Written for STC’s world premiere production of David Ives’s The Metromaniacs, a “transladaptation” of Alexis Piron’s La Métromanie (1738), a play heretofore unknown in English. It was the very first script I found at STC, back in 2011. – DL
The Metromaniacs opens on a special kind – a uniquely 18th-century kind – of scene. A well-to-do gentleman, one well-off enough to own an urban manse above the grime and grit of Paris, is putting on an amateur theatrical in his salon des arts et des lettres. The subject is amour, the play a dreamy device designed to reach his dreamy daughter. 100 suitors, a number drawn as if from Homeric myth, have gathered at the home in order to court her, but she is more interested in Parnassus (the literary magazine). The daughter, you see, prefers imagined romance to the real thing. So the father has fronted the money and written a play himself (mais oui!) to bring her back to reality. This may sound like a ludicrous if not downright fantastical scenario, but it is one that our author, Alexis Piron, bases upon close and accurate observation of Parisian literary life in the mid-1700’s.
As Derek Connon points out elsewhere in this issue, Voltaire’s circle was fond of just such aesthetic larks. At the country house of his lover and patroness, Madame Du Châtelet, Voltaire frequently staged dramatic readings of his new plays. One reporter records, in 1734, the partial rehearsal and performance of 44 separate acts of plays and operas for an audience of aristocratic aesthetes – all within a 48-hour span. As The Metromaniacs testifies vividly, these events could often result in hilariously terrible art. Madame Du Châtelet may have translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French, but according to one eyewitness, her attempts at acting were horrific enough to “induce vomiting.”
There have always, it seems, been rich people convinced they were great artists, just as there have always been penniless poets in need of a patron. Our play’s hero, Damis, is one such would-be genius. He has arrived with “two empty pockets and some ten-franc words,” as his servant puts it, as well as a pseudonym befitting his ambitions and hiding his penury. He is one “Cosmo de Cosmos,” just like the man born François-Marie Arouet, but known to the world as “de Voltaire.”
Our milieu, in fact, is the Paris of the young Voltaire. This play – the talk of the town in 1738 – was ripped from the headlines by Alexis Piron, a popular writer of low-brow potboilers and satiric farces. Piron seized on a literary scandal involving a poetry magazine, some cross-dressing in verse, and the red-faced Voltaire himself. It is a fragile and insulated ecosystem, this salon cosmos of the idle rich and their artistic hangers-on. Piron shows us characters at a remove from life. They build Edens on their parquet floors and escape into literary daydreams, living a life of fantasy. In short, their heads are stuck firmly up their aesthetic derrières.
The France of the 1730’s was one in which taxes on the middle-class had never been higher, nor their opportunities for social mobility more circumscribed. The royal coffers were bankrupt, depleted by the wars of the now-deceased “sun king,” Louis XIV. His son, Louis XV, who took over the throne in 1715 at the age of five, was now well into his thirties, and still employing surrogates to rule in his ineffectual stead. Piron’s own career reflects the changing times. Unwilling or unable to play the game of appeasing his patrons, he was exiled from the halls of academe and into the artistic (though financially profitable) purgatory of the unregulated fairground theatres. As an outsider to the artistic and political establishment, he was the ideal writer to provide a satirical portrait of a society in decadent decline.
But if The Metromaniacs is a social satire, it is a magnanimous one. This play is filled with memorable characters, all of them ultimately lovable, all of them redeemed by the engagement of their fertile imaginations with the sensual reality of their fellow human beings. Damis, intoxicated by ideas, meets his soul-mate in Francalou, flighty father and author of the amateur theatrical. If indolence is to be scorned, refulgence is to be celebrated. Within these woods, everyone can be who they really are by pretending, and theatrical transformation results in a strange kind of truth.
In other words, what begins as a social critique transfigures into the stuff of aesthetic daydreams, and vice versa. Piron mixes upstairs and downstairs, muddling the classes until he ultimately transcends them. The play’s characters skirt the edge of optimistic allegory, and its cascade of ever-complicating plots overflows the theatre’s tidy unities. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote or the Gulliver’s Travels of Jonathan Swift, Piron’s cross-channel contemporary, The Metromaniacs delights in a fantasy world commenting obliquely on its own society.
Did Voltaire, so embarrassed by this play, learn any lessons from it? Could it have been swirling in the ether when he wrote his own allegorical-satirical-fantastical masterpiece, Candide, over two decades later, in 1759? We’ll never know. Courtesy of David Ives, let’s give the last word to our ami, Damis:
Unlike those chatterers who speak in herds,
We speak the best of all possible … words.