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actor’s role: on the one hand, the actor must move the spectator into completing actions of virtue; but on the other hand, the actor must show the spectator how to resolve problems rather than speak directly at her. Voltaire follows Diderot’s idea in his attempt to create a mirror between his characters and his spectators. However, their method for achieving this bond diverges, with two starkly different ideas about acting.
Voltaire reinforces this connection by addressing patriotism in his dramaturgy. In his comedy, Palissot viciously attacks the philosophes for their lackluster love of country.
They steal Damis’ fiancée while he is off at war and overtly show that they couldn’t care less about matters of State. In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire responds by creating a surreptitious, but patriotic bond between persecuted Scottish characters and the French public: the Scots were no strangers to rough treatment from Albion because of Jacobite rebellions earlier in the century; and in 1760, the French were subjected to a large dose of English violence as well, due to the Seven Years’ War. Voltaire inscribes this (albeit displaced)
patriotism into Monrose’s emotive dialogue about his patrie:
Once again, Voltaire uses a character à part—a dramaturgical tactic that breaks the audience’s absorption131 in the narrative and forces spectators to focus solely on Monrose’s short soliloquy.
For more information on Diderot’s conception of absorption (as specifically
constructed in his Salons), consult Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality:
Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot.
Voltaire, through his character’s interjection, links patrie with famille and wraps the entire discourse in pity and desperation—and by using interjection, Voltaire employs a popular tactic that emerges in multiple genres during the eighteenth century. In La Vie théâtrale au dix-huitième siècle, Martine de Rougemont highlights the importance of interjection in both theater and novels. She argues that in drama, interjections are one of the chief means by which philosophes sought to pass lessons from the stage to the audience (31). This is an overt call to the senses of his audience members—a maneuver that transcends socially stratified dramaturgical methods to apply to all members in both the parterre and the balconies.
Voltaire’s ambivalence towards Diderot’s model of drama shows the heterogeneity of comic writing during the eighteenth century. Rather than forcing L’Ecossaise into the drame’s rather strict Diderotian definitions, it may be best to merely underline the malleable nature of comedy during this time. In his history of European theater, Bismuth points out the difficulties in pinning down a strict poetics of dramatic
La comédie devient ainsi un genre protéiforme, susceptible d’épouser tous les registres émotifs, de mettre en scène—ce qu’elle faisait depuis Molière—des personnages appartenant aussi bien à l’univers de la noblesse qu’à celui de la bourgeoisie, d’être composée en vers comme en prose: elle est le genre libre, à l’opposé de la tragédie, confinée dans un registre et dans des thématiques délimitées. (206).
Voltaire, with his play, pushes the dramatic envelope, showing his talent in this “genre libre,” and stages characters from even more diverse socio-economic groups (ruined father, “nouveau riche” businessman, powerful servant, poor-but-proud daughter).
Moreover, Voltaire covers his new representations of French society with a sentimental tone that more than hints at Diderot’s theater from just three years earlier.
The fact that people distributed Diderot’s play as a text, and that the Fils naturel wasn’t performed until the 1770s, creates an air of uncertainty and potential vis-à-vis the drame, rather than overt popularity and strict rules. At this precise moment in time, the drame was an enigmatic genre that might be characterized as unstable at best before undergoing serious revision and normalization in the coming years by authors such as Michel-Jean Sedaine and Louis-Sebastien Mercier.
Both Diderot’s and Voltaire’s conceptions of serious comedy emphasized the author’s pedagogical power to show the spectator that issues of family life and kindred friendship trump romantic experiences in European courts or cathartic moments from long-lost Antiquity. Both Diderot and Voltaire demonstrate a common didactic goal, albeit through different strategies and diverging notions of exactly how (and with what dramaturgical tools) the author ought to “move” the spectator. Perhaps, then, it is best to leave the generic debate open and merely emphasize the unsteady and changing features of the drame—and comedy in general—during this moment in the history of European theater.
Measuring Value in Polemical Theater: Voltaire’s “Staying Power” Through the patriotic dialogue of his characters, the use of “comfortable” and contemporaneous settings, and stimulating a process of projection and identification between parterre social classes and powerful characters, Voltaire achieves a similar objective (to Palissot) of readying his audience for a message. Voltaire and Palissot seek the approval of influential spectators and parterre audiences by performing their comedies at the Comédie-Française, continental Europe’s most visible stage. Both playwrights employ a constellation of attacks, including the quotation of textual sources, the attempt to engross the spectator into a good vs. evil plot, and the use of dramaturgical techniques such as pantomime or direct speech with the audience.
Putting both Palissot and Voltaire on an equal pedestal, however, does not take into account the disparity in “staying power” between the two plays. Palissot’s Les Philosophes was a receptive flash in the pan, and although it was reprised several times until the late 1780s, it never achieved a sliver of the popularity it had during the tumultuous summer of 1760.132 Although Palissot’s play opened to an audience of 1439 spectators (more than Voltaire’s 1150), by the fourteenth performance, that number had dwindled to only 462.133 In contrast, Voltaire’s play started off slower than Palissot’s comedy, but it then turned into a veritable “blockbuster” during the rest of the eighteenth century, and continued to be played with regularity until well into the nineteenthcentury.134 In recent times, L’Ecossaise’s importance has paled in comparison to classic comedies by Molière, Marivaux, and Beaumarchais; nevertheless, Voltaire’s play found its way to the Parisian stage recently with Vincent Colin’s adaptation in 2007. And for an acute example of how little the discussion on L’Ecossaise has evolved among critics, it is interesting to note that a reviewer from Radiolibertaire deemed the play a drame bourgeois and argued that the “[H[istoire de la pièce est infiniment plus intéressante que son intrigue” (Hambourg 4).
It is also interesting to note that during the 1782 performance, Palissot was forced to omit the “best” scene of the play—the pantomime of Rousseau because censures thought that it was a far-too-nasty dig against the recently deceased genevois.
For a detailed chart of both plays’ respective audience totals and earnings, see Duckworth’s Introduction, p. 266.
916 spectators attended the fourteenth performance of L’Ecossaise. Duckworth notes that “…between 1760 and 1788, L’Ecossaise de Voltaire was repeated every year at the Comedie Francaise except 1777, 1786, and 1787, for a total of 112 performances” (277).
If both plays emerged from the same philosophical debate and incorporated so many of the same polemical and narrative tactics, why did Voltaire’s play “win” the receptive battle? First, we could find a superficial answer in the superior talent of a proven writer over the pen of a rather mediocre hack. There is certainly a degree of truth in this response, and several contemporary scholars stop their analyses with this simple fact.135 But also, Voltaire’s comedy stands on its own as both live theater and as a written piece of literature. We cannot lose sight of the important nature of the printed text in the Palissot/Voltaire polemic: both plays underwent a series of revisions and publications and were probably more often read than viewed live. Voltaire published L’Ecossaise before it was performed—a subversion of eighteenth century norms that may dislocate the “goal” of the play from theatrical performance to textual analysis.
This historical fact sheds light on the importance of publication and reading during the eighteenth-century. What is more, a silent, individual reading of L’Ecossaise may have produced a different set of metaphors and themes when compared to the live, boisterous performance. In his work on the nature of performance, Christopher Braider emphasizes this qualitative difference between reading and viewing a performance, noting that, “Reading, by contrast [to performance], engages active intelligence, sifting appearances in order to frame the careful discriminations by which alone a work’s true character is known. Where the play as event dupes the beholder, the play as text invites an integrally rational response…” (36).
In fact, very few scholars agree that Palissot’s comedy even deserves to be mentioned in conversations about the theatrical genre. For example, Descotes argues that “Les Philosophes sont un libelle mis en forme dramatique; et l’œuvre ressortit davantage à la satire qu’au théâtre” (155). Colin Duckworth analyzes the critical disdain for both comedies in his 1972 article, “Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise and Palissot’s Les Philosophes: a strategic battle in a major war,” p. 333.
Both Palissot and Voltaire wanted audiences to understand the “true nature” of their polemical efforts, and thus quickly published copies of their plays. In fact, the “textual” nature of the debate may show a desire to persuade members of a literary elite, rather than the parterre, Marmontel’s “genuine judge.” In the next section, I will examine this dichotomoy between written text and spoken word in order to highlight a few of the ways that Voltaire re-centers the polemic inside the world of Letters through complex literary metaphors and allusions to written texts.
Reading L’Ecossaise, or, Moving the Debate Back Into the belles lettres In Les Philosophes, Palissot criticizes the encyclopedist cohort by making references to other literary and philosophical events during the theatrical performance.
These include the staging of texts by Rousseau, Helvétius, and other philosophes. In addition, Palissot theatricalizes anti-philosophe arguments for which we could easily find sources in polemical Counter-Enlightenment pamphlets during the late 1750s. However, Palissot also uses arguments internal to theater and pits a Molièresque dramatic scheme against Diderot’s theories of a nascent drame sérieux. In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire refuses the binarism of Molière-or-Diderot, using instead a comedic form that is both similar and different to emerging philosophe theater. But also, Voltaire seeks to bypass both pamphlets and performance by inserting complex literary metaphors into his dramatic text—a fact that renders the question of audience even more pressing.
Voltaire combines text, narration, and performance in a superior manner and solidifies the comedy’s entrance into the Republic of Letters. Voltaire’s play better responds to contemporary taste (in its subject matter) and reflects larger issues such as the emerging bourgeois taste for the drame, the increased participation of non-aristocratic social classes in cultural production, and finally, the closer relationship between eighteenth-century French citizens and the current events around them.136 But Voltaire’s play is not a newspaper article about French society during the pre-Revolutionary period, nor is it a light-hearted boulevard production with the simple hope of mocking Fréron.
Voltaire, contrary to Counter-Enlightenment adversaries and proponents of more “performative” theater, sought to re-integrate the polemic into more textual forms, rather than the more raucous arena of theatrical performance.
Contemporary critics picked up on novelistic tones in Voltaire’s comedy and harshly critiqued L’Ecossaise because it demonstrated “anti-theatrical” tendencies. Not exactly a beacon of impartiality but highlighting this vision, Fréron castigates the piece by calling it a “Roman assez mal imaginé, un tissu d’invraisemblances,” and a “fatras d’absurdités” (AL, IV, 106). During the eighteenth century, the term “roman” was often a critical dig that connoted a work of any genre with an outlandish plot and a convoluted narrative structure. However, Fréron uses a variety of textual terms and metaphors such as “fatras” (hodgepodge) “tissu”, and finally, “Roman” in his harsh critique of Voltaire’s play. Fréron’s repetitive use of textual terms seeks to remove theatricality from Voltaire’s play, and from Fréron’s negative tone, we can argue that too many textual associations meant bad comedic theater.
Charles Collé, the Orleanist critic who first made the link between Voltaire and Diderot, called Voltaire’s play “un mauvais Roman qui veut être une comédie” (Journal As the second half of the century progressed, the French had more access to current event newspapers. Jack Censer points out that “…the number of papers increased over time, from five in he 1740s to a dozen in the late 1750s and nineteen by the end of the ancien regime—and these totals only include papers that lasted at least three years and circulated legally” (161).
370). Collé makes an overt generic distinction between theatrical comedy and the “Roman,” and criticizes L’Ecossaise for being a bad example of the latter. Neither of these two critics were philosophes: to interpret their opinions about Voltaire’s play as unbiased and void of polemical motive would be incorrect. Nevertheless, they both underline the romanesque aspects of L’Ecossaise and criticize Voltaire’s desire to please a reader rather than a spectator.