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Audience members refuse to acknowledge Palissot’s softened rhetoric as they stick to what they know: nasty arguments in the many pamphlets already in circulation at the time of the first performance. In this piece of theater criticism, the disparity between the goal of theatrical texts (the words written on the page) and their actual reception (how the audience behaved, or was reported as having behaved) emerges as a key component in the Palissot/Voltaire polemic.
Despite changes to the dramatic text, audience members reacted either to the original dialogues on opening night, or to the plethora of nasty pamphlets in circulation at this precise time. The following two models show the difference between Grimm’s plea for audience attention and the process that seems to be actually occurring (audience
members who are not “conséquents,” much to Grimm’s dismay):
GRIMM’S CONCEPTION OF (GOOD) THEATER RECEPTION:
*New Reception by Spectator because of edits to the dramatic text (this reception should be new because of the difference of the new text).
ACTUAL RECEPTION PROCESS BECAUSE OF PAMPHLETS:
*SAME RECEPTION AS IN PERFORMANCE ONE (Spectators ignore changes to text) When Grimm argues that spectators fail to assert a new interpretation of the play despite edits to the dramatic text, he implicitly bolsters the power of pamphlets to determine the success of the play, as well as the behavior in the parterre. Pamphlets, not manipulations to the text, or even alterations in the performance (acting changes), determine the interpretation of the theatrical spectator.
Grimm’s review of Les Philosophes goes beyond a simple “compte rendu” or commentary on versification and speaks to larger issues in cultural production and literary reception. He shows a disparity between the receptions desired by members of the Republic of Letters and the actual way that some eighteenth-century theater audiences understood dramatic performance.
After Grimm’s July 1 review of Les Philosophes, we can discern a change in the critic’s tone vis-à-vis Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise. Just fifteen days before, Grimm presented arguments with measured nonpartisanship—he both criticized and cheered Voltaire’s play for theatrical reasons such as character composition, the ability to “faire tableau,” and the verisimilitude of the setting.
However, after realizing that Parisian pamphleteers have regurgitated Palissot’s play in a multitude of genres and forms (“de toute espèce”), Grimm changes his reviews of L’Ecossaise to encompass issues from beyond the stage, such as literary tenets of satire, political motives for creativity, and strict rules for judgment for any written work.
Again, we can see a change in generic field, when Grimm realizes that “Les Philosophes” is no longer just a play by Charles Palissot, but actually, a combinatory force of creative material that touches different genres and literary forms.
Before, Palissot had attacked Grimm’s cohort through theater—this move from pamphlet to performance was already an irrefutable blow to the philosophes. But now, Palissot and his band had become even more pernicious by creating a new genre of attack (the pamphlet parody) in criticism and seeking to take down the philosophes and “decent” literature as a whole, during the same summer.
In Grimm’s July 15 review of L’Ecossaise (still twelve days before its first performance!), the critic returns to the idea of authorship, and more specifically, Voltaire’s creation of a fictitious Scottish author. Grimm reminds his reader that Voltaire attributes the play to “M. Hume,” the “frère du philosophe David Hume,” even though Voltaire, in fact, penned the comedy (260). But more importantly, Grimm then leaves the specific context of L’Ecossaise to criticize a more general cultural practice of fictitious
authorship. Grimm argues that writers trick readers for the following reasons:
Grimm gives his reader a typology of how writers use fake author attributions in contemporary eighteenth-century literature. Some writers use a fictional avatar to speak freely, some to avoid the censure, and some to avoid public criticism. Two interesting elements emerge from Grimm’s analysis of this literary practice. First, the critic argues that writers take into account the criticism of their reading public before publishing (or performing) their creative works—a fact that irrefutably applies to Voltaire’s consideration of his audience before L’Ecossaise. Secondly, Grimm imbeds this practice into the larger process of writing fiction. By adding a fictive author, eighteenth-century writers add a layer to the narrative of their works—an added “ornament” that we could no doubt include among the other literary strategies in Voltaire’s work (embroidery, letter writing, etc.).187 I discuss Voltaire’s manipulation of fictive elements in L’Ecossaise in chapter two of this dissertation.
Realizing that Palissot had moved the debate between philosophes and antiphilosophes to a larger and different receptive field, Grimm changes his own rhetoric to include more general problems such as contemporary literary practices and norms. In addition, the philosophe critic ends his second review with a qualitative remark on what exactly happens when the debate moves from written plays and pamphlets to audio-visual theatrical performance. Grimm writes that “Une lecture qu’on fait dans le silence et dans le secret ne produira jamais le même effet. On est seul, on n’a personne pour témoin de son honnêteté, de son goût, de sa sensibilité et de ses pleurs” (263).
For Grimm, the staining of theatrical performance by polemical pamphlets produces a confused spectator that doesn’t respond as he or she should. His analysis of the spectator’s reaction is contradictory. On the one hand, people act differently when in the company of others at a theatrical performance; but on the other hand, Grimm’s testimony seems to point to the fact that spectators responded a certain way, or were interested in certain aspects of both plays, solely due to the “bruit” from polemical pamphlets in circulation during the early summer of 1760.
Grimm’s uncertainty may hint at new forms of literary practice and new ways spectators understood and reacted to those works during this precise moment—and Grimm’s visible displeasure with both plays complicates matters even further. The critic knows that there is a battle to lose, and the slightest sign of weakness could fracture the delicate relationship between Diderot and Voltaire, or even worse, help fuel a nascent affinity between Palissot and Voltaire.188 Grimm’s overt distaste for Voltaire’s work is In fact, during the summer of 1760, Palissot published a collection of letters between
himself and Voltaire. Lettres et Réponses de M. Palissot à M. de Voltaire. Paris ( ?) BnF :
YF-10553 lessened by what is hinted at, or even unsaid, in his criticism. He castigates Voltaire’s text, but then smoothes over these critiques with praise or assertions that Voltaire’s play comprises literary elements, while Palissot’s comedy is little more than an egregious ripoff.
Grimm’s third and final review of L’Ecossaise appears on August 15 1760, thus approximately two weeks after the play’s premiere. Contrasting with Fréron’s opinion of the event in the Relation d’une grande bataille, Grimm’s review is glaringly short (a few paragraphs) and marked by an abrupt change in tone. First, the critic comments on how the play was received by spectators, arguing that “elle a eu le plus grand succès” (276).
Then, Grimm explains the warm reception in more detail, attesting that “tout le monde sa[vait] la pièce par coeur,” which gave the impression that the actors were not even performing a “pièce nouvelle” (276).
In our analysis of Barbier’s account of Les Philosophes in chapter one of this dissertation, we learned that Palissot’s spectators, much like Voltaire’s, were also “in the know” about the events that they were about to see on stage.189 Grimm’s remarks show the same process of preconditioning in determining the critical success of a dramatic work—and may even lead us to believe that Fréron’s hyperbolic Relation comprised elements of historical truth.
“Comme cette pièce [Les Philosophes] était connue et qu’elle avait fait du bruit avant d’être représentée, l’empressement et le concours du public ont été jusqu’à l’extrême le jour de la première représentation. On n’a point vu un pareil tumulte : j’y ai assisté aux premières places. Elle a été applaudie et critiquée tout à la fois” (Barbier Journal, qtd. in Masseau 143).
Another striking feature of Grimm’s last review of L’Ecossaise is his change in attitude towards the play. Grimm writes, “Voilà l’époque de l’établissement d’un nouveau genre plus simple et plus vrai que celui de notre comédie ordinaire,” (276) whereas just a few weeks earlier, he could not help but lament the negative aspects of Voltaire’s comedy. A new genre, that is also more simple and true than its comedic predecessors? What happened to bad character composition? What happened to the author’s obligation to avoid staging living members of society? What happened to norms in satire and decency? Either Voltaire’s play was better on the stage than on the page, or, Grimm has since changed critical strategies. In this last review, it seems as if Grimm removes the locus of judgment from himself (the critic) and places it on the public (the new judge). L’Ecossaise is a financial success with plenty of happy spectators, ergo, it is a literary success as well? Not so fast.
In the conclusion of his review, Grimm briefly analyzes the actors’ roles in the play, complaining that he was not “content de la façon dont l’Ecossaise a été jouée; mais le public a été moins difficile” (277). In this final assessment of the play, Grimm creates two sources of judgment: the established critic (Grimm) and the public. And perhaps in order to keep cohesion in the philosophe ranks or not to anger his reading public (who might have enjoyed L’Ecossaise), Grimm chooses to leave the reader with the public’s judgment and silence his own reservations about the play. Societal concerns and polemical battles trump honest literary criticism—a fact that underlines the precarious nature of the philosophe status as well as norms in theater criticism at this precise moment.
Grimm’s reflections on the differences between performance and publication, as well as Fréron’s Relation d’une grande bataille, diverge from norms in theater criticism.
These are not mere plot descriptions, remarks on verisimilitude, or critiques of versification. But the ideological enemies’ respective takes on L’Ecossaise were not the only creative manifestation of “theater criticism” during this battle. Due to the polemical nature of the event, writers from both camps sought to weigh in on the summer of 1760— asserting their opinions in a variety of creative media—but nevertheless all under the guise of “theater criticism.” In the final section of this chapter, I will analyze some examples from an relatively unknown, heterogeneous corpus with the hopes drawing out some qualitative remarks on the critical “suite” of the Palissot/Voltaire affair— specifically in relation to the power of the spectator, publication/performance concerns, and finally, polemical events as a driving force, or source, for creative materials.
Creative Criticisms of the Affair, or, Trying to Define Literary “Criticism” Olivier Ferret’s critical edition of Palissot’s Les Philosophes (2002) is a holistic approach to the Palissot/Voltaire affair and a goldmine of written materials that followed the two comedies. Because Voltaire published L’Ecossaise before Les Philosophes hit the boards at the Comédie-Française—due to this close proximity between both plays—many criticisms evoked the arrival of both comedies as a single event. In his edition, Ferret accompanies Les Philosophes with a selection of never-before-published criticisms from the summer of 1760. Ferret’s goal is to introduce and situate each criticism in the historical context of a larger debate between philosophes and anti-philosophes—this aim prevents the author from analyzing at length this collection of pamphlets, poems, letters, parodies, and elegies. Nevertheless, a close reading of some of these texts—as well as some that are located in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale-Mitterrand and the Bibliothèque nationale-Richelieu—reveals a crisis in determining “normal” theater criticism, and even literary criticism in general, during this period. These oft-overlooked texts illuminate an interesting world of polemics, performance, and judgment. In short, they show a different side of theater criticism with a posture that incorporates extrascenic factors as often as it discusses elements on the stage.
Both comedies produced a surfeit of creative materials, but in this chapter on theater criticism, we will concentrate on written, unperformed works that were published under the guise of “remarks” or “criticism.” This critical stance unfortunately precludes a deep analysis of performed parodies, which as a genre, emerged as an important mode of criticism during the eighteenth-century, as well as in this specific case of the Palissot/Voltaire affair. Spectators at the Comédie-Italienne, the Foire St. Laurent, and the Passy Theater enjoyed live parodies of both Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise with titles such as Le Petit Philosophe, Les Philosophes de bois, Les Originaux ou les Fourbes punis, L’Ecosseuse, and L’Ecossaise en vers during the summer of 1760.