The Impromptu Romance [1801]


This is a translation of "Le Roman impromptu," found in Les Nouveaux Savans de Société (1801, a.k.a. Year IX of the Republic) by S. J. Ducœurjoly. The game also appeared in a second edition in 1808, a third edition probably in 1810, and a fourth edition in 1825 (a text from 1852 with the same title instead includes Madame Henri Tardieu-Denesle's version of the game from 1817). "Roman" is translated here as romance rather than novel because the game's subject matter closely resembles the genre of chivalric romance to which the word may also refer.

Ducœurjoly is unlikely to be the inventor of the game. His introduction as well as his chapter on pénitences (a.k.a. forfeits) attribute many games to an unnamed woman, newly arrived from France, and an officer from Gascony. Furthermore, his own description of the game alludes to an unnamed source for a related game called l'Histoire, i.e. "The Story" or "The History." In later texts, "The History" is not very like "The Impromptu Romance" and in its variants resembles instead "Consequences" and "Exquisite Corpse" (more info at the bottom of this page). However, in light of Ducœurjoly's 1801 association of "The Impromptu Romance" with "The History," it's worth noting that GutsMuths's "Die Erzähler oder das Gechichtemachen" from 1796 does have elements of both games in its variants--although, like "The History," no particular theme.

Note: Ducœurjoly is better-known for a text documenting Haitian Creole. He was writing from Haiti just prior to independence, and although he displays awareness of some forms of equality and some impacts of "the humiliating yoke of slavery," his game manual nonetheless includes game-related chapters written from an unambiguously racist perspective.


This game has been more or less described in the book of which I have spoken, under the name of l'Histoire [see above]; ... but since this one is played in a much more complicated and interesting way, I should detail it here.

First of all, the subject of the romance must be noble; like, for example, the loves of a prince, and it is up to he or she who has the best speech skills at their disposal, to give the preamble to set the game in motion, and to resolve better the misunderstandings that will ensue, and the difficulties that will have to be vanquished to get through it with honor.

This first narrator, who must be called the confidant, thus begins by imposing on each of the actors in the game the name of a noble object that can figure in a romance with a high tone. For example, the palace, the forest, the tower, the sea, the ship, the captain of the guards, the seraglio, the grand vizier, the garden, the governess, the city, the countryside.

The first begins the narration, and must seek to fix the attention of the listeners with something believable and interesting or imposing in his story, in order to surprise, and to make those he will then name give pledges ... Like, for example, this beginning:

In a certain country of the Indies, there once existed the most handsome prince that ever was (thereupon, if he wants, the details of all his amenities and qualities) but the king, his father, was hard, proud, imperious, and, although he loved his son, he professed to regulate absolutely all his pleasures and all the movements of his heart. This young prince, however, loved passionately, though in secret, an accomplished princess, as much for the beauty and perfection of her features, as for the precious qualities of her soul, etc. One day, therefore, to dream at his ease of this worthy object of his tenderness, and to conceal from the king, his father, sighs which would have betrayed him, he left the palace and went towards ...

When he named the palace, the interlocutor on whom this name was imposed had to speak and continue the story; ... if he feels able to speak, he will invent a few sentences and walk the prince around a little; but as soon as he finds himself embarrassed, he gets out of trouble by naming one of the other objects indicated at the outset of the story. So he will say: the prince, to distract his grief, thought of going for a walk by the sea; then the sea is charged with the narrative, from which it soon exempts itself likewise by saying, I suppose: the prince, to satisfy this desire, beckoned to a vessel to come and take him ...

The vessel, who must speak, will soon have delivered itself also, saying: the vessel immediately sent its launch ashore to take the prince, who was no sooner on board, than he asked for his confidant ...

By this means, the story returns to the latter who, as I said, must always be the most capable of speaking well and providing for the game. Voilà, first of all, how the game works. But there is something extra which increases the difficulties and leads to fun.

When the narrator is giving a description or a detail that everyone is listening to attentively, in the most interesting place, he points with his finger to one of the listeners, who must immediately provide him with a word that he seems to be looking for; but this word must be completely opposite to that which the other should express, otherwise the supplier gives a pledge.


The confidant who then narrates said: "The prince, overwhelmed with the greatest affliction, and foreseeing in his mind all the evils that the inflexible rigor of his father was going to cause his unfortunate princess to suffer, decided to die to not be witness to it ..." So, giving in to despair, he suddenly pulled his (if he or she whom he looks at is intrigued by the situation, it will be natural to forget the law of the game and to respond with the appropriate word, dagger.) But then he will give a pledge, and the confidant will continue without being embarrassed ... But if, on the contrary, someone provides him with the word hat; then he will find himself at a loss to make it fit reasonably into his story, and he will need the resources of a lively and inventive mind to get out of trouble.

He will therefore say: "He took off his hat, exclaiming, since the fatal foresight of my father, or rather of my tyrant, who wants to make me suffer longer, has deprived me of all murderous weapons, all the means to be able to attempt my life, I have only this resource left which, although longer, will be as infallible as the others. I'm going to soak and drench this hat, I'll tear off bits of it, I'll scrape off the fluff with my fingernails, I'll swallow it, and this matter will form a sponge in my stomach which will soon have me suffocated."

We see that in this way he will have extricated himself with skill and verisimilitude from a difficulty where someone else could have stopped short, would have been obliged to give a pledge, and to go on shamefully to a new interlocutor whom he would have named.

That is enough to explain the variations and the charms of this game, which becomes interesting and piquant in proportion to the skill of the players.

Source Text

Le Roman impromptu

Ce jeu a été décrit à peu près dans le livre dont j'ai parlé, sous le nom de l'Histoire ; ... mais comme celui-ci se joue d'une manière bien plus compliquée et plus intéressante, je dois le détailler ici.

Il faut d'abord que le sujet du roman soit noble ; comme, par exemple, les amours d'un prince, et c'est à celui ou celle qui a le mieux la parole à disposition, à en faire le préambule pour mettre le jeu en train, et faire mieux ressortir, les quiproquo qui vont s'en suivre, et les difficultés qu'il faudra vaincre pour s'en tirer avec honneur.

Ce premier narrateur, qui doit s'appeler le confident, commence donc par imposer, à chacun des acteurs du jeu, le nom d'un objet noble qui puisse figurer dans un roman du haut ton. Par exemple, le palais, la forêt, la tour, la mer, le vaisseau, le capitaine des gardes, le serrail, le grand visir, le jardin, la gouvernante, la ville, la campagne.

Le premier entame la narration, et doit chercher à fixer l'attention des auditeurs par quelque chose de vraisemblable et d'intéressant, ou d'imposant dans son récit, afin de surprendre, et de faire donner des gages à ceux ou celles qu'il va nommer ensuite ... Comme, par exemple, ce début :

Dans un certain pays des Indes, il existait jadis le plus beau prince qui fût jamais, (là-dessus, s'il veut le détail de tous ses agrémens et qualités) mais le roi, son père, était dur, fier, impérieux, et, quoiqu'il aimât son fils, il prétendait absolument régler toutes ses volontés et tous les mouvemens de son cœur. Ce jeune prince aimait cependant et passionnément, quoi qu'en secret, une princesse accomplie, tant pour la beauté et la perfection de ses traits, que pour les précieuses qualités de son ame, etc. Un jour donc, pour rêver à son aise à ce digne objet de sa tendresse, et pour dérober au roi, son père, des soupirs qui l'auraient trahi, il sortit du palais, et s'achemina vers ...

Lorsqu'il a nommé le palais, l'interlocuteur à qui l'on a imposé ce nom, a dû prendre la parole et continuer le récit ; ... s'il se sent en état de parler, il fera quelques phrases et promenera un peu le prince ; mais sitôt qu'il se trouve embarrassé, il se tire de peine en nommant un des autres objets indiqués dans l'annonce du roman. Il dira donc : le prince, pour distraire son chagrin, imagina d'aller faire une promenade sur la mer ; alors la mer est chargée du récit, dont elle s'exempte bientôt de même en disant, je suppose : le prince, pour satisfaire ce désir, fit des signes à un vaisseau pour le venir prendre ...

Le vaisseau qui doit parler, aura bientôt fait de se délivrer aussi, en disant : le vaisseau envoya aussi tôt sa chaloupe à terre pour prendre le prince, qui ne fut pas plutôt à bord, qu'il demanda son confident ...

Par ce moyen, le récit retourne à celui-ci qui, comme j'ai dit, doit toujours être le plus capable de bien parler et de fournir au jeu. Voilà donc d'abord pour ce qui concerne la marche. Mais il y a un supplément qui augmente les difficultés et amène des plaisanteries.

Lorsque le narrateur fait une description ou un détail que chacun écoute avec attention, dans l'endroit le plus intéressant, il indique du doigt un des auditeurs, qui doit à l'instant lui fournir un mot qu'il a l'air de chercher ; mais il faut que ce mot soit tout-à-fait opposé à ce que l'autre devrait exprimer, sans quoi le fournisseur donne un gage.


Le confident qui raconte alors, dit : « Le prince accablé de la plus vive affliction, et présageant dans son esprit tous les maux que la rigueur inflexible de son père allait faire souffrir à son infortunée princesse, se décida à mourir pour n'en être pas le témoin ... » Alors s'abandonnant au désespoir, il tira subitement son (si celui ou celle qu'il regarde entre bien dans l'intérêt de la situation, il sera naturel d'oublier la loi du jeu et de répondre le mot propre, poignard.) Mais alors il donnera un gage, et le confident continuera sans être embarrassé ... Mais si, au contraire, on lui fournit le mot chapeau ; alors il se trouvera en peine pour le faire entrer raisonnablement dans son récit, et il aura besoin des ressources d'un esprit vif et inventif pour se tirer d'affaire.

Il dira donc : « Il tira son chapeau en s'écriant, puisque la funeste prévoyance de mon père, ou plutôt de mon tyran, qui veut me faire souffrir plus long-tems, m'a ôté toutes les armes meutrières, tous les moyens de pouvoir attenter à ma vie, il ne me reste plus que cetter ressource qui, quoique plus longue, sera aussi infaillible que les autres. Je vais imbiber et tremper ce chapeau, j'en déchirerai des parcelles, j'en râclerai la bourre avec mes ongles, j'avalerai, et cette matière formera dans mon estomac une éponge qui m'aura bientôt étouffé. »

On voit qu'ainsi il se sera tiré avec adresse et vraisemblance d'une difficulté où quelqu'autre aurait pu rester court, aurait été obligé de donner un gage, et de passer honteusement à un nouvel interlocuteur qu'il aurait nommé.

En voilà assez pour faire comprendre les variations et les agrémens de ce jeu, qui devient intéressant et piquant à proportion de l'habilité des joueurs.

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