Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO THE PRODIGAL. - 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 THE PRODIGAL. - 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 THE PRODIGAL.
It is pretty extraordinary, that this comedy should never yet have made its appearance in print, as it is now almost two years since it was first played, and ran about thirty nights: as the author of it was not known, it has hitherto been attributed to several persons of the first character; but it was indisputably written by M. de Voltaire, though the style of the “Henriade” and “Alzire” are so extremely different from the style of this, that we cannot easily conceive them to be the product of the same pen.
In his name we have here presented it to the public, as the first comedy ever written in verses1 consisting of five feet; a novelty which may perhaps induce other authors to make use of this measure: it will at least be productive of variety on the French stage, and whoever gives us new pleasures, has always a right to a favorable reception.
If comedy should be an exact representation of manners, this piece has sufficient merit to recommend it: we see in “The Prodigal” a mixture of the serious and pleasant; the comic, and the affecting; thus the life of man itself is always checkered, and sometimes even a single incident will produce all these contrasts. Nothing more common than a family, wherein the father grumbles, the daughter, who is in love, whimpers, the son laughs at them both, and the relatives take different parts as it happens to suit their inclinations; we often make a joke of that in one room, which we cry at in the next: nay, the same person has often laughed and cried at the same thing within a quarter of an hour.
A certain lady of fashion, being one day at the bedside of her daughter, who lay dangerously ill, with all the family about her, burst into a flood of tears, and cried out: “O my God, my God, restore me my dear daughter, and take all my other children,” a gentleman, who had married one of her daughters, came up to her immediately, and taking her by the sleeve: “Pray, madam,” says he “do you include your sons-in-law?” The arch dryness with which he spoke those words had such an effect on the afflicted lady that she burst into a loud laugh, and went out; the company followed her, and laughed too; and the sick person, as soon as she heard the cause of their mirth, laughed more heartily than all the rest.
We don’t mean to infer from this, that every comedy should have some scenes of humor and drollery, and others serious and affecting; there are a great many good pieces where there is nothing but gayety, others entirely serious; others where they are mixed, and others where the tender and pathetic are carried so far as to produce tears. Neither of these different species should be excluded from the stage; and if I was to be asked, which is the best of them, I should say, that which was best executed.
It would perhaps be agreeable to the present taste for reasoning, and not unsuitable to this occasion, to examine here, what kind of pleasantry that is which makes us laugh in a comedy. The cause of laughter is one of those things easier felt than expressed; the admirable Molière, Regnard, who is sometimes almost as admirable as Molière, and the authors of several excellent shorter pieces, have contented themselves with raising this pleasing sensation without explaining to us the reasons of it, or telling their secret.
I have observed, with regard to the stage, that violent peals of universal laughter seldom rise but from some mistake: Mercury taken for Sofia; Menechmes for his brother; Crispin making his own will under the name of old master Géronte; Valère talking to Harpagon of the beauty of his daughter, whilst Harpagon imagines he is talking of the beauty of his strong box; Pourceaugnac, when they feel his pulse, and want to make him pass for a madam; in a word, mistakes of this kind are generally the only things that excite laughter: Harlequin seldom raises a smile, except when he makes some blunder, and this accounts for the propriety of the name of Balourd, usually given to him.
There are a great many other species of the comic, and pleasantries, that cause a different sort of entertainment; but I never saw what we call laughing from the bottom of one’s soul, either on the stage, or in company, except in cases nearly resembling those which I just now mentioned; there are several ridiculous characters which please, without causing that immoderate laughter of joy. Trissotin and Vadius, for example, are of this kind: “The Gamester”, and “The Grumbler” likewise, give us inexpressible pleasure, but never cause any bursts of laughter.
There are besides other characters of ridicule, that have in them a mixture of vice, which we love to see well painted, though they only give us a serious pleasure; a bad man will never make us laugh, because laughter always arises from a gayety of disposition, absolutely incompatible with contempt and indignation; it is true, indeed, we laugh at Tartuffe, but not at his hypocrisy; it is at the mistake of the good old gentleman, who takes him for a saint: the hypocrisy once discovered we laugh no longer, but feel very different impressions.
One might easily trace the spring of every other sentiment, and show the cause of gayety, curiosity, interest, emotion, and tears. It would be a proper employment for some of our dramatic authors to lay open these secret springs, as they are the persons who put them in motion: but they are too busy in moving the passions, to find time for an examination into them; they know that one sentiment is worth a hundred definitions, and I am too much of their opinion to prefix a treatise of philosophy to a dramatic performance. I shall content myself with only insisting a little on the necessity we are under of having something new. If we had never brought anything into the tragic scene but the Roman grandeur, it would have grown at least very disgustful; and if our heroes had breathed nothing but love and tenderness, we should by this time have been heartily sick of them:
The works which we have seen since the times of Corneille, Molière, Racine, Quinault, Lulli, and Lebrun, all seem to me to have something new and original, which has saved them from contempt and oblivion: once more therefore I repeat it, every species is good but that which tires us: we should never therefore say, such a piece of music did not succeed, such a picture was not agreeable, such a play was damned, because it was of a new kind; but such or such a thing failed, because it was really good for nothing.
[1 ] It is astonishing that it should ever enter into the head of a dramatic writer to put his comedies into rhyme; but it is still more astonishing that the sensible and ingenious Voltaire should adopt a custom so ridiculous; confining his verses to five feet has certainly nothing but the novelty to recommend it; they are even perhaps more faulty than if they had fifteen, by the quicker return of the same sounds to our ear. What pleasure a French author, or a French audience, might take in them we cannot pretend to determine; but they are certainly very perplexing to a translator, who finds it extremely difficult to reduce poetic language and high-flown metaphors to easy and familiar dialogue, without departing too much from the original. The English reader will frequently, I am afraid, meet with a stiffness of style in this comedy, which, with all the pains I have taken, it was impossible to avoid: add to this, that the names of Fierenfat, Lise, Martha, etc., sound but uncouthly to us; and to change them was a liberty which I thought a translator had no right to take.