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sentiments, ces développements de caractère, ces sentiments qui arrachent de l’âme des pensées si inutiles, ces coups de Théâtre (a) qui ne sont presque que des enfantillages;
enfin tous ces discours suivis qu’on n’aurait jamais dû se permettre” (56). Palissot’s tone drips with sarcasm as he criticizes Diderot for attempting to suppress strong feelings and purgative, cataclysmic moments in theater.
In Les Philosophes, Palissot gives his audience an attack against Diderot through the lens of Cydalise’s idiocy. In her search for a proper way to introduce her novel, Cydalise comes up with the following idea: “Enfin j’ai trouvé: j’y suis./Vite, écrivez, monsieur: Jeune homme, prends et lis./Jeune homme, prends et lis. Le tour est-il unique?” With this reference to St. Augustine’s famous “Tolle, lege,” it seems that Palissot is poking fun at the philosophes’ desire to assume the roles of established philosophers (like with his Plato/Encyclopédie dig). But with the help of Ferret’s critical edition of Les Philosophes, the modern reader understands that Cydalise could have lifted the line from Diderot’s preface to his Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (1754). In the scene that follows, Palissot ridicules Diderot’s passage, and equates the pedagogical feeling to a storytelling session between a parent and her child (1.5).
One might argue that spectators would have had to possess a profound knowledge of Diderot’s Interpretation de la nature, or at least of one of the Counter-Enlightenment pamphlets that littered Paris after its original publication, in order to understand the subtle dig at the philosophe’s style.59 However, this very same phrase, “Jeune homme, prends et lis” dotted polemical pamphlets later in the decade, especially in 1758 and 1759— For example, Pierre Leclerc’s, Religion vengée des impieties de la these et de l’Apologie de M. l’abbé de Prades, ou Recueil de neuf écrits contre les deux pièces et contre les impieties des libertins de notre siècle (1754).
pamphlets that circulated the Parisian scene shortly before Les Philosophes. For example, the line was used by polemical authors of the Nouveau mémoire pour servir à l’histoire des Cacouacs (p. 27) and the Discours du patriarche des Cacouacs (page ix).60 The twenty-first century reader, who obviously was not around during the tumultuous 1750s, might read this bit of dialogue as an example of Palissot’s criticism of Diderot’s philosophical corpus. But theatergoers at the time—the very same theatergoers who found themselves subjected to pamphlet wars just two years earlier, could have viewed this dig as an on-stage continuation of a common topos in contemporary pamphlets.
Pamphlets aside, with this example, Palissot makes an attack on philosophes for members of the literary elite who were present at the performance—an “inside joke” aimed at philosophes or Palissot’s own cohort. In addition, he may have foreshadowed the publication of his play, as it would have been easier to understand the above criticism during a silent reading than during a character’s quick utterance on stage. When we take the effect of the Cacouacs pamphlets on the audience into consideration, Les Philosophes becomes even more poignant and contemporary because of the “bruit” from previous Parisian literary strife.
Parterre vs. Balconies, Spectator vs. Reader: Palissot’s Dramaturgical Strategies The publication of Palissot’s play reveals a receptive enigma. On the one hand, the performance caused an uproar and Les Philosophes enjoyed a long run at the Comédie-Française (14 performances). On the other hand, pamphlets at the time reveal For more information on these two anti-philosophe pamphlets, see O. Ferret’s “Introduction” to Les Philosophes, p. 20. Diderot’s line, “Jeune homme, prends et lis” was specifically used by the abbé de Saint-Cyr in his Catéchisme et décisions des cas de conscience à l’usage des Cacouacs, avec un discours du patriarche des Cacouacs pour la réception d’un nouveau disciple. Cacopolis (Paris), 1758; and by Jacob-Nicolas Moreau in his Nouveau Mémoire pour servir à l’histoire des Cacouacs. Amsterdam, 1757.
that Palissot’s popularity was only due to the fact that his play was quickly published. In Les Qu’est-ce à l’auteur de la comédie des Philosophes, an anti-Palissot pamphlet from 1760, the author (possibly Voltaire) mockingly urges Palissot to publish his comedy quickly, attesting that, “Cet Imprimeur est singulier, il me soutient même qu’il est déjà tard. Selon lui votre pièce est déjà presque oubliée, et il faut se dépêcher ou on court risque de tout perdre” (32).61 According to Les Qu’est-ce, Palissot needed a readership. By placing subtle citations inside his narrative, Palissot perhaps switches his efforts from spectators of the live performance to the readership of the play’s printed version. Palissot’s (and later, Voltaire’s) publishing techniques indicate that both dramatists wanted Parisians to understand every jibe and dig in their works. Palissot published Les Philosophes during the weeks following its premiere and while performances of the play were still taking place at the Comédie-Française. With this strategy, it is clear that Palissot hopes that spectators who had missed quick references to contemporary works might subsequently catch the joke in the written text. What is more, this split between live event and written document may also highlight certain considerations about spectators that eighteenthcentury writers rhetorically took into account when creating their dramatic works.
In his study on French theater publics, Maurice Descotes points out that eighteenth-century playwrights differentiated between the potential reactions to performance of the parterre and more privileged members of the audience in the balconies. Using the example of Charles Collé’s comedy, La Veuve, Descotes argues that Indeed, Palissot did not wait too long to publish his play. O. Ferret indicates that Palissot sent copies of Les Philosophes to Voltaire and Rousseau as eary as mid-May, 1760 (“Introduction” 7).
Collé and others often made distinctions between different “types” of spectators. For example, Collé “advient que le parterre ne comprend pas les discrètes allusions, par conséquent qu’il n’entend rien à la pièce; les loges, elles, devinent parfaitement l’intention de l’auteur” (Le Public de théâtre et son histoire, 185).
The parterre, according to Collé, could not comprehend the same level of dramaturgical innuendo that more privileged members of the audience could grasp. Thus, when creating a dramatic work, eighteenth-century playwrights had to differentiate between two distinct publics—both of which needed the attention of the writer. But what is special about Palissot’s play is his desire to give both publics the same overall message: Philosophes are evil and it is up to France’s brave citizens to rid society of their pernicious works.
Charles Collé’s conception of audience comprehension is certainly applicable to Palissot’s case: in fact, it is not difficult to see parallels between Collé and Palissot.
While Collé enjoyed a much more powerful status in French society, both shared a similar tight-knit bond to conservative members of French nobility,62 and both playwrights never gained access into philosophe circles—sometimes, much to their dismay. But Collé was an upper-class writer for France’s nascent théâtres de société, and unlike Palissot, he rarely took into account the heterogeneous makeup of more public venues such as the Comédie-Française.
It is doubtful that Collé’s socioeconomic slight on theater comprehension is an accurate depiction of Parisian theater audiences during the eighteenth-century. Descotes’ own Le Public de théâtre, as well as Jeffrey Ravel’s more recent A Contested Parterre The Duc de Choiseul in Palissot’s case, and the Orléans family in Collé’s.
show that parterres comprised educated students and young lawyers, and not just a mass of ignorant vagabonds. A literal, binary opposition between the parterre and the balconies seems oversimplified and ignorant of the heterogeneous makeup of theater audiences.
Nevertheless, Collé’s distinction retains value when studied as a rhetorical concept, or belief, that influenced playwrights’ dramaturgical compositions.
It is possible that dramatists like Palissot, Voltaire, and Marmontel believed this stark separation was true, thereby writing for two different audiences. By inscribing a distinction similar to Collé’s in his dramaturgy, through dialogue and action, Palissot tips his hat to less philosophically prone spectators; and through citation, he jabs subtle blows at members of the audience from the Republic of Letters.63 And as we shall see, Palissot uses this tactic of “separate but equal attention” to two audiences later in the comedy with a harsh attack on Diderot’s theater and philosophy.
Although Diderot’s work on natural phenomena differs from his drames or his theoretical writing on theater, Palissot finds a common theme to criticize in all three styles: Diderot’s overtly pedagogical and repetitive style. Palissot had already addressed this criticism as early as 1757. In Petites lettres sur les grands philosophes, Palissot criticizes Diderot’s tone, writing that, “L’humanité, les mœurs, la vertu, le goût de l’ordre, etc. ces mots combinés en mille manières, répétés en lieux communs, à chaque ligne, cette superfétation philosophique, tient ici lieu d’intérêt, de style et même d’esprit” Palissot’s concentration on both learned members of the audience and less-educated spectators in the parterre demonstrates his keen knowledge of the important place of the latter group in determining the success of a play. Once again his strategy, but not his ideological posture, approaches Diderot’s. Paraphrasing writings by Diderot and Marmontel, Maurice Lever notes that philosophes wholly believed that, “C’est du parterre, et de lui seul que dépend le succès ou l’échec d’une œuvre dramatique” (25).
(26). According to Palissot, Diderot’s writing is boring, unclear, and nothing more than a grouping of repetitive, metaphysical concepts.
In his on stage criticism of Diderot’s theater, Palissot focuses on the philosophe’s 1757 and 1758 drames: Le Fils naturel64 and Le Père de famille,65 citing both works during the second act. He once again uses Cydalise’s favor of the two drames as an overt condemnation of their aesthetic value, and at this point in the play, it is quite obvious to the spectator/reader that Palissot ridicules works and authors by having Cydalise shed a favorable light on them. Up until now, it appears that Palissot addresses theater as merely another vehicle used by philosophes to disseminate their pernicious ideas. However, as the narrative of the play unfolds, the debate between philosophes and anti-philosophes focuses more and more on theater as characters depend on performance-based trickery and narrative ploys to accomplish their goals. Culminating with a complex mise-enabime and a powerful pantomime scene, Palissot uses the dramatic genre to its fullest extent, hoping to educate his audience through dramaturgical techniques and an acute attention to currents in contemporary theories on theater.
Palissot and the Comedic Genre: Theatrical Sources and Considerations Eighteenth-century writers, as well as later critics, hesitate in giving Palissot any praise for the theatrical elements of his comedy.66 Critics at the time of the performance called the play a blatant rip off of Molière’s Les Femmes savantes, and nothing more than a “compilation d’epigrammes” (Coyer 87). During the nineteenth century, the French Diderot published Le Fils naturel in 1757, but the play was only performed in regional theater at the time, finally making its way to the Comédie-Française in 1772.
Le Père de famille was originally published in 1758, and subsequently performed at the Comédie-Française in February, 1761.
Chapter three of this dissertation provides more detail on the critical reception of Palissot’s comedy.
literary historian Gustave Desnoiresterres was even more blunt, writing that the apparition of La comédie des Philosophes was “au grand dommages des moeurs, des lettres et de la philosophie” of the time (135). More recently, Olivier Ferret has questioned the association of the term “dramatic comedy” with Palissot’s Les Philosophes. In La Fureur de nuire, Ferret discusses both Palissot’s play and Voltaire’s
L’Ecossaise, arguing that:
Le fait que ces comédies soient effectivement représentées ne semble pas un critère discriminant suffisant, le texte des pièces faisant souvent l’objet d’une impression. Il faudrait donc juger de l’éloignement relatif de telle pièce par rapport au genre en s’intéressant aux éléments poétiques constitutifs de la comédie : telle pièce, qui remporte d’abord un succès de scandale, se soutient-elle par ses qualités propres, ou ne peut-elle survivre à l’effacement, dans la mémoire du public, des circonstances qui seules permettent d’en percevoir les ‘personnalités’? (73) Ferret poses a delicate question. Did Palissot’s Les Philosophes endure the test of time and measure up against other comedies from the middle of the eighteenth century? The answer to this question, as I hope to show, is partially yes, and partially no. It is true that the on-stage longevity of Palissot’s comedy pales in comparison to other writers of the genre, and most notably, Marivaux (but then again, do theaters nowadays stage any eighteenth-century plays besides Marivaux’s, or the occasional Beaumarchais?).
The reasons for Palissot’s relative failure in “staying power” could include his repetitive style or the fact that the majority of jokes in his play were heavily grounded in contemporary events such as the publication of De l’Esprit and the ongoing battle over Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Historical events inevitably changed the urgency of Palissot’s criticisms. For example, when the Encyclopédie resumed publication without governmental contestation in 1765, or when France no longer viewed England as an immediate aggressor after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War (1763), spectators may have had trouble locating the enduring relevancy of Palissot’s theatrical work.