«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College In partial fulfillment of ...»
brings this specific conversation into the French context by inserting the word philosophe. It would be illogical for English subjects to blame their political woes on a band of philosophes—the polemic between two rival intellectual groups did not mark the English sociopolitical landscape during this precise time. When read in light of contemporary French social currents, however, the staged criticism makes more sense.117 In this example, Voltaire interrupts the comedy’s vraisemblence in order to strategically stage contemporary, national debates.
Or, if we examine the scene in an “English” context and allow the English to use the word philosophe, we see how Voltaire confronts Palissot’s (and other CounterEnlightenment writers’) claim that philosophes spend their days hypothesizing on metaphysical possibilities. Here, the philosophe makes direct correlations among political consequences, successful government, and contemporary social practices (drinking rum).
But also, Voltaire jokingly criticizes the English proclivity towards drinking and ridicules the fact that an Englishman may think the “patrie perdue” because of elevated alcohol prices.
With just one single exchange between two men at a café, Voltaire shows his knowledge of contemporary politics, the importance of cafés as places for information exchange, and a noticeable rise in French nationalism due to war. This latter strategy is the beginning of Voltaire’s rapprochement to patriotism, and it could have been a ploy to attract the parterre into his theatrical and philosophical scheme. Whether strategic or In Voltaire comic dramatist, Goulbourne argues that Voltaire’s choice of an English setting was, without doubt, a displaced (due to the censure) means of critiquing French society (205). Voltaire’s London setting, then, inscribes the philosophe into a popular eighteenth-century thematic of “displacement” that included many different works by Diderot (“Lettre sur les aveugles,” Eloge de Richardson), and, of course, Montesquieu (Lettres persanes).
genuine, Voltaire’s concentration on contemporary English politics and his light criticisms of English society are certainly indicative of what Raymond Trousson and Jeroom Vercruysse have identified as the philosophe’s “changement de position radicale avec l’Angleterre après la guerre de Sept ans” (“Angleterre,” Dictionnaire general, 41).118 In Les Philosophes, Palissot transfers a pedagogical Counter-Enlightenment message against philosophe principles with greater ease because of his “comfortable” dramatic form: Moliéresque comedy. Preconditioned to Molière’s plays and the use of the famous comic dramatist’s schemes by eighteenth-century successors, Parisian audiences were able to focus less on the plot (they knew what would happen in the end), and more on the satirical portrayal of the philosophes. Although Voltaire chooses a radically different comedic form, he parallels Palissot’s attempt at rendering the audience more comfortable—but this time, through commonplace settings, ultra-contemporary news pulled from journalistic sources, and muted (but nevertheless apparent) calls to patriotism.
The setting of L’Ecossaise provides a first commonplace for an eighteenthcentury spectator. The discussion on rum prices and political consequences takes place in a lively London café. Although café culture in France began much later than across the Channel, by 1760, Parisian spectators would have recognized the social banter around a This modest patriotism cannot be understated. As an avid supporter of English politics and philosophies, Voltaire appears nevertheless rather pro-French in L’Ecossaise. This could be due to two chief reasons: the Seven Years’ War and Voltaire’s knowledge that Anglophilia would be an easy target for anti-philosophe critics. For a more detailed description of Voltaire’s relationship with England, see Ahmad Gunny’s Voltaire and English Literature: A study of English literary influences on Voltaire (1979).
cup of chocolate or coffee by Voltaire’s characters as reflective of their own everyday practices.119 Scholars in contemporary times have pointed out L’Ecossaise’s almost naturalist reflection of French society at the time. In Théâtre du XVIIIe siècle: Jeux, écritures, regards, David Trott describes Voltaire’s theatrical staging of popular and contemporary cultural markers: “Assistons-nous, dans Le Café, ou L’Ecossaise, aux rencontres d’un limonadier, d’un gazetier, d’un proscrit écossais voyageant incognito, de sa fille en détresse, d’un négociant revenu de Jamaïque, d’un aristocrate anglais,…Le café ouvre une nouvelle fenêtre sur la société de l’époque” (72).
Some spectators probably even walked across the street after the performance of L’Ecossaise, to the famous Café Procope, in order to chat about the comedy they had just viewed or the latest news from abroad.120 Voltaire’s desire to reflect contemporary social practices is even reflected in his choice of title for the play, originally naming it Le Caffé ou l’écossaise. Voltaire strengthens the bond between his play and his audience through establishing correlations between the comedy’s setting and the everyday life situations of his spectators. But what is more, the philosophe also attempts to attract spectators by establishing a psychological link between them and the characters on stage.
For more information on the rise of “café culture” in England, consult Helen Barry’s Gender, Society and Print Culture in Late-Stuart England, and specifically, chapter one, entitled, “Pressing Anxieties: Coffee houses, print culture and the public sphere.” Jeffrey Ravel draws an interesting picture of the everyday lives of theatergoers in the first section of A Contested Parterre.
“We Can Do It Too:” Voltaire’s Theatrical Avatars Some spectators in the heterogeneous audience at the Comédie-Française might not have understood specific criticisms against Fréron or his Année littéraire.121 However, it is difficult to determine the exact demographic makeup or literacy rates of eighteenthcentury parterres, which makes the analysis of theater publics as a tangible entity difficult, if not, impossible. Simply put, we just don’t know now what theater audiences knew then. Instead of trying to project empirical knowledge on the eighteenth-century theatergoer, it may prove more fruitful to examine the evocation of “spectators” as a rhetorical concept—a way for eighteenth-century writers to talk about and differentiate among their publics. I discuss this rhetorical concept with more detail in the third chapter of this dissertation.
At this point, it is important to note that playwrights believed in the existence of an educational distinction among spectators, as reflected in previously quoted works by Marmontel, D’Alembert, Fréron, and Voltaire. This latter writer, in an attempt to connect with every audience member and not merely those spectators who were privy to every contemporary literary reference, makes a concerted effort to affect the parterre. To intensify his attack against Fréron and clarify any nuanced citations for a less philosophically inclined audience member, Voltaire shows his spectator his own version of a good vs. evil plot and attributes the successful dénouement to “less-privileged” characters in the theatrical work.
Habermas describes the audience at the Comédie-Française as comprised of “domestic servants, soldiers, apprentices, young clerks, and a lumpenproleariat who were always ready for a ‘spectacle’” (Public Sphere 38). Clarifying even further, Ravel points out that the audience probably included “tax farmers, students, propertied women, shopkeepers, magistrates, clerks, prostitutes, intellectuals, and many others…” (14).
In Les Philosophes, Palissot mitigates the difficulty of understanding textual citation with more accessible narrative strategies such as a similar good vs. evil plot, a timeless love story, and repetitive denunciation.122 In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire ripostes with a similar repetitive mockery (the character Frélon). But in addition, the philosophe infuses his characters from lower social castes with pedagogical agency, intellectual clarity, and the ability to catalyze important events in the play. These techniques could have resonated with parterre audience members and quickened the process of projection and identification between the spectator and the characters on stage. For example, the café owner Fabrice emerges as an intellectual equal to the other characters in the play in
the fields of ethics and literary criticism:
The fact that both Voltaire and Palissot used comedy to attack their rivals indicates the flexibility of the genre. In sum, it would be very difficult for one to imagine two playwrights carry out a polemical spat in tragedy, owing to its more rigid set of dramatic rules.
In this confrontation with Frélon, Fabrice argues that economic success and social popularity pale in importance to virtue and ethics. In short, Fabrice disagrees with Frélon that “any publicity is good publicity.” The link that Fabrice makes between nasty writers and popularity falls closely in line with the contemporary opinions of Diderot and Voltaire. Confirming this anti-mercenary opinion among philosophes, Franck Salaün points out that Diderot held the notion that the “homme de lettres, s’il ne redoute pas la pauvreté, à laquelle il s’est préparé, doit par contre tout faire pour résister à la bassesse, à l’avilissement, à l’écriture mercenaire” (277).
The successful dénouement of the play depends on Fabrice’s support of Lindane and his refusal to succumb to Lady Alton and Frélon’s desire to expulse the écossaise from the boardinghouse. In short, for the play to have a “happy ending,” Fabrice has to reject both Frélon’s money and his mercenary ideas on ethics and literature. When Fabrice says, “Laissez-là vos écrits; savez-vous bien, puisqu’il faut tout vous dire, que vous êtes soupçonné d’avoir voulu perdre mademoiselle Lindane?” he gives his opinion that overt denunciation, even under the guise of literature, is detrimental to society and should be avoided at all costs. Whether or not the revealing comments are made with “goût” or “dégoût” is less important than the social or personal damage that those comments actually cause.
Fabrice shows a literary tenet that surpasses the specific context of Frélon’s rag.
According to Voltaire’s character, society can allow writers to satirize rivals under the guise of aesthetic standards (Voltaire’s staging of Fréron), but when they explicity persecute and denounce living members of society through their writing, polemicists cause social harm and the degradation of mores—a process that removes this type of writer from the realm of “belles lettres.”123 Through a possible avatar, Voltaire gives his theatrical work a more literary tone by criticizing a sort of tabloid journalism, and in so doing, the philosophe tries to distance himself from the mise-en-scene of polemical pamphlets and contemporary politics.
The servant Polly is another character who demonstrates a heightened degree of agency and an acute ability to resolve the problems of those around her. Moreover, she emerges as a concrete example of what Russell Goulbourne describes as Voltaire’s desire to “integrate” servants and less wealthy characters “into his dramatic action” (174).
Polly’s modest background determines her behavior throughout the play and her social status allows her not to fear Frélon’s threats against her reputation: Polly is a servant and doesn’t effectively have a reputation to lose.
During the first act, Polly curtly explains why she cannot bear being in the pamphleteer’s presence: “Pour trois raisons; c’est que vous êtes bel esprit, ennuyeux et méchant” (1.4). On one level, we can read Polly’s words as an attack against Frélon’s character. But on another level, we can see a reflection on literature and writers that parallels Fabrice’s earlier criticism on those who write nasty pieces. Lindane’s servant correctly identifies Frélon as a “bel esprit”—a name with specific connotations during the eighteenth century. In her article, “Être ou ne pas être écrivain: la figure du ‘bel esprit’ entre XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles,” Eloise Lièvre highlights the pecuniary and practical
nature of the ‘bel esprit’:
Philosophes, as discussed in chapter one, quickly learned the danger of not hiding polemical discourse behind aesthetic charms after the case of the abbé Morellet. After publishing a direct criticism of Palissot’s Les Philosophes (La Vision de Charles Palissot) the abbé wound up spending ten months in jail.
Il est important de remarquer que cette activité professionnelle du bel esprit est aussi marquée par une polygraphie (le bel esprit écrit à la fois en vers et en prose) et une spécialisation générique qui suppose une conception fonctionnelle de la littérature (stances, élégies, idylles ou lettres sont utiles à leurs commanditaires qui paient parce qu’ils en ont usage). (254) Fréron’s Année littéraire is filled with harsh criticisms in prose, epigrams, and nasty lyrical digs at rival authors—Voltaire and his gang would probably agree that Fréron is the “bel esprit,” par excellence, of the eighteenth century. Polly’s assertion that the character Frélon is a bel esprit mirrors Fabrice’s remark that the pamphleteer is nothing more than a nasty gun for hire. Polly attacks both Frélon and his métier, but we can easily displace the critique from this specific case and apply it to more general principles. With this criticism, Polly denounces all works that are the result of a financial agreement.