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The play tells the story of Ladislas and Alexandre, two noble brothers who are unfortunately after the same woman: the princess Cassandra. During the tragic dénouement of the play, Ladislas unintentionally kills Alexandre under cover of darkness, thinking that his brother is actually his rival, the evil duke of Courland. The horrible truth is revealed to both Ladislas and the audience when Courland (alas he is alive!) and the King Venceslas confront the young murderer the following morning.
When Marmontel staged his own version of the French classic, needless to say a polemic ensued in which Counter-Enlightenment critics lamented the aesthetic changes made by a philosophe—most of which consisted in changing the text’s versification.160 But most importantly, Venceslas’ well-known plot and long tradition of performance at the Comédie-Française prevented theater reviewers from having to summarize at length the tragedy’s intrigue and character compositions. Moreover, the audacity of a philosophe version of a French classic inaugurated a critical posture that eventually incorporated references to the larger battle between philosophes and anti-philosophes.
Venceslas, tragédie de Rotrou, représentée pour la première fois sur le théâtre de l'Hôtel de Bourgogne, par la Troupe royale en 1647, et remise au théâtre avec des changements faits par Marmontel, le... 30 avril 1759. Paris: Barba, 1819. BnF 8-YTHFréron also commented on the Venceslas affair in the Année littéraire (vol. 4, 1759).
In his March 1759 review, Collé highlights back-room shenanigans and audience reactions to the performance, rather than narrative elements of the tragedy. For example, Collé begins his review with an “aventure anecdotique” that occurred at the play’s
Collé’s review diverges from his previous criticisms of tragedies by Lemierre and Messine at the Comédie-Française. In his criticism of Venceslas, Collé focuses on practical aspects of the performance rather than on the merits of the dramatic text. By writing about the political relationships among the playwright, the censure and the comédiens, Collé illuminates the polemical “behind-the-scenes” world of theater during this period. The critic moves his reader’s attention from the stage to the alcoves of the theater house, and from the fictive events on the stage (the play’s narrative) to actual events that occurred during the performance.
Instead of spotlighting the action on stage, Collé’s account ignores the characters’ dilemmas and dialogues and focuses instead on the actor Lekain’s insubordinate
Le Comédien prétendait que sa mémoire ne pouvait se plier à apprendre les nouveaux vers de ce rôle ; que les anciens lui revenaient malgré lui, qu’on l’exposerait infailliblement à manquer à tout bout de champ à la représentation, et que ce serait…exposer la réputation d’un Comédien, qui s’en était faite une assez grande dans le public (Journal, II, 272).
Collé argues that the actor Lekain deliberately replaced Marmontel’s edits to Rotrou’s dramatic text with the original seventeenth-century verses. Instead of performing “Marmontel’s Venceslas,” Lekain reverted to Rotrou’s original. What is more, this dramatic insubordination caused a noticeable reaction by the audience.
For the critic Collé, the precise content of these changes (what did Lekain change?) pales in importance to the fact that Lekain alters the performance, causes spectators to react to him (and not the text), and subverts both the playwright’s and the censure’s wishes (Marmontel’s version of Venceslas had the Royal authority needed for performance). More implicitly, Collé’s review underlines a marked conservatism by actors at the Comédie-Française, the keen awareness by spectators of the smallest aesthetic changes to a dramatic text, emerging political overtones related to theatrical performance during this time, and disparities among the desires of spectators, actors, and dramatic authors.161 This more “anecdotal” or “performance based” discourse removes the locus of criticism from the play’s narrative, characters, or composition. Instead, the critic focuses on the actual performance of the play, highlighting elements such as the actor’s delivery of certain lines, spectator reactions, and extra-scenic factors occurring at the theater house, such as politics, allegiances, or censorship. In short, this style of dramatic criticism bolsters non-fictive elements of the theatrical event (actors, audiences) instead of fictive elements such as the play’s characters or “story.” We will probably never know the exact reasons behind Lekain’s last-minute switch from Marmontel’s text the Rotrou’s original I explore the conservatism of actors at the Comédie-Française in chapter four of this dissertation, and specifically, in my analysis of their refusal to perform Marie-Joseph Chenier’s Charles IX ou l’Ecole des Rois during the Revolution.
lines (did he simply forget? Was he paid? Was it an aesthetic protest?). Nevertheless, and in this specific case, the performative turn in theater discourse plausibly emerged from the heightened polemical energy that characterized the ongoing war between philosophes and anti-philosophes—or at the very least—from Marmontel’s renewed evocation of the longtime battle between Ancients and Moderns.
Collé did not like Marmontel,162 and he had few nice words to say about the philosophes in general.163 To relay his opinion, the Orléanist critic downplays aesthetic qualities of the play and highlights extra-scenic anecdotes that might have explained the work’s moderate success. For at least a short time in the history of theater and its criticism, anecdotal stories and nasty battles possibly interrupted the continuation of a level-headed discourse that focused primarily on a play’s aesthetic elements.
Marmontel’s re-writing of Venceslas marked an important step in the battle between anti-philosophes and philosophes, causing both sides to weigh in on the charged performance at the Comédie-Française in late February of 1759.164 However, Venceslas was not an overt attack against Marmontel’s political rivals, nor was it a significant financial or critical success. The theatrical battle between both camps certainly picked up Collé does not mince his words when describing his relationship with Marmontel: “Je ne suis point ami de Marmontel, ni ne veux l’être” (Journal, II, 287) Collé’s disdain of the philosophes originated with Diderot’s publication of Le Fils naturel in March 1757. Collé’s reaction: “On observera encore, qu’il semble que ces Messieurs ayent fait partie de se louer réciproquement, à la moindre occasion, et dans toutes les circonstances; et ces éloges, qui paroissent communs entr’eux, ridicules parmi les autres gens de lettres, et outrés à tout le monde, démentent le grand nom de philosophe qu’ils se prodiguent continuellement, et montrent une petitesse qui ne devroit point se trouver dans les ames de gens qui se disent tout crument les sages du siècle” (Journal, II, 167). For more information on Collé and the philosophes, see my recent article, “Les Philosophes selon Charles Collé,” forthcoming (spring 2010).
Both Fréron and Grimm review Marmontel’s Venceslas in their respective journals, albeit with different opinions.
speed as a result of Marmontel’s play, but it culminated the following year with Palissot’s Les Philosophes and Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise. Ideologically engaged critics on both sides of the fence responded to the heightened partisan energy inside the Republic of Letters.
For example, Fréron changes his tone radically in his second review of Voltaire’s work, and possibly provides the exemple par excellence of eighteenth-century “performancebased” theater criticism.
On July 27 1760 (the night after the premiere of Voltaire’s comedy), Fréron “received” a review of Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise, which he promptly published in the Année littéraire. An attentive reader sees parallels between this review, entitled La relation d’une grande bataille and Voltaire’s similar author-denial scheme in his preface to L’Ecossaise. By denying authorship, Fréron prepares his reader for a denunciatory text and all of the “no holds barred” critiques that mark this popular discursive style.165 Fréron begins the review with a lengthy description of the physical space where the action that he is about to report takes place.
First, he describes the atmosphere at the venue, writing that “Hier Samedi 26 de ce mois, sur les cinq heures et demie du soir, il se donna au Parterre de la Comédie Françoise une des plus mémorables batailles dont l’Histoire Littéraire fasse mention” (AL, V, 209). What follows is a fictionalized and overtly partisan representation of the action that occurred in the parterre at the premiere of Voltaire’s comedy, and what emerges is a virtually unseen style of theater criticism, a true predecessor to Hugo’s Just like in the case of Voltaire’s lack of anonymity surrounding L’Ecossaise, most readers probably realized that Fréron was, in fact, the author of the “Relation d’une grande bataille”. This anonymous attribution is more likely a type of author denial described by Gérard Genette in Seuils: “Ce type d’anonymat n’avait généralement rien d’un incognito farouchement protégé: bien souvent le public connaissait, de bouche à oreille, l’identité de l’auteur…” (46-47).
Bataille d’Hernani,166 and an interesting blend of actual performance, fiction, and journalistic reporting.
An in-depth study of Fréron’s Relation d’une grande bataille reveals how this synchronic example may highlight diachronic issues in theater and theater criticism during the pre-Revolutionary period—and the difference between Fréron’s Relation and his previous “aesthetic” review of L’Ecossaise emerges as early as the critic’s first
Les gens de goût voulaient que cette pièce fût sifflée ; les Philosophes s’étaient engagés à la faire applaudir. L’Avant-Garde de ces derniers, composée de tous les rimailleurs et prosailleurs ridiculisés dans l’Année Littéraire, était conduite par une espèce de Savetier appelé Blaise qui faisait le Diable à quatre. Le redoutable Dortidius était au centre de l’armée ; on l’avait élu Général d’une voix unanime. Son visage était brulant, ses regards furieux, sa tête échevelée, tous ses sens agités, comme ils le sont, lorsque dominé par son divin enthousiasme, il rend ses oracles sur le trépide philosophique. Ce centre renfermait l’élite des troupes, c’està-dire, tous ceux qui travaillent à ce grand Dictionnaire dont la suspension fait gémir l’Europe, les Typographes qui l’ont imprimé, les Libraires qui le vendent, et leurs garçons de boutique. (AL, V, 209-210) At the beginning of his review, Fréron splits the audience into two rival sides, asserting that people with “good taste” booed the play, whereas the philosophes made a mission out of rallying spectators to applaud. Next, the critic introduces a military vocabulary (avant-garde, armée, Général, troupes, etc.) to describe the way philosophes organized This is a reference to the intense battle between Hugo’s supporters and detractors during the 1832 premiere of the Romantic drama, Hernani. For more information on the “bataille d’Hernani,” consult Evelyn Blewer’s La Campagne d’Hernani (2002) or Florence Naugrette’s Le Théâtre romantique (2001).
themselves and members of the parterre into units with specific behaviors and choreographies.167 Fréron also separates the audience into socio-literary categories or “classes,” attesting that the “élite des troupes” (those who worked on the Encyclopédie) controlled and manipulated less important, but nevertheless philosophique spectators. Paralleling Palissot and Voltaire’s strategy of splintering attacks among different groups, Fréron creates “classes” of spectators by singling them out on the grounds of both ideology (philosophe or anti-philosophe) and their ability to lead or follow (Diderot’s gang or parterre spectators). In addition, Fréron, following Palissot’s example of public denunciation, names specific philosophes who were at the premiere, such as Diderot (Dortidius, [obviously following Palissot’s example in Les Philosophes]), Sedaine (Blaise168), and Grimm (Le prophète de Boëhmischbroda169).170 In earlier chapters, we examined how audience members at Palissot’s Les Philosophes and Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise were preconditioned before performances by polemical pamphlets from both camps. Fréron confirms this socio-literary practice in
another paragraph of the “Relation”:
Although difficult to confirm (or deny), Fréron’s military vocabulary might have paralleled the descriptions of battles that dotted contemporary newspapers in articles on the Seven Years’ War.
Fréron’s attribution is no doubt in reference to Sedaine’s 1759 play, Blaise le Savetier.
This is no doubt a reference to Melchior Grimm, whose pamphlet, Le petit prophète de Boehmischbroda, satirized contemporary French music during the “Querelle des Bouffons” in 1754. For more information on this important cultural battle that pitted the composer Rameau’s traditional French supporters against the Buffons italiens, consult Downing A. Thomas’ Music and the Origins of Language: Theories from the French Enlightenment, pp. 4-9.
Colin Duckworth provides a more detailed account of Fréron’s nomenclature in his “Introduction to L’Ecossaise,” pp. 267-268.