, the late 1690s and early 1700s, as a master of the comic form, Regnard was the source of spirited critical argument over the ensuing 18th century. As the drama shifted away from neoclassical comedy, it became dominated by anti-Regnardisms: continental thinkers, bourgeois subject matter, and prosaic forms. To Enlightenment reformationists such as Denis Diderot, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Pierre Beaumarchais, Regnard’s confectionary comedies embodied the style of a previous generation. They were self-conscious in their artifice, filled with sudden and improbable reversals, and most importantly, peopled with characters designed to elicit laughter rather than sympathy.
In other words, Regnard evoked the social world of the Bourbon kings, not of the Sans-Culottes. Worst of all for some critics was his final play and masterpiece, Le Légataire Universel (1708). In his Preface to The Marriage of Figaro (1778), Beaumarchais epitomized an age of moral sentiments when he noted, “if Regnard had named his Légataire, La Punition du celibate (The Punishment of Celibacy), the piece would have thrilled us.” Whereas Regnard finds the childless, miserly Geronte to be a figure of fun, Beaumarchais can only see a life squandered. Instead of arriving at the morally didactic (and gruesome) punishments of the French Revolution, Regnard keeps things light by constructing an emotionally satisfying payoff.
And yet, if one looks closer at the cracks in theater history, Regnard’s plays have never gone completely out of style. They were played in theaters of distinction across the European continent right up to the age of Revolution, adapted into English by the actors in David Garrick’s company at the Drury Lane Theatre, and included in the Weimar repertory of Mr. Germany himself, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Today, Le Légataire Universel is a chestnut of the French repertory, having been performed at the Comédie Française over 1,000 times. But Regnard remains obscure to modern American modern audiences, a victim of historical circumstance and the winds of taste. The fact that this play, his valedictory masterpiece, is similarly unknown is all the more reason for its rediscovery as one of the world’s most beloved comedies.