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Most of the criticisms made by Palissot during his play echo CounterEnlightenment pamphlets from the late 1750s and early 1760s. However, by staging Crispin on all fours and insisting that the popular actor Préville play the role, Palissot brings anti-philosophe criticism into the modern theatrical space through the popular (even Diderotian!) techniques of pantomime and emphasis on acting. Pantomime as a dramaturgical technique gained more and more visibility throughout the eighteenth century, and we can possibly analyze Palissot’s pantomime against the backdrop of larger debates in dramatic theory during this period.
Already in 1757, with his “Lettre à Dorval,” Palissot questioned Diderot’s claim
to novelty in pantomime:
Oserai-je cependant vous dire que je crois avoir découvert quelques traces de ce nouveau genre dans Molière? Voyez les Fourberies de Scapin, le Malade imaginaire, les Précieuses ridicules, Pourreagnac, la Pantomime m’y paraît quelquefois indiquée, faiblement, à la vérité ; l’art était dans  son enfance, il n’apparait qu’à vous de le porter à sa perfection (“Lettre à Dorval” in Supplément d’un important ouvrage, 47-48).
Once again Molière finds his way into the Palissot vs. Diderot debate. According to Palissot, the famous seventeenth-century comic dramatist used pantomime well before Diderot attached significance to the action in his dramaturgical theories and drames.
In his seminal work on the drame, L’Esthétique du tableau dans le théâtre du XVIIIe siècle, Pierre Frantz focuses more on eighteenth-century notions of pantomime by emphasizing the importance of silence in Diderot’s dramaturgy. Frantz points out that for Diderot, “Le verbe est lié aux signes, voix et graphèmes qui le manifestent. Et les signes de la langue, parole et écriture, ne sont pas privilégiés par rapport aux gestes et autres signes purement visuels” (25). By using pantomime, Palissot hints at this vitality of silence—a uniquely Diderotian conception of theater that seeks to replace certain dramatic utterances with silent, gestural actions by the characters on stage.
But in Les Philosophes, Palissot breaks the silent pantomimic scene with bursts of laughter from the audience, who no doubt would have found utterly ridiculous a scene with Crispin on all fours, munching on a leaf of lettuce. Palissot incorporates a modern, apropos, Diderotian concept into his play, but then quickly “breaks” the effect with more mockery and bas comédie. While Palissot’s philosophical viewpoints assert little more than a reactionary bent, his theatrical composition, at times, whispers elements of modernity and an acute knowledge of (and refutation of) contemporary dramatic theories and practices. In sum, Palissot refuses to pay credence to Diderot’s more serious conception of pantomime and reifies the practice’s more jovial connotations in Molière’s comedy, or more recently, in Paris’ various foires.84 Nevertheless, the importance of polemical texts cannot be understated in Palissot’s work; and throughout the comedy, textual citation serves as one of the playwright’s main vehicles for criticizing philosophes. During the final scene, however, the “place” of the text moves from a strictly quotation-based critical function, enters the narration of the play, and emerges as necessary for the dramatic dénouement. After revealing the truth that Crispin is nothing more than a local salesman and not a philosophical example of the state of nature, Damis plunges another sword into Valère by exposing a bit of the latter’s literary criticism. Earlier in the play, Damis had found a letter revealing Valère’s true opinion of Cydalise’s novel. The young hero Damis then For more information on how pantomime was incorporated into the various productions at France’s foires, consult Isabelle Martin’s Le Théâtre de la Foire: Des tréteaux aux boulevards, and more specifically, her chapter on “Les techniques théâtrales” at the Foire, pp. 157-196.
makes sure that his hopeful mother-in-law finds the document, and in a moment of
personal embarrassment, Cydalise reads the letter aloud:
Cydalise is unable to finish reading the letter as her anguish begins to inhibit her ability to speak: the philosophes are “démasqués” and forced to leave the estate immediately (3.11). The text (letter) is paramount to both the final revelation of the philosophes as charlatans and the dramatic dénouement, which brings Damis and Rosalie happily together in matrimony. The document effectively ends philosophe control of the estate and secures a successful future for Damis and Rosalie. And from the spectator’s perspective, Cydalise’s reading of the text provides the only break in the alexandrine rhythm of the play—a tonal change in the performance—and a precise moment which must have heightened the audience’s attention to the character’s speech.
During the last few scenes in his play, Palissot attacks his encyclopedic rivals through text and performance—or, through carefully cited philosophe works and performative ruses inherent to the theatrical experience. Texts are vital to a successful ending for the “bons,” just like pamphlets prove essential in Palissot attempt to “unmask” real-life philosophes. Inside of the text/performance recipe, Palissot combines sociopolitical and aesthetic criticisms of philosophes. The dramaturge writes for his readership and his live audience, fully encompassing both aspects of eighteenth-century dramatic writing.
Because of the bombardment of Counter-Enlightenment pamphlets during the 1750s, Palissot’s audience was preconditioned to some of the textual criticisms of philosophe works made by the dramatist during the performance. But Palissot blends audience conditioning with a direct call to their senses through the narrative of the play.
These dialogical criticisms are made through the voices of Damis, Valère and other characters; and then even more, through performative phenomena such as Palissot’s pantomimic experience cum criticism, or the design of Cydalise’s costume to shadow the real-life Madame Geoffrin.
Scholars are correct in marking Les Philosophes as an important event in the ongoing pamphlet quarrel from 1750 to 1770.85 But one cannot understate the singularity of Palissot’s theatrical work, and more specifically, his adept attention to dramatic phenomena and his creation of a polemical event inside of theater. Palissot’s multifaceted critical approach underlines his inherent desire to create a receptive event—an aspiration to faire date. The playwright takes into account the sociological makeup of his audience, and whether or not these sociological differences actually existed pales in importance to Palissot’s (and other eighteenth-century dramatists’) belief in their existence. In Les Philosophes, Palissot gives each group exactly what he thinks they want (or precisely what they don’t want!).
O. Ferret treats Les Philosophes as one of the most important events of the querelle between 1750 and 1770 in his book, La Fureur de Nuire. Also, Robert Darnton highlights the urgency that philosophes must have felt during this precise year: “In 1760, when Morellet went to the Bastille for writing a reply to Palissot’s comedy Les Philosophes, it looked as though the whole movement might be crushed” (Darnton, ““Two paths through the social history of ideas” p. 278).
Lastly, Palissot’s dramaturgical construction hints at a distinct cross-pollination of both written sources and narrato-dramatic effects. Palissot, as a dramatist, brings the pamphlet debate between anti-philosophes and philosophes into the Republic of Letters as he incorporates a significant amount of aesthetic concerns into his attack. In short, Palissot, possibly more than any previous playwright, places polemics metaphorically and literally onto the main stage of the belles lettres.
Although differences exist between Palissot’s work and Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise, a similar interplay between written materials and performative phenomena emerges as paramount in Voltaire’s philosophe riposte. In Les Philosophes, the debate moves ambiguously between pamphlets and performance. In the following example from Voltaire’s theatrical corpus, we will continue to trace the philosophical debate, and see how the famous philosophe attempts to faire date by establishing an even closer proximity among performances, texts, and current events in his sentimental comedy, L’Ecossaise.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures: Counter-Enlightenment Fervor and the Summer of 1760 In the previous chapter, we examined the way Charles Palissot combines textual quotations, narrative elements, and performance to create a multifaceted attack against philosophes—and particularly—against Denis Diderot and the nascent drame. In his comedy, Les Philosophes, Palissot addresses both a live audience and a literary readership in a process that blends the generic line between dramatic work and polemical pamphlet. A loud, boisterous event at the Comédie-Française resulted from Palissot’s multi-modal effort.
By using a complex strategy of different narrative and textual attacks, Palissot attempts to give each spectator the means to fully appreciate his scathing criticisms of contemporary philosophes. With this approach, Palissot assigns some members of the audience precise textual attacks to follow against philosophe works and personalities, while at the same time, he provides less philosophically inclined spectators the means to understand anti-philosophe attacks through an easy-to-follow story, which denounces the méchants and bolsters the bons.
This interplay among texts, dramatic narrative, and performance perhaps led to the more energized spectator recorded in the eyewitness accounts of Les Philosophes’ opening night.86 By moving the discussion from pamphlets to the Comédie-Française, Palissot brings Counter-Enlightenment polemics into the theatrical realm, to a See the introduction to chapter one for a more detailed account of the atmosphere surrounding the premiere of Palissot’s Les Philosophes.
quantitatively larger audience, and to the literal and metaphoric center stage of the Republic of Letters.
Counter-Enlightenment fervency may have peaked during the months leading up to Palissot’s Les Philosophes—a dangerous possibility that philosophes could not afford to ignore. In his history of dramatic criticism, Maurice Descotes attests to the precipitous
nature of this precise period for Voltaire and other philosophes:
Les années 1758-1759 marquent une étape dans la lutte engagée parce que, à cette date, la partie n’est pas encore gagnée par la secte [philosophes] et parce que, les forces antagonistes s’équilibrant à peu près, l’avantage peut encore passer d’un camp à l’autre. Une décade plus tard, au contraire, il sera évident que les partisans de la tradition sont débordés de façon à peu près irrémédiable. (Histoire de la critique dramatique 153) After 1770, enough philosophes had manipulated themselves into comfortable fauteuils at the Académie Française—a process that had already been put into motion as early as the 1760s, when philosophes started to gain access to the Académie Française with increasing rapidity.
In order to understand the ideological climate at the time of Palissot’s debut, it is important to note that only Voltaire (elected in 1746), Duclos (1747), and D’Alembert (1754) enjoyed the social and financial incentives of a chair at the Académie. This relative insignificance at the prestigious institution in 1760 contrasts with a subsequent “snowballing” effect of philosophe elections starting with Marmontel in 1763, AntoineLéonard Thomas in 1767, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac in 1768, Jean-Baptiste Suard in 1774, Guillaume-Chrétien de Malesherbes in 1775, the marquis de Chastelux in 1775, Jean-François de la Harpe in 1776, Nicolas Chamfort in 1781, and the marquis de Condorcet in 1782.87 If Les Philosophes had premiered during the 1770s, or certainly during the 1780s, real-life philosophes would have probably laughed off Palissot’s theatrical attack and viewed it as nothing more than a simplistic ruse by a bitter literary hack.
But in 1760, however, the battle had yet to be won, and philosophes worried about a possible convergence against them of political, religious, and literary forces.
Palissot had moved the war from pamphlets, prefaces, and calls to the censure to one of the most famous European stages—and Voltaire’s group had to do the same. Philosophes such as Grimm and D’Alembert recognized the necessity of a quick response to Palissot’s play and urged Voltaire toward revenge “by pointing out that the only ‘protecteur déclaré’ of Les Philosophes was his own arch-enemy, Fréron” (Duckworth, Introduction 247).
Voltaire, not wanting to disappoint the two encyclopédistes and possibly in search of a venue to manifest his anger toward an old enemy like Fréron, responded indeed.
According to the Chevalier Mouhy’s report, on July 26 1760, the Comédie-Française staged Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise—a play that, “n’a jamais fait plus de bruit, ni n’a été plus suivie et essuyé tant de critiques” (cited in Duckworth, 261). Bruit pour bruit, the second phase of the theatrical battle between philosophes and anti-philosophes had begun.
Revenge or Coincidence? Some Historical Considerations on the Performance of L’Ecossaise In his riposte to Palissot, Voltaire follows his adversary’s lead by combining intertextual, narrative, and performative techniques into an exemplary demonstration of For more information on the chronology of philosophes at the Académie Française, see the “Introduction” to Darrin McMahon’s Enemies of Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, p. 7.