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  • Overcoming Excess: Jouissance and Justice in Nivelle de la Chaussée’s Ecole des mères
  • Caroline Weber (bio)

Le Marquis: Il n’est pas naturel de chercher à jouir?

La Fleur: Sans être libertin, on peut se réjouir.

Nivelle de la Chaussée, L’Ecole des mères

Doligny père: Par une extravagance une autre est abolie.

Nivelle de la Chaussée, L’Ecole des mères

If Nivelle de la Chaussée is remembered at all today, it is as the minor eighteenth-century playwright who invented la comédie larmoyante—a hybrid genre that stands chronologically and aesthetically between Marivaux’s light-hearted representations of love’s vicissitudes and Diderot’s ostensibly more high-minded drame bourgeois. If Nivelle de la Chaussée is, as is in fact the case, overwhelmingly ignored today, it is because his generic experimentations are held to be in bad taste. 1 [End Page 719] While La Chaussée’s experimental blend of comedy and tragedy received tremendous acclaim from burgeoning bourgeois theater audiences in the middle of the eighteenth century, subsequent literary history has written it off as “sans génie, médiocre, . . . [et] noyée,” in the words of one critic, “dans la fade sensibilité” (Lanson 301). In the limited current scholarship that does consider the genre, la comédie larmoyante is inevitably placed under the sign of “excess,” of the over-the-top emotional outpourings that its very name suggests. 2 And yet, upon close examination, La Chaussée’s texts themselves militate against precisely the type of hackneyed, unmitigated emotion with which they have become associated. Particularly in the realm of familial and erotic love, the playwright comes down hard on what he perceives to be the excesses of aristocratic (or aspiring aristocratic) beliefs and behavior, and promotes instead the rational, controlled “bon sens” of an idealized bourgeoisie. Through a close reading of La Chaussée’s 1744 comedy, L’Ecole des mères, this article aims to investigate the strangely measured, explicitly constrictive models of feeling and behavior valorized by la comédie larmoyante, and thus to problematize the dominant academic view of the playwright as overly and uncritically “emotional” (Carlson 217). We shall see that “excess” has a role to play in L’Ecole des mères only insofar as it sets in motion a dialectical movement that negates and transforms it. Outlining a trajectory from moneyed vice to egalitarian virtue, and from unfettered, self-indulgent libido to the stabilizing, community-oriented resolutions of the reality principle, La Chaussée deploys his comédie larmoyante to complex, fundamentally conservative psychosexual and political ends.

The opening scene of L’Ecole des mères presents straightaway a conflict between two countervailing modes of excess. “Mon père, en vérité, j’ai peine à vous comprendre” (1.1.1) 3 exclaims a young man named Doligny fils as the curtain rises, and it soon becomes clear that the difference of opinion between father and son turns on the subject of marriage. 4 Doligny père, a widower of middling social and financial [End Page 720] position, urges his son to take a pragmatic view of wedlock. The father already has a bride in mind—the daughter of his best friend, Monsieur Argant—and this young woman is notable in his eyes above all because, when she is released from her convent, “elle aura vingt mille écus de rente” (1.1.25). Protesting that no amount of money could persuade him to marry a woman he does not already love, Doligny fils replies dismissively: “Eh! quand elle en aurait quarante!” (1.1.26) Doligny père, significantly, chooses to take his son’s sarcasm au pied de la lettre, and his retort, “ce serait encore mieux” (1.1.27), begins to expose the greed underpinning his attitude toward marriage. The encore of his “encore mieux,” reminiscent of the motto ascribed to orgasmic women by Jacques Lacan, hints at the insatiability of the older man’s financial appetites (Séminaire XX, 11). These indeed become more apparent when, in response to his son’s invocation of their family’s existing bien, the father asserts: “Il le faut augmenter, sinon il...

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