Front Page Titles (by Subject) A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei, Author of the Italian Mérope, and many other celebrated performances. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VIII The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Mérope, Olympia, The Orphan of China, Brutus) and Part II (Mahomet, Amelia, Oedipus, Mariamne, Socrates).
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A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei, Author of the Italian Mérope, and many other celebrated performances. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VIII The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Mérope, Olympia, The Orphan of China, Brutus) and Part II (Mahomet, Amelia, Oedipus, Mariamne, Socrates). 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. VIII The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Mérope, Olympia, The Orphan of China, Brutus) and Part II (Mahomet, Amelia, Oedipus, Mariamne, Socrates).
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A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei, Author of the Italian Mérope, and many other celebrated performances.
The Greeks and Romans, to whom modern Italy, as well as all other nations, are indebted for almost everything, dedicated their works, without the ridiculous form of compliments, to their friends, who were masters of the art: by this claim I take the liberty of addressing to you the French “Mérope.”
The Italians, who have been the restorers of almost all the fine arts, and the inventors of many, were the first, who, under the auspices of Leo X., revived tragedy; and you, sir, are the first who, in this age, when the Sophoclean art became enervated by love-intrigues, often foreign to the subject, and so often debased by idle buffooneries, that reflected dishonor on the taste of your ingenious countrymen, you, sir, were the first who had courage and genius enough to hazard a tragedy without gallantry, a tragedy worthy of Athens in its glory; wherein the maternal affection constitutes the whole intrigue, and the most tender interest arises from the purest virtue. France prides herself in her “Athalie”; it is indeed the masterpiece of our stage, perhaps of poetry itself: of all the pieces that are exhibited among us, it is the only one where love is not introduced: but at the same time we must allow, that it is supported by the pomp of religion, and that majesty of eloquence which appears in the prophets. You had not that resource, and yet you have so contrived, as to furnish out five acts, which it is so extremely difficult to fill up without episodes. I must own, your subject appeared to me much more interesting and tragical than that of “Athalie”; and even if our admirable Racine had worked up his masterpiece with more art, more poetry, and more sublimity than he has, yours, I am satisfied, would have drawn more tears from the audience.
The preceptor of Alexander—kings ought always to have such preceptors—the great Aristotle, that extensive genius, so just, and so deeply versed in all the learning of those times, Aristotle, in his art of poetry, has declared that the meeting of Mérope and her son was the most interesting circumstance of the whole Grecian theatre. This stroke was, in his opinion, infinitely superior to all the rest. Plutarch tells us, that the Greeks, who, of all the people in the world, had the quickest feeling, trembled with fear, lest the old man who was to stop the arm of Mérope, should not come in time enough. That piece, which was played in his time, and a few fragments of which are still extant, appeared to him the most affecting of all the tragedies of Euripides; but it was not the choice of his subject alone to which that poet owed his success, though in every species of the drama, a happy choice is, no doubt, of the greatest service.
France has seen several “Méropes,” but none of them ever succeeded: the authors perhaps overloaded this simple subject with foreign ornaments: it was the naked “Venus” of Praxiteles which they wanted to cover with tinsel. It requires a great deal of time to teach men that everything which is great should be simple and natural. In 1641, when the French flag began to flourish, and even to raise itself above that of Greece, by the genius of P. Corneille, Cardinal Richelieu, who ambitiously sought for glory of every kind, and who had just then built a magnificent hall, for theatrical representations, in the Palais Royal, of which he had himself furnished the design, had a “Mérope” played there under the name of “Telephonte”; the plot of it is generally believed to have been entirely his own. There are about a hundred verses in it, supposed to be written by him; the rest was by Colletet, Bois-Roberts, Desmarets, and Chapelain; but all the power of Cardinal Richelieu could not impart to those writers that genius which they never possessed: his own was not indeed adapted to the stage, though he had a good taste; so that all he could do, or that could be expected from him, was to patronize and encourage the great Corneille.
Mr. Gilbert, resident of the celebrated Queen Christina, in 1643, gave us his “Mérope,” which is at present as little known as the other. La Chapelle, of the French academy, author of a tragedy called “Cléopatre,” which was played with some success, gave us another “Mérope” in 1683, and took care to insert a love episode: he complains withal in his preface, that the critics reproached him with too great a degree of the marvellous; but he was mistaken, it was not the marvellous that sank his performance, but in reality the want of genius, added to the coldness and insipidity of his versification; this is the great point, the capital fault, that condemns so many poems to oblivion.
The art of eloquence in verse is of all arts the most difficult and the most uncommon: there are a thousand geniuses to be found who can plan a work, and put it into verse after the common manner; but to treat it like a true poet, is a talent which is seldom bestowed on above two or three men on the face of the whole earth.
In December, 1701, M. de la Grange played his “Amasis,” which is nothing more than the subject of “Mérope” under another name. Gallantry has its share in this performance likewise; and there is more of the marvellous in it than even in La Chapelle’s: but it is more interesting, conducted with more art and genius, and written with more warmth and power; notwithstanding which, it met with no great success;
Et habent sua fata libelli.
Since that, however, it has been revived with great applause; and is one of those few pieces which generally give pleasure in the representation.
Before and after “Amasis” we have had several tragedies on subjects very nearly resembling this, wherein a mother is going to avenge the death of her son on the son himself, and discovers him just at the instant when she was about to kill him. We frequently saw on our stage that striking but rarely probable situation, wherein a person comes with a poniard in his hand ready to destroy his enemy, and another arrives at the same instant, and snatches it from him. This incident recommended, at least for a time, the “Camma” of Thomas Corneille.
But amongst all the tragedies on this subject, which I have here enumerated, there is not one of them but is filled with some episode of love, or rather gallantry; for everything must give way to the reigning taste. But you must not believe, sir, that this unhappy custom of loading our tragedies with ridiculous love-intrigues was owing to Racine; a crime, which, in Italy, I know he is generally reproached with: on the contrary, he did everything in his power to reform the public taste in this particular: the passion of love is never brought in by him as a mere episode; it is the foundation or ground-plot of all his pieces, and forms the principal interest: it is certainly of all the passions the most truly theatrical, the most fruitful in sentiments, and admits of the greatest variety: it ought, therefore, no doubt, to be the soul of a dramatic performance, or entirely to be banished from it: if love is not tragical, it is insipid; and when it is tragical, it should reign alone; it was never made for a second place. It was Rotrou, or rather we must own, the great Corneille himself, who, in his creation of the stage, at the same time disfigured and disgraced it, by those ridiculous intrigues, bespoken, as it were, and made on purpose, those affairs of gallantry, which not being true passions, were unworthy of the stage; if you would know the reason why Corneille’s tragedies are so seldom played, the reason is plain enough: it is because, in his “Otho.”
“Otho makes a compliment to his mistress more like a man of wit than a real lover: he follows step by step the effort of his memory, which it is much more easy to admire than to believe. Camille herself seemed to be of his opinion; she would have liked much better a discourse less studied.—Tell me then, when Otho made love to Camille, was he contented, or was she kind?”
It is because in, “Pompey,” Cleopatra—a useless character—says that Cæsar “sighs for her,” and in a plaintive style calls himself “her captive, even in the field of victory.”
It is because Cæsar asks Antony if he has seen this “adorable queen”: to which Antony replies, “Yes, my lord, I have seen her, she is incomparable.”
It is because, in “Sertorius,” old Sertorius falls in love, not only because he likes the lady, but with a political view, and cries out: “I love: but it suits my age so ill to be in love, that I even conceal it from the fair one who has charmed me, as I know that the deep and yellow wrinkles on my forehead can have no great power in captivating the senses.”
It is because, in “Œdipus,” Theseus begins by saying to Dirce, “Whatever dreadful havoc the plague may make here, absence to true lovers is far more dreadful.”
In a word, it is because such love as this will never make us shed tears; and when that passion does not affect us, it must be quite insipid.
I have said no more here, sir, than what all good judges, and men of taste, say to one another every day; what you have often heard at my house; in short, what everybody thinks, but none dare to publish: you know well enough the nature of mankind: half the world write in opposition to their own opinions, for fear of shocking received prejudices and vulgar errors. With regard to myself, who have never mixed any political reserve with my sentiments on literature, I speak the truth boldly, and will add, that I respect Corneille more, and have a higher opinion of the real merit of this great father of the stage, than those who praise him indiscriminately, and are blind to all his faults.
A “Mérope” was exhibited at London in 1731: who would have thought a love-intrigue could ever have been thought of at that time? But ever since the reign of Charles II. love has taken possession of the English stage; though there is not a nation upon earth by whom that passion is so ill painted; but the intrigue so absurdly brought in, and so badly treated, is the least fault of the English “Mérope.” The young Ægisthus, delivered out of prison by a maid of honor, who is in love with him, is brought before the queen, who presents him with a bowl of poison, and a dagger, and speaks thus to him: “If you don’t swallow the poison, this dagger shall put an end to your mistress’ life.” The young man drinks the poison, and is carried off in the agonies of death: he comes back in the fifth act coldly to inform Mérope that he is her son, and that he has slain the tyrant. Mérope asks him how this miracle was performed: to which he replies, that a friend of the maid of honor had put poppy-water, instead of poison, into the cup. “I was only asleep,” says he, “when they thought me dead; I learned, when I awaked, that I was your son, and immediately killed the tyrant.” Thus ends the tragedy; no doubt but it met with a bad reception: but is it not strange that it should ever have been represented? Is it not a proof that the English stage is not yet refined? It seems as if the same cause that deprives the English of any excellency in, or genius for, music and painting, takes from them also all perfection in tragedy. This island, which has produced the finest philosophers in the world, is not equally productive of the fine arts; and if the English do not seriously apply themselves to the study of those precepts which were given them by their excellent countrymen, Addison and Pope, they will never come near to other nations in point of taste and literature.
But whilst the subject of “Mérope” has been thus disgraced and disfigured in one part of Europe, it has met with better fate in Italy, where it has for a long time been treated in the true taste of the ancients. In this sixteenth century, which will be famous throughout all ages, the Count de Torelli gave us his “Mérope” with choruses. If in La Chapelle’s tragedy we find all the faults of the French stage, such as useless intrigues, episodes, and a romantic air; and in the English author the highest degree of indecency, barbarism, and absurdity; we likewise meet in the Italian with all the faults of the Greek theatre, such as the want of action, and declamation. You, sir, have avoided all the rocks which they split upon; you, who have done honor to your country, by complete models of more than one kind, you have given us in your “Mérope” an example of a tragedy that is at once both simple and interesting.
The moment I read it I was struck with it; my love to my own country has never shut my eyes against the merit of foreigners. On the other hand, the more regard I have for it, the more I endeavor to enrich it, by the addition of treasures that are not of its own growth. The desire which I had of translating your “Mérope,” was increased by the honor of a personal acquaintance with you at Paris, in the year 1733. By loving the author, I became still more enamored with his work; but when I sat down to it, I found it was impossible to bring it on the French stage. We are grown excessively delicate: like the Sybarites of old, we are so immersed in luxury, that we cannot bear that rustic simplicity, and that description of a country life, which you have imitated from the Greek theatre. I am afraid our audiences would not suffer young Ægisthus to make a present of his ring to the man that stops him. I could not have ventured to seize upon a hero, and take him for a robber; though, at the same time, the circumstances he is in authorize the mistake. Our manners, which probably admit of many things which yours do not, would not permit us to represent the tyrant, the murderer of Mérope’s husband and children, pretending, after fifteen years, to be in love with her; nor could I even have dared to make the queen say to him, “Why did not you talk to me of love before, when the bloom of youth was yet on my face?” Conversations of this kind are natural; but our pit, which at some times is so indulgent, and at others so nice and delicate, would think them perhaps too familiar, and might even discover coquetry, where, in reality, there might be nothing but what was just and proper. Our stage would by no means have suffered Mérope to bind her son to a pillar, nor to run after him with a javelin, and an axe in her hand, nor have permitted the young man to run away from her twice, and beg his life of the tyrant: much less could we have suffered the confidante of Mérope to have persuaded Ægisthus to go to sleep on the stage, merely to give the queen an opportunity of coming there to assassinate him: not but all this is natural: but you must pardon us for expecting that nature should always be presented to us with some strokes of art; strokes that are extremely different at Paris from those which we meet with at Verona.
To give you a proper idea of the different taste and judgment of polite and cultivated nations, with regard to the same arts, permit me here to quote a few passages from your own celebrated performance, which seem dictated by pure nature. The person who stops young Cresphontes, and takes the ring from him, says:
I will take the liberty to translate this into blank verse, in which your tragedy is written, as I have not time at present to work it into rhyme.
The tyrant’s confidant tells him, when speaking of the queen, who refuses, after twenty years, to marry the known murderer of her family:
The queen’s waiting-woman answers the tyrant, who presses her to use her influence in his favor, thus:
In your fourth act, old Polydore asks one of Mérope’s courtiers who he is? To which he replies, “I am Eurises, the son of Nicander.” Polydore then, speaking of Nicander, talks in the style of Homer’s Nestor.
In another place the same old man, being invited to the ceremony of the queen’s marriage, says:
All these strokes are natural, all agreeable to the characters and manners represented: such familiar dialogues would, no doubt, have been well received at Athens; but Paris and our pit expect a simplicity of another kind. We may, perhaps, even boast of a more refined taste than Athens itself, where, though the principal city of all Greece, it does not appear to me that they ever represented any theatrical pieces except on the four solemn festivals; whereas at Paris there is always more than one every day in the year. At Athens the number of citizens was computed at only ten thousand, and Paris has nearly eight hundred thousand inhabitants; among whom, I suppose, we may reckon thirty thousand judges of dramatic performances, who really do pass their judgments almost every day of their lives.
In your tragedy you took the liberty to translate that elegant and simple comparison from Virgil.
But if I were to take the same in mine, they would say it was fitter for an epic poem: such a rigid master have we to please in what we call the public:
The English have a custom of finishing almost all their acts with a simile; but we expect that, in a tragedy, the hero should talk, and not the poet. Our audience is of opinion that in an important crisis of affairs, in a council, in a violent passion, or a pressing danger, princes and ministers should never make poetical comparisons.
How could I ever venture to make the under characters talk together for a long time? With you those conversations serve to prepare interesting scenes between the principal actors: they are like the avenues to a fine palace: but our spectators are for coming into it at once. We must therefore comply with the national taste, which is, perhaps, grown more difficult, from having been cloyed, as it were, with such a variety of fine performances: and yet among these recitals, which our excessive severity condemns, how many beauties do I regret the loss of! How does simple nature delight me, though beneath a form that appears strange to us!
I have here, sir, given you some of those reasons which prevailed on me not to follow what I so much admired. I was obliged, not without regret, to write a new “Mérope”; I have done it in a different manner, but I am far from thinking that I have therefore done it better. I look upon myself, with regard to you, as a traveller to whom an eastern monarch had made a present of some very rich stuffs: the king would certainly permit this traveller to wear them according to the fashion of his own country.
My “Mérope” was finished in the beginning of the year 1736, pretty nearly as it now stands; studies of another kind prevented me from bringing it on the stage: but what weighed most with me was, the hazard which I ran in producing it, after several successful pieces on almost the same subject, though under different names. At length, however, I ventured to produce it, and the public gave me a convincing proof that they could condescend to see the same matter worked up in a different manner. That happened to our stage which we see every day in a gallery of pictures, where there are many of them on exactly the same subject. The judges are pleased by the observation of these different manners, and everyone marks down and enjoys, according to his own taste, the character of every painter. This is a kind of happy concurrence, which, at the same time that it contributes towards the perfection of the Art, gives the public a better insight into it. If the French “Mérope” has met with the same success as the Italian, it is to you, sir, I am indebted for it; to that simplicity in your performance which I have taken for my model, and which I was always an admirer of. Though I walked in a different path, you were always my guide. I could have wished, after the examples of the Italians and English, to employ the happy facility of blank verse, and have often called to mind this passage of “Rucellai”:
But I am satisfied, as I have long since declared, that such an attempt would never succeed in France, and it would be rather a mark of weakness than good sense, to endeavor to shake off a yoke which so many authors have borne, whose works will last as long as the nation itself. Our poetry has none of those liberties which yours has; and this is perhaps one of the reasons why the Italians got the start of us, by three or four centuries, in this most difficult and most delightful art.
As I have endeavored to imitate you in tragedy, I should be glad to follow your example in other branches of literature, for which you are so eminently distinguished: I could wish to form my taste by yours in the science of history; I do not mean the empty, barren knowledge of dates and facts, that only informs us at what period of time a man died, who perhaps was a useless or a pernicious member of society; the science of lexicography, that loads the memory without improving the mind; I mean that history of the human heart which teaches us men and manners, which leads us from error to error, and from prejudice to prejudice, into the effects of the various passions and affections that agitate mankind: which shows us all the evils that ignorance, or knowledge misapplied, has produced in the world; and which, above all, gives us a clue to the progress of the arts, and follows them through the dangers of so many contending powers, and the ruin of so many empires.
It is this which makes history delightful; and it becomes still more so to me, by the place which you will possess amongst those who have pleased and instructed mankind. It will raise the emulation of posterity, to hear that your country has bestowed on you the most signal honors, that Verona has raised a statue, with this inscription, “To the Marquis Scipio Maffei in his lifetime”—an inscription as beautiful in its kind as that at Montpellier to Louis XIV. after his death.
Deign, sir, to accept, with the respects of your fellow-citizens, those of a stranger, who esteems and honors you as much as if he had been born at Verona.