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Si le Public s’intéressait aux Philosophes, à leurs productions, et à tout ce qui humilient l’envie, je croirais qu’un zèle condamnable corrompt son goût : mais je le soupçonne d’avoir trouvé dans L’Ecossaise, ce qui n’est pas dans la Pièce de Philosophes, de l’action, de la chaleur et de l’intérêt.
Sans doute M. Hume, poèt-philosophe, bien différent d’un compilateur d’Epigrammes, connaît la nature humaine et la peint. Sa Comédie, qu’on savait par cœur, avant qu’elle fût sur la Scène, a paru toute neuve. Elle amusera encore le Public, lorsque la Pièce des Philosophes sera ensevelie dans l’oubli. Puisse-t-on également oublier qu’il fût un moment de délire où, dans la patrie des Montesquieu et des Voltaire, les abboyemens des Chiens de Saint-Medard, et les coassemens des Corbeaux de la Gaule, ont passé pour des Oracles. (87) Voltaire’s comedy was simply of better quality than Palissot’s Les Philosophes.
L’Ecossaise, according to Coyer, manifests a “staying power” (“elle amusera encore le Public”), while Palissot’s comedy is nothing more than a sudden burst of unfortunate drama. Coyer says that even though the public knew Voltaire’s text “par coeur” before the performance, this fact did not hurt the success of L’Ecossaise.143 Nevertheless, Parisian audiences and literary personalities of the time quickly grew annoyed at what they saw was a degradation in the quality of theater at the Coyer is not the only critic to critic on the bizarre nature of Voltaire’s publication strategy. I discuss the receptive and aesthetic features of this practice in chapter three of this dissertation.
Comédie-Française. We can see the origins of this process in a letter to Voltaire from Malsherbes (Correspondance D9154), in which the latter, serving at this time as the Crown’s official censure, begs Voltaire to stop the whole episode with Fréron and Palissot.144 In fact, the very same abbé Coyer who had previously lauded Voltaire’s comedy, an ardent philosophe himself, mitigates some of his praise for L’Ecossaise by
warning Parisians about a pernicious zeitgeist stemming from both theatrical works:
Coyer cautions fellow Parisians about the dangers of too many “comédies personnelles” on the stage in too short of a time frame. With this passage, Coyer seems to permit a small dose of satire (Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise), however, the abbé does not want this sort of theater to dominate the playbill of the prestigious Comédie-Française. One could imagine his sigh of relief when Voltaire’s more “standard” Tancrède went up on the boards a few weeks later, in the early fall of 1760.
In a similar vein, the following testimony from an anonymous writer urges society to refuse the type of theater exhibited in L’Ecossaise. He or she is disappointed with Parisian spectators for their explicit support of Voltaire’s comedy, and hopes “que le Public reviendra de son erreur, rougira de son injustice, et que par respect même pour la réputation du premier de nos poètes, il dévouera ce Drame monstrueux et diffamatoire, comme n’ayant pu sortir de la plume d’un Ecrivain tel que M. de Voltaire.”145 Cited in Duckworth’s edition of the play, p. 271.
Anonymous. Lettre sur la Comédie de L’Ecossaise. 1760, p. 12. BnF Richelieu: 8RF14503.
A “monstrous drame,” and a “horrible hodgepodge”? Members of the literary establishment soon came to the conclusion that these two comedies were not fit as representatives of the Comédie-Française’s repertoire; and what is more, it seems that Paris had grown tired of the relentless war between philosophes and anti-philosophes. A debate that was born in pamphlets during the 1750s had attained a place on one of the biggest stages in Europe in the summer of 1760. The electric atmosphere surrounding theater during this time modified dramaturgical construction as well as the spectator’s reception of performances. For a (brief) moment in time, extra-theatrical phenomena, including polemical literary debate and socio-political events, altered the theatrical atmosphere in Paris—from dramatic writing, to performing, to (as we shall see next) criticizing. But this energy could not last, and most members in the Republic of Letters called for a return to normalcy at the Comédie-Française.
Although the explicit theatrical polemic between the two rival camps ebbed during the subsequent years, Counter-Enlightenment forces had not been warded off for good. The debate continued, but imbedded more implicitly inside other dramatic works.
Due to changing aesthetic tastes, the tightening of censorship laws and morphing political and literary allegiances, the Republic of Letters put into place generic constraints on both sides of the battle. Therefore, the overt debate between the philosophes and the CounterEnlightenment took on a plethora of creative forms over the next few years—and most notably in literary criticism, parody, and philosophical dialogue.146 After analyzing the criticisms of Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise in the following chapter, we will then see The debate continued vigorously in Grimm’s Correspondence littéraire, Fréron’s Année littéraire, the various parodies of the two 1760 blockbusters (Le philosophe en bois, Le Petit philosophe, L’Ecosseuse, L’Ecossaise en vers), and finally, in Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau.
how dramatists of the 1760s and later incorporated strategies and themes from the philosophe polemic into their own “theatrical events.” Criticisms of both plays show a heightened level of sensitivity by writers to the public’s reaction to performance. Both plays (and both sides of the battle) were in competition and the winner seems to be the playwright who was best able to persuade the audience into believing his cause. In critical texts of these two plays, the mobilization of two distinct sides—as well as audience reception—becomes the chief focus of critics.
In the following chapter, I will analyze the suite of the Palissot/Voltaire affair, starting in the critical sphere, in order to uncover how the spectator asserted himself as an active, visible agent in the writings of Elie-Cathérine Fréron, Melchior Grimm, Charles Collé, and other theater critics from the eighteenth century. Then, as the affair garnered more and more criticism—as the Republic of Letters began to grow tired of the polemic (and emerging “popular” tastes) or when Royal censures banned the philosophe/antiphilosophe argument from center stage—we will see in chapter four of this dissertation how the problem surreptitiously found its way into theatrical genres as disparate as historical tragedy and comédie plaisante.
Critical Uncertainty in Eighteenth-Century France In L’Ecossaise, Voltaire stages the vituperative literary critic Elie-Cathérine Fréron as the character Frélon—a deceitful journalist who emerges as the play’s antagonist. Although Voltaire’s comedy touches themes as diverse as English legal practices and sentimental family relationships, contemporary critics usually described L’Ecossaise as a pièce de circonstance about Fréron and his band of CounterEnlightenment journalists. Never one to back down from literary quarrels, Fréron did not waste any time responding to Voltaire in the pages of his anti-philosophe periodical, L’Année littéraire. Fréron’s first criticism of the play dates from June 3 1760, some six weeks before L’Ecossaise was performed at the Comédie Française, and thus in response to the published versions of Voltaire’s play that circulated in Paris during the last few weeks of May. Fréron does not stop his critiques there, writing two more reviews of the play on July 27 and August 4 1760, respectively.147 In each of his three reviews, Fréron shows a distinct style and goal. In this chapter, I will analyze the theatrical debate between philosophes and anti-philosophes by reading Fréron’s response to Voltaire and by examining critical reviews of both polemical comedies from a more general optic. As we shall see, criticisms of these two comedies took on starkly different forms from the abbreviated descriptions of plays that dot the Arts sections of the New York Times or the erudite reviews in academic journals from the dramatic arts. But more importantly, the critical suite of the Palissot/Voltaire Fréron’s reviews appeared in the following order: Année littéraire (AL) IV (June 3 1760), pp. 73-114; AL, V (July 27), pp. 209-213; AL, V (August 4), pp. 279-288.
affair takes on radically different forms even when compared to contemporary, eighteenth-century theater reviews. The singularities that we will see in each of Fréron’s reviews, then, speak to the uniqueness of this specific event, and to a creative critical energy that marked this polemic. Over the next few pages, I will examine a number of “parodie critiques,” criticisms, “poésie-critiques,” “remarques,” and letters that each assert legitimate “theater criticism” as their raison d’être. What emerges is a heterogeneous corpus of critical materials that underline a fragile normative process in literary criticism—especially when related to the dramatic arts—during the middle of the eighteenth century.148 In La Vie théâtrale au dix-huitième siècle, Martine de Rougemont analyzes both plays and theater reviews, highlighting the critic’s ambiguous profession and contested social status. According to de Rougemont, the critic at this time radically differed from
his or her equivalent in periods anterior or posterior to the eighteenth century:
Au XVIIIe siècle la fonction de critique apparaît comme une fonction originale et autonome, qu’on aimerait pouvoir comparer à ce qu’elle est devenue dans les siècles suivants. Elle ne repose sur aucune légitime institutionnelle : les académiciens ne se font pas journalistes, ni les professeurs ; on vient souvent à la presse du séminaire, d’une charge de secrétaire privé ou de précepteur, d’une tâche intellectuelle subalterne, et l’on y vient comme à une aventure libératrice. (100) This critical uncertainty is no doubt the reason why, at present, scholars have yet to write the definitive monograph or collective work about theater criticism during the eighteenth century. While works such as Le miel et le fiel: La critique théâtrale en France au XIXe siècle by Marianne Bury and Hélène Laplace and Un Siècle de critique dramatique: de Sarcey à Poirot-Delpech by Chantal Meyer-Plantureux analyze the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries respectively, critics have yet to tackle critical discourse in the dramatic arts during the siècle des Lumières, aside from a chapter in Martine de Rougemont’s La vie théâtrale, a chapter in Julie Candler Hayes’s Identity and Ideology: Diderot, Sade, and the Serious Genre (pp. 81-105), and several sections of Maurice Descotes’ L’Histoire de la critique dramatique.
“Literary” writers during the eighteenth century inherited aesthetic norms from the previous century, and thus adopted or diverged from poetic models such as Nicholas Boileau and Jean Racine, for example. Even if writers disagreed on the definition of “good writing,” such as in the case of the debate between Ancients and Moderns, they at least claimed legitimacy by either connecting their works with classical models from Antiquity or by emphasizing the unique “Frenchness” and novelty of seventeenth-century Letters.149 Critics, however, did not enjoy (or suffer) the same institutional molding. In the world of “no holds barred” critical journalism, institutions failed to provide norms to which authors could adhere in their articles’ subjects or styles. Nowhere is the demonstration of this “critical uncertainty” more clear than in responses to Palissot’s and Voltaire’s polemical comedies from 1760. In the pages that follow, I will study some of these creative examples of theater criticism from the Voltaire/Palissot affair and from the middle of the eighteenth century in general, with the hopes of drawing out examples of audience-stage interaction, text-performance relationships, and emerging cultural practices such as polemical journalism, café culture, and “public” judgment.
The “Textual” Critique, or, Fréron Keeps His Cool Fréron’s first review of L’Ecossaise dates from June 3 1760, some six weeks before the play’s performance at the Comédie-Française. It is important to remember that Voltaire’s comedy appeared in print before the premiere, and that at this time, the play’s For more information on the debate between Ancients and Moderns see, among others, Marc Fumaroli’s “Les Abeilles et les Araignées,” introduction to La Querelle des Ancients et des Modernes (2000); and Joan DeJean’s Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle (1997).
authorship was unknown or wrongly attributed by some to Denis Diderot.150 What is most startling to the reader is that the tone in Fréron’s preliminary review is relatively calm, even given the fact that the critic is satirized as early as the first scene of the play.
Fréron mitigates obvious disdain for the comedy with relative praise for certain aspects of Voltaire’s work, such as the character compositions of Lindane and Freeport, and the play’s overall ability to “faire tableau” in the final scene (AL, IV, 105). The CounterEnlightenment critic appears surprisingly bipartisan, writing that L’Ecossaise is nothing more that a “tissu d’invraisemblances” and a “fatras d’absurdités” (106), but nonetheless admitting that “Lindane est un modèle de vertu, de noblesse, de patience et de douceur” (76).
In this first review, Fréron provides a lengthy (30 page) summary of the plot and cites excerpts that he feels are either excellent demonstrations of “vertu,” on the one hand; or on the other hand, unfortunate examples of bad writing. The critic’s tone is remarkably dry and erudite. Even though it is obvious that Fréron doesn’t like L’Ecossaise, his disinterested style gives the reader the impression that this opinion is due to the play’s shortcomings in verisimilitude or tone, and not because Fréron himself is implicated in the affair. When he finally addresses Voltaire’s staging of the Frélon character, Fréron brushes off the harsh satire by asserting that the author lacks originality.