«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College In partial fulfillment of ...»
But on the other hand, Fréron’s desperate pleas to the censure underline the play’s “eventful” nature and its ability to subvert norms in spectator behavior, dramaturgical construction, and publication practices. Fréron’s view of the event speaks to a more powerful spectator—one that can determine the overall success of a play without regard to the opinions of traditional theater critics. And more implicitly, Fréron’s actions show that the play’s overall quality as determined by critics paled in comparison to how the public felt about the play—perhaps best illustrated by the fact that such a mediocre “fatras” could cause a powerful critic to run to the censure and friends for help.
Fréron’s multiple assessments of L’Ecossaise produce a complex, but extremely interesting picture of how theatrical performance altered the opinions—and more precisely—the vocabulary of literary critics. In addition, his example may even serve as a miniature version of larger problems in critical literary discourse from the middle of the eighteenth century. In his voluminous History of Modern Criticism, René Welleck argues that this precise epoch stands out in the larger history of criticism and that “the strongest and most obvious change in the middle of the 18th century was the shift of critical concern to the reaction of the audience” (26). Welleck mitigates this sweeping claim by adding that discursive movements during the Enlightenment were neither “unified” nor all encompassing (25). Nevertheless, Fréron’s turn from describing formal, textual elements of the play toward spectator reactions to (and manipulations of) theatrical experience parallels this complex movement toward a more “social” literary criticism.
Fréron was perhaps more implicated than any other living person in the polemics surrounding the play, and one has to wonder if the tone of his writing is more the exception than the rule. We must, then, weigh Fréron’s opinion of the events against other reviews of L’Ecossaise from the summer of 1760, in order to see if the CounterEnlightenment critic deviates from or adheres to contemporary norms. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, philosophes like Grimm and Diderot also gave their opinions of Voltaire’s comedy. In the following section, I will examine a few articles from the Correspondance littéraire in order to assess whether or not writers from the philosophe camp also diverged from critical norms in their analyses of Les Philosophes or L’Ecossaise.
Theater Criticism in the Correspondance littéraire, or, How to Further “The Cause” The Correspondance littéraire was perhaps the most famous literary bi-monthly in circulation during the eighteenth century.179 Started by Friedrich Melchior Grimm in 1753 and passed on to Joseph Meister in 1773, the Correspondance attempted to cover an encyclopedic amount of intellectual ground, with discussions of such disparate topics as biology, poetry, and civics.180 Like Fréron’s Année littéraire, the Correspondance was a means to further a sectarian mission, albeit from the other side of the ideological fence. A few months after moving from Saxony to Paris in 1749, Grimm was already shoulder-toshoulder with established philosophes, hosting weekly “dîners de garçons” with For a detailed account of the Correspondance littéraire’s genesis and importance during its time, consult Jeanne R. Monty’s La Critique littéraire de Melchior Grimm, and more specifically, chapter 2, pp. 23-39.
For more information on the Correspondance littéraire, consult either La Correspondance littéraire de Grimm et Meister 1754-1813. Actes de colloques de Sarrebruck. Paris: Klincksieck, 1776; or, the critical editions of the Correspondance that are currently published by The Voltaire Foundation (1759 edition to be published in 2010, under Henri Duranton’s direction).
Rousseau, Diderot, Helvétius and Marmontel.181 With this in mind, any “factual” information reported by Grimm in the Correspondance merits the same critical doubt as in Fréron’s periodical.
Despite its obvious one-sidedness, the Correspondance littéraire reveals the chronological proximity between the two theatrical works from 1760 that have so far provided the bulk of this study. According to Grimm, Voltaire published L’Ecossaise while Palissot’s Les Philosophes was still in its rehearsal stage at the ComédieFrançaise.182 As we shall see, Grimm uses a variety of tones and strategies to describe the performances and receptions of Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise. What first emerges in the Correspondance is a stark ideological separation between the two works, but then, a progressive assemblage of both plays into one, rowdy polemic.
Grimm’s first review of L’Ecossaise dates from June 15 1760—just two weeks after he had called Palissot’s Philosophes a “miserable copy” of Molière that would nevertheless “faire époque” in the history of French letters (CL, IV, 239-240). As we saw in an earlier chapter, one of Palissot’s chief goals was to create a rift between philosophes such as Diderot and Voltaire by chastising the former with his play and sycophantically praising the latter through correspondance. In Grimm’s early review of L’Ecossaise, it appears that Palissot’s plan of splitting philosophes, at least in part, was moderately successful. For example, Grimm argues that Voltaire should have kept his satirical comments in their original pamphlet form, instead of presenting them on one of Europe’s
most famous stages:
Marmontel attests to these soirées in his Mémoires, Tourneax edition, I, pp. 253-254 (qtd. by Monty 19).
This would have been sometime during the first week of May, 1760.
Un tel persiflage n’est supportable que dans ces feuilles satiriques dont tout le mérite consiste dans la gaieté et dans la saillie…mais la comédie veut d’autres propos ; elle exige surtout une vérité sans laquelle il n’est pas possible de plaire aux gens de goût. M. de Voltaire a très bien choisi le lieu de la scène ; un café offre une multitude de tableaux vrais. C’est dommage que la plupart des scènes ne soient qu’ébauchées, et que la bouffonnerie y soit souvent mêlée aux discours sérieux. (CL, IV, 247) According to Grimm, Voltaire’s treatment of Fréron jars with contemporary norms of comedic decency: the philosophe’s biting remarks should have stayed in the various “feuilles satiriques” that circulated around Paris during the late 1750s.
Contrary to Fréron’s first review, Grimm’s early account focuses solely on the Frélon character. Instead of following Fréron’s lead with remarks on English theater, Grimm argues that Voltaire’s staging of Counter-Enlightenment journalism eliminates any sort of legitimacy from the play and that nobody could possibly be as ridiculous as the Frélon character, not even Fréron himself (247). In fact, Fréron and Grimm have two very different ideas about what exactly forms the crux of Voltaire’s comedy, and diverge in their respective attempts to find the locus of Voltaire’s dramatic work: Grimm highlights the Frélon character, whereas Fréron underlines the play’s nonconformity with English comedies.
Grimm points out that the dialogues between Frélon and Lady Alton “gâtent tout” and ruin the coherence of the play (247). He then follows up his June 1 denunciation of Palissot as a plagiarist with a similar remark against Voltaire, arguing that Lady Alton’s character is really nothing more than a pastiche, “d’après Mme. De Croupillac183 et autres personnages moitié burlesques, moitié fantastiques, toujours faux et de mauvais goût” (247).
This is a reference to the lead female antagonist in Voltaire’s own L’Enfant prodigue, a Moliéresque comedy first staged at the Comédie-Française in 1736.
If we examine Grimm’s review of Voltaire’s play in a critical vacuum and ignore the fact that Les Philosophes hit the boards of the Comédie-Française just a few weeks before, Grimm’s words seem like non-partisan reflections on the lowly state of comedy in Paris.184 However, two discrete aspects in Grimm’s account of L’Ecossaise mitigate this overt criticism of Voltaire. Firstly, and contrary to any other review of the play at this early stage, Grimm immediately reveals Voltaire as the comedy’s author. In Fréron’s earliest critique of L’Ecossaise, as well as in Collé’s review of the comedy, both critics believed that Diderot, not Voltaire, had penned the play.
When Grimm tells his reader, “Vous lirez avec plaisir le Café, ou l’écossaise, comédie en cinq actes et en prose, traduite de l’anglais de M. Hume, qui ne l’a jamais faite, par M. de Voltaire, qui en est le véritable auteur,” he strategically brings Voltaire— who at 64 is the most revered and powerful philosophe—into the polemic. Realizing the fact that Palissot spared Voltaire from attack in Les Philosophes in order to court the aging author, Grimm probably feared a pact between the two.185 Grimm implicitly asserts that Voltaire is “ours” and not “yours” in a desperate attempt to unite a force against Palissot’s attacks. Recognizing the dangers of losing the “Patriarch of Ferney’s” support and seeing the advantages of linking him with the philosophe cause, Grimm brings Voltaire into the equation and firmly asserts him as the defender of the philosophes.
In perhaps the only critical work that brings to light Grimm’s reaction to L’Ecossaise, Jeanne Monty unfortunately fails to mention the possibility of Palissot’s influence on Grimm’s critique. Instead, she views Grimm’s assessment of the comedy inside a continuum of his reflections on Voltaire’s theater, thus ignoring the specificity of the philosophe/anti-philosophe affair. For her analysis of Grimm’s L’Ecossaise critique, see La critique littéraire de Melchior Grimm, pp. 95-96.
Palissot added fuel to fire by publishing his intimate correspondence with Voltaire during the summer of 1760 (see Works Cited for complete bibliographical information).
In his first review, Grimm hesitates between drawing Voltaire into the Palissot polemic and asserting critical disinterest by sometimes disparaging Voltaire’s satirical portrayal of the Counter-Enlightenment. The critic’s ambivalence is perhaps best illustrated in the final section of the June 15 review. Grimm realizes that L’Ecossaise is about to follow one of the most controversial plays in the history of French drama. In order to have even the slightest chance of attenuating some of Palissot’s “bruit” and “tumulte,” Grimm and other philosophes begin what might be called a modern-day advertising campaign with the hopes of rallying spectators around Voltaire’s rebuttal.
Grimm ends his review with the following paragraph: “Quoi qu’il en soit, cette pièce [L’Ecossaise] a eu un très grand succès ici. C’est que le sujet est fait pour toucher tout le monde, et qu’il y a peu de gens qui sentent les défauts et la faiblesse de l’exécution. On dit que les Comédiens français se proposent de la jouer sur leur théâtre” (247). Here, Grimm counters that Voltaire’s published (but yet unperformed) work has a significant public and pleases every kind of reader. But what kind of success did L’Ecossaise enjoy, and by what audience? And what is the significance of the term “execution” in Grimm’s review?
In order to rival Palissot’s success, Grimm previews the performance of L’Ecossaise. He creates a fictionalized audience (“tout le monde,” “gens,” ”on”) and argues that they have received the play with open arms. Even if the critic writes that some of this success is due to the fact that “peu de gens…sentent les défauts”—this ignorance does not prevent the play from enjoying a “très grand” success. Grimm’s text emerges as both a theater review and a preconditioning text when the critic prepares his reader for the upcoming performance of L’Ecossaise. At this time (June 15), Voltaire’s play was not yet in rehearsal stage at the Comédie-Française and Grimm’s assertion that the play is to be performed is no doubt a bit of “insider information,” inserted into the review with the hopes of rallying the readership around the late-July performance.
The Spectators are Not “conséquents”: Grimm’s Analysis of Theater Reception In his first critique of L’Ecossaise, Melchior Grimm tactically attaches Voltaire to the philosophe side of the polemic against Palissot and other Counter-Enlightenment writers. But at the same time, Grimm criticizes several aspects of the comedy and emerges as a relatively disinterested and “fair” critic when compared to the overt partisanship of Voltaire, Palissot, or Fréron. Before moving to Grimm’s next criticism of L’Ecossaise, it is perhaps best to note the complete change in the polemic’s perception by critics, seen in another of the philosophe’s reviews of Palissot’s comedy, this one dating from July 1.186 Grimm had this to say about the “critical suite” that emerged from Palissot’s Les Philosophes: “La comédie des Philosophes a produit une quantité de brochures de toute espèce, que, pour l’honneur de la littérature française, il faut passer sous silence. On a retranché, à l’impression de cette pièce et à la seconde représentation, plusieurs endroits qui avaient trop choqué à la première. Le public n’est pas conséquent” (CL, IV, 253).
Grimm attests to a large (quantité) and hetereogenous (de tout espèce) critical production that followed Les Philosophes. References to the play seem to touch every aspect of literature and the Republic of Letters, and according to Grimm, this all-engulfing practice has to stop at once.
This is around the date when Les Philosophes was retired at the Comédie-Française.
But also, and following his remarks on the ignorance of Paris’ reading public, Grimm makes a disparaging comment about theatrical spectators. Instead of understanding dramaturgical changes that might mitigate the intensity of satirical digs, Parisian spectators are not “conséquents,”—they are not logical—and they do not seem to interpret the play as Grimm would like. In fact, spectators seem to be fuelled by libelles and pamphlets—sources in which they could find the nasty comments that censures may have edited out of the theatrical performances. In short, spectators are reacting to the content of the pamphlets, or to the first version of the script in circulation, and not to the words that the actors deliver during the second, third, or fourteenth performance.