Front Page Titles (by Subject) A Second Letter to Mr. Falkener, Then Ambassador to Constantinople. - 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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A Second Letter to Mr. Falkener, Then Ambassador to Constantinople. - 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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A Second Letter to Mr. Falkener, Then Ambassador to Constantinople.
From the Second Edition of the Tragedy of Zaire
My dear friend,
For your new dignity of ambassador only makes our friendship more respectable, and shall not prevent my making use of a title even more sacred than that of minister; the name of “Friend” is much above that of, “your Excellency.” I now dedicate to the ambassador of a great king and a free nation what I had before addressed to a plain citizen, and an English merchant: those who know how much commerce is respected in your country must know that a tradesman is there sometimes a legislator, a good officer, and a public minister.
Some ridiculous people who had fallen in with the fashion of paying respect to nothing but nobility, thought proper to laugh at the novelty of a dedication to a man who had nothing but merit to recommend him: who took the liberty, on a stage sacred to calumny and bad taste, to insult the author of that dedication, and to reproach the gentleman to whom it was addressed for being a merchant:1 but we must not, sir, impute to our whole nation an affront so gross and illiberal, that people, ever so uncivilized, would have been ashamed to commit. The magistrates of our police, who are constantly employed in rectifying abuses of this kind, were, to the last degree, surprised at it: but the contempt and ignominy with which the public have branded the acknowledged author of this indignity, are, I hope, a fresh proof of French politeness: those virtues, which form the character of a whole people, are often contradicted, and, as it were, called in question by the vices of an individual: there were some voluptuaries, we know, even at Lacedæmon: there have been low and foolish fellows in England; men without taste. or good breeding, at Athens; and so there are in Paris.
You will, I hope, forget them, sir, as they are forgotten by the world, and receive this second mark of my respect: they are due to you still more than they were before, as this tragedy has made its appearance at London. It has been translated, and acted with so much success, and the author of it spoken of with so much regard and politeness, that I ought to return my public thanks to the whole nation.
I do not know how to acquit my obligations to you by any other means than acquainting my countrymen here with the particulars of the translation, and representation of “Zaire” on the English stage.
Mr. Hill, a man of letters, and one who seems to understand the theatre better than any English author, did me the honor to translate this piece, with the design of introducing something new on your stage, both with regard to the manner of writing tragedies, and of repeating them. I shall speak, by and by, of the representation.
The art of declaiming was for a long time among you entirely unnatural; most of your tragic actors expressed themselves more like poets seized with rapturous enthusiasm than like men inspired by a real passion. Several of your comedians were even more intolerable; they roared out their verses with an impetuous fury that was no more like the natural tone than convulsions and distortions are to an easy and noble carriage. This air of riot and tumult seemed entirely foreign to your nation, which is naturally sober and grave, even to such a degree, as frequently to appear cold and unanimated in the eye of a stranger. Your preachers never indulge themselves in a declamatory tone, and you would laugh at a pleader at the bar, who should work himself up into a passion: the players were the only outrageous set of people in the kingdom. Our actors and actresses also, particularly the latter, were guilty of this for many years. M. Lecouvreur was the first who broke them of it: thus an Italian writer, a man of great sense and parts, speaks of her:
The same change which Lecouvreur affected on our stage, Mrs. Cibber brought about on yours, in the part of Zaire: how astonishing it is that in every art it should be so long before we arrive at the simple and the natural!
A novelty that must appear still more extraordinary to a Frenchman is, that a gentleman of your country, a man of rank and fortune, should condescend to play the part of Osman. It was an interesting circumstance to see the two principal characters represented, one by a person of condition, and the other by a young actress not above eighteen years of age, who had never repeated a line before in her life. This instance of a gentleman’s exercising his talents for declamation, is not singular among you; it is perhaps more surprising that we should wonder at it: we ought certainly to reflect, that everything in this world depends upon custom and opinion: the court of France have danced on the stage with the actors of the opera, and we thought there was nothing strange in it, but that the fashion of this kind of entertainment should be discontinued. Why should it be more extraordinary for people to write than to dance in public? is there any difference between these two arts, except that the one is as much above the other as the perfections of the mind are superior to those of the body; I have said it before, and I say so still, none of the polite arts are contemptible; and to be ashamed of talents of any kind is of all things the most shameful.
I come now to the translation of “Zaïre,” and the change which has been made among you with regard to the drama.
You had a strange custom, which even Mr. Addison, the chastest of your writers, adopted, so often does custom get the better of sense and reason; I mean, the ridiculous custom of finishing every act by verses in a different taste from the rest of the piece, which verse usually consisted of a simile. Phædra, as she leaves the stage, compares herself to a bitch; Cato to a rock, and Cleopatra to children that cry themselves asleep. The translator of “Zaïre” was the first who dared to maintain the rights of nature against a custom so directly opposite to her. He proscribed this custom, well knowing that passion should always speak its own language, and that the poet should disappear, to make room for the hero.
Upon this principle he has translated plainly, and without any unnecessary ornaments, all the simple verses of the piece, which must have been entirely spoiled by an endeavor to render them beautiful such as;
All the verses that are in this fine taste of simplicity, are rendered word for word into English: they might very easily have been adorned, but the translator judged in a different manner from several of my countrymen; he liked the verses, and retained therefore all the simplicity of them; the style indeed ought always to be agreeable to the subject; “Alzira,” “Brutus,” and “Zaïre,” for example, required three different kinds of versification: if Berenice complained of Titus, and Ariadne of Theseus, in the style of “Cinna,” neither Berenice nor Ariadne would please or affect us; we can never talk well of love, if we search after any other ornaments but truth and simplicity.
This is not the place to examine whether it be right or wrong to put so much love into our dramatic performances: I will even allow it to be a fault, but it is a fault which will always be universal; nor do I know what name to give that fault, which is the delight of all mankind: of one thing I am satisfied, that the French have succeeded better in it than all other nations, ancient and modern, put together: love appears on our stage with more decorum, more delicacy, and truth than we meet with on any other; and the reason is, because of all nations the French are best acquainted with society: the perpetual commerce and intercourse of the two sexes, carried on with so much vivacity and good breeding, has introduced among us a politeness unknown to all the world but ourselves.
Society principally depends on the fair sex: all those nations who are so unhappy as to confine their women are unsociable: the austerity of your manners, your political quarrels, and religious wars, that rendered you savage and barbarous, deprived you, even down to the age of Charles II. of the pleasures of society, even in the bosom of liberty: the poets, therefore, neither of your country, nor of any other, knew anything of the manner in which love ought to be treated.
Good comedy was utterly unknown amongst us till the days of Molière; as was the art of expressing our sentiments with delicacy till those of Racine, because society had not attained to any degree of perfection before that time: a poet cannot paint in his closet, manners which he has never seen; and would sooner write a hundred odes and epistles than one scene where nature must speak: your Dryden, who was in other respects a great genius, put into the mouth of his heroes in love either high-flown strains of rhetorical flourish, or something indecent, two things equally opposite to tenderness.
If Mr. Racine makes Titus say:
Your Dryden makes Antony say:
It is very difficult to conceive that Antony should ever really talk thus to Cleopatra. In the same play, Cleopatra speaks thus to Antony:
It is not improbable that Cleopatra might frequently talk thus, but indecencies of this kind are not to be represented before a respectable audience: some of your countrymen may perhaps say this is pure nature; but we may tell them in answer, that if it be so, it is that nature which ought carefully to be concealed: it shows but little knowledge of human nature, to imagine that we can please the more by presenting these licentious images; on the contrary, it is shutting up the avenues to true pleasure: where everything is at once discovered, we are disgusted; there remains no more to look for or desire; and in our pursuit of pleasure we meet with languor and satiety: this is the reason why those who are truly qualified for society, taste pleasures far more exquisite than grosser appetites can have any idea of: the spectators, in this case, are like lovers who are satiated by too quick possession; those ideas which, when brought too close, would make us blush, should be seen, as it were, through a cloud. It is this veil to which, to a right mind, they are indebted for all their charms: there is no pleasure without decorum.1 The French are certainly better acquainted with this than any other nation upon earth; not because they are without genius and spirit, as the unequal and impetuous Dryden has ridiculously asserted; but because, ever since the regency of Anne of Austria, they have been the most sociable and the most polished people in the universe: and this politeness is not an arbitrary thing, like what they call civility, but a law of nature, which they have happily cultivated far beyond any other nation.
The translation of Zaire has, almost throughout his whole piece, strictly observed those decencies of the stage which are common to us both; but there are, at the same time, some places where he has entirely adhered to ancient customs.
For instance, when in the English piece Osman comes to tell Zaire that he can no longer love her, she answers him by rolling upon the ground: the Sultan is not moved at seeing her in this ridiculous posture of despair, and yet the moment after is astonished at Zaire’s weeping, and cries out, “Zaire, thou weepest.” He should have said to her before; “Zaire, thou rollest upon the ground.”
Insomuch that those three words, “Zaire, thou weepest,” which have so fine an effect on our stage, have none on yours, because they were displaced: those familiar and simple expressions derive all their power from the manner in which they are introduced. “My lord, you change countenance,” is nothing of itself: but when these words are pronounced by Mithridates, we shudder at them.
To say nothing but what we ought to say, and that in the manner in which it ought to be said, is a point of perfection which the French have come nigher to than the writers, myself excepted, of other countries: on this subject we have, I think, a right to dictate to them: you can teach us perhaps greater and more useful things, we ought to acknowledge it. The French, who have written against Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries, with regard to light and colors, are ashamed of it; those who oppose his system of gravitation will soon be still more so.
You ought to submit to our rules of the stage, as we submit to your philosophy: we have made as good experiments on the human heart, as you have in physics: the art of pleasing seems to be the art of Frenchmen; the art of thinking is all your own. Happy are those, sir, who like you, can unite them.
I am, sir, &c.,
[1 ] Mr. Falkner, and some other gentlemen of character, were affronted at the Theatre Italienne at Paris, by some injurious reflections thrown out upon them in a contemptible farce exhibited there, which was hissed by the audience.
[1 ] There is no expression in the English language which fully comprehends the meaning of the French word bienséance, which, notwithstanding, unfortunately for a translator, being a favorite phrase, recurs in almost every page: as does also the word naivete, for which we have no terms in all respects corresponding to it.