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After arguing that Palissot is, in fact, not a modern Aristophanes, and nothing more than an “auteur infortuné qui ne cherche qu’à nuire” (line 50), Dorat then attacks
In his attack on Voltaire (“L’oracle de la France”), Dorat changes gears and moves from classical Greek literature to contemporary French writing. For instance, Dorat wonders how the author of something as horrible as L’Ecossaise could have also written a beautiful work about the “plus humain des rois”—no doubt a reference to the Henriade, Voltaire’s glorifying epic poem about Henri IV. Also in this short passage, Dorat alludes to Mérope, Voltaire’s 1743 tragedy, in which the elderly Narbas shares common tears with Mérope (“une mère” in the above passage) on learning about the deaths of their respective sons, Cresphonte and Egyste.
Although both critical poems highlight common themes such as the degradation of comedy, the horror of staging living people and the overall malevolence of satire, Dorat’s Epitre criticizes both sides of the debate between philosophes and antiphilosophes equally and refuses to discuss the abundance of “paperasse” that stemmed from both comedies. Dorat attacks solely the texts of both plays, and refuses to comment on aspects of either performance. Whereas the unknown author of the Vengeance of Thalie hints at the political underpinnings of the affair (relationship between Palissot and Fréron) and the reasons behind its tumultuous public reception, Dorat treats both plays as static documents that he hopes to bury under more “proper” theater pieces in the repertoire of the Comédie-Française.
The “poème-critique” genre emerges as a way for writers to keep their criticisms inside a traditional literary framework. Both poets seek to rectify abuses in decency that were caused by Les Philosophes or L’Ecossaise and posit inflexible rules for comedy and theater in general such as, most importantly, not staging live people from Parisian society. Dorat, because he breaks down the “theatricality” of both plays—because he moves the critical locus from performance to text and from the public to the playwright— asserts both comedies as literature (albeit bad), and hides their eventful, social nature.
Where there was once a discussion about tumult, cabals and battles, now there is little more than a subtle reflection on satire in the comedic genre.
In an earlier chapter, we looked at the way that Voltaire hoped the debate would move out of a more public sphere and into the realm of a literary few. It seems as if Dorat’s poem helps confirm this appropriation of the polemic by learned, elite members in the Republic of Letters. This more “textual” turn in theater criticism attempts to remove a vocabulary of “bruit,” “tumulte,” and “incendie” from descriptions of the Palissot/Voltaire affair. Paralleling Coyer, Malsherbes, and other writers, Dorat—through his choice of genre and the content of his poem—reduces the “public” spectacle of the ongoing polemic.
Over the next few months, the Comédie Française enjoyed a relative period of “normalcy,”—Voltaire’s tragedy Tancrède appeared on its boards to praise from both sides of the literary war.199 But the strife between philosophes and anti-philosophes had left its mark on the Republic of Letters—and not just in its content (the exact criticisms against the rival side), but also in its form (marketing campaigns and attempts to precondition the spectator or reader). Over the next few decades, and as France moved toward Revolution and subsequent terror, political and intellectual adversaries continued to wage war on the boards of the Comédie-Française. From Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro to Hugo’s Hernani, playwrights closed the distance between events on stage and action in the audience in order to further partisan causes that sometimes reached beyond the “normal” scope of theatrical reception.
What began in the middle of the eighteenth century as a nasty ideological battle between encyclopedists and a brigade of budding Counter-Enlightenment pamphleteers, will emerge later under different forms and terms. For example, nasty battles at the Comédie-Française involved various non-theatrical concerns such as patriotism (Pierre De Belloy’s Le Siège de Calais), Royal authority (Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro), and even the definition of legitimate government (André-Joseph Chenier’s Charles IX ou l’école des Rois). In the following chapter, I will briefly analyze some examples of this Except for a few mild criticisms, reviews of Tancrède by Grimm, Fréron, Collé, and Laporte all seem to be quite favorable. Although each criticism would half to be analyzed in its specificity in order to draw any profound conclusions, the criticisms as a whole, nevertheless, assert a relative feeling of relief in the return to more classical tragedy after a tumultuous summer of polemic comedy at the Comédie-Française.
theatrical suite in dramatic genres as disparate as historical tragedy and comédie plaisante in order to illustrate the ways that themes and strategies from the Palissot/Voltaire affair infused theatrical production at the Comédie-Française for decades after the original event in 1760.
The Immediate Aftermath of the Palissot/Voltaire Affair So far, I have examined eighteenth-century dramatic writing, performance, and criticism through the lens of two polemical plays from 1760. First, I provided close readings of Charles Palissot’s Les Philosophes and a series of pamphlets that served as the intellectual base for his theatrical criticisms of Enlightenment writers such as Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius. These arguments from pamphlets already in circulation, when combined with performance-based critiques such as Palissot’s pantomime of Rousseau, produced a rowdy performance, a powerful dramatic text, and a theatrical criticism focused on spectator reactions.
Next, I examined a similar process of conditioning the spectator through texts and performance in Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise. In his comédie sérieuse, the famous philosophe ridicules the Counter-Enlightenment journalist Elie-Cathérine Fréron, critiques the pecuniary nature of newspaper writing, and paints an ambivalent picture of social currents like pamphleteering and the gradual shift in literary judgment from an “enlightened” few to a more public arena. In that chapter, I hoped to show how L’Ecossaise emerges as a complex literary product that exemplifies Voltaire’s aesthetic ideas at the time, and especially, the philosophe’s uncertain relationship with the nascent drame. But even before his ideas about society and theater hit the stage, Voltaire cleverly used pamphlets, prefaces, and publication strategies to create a knowledgeable spectator.
What resulted was an atypical theater criticism that underlines contemporary polemics, audio-visual performance, and the textual “paperasse” surrounding the play.
It is precisely this form of spectator-based theater criticism that I brought to light in my chapter on the critical “suite” of the Palissot/Voltaire affair. Here, I analyzed the effect of preconditioning processes such as pamphleteering and pre-performance publication on the spectator, as well as how these strategies changed norms inside the critical genre. For example, critics responded to pamphlet campaigns and parodies by discussing these practices in reviews of the performances of Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise. These para-texts were inextricably linked to descriptions of each play’s dramatic text or performance. However, this critical practice was short-lived, and members of both ideological sides called for a “theatrical” ceasefire. Exhausted after seeing two polemical comedies hit the boards of the Comédie-Française in 1760, writers inside the Republic of Letters then sought to attenuate the visible strife between the two rival parties and “cleanse” the famous theater by forcing a return to more classical themes and genres.
One reason why Parisian literary circles seemed to “calm down” after 1760 lies in the philosophes’ slow but steady victory over their Counter-Enlightenment rivals. In his work on pre-Revolutionary French culture, Enemies of Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, Darrin McMahon argues that philosophes gained intellectual and institutional power over a diminishing CounterEnlightenment throughout the 1760s and 1770s.200 This increasing dominance emboldened philosophes and gave them the ability to enforce their will to quell antiElections to France’s most prestigious intellectual institution, the Académie française, demonstrate an acute example of philosophe domination. McMahon underlines the fact that “Marmontel [was elected] in 1763, Thomas in 1767, Condillac in 1768, Suard in 1774, Malesherbes in 1775, Chastelux in 1775, La Harpe in 176, Chamfort in 1781, and Condorcet in 1782” (7).
philosophe attacks from manifesting at influential venues such as the Comédie-or the Académie Française. For example, in 1770, a mere ten years after the very successful staging of Les Philosophes, Royal censures officially banned Charles Palissot from staging his L’Homme dangereux, another Counter-Enlightenment play which mocked philosophes.201 In addition, even though the Comédie-Française performed Les Philosophes occasionally during the 1770s, by the 1780s, censures had removed the JeanJacques Rousseau pantomime and softened the vicious digs at philosophes in several of the more anti-philosophique scenes.202 The overt theatrical war between both groups faded during the 1770s, but themes from this battle recurred in dramatic works with regularity during the immediate years after the summer of 1760. Part of this chapter will investigate the on-stage aftershock of the philosophe vs. anti-philosophe fight.
More important, perhaps, than the exact themes in the debate between philosophes and anti-philosophes were the strategies that participants used to disseminate their ideas and affect spectators at the Comédie-Française. In the previous discussion of Palissot and Voltaire, I examined cultural practices such as preconditioning through pamphlets and prefaces and the reporting of visceral spectator reactions to performance.
In this chapter, I will briefly analyze a few theatrical examples from the second half of the eighteenth-century with the hope of drawing out several ways by which processes from the Palissot/Voltaire affair permeated the dramatic genre on the eve of the French Palissot, Charles. L’Homme dangereux, comédie par l’auteur de la comédie des Philosophes. Amsterdam (Paris): Unknown Editor, 1670 (BnF YE 9863). For more
information on the censorship of the play, see Nicholas Cronk’s “Voltaire and the 1760s:
the rule of the patriarch” in Voltaire and the 1760s: Essays for John Renwick. Oxford:
Voltaire Foundation (SVEC), 2008, pp. 9-11.
See O. Ferret’s “Introduction” to his 2002 edition of Les Philosophes for a more complete chronology of the play’s eighteenth-century performances.
Revolution. In this last part, it will be important to keep in mind events such as preperformance publication strategies, spectator-actor interaction, rowdy crowds, and the polemical mobilization of two diametrically opposed groups.
Healing the Nation Through Tragedy: Pierre de Belloy’s Le Siège de Calais Pierre Buirette De Belloy’s Le Siège de Calais was first performed at the Comédie-Française on February 13, 1765.203 Hailed by its author as the “première tragédie nationale,” De Belloy’s play tells the story of Calais’ fourteenth-century bombardment by the English King Edward III during the Hundred Years’ War.204 Although the French eventually lost the strategic Northern city to the English crown, Eustache St. Pierre and other bourgeois calaisiens were able to fend off a superior number of English forces for over six months.205 De Belloy focuses his tragedy on St. Pierre’s capture, the fall of Calais, and the diplomatic relations between King Edward and Calais’ political leaders. After finally vanquishing the French fighters and bringing the city to its knees, Edward agrees to spare Calais’ innocent women and children if St. Pierre and his municipal staff sacrifice their lives as punishment for the entire town’s insolence. In a stunning display of sympathy and courage, a local French noble’s wife, Aliénor, begs Edward to let St. Pierre and the other bourgeois live, which he agrees to during the emotional final act of the tragedy.
All quotations from Le Siège de Calais are from De Belloy’s Oeuvres complètes. t. II.
Paris: Moutard, 1779, unless otherwise indicated.
See De Belloy’s Préface (pp. 3-11), for a more detailed discussion of the “genre national” in France.
Eustache St. Pierre’s heroic tale is perhaps best known through Rodin’s sculptures from the 1880s. One can find versions of the famous artist’s Les Bourgeois de Calais all over the world, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Rodin Museum (Paris), and the Philadelphia Art Museum.
According to Jacques Truchet, De Belloy’s plot is relatively accurate in historical terms, and largely borrowed from Jean Froissart’s fourteenth-century Chroniques (1439But perhaps more important than the play’s late-medieval origins is the contemporary climate in which the play was written in 1763, and performed in 1765.
Fresh from another defeat at the hands of the British, France had recently signed the Treaty of Paris and ceded large portions of the Caribbean and North America to its various European foes. Le Siège de Calais, then, emerges as an example par excellence of well-timed theater: for what better way is there to heal a broken nation than to stage French bravery, even in the face of embarrassing defeat?207 De Belloy’s tragedy was an immediate success at the Comédie-Française and booksellers quickly printed copies of his work to disseminate in Paris and province.208 Accounts of the tragedy’s premiere show that Parisian spectators received Le Siège de Calais with open arms and with intense emotion. To provide just one example, in his Correspondance littéraire, Grimm makes the connection between the play’s performance
and a natural disaster: