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By denouncing Fréron’s newspaper as fallacious, Voltaire may also (unintentionally) bolster its ability to relay “a story.” Even though the facts don’t check out, the fictive elements of Frélon’s narrative could emerge as interesting to the right reader (his client). Voltaire’s definition of Fréron’s journalism allows a space for creative but mean-spirited material. In a later chapter, I will come back to this important fictionalization of current events in the Année littéraire and how notions of “straight journalism” or “unbiased reporting” are much more modern than we may believe.111 In another “textual” attack, Voltaire separates Fréron from other contemporary writers by asserting that his newspaper deviates from accepted norms in journalism.
Toward the end of the second act, the loud-mouthed businessman, Friport, differentiates
between Frélon’s rag and other current events newspapers:
See intra, chapter 3—and more precisely, the section on Fréron’s Relation d’une grande bataille.
Tant mieux ; moins de nouvelles, moins de sottises. (2.5) Friport refuses to mince words when manifesting his hatred for Frélon’s newspaper. He even goes so far as to call it a hodgepodge (fatras) that metaphorically sucks the blood from society. We could read this critique as another way by which Voltaire emphasizes the aberrant nature of Fréron’s opinions and argue that the philosophe favors newspapers in general (gazettes ordinaries), but not Fréron’s. But if we follow the scene (2.5) a little bit longer, Friport throws down the papers in disgust, rendering it clear for the reader or spectator that the character’s hatred of Frélon extends to journalistic media as a whole.
Does this scene show Voltaire’s more general criticism of the growing journalistic medium in Paris? Does Voltaire, through a possible English avatar, warn French society about a worrying trend that mixes current affairs, art, and polemics into a journalistic fatras—a process that might ultimately lead to the demise of belles lettres?
Friport’s disparaging remarks about journalism foreshadow one of Voltaire’s pamphlets from later in 1760. In his introduction to a Recueil des faceties parisiennes pour les dix premiers mois de l’an 1760, Voltaire writes that, “Les Journaux et les Mercures tâchent en vain de faire vivre un mois ou quinze jours les sottises nouvelles, mais entraînés eux-mêmes dans l’abîme, ils s’y précipitent avec elles, comme les nageurs mal-adroits [sic] vont au fond de l’eau en voulant donner la main aux passagers qui se noyent” (p. A2).112 In this callous description of the Mercure de France and other newspapers, Voltaire points out the repetitive nature of contemporary journalism, as well as the Recueil des faceties parisiennes pour les six premiers mois de l’an 1760. Handwritten note says “[publ. Par A. Morellet avec préface de Voltaire],” Unknown publication location, (BnF, Richelieu 8-RJ-2111, p. A2).
genre’s propensity towards trying to “make something” out of nothing. In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire creates a unique space for Fréron’s writing in contemporary society. In the discussion between Monrose and Frélon, Voltaire argues that Fréron has a skewed idea of literature. In short, Fréron is not in the business of producing literature. However, the pamphleteer is not a dependable journalist who relays pertinent, accurate information—a fact that marks Fréron’s writing with fiction and blurs the nature of the pamphleteer’s works.
Fréron, through Voltaire’s ambivalent fashioning, emerges as a writer of journalistic fiction—a bizarre and ambiguous genre of which Voltaire is obviously not a fan. This double-sided image of Fréron vagueifies Voltaire’s attempt to provide a clear, negative image of the Counter-Enlightenment pamphleteer. But luckily for Voltaire, L’Ecossaise is a work of theater—a genre that includes performing bodies, gestures and sounds—and which gives the philosophe other tools for rendering Fréron more blatantly ridiculous.
Two Contrasting Strategies for Reaching the Spectator In his article, “Pour une esthétique de la réception théâtrale,” Patrice Pavis describes the double strategy employed by playwrights in order to please their audiences.
He writes that every theatrical work is “la réponse à une question qu’elle se pose implicitement, réponse à une interrogation sur sa place dans la tradition littéraire et la réalité de son époque” (33). Although their strategies are different, Voltaire and Palissot both show a desire to adhere to and diverge from contemporary norms and dramatic traditions with their theatrical examples. Both playwrights inscribe themselves into larger themes that surpass the sheer context of philosophical debates, but at the same time, they focus on synchronic phenomena from the years leading up to 1760.
In Les Philosophes, Palissot tells a story about the good characters’ triumph over the bad. He polarizes Damis (the good) and Valère (the bad) to emphasize that honesty and good nature are the best paths to a successful romantic and financial end. In addition, Palissot uses Molière as his inspiration, borrowing lines directly out of Les Femmes savantes. The anti-philosophe’s use of Molière evokes a literary framework with a proud comedic tradition. Pavis views this continuation and manipulation of tradition as an
important aspect of successful theater reception:
Le rapport du texte singulier à la série des textes antécédents qui constituent le genre dépend d’un processus continu d’instauration et de modification d’horizon. Le texte nouveau évoque pour le lecteur (ou l’auditeur) l’horizon des attentes et des règles du jeu avec lequel des textes antérieurs l’ont familiarisé ; cet horizon est ensuite, au fil de la lecture, varié, corrigé, modifié ou simplement reproduit. (32) Through his use and manipulation of both Molière and contemporary dramatic ideas, Palissot changes the short-term nature of comedy and effects the “horizon of expectations” of Voltaire’s spectators, who comprised the next audience at the ComédieFrançaise.
By combining these literary strategies with the enunciated, on-stage citations of philosophe works, Palissot caused visceral reactions from spectators. These narrative, dramaturgical, and bibliographic strategies enabled Palissot to facilitate a pedagogical process between his audience and the characters on stage. Spectators understood where the play was going and who was going to prevail at the end. In Les Philosophes, there are no surprises in the overall plot: Palissot’s use of a known dramaturgical scheme eased the didactic flow of his message from the stage to the parterre. Palissot did not write a cornerstone text in dramatic comedy—his mark on the genre did not survive the antiphilosophe/philosophe polemic. Nevertheless, because it was his play that preceded Voltaire’s, and because Voltaire’s comedy responded to certain themes in Palissot’s play, the comédie des Philosophes thus synchronically affected the “horizon of expectations” for any member in the audience at the premiere of L’Ecossaise.
Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise was an attempt by philosophes to gain the upper hand in the polemical debates with Counter-Enlightenment members and maybe even a last-ditch effort to slow their bleeding after the interdiction of the Encyclopédie in 1759. But also, it was the next play after Palissot’s comedy to hit the boards. Voltaire needed to rally theatrical spectators into supporting his own camp, and to accomplish this task, the philosophe had to create a show as intense and moving as Palissot had done just several weeks before.
Like his anti-philosophe counterpart, Voltaire criticizes the other camp’s texts.
What is more, Voltaire responds to Palissot’s heightened sensitivity toward Parisian spectators in 1760 through his own multilayered strategy of making the audience “comfortable” with or “knowledgeable” of the events on stage. However, there are strong differences between these two tactics. Instead of rendering the spectator more “comfortable” with the play’s narrative through the use of Molière, Voltaire writes current events and contemporary cultural practices into his dramaturgy. In this case, Parisian audiences easily identified with the characters on stage because, as we shall see, they resembled Lindane, Polly, or Fabrice.
Voltaire’s dramatic text is a complex amalgam of English theater, French sentimental comedy, and astute reflections on contemporary society. With L’Ecossaise, Voltaire moves beyond the mere theatrical staging of a polemical pamphlet and incorporates nuanced arguments against Counter-Enlightenment literature: we can easily read this play as a manifestation of the superior literary talent of Voltaire (when compared to Palissot). As we will see in the following chapter, contemporary critics recognized L’Ecossaise as more than the unfortunate result of ephemeral polemics. In the few pages that follow, let’s look at how Voltaire “won” the theatrical battle of 1760 by pleasing his audience—through narrative and performative devices.
Voltaire first proves that philosophes were knowledgeable about contemporary socio-political issues in France and that his cohort agreed with the general public. Next, Voltaire ensures that his play breaks the pattern of pamphlet polemics and asserts that the comedy will enter the domain of literature. The superiority of Voltaire’s comedy (when compared to Les Philosophes) becomes clear through Voltaire’s use of nuanced textual metaphors and performative techniques. Through these tactics, Voltaire seeks to silence the Counter-Enlightenment in the socio-critical sphere by moving the debate back into the world of Letters—and to a degree—out of live, visible theater and into less-circulated texts.
Cafés, War and France in 1760: Voltaire’s “Contemporary” Dramaturgy The summer of 1760 approximately marks the middle of France’s Seven Year War with England and other European foes.113 After consecrating thousands of troops to The Seven Years’ War officially saw the participation of most European powers such as Prussia, Austria, Spain, England, France, and Portugal. However, most of the fighting stemmed from colonial disputes between France and England in the Caribbean and North America. For a brief introduction to the complexities of this war, including its relationship with the Austrian War for Succession and the various battles on Italian soil, see William H. Fowler’s Empires at War: The Seven Years' War and the Struggle for North America.
rather lackluster battles in Europe, the Caribbean and North America, the duc de Choiseul’s foreign ministry was beginning to feel the emotional and financial strains of ongoing war. As French subjects lost confidence in their government’s ability to beat British forces abroad, Choiseul needed a way to both boost their morale and detract their attention away from contemporary foreign policy.
Some scholars argue that Choiseul, in a bout of theatrical intervention not seen since Cardinal Richelieu’s days,114 forced controversial plays such as Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise past the censure precisely to distract Parisians from his ongoing political and military mishaps. Although there is little historical evidence to back this claim, scholars have argued that in 1763, the minister paid Charles-Simon Favart to write Un Anglais à Bordeaux during the exact time that France was admitting defeat and signing the Treaty of Paris.115 Choiseul’s meddling, even if only possible, speaks to close proximity between politics and art during Louis XV’s reign. But perhaps more interestingly, Choiseul’s use of theater as a popular distraction illuminates the sheer force of theater as a social event during pre-Revolutionary times.
Dubbed by Fréron, Lefranc de Pompignan, and other Counter-Enlightenment writers as Anglophilic, anti-war and cosmopolitan, philosophes suffered through a decade (1750-1760) of vicious slander by the government and its ardent supporters. On the stage, we saw how Palissot evoked this criticism of philosophe disinterest in national affairs as Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) was King Louis XIII’s Chief Minister, an avid patron of the arts, and founder of the Académie Française. During the querelle surrounding Corneille’s Le Cid, Richelieu is said to have incited debate between two rival sides to deter the public’s attention away from some of his mishaps as foreign minister. For more information, see Anthony Levi’s Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France.
For more information on the Duc de Choiseul as a mediator between theater and international politics, see Truchet’s Le Théâtre au 18e, p. 1420, or Olivier Ferret’s introduction to his critical edition of Les Philosophes.
well as their proclivity towards international tastes and philosophies. In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire makes a concerted effort to respond to these attacks by demonstrating his knowledge of French current affairs. What is more, the philosophe also shows that he understands the precise ways that Parisians learned what was going on around them by staging café conversation and underlining the emergeance of journalism.
Early in the play, Voltaire makes the link between the economic output of the
Antilles and a successful outcome to the Seven Years’ War:
In this short dialogue, Voltaire shows that he understands the connection between rum prices in the Caribbean (eau des Barbades) and governmental policy. Because high rum prices lead to economic prosperity (through taxes), France and England bolstered the size of their fleets in an attempt to protect and increase control over their respective islands in the region.116 Voltaire not only demonstrates his awareness of contemporary economic and political issues, he also ridicules the argument that the philosophes are somehow to blame for England’s (read: France’s) shortcomings. It is important to remember that the two interlocutors are meant to be English patrons at a London café. Nevertheless, Voltaire In Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History, Frederick H. Smith provides an interesting account of the sheer importance that rum had in the genesis, and eventual outcome, of the Seven Years’ War.