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Mais, si c’est moi réellement que l’auteur de la Comédie a eu en vue, j’en conclu que ce n’est pas M. de Voltaire qui a fait ce Drame. Ce grand Poète, qui a beaucoup de génie, surtout celui de l’invention, ne se serait pas abaissé jusqu’à être le plagiaire de M. Piron, qui, longtemps avant l’Écossaise, m’a très ingénieusement appelé Frélon ; il est vrai qu’il avait dérobé lui-même ce bon mot, cette idée charmante, cet effort d’esprit… (AL, IV, 110) Charles Collé argues that Diderot is the author until well into August of 1760 (see his Journal, II, pp. 370-373).
The unknown dramatist’s harsh treatment of Fréron, according to the critic himself, is nothing new and just another example of nasty pamphleteering from members of a “secte philosophique.” By denying that Voltaire is the author of the play and mentioning Alexis Piron’s name, Fréron accomplishes two goals. First, the critic situates the play below Voltaire’s level and into the more depraved realm of theater parodists, chansonniers, and jokesters.151 Secondly, by still mentioning the philosophe’s name, Fréron nonetheless makes an implicit criticism of Voltaire. If the “Patriarch of Ferney” is in fact L’Ecossaise’s author—if the reader reads between the lines and understands Fréron’s implicit dig—then Voltaire’s reputation as an author with “genius” is tarnished, and with his comedy, the philosophe thus produces an unsuitable work for somebody with his stature.
Fréron’s calm, reasoned tone probably stems from the fact that he never imagined that L’Ecossaise would see the stage, let alone at the Comédie-Française, one of Europe’s most prestigious theatrical venues. Before providing his “exposition détaillée” of the play’s plot, Fréron first asserts that L’Ecossaise is nothing but a pamphlet that has made “…une espèce de fortune dans la Capitale,” but could never be “jouée sur aucun théâtre” (AL, IV, 73). To conclude his review, Fréron sticks to “standard” critical discourse in an attempt to dislodge the play from any sort of theatrical tradition. If, according to the Alexis Piron (1689-1773) was a noted parodist, dramatic author, and candidate for election to Académie française (the vote was vetoed by Louis XV). Even if his more “serious” works such as the tragedies Calisthènes (1730) and Fernand Cortez (1744) earned him a legitimate literary reputation during his time, he was more well known throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for his clever epigrams, songs and jokester comedies, like Ode à Priape (1710) and Les belles jambes (1730). For more information on Piron’s life and works, consult Derek Connon’s Identity and Transformation in the Plays of Alexis Piron. Oxford: Legenda, 2007.
critic, L’Ecossaise is a supposed comedy “dans la tradition anglaise,” then, its plot should
echo contemporary plays from across the Channel:
By demonstrating his knowledge of contemporary theater from England, Fréron argues against the play’s claim to British origins.
What is more, the critic attaches the play to the lowly Gallic pamphleteering tradition instead of France’s important theatrical history, which would include comic dramatists such as Molière, and possibly Marivaux. According to Fréron, L’Ecossaise stems from neither British nor French theater: it is nothing but the result of sectarian nastiness from social climbing, pamphleteering philosophes. Fréron’s June review of Voltaire’s printed text shows a remarkable level of reserve, calm, and erudition. The critic provides a detailed plot summary, comments on the play’s awkward language, and questions the historical and literary underpinnings of the dramatic text.
Fréron and the propos normatif of Eighteenth-Century Theater Criticism In his first criticism of L’Ecossaise Fréron shows what we might deem a “normal” tone in his review, or, what de Rougemont has called the “propos normatif” that marked some eighteenth-century critical discourse.152 In La Vie théâtrale, de Rougemont describes the methods used by “normal” critics during this period: “Ils racontent l’histoire, en font l’extrait comme d’une œuvre lue, et que leur lecteur ne pourra plus que reconnaître. Ils signalent les beaux vers, et préviennent contre ceux qui sont clinquants, qui se feraient admirer sur le moment” (101). In short, “normal” critics provided lengthy summaries of dramatic works with a reserved, neutral tone. They quoted heavily from the text itself, and sometimes inserted complete scenes of the play into their theater reviews.153 De Rougemont also argues that some critics detached the text from any idea of performance to concentrate on the “vraisemblance de l’action, convenance des personnages, [et la] qualité de la versification” (101). Even though Fréron’s critique pertains to prose comedy and not to tragedy in verse, he nevertheless ignores “theatrical” elements of the play such as potential staging techniques, acting considerations, and spectator reactions, thus asserting this “normative” style of theater criticism that marked some eighteenth-century theater criticism.
This is partly due to the fact that he never envisioned the play’s performance and dismissed L’Ecossaise as another pernicious philosophe pamphlet. But Fréron never even questions how a Parisian might react to Voltaire’s play, nor does he consider the play as a Fréron’s first review is normative in its treatment of the play’s plot and tone, but nevertheless diverges from traditional reviews with its strong condemnation of philosophe pamphleteering.
In his first review, Fréron provides a clear example of this practice, quoting L’Ecossaise’s Act I, scene 2 in its entirety.
possibility for regional theater or one of France’s “théâtres de société.”154 But what is most interesting is that this form of critical discourse—a formal review marked by a denial of performance—also comes forth in other eighteenth-century theater reviews, and even in criticisms of performed theatrical works at the Comédie Française and other Parisian stages.
Charles Collé, a dramatist and theater critic, demonstrates at times this “textual” (as opposed to performance-based) sort of theater criticism in his Journal historique ou mémoires critiques (Journal). In this work, published monthly between 1748 and 1772, Collé reviews nearly every play that was put up on the boards at the Comédie-Française, the Comédie-Italienne, as well as théâtres de société such as the stages at Bagnolet, Bagatelle, and Fontainebleau. Collé’s style and choice of content exemplify de Rougemont’s definition of the “propos normatif” in eighteenth-century dramatic criticism. I will examine two of his reviews from 1758, or, two years before the Palissot/Voltaire controversy.
In his critique of the tragedy Hypernmèstre by Antoine-Marin Lemière, Collé writes that the play was actually a “fable de quarante-neuf maris égorgés par leur femmes,” rather than a theatrical production.155 He goes on to argue that Lemière’s tragedy “est assez ridicule” and that “le récit…est nécessairement froid, et ne peut pas intéresser” (Journal, II, 257). However, the play enjoyed twelve performances, nearly comprising a full, successful run at the Comédie-Française (a great success was usually Fréron’s disregard for potential performances of L’Ecossaise is all the more shocking, given the fact that Voltaire was building a regional theater of his own at Ferney during this precise period.
Hypermnestre, tragédie, par M. Le Mierre, représentée, pour la 1re fois, par les Comédiens françois ordinaires du Roi, le 31 août 1758. Paris: Duchesne, 1771. BnF 8YTH-8812.
14 performances). In his (albeit short) review of Hypernmèstre, Collé ignores spectator reactions or acting techniques, choosing instead to focus on textual elements of the tragedy. Instead of trying to examine why audiences genuinely enjoyed Lemière’s tragedy, Collé disregards the play’s reception and cites a few lines from the play, using a literary vocabulary (“récit”, “fable”) comparable to Fréron’s early critiques of L’Ecossaise.
Collé repeats this style with his next criticism in the Journal, a review of JeanBaptiste Messine de Collet’s comedy, l’Ile déserte.156 Once again downplaying theatrical elements of the play, Collé writes that Messine’s work “n’est pas une comédie” and that it is more a “petit roman” with “nul art théâtral” (Journal, II, 258). Collé unfortunately fails to define “art théâtral,” or, at the very least, how one could admirably show it in a dramatic work. Nevertheless, the critic then goes on to lament the ridiculousness of the plot and the fact that he had predicted the dénouement as early as the second scene of the first act (258).
Collé did not invent this critical posture: “textual” theater criticism naturally follows seventeenth century models such as the Neo-Aristotelian paradigms used by the doctes who criticized Corneille’s plays for their divergence from classical rules.
According to seventeenth-century critics such as Georges de Scudéry and François Hédelin (the abbé) D’Aubignac, the text is the primary object of criticism.157 Summarizing this critical method in his Introduction aux grandes théories du théâtre, L'Isle déserte, comédie en un acte et en vers, par M. C...., représentée, pour la
première fois, par les Comédiens françois ordinaires du Roi, le 23 août 1758. Paris:
Duschesne, 1758. BnF 8-YTH-9177.
For a more detailed discussion of seventeenth-century theater doctes, see my discussion of the polemic surrounding Corneille’s Le Cid in the Introduction to this dissertation.
Jean-Jacques Roubine emphasizes the selective nature of seventeenth-century writings on theater. Roubine argues that, “Le seul public ‘légitime’ aux yeux des ‘doctes’, ces ‘connaisseux’ qui savent les règles ou ces ‘honnêtes gens’ qui ont des lumières de tout, constituait davantage un lectorat que le vrai public des théâtres” (41). With a first glance, it seems that Collé exhibits the same audience-denial scheme as his predecessors one century earlier.
We can easily discern this seventeenth-century ideal of a learned, reading public in Collé’s reviews of Ile déserte and Hypermnèstre. Although both plays enjoyed relatively successful runs at the Comédie-Française (largely successful in Hypermèstre’s case), Collé ignores audience judgment, ticket sales, and acting techniques. He appears attached to seventeenth-century norms in criticism and judges the tragedy against his personal notions of what “good theater” should consist of, thus raising himself to the level of a docte and characteristically ignoring other methods of theatrical judgment.158 Owing to the fact that L’Ecossaise had not been performed at the time of Fréron’s first review, it is somewhat more difficult to read Fréron’s case as a continuation of seventeenth-century discursive norms. The publication of a play before its performance, as we have seen in the previous chapter, was a rarity during the eighteenth century, and probably even a less frequent practice one hundred years earlier. But what is essential is Fréron’s assertion that L’Ecossaise will never see a stage because of aesthetic problems in the play, such as its novelistic tendencies and its failure to adhere to normal generic Although biography does not always influence ideology, it is worth noting Collé’s strong, conservative ties to the Crown. Collé was, specifically during the 1750s and 1760s, a visible member of Louis XV’s court at Versailles, and perhaps more importantly, he was also reader to Philippe II of Orléans until well into the 1770s. For more information on Collé, see Jacques Truchet’s notice in “Théâtre de société,” Théâtre du XVIIIe siècle. T. II, 1459-1465.
goals (is it a comedy or a drame?). Fréron argues that L’Ecossaise will remain nothing more than a “pamphlet” because of narrative problems or character composition—he leaves out any discussion of the play’s potential to please spectators, cause a polemical “bruit,” or respond to the audience’s desire to see a philosophe riposte to Palissot’s previously staged Les Philosophes. According to Fréron (in this first review), L’Ecossaise will never see the boards of the Comédie-Française mostly because it is bad literature, and not due to any extra-theatrical reasons such as polemics, censorship, and politics.
It is not surprising that Fréron, an ardent Counter-Enlightenment critic and élogiste of classical authors such as Racine and Boileau would take up a “normative” discourse that dated from an earlier century. However, Fréron was also a man of his time and not impervious to changing norms in critical discourse. In her volume, De Rougemont highlights a diachronic change in theater criticism that occurred during the eighteenth century. She writes that, “Peu à peu, les critiques accordent dans leurs articles plus de place à la comparaison entre l’effet littéraire et l’effet scénique, et commencent à reconnaître une valeur propre à ce dernier…” (101). Here, I will closely analyze a few theater reviews from middle of the eighteenth century, as well as Fréron’s second critique of L’Ecossaise, to illustrate some instances where the performance—including the actors, the audience, and the stage—trumps reflections on the versification, character composition, and plot of the text.
Performance-Based Criticisms, or, Fréron Loses His Cool Jean-François Marmontel’s controversial re-writing of the tragedy Venceslas, and the play’s subsequent staging at the Comédie-Française in 1759 gave rise to at least a short-lived change in dramatic criticism by “traditional” reviewers such as Charles Collé.159 Marmontel’s case diverges from theatrical norms—this was a not a case of “pure” dramaturgy in which a playwright thought of an idea, composed a text, and saw his work performed. Venceslas was a re-writing of Jean de Rotrou’s acclaimed 1648 tragic-comedy of the same name.