Barbara Burns interviews Derek Connon, author of the 250th Texts and Translations volume: Le Philosophe sans le savoir, by Michel-Jean Sedaine.
BB. Congratulations on the publication of this translation which enjoys the status of being the 250th volume in the MHRA’s various series under the ‘Texts and Translations’ umbrella! For those who haven’t heard of Michel-Jean Sedaine, can you tell us a bit about this writer and why he is historically important?
DC. Sedaine, who lived from 1719 to 1797, was a writer who worked mainly on opéra-comique, a type of entertainment that was initially developed by the entertainers at the Parisian Fairs as a way of getting around the laws giving the established theatres monopolies on performing. It was an inventive mixture of music and spoken dialogue, which began by using mainly existing tunes. But, by the time Sedaine became involved with it, it had moved away from the Fairs, and was using music newly composed by established composers.
Sedaine was a friend of the philosophical writer Diderot, who was developing a new type of theatre that was halfway between comedy and tragedy, and had the aim of giving a message about how to live in the modern world by writing serious plays that were about ordinary people, and not figures from mythology or classical history, as was usual in tragedy. Comedy, of course, was about ordinary people, but tended to ridicule them. Sedaine started to introduce the sort of serious themes used in the new type of drama, which has become known as drame, into his opéras-comiques, a new departure because the form had previously always been comic.
BB. Why is the play you’ve chosen to translate, Le Philosophe sans le savoir, of particular interest?
DC. Le Philosophe sans le savoir came as the result of Sedaine’s annoyance at a satirical play by Palissot called Les Philosophes, which attacked a group of writers that included not only Diderot, but also people like Rousseau and Voltaire. In this play he aimed to defend these writers, and, instead of writing it as an opéra-comique, he wrote it as a drame. Obviously, the play is significant as a contribution to this literary quarrel, but what makes it such an important work is much more straightforward. The drame was hugely influential at the time, and studying it tells us an enormous amount about eighteenth-century life and attitudes, but it was very much of its era. Still, there is pretty universal agreement that, of all the plays written in the genre, Le Philosophe sans le savoir is the best – many have said that it’s the only decent one, so, for anyone who wants to get a flavour of this uniquely eighteenth-century theatrical movement, this is the play to read.
BB. This play struggled at first with the censors because it deals with the theme of duelling. Why was that such an issue at the time?
DC. Duelling as a problem certainly wasn’t confined either to this period or to France, and it caused huge loss of life. Anyone who thought they had been insulted, no matter how slight the insult, could seek to defend their honour by challenging their adversary to a duel, and, once you were challenged, it was more or less impossible to refuse or to pull out, since the loss of face would be something others would certainly take advantage of. But then, if one fought the duel, being killed was clearly a real possibility, and, if one survived, the penalties threatened by the law were such that it was advisable to flee the country.
The French authorities had been imposing increasing penalties on duellists since the sixteenth century, but with little success. Sedaine’s play seeks to point out the destructive effects of duelling on both individuals and their families, but also to suggest that the laws against it were ineffective, and so made matters worse. Sedaine’s problem was that the censors saw his work as an apologia for duelling, which it certainly was not.
BB. So how did Sedaine manage to get around this?
DC. Eventually the problem was solved by some judicious cutting, and by bumping up a passage on the fact that laws against the practice were justified. However, there is also a story that, when a group of officials came to see a run-through of the play to make their final judgment, Sedaine persuaded them to bring their wives. The officials were puzzled by this, since the women knew nothing of the legal issues involved, but then the fact that they wept all the way through persuaded the men that performance of the play should be allowed.
BB. Sedaine was writing in a period when the bourgeoisie was rising in significance. Do class distinctions feature strongly in the play? Can you give us a flavour of the way Sedaine tackles themes such as prejudice and pretension and promotes the idea of individual merit?
DC. This is far from straightforward. The drame has often been known as drame bourgeois, but this wasn’t Diderot’s name for it, and it’s clear that the main characters in his plays in the genre belong to the minor nobility. Sedaine’s main character too turns out to be a member of the minor nobility, but living more or less incognito because of his involvement in the past in a duel and working as a merchant, a profession associated with the bourgeoisie. The play makes much of the fact that, by being a fair dealer and a man who generally rejects prejudice, he is the unwitting philosophe of the title, and snobbery is certainly mocked through the character of his ridiculous sister. But there are ambiguities, as it could be assumed that his nobility of character is a result of his nobility of rank. And the play isn’t devoid of notions of class distinction – although the central character’s right-hand man has shared his life in exile with him, he is not a noble, and is very much treated as a servant. Clearly, for anyone living in the eighteenth century these distinctions were so much part of life that they can’t be easily shaken off, but there was still something to learn from the fact that they were questioned.
BB. The play is designated as a comedy. Are there a lot of laughs in it, or is it more a case of presenting a serious topic in a mildly humorous or ironic way?
DC. We need to be careful about that word ‘comedy’, because it isn’t a clear equivalent of the French word comédie. Yes, plays with that designation up until this period usually were funny, but the standard French word for an actor is comédien, and the French national theatre puts on plays of all sorts, including tragedy, but is called the Comédie-Française, a legacy of the fact that in early modern French, as well as being the opposite of tragédie, the word was also used more generally to refer to any play, regardless of genre, so it isn’t quite the same as its English equivalent.
Early opéra-comique was also always comic, but the use of comique in the designation refers to the use of spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, not the fact that it’s funny; hence Sedaine could begin to introduce more serious elements into his works in the genre, and the most famous opéra-comique of the nineteenth century, Bizet’s Carmen, may have some funny episodes involving minor characters, but is generally serious, and ends with the death of the eponymous protagonist.
When the drame was developed that word, although it came to be used freely in the nineteenth century, wasn’t in general use, so, bearing in mind that most drames tended to have happy endings, authors saw no difficulty with using the term comédie even for plays that weren’t comic. Le Philosophe sans le savoir certainly makes good use of comic elements, but, interestingly, they tend to be confined to the more minor figures, and, the snobbish sister and the main character’s naïve daughter apart, to the lower-class characters.
BB. Is there a didactic element too?
DC. It had long been a tenet of French theatre that the aim should be to please and instruct (plaire et instruire), and the didactic element was a significant part of Diderot’s vision for the drame. Sedaine set out with Le Philosophe sans le savoir to restore to the term philosophe the respectability which had been compromised by Palissot’s play, and, although the only appearance of the word in his text is in the title, that is apparent throughout. Still, part of Sedaine’s gift is to keep any didactic speeches relatively short, so that he generally avoids the sanctimoniousness that can be found in other plays in the genre.
BB. What was the most challenging aspect of this project from a translator’s perspective?
DC. A key challenge was to try to reproduce the naturalness of the dialogue. In some scenes in particular, it’s easy to end up sounding preachy. One of Diderot’s theatrical ideas that was adopted by his followers, who included not only Sedaine but also Beaumarchais, was that people in an emotional state, rather than speaking in ever more poetic verse, as they did in classical drama, became incoherent, so there are lots of exclamatory words and incomplete phrases. Sometimes the differences in French and English grammar made it difficult to translate an incomplete phrase in such a way that the meaning was clear, but it remained incomplete. But all of those exclamations could often sound stilted in English, so it tended to be a bit of a judgment call deciding whether to leave them out or change the exclamation for a slightly different one. Still, having got into the rhythm of this exclamatory style, there were odd occasions when I found myself adding one, to help give the necessary emphasis to the English.
BB. Does Sedaine still have a place on university courses today? How does studying his work broaden our understanding of literary history?
DC. Indeed – in fact, I did this translation as a response to a colleague who needed a translation to teach it on a university module where not all the students would have good enough French (if any) to read the original. Rewarding as I’ve found doing this, I don’t think I would ever have thought about it without her giving me the idea. In terms of literary history, in those French departments that still have the luxury of teaching specialized literary modules, as the best example of the drame, it is an ideal choice to illustrate this important phase in French dramatic literature, and in Comparative Literature the drame represents the key link between English domestic tragedy and German bürgerliches Trauerspiel. Not sure what the fact that the English and German versions are both tragic, whereas, for the most part, the French isn’t, tells us about the three nations.
BB. Finally, what do you do to relax?
DC. As my son will tell you, for the retired, everything is relaxation, which, to an extent is true. I listen obsessively to music (classical), and love opera (but not the canary fanciers’ type). And, since I no longer have to do research, doing a translation like this, or producing editions of other plays, is part of my relaxation too.