Front Page Titles (by Subject) A DISCOURSE ON TRAGEDY. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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A DISCOURSE ON TRAGEDY. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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A DISCOURSE ON TRAGEDY.
IN A LETTER TO LORD BOLINGBROKE.
My Lord:—I have here dedicated a French work represented at Paris, to an English patron; not because there are not in my own country many men of distinguished parts and judgment, to whom I might have paid that compliment; but because the tragedy of Brutus is as it were a native of England. Your lordship may remember that when I retired to Wandsworth with my friend, Mr. Fakener, that worthy and virtuous citizen, I employed my leisure hours at his house in writing the first act of this piece in English prose, pretty nearly the same as it now stands in French verse. I mentioned it to your lordship several times, and we were both equally surprised that no Englishman had ever treated this subject, which seems peculiarly adapted to your theatre. You encouraged me to pursue a plan which would admit of such noble sentiments; permit me, therefore, my lord, to inscribe this work to your lordship, though not written in your own tongue; to you, my lord,
Docte sermones utriusque linguæ.
you, who are able to instruct me in French as well as English; you, who at least have taught me to give my own language that force and energy, which freedom of thought can alone inspire; for the vigorous sentiments of the heart pass insensibly into our expressions, and he who thinks nobly will always speak so.
I must own, my lord, on my return from England, where I had passed almost two years in the continual study of your language, I found myself at a loss when I set about a French tragedy. I was accustomed almost to think in English, and perceived that the French idioms did not present themselves to my imagination with that facility that they did formerly; it was like a rivulet, whose current had been turned another way; some time and pains were requisite to make it flow again in its proper channel. I began then to be convinced that to succeed in any art, we must cultivate it all our lives.
What deterred me more than anything from works of this kind were the severe rules of our poetry, and the slavery of rhyme. I regretted that happy liberty which you enjoy of writing tragedy in blank verse; of lengthening out, of shortening almost all your words; of running one verse into another; and, upon occasion, coining new expressions; which are generally adopted, if they sound well, and are useful, and intelligible. “An English poet,” said I, “is a freeman, who can subject his language to his genius; while the Frenchman is a slave to rhyme, obliged sometimes to make four verses to express a sentiment that an Englishman can give you in one.” An Englishman says what he will; a Frenchman only what he can. One runs along a large and open field, while the other walks in shackles, through a narrow and slippery road; but, in spite of all these reflections and complaints, we can never shake off the yoke of rhyme; it is absolutely essential to French poetry. Our language will not admit of inversions; nor our verses bear to be run one into another; our syllables can never produce a sensible harmony, by their long or short measures; our cæsuras, and a certain number of feet, would not be sufficient to distinguish prose from verse; rhyme is therefore indispensably necessary; besides, so many of our great masters, who have written in rhyme, such as Corneille, Racine, and Despréaux, have so accustomed our ears to this kind of harmony, that we could never bear any other; and I once more therefore insist upon it, that whoever can be absurd enough to shake off a burden which the great Corneille was obliged to carry, would be looked upon, and with great reason, not as a bold and enterprising genius, striking out into a new road, but as a weak and impotent writer, who had not strength to support himself in the old path.
Some have attempted to give us tragedies in prose; but it is a thing which, I believe, can never succeed. Those who already have much, are seldom contented with a little; and he who says, “I come to lessen your pleasure,” will always be a very unwelcome guest to the public. If, in the midst of Paul Veronese or Rubens’ pictures, any one should come and place his sketches with a pencil, would he have any right to compare himself with those great artists? We are used at feasts to dancing and singing; would it be enough on these occasions merely for us to walk and speak, only under the pretence that we walked and spoke well, and that it was more easy, and more natural?
It is probable that verse will always be made use of in tragedy, rhymed verse in ours. It is even to this constraint of rhyme, and the extreme severity of our versification, that we are indebted for the most excellent performances in our language. We require in our rhymes that they should never prejudice the sentiment; that they should never be trivial, nor labored; and are so rigorous as to expect the same purity, and the same exactness in verse, as in prose. We do not permit the least licence; we force our authors to carry all the chains without breaking one link, and at the same time to appear entirely free, and never acknowledge any as poets who have not fulfilled all these conditions.
Such are the reasons why it is more easy to make a hundred verses in any other language than four in French. The example of Abbé Regnier–Desmarias, of the French Academy, and also of the Academy of La Crusca, is a sufficient proof of this. He translated “Anacreon” into Italian with great success; and yet his French verses, with few exceptions, are but very indifferent. It was nearly the same with Ménage. How many of our men of genius have made excellent Latin verses, and written others in their own language which were insufferable.
Many disputes have I had in England about our versification: what reproaches have I heard from the learned bishop of Rochester1 for this childish constraint, which, he used to say, we ridiculously laid upon ourselves, out of mere wantonness and levity: but depend on it, my lord, the more a stranger knows of our language, the sooner will he reconcile himself to that rhyme which is at first so formidable to him. It is not only necessary to our tragedies, but is even an ornament to our comedies themselves. A good thing in verse is more easily retained: the various pictures of human life will be always more striking in verse—when a Frenchman says verse, he always means rhyme—and we have comedies in prose, by the celebrated Molière, which we have been obliged to put into verse after his death, and which are never played but in their new dress.
Not daring, therefore, my lord, to hazard on the French theatre that kind of verse which is used in Italy and in England, I have endeavored at least to transplant into our scene some of the beauties of yours; at the same time I am sufficiently satisfied, that the English theatre is extremely defective. I have heard you say you have not one good tragedy; but to make you amends, in those wild pieces which you have, there are some admirable scenes. Hitherto there has been wanting, in all the tragic authors of your nation, that purity, that regular conduct, that decorum in the action and style, and all those strokes of art which have established the reputation of the French theatre since the time of the great Corneille: though, at the same time, it must be acknowledged, that your most irregular pieces have very great merit with regard to the action.
We have in France some tragedies in high repute, which are rather conversations than the representation of an event. An Italian author, in a letter on the theatres, writes thus to me: “Un cretico del nostro ‘Pastor Fido’ disso che quel componimento era un riassunto di bellissimi madrigali; credo, se vivesse,che direbbe delle tragedie Francese che sono un riassunto di belle elegie, e sontuosi epitalami.”1
I am afraid there is too much truth in what my Italian friend says; our excessive delicacy obliges us frequently to put into narration, what we would gladly have brought before the eyes of the spectator; but we are afraid to hazard on the scene new spectacles, before a people accustomed to turn into ridicule everything which they are not used to.
The place where our comedies are acted, and the abuses which have crept into it, are another cause of that dryness which appears in some of our pieces. The benches on the stage, appropriated to the spectators, confine the scene, and make all action almost impracticable; and this is the reason why the decorations, so highly recommended by the ancients, are with us seldom well adapted to the piece: and above all, it prevents the actors from passing out of one apartment into the other in sight of the spectators; as was the sensible practice of the Greeks and Romans, to preserve at once unity of place and probability.
How, for instance, could we dare, on our theatre, to bring on the ghost of Pompey, or the genius of Brutus, among a crowd of young fellows who seldom look upon the most serious things but with the view of showing their wit by a bon mot on the occasion? How could we produce before them the body of Marcus, and Cato, his father, crying out:
This is what the late Mr. Addison took the liberty to do at London. This “Cato” was translated into Italian, and played in several parts of Italy: but if we were to hazard such a spectacle at Paris, you would hear the parterre roaring out, and observe the women turning their heads away.
You cannot imagine how far we carry this delicacy. The author of our tragedy of “Manlius” took his subject from the English work by Otway, called, “Venice Preserved.” The plot is taken from the history of the conspiracy of Marquis de Bedemar, written by Abbé de St. Rèal. Permit me to observe, by the way, that this short piece of history is much superior both to Otway’s piece, and our own “Manlius.” First, you may remark the prejudice that obliged the French author to disguise a known fact under Roman names, whilst the English writer made use of the real ones. The London theatre saw nothing ridiculous in a Spanish ambassador’s being called Bedemar, or the conspirators Jaffier, Pierre, and Elliot: this alone in France would have been sufficient to ruin the performance. But Otway assembles the conspirators; Regnaud makes them all take their oaths; assigns to each his post; appoints the hour to begin the massacre; and every now and then casts an eye of diffidence and suspicion on Jaffier, whom he mistrusts. He makes a pathetic address to them all, which is translated word for word from Saint–Réal: “Jamais repos si profonde ne précéda un trouble si grand.”
But what has the French author done? afraid to produce so many persons on the stage, he only relates by Renaud, under the name of Rutilus, an inconsiderable part of that speech which he tells us he had made to the conspirators. One may perceive by this circumstance alone, how superior the English scene is to the French, however faulty Otway’s piece may be in every other respect.
With what pleasure have I seen at London your tragedy of Julius Cæsar, which for these hundred and fifty years past has been the delight of your nation! not that I approve the barbarous irregularities which it abounds with; it only astonishes me, that there are not many more in a work written in an age of ignorance, by a man who did not even understand Latin, and had no instructor but his own genius: and yet, among so many gross faults, with what rapture did I behold Brutus, holding in his hand a dagger, still wet with the blood of Cæsar, assemble the Roman people, and thus harangue them from the tribunal:
“Romans, countrymen, and friends, if there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Cæsar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Cæsar was no less than his. If then that friend demand, why Brutus rose against Cæsar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Cæsar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Cæsar were living, and die all slaves, than that Cæsar were dead, to live all free men? As Cæsar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but as he was ambitious, I slew him. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? if any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? if any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? if any, speak, for him have I offended.
“All. None, Brutus, none.
“Brutus. Then none have I offended. Here comes his body, mourned by Mark Antony; who, though he had no hand in his death, shall receive the benefit of his dying, a place in the commonwealth; as which of you shall not. With this I depart, that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.
“All. Live, Brutus, live.”
After this scene Antony comes to excite the compassion of those very Romans whom Brutus had just before inspired with his own rigor and barbarity. Antony, by an artful discourse, leads back as it were insensibly these haughty spirits, and when he sees them softened a little, shows them the body of Cæsar; and making use of the most pathetic figures of rhetoric, excites them to sedition and revenge. The French, perhaps, would never suffer on their stage a chorus composed of Roman artisans and plebeians; would never permit the bleeding body of Cæsar to be exposed in public; or the people to be excited to rebellion by a harangue from the tribunal; custom alone, who is the queen of this world, can change the taste of nations, and make the objects of our aversion pleasing and agreeable.
The Greeks produced spectacles on the stage that appear not less shocking and absurd to us. Hippolytus, bruised with his fall, comes on to count his wounds, and make hideous lamentations. Philoctetes falls into a trance, occasioned by the violence of his pains, and the black blood flows from his wound. Œdipus, covered with blood that drops from the remaining part of his eyes, which he had been just tearing out, complains both of gods and men. We hear the shrieks of Clytemnestra, murdered by her own son; and Electra cries out from the stage: “Strike, spare her not, she did not spare our father.” Prometheus is fastened to a rock, by nails driven into his arms and stomach. The furies answer the bloody ghost of Clytemnestra by horrid and inarticulate noises. In short, many of the Greek tragedies are filled with terror of this kind, that is to the last degree extravagant. The Greek tragedians, in other respects superior to the English, were certainly wrong in often mistaking horror for terror; and the disgusting and incredible for the tragic and the marvellous. The art was in its infancy in Athens in the time of Æschylus, as at London in the time of Shakespeare; but amidst all the faults, both of the Greek and English poets, we find singular beauties, and the true pathetic; and if any of my countrymen, who have no other knowledge of the manners and tragedies of their neighbors but what they get from translations and hearsays, condemn them without restriction, they are, in my opinion, like so many blind men, who should assure us that a rose could not have lively colors, because they felt the thorns at the ends of their fingers: but if the Greeks and you have both passed the bounds of decorum, and the English more particularly abound in the frightful instead of the terrible, we, on the other hand, as overscrupulous as you have been rash, for fear of going too far, stop too short, and very often fail of reaching the tragic, for fear of going beyond it.
I am far from proposing that the stage should be a scene of bloodshed, as it is in Shakespeare, and many of his successors, who, without his genius, have imitated his faults; but I dare believe that there are some certain circumstances and situations, which at present appear shocking and disgusting to a French audience, that, if well conducted, represented with art, and above all softened by the charms of good verse, might give us a species of pleasure we are as yet unacquainted with, which notwithstanding may certainly be attained.
At least I should wish to be informed why our heroes and heroines should be permitted to kill themselves and nobody else: is the scene less bloody by the death of Athaliah, who stabs herself for her lover, than it would be by the murder of Cæsar? And if the sight of Cato’s son, brought in dead before his father, gives that old Roman an opportunity of making an excellent speech on the occasion; if this part of “Cato” was admired both in England and in Italy, even by the greatest partisans of French decorum; if the most delicate of the fair sex were not in the least shocked at it; why may not the French bring themselves to it by use? Is not nature the same in all mankind?
All these laws of banishing murder from the stage; of not suffering more than three persons to speak, are such as, in my opinion, might admit of some exceptions among us, as they did among the Greeks. It is not with the rules of decorum, that are always a little arbitrary, as it is with the fundamental laws of the theatre, which are the three unities; it would be a mark of weakness and sterility to extend an action beyond that degree of space and time suitable to it. Ask any man, who has crowded too many events into his piece, what is the reason of this fault, and, if he has sincerity enough, he will fairly confess, that he had not sufficient genius to fill up his performance with a single action: and if he takes up two days, and places his scene in two different places, you may take it for granted, it is because he has not skill enough to confine his plan within the limits of three hours, or bring it into the walls of a palace, as probability requires he should. But it is quite another thing with regard to hazarding a horrible spectacle on the stage; this would not in the least shock probability: a boldness like this, far from implying any weakness in the author, would, on the contrary, demand a great genius to give his verses true grandeur in an action, which, without sublimity of style, would appear savage and disgusting.
This was what our great Corneille once attempted in his “Rodogune.” He brings upon the stage a mother, who, in the presence of an ambassador and the whole court, wants to poison her son and her daughter–in–law, after having killed her other son with her own hand. She presents them the poisoned cup, and on their refusing to taste it, occasioned by their suspicions of her, drinks it herself, and dies by the poison which she had designed for them. Strokes so terrible as these should be very rare; it is not every one who should dare to strike them. Such novelties require great circumspection, and a masterly hand in the execution. The English themselves allow that Shakespeare, for example, was the only poet who could call up ghosts, and make them speak with success.
Within that circle none durst move but he.
The more majestic and full of terror a theatrical action is, the more insipid would it become, if it were often repeated; in the same manner as details of battles, which, being in their own nature everything that is terrible, become dry and tedious, by appearing often in history. The only piece of Racine, where there is any spectacle, is his masterpiece, “Athalie”; there we see a child on the throne, his nurse and the priests attending him, a queen who commands her soldiers to massacre him, and the Levites running to take up arms in his defence: the whole of this action is pathetic; and yet, if the style was not so too, it would appear childish and ridiculous.
The more we strike the eye with splendid appearances, the stronger obligation do we lay ourselves under of supporting them by sublimity of diction; otherwise the writer will only be considered as a decorator, and not as a tragic poet. It is nearly thirty years since the tragedy of “Montezuma” was represented at Paris; the scene opened with a spectacle entirely new: a palace in a magnificent but barbarous taste; Montezuma in a dress very singular and uncommon; at the end of the stage a number of his slaves, armed with bows and arrows according to the custom of their country; round the king were eight grandees of his court prostrate on the earth, with their faces to the ground; Montezuma begins the piece with these words:
The spectacle charmed the spectators, but nothing else gave the least pleasure throughout the whole tragedy.
With regard to myself I must own, it was not without fear that I introduced on our stage the Roman senate in scarlet robes delivering their opinions. I recollected, that when I brought into my “Œdipe” a chorus of Thebans, saying:
The parterre, instead of being struck with the pathetic in this passage, only felt the absurdity, if any such there were, of putting these verses into the mouths of raw actors, not much used to choruses, and immediately set up a loud laugh. This prevented me from making the senators in Brutus speak, when Titus is accused before them, of heightening the terror of the incident by expressing the astonishment and grief of these reverend fathers of their country, who, no doubt, should have signified their surprise in another manner than by dumb show: but they did not do even so much as this.
The English are more fond of action than we are, and speak more to the eye; the French give more attention to elegance, harmony, and the charms of verse. It is certainly more difficult to write well than to bring upon the stage assassinations, wheels, mechanical powers, ghosts, and sorcerers. The tragedy of “Cato,” which reflects so much honor on Mr. Addison, your successor in the ministry, I have heard you say, owes its great reputation to its fine poetry; that is to say, to just and noble sentiments expressed in harmonious verses. It is these detached beauties that support poetical performances, and hand them down to posterity. It is only a peculiar manner of saying common things; it is the art of embellishing by diction what all men think and feel that constitutes the true poet. There are no refined or strained sentiments, no romantic adventures in the fourth book of Virgil; all is natural; and yet it is the highest effort of human genius. M. Racine is superior to all those who have said the same things as himself only because he has said them better: and Corneille is never truly great, except when he expresses himself as well as he thinks. Let us remember this precept of Despréaux’s.
This is greatly wanting in many of our dramatic performances, which the art of an actor, or the figure and voice of an actress, have carried off with success on our stage. How many ill–written pieces have been acted oftener than “Cinna” and “Britannicus,” though nobody ever retained two lines of any of these poor pieces, and at the same time “Britannicus” and “Cinna” are got by heart. In vain did the “Regulus” of Pradon draw tears from the spectators by some moving incidents: the work itself, with all those that resemble it, have sunk into contempt, whilst the authors pay themselves a thousand compliments in their prefaces to them.
Some judicious critics will perhaps ask me, why I brought love into the tragedy of “Junius Brutus”; and why I have mingled that passion with the austere virtue of a Roman senate, and the political intrigues of an ambassador: our nation is reproached for enervating the scene by too much tenderness; and the English, at least for this last age, have deserved the same censure; or you have always followed a little our modes, and our vices: but will you permit me to give you my opinion on this head?
To exact love in every tragedy shows an effeminate taste; and entirely to proscribe and banish it from the theatre is equally unreasonable and ridiculous. The stage, either in tragedy or comedy, is a lively picture of the human passions: one perhaps represents the ambition of a prince, the other ridicules the vanity of a citizen. Here you laugh at the coquetry and intrigues of a citizen’s lady; there you weep the unhappy passion of Phædra: love amuses you in a romance, or charms you in the “Dido” of Virgil. Love in a tragedy is not more essentially a fault, than it is in the “Æneid.” In short, it is never blamable, but when it is brought in unseasonably, or treated inartistically.
The Greeks seldom ventured to bring this passion on the stage of Athens; first, because their tragedies generally turning on subjects of terror, the minds of the spectators were biassed as it were in favor of that particular species; and, secondly, because the women at that time led a much more retired life than ours do, and consequently the language of love, not being as it is now the subject of every conversation, the poets had less inducement to treat a passion, which it is most difficult to paint on account of that very delicate management which it requires. Another reason, which I own weighs greatly with me, was, that they had no actresses, the women’s parts being always played by men in masks. Love from their mouths would perhaps have appeared ridiculous.
In London and Paris it is quite another thing, where it must be acknowledged the authors would have very ill understood their own interests, and must have known little of their audience, to have made their Oldfields, Duclos, and Lecouvreur talk of nothing but ambition and politics.
But the misfortune is that love, with our heroes of the theatre, is seldom anything more than gallantry; and with you it sometimes degenerates into lewdness and debauchery. In our “Alcibiades,” a piece greatly followed but poorly written, and therefore at present in very little esteem, we admired for a long time these bad verses, which were repeated in a soft and persuasive tone by the Æsopus of the last age.
In your “Venice Preserved,” old Regnaud wants to debauch the wife of Jaffier; she complains of it in terms rather indecent, and goes so far as to say he came to her unbuttoned.
To render love worthy of the tragic scene, it ought to arise naturally from the business of the piece, and not be brought in by mere force, only to fill up a vacancy, as it generally does in your tragedies, and in ours, which are both of them too long: it should be a passion entirely tragical, considered as a weakness, and opposed by remorse; it should either lead to misfortunes or to crimes, to convince us how dangerous it is; or it should be subdued by virtue, to show us that it is not invincible. In all other cases, it is no more than the love of an eclogue, or a comedy.
You, my lord, must decide whether I have fulfilled any of these conditions; but I hope that, above all, your friends will be so candid as not to judge of the genius and taste of our nation by this discourse, or by the tragedy which I have sent you with it. I am, perhaps, one of those who cultivate the belles–lettres in France with the least success, and if the sentiments which I have here submitted to your judgment are disapproved, I and I only, deserve to be censured for them.
[1 ]The celebrated Dr. Atterbury.
[1 ]A critic on our “Pastor Fido” says that work is nothing but a collection of the most beautiful madrigals. I believe, if he were now living, he would say of the French tragedies, that they were a collection of fine elegies, and sounding epithalamiums.
[1 ]There is no serpent, or odious monster, but if well imtated by art, may be made agreeable to the eye.
[1 ]Let everything he says be easy to retain, that it may leave with you a long remembrance of the work.