WHO WAS ALAIN-RENE LESAGE ?

Early Days

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Alain-Rene Lesage

Alain-René Lesage was born in Sarzeau, near Vannes, on the west coast of Brittany, on May 8th 1668. His father was a hereditary legal officer of some local importance, a big fish maybe but in a small pond, and also, for a while, responsible for the lucrative job of collecting taxes. He died in 1682, quite severely indebted (the author’s mother had already died in 1677). The young Lesage was entrusted to the care of a guardian, who sent the boy off to the Jesuit college in Vannes, and then appropriated his inheritance.


A Student in Paris

Lesage still had the resources to move to Paris to study law in about 1690 and qualified as an attorney in 1692, but there is no record of him ever having practised. A close student friend who was to become a modest playwright and soon-forgotten member of the Académie Française encouraged Lesage, who was in need of money, to try his hand at translations and arranged for their publication.

Marriage and Family

marriage Gil Blas

This allowed Lesage to marry Marie-Elisabeth Huyard in 1694. The couple had four children, three boys and a girl. The eldest, René-André, despite his father’s disapproval, became a successful actor under the stage name of Montménil. The third, François-Antoine also took to the stage but less successfully. The second son, Julien-François became a priest; the daughter, Marie-Elisabeth, never married and lived at home with her parents.

A Patron with a taste for Spain

Soon after, Lesage was introduced to the Abbot de Lyonne, a wealthy and well-connected cleric, who took the young author under his wing, and for the next twenty years provided him with an annual stipend of 600 livres, a generous but not uncommon form of patronage. Father de Lyonne is supposed not only to have helped Lesage perfect his Spanish, but also to have provided the stimulus that led Lesage to translate, adapt, plagiarise and parody Spanish popular plays and novels. Madame Lesage’s mother was also of Spanish origin.

Little Success in the Official Theatre

In 1700 Lesage published a collection of Spanish Plays adapted from works by Francisco de Rojas and Lope de Vega, but failed to find anyone to perform them. Over the next few years he adapted other plays by Rojas and Calderón, which were produced by the Théâtre Français, forerunner of the Comédie Française, but without much success. This company had a royal patent that gave it a partial monopoly on theatrical performances. Others were generally forbidden to put on entertainments in which actors spoke lines. This controversial interdiction did not stop players elsewhere from miming, or acting from dialogue held up on boards, nor did it hinder alleged audience members from reciting dialogue while the actors mimed, amongst other techniques, but for the playwright, it meant that prestige, fame and fortune were only to be found at the King’s theatre.

theater of Gil Blas

His Luck Changes

In 1707, Lesage’s luck finally changed. His one-act play Crispin rival de son maître (Crispin his master’s rival) was a great success at the Théâtre Français and his novel Le Diable Boiteux (The Lame Devil) derived from a story by the prolific Spanish writer Luis Velez de Guevara, became a publishing phenomenon, quickly selling more than 20.000 copies, a large amount for those days.

Turcaret

In 1708, he wrote a full length, five act comedy, Turcaret, a comic indictment of the days’ financial shenanigans. The banking community was not amused and blocked production by the Théâtre Français until the Duke of Orléans, the future regent, forced it to back down. The play was a great success and remains in the company’s repertoire today, although performed infrequently.

Theatre de la Foire

Shortly after the Turcaret episode, his differences with the “official” theatre led Lesage to start a lengthy collaboration with the Théâtre de la Foire. There were two fairgrounds in Paris at this time, one in St. Germain-des-Prés, and another where the forecourt of the Gare de l’Est is today. Each enjoyed a season of a few months every year and was both a market for commercial dealings and a centre for popular entertainments of all types. These included jugglers, acrobats, strong men, fire-eaters, circus acts, fortune-tellers and, as far as the regulations allowed, comic and satiric theatre as well as song and dance. Lesage became a prolific source of plays for these performers, producing a large number of comedies and farces either in his own right or in collaboration with others. It was mass-market entertainment, the period’s equivalent of music hall or television comedy; Lesage was its most successful scriptwriter.

Also a Ghost-Writer

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He had other literary activities. Lesage published a sequel to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, a common and perfectly honourable practice in those days that cared little about copyright or royalties. He is believed to have been a silent collaborator, editor and re-writer for Pétis de la Croix who produced a sequel, under the title of The Thousand and One Days, to the original translation of The Thousand and One Nights. He was also the ghost writer for a celebrity biography of Marie Petit, a young lady who impersonated her murdered boyfriend, crossed the Ottoman and Persian Empires dressed as a man and was received at court with all due honours as Louis XIV’s envoy by the Shah of Persia.

"A Topic of Conversation, Selling Well."

The first half (two volumes, three books each) of The History of Gil Blas of Santillana was published in 1715. A review in a literary magazine in May 1715 said: “A book that appeared here recently is a topic of conversation and is selling well. It’s called The History of Gil Blas of Santillana, by Mr. Lesage, in-12, 2 volumes. The author is the same who wrote The Lame Devil, which puts a favourable light on the work. It is set in Spain; but it isn’t hard to see that the whole work is a satire on the morals of our time. Actresses, above all, are very poorly treated. It’s a pity to see that the hero of the work, Gil Blas, is always accompanied by beggars, lackeys, and by whoever is most base among the people. It’s sure however that this book is written in a way that it can be read with pleasure.” The publisher quickly issued a second edition, but impatient readers had to wait nearly a decade for the sequel. The third volume containing another three books was published in 1724, and the fourth volume with the last three of the novel’s twelve books not until 1735. It was a huge popular success and it went through as many as 75 different editions before the end of the century. By way of comparison, The Lame Devil, Lesage’s second most successful work, went through 51 editions by 1800.

Old Age and Decline

death of Lesage

By the late 1730s, Lesage, his wife and daughter were living in a modest house on the Faubourg St. Jacques (the area between the Sorbonne and the Pantheon). Lesage had a two-room studio at the bottom of a small garden where he did his work. He refused to get himself elected to the Académie and trumpeted his disregard for many of its members, particularly Voltaire. By the end of the decade Lesage was becoming deaf, had stopped writing for the theatre, and the novels that he now produced were pot-boilers, no longer up to his earlier standard. While not without ups and downs Lesage, unlike most ‘gentleman authors’, had managed to live from his writing from the start, but as his hearing, health and abilities failed, so he felt the results in his pocket. In the early 1740s, he and his wife and daughter left Paris and moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer where his second son was a canon at the cathedral. His eldest son Montménil died in a hunting accident in 1743. Lesage spent time correcting his previous works, not always improving them. Despite some incoherencies, the original editions of Gil Blas – used here -- are generally considered superior to the later revised versions. The writer slowly declined into old age and senility and finally died in 1747.

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