Adapting The Liberal Lover: Mediterranean Commerce, Political Economy, and Theatrical Form under Richelieu


Ellen R. Welch


Little critical attention has thus far been devoted to the Classical French theater’s engagement with economic policy, despite its early patron Richelieu’s well-documented commitment to strengthening the state’s fiscal profile. This essay aims to illustrate one case in which the theater did serve as an arena for thinking through the cultural, moral, and economic implications of changes in French trading strategies in the mid-1630s. During the same theatrical season in which Corneille’s Le Cid sparked a furor over moral and aesthetic standards, two French dramatists proposed theatrical adaptations of another Spanish source – Cervantes’ exemplary novella “El amante liberal” – which addressed themes of Mediterranean commerce, religious conflict, loss and redemption. The intersection between theatrical concerns and commercial matters in these two plays demonstrates how the theater attempted to negotiate and disseminate relatively new economic theories as well as the cultural and moral values that would support them. A comparison of Guérin de Bouscal and Scudéry’s versions of L’Amant libéral suggests that mercantile ideas – the connection between risk and reward, the value of investment – were better expressed by the forms of “irregular” tragicomedy than by the Classical dramatic structures gaining favor with official theatrical culture in the 1630s. As peripatetic structures based on the felix culpa became marginalized as “irregular,” and as the material extravagances of Baroque theater were devalorized, the form of drama could no longer convincingly represent the joys of commerce or the selfish motives that might drive characters to gamble their fortunes for future renumeration.

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