Front Page Titles (by Subject) A Letter from M. de la Lindelle to M. de 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).
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A Letter from M. de la Lindelle to M. de Voltaire. - 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 from M. de la Lindelle to M. de Voltaire.
You had the politeness to dedicate your tragedy of “Mérope” to M. Maffei, and have served the cause of literature both in Italy and France, by pointing out, from the perfect knowledge which you have of the theatre, the different rules and conduct of the Italian and French stages. The partial attachment which you have to everything that comes from Italy, added to your particular regard for M. Maffei, would not permit you to censure the real faults of that excellent writer; but as I have myself nothing in view but truth, and the advancement of the arts, I shall not be afraid to speak the sentiments of the judicious public, and which I am satisfied must be yours also.
The Abbé Desfontaines had already remarked some palpable errors in the “Mérope” of M. Maffei; but, according to his usual manner, with more rudeness than justice, he has mingled a few good criticisms with many bad ones. This satirist, so universally decried, had neither knowledge enough of the Italian tongue, nor taste enough to form an equitable judgment.
This, then, is the opinion of the most judicious amongst those literati whom I have consulted, both in France and on the other side of the Alps. “Mérope” appears to every one of them, past dispute, the most interesting and truly tragic subject that was ever brought on the stage, infinitely beyond that of “Athalie”; because Athalie does not want to assassinate the young king, but is deceived by the High-Priest, who seeks revenge on her for her former crimes: whereas in Mérope we see a mother, who, in avenging her son, is on the point of murdering that very son himself, her only desire, and her only hope: the interest of “Mérope” therefore affects us in a very different manner from that of “Athalie”: but it seems as if M. Maffei was satisfied with what the subject naturally suggested to him, without making use of any theatrical art in the conduct of it.
1. The scenes in many places are not linked together, and the stage is left void; a fault which, in the present age, is looked upon as unpardonable, even in the lowest class of dramatic writers.
2. The actors frequently come in and go out without reason; a fault no less considerable.
3. There is no probability, no dignity, no decorum, no art in the dialogue: in the very first scene we see a tyrant reasoning in the calmest manner with Mérope, whose husband and children he had murdered, and making love to her: this would have been hissed at Paris, even by the poorest judges.
4. While the tyrant is thus ridiculously making love to the old queen, word is brought that they have found a young man who had committed murder; but it does not appear through the whole course of the play who it was he had killed: he pretends it was a thief, who wanted to steal his clothes. How low, little and poor is this! It would not be borne in a farce at a country fair.
5. The captain of the guard, provost, or whatever you call him, examines the murderer, who has a fine ring upon his finger: this scene is quite low comedy, and the style is agreeable to it, and worthy of the scene.
6. The mother immediately supposes that the robber, who was killed, is her son. It is pardonable, no doubt, in a mother to fear everything; but a queen who is a mother should have required better proofs.
7. In the midst of all these fears, the tyrant Poliphontes reasons with Mérope’s waiting-woman about his pretended passion. These cold and indecent scenes, which are only brought in to fill up the act, would never be suffered on a regular stage. You have only, sir, modestly taken notice of one of these scenes, where Mérope’s woman desires the tyrant not to hasten the nuptials; because, she says, her mistress has “an attack of a fever”: but I, sir, will boldly aver, in the name of all the critics, that such a conversation, and such an answer, are only fit for Harlequin’s theatre.
8. I will add, moreover, that when the queen, imagining her son to be dead, tells us she longs to pull the heart out of the murderer’s breast, and tear it with her teeth, she talks more like a cannibal than an afflicted mother; and that decency should be preserved in everything.
9.Ægisthus, who was brought in as a robber, and who had said that he had himself been attacked, is taken for a thief a second time, and carried before the queen, in spite of the king, who notwithstanding undertakes to defend him. The queen binds him to a pillar, is going to kill him with a dart; but before she throws it, asks him some questions. Ægisthus tells her, that his father is an old man, upon which the queen immediately relents. Is not this an excellent reason for changing her mind, and imagining that Ægisthus might be her own son? a most indisputable mark to be sure: is it so very extraordinary that a young man should have an old father? Maffei has added this absurdity, this deficiency of art and genius, to another even more ridiculous, which he had made in his first edition. Ægisthus says to the queen, “O Polydore, my father.” This Polydore was the very man to whom Mérope had entrusted the care of Ægisthus. At hearing the name of Polydore, the queen could no longer doubt that Ægisthus was her son: thus the piece was entirely at an end. This error was removed; but removed, we see, only to make room for a greater.
10. While the queen is thus ridiculously, and without any reason, in suspense, occasioned by the mention of an old man, the tyrant comes in, and takes Ægisthus under his protection. The young man, who should have been represented as a hero, thanks the king for his life, with a base and mean submission that is disgusting, and entirely degrades the character of Ægisthus.
11. At length Mérope and the tyrant are left together: Mérope exhausts her resentment in reproaches without end. Nothing can be more cold and lifeless than these scenes, full of declamation, that have no plot, interest, or contrasted passion in them; they are schoolboy scenes: everything in a play, that is without action, is useless.
12. There is so little art in this piece that the author is always forced to employ confidants to fill up the stage. The fourth act begins with another cold and useless scene between the tyrant and the queen’s waiting-woman, who, a little afterwards, lights, we know not how, on young Ægisthus, and persuades him to rest himself in the porch, merely to give the queen a fair opportunity of despatching him when he falls asleep; which he does according to promise. An excellent plot this! and then the queen comes a second time, with an axe in her hand, in order to kill the young man, who is gone to sleep for that purpose. This circumstance, twice repeated, is surely the height of barrenness, as the young man’s sleep is the height of ridicule. M. Maffei thinks there is genius and variety in this repetition, because the queen comes in the first time with a dart, and the second with an axe. What a strange effect of fancy!
13. At last old Polydore comes in apropos, and prevents the queen from striking the blow. One would naturally imagine that this happy instant must produce a thousand affecting incidents between the mother and son; but we meet with nothing of this kind: Ægisthus flies off, and sees no more of his mother: he has not so much as one scene with her. This betrays a want of genius that is insupportable. Mérope asks the old man what recompense he demands; and the old fool begs her to make him young again. In this manner the queen employs her time, which doubtless she should have spent in running after her son: all this is low, ill-placed, and ridiculous to the last degree.
14. In the course of this piece the tyrant is always for espousing Mérope; and, to compass his end, he bids her agents tell her, that he will murder all her servants, if she does not consent to give him her hand. What a ridiculous idea, and how extravagant a tyrant! Could not M. Maffei have found out a more specious pretext to save the honor of a queen, who had meanness enough to marry the murderer of her whole family?
15. Another childish college trick: the tyrant says to his confidant, “I know the art of reigning; I’ll put the bold and rebellious to death; give the reins to all kinds of vice; invite my subjects to commit the most atrocious crimes, and pardon the most guilty; expose the good to the fury of the wicked.” Did ever man pronounce such vile stuff? This declamation of a regent of sixteen, does it not give us a fine idea of a man who knows how to govern? Racine was condemned for having made Mathan—in his “Athalie”—say too much against himself; and yet Mathan talks reasonably: but here it is to the last degree absurd to pretend, that throwing everything into confusion is the art of ruling well; it is rather the art of dethroning himself. One cannot read anything so ridiculous without laughing at it. M. Maffei is a strange politician.
In a word, sir, this work of Maffei is a fine subject, but a very bad performance. Everybody at Paris agrees that it would not go through one representation; and the sensible men in Italy have a very poor opinion of it. It is in vain the author has taken so much pains in his travels, to engage the worst writers he could pick up to translate his tragedy: it was much easier for him to pay a translator, than to make his piece a good one.