Front Page Titles (by Subject) An Epistle Dedicatory to Mr. Falkener, an English Merchant, Since Ambassador at Constantinople, with the Tragedy of Zaïre. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems).
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An Epistle Dedicatory to Mr. Falkener, an English Merchant, Since Ambassador at Constantinople, with the Tragedy of Zaïre. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems). 
From The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming. Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems).
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An Epistle Dedicatory to Mr. Falkener, an English Merchant, Since Ambassador at Constantinople, with the Tragedy of Zaïre.
You, my dear friend, are an Englishman, and I am a native of France; but lovers of the fine arts are fellow-citizens: men of taste and virtue have pretty nearly the same principles in every country, and form one general commonweal: it is no longer, therefore, matter of astonishment to see a French tragedy dedicated to an Englishman, or an Italian, any more than it would have been, in the days of antiquity, for a citizen of Ephesus, or of Athens, to address his performance to a Grecian of some other city; I lay this tragedy before you, therefore, as my countryman in literature, and my most intimate friend.
I shall, at the same time, have the pleasure of informing my brother Frenchmen here in what light traders are looked upon among you, what regard the English have for a profession so essential to the welfare of their kingdom, and the honor which they have to represent their country in parliament, in the rank of legislators; though trade is despised by our petits-maitres, who, you know as well as myself, both in England and France, are the most contemptible species of being that crawl upon the face of the earth.
My further inducement to correspond with an Englishman, rather than any other man, on subjects of literature, arises from your happy freedom of thought, which never fails to inspire me with bolder ideas, and also with more nervous expression.1 ‘Whoever converses with me has, for the time at least, my heart at his disposal; if his sentiments are lively and animated, he inflames me: if he is strong and nervous, he raises and supports me: the courtier, who is all dissimulation, makes me insensibly as affected and constrained in my behavior as himself; but a bold and fearless spirit gives me sentiment and courage: I catch fire from him, just as young painters, brought up under Lemoine or Argilière, catch the freedom of their masters’ pencils, and compose with their spirit: thus Virgil admired Homer, followed his steps, and, without being a plagiarist, became his rival.’
You need not be apprehensive of my sending you, with this piece, a long apology and vindication of it: I might indeed have told you why I did not make Zaïre more determined to embrace Christianity before she knew her father; why she keeps the secret from her lover; but those who have any judgment, or any justice, will see my reasons without my pointing them out; and as for those critics that are predetermined not to believe me, it would be lost labor to give them any reasons at all.
All I can boast of is that the piece is tolerably simple; a perfection, in my opinion, that is not to be despised.
‘This happy simplicity was one of the distinguishing beauties of learned antiquity: it is a pity you Englishmen don’t introduce this novelty on your stage, which is so filled with horror, gibbets, and murders: put more truth into your dramatic performances, and more noble images: Addison has endeavored to do it: he was the poet of the wife, but he was too stiff: and, in his boasted “Cato,” the two girls are really very insipid characters: imitate from the great Addison only what is good; polish a little the rude manners of your mild muse; write for all times, and all ages, for fame, and for posterity, and transfuse into your works the simplicity of your manners.’
But I would not have your English poets imagine that I mean to give them “Zaire” as a model: I preach simplicity to them, and easy numbers, but I would not be thought to set up for the saint of my own sermon: if “Zaire” has met with success, I owe it not so much to the merit of the performance, as to the tenderness of the love scenes, which I was wise enough to execute as well as I possibly could: in this I flattered the taste of my audience; and he is generally sure to succeed, who talks more to the passions of men than to their reason: if we are ever so good Christians, we must have a little love besides: and I am satisfied the great Corneille was much in the right of it, not to confine himself, in his “Polyeucte,” merely to the breaking of the statues of Jupiter by the new converts: for such is the depravity of human kind, that perhaps ‘the pious soul of Polyeucte would have but little impression on the audience, and even the Christian verses he declaims would have been received with contempt, if it had not been for his wife’s passion for her favorite heathen, who was certainly more worthy of her love than the good devotee her husband.’
Almost the same accident happened to Zaire; my friends, who frequent the theatre, assured me, that if she had been only converted, she would not have been half so interesting: but she was in love with the most perfect religion in the world, and that has made her fortune. I could not, however, expect to escape censure.
‘Many an inexorable critic has carped at and slashed me, and many a remorseless jester has pretended that I only filched an improbable Romance, which I had not the sense to improve; that I have lamed and spoiled the subject; that the catastrophe is unnatural: they even prognosticated the dreadful hiss with which a disgusted public salutes a miserable poet: but I despised their censures, and risked my play upon the stage; the public was more favorable than they expected, or I deserved: instead of hisses, it received shouts: tears flowed from almost every eye: but I am not puffed up with my success, I assure you I am no stranger to all its faults. I know very well it is absolutely indisputable, that before we can make a perfect work, we must sell ourselves to the devil, which was what I did not choose to do.’
I do not flatter myself that the English will do “Zaire” the same honor they have done to “Brutus,” a translation of which has been played at London:1 they tell us here, that you have neither devotion enough to be affected by old Lusignan, nor tenderness to feel for Zaire; you love a conspiracy better than an intrigue; upon your stage, they say the word “country” is sure of getting a clap, and so is “love” upon ours; but to say the truth, you have as much love in your tragedies as we have: if you have not the reputation of being tender, it is not that your stage heroes are not in love, but that they seldom express their passion naturally: our lovers talk like lovers; yours like poets.
But if the French are your superiors in gallantry, there are many things, which, in return, we may borrow of you: to the English theatre I am indebted for the liberty which I have taken of bringing the names of our kings and ancient families upon the stage: a novelty of this kind may perhaps be the means of introducing amongst us a species of tragedy hitherto unknown, and which we seem to want. Some happy geniuses will, I have no doubt, rise up, who will bring to perfection that idea, of which “Zaire” is but a slight sketch: as long as literature meets with protection in France, we shall always have writers enough; nature every day forms men of talents and abilities; we have nothing to do but to encourage and employ them: but if those which distinguish themselves are not supported by some honorable recompense, and by the still more pleasing charm of admiration, all the fine arts must soon perish, even though so many edifices have been raised to shelter and protect them: the noble plantation of Louis XIV. would die away for want of culture: the public might still have taste, but there would be no eminent masters: the sculptor in his academy would see a number of indifferent pupils about him, but never have the ambition to imitate Girardon and Pujet: the painter would rest satisfied with excelling his contemporaries, but would never think of rivalling Poussin: may the successor of Louis XIV. always follow the example of that great monarch, who inspired every artist with emulation, encouraged at the same time a Racine and a Van-Robais: he carried our commerce and our glory to the farthest part of the globe, and extended his bounty to foreigners of all nations, who were astonished at the fame and rewards which our court bestowed upon them: wherever merit appeared, it found a patron in Louis XIV.
You have no foundations equal to the munificent donations of our kings; but then your people supplies the want of them: you do not stand in need of royal favor to honor and reward superior talents of every kind. Steel and Vanbrugh were comedy writers, and at the same time members of parliament: the primacy given to Dr. Tillotson, Newton honored with an important trust, Prior made an ambassador, and Addison a minister of state, are but the common and ordinary consequences of the regard which you pay to merit, and to great men: you heap riches on them while they live, and erect monuments and statues to them after their death: even your celebrated actresses have places in your churches, near the great poets.
‘Your Oldfield, and her predecessor, Bracegirdle, in consideration of their having been so agreeable to the public when in their prime, their course finished, were, by the consent of your whole nation, honored with a pompous funeral, and their remains carried under a velvet pall, and lodged in your church with the greatest magnificence: their spirits, no doubt, are still proud of it, and boast of the honor in the shades below; while the divine Molière, who was far more worthy of it, could scarcely obtain leave to sleep in a churchyard; and the amiable Lecouvreur, whose eyes I closed, could not even so much as obtain two wax-tapers and a coffin; M. de Laubiniere, out of charity, carried away her corpse by night in a hackney-coach to the banks of the river; do you not even now see the god of love breaking his arrows in a rage, and Melopomene in tears, banishing herself from that ungrateful place which Lecouvreur had so long adorned?
But everything, in these our days, conspires to reduce France to that state of barbarism from which Louis XIV. and Cardinal Richelieu had delivered her: that a curse on that policy knows not the value of the fine arts! the world is peopled with nations as powerful as our own; how happens it then that we look on them with so little esteem? For the same reason perhaps that we despise the company of a rich man, whose mind is tasteless and uncultivated. Do not imagine that this empire of wit, this glory of being the universal model for mankind, is a trifling distinction, it is the infallible mark of the grandeur of a kingdom: under the greatest princes the arts have always flourished, and their decay is often succeeded by that of the state itself: history will supply us with ample proofs of it; but this would lead me too far out of my subject: I shall finish this letter, which is already too long, with a little performance, which naturally demands a place at the head of this tragedy: an epistle, in verse, to the actress who played the part of Zaire; I owe her at least this compliment for the manner in which she acquitted herself on that occasion.
‘For the prophet of Mecca never had Greek nor Arabian in his seraglio so beautiful or so genteel: her black eyes, so finely arched and full of tenderness, with her excellent voice, mien and carriage, defended my performance against every auditor that had a mind to be troublesome: but when the reader catches me in his closet, all my honor, I fear, will be lost.’
Adieu, my dear friend, continue to cultivate philosophy and the Belles-lettres, without forgetting to send your ships to the Levant.
I have the honor to remain, &c.
[1 ] The passages marked thus ‘ ’ are, in the original, written in a familiar kind of verse, consisting of eight syllables, which M. Voltaire is, in most of his letters, fond of intermingling with his prose: the reader will easily perceive that, however agreeable those rhymes might be to a French ear, both the subject and style, in the greater part of them, are of such a nature, as not to admit of poetical translation into English.
[1 ] Voltaire was mistaken in this particular, as no translation of his Brutus was ever exhibited on the English stage.