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It may in fact prove fruitful to study Voltaire’s comedy against the backdrop of larger socio-literary issues such as the emerging notions of successful theater, the rising professionalization and “taking sides” of writers, the increasing influence of café culture and public discussion, and the periodical press—vital notions that will energize French society several decades later during the throes of revolution.100 In order to show accurately how Voltaire positions himself inside and outside the world of theater, I will discuss both “extra-scenic” considerations and on-stage tactics used by Voltaire in his 1760 comedy, L’Ecossaise.
It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of spectators could not have seen Diderot’s drame because it was not performed publicly until its Comédie-Française debut on September 26th, 1771. However, as Pierre Frantz notes, Le Fils naturel was performed in private at Saint-Germain en Laye for the duc d’Ayen in 1757 and published in February of that same year (“Jouer le drame au XVIIIe siècle”, p. 207).
This relationship between popular cultural practices and theater possibly invites us to move forward the date of Susan Maslan’s assertion that “…French revolutionary theater was the first modern experience of the interaction of mass culture and mass politics” (Revolutionary Acts vii).
The Curtain Rises on Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise As soon as the actors appear on stage, Voltaire gives his spectators a glimpse of the vituperative critic, Frélon (or Wasp, depending on which edition and which performance!),101 and Fabrice, the local coffee shop/guesthouse owner.102 The Scot Monrose, who is on the run after losing his family and land to the English crown, later joins the conversation in his search for an empty room in the London guesthouse.
Voltaire completes the image of a vibrant, English café-hotel by introducing Lindane, the suffering and impoverished heroine of unknown origins, and the comical Londonian businessman, Friport (or Freeport).
During the first few acts, it becomes clear that Lindane is in love with an English lord named Murrai (or Murray) and that Murrai has strong feelings for Lindane, but is hesitant to act upon them because of Lindane’s enigmatic past. Lady Alton, the comedy’s female antagonist, also loves Murrai and uses a repertoire of nasty schemes to denounce Lindane as an aventurière and woo Murrai away from her. For example, Alton intercepts and changes a love letter from Murrai to Lindane and tries to convince the latter to accept a large sum of money to relinquish her romantic claim on the embattled Murrai. As the story unfolds, the spectator finds out that Lindane is, in fact, Monrose’s (the Scot) long lost daughter and Murrai’s family was responsible for impoverishing Lindane and Duckworth’s critical edition reveals that the censure banned both the English word Wasp before the premiere of Voltaire’s comedy. This obligation, however, seems to have been forgotten in later Parisian performances, as well as performances during subsequent years in Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux. For more information see Duckworth’s “Introduction” to L’Ecossaise, pp. 359-363.
All quotations from L’Ecossaise are from the Complete Works of Voltaire. Vol. 50.
Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1986, unless otherwise indicated.
murdering her mother (Monrose’s wife).103 This is all made clear when Frélon reveals Monrose’s true identity—denouncing both Scottish father and daughter in his polemical newspaper.
Voltaire also makes it known that the only reason Monrose has come to London is to avenge his family’s honor and kill the living members of the Murrai clan, and thus, uses the classical topos of a female protagonist who oscillates between her lover and her father (e.g. Le Cid). Lindane is caught between a rock and a hard place and must choose either to respect her father’s honor or put her own love first and run away with Murrai.
But even before Monrose calls for a duel with Murrai (act V), the young Englishman— who was too young at the time of the rebellion and therefore had nothing to do with the initial crime against Monrose’s family—insists on providing restitution for his father’s crimes and re-establish Monrose’s name in both England and Scotland. At the end of the story, Monrose’s bitter urge for revenge cedes to both his daughter’s love for Murrai and to his realization that the actions of one man’s family do not necessarily shed light on that same man’s character.
Inside this seemingly banal comedy with very few complex characters and a predictable “happy ending,” Voltaire employs a multi-layered attack against the CounterEnlightenment establishment. The philosophe weaves citations of written materials with performative and narrative aspects into what will emerge as—because of this combinatory effort—a powerful and polemical theatrical product.
The historical context of the play is loosely based on Charles-Edward’s failed attempt to run the English out of Scotland (Jacobite Rebellion) during the 1740s. Lindane and Monrose are criminals in England because their family supported the rebellion (as did the French government).
Voltaire, Fréron, and Fiction: Defining the Writer’s Role In the first act of his play, Voltaire focuses his criticism on one work: L’Année littéraire.104 Directed by Fréron from 1754 until his death in 1776, the paper was an unwavering, voluminous arm of Counter-Enlightenment criticism. During his stint as editor, Fréron published 168 volumes of around 360 pages each, rarely missing a single month’s entry (Balcou, “Elie Fréron” 23). It is essential to note that Palissot was protected by ministers with ties to the Crown such as the Duc de Choiseul and Madame de la Marck. These powerful relationships gave the playwright a certain amount of amnesty from overt attacks by Voltaire and other philosophes. Fréron, however, was less protected, and more importantly, he had already angered Voltaire several times—and most recently—with the pamphleteer’s harsh criticism of Marmontel’s Aristomène and Voltaire’s own La Femme qui a raison in November of 1759.105 Voltaire’s early criticisms of Fréron eventually gave way to more intense attacks after Fréron’s abusive remarks on the Encyclopédie and Candide.106 For example, in 1759, Voltaire published Le Pauvre diable, a nasty pamphlet criticizing Fréron’s relationship with other Counter-Enlightenment figures such as Lefranc de Pompignan and the various Jesuits who wrote articles for the Journal de Trévoux. These brochures, however, pale in importance to Voltaire’s satirical treatment of Fréron in his 1760 comedy. In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire stages Fréron and his gazette as early as the first scene of the play, hinting at the pamphleteer’s motive behind his manic “literary” production.
For more information on Fréron or the Année littéraire, see Elie Fréron, polemiste et critique d’art. eds. Jean Balcou, Sophie Barthélemy, André Cariou (2001); or Jean Balcou’s well-known monograph: Fréron contre les philosophes (1975).
For more information on Fréron’s treatment of Voltaire’s La Femme qui a raison, see chapter 5 of Goulbourne’s Voltaire comic dramatist, especially pp. 178-183.
See Année littéraire 1758, viii, p. 312 and AL 1759, viii. pp. 3-25, respectively.
Here, Frélon complains about the “nouvelles affligeantes! des grâces répandues sur plus de vingt personnes! aucune sur moi!” (1.1).
Frélon laments the fact that fellow writers refuse to mention him in their articles, and here, Voltaire emphasizes Frélon’s self-serving nature and egotistical drive toward literary glory. On one level, we can read this attack as a direct response to Palissot’s character Valère, who acts only out of self-interest and even goes so far as to deceive members of his own cohort.107 But this attack also highlights Voltaire’s attempt to separate the “real” Fréron from any existing literary allegiances or circles by asserting that his views are aberrations from the norm and that nobody cares about what he thinks (e.g. there are lots of stories in circulation, but “aucune” about Frélon).
Rather than combining members of the Counter-Enlightenment into one persona (Palissot’s “philosophe”), Voltaire adopts a much different strategy, choosing instead to isolate Fréron’s own individual faults and draw them out as pernicious deviations from the norm. This technique differs from Palissot’s attempt to consolidate philosophe works and personalities into a single representation. Because they were all lumped into the same ideological category in Palissot’s play, philosophes found strength in numbers and overcame slight differences in their opinions to form a more united front against the Counter-Enlightenment. An important example of this phenomenon is the temporary but nevertheless strong rapprochement between Diderot and Voltaire, as evidenced by Voltaire’s citation of Diderot as an important source in the dramaturgical construction of For instance, Valère’s quarrel with Dortidius over “Cratès’” De L’Esprit, in act II of Palissot’s Les Philosophes.
L’Ecossaise.108 Contrasting with Palissot’s reduction of individualism, Voltaire’s tactic places a spotlight on one man and one gazette—a strategy that will prove successful in forever tainting Fréron’s status as a reputable literary critic.109 After pointing out Fréron’s lack of importance among fellow journalists, Voltaire then defines the pamphleteer’s place in society by explaining precisely what he is not. In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire points out numerous times that Fréron’s Année littéraire is not
literature, but rather, mean-spirited gossip:
Here, Voltaire shows three important elements of Frélon’s job. First, his writing is necessarily linked to economic benefit—the pamphleteer prints texts because he is paid “une pistole par paragraphe”—thus the implication that Frélon’s goal is to write with See Voltaire’s “Préface” to L’Ecossaise in Duckworth’s critical edition for more information on the link between Voltaire and Diderot.
Even Palissot, once his closest friend, will eventually agree with Voltaire’s harsh treatment of Fréron (see Palissot’s introduction to Voltaire’s Oeuvres, 1792).
quantitative vigor, rather than with any concern for quality. Secondly, Frélon is a polemicist who relishes the opportunity to ruin anyone’s “enemy” for the right price. And lastly, Frélon is flabbergasted when Monrose fails to associate the pamphleteer’s job with literature. Frélon wholly believes that he is not a pamphleteer, but actually in the business of producing literature—an opinion which undoubtedly shadows Fréron's argument that he belonged in the Republic of Letters.110 Voltaire’s character Frélon first appears as a tit-for-tat, binary response to Palissot’s Valère in Les Philosophes. In Palissot’s work, Valère attempts to win Rosalie’s hand in marriage for his own economic and social benefit, and not because Valère feels any romantic sentiment for her. In L’Ecossaise, Frélon manifests a similar penchant for egotistical, selfish gain: and to this extent, he emerges as little more than a reversal of Palissot’s character. But Voltaire moves beyond a mirror image and shows a considerable degree of polemical efficiency when Frélon makes a qualitative statement on literature, arguing that Monrose “doesn’t like literature” because he disagrees with Frélon’s economically infused notion of belles lettres.
In Palissot’s comedy, Cydalise’s approval of a literary work equates disapproval by Palissot. Because he paints Cydalise as such a weak-minded character, Palissot probably hoped that audience members would quickly understand a repetitive system of Cydalise’s approval cum Palissot’s mockery. By staging Frélon’s opinion of literature, and attaching it to themes of financial benefit and denunciation, Voltaire hopes to achieve a similar effect. In this case, however, the anti-philosophe’s approval connotes a For a very detailed analysis of Fréron’s relationship with eighteenth-century notions of littérature, belles lettres and les oeuvres écrites, see Annie Becq’s article, “Le mot ‘littérature’ dans l’oeuvre de Fréron.” Elie Fréron, polémiste et critique d’art, pp. 33-43.
condemnation by philosophes, and hopefully, by the audience as well. In addition, we can see the efficiency of Voltaire’s riposte in how he combines both of Palissot’s critical tactics (denunciation through Valère and Cydalise) into one méchant.
Another way by which Voltaire defines Fréron’s literary role (or lack thereof) is through exposing the pamphleteer’s sources and publication strategies. In act II, Frélon argues that he can “help” Lady Alton by ruining Lindane’s reputation with his newspaper. Through a conversation between the two antagonists, Voltaire shows the
diluted dose of veracity in Frélon’s “take” on current events:
When Frélon lacks concrete proof, he simply makes something up in order to serve a goal (il “ajoute quelque chose”). Here, Voltaire argues that Fréron’s newspaper is not a reliable source of facts, but merely the printed version of a pamphleteer’s personal aspirations and vendettas. But also, he shows inadvertently that Fréron’s rag comprises a fictive element—an “ornament” of untruth that stretches (or completely ignores) the exactness of political, literary, or social events during the middle of the eighteenth century. Fréron makes things up in order to attract a reader, but more importantly, to serve his “clients,” who have paid him to construct narratives with precise goals.