La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, a short play in prose, was written as part of the celebrations that took place when Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans, Monsieur, Louis XIV’s only brother, married a German princess, la princesse Palatine, his second wife. Louis-Philippe lost his first wife, Henriette d’Angleterre, on 30 June 1670. She was 26 years old.
Molière’s La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas was first performed in February 1672 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where royal divertissements often took place. (See toumoliere.net) Its first public performance took place on 8 July 1672 at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. The play’s source is Greek author Theophrastus (Characters), who is also one of Molière’s sources for Les Fâcheux. Théophraste wrote portraits.
The date shown in this image is inaccurate. It should read February 1672. (toumoliere.net)
Le Ballet des ballets
The nine scenes of our current play were to constitute a one-act comedy of manners, followed by a pastorale, now lost, and an intermède from Psyché. The divertissement would therefore be a comédie-ballet entitled Le Ballet des ballets. It was written by Molière, composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and choreographed by Pierre Beauchamp. In 1671, Molière had fallen out with Lully. When the play was performed for the public, on 8 July 1672, the pastoral was replaced by Molière’s Le Mariage forcé, to which intermèdes were added. These are included at the foot of this post.
LA COMTESSE D’ESCARBAGNAS.
LE COMTE, son fils (her son).
LE VICOMTE, amant de (in love with) Julie.
JULIE, amante du Vicomte.
MONSIEUR TIBAUDIER, conseiller, amant de la Comtesse.
MONSIEUR HARPIN, receveur des tailles (tax farmer), autre amant de la Comtesse.
MONSIEUR BOBINET, précepteur de (tutor to) Monsieur le Comte.
ANDRÉE, suivante de la Comtesse.
JEANNOT, laquais de Monsieur Tibaudier.
CRIQUET, laquais de la Comtesse.
La scène est à Angoulême.
Most of Scene One is a conversation between Julie and le Vicomte, the comedy’s young lovers. First, the Vicomte tells Julie that he bumped into a fâcheux, which delayed him. He then goes on to say that he doesn’t like making believe he is in love with the Comtesse. He laments his role. It is a “comedy.”
Que cette feinte où je me force n’étant que pour vous plaire, j’ai lieu de ne vouloir en souffrir la contrainte, que devant les yeux qui s’en divertissent. Que j’évite le tête-à-tête avec cette comtesse ridicule, dont vous m’embarrassez, et en un mot que ne venant ici que pour vous, j’ai toutes les raisons du monde d’attendre que vous y soyez.
Le Vicomte à Julie (Scène première)
[[…] I am induced not to wish to suffer the annoyance of it, except in the presence of her who is amused by it; that I avoid the tête-à-tête with this ridiculous Countess, with whom you hamper me; and, in one word that, coming here but for you, I have all the reasons possible to await until you are here.]
The Vicount Julie (Scene One, p. 64)
The Comtesse is besotted with rank and has just returned from Paris where she was surrounded by aristocrats. This, no doubt, has further consolidated her conviction that aristocrats are personnes de qualité. Julie reports to the Vicomte, the man she loves, that glittering Paris has besotted the Comtesse.
Notre comtesse d’Escarbagnas, avec son perpétuel entêtement de qualité, est un aussi bon personnage qu’on en puisse mettre sur le théâtre. Le petit voyage qu’elle a fait à Paris, l’a ramenée dans Angoulême, plus achevée qu’elle n’était. L’approche de l’air de la cour a donné à son ridicule de nouveaux agréments, et sa sottise tous les jours ne fait que croître et embellir.
Julie au Vicomte (Scène première)
[Our Countess of Escarbagnas, with her perpetual hobby of quality, is as good a character as one could put on the stage. The little excursion which she has made to Paris has brought her back to Angoulême more perfect than she was. The proximity of the court-air has given new charms to her absurdity, and her silliness does but grow and become more beautiful every day.]
Julie to the Viscount (Scene One, p. 65)
We know why the Vicomte has entered the fray. How can two bourgeois compete with a person of rank? In fact, our bourgeois are somewhat tired of courting the Comtesse. It is hoped that a petite comédie, le Vicomte as suitor, will make Monsieur Tibaudier and Monsieur Harpin press their suit. Le Vicomte, a real aristocrat is about to treat the Comtesse with a comédie. Le Vicomte‘s bourgeois rivals have been invited to attend.
We meet the Comtesse in Scene Two. She has caught a glimpse of the Vicomte leaving through a back door. She is alarmed, but Julie, her suivante, reassures her:
Non, Madame, et il a voulu témoigner par là qu’il est tout entier à vos charmes.
Julie à la Comtesse (Scène II)
[No, Madam, and by this he wished to show that he is entirely to your charms.]
Julie to the Countess (Scene Two, p. 67)
The Comtesse‘s haughty behaviour is mostly objectionable. She scolds Andrée for using the word armoire, instead of garde-robe (closet). She scolds both Andrée and Criquet, for not knowing the word soucoupe, saucer. In fact, Criquet doesn’t know the word écuyer (equerry). We also have the matter of wax candles. They may have disappeared. Andrée has suif candles, tallow candles. Finally, Andrée gets so nervous that she drops a glass sitting on a tray and breaks it. The image at the top of this post shows Andrée dropping a glass. However, Scene Two contains an extremely revealing conversation between la Comtesse and Julie, which will be discussed.
Before he arrives, Monsieur Thibaudier, one of the Comtesse‘s bourgeois suitors has Jeannot take pears to the Comtesse, to which a note is attached. The note will be read by the Vicomte to everyone in Scene Four. However, the Comtesse surprises us. As Scene Three is closing, she praises Monsieur Tibaudier:
Ce qui me plaît de ce Monsieur, c’est qu’il sait vivre avec les
personnes de ma qualité, et qu’il est fort respectueux.
La Comtesse à tous (Scene III)
[What pleases me in this Mr. Tibaudier is, that he knows how to behave with persons of my rank, and that he is very respectful.]
The Countess to all (Scene Fourteen, p. 74)
In Scene Four, le Vicomte tells the Comtesse that the comedians are ready and that, in a quarter of an hour, they should all leave for the large room, la salle. The Countess warns that she does not want une cohue, a crush.
Je ne veux point de cohue au moins. Que l’on dise à mon suisse qu’il ne laisse entrer personne.
La Comtesse au Vicomte (Scène IV)
I will have no crush at least. (To Criquet). Tell my porter to let no one enter.
The Countess to the Viscount (Scene Fifteen, p. 74)
So the Vicomte, who is treating la Comtesse to a comedy, is ready to cancel the performance. One cannot let in the whole town, but spectators are needed.
En ce cas, Madame, je vous déclare que je renonce à la comédie, et je n’y saurais prendre de plaisir, lorsque la compagnie n’est pas nombreuse. Croyez-moi, si vous voulez vous bien divertir, qu’on dise à vos gens de laisser entrer toute la ville.
Le Vicomte à la Comtesse (Scène IV)
[In this case, Madam, I must inform you that I shall abandon the comedy; and I cannot take any pleasure in it, if the company be not numerous. Believe me, that if you wish to amuse yourself well, you should tell your people to let the whole town come in.]
The Viscount to the Countess (Scene Fifteen, p. 74)
The Viscount then reads the note Monsieur Tibaudier has sent with the pears. Monsieur Tibaudier has made it clear that the Comtesse has been cruel, so we expect the Comtesse to be to react angrily, but she doesn’t. Some académicien might find fault with the note, but she likes it.
Il y a peut-être quelque mot qui n’est pas de l’Académie; mais j’y remarque un certain respect qui me plaît beaucoup.
La Comtesse à tous (Scène II)
[There may, perhaps, be some word in it which does not belong to the Academy; but I can read a certain respect in it which pleases me much.]
The Countess to all (Scene Fifteen.75)
Vous avez raison, Madame, et Monsieur le Vicomte dût-il s’en offenser, j’aimerais un homme qui m’écrirait comme cela.
Julie à la Comtesse (Scene IV)
[You are quite right, Madam, and, at the risk of offending the Viscount, I should love a man who wrote to me in this way.]
Julie to the Countess (Scene Fifteen, p. 75)
In Scene Five, the Comtesse welcomes Monsieur Tibaudier rather warmly and the Viscount reads aloud Monsieur Tibaudier’s poems. They are so lovely that the Viscount says to himself that he has been outranked by Monsieur Thibaudier.
The Comtesse enjoys being courted by a Viscount, which we have seen in Scene Two, but she likes Monsieur Tibaudier’s note.
Self-interest and Jealousy
Scene Two is most revealing. It points to the organising principles of the play. Self-interest informs the behaviour of the Countess, and so does vanity. She may first appear obsessed with rank, but she is guided by vanity, and fear of losing the Comtesse‘s affection keeps her suitors vying for her affection.
Scene Two: Julie wonders how, having just travelled to Paris, the Comtesse can manage lowly Angoulême. She has been at Court where she met le beau monde (celebrities). Can she return to the company of a Counsellor at Law, Monsieur Tibaudier, and a tax farmer, Monsieur Harpin. They do not have a title.
Je m’étonne, Madame, que de tous ces grands noms que je devine, vous ayez pu redescendre à un monsieur Tibaudier, le conseiller, et à un monsieur Harpin, le receveur des tailles. La chute est grande, je vous l’avoue. Car pour Monsieur votre vicomte, quoique vicomte de province, c’est toujours un vicomte, et il peut faire un voyage à Paris, s’il n’en a point fait; mais un conseiller, et un receveur, sont des amants un peu bien minces [thin], pour une grande comtesse comme vous.
Julie à la Comtesse (Scène II)
[I am surprised, Madam, that after all these great names at which I guess, you have been able to come down again to a Mr. Tibaudier, a counsellor at law, and to a Mr. Harpin, a receiver of taxes. The fall is great, I confess; for, as for your Viscount, though but a country Viscount, he is at any rate a Viscount, and may make a journey to Paris, if he have not already done so: but a counsellor at law, and a receiver of taxes are somewhat inferior lovers for a grand Countess like you.]
Julie to the Countess (Scene Eleven, p. 71)
There can be no doubt that the Comtesse inhabits the world La Rochefoucauld described. Self-interest makes it necessary for her to accommodate her bourgeois suitors who must be rivals.
Ce sont gens qu’on ménage dans les provinces pour le besoin qu’on en peut avoir, ils servent au moins à remplir les vides de la galanterie, à faire nombre de soupirants; et il est bon, Madame, de ne pas laisser un amant seul maître du terrain, de peur que faute de rivaux, son amour ne s’endorme sur trop de confiance.
La Comtesse à Julie (Scène II)
[They are people whom we conciliate in the provinces for the need we may have of them; they serve at least to fill up the vacancies of gallantry; to increase the number of suitors; and it is well, Madam, not to let one lover be sole master, for fear, that, failing rivals, his love may go to sleep through too much confidence.]
The Countess to Julie (Scene Eleven, p. 72)
The Countess is the widowed mother of three sons, one of whom, le Comte, still has a tutor, Monsieur Bobinet. In Scene Eight, Monsieur Harpin, who enters the stage tardily and rather tempestuously, intimates that he has been a donneur. Might the Countess need money and have accepted money?
Monsieur Tibaudier en use comme il lui plaît, je ne sais pas de quelle façon monsieur Tibaudier a été avec vous, mais Monsieur Tibaudier n’est pas un exemple pour moi, et je ne suis point d’humeur à payer les violons pour faire danser les autres.
Monsieur Harpin (Scène VIII)
[Mr. Tibaudier behaves as it pleases him: I do not know on what footing he is with you; but Mr. Tibaudier is not an example for me, and I am not disposed to pay the violins to let others dance.]
Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-One, p. 81)
Her relationships with Messieurs Tibaudier and Harpin were waning. Hence a recourse to jealousy. Monsieur Tibaudier presses his suit successfully. His verses and true love eliminate le Vicomte.
Monsieur Bobinet has arrived. He is the tutor to the Countess’ son, the Count. He reports on the Count and also brings news of the Comtesse’s two other sons:
Comment se portent mes deux autres fils, le Marquis et le Commandeur?
La Comtesse à Monsieur Bobinet (Scene VI)
How fare my two other sons, the Marquis and the Commander?
The Countess to Monsieur Bobinet (Scene Seventeen, p. 77)
She wants to know where the Count is and what he is doing. Monsieur Bobinet replies that the Count is in her “beautiful apartment with the alcove” working.
Il compose un thème, Madame, que je viens de lui dicter, sur une épître de Cicéron.
La Comtesse à monsieur Bobinet (Scene VI)
He is composing an exercise, Madam, which I have just dictated to him upon an epistle of Cicero.
La Comtesse à monsieur Bobinet (Scene Seventeen, p.77)
Given that the Vicomte has been more or less eliminated, the Comtesse wishes for her son to greet Monsieur Tibaudier. Monsieur Tibaudier is delighted, thereby pleasing the Comtesse. She is a Comtesse, which is rank, but this comtesse thrives on being admired.
Je suis ravi, Madame, que vous me concédiez la grâce d’embrasser Monsieur le Comte votre fils. On ne peut pas aimer le tronc, qu’on n’aime aussi les branches.
Monsieur Tibaudier à la Comtesse (Scène VII)
[I am enchanted, Madam, that you concede me the favour of embracing the Count, your son. One cannot love the trunk without also loving the branches.]
Monsieur Tibaudier to the Countess (Scene Fourteen, p. 78)
We also learn that although she has three grown (or almost) sons, she still looks young.
Hélas! quand je le fis, j’étais si jeune que je me jouais encore avec une poupée.
La Comtesse à Julie (Scène VII)
[Alas! when he was born, I was so young that I was still playing with a doll.]
The Countess to Julie (Scene Eighteen, p. 78)
She is floating in mid-air when we hear that the comedians are ready.
Les comédiens envoient dire qu’ils sont tout prêts.
Criquet (Scène VII)
The actors send me to say that they are quite ready.
Criquet (Scene Twenty, p. 79)
Le Vicomte reflects that:
Il est nécessaire de dire, que cette comédie n’a été faite que pour lier ensemble les différents morceaux de musique, et de danse, dont on a voulu composer ce divertissement, et que…
Le Vicomte à tous (Scene VII)
[It is necessary to say that this comedy has been written only to connect together the different pieces of music and dancing of which they wished to compose this entertainment, and that…]
The Viscount to all (Scene Twenty, p. 79)
Is the dramatist within his play and is this play a théâtre dans le théâtre? I believe he is.
Monsieur Harpin joins everyone when the comedy has already started. He is a fâcheux.
Parbleu la chose est belle, et je me réjouis de voir ce que je vois.
Monsieur Harpin (Scène VIII)
Zounds! that is a pretty set out, and I rejoice to see what I do see.
Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-One, p. 79)
Eh têtebleu la véritable comédie qui se fait ici, c’est celle que vous jouez, et si je vous trouble, c’est de quoi je me soucie peu.
Monsieur Harpin (Scène VIII)
Eh! the deuce! The real comedy which is performed here, is played by you; and if I do trouble you, I care very little about it.
Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-One, p. 80)
Monsieur Harpin thinks the Vicomte is his rival.
Eh ventrebleu, s’il y a ici quelque chose de vilain, ce ne sont point mes jurements, ce sont vos actions, et il vaudrait bien mieux que vous jurassiez, vous, la tête, la mort et la sang, que de faire ce que vous faites avec Monsieur le Vicomte.
Monsieur Harpin (Scène VIII)
Eh! Odds bobs! if there be anything nasty, it is not my swearing, but your goings on; and it would be better for you to swear, heads, ‘s deaths, and blood, than to do what you are doing with the Viscount.
Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-One, p. 80)
The Vicomte does not understand what is going on.
Je ne sais pas, Monsieur le Receveur, de quoi vous vous plaignez, et si...
Le Vicomte à Monsieur Harpin (Scene VIII)
I do not know, Mr. Receiver, of what you have to complain; and if…
The Viscount to Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-One, p. 80)
And the Comtesse doesn’t know why Monsieur Harpin speaks to everyone.
Quand on a des chagrins jaloux, on n’en use point de la sorte, et l’on vient doucement se plaindre à la personne que l’on aime.
La Comtesse à Monsieur Harpin (Scene VIII)
When one has jealous cares, one ought not to behave in this manner; but to come and complain gently to the person one loves.
The Countess to Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-One, p. 80)
Contrary to Monsieur Tibaudier, Monsieur Harpin has not gone to visit the Countess and complain. He has chosen instead to accuse the Viscount and to make a mockery of himself. In fact, Monsieur Harpin becomes quite offensive. Once again, he alludes to giving/receiving money.
Je veux dire, que je ne trouve point étrange que vous vous rendiez au mérite de Monsieur le Vicomte, vous n’êtes pas la première femme qui joue dans le monde de ces sortes de caractères, et qui ait auprès d’elle un Monsieur le Receveur, dont on lui voit trahir, et la passion, et la bourse pour le premier venu qui lui donnera dans la vue ; mais ne trouvez point étrange aussi que je ne sois point la dupe d’une infidélité si ordinaire aux coquettes du temps, et que je vienne vous assurer devant bonne compagnie, que je romps commerce avec vous, et que Monsieur le Receveur ne sera plus pour vous Monsieur le Donneur.
Monsieur Harpin (Scene VIII)
[I mean that I find nothing strange in it that you should give way to the merits of the Viscount; you are not the first woman who plays that sort of character in society, and who has a Receiver after her, whose affection and purse one finds her betray for the first comer who suits her views. But do not think it strange that I am not the dupe of an infidelity so common to the coquettes of the present day, and that I come to assure you before decent company, that I break off all connection with you, and that Mr. Receiver shall no longer be Mr. Giver to you.]
Monsieur Harpin (Scene Twenty-0ne, p. 81)
We know already that in Scene Nine, la scène dernière, le vicomte and Julie will learn that their families will allow them to marry and that le Vicomte will tell the Comtesse to marry Monsieur Tibaudier. She will resist a little, but ask Monsieur Tibaudier to marry her.
C’est sans vous offenser, Madame, et les comédies veulent de ces sortes de choses.
Le Vicomte à la Comtesse (Scène dernière)
It was meant without offence, Madam; comedies require these sorts of things.
The Viscount to the Countess (Scene Twenty-Two, p. 81)
Julie has been fully “schooled.”
Je vous avoue, madame, qu’il y a merveilleusement à profiter de tout ce que vous dites, c’est une école que votre conversation, et j’y viens tous les jours attraper quelque chose.
Julie à la Comtesse (Scène II)
[I confess to you, Madam, that there is a marvellous deal to learn by what you say; your conversation is a school, and every day I get hold of something in it.]
Julie to the Countess (Scene Fourteen, p. 72)
In this comedy, jealousy is used to overcome obstacles to the marriage of the Comtesse. Monsieur Tibaudier presses his suit when a Vicomte is courting the Comtesse. On the other hand, Monsieur Harpin becomes jealous and his own worst enemy. This obstacle is to the Comtesse‘s marriage is mostly vanity on her part, which can translate as rank, but not necessarily. The Comtesse acts in her best interest. In 17th-century France, the bourgeoisie was growing and many bourgeois were rich.
However, we have a doubling or two couples. Le Vicomte and Julie face a more traditional obstacle. His father and her brothers oppose the Vicomte‘s marriage to Julie. A billet is delivered to the Vicomte. He may marry Julie. Comedy demands a fortunate péripétie, or turn of events. La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas is an “all’s that ends well” comedy. But first, all will watch the end of the comedy within the comedy. Le Ballet des ballets was a divertissement.
I have read Lucien Dallenbach’s Récit spéculaire and I am reading Georges Forestier’s Le Théâtre dans le Théâtre. Years ago, I read Jean Rousset’s books. According to Georges Forestier, the embedded (enchâssé-e) element is the missing Pastoral, situated between Scenes Eight and Nine (p. 353). I would call other allusions to comedy “self-referential.”
Sources and Resources
Love to everyone 💕
 Georges Forestier Le Théâtre dans le théâtre (Genève: Droz, 1966), p. 353.
Antoine Boësset — À la fin cette bergère…
Claire Lefilliâtre (soprano), Bruno Le Levreur, Jean-François Novelli, Arnaud Marzorati
Le Poème Harmonique — Vincent Dumestre
La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, le Mariage forcé – Marc Antoine Charpentier
La Simphonie du Marais
Lyrics: Le Mariage forcé and added interludes
© Micheline Walker
6 January 2020