Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO MARIAMNE. - 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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PREFACE TO MARIAMNE. - 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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PREFACE TO MARIAMNE.
I have printed this piece not without fear and trembling; the number of performances which have met with applause on the stage and contempt in the closet give me but too much reason to apprehend the same fate with regard to my own. Two or three agreeable incidents, together with the art and management of the actors, might conciliate an audience in the representation; but a very different degree of merit is necessary to make it shine in the full glare of publication. Little will avail the regular conduct of it, and even, perhaps, as little the interesting nature of the subject. Every work that is written in verse, though it may be unexceptionable in all other respects, must of necessity disgust if every line is not full of strength and harmony; if there is not an elegance running through the whole; if the piece has not, in short, that inexpressible charm, which nothing but true genius can bestow upon it; that point of perfection which knowledge alone can never attain to, and concerning which we have argued so poorly, and to so little purpose, since the death of M. Despréaux.
It is a great mistake to imagine that the versification of a dramatic performance is either the easiest or the least considerable part of it. Racine, who, of all men upon earth, after Virgil, best knew the art of verse, did not think it so: he employed two whole years in writing his “Phædra.” Pradon boasts of having composed his in less than three months. As the transient success of a tragedy depends, with regard to the representation, not on the style, but on the incidents and the actors, the two seemed at first to meet with an equal degree of applause; but the publication soon determined the real and intrinsic merit of each of them. Pradon, according to the usual practice of bad authors, came out with an insolent preface; accusing all those who had attacked his piece as unfair and partial critics; a trouble which he might as well have spared himself; for his tragedy, puffed as it was by himself and his party, soon sank into that contempt which it deserves; and if it were not for the “Phædra” of Racine, the world would not know at this day that Pradon had ever written one.
But whence then arises the vast difference between these two performances? the plot is nearly the same in both. Phædra dies, Theseus is absent in the two first acts: he is supposed to be in the shades below with Pirithous. Hippolytus, his son, wants to leave Trezene, and to fly from Aricia, with whom he is in love; he declares his passion to Aricia, and listens to Phædra’s with horror; he dies the same kind of death, and his governor relates the manner of it.
Add to this also, that the principal personages in both pieces, as they are in the same circumstances, say almost the same things; but this is the very place which distinguishes the great man from the bad poet; when Racine and Pradon have the same sentiments, they differ most from each other; for proof of this, let us take the declaration of Hippolytus to Aricia. Racine makes him talk thus:
Now observe how this Hippolytus expresses himself in Pradon.
It is impossible to read and compare these two pieces without admiring one and laughing at the other; and yet there is the same ground of thoughts and sentiments in both; when we are to make the passions speak, all men have pretty nearly the same ideas; but the manner of expressing them, distinguishes the man of wit from him who has none; the man of genius from him who has nothing but wit; and the real poet from him who would be a poet if he could.
To arrive at Racine’s perfection in writing, a man must possess his genius, and withal must polish and correct his works as he did: how diffident then should I be, born as I am with such indifferent talents, and oppressed by continual disorders, who have neither the gift of a fine imagination, nor time to correct laboriously the faults of my performances! I am sensible of and lament the imperfections of this piece, as well with regard to the conduct as the diction of it; I should have mended them a little, if I could have put off this edition for a little longer; but still I should have left a great many behind. In every art there is a certain point beyond which we can never advance: we are shut up within the limits of our talents; we see perfection lying beyond us, and only make impotent endeavors to attain to it.
I shall not make a formal and regular critique on this piece; the reader will probably save me that trouble; but it may be necessary to say something concerning a general objection to the choice of my subject. As it is the nature of Frenchmen to lay hold with rapidity on the ridicule of things in themselves the most serious, it has been said that the subject of “Mariamne” is nothing but an old amorous brutal husband; whose wife, being out of humor with him, refuses him the return of conjugal duty; to which it has been added, that a family quarrel could never make a good tragedy. I would only beg these critics to join with me in a few reflections on this strange kind of prejudice.
The plots of tragedies are genarally founded, either on the interests of a whole nation, or the private interests of the sovereign. Of the first kind are the “Iphigenia in Aulis”; where all Greece, met in full assembly, demands the blood of the son of Agamemnon; “The Horatii,” where the three combatants are to decide the fate of Rome; and “Œdipus,” where the safety and prosperity of Thebes depend on the discovery of the murderer of Laius. Of the latter kind are “Britannicus,” “Phædra,” “Mithridates,” etc. In these all the interest is confined to the hero of the piece and his family; all turns upon such passions as the vulgar feel equally with princes, the plot may be as proper for comedy as for tragedy: for, take away the names only, and Mithridates is no more than an old fellow in love with a young girl; his two sons are in love with her at the same time: and he makes use of a very low artifice to discover which of his sons the lady is fond of. Phædra is a step-mother, who, egged on by her confidante, makes love to her son-in-law, who is unfortunately pre-engaged. Nero is an impetuous young man, who falls precipitately in love, and immediately wants to be separated from his wife, and hides himself behind the tapestry to over-hear the conversation of his mistress. These are all subjects which Molière might treat as well as Racine: nay, the whole plot of “The Miser” is exactly the same as that of “Mithridates;” Harpagon and the king of Pontus are two old fellows in love: each of them has a son for his rival; both of them make use of the same artifice to discover the intrigue carried on between the son and the mistress; and both pieces end in the marriage of the young men.
Molière and Racine met with equal success; one made the world laugh, amused, and entertained them; the other moved, terrified, and made us weep. Molière exposed the folly of an old miser in love; Racine painted the weakness of a great man, and so contrived, as at the same time even to make that weakness respectable.
Were we to order Watteau and Lebrun, each of them, to paint us a wedding; one would give us the representation of a group of peasants in an arbor, full of vulgar joy and jollity, placed round a rustic table, where drunkenness, riot, debauchery, and immoderate laughter reigned without control; the other would paint the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the feast of the gods, with all their solemn and majestic celebration of it. Thus both of them would reach the highest degree of perfection in their art, by means entirely different.
We may fairly apply every one of these examples to “Mariamne”—the bad temper of a woman; the love of an old husband; the malicious tricks of a sister-in-law; are subjects in themselves inconsiderable, and seem rather adapted to comedy; but at the same time a king, whom all the world has honored with the name of “Great,” passionately enamored with the finest woman in the universe; the rage and fury of a monarch so famous for his virtues and his crimes, his past cruelty, and his present remorse; that perpetual and rapid transition from love to hatred, and from hatred to love; the ambition of his sister; the intrigues of his ministers; the distressful situation of a princess whose virtue and beauty have been so often celebrated and talked of to this day, who had seen her father and brother doomed to death by her husband; and to complete her misfortunes, saw herself beloved by the murderer of her family. What a field is here! What an opening for any genius but mine! Can we say this is a subject unfit for tragedy? Here we may indeed aver, that, according as things turn out, they change their names.