Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO ORESTES. - 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 ORESTES. - 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 ORESTES.
A Letter to Her most Serene Highness the Duchess of Maine.
You have seen that noble age, which is at once the model and the reproach of the present, and will be so of future generations, and have yourself made a part of its glory, by your taste and by your example; those illustrious times, when your ancestors, the Condés, crowned with laurels, cultivated the polite arts; when a Bossuet immortalized heroes, and instructed kings; when a Fénelon, the second of mankind in eloquence, and the first in the art of making virtue amiable, taught justice and humanity in the most charming manner; when Racine and Boileau presided over the belles-lettres, Lulli over music, and Lebrun over painting; all these arts, Madam, met together in your palace: there I first had the happiness, a circumstance which I shall never forget, of hearing, though I was then but a child, that excellent scholar, whose profound learning never obscured the brightness of his genius, cultivating the fine understanding of the Duke of Bourgogne, the Duke of Maine, and yourself: that happy labor, in which he was so powerfully assisted by nature. Sometimes he would take up a “Sophocles” or “Euripides” before you, and translate off-hand one of their tragedies. The admiration and enthusiasm that possessed his soul, on reading those noble performances, inspired him with expressions that answered the manly and harmonious energy of the Greek, as nearly as it was possible to reach it in the prose of a language just emerging from barbarism, and which, polished as it now is by so many fine authors, is still very deficient in point of force, copiousness, and precision. It is impossible to convey through any modern language, all the power of Greek expressions; they describe, with one stroke, what costs us a whole sentence. A single word was sufficient for them to express a mountain covered with trees, bending beneath the weight of their leaves; or a god throwing his darts to a vast distance; or, the tops of rocks struck with repeated thunderbolts. That language had not only the advantage of filling the imagination with a word, but every word, we know, had its peculiar melody, which charmed the ear while it displayed the finest pictures to the mind; and for this reason all our translations from the Greek poets are weak, dry, and poor; it is imitating palaces of porphyry with bricks and pebbles. M. de Malezieu notwithstanding, by the efforts of a sudden enthusiasm, and a vehement forcible manner of reciting, seemed to make up for the poverty of our language, and infuse into his declamation the very soul and spirit of the great Athenians. Permit me, Madam, to give you his thoughts with regard to this inventive, ingenious, and sensible people, a people from whom the Romans, their conquerors, learned everything, and who, a long time after the fall of both their empires, had yet the power to raise modern Europe from ignorance and barbarism.
He knew more of Athens than many of our travellers in these days do of Rome, after they have seen it over and over. That vast number of statues, by the greatest masters; those pillars which adorned the public market-places; those monuments of taste and grandeur; that superb and immense theatre, built in the finest situation, between the town and the citadel, where the works of Sophocles and Euripides were heard by Pericles and Socrates; and the youth of Athens attended, not standing up, or in perpetual riot and confusion, as they do with us; in a word, everything which the Athenians had done in every art and every branch of knowledge was ever present to the mind of M. de Malezieu. He was far from falling in with the opinions of those ridiculously rigid critics and false politicians who blame the Athenians for having been too sumptuous in their public entertainments, and do not know that this very magnificence greatly enriched Athens, by attracting crowds of foreigners, who came from all parts to admire and to receive lessons from them on eloquence and virtue.
This extensive and almost universal genius was engaged by you, Madam, to translate the “Iphigenia in Tauris” of Euripides; a task which he executed with equal elegance, strength, and fidelity. It was represented at an entertainment which he had the honor to present your Highness, an entertainment worthy of him who gave, and of her who received it. You, I remember, Madam, played the part of Iphigenia, for I was present at the representation; and as at that time I had no acquaintance with the French stage, it never entered into my head that gallantry could ever have been mingled with so tragical a subject. I gave myself up to the manners and customs of Greece, perhaps the more easily, because I was then acquainted with no other. I admired the antique in all its noble simplicity: it was this which first suggested to me the idea of writing my tragedy of “Œdipe,” without ever having read Corneille’s. I began, as an essay of my abilities, by translating that famous scene from Sophocles, of the double confidence of Jocaste and Œdipus. I read it to some of my friends, who frequented the theatre, and to two or three actors; they assured me it would never succeed on the French stage, and advised me to read Corneille, who had carefully avoided that part of the plot, and all agreed, that if I did not follow his example, by putting in a love intrigue, the players would never undertake it. I then read the “Œdipe” of Corneille, which, though it was not ranked with “Cinna” and “Polyeucte,” had, notwithstanding, met with some applause. I must confess, their opinions ran directly counter to mine, from the beginning of this affair to the end; but I was forced to submit to example, and the evil power of fashion. In the midst of all the terror of this masterpiece of antiquity, I brought in, not absolutely a love intrigue, but the remembrance of an extinguished passion,1 which appeared to the last degree absurd; but I will not repeat here what I have already said on this subject.
Your highness may remember that I had the honor of reading my “Œdipe” to you; the scene from Sophocles was not condemned at that tribunal; for you, the Cardinal de Polignac, M. de Malezieu, and your whole court, unanimously condemned me, and with great reason, for having so much as mentioned the word love in a work which Sophocles finished so completely, and so successfully, without that unhappy foreign ornament; and yet the very fault which you blamed me for was the only thing that recommended my performance to the stage. The players were, with the greatest difficulty, prevailed on to perform my “Œdipe,” which they imagined could never succeed; the public, however, were entirely of your opinion; every part of it that was written in the taste of Sophocles was generally applauded, and the love scenes condemned by the most judicious critics; to say the truth, Madam, while parricide and incest are destroying a family, and a plague laying the whole country waste, is it a season for love and gallantry? There cannot, perhaps, be two more striking proofs of theatrical absurdity, and the power of habit, than Corneille, on one side, making Theseus cry out,
And on the other, myself, sixty years after him, making old Jocaste talk of her old love; and all this only in compliance with a taste the most false and ridiculous that ever corrupted literature.
That a Phædra, whose character is, perhaps, the most truly theatrical that ever was exhibited, and almost the only person whom antiquity has represented in love, should express all the power and fury of that fatal passion; that a Roxana, confined within the walls of an idle seraglio, should abandon herself to love and jealousy: that Ariadne should complain to heaven and earth of cruelty and inconstancy: that Orosmanes should destroy a mistress whom he adored: all this is truly tragic; love, either raging, or criminal, or unhappy, or attended with remorse, draws such tears from us as we need not blush to shed; but there is no medium; love should either command as a tyrant, or not appear at all; he can never act an under part; but that Nero should hide himself behind the tapestry to overhear the conversation of his mistress and his rival; that old Mithridates should make use of a comedy trick to discover the secret of a young woman beloved by his two sons; that Maximus, even in “Cinna,” a piece of so much real merit, should act the part of a villain, and discover so important a conspiracy, only because he was weak enough to be in love with a woman whose passion for Cinna he must have known, and allege by way of reason, that “Love excuses all,”—for the true lover knows no friends; that old Sertorius should fall in love with a strange Spanish lady, called Viriate, and be assassinated by his rival Perpenna; all this, we will be bold enough to assert, is little, mean, and puerile; such ridiculous stuff would degrade us infinitely below the Athenians, if our great masters had not made amends for these faults, which are merely national, by those sublime beauties which are entirely the product of their own genius.
It is indeed astonishing to me, that the great tragic poets of Athens should dwell so much on those subjects where nature displays everything that is great and affecting; an Electra, an Iphigenia, a Mérope, and Alcmæon; and that our illustrious moderns, neglecting all these, should treat of scarcely anything but love, which is generally much more proper for comedy than tragedy: sometimes indeed they have endeavored to enrich and adorn it by politics; but that love which is not violent is always cold, and all political intrigues that do not rise to the height and fury of ambition are still more cold and insipid; political reasonings and debates are very agreeable in Polybius or Machiavelli; gallantry is very fit for tales, or comedies; but nothing like this is suitable to the grandeur and pathos of true tragedy.
A taste for gallantry in our tragedies was carried to such a ridiculous excess that a great princess, whose high rank and fine understanding might in some measure excuse her believing that all the world would be of her opinion, imagined, that the parting of Titus and Berenice was an excellent subject for a tragedy: she therefore put it into the hands of two of our best writers;1 neither of them had ever produced a performance wherein love had not played the principal or at least the second part; but one of them had never touched the heart, except in those scenes of “The Cid” which he had taken from the Spanish; the other, always tender and elegant, endowed with every species of eloquence, and above all, master of that enchanting art which draws forth the most delicate sentiments from the least and most unpromising incidents: one therefore made of Titus and Berenice as contemptible a piece as ever appeared on the stage; the other found out the secret of interesting the spectator for five acts without any other foundation but these words, “I love you, and I leave you.” It was indeed nothing more than a pastoral between an emperor, a king, and a queen; and a pastoral withal infinitely less tragical than the interesting scenes of “Pastor Fido.” The success of this, however, persuaded the public and the poets, that love, and love alone, was the soul of tragedy.
It was not till long after, when he was further advanced in life, that this great poet found out that he was capable of something superior to this: when he was sorry he had enervated the drama by so many declarations of love, and sentiments of jealousy, and coquetry, much worthier, as I have already ventured to assert, of Menander, than of Sophocles and Euripides. Then he wrote his masterpiece, “Athalie”; but though he was undeceived himself, the public was not; they could not bring themselves to conceive that a woman, a child, and a priest, could make an interesting tragedy; a work that approached nearer to perfection than any which ever came from the hand of man, remained for a long time in contempt, and its illustrious author had to his last hour the mortification of seeing the age he lived in, though greatly improved, still so corrupted with bad taste as never to do justice to his noblest performance.
It is certain, if this great man had lived, and cultivated those talents which alone made his fortune and his fame, and which therefore he should not have deserted, he would have restored to the theatre its ancient purity, and no more have degraded the great subjects of antiquity with love intrigue. He had begun an “Iphigenia,” and there was not a word of gallantry in his whole plan: he would never have made Agamemnon, Orestes, Electra, Telephus, or Ajax, in love: but having unhappily quitted the stage before he had reformed it, all those who followed him imitated, and even added to his faults, without copying any of his beauties. The morality of Quinault’s operas was brought into almost every tragic scene: sometimes it is an Alcibiades who assures us that “in those tender moments he has always proved by experience that a mortal may taste of perfect happiness”; sometimes it is an Amestris who tells us that the daughter of a great king burns with a secret flame without shame, and without fear; in another, Agnonis follows the steps of the fair Crisis in every place, the constant adorer of her divine charms; the fierce Arminius, the defender of Germany, protests to us, that he comes to read his fate in the eyes of Ismenia, and goes to the camp of Varus, to see if the fair eyes of his Ismenia will show him their wonted tenderness. In “Amasis,” which is only “Mérope,” crowded with a heap of romantic episodes, the heroine, who, three days before, at a country house, had just got sight of a young stranger, and fallen in love with him, cries out, with a great deal of regard to decency and decorum: “This is the same stranger; alas, he hath not concealed himself so much as he ought, for my repose; for the few moments when he chanced to strike my eyes I saw him and blushed, my soul was deeply moved at him.” In “Athenais,” a prince of Persia disguises himself, in order to make his mistress a visit at the court of a Roman emperor: we fancy, in short, that we are reading the romances of Mademoiselle Scudéri, who described the citizens of Paris under the names of the heroes of antiquity.
To confirm and establish this horrid taste among us, which renders us so ridiculous in the eyes of all sensible foreigners, it unfortunately happened that M. de Longepierre, a warm admirer of antiquity, but not sufficiently acquainted with our stage, and who besides was careless in his versification, gave us his “Electra.” We must confess it was written in the taste of the ancients, no cold ill-placed intrigue disfigured this subject full of terror; the piece was simple, and without any episode. This procured for it, and with great reason, the patronage of so many persons of the first consideration, who flattered themselves that this valuable simplicity, which constituted the principal merit of the great geniuses of Athens, would be well received at Paris, where it had been so long neglected. You, Madam, with the late Princess of Conti, were at the head of those sanguine friends; but, unhappily, the faults of the French piece were so numerous, in comparison with the beauties which he had borrowed from the Greek, that you yourself acknowledged, at the representation, that it was a statue of Praxiteles disfigured by a modern artist. You had resolution enough to give up a thing which was not in reality worthy of being supported, well knowing, that favor and protection, thrown away on bad performances, are as prejudicial to the advancement of wit and good sense as the unjust censure of real merit; but the downfall of “Electra” was a terrible stroke to the partisans of antiquity. The critics availed themselves of the faults of the copy, the better to decry the merit of the original; and to complete the corruption of our taste, we persuaded ourselves it was impossible to support, without love and romance, those subjects which the Greeks had never debased by such episodes; it was pretended that we might admire the Greek tragedians in the reading, but that it was impossible to imitate them without being condemned by our own age and nation: strange contradiction! for, surely, if the reading really pleased us, how could the representation displease?
We should not, I acknowledge, endeavor to imitate what is weak and defective in the ancients: it is most probable that their faults were very well known to their contemporaries. I am satisfied, Madam, that the wits of Athens condemned, as well as you, some of those repetitions, and some declamations with which Sophocles has loaded his “Electra;” they must have observed that he had not dived deep enough into the human heart. I will moreover fairly confess, that there are beauties peculiar not only to the Greek language, but to the climate, to manners and times, which it would be ridiculous to transplant hither. I have not copied exactly therefore the “Electra” of Sophocles, much more I knew would be necessary; but I have taken, as well as I could, all the spirit and substance of it. The feast celebrated by Ægisthus and Clytemnestra, which they called “The feast of Agamemnon;” the arrival of Orestes and Pylades; the urn which was supposed to contain the ashes of Orestes; the ring of Agamemnon; the character of Electra, and that of Iphisa, which is exactly the Chrysothemis of Sophocles; and above all, the remorse of Clytemnestra; these I have copied from the Greek tragedy. When the messenger, who relates the fictitious story of the death of Orestes, says to Clytemnestra, “I see, Madam, you are deeply affected at his death;” she replies: “I am a mother, and must therefore be unhappy; a mother, though injured, cannot hate her own offspring.” She even endeavors to justify herself to Electra, with regard to the murder of Agamemnon, and laments her daughter. Euripides has carried Clytemnestra’s repentance still further. This, Madam, was what gained the applause of the most judicious and sensible people upon earth, and was approved by all good judges in our own nation. No character, in reality, can be more natural than that of a woman, criminal with regard to her husband, yet softened by her children; a woman, whose proud and fiery disposition is still open to pity and compassion, who resumes the fierceness of her character on receiving too severe reproaches, and at last sinks into submission and tears. The seeds of this character were in Sophocles and Euripides, and I have only unfolded them. Nothing but ignorance, and its natural attendant, presumption, can assert that the ancients have nothing worthy of our imitation; there is scarcely one real and essential beauty and perfection, for the foundation of which, at least, we are not indebted to them.
I have taken particular care not to depart from that simplicity so strongly recommended by the Greeks, and so difficult to attain, the true mark of genius and invention; and the very essence of all theatrical merit. A foreign character, brought into “Œdipus” or “Electra,” who should play a principal part, and draw aside the attention of the audience, would be a monster in the eyes of all those who have any knowledge of the ancients, or of that nature which they have so finely painted. Art and genius consist in finding everything within the subject, and never going out of it in search of additional ornaments; but how are we to imitate that truly tragic pomp and magnificence which we find in the verses of Sophocles, that natural elegance and purity of diction, without which the piece, howsoever well conducted in other respects, must after all be but a poor performance!
I have at least given my countrymen some idea of a tragedy without love, without confidants, and without episodes: the few partisans of good taste acknowledge themselves obliged to me for it, though the rest of the world withhold their approbation for a time, but will come in at last, when the rage of party is over, the injustice of persecution at an end, and the clouds of ignorance dissipated. You, Madam, must preserve among us those glittering sparks of light which the ancients have transmitted to us; we owe everything to them; not an art was born among us; everything was transplanted; but the earth that bears these foreign fruits is worn out, and our ancient barbarism, by the help of false taste, would break out again in spite of all our culture and improvement; and the disciples of Athens and Rome become Goths and Vandals, corrupted with the manners of the Sybarites, without the kind favor and protection of persons of your rank. When nature has given them either genius, or the love of genius, they encourage this nation, which is better able to imitate than to invent; and which always looks up toward the great for those instructions and examples of which it perpetually stands in need. All that I wish for, Madam, is, that some genius may be found to finish what I have but just sketched out; to free the stage from that effeminacy and affectation into which it is now sunk; to render it respectable to the gravest characters; worthy of the few great masterpieces which we already have among us; worthy, in short, the approbation of a mind like yours, and all those who may hereafter endeavor to resemble you.
[1 ] Voltaire here alludes to the part of Philoctetes in his “Oedipe.”
[1 ] The literal translation of which is “whatever dreadful havoc the plague may make here, absence to those who truly love is much more dreadful.” There is a great deal of such nonsense in Dryden’s and some other of our tragedies, but it would not go down in the present age.
[1 ] The French expression is “deux maîtres de la scene,” i. e. “two masters of the scene.” Corneille and Racine, the latter of whom Voltaire takes every occasion of preferring to the former, though he frequently censures both with great freedom, and generally with equal justice.