Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Diderot again... the bourgeois escapist...

Peter Szondi (On the Social Psychology of Diderot's Bourgeois Tragedy, 1980)

I know that I bang on and on about Diderot, but other people think he matters, too. Lukacs says that his 'bourgeois drama' was the first genre 'which developed out of a conscious class conflict', which makes it very important in Marxist theatre criticism. Never mind that the conflict was between the detested bourgeois and the aristocracy: Diderot saw the political power of performance, and wrote a couple of plays to exploit it. 

Szondi takes a closer look at the content of Diderot's plays, and observes that they don't have much actual class content in them. You'd expect a big row between the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, competing ambitions, the dominant class dressed up like bandits and enacting all sorts of skulduggery. But Diderot is not so obvious. That might have something to do with the bollockings he received from the state in the 1750s for writing cheeky complaints about Christianity. Or it might be that he was the pioneer of that particular leftist slogan: the personal is the political.

Rather than show how the bourgeoisie could take on the aristocrats, or point out the injustices of the system, Diderot decided to describe the perfect life. That's one reason why they call his plays sentimental comedy, the serious genre, anything but tragedy. They have happy endings but - maybe the translations don't do them justice - they are not laugh festivals.

This perfect life was families... well, liking each other. The dramatic energy was towards reconciliation: a dad wonders where his son is at, his son turns up. It's escapist utopia. Diderot is imagining a kind of future. One in which he was not gonna get pelters from the king and his cronies.

Mind you, he would lord it over his wife...

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