Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO NANINE. - 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 NANINE. - 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 NANINE.
This trifle was exhibited in the summer of 1749, at Paris, among a number of entertainments which each year constantly produces in that city; in the still more numerous crowd of pamphlets, with which the town is overrun, there appeared at this time one extremely well worthy of notice, an ingenious and learned dissertation, by a member of the Academy of Rochelle, on a question which seems for some years past to have divided the literary world, namely, whether we should write serious comedies? The author declares vehemently against this new species of the drama, to which, I am afraid, the little comedy of “Nanine” belongs: he condemns and with reason, everything that carries with it the air of a city tragedy; in reality, what can be more ridiculous, than a tragic plot carried on by low and vulgar characters? it is demeaning the buskin, and confounding tragedy and comedy, by a kind of bastard species, a monster, that could only owe its birth to an incapacity of succeeding either in one or the other: this judicious writer blames, above all, those romantic forced intrigues which are to draw tears from the spectators, and which we call, by way of ridicule, “the crying comedy;” but into what species of comedy should such intrigues be admitted? Would they not be looked upon as essential and unpardonable faults in any performance whatsoever? He concludes by observing, that if, in a comedy, pity may sometimes go so far as to melt into tears, they should be shed by love alone; he cannot certainly mean by this the passion of love as it is represented in our best tragedies, furious, barbarous, destructive, attended with guilt and remorse; but love, gentle and tender, which alone is fit for comedy.
This reflection naturally produces another, which I shall submit to the judgment of the learned: that among us tragedy has begun by appropriating to itself the language of comedy; we may observe that love, in many of those performances where terror and pity should be the chief springs, is treated as it should be treated in comedy. Gallantry, declarations of love, coquetry, archness and familiarity, are all to be met with among the heroes and heroines of Greece and Rome, with which our tragedies abound: so that, in effect, the natural and tender love in our comedies is not stolen from the tragic muse; it is not Thalia who has committed a theft upon Melpomene, but, on the other hand, Melpomene, who for a long time has worn the buskins of Thalia.
If we cast our eyes on the first tragedies that had such amazing success in the time of Cardinal Richelieu, the “Sophonisba” of Mairet, “Mariamne,” “Tyrannic Love,” and “Alcyone,” we shall remark that love, in every one of them, talks in a style quite familiar, and sometimes extremely low; no less ridiculous than the pompous tone and emphasis of their heroism; this is perhaps the reason why, at that time, we had not one tolerable comedy, because the tragic scene had stole away all its rights and privileges; it is even probable, that this determined Molière seldom to bestow upon his lovers any strong, lively, and interesting passion for one another; tragedy, he perceived, had anticipated him in this particular.
From the time when the “Sophonisba” of Mairet appeared, which was our first regular tragedy, we began to consider the declarations of love from our heroes, and the artful and coquettish replies of our heroines, together with strong pictures of love and gallantry, as things essentially necessary to the tragic scene: there are, writings of those times still extant which quote the following verses, spoken by Massinissa after the battle of Cirta, not without great eulogiums on their extraordinary merit.
The custom of talking thus about love corrupted even some of our best writers; even those whose manly and sublime geniuses were made to restore tragedy to its ancient splendor could not escape the contagion; in some of our finest pieces we meet with, “an unhappy face, that subdued the courage of a Roman knight.”1 The lover says to his mistress: “Adieu, thou too virtuous, and too charming object;”2 to which the heroine replies: “Adieu thou too unhappy and too perfect lover.”3 Cleopatra tells us, that a princess, “who loves her reputation, if she owns her love, is sure to be beloved;”4 and that Cæsar, “sighs, and in a plaintive tone acknowledges himself her captive, even in the field of victory;”1 adding, that she alone must be cruel, and make Cæsar unhappy. Her confidante replies: “I would venture to swear that your charms boast a power which they will never make use of.”2
In all those pieces of the same author, which were written after his “Death of Pompey,” we are sorry to find the passion of love always treated in this familiar manner; but, without taking the unnecessary trouble of producing more examples of these glaring absurdities, let us only consider some of the best verses which the author of “Cinna” has brought on the stage as maxims of gallantry. “There are certain secret ties, and sympathetic feelings, by whose soft affinity souls are linked together, attached to, and struck by each other by I know not what charm, which it is impossible to account for.” Would one ever conceive that these sentiments, which are certainly highly comic, come out of the mouth of a princess of Parthia, who goes to her lover to ask her mother’s life? In such a dreadful crisis, who would talk of the “sympathetic feelings by whose soft affinity souls are linked together?” Would Sophocles ever have produced such madrigals? Do not all these amorous sentiments belong to comedy only?
That great writer, who has carried the harmony of verse to such a point of perfection, he who made love speak a language at once so noble and so pathetic, has, notwithstanding, brought into his tragedies several scenes which Boileau thought much more proper for the elevated style of Terence’s comedies, than suitable to the dignity of the great rival of Euripides, who is even sometimes superior to him. One might quote more than a hundred verses in this taste; not but that this familiar simplicity has its beauties, and may serve by way of preparation for the pathetic; but if these strokes of simplicity belong even to the tragic muse, with still more reason do they suit high comedy: this is the exact point where tragedy descends, and comedy raises itself; where the two arts meet, as it were, and touch each other; here their several limits are confounded: and if Orestes and Hermione are permitted to say:
“O do not wish for the fate of Pyrrhus; I should hate you too much—you would love me still more: O that you would look on me in another manner! You wish to love me, and yet I cannot please you: you would love me, madam, by wishing me to hate—for, in short, he hates you; his heart is otherwise engaged; he has no longer—”
“Who told you, my lord, that he despises me? do you think the sight of me inspires contempt?”
If these heroes, I say, express themselves in this familiar manner, with how much greater reason should we admire the Misanthrope speaking thus with vehemence to his mistress?
“Rather blush you, for so you ought, I have too sure testimony of your falsehood—it was not in vain that my love was alarmed, but think not I will tamely bear the injury without being revenged—’tis a treason, a perfidy which cannot be too severely punished; yes, I will give a loose to my resentment, I am no longer master of myself, passion entirely possesses me: mortally wounded as I am by you, my senses are no longer under the government of reason.”
Certainly, if all “The Misanthrope” was in this taste, it would no longer be a comedy; and if Orestes and Hermione talked throughout in the manner they do in the lines above quoted, it would be no tragedy: but after these two very different species met thus together, they fall back each into their proper sphere; one resumes the pleasant style, and the other the sublime.
Comedy, therefore, I repeat once more, may be impassioned, may be in transport, or in tears, provided at the same time that it makes the good and virtuous smile; but if it was entirely destitute of the vis comica, if, from beginning to end, it had nothing in it but the serious and melancholy, it would then be a species of writing very faulty and very disagreeable. It must be acknowledged that there is no small difficulty in making the spectators pass insensibly from tears to laughter, and yet this transition, hard as it is to manage in a comedy, is not the less natural. We have already remarked in another place, that nothing is more common than accidents that afflict the mind, some certain circumstances of which may, notwithstanding, excite at least a momentary mirth and gayety: thus, unhappily for us, is human nature framed. Homer represents even his gods laughing at Vulcan’s awkwardness, while they are deciding the fate of the whole universe. Hector smiles at the fears of his son, Astyanax, while Andromache is shedding tears. We often see, that even amid the horror of battles, conflagrations, and all the disasters that mortals are subject to, a good thing, luckily hit off, will raise a laugh, even in the bosom of terror and pity. In the battle of Spires, a regiment was forbidden to give quarter, a German officer begged his life of one of ours, who answered him thus: “Sir, ask anything in the world else, but as to your life, I can’t possibly grant it.” This dry and whimsical answer passed from one to another, and everybody laughed in the midst of slaughter and destruction; why therefore should not laughter follow the most serious and affecting scenes in a comedy? Don’t we sympathize with Alcmene’s distress, and yet laugh with Sofia? How ridiculous it is to dispute against experience! if those who still contest this matter love rhyme better than reason, let them take the following verses:
[2 ] Adieu, trop vertueux objet, et trop charmant.
[3 ] Adieu, trop malheureux, et trop parfait amant.J’oserois bien jurer que vos charmans appasSe vantent d’un pouvoir dont ils n’useront pas.
 I have here given the original of these few short quotations, that the reader may see the full force, both of the absurdity, and of M. Voltaire’s ridicule of it.