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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).
Volume 10 of the 21 volume 1901 edition of the Complete Works. It contains 3 plays: Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces to his plays, and a collection of his poetry.
The text is in the public domain.
“Between two servants of Humanity, who appeared eighteen hundred years apart, there is a mysterious relation. * * * * Let us say it with a sentiment of profound respect: JESUS WEPT: VOLTAIRE SMILED Of that divine tear and of that human smile is composed the sweetness of the present civilization.”
College of Du Page Instructional Resources Center
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Mr. & Mrs.
Henry A. Diekmann
Osman, Sultan of Jerusalem.
Lusignan, A Prince of the Blood of the ancient Kings of Jerusalem.
|ZAÏRE, }||Slaves of the Sultan.|
|NERESTAN, }||French Gentlemen.|
|ORASMIN, }||Officers of the Sultan.|
Scene, the Seraglio at Jerusalem.
“Zaïre” was written and produced in 1732. During its composition Voltaire wrote to a friend: “Everyone here reproaches me that I do not put more love into my pieces. There shall be love enough this time, I swear, and not mere gallantry. My desire is that there may be nothing so Turkish, so Christian, so amorous, so tender, so infuriate, as that which I am now putting into verse for the pleasure of the public. . . . The names of Montmorenci, Saladire, Jesus, Mahomet, will be in it. There will be mention of the Seine and Jordan, of Paris and Jerusalem. We shall love, we shall baptize, we shall kill, and I will send you the outline as soon as it is done.” The piece was a great success, despite J. B. Rousseau’s adverse criticism. It was played at Berlin, and Geneva; and at Rome on the hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death.
You, my dear friend, are an Englishman, and I am a native of France; but lovers of the fine arts are fellow-citizens: men of taste and virtue have pretty nearly the same principles in every country, and form one general commonweal: it is no longer, therefore, matter of astonishment to see a French tragedy dedicated to an Englishman, or an Italian, any more than it would have been, in the days of antiquity, for a citizen of Ephesus, or of Athens, to address his performance to a Grecian of some other city; I lay this tragedy before you, therefore, as my countryman in literature, and my most intimate friend.
I shall, at the same time, have the pleasure of informing my brother Frenchmen here in what light traders are looked upon among you, what regard the English have for a profession so essential to the welfare of their kingdom, and the honor which they have to represent their country in parliament, in the rank of legislators; though trade is despised by our petits-maitres, who, you know as well as myself, both in England and France, are the most contemptible species of being that crawl upon the face of the earth.
My further inducement to correspond with an Englishman, rather than any other man, on subjects of literature, arises from your happy freedom of thought, which never fails to inspire me with bolder ideas, and also with more nervous expression. ‘Whoever converses with me has, for the time at least, my heart at his disposal; if his sentiments are lively and animated, he inflames me: if he is strong and nervous, he raises and supports me: the courtier, who is all dissimulation, makes me insensibly as affected and constrained in my behavior as himself; but a bold and fearless spirit gives me sentiment and courage: I catch fire from him, just as young painters, brought up under Lemoine or Argilière, catch the freedom of their masters’ pencils, and compose with their spirit: thus Virgil admired Homer, followed his steps, and, without being a plagiarist, became his rival.’
You need not be apprehensive of my sending you, with this piece, a long apology and vindication of it: I might indeed have told you why I did not make Zaïre more determined to embrace Christianity before she knew her father; why she keeps the secret from her lover; but those who have any judgment, or any justice, will see my reasons without my pointing them out; and as for those critics that are predetermined not to believe me, it would be lost labor to give them any reasons at all.
All I can boast of is that the piece is tolerably simple; a perfection, in my opinion, that is not to be despised.
‘This happy simplicity was one of the distinguishing beauties of learned antiquity: it is a pity you Englishmen don’t introduce this novelty on your stage, which is so filled with horror, gibbets, and murders: put more truth into your dramatic performances, and more noble images: Addison has endeavored to do it: he was the poet of the wife, but he was too stiff: and, in his boasted “Cato,” the two girls are really very insipid characters: imitate from the great Addison only what is good; polish a little the rude manners of your mild muse; write for all times, and all ages, for fame, and for posterity, and transfuse into your works the simplicity of your manners.’
But I would not have your English poets imagine that I mean to give them “Zaire” as a model: I preach simplicity to them, and easy numbers, but I would not be thought to set up for the saint of my own sermon: if “Zaire” has met with success, I owe it not so much to the merit of the performance, as to the tenderness of the love scenes, which I was wise enough to execute as well as I possibly could: in this I flattered the taste of my audience; and he is generally sure to succeed, who talks more to the passions of men than to their reason: if we are ever so good Christians, we must have a little love besides: and I am satisfied the great Corneille was much in the right of it, not to confine himself, in his “Polyeucte,” merely to the breaking of the statues of Jupiter by the new converts: for such is the depravity of human kind, that perhaps ‘the pious soul of Polyeucte would have but little impression on the audience, and even the Christian verses he declaims would have been received with contempt, if it had not been for his wife’s passion for her favorite heathen, who was certainly more worthy of her love than the good devotee her husband.’
Almost the same accident happened to Zaire; my friends, who frequent the theatre, assured me, that if she had been only converted, she would not have been half so interesting: but she was in love with the most perfect religion in the world, and that has made her fortune. I could not, however, expect to escape censure.
‘Many an inexorable critic has carped at and slashed me, and many a remorseless jester has pretended that I only filched an improbable Romance, which I had not the sense to improve; that I have lamed and spoiled the subject; that the catastrophe is unnatural: they even prognosticated the dreadful hiss with which a disgusted public salutes a miserable poet: but I despised their censures, and risked my play upon the stage; the public was more favorable than they expected, or I deserved: instead of hisses, it received shouts: tears flowed from almost every eye: but I am not puffed up with my success, I assure you I am no stranger to all its faults. I know very well it is absolutely indisputable, that before we can make a perfect work, we must sell ourselves to the devil, which was what I did not choose to do.’
I do not flatter myself that the English will do “Zaire” the same honor they have done to “Brutus,” a translation of which has been played at London: they tell us here, that you have neither devotion enough to be affected by old Lusignan, nor tenderness to feel for Zaire; you love a conspiracy better than an intrigue; upon your stage, they say the word “country” is sure of getting a clap, and so is “love” upon ours; but to say the truth, you have as much love in your tragedies as we have: if you have not the reputation of being tender, it is not that your stage heroes are not in love, but that they seldom express their passion naturally: our lovers talk like lovers; yours like poets.
But if the French are your superiors in gallantry, there are many things, which, in return, we may borrow of you: to the English theatre I am indebted for the liberty which I have taken of bringing the names of our kings and ancient families upon the stage: a novelty of this kind may perhaps be the means of introducing amongst us a species of tragedy hitherto unknown, and which we seem to want. Some happy geniuses will, I have no doubt, rise up, who will bring to perfection that idea, of which “Zaire” is but a slight sketch: as long as literature meets with protection in France, we shall always have writers enough; nature every day forms men of talents and abilities; we have nothing to do but to encourage and employ them: but if those which distinguish themselves are not supported by some honorable recompense, and by the still more pleasing charm of admiration, all the fine arts must soon perish, even though so many edifices have been raised to shelter and protect them: the noble plantation of Louis XIV. would die away for want of culture: the public might still have taste, but there would be no eminent masters: the sculptor in his academy would see a number of indifferent pupils about him, but never have the ambition to imitate Girardon and Pujet: the painter would rest satisfied with excelling his contemporaries, but would never think of rivalling Poussin: may the successor of Louis XIV. always follow the example of that great monarch, who inspired every artist with emulation, encouraged at the same time a Racine and a Van-Robais: he carried our commerce and our glory to the farthest part of the globe, and extended his bounty to foreigners of all nations, who were astonished at the fame and rewards which our court bestowed upon them: wherever merit appeared, it found a patron in Louis XIV.
You have no foundations equal to the munificent donations of our kings; but then your people supplies the want of them: you do not stand in need of royal favor to honor and reward superior talents of every kind. Steel and Vanbrugh were comedy writers, and at the same time members of parliament: the primacy given to Dr. Tillotson, Newton honored with an important trust, Prior made an ambassador, and Addison a minister of state, are but the common and ordinary consequences of the regard which you pay to merit, and to great men: you heap riches on them while they live, and erect monuments and statues to them after their death: even your celebrated actresses have places in your churches, near the great poets.
‘Your Oldfield, and her predecessor, Bracegirdle, in consideration of their having been so agreeable to the public when in their prime, their course finished, were, by the consent of your whole nation, honored with a pompous funeral, and their remains carried under a velvet pall, and lodged in your church with the greatest magnificence: their spirits, no doubt, are still proud of it, and boast of the honor in the shades below; while the divine Molière, who was far more worthy of it, could scarcely obtain leave to sleep in a churchyard; and the amiable Lecouvreur, whose eyes I closed, could not even so much as obtain two wax-tapers and a coffin; M. de Laubiniere, out of charity, carried away her corpse by night in a hackney-coach to the banks of the river; do you not even now see the god of love breaking his arrows in a rage, and Melopomene in tears, banishing herself from that ungrateful place which Lecouvreur had so long adorned?
But everything, in these our days, conspires to reduce France to that state of barbarism from which Louis XIV. and Cardinal Richelieu had delivered her: that a curse on that policy knows not the value of the fine arts! the world is peopled with nations as powerful as our own; how happens it then that we look on them with so little esteem? For the same reason perhaps that we despise the company of a rich man, whose mind is tasteless and uncultivated. Do not imagine that this empire of wit, this glory of being the universal model for mankind, is a trifling distinction, it is the infallible mark of the grandeur of a kingdom: under the greatest princes the arts have always flourished, and their decay is often succeeded by that of the state itself: history will supply us with ample proofs of it; but this would lead me too far out of my subject: I shall finish this letter, which is already too long, with a little performance, which naturally demands a place at the head of this tragedy: an epistle, in verse, to the actress who played the part of Zaire; I owe her at least this compliment for the manner in which she acquitted herself on that occasion.
‘For the prophet of Mecca never had Greek nor Arabian in his seraglio so beautiful or so genteel: her black eyes, so finely arched and full of tenderness, with her excellent voice, mien and carriage, defended my performance against every auditor that had a mind to be troublesome: but when the reader catches me in his closet, all my honor, I fear, will be lost.’
Adieu, my dear friend, continue to cultivate philosophy and the Belles-lettres, without forgetting to send your ships to the Levant.
From the Second Edition of the Tragedy of Zaire
For your new dignity of ambassador only makes our friendship more respectable, and shall not prevent my making use of a title even more sacred than that of minister; the name of “Friend” is much above that of, “your Excellency.” I now dedicate to the ambassador of a great king and a free nation what I had before addressed to a plain citizen, and an English merchant: those who know how much commerce is respected in your country must know that a tradesman is there sometimes a legislator, a good officer, and a public minister.
Some ridiculous people who had fallen in with the fashion of paying respect to nothing but nobility, thought proper to laugh at the novelty of a dedication to a man who had nothing but merit to recommend him: who took the liberty, on a stage sacred to calumny and bad taste, to insult the author of that dedication, and to reproach the gentleman to whom it was addressed for being a merchant: but we must not, sir, impute to our whole nation an affront so gross and illiberal, that people, ever so uncivilized, would have been ashamed to commit. The magistrates of our police, who are constantly employed in rectifying abuses of this kind, were, to the last degree, surprised at it: but the contempt and ignominy with which the public have branded the acknowledged author of this indignity, are, I hope, a fresh proof of French politeness: those virtues, which form the character of a whole people, are often contradicted, and, as it were, called in question by the vices of an individual: there were some voluptuaries, we know, even at Lacedæmon: there have been low and foolish fellows in England; men without taste. or good breeding, at Athens; and so there are in Paris.
You will, I hope, forget them, sir, as they are forgotten by the world, and receive this second mark of my respect: they are due to you still more than they were before, as this tragedy has made its appearance at London. It has been translated, and acted with so much success, and the author of it spoken of with so much regard and politeness, that I ought to return my public thanks to the whole nation.
I do not know how to acquit my obligations to you by any other means than acquainting my countrymen here with the particulars of the translation, and representation of “Zaire” on the English stage.
Mr. Hill, a man of letters, and one who seems to understand the theatre better than any English author, did me the honor to translate this piece, with the design of introducing something new on your stage, both with regard to the manner of writing tragedies, and of repeating them. I shall speak, by and by, of the representation.
The art of declaiming was for a long time among you entirely unnatural; most of your tragic actors expressed themselves more like poets seized with rapturous enthusiasm than like men inspired by a real passion. Several of your comedians were even more intolerable; they roared out their verses with an impetuous fury that was no more like the natural tone than convulsions and distortions are to an easy and noble carriage. This air of riot and tumult seemed entirely foreign to your nation, which is naturally sober and grave, even to such a degree, as frequently to appear cold and unanimated in the eye of a stranger. Your preachers never indulge themselves in a declamatory tone, and you would laugh at a pleader at the bar, who should work himself up into a passion: the players were the only outrageous set of people in the kingdom. Our actors and actresses also, particularly the latter, were guilty of this for many years. M. Lecouvreur was the first who broke them of it: thus an Italian writer, a man of great sense and parts, speaks of her:
The same change which Lecouvreur affected on our stage, Mrs. Cibber brought about on yours, in the part of Zaire: how astonishing it is that in every art it should be so long before we arrive at the simple and the natural!
A novelty that must appear still more extraordinary to a Frenchman is, that a gentleman of your country, a man of rank and fortune, should condescend to play the part of Osman. It was an interesting circumstance to see the two principal characters represented, one by a person of condition, and the other by a young actress not above eighteen years of age, who had never repeated a line before in her life. This instance of a gentleman’s exercising his talents for declamation, is not singular among you; it is perhaps more surprising that we should wonder at it: we ought certainly to reflect, that everything in this world depends upon custom and opinion: the court of France have danced on the stage with the actors of the opera, and we thought there was nothing strange in it, but that the fashion of this kind of entertainment should be discontinued. Why should it be more extraordinary for people to write than to dance in public? is there any difference between these two arts, except that the one is as much above the other as the perfections of the mind are superior to those of the body; I have said it before, and I say so still, none of the polite arts are contemptible; and to be ashamed of talents of any kind is of all things the most shameful.
I come now to the translation of “Zaïre,” and the change which has been made among you with regard to the drama.
You had a strange custom, which even Mr. Addison, the chastest of your writers, adopted, so often does custom get the better of sense and reason; I mean, the ridiculous custom of finishing every act by verses in a different taste from the rest of the piece, which verse usually consisted of a simile. Phædra, as she leaves the stage, compares herself to a bitch; Cato to a rock, and Cleopatra to children that cry themselves asleep. The translator of “Zaïre” was the first who dared to maintain the rights of nature against a custom so directly opposite to her. He proscribed this custom, well knowing that passion should always speak its own language, and that the poet should disappear, to make room for the hero.
Upon this principle he has translated plainly, and without any unnecessary ornaments, all the simple verses of the piece, which must have been entirely spoiled by an endeavor to render them beautiful such as;
All the verses that are in this fine taste of simplicity, are rendered word for word into English: they might very easily have been adorned, but the translator judged in a different manner from several of my countrymen; he liked the verses, and retained therefore all the simplicity of them; the style indeed ought always to be agreeable to the subject; “Alzira,” “Brutus,” and “Zaïre,” for example, required three different kinds of versification: if Berenice complained of Titus, and Ariadne of Theseus, in the style of “Cinna,” neither Berenice nor Ariadne would please or affect us; we can never talk well of love, if we search after any other ornaments but truth and simplicity.
This is not the place to examine whether it be right or wrong to put so much love into our dramatic performances: I will even allow it to be a fault, but it is a fault which will always be universal; nor do I know what name to give that fault, which is the delight of all mankind: of one thing I am satisfied, that the French have succeeded better in it than all other nations, ancient and modern, put together: love appears on our stage with more decorum, more delicacy, and truth than we meet with on any other; and the reason is, because of all nations the French are best acquainted with society: the perpetual commerce and intercourse of the two sexes, carried on with so much vivacity and good breeding, has introduced among us a politeness unknown to all the world but ourselves.
Society principally depends on the fair sex: all those nations who are so unhappy as to confine their women are unsociable: the austerity of your manners, your political quarrels, and religious wars, that rendered you savage and barbarous, deprived you, even down to the age of Charles II. of the pleasures of society, even in the bosom of liberty: the poets, therefore, neither of your country, nor of any other, knew anything of the manner in which love ought to be treated.
Good comedy was utterly unknown amongst us till the days of Molière; as was the art of expressing our sentiments with delicacy till those of Racine, because society had not attained to any degree of perfection before that time: a poet cannot paint in his closet, manners which he has never seen; and would sooner write a hundred odes and epistles than one scene where nature must speak: your Dryden, who was in other respects a great genius, put into the mouth of his heroes in love either high-flown strains of rhetorical flourish, or something indecent, two things equally opposite to tenderness.
If Mr. Racine makes Titus say:
Your Dryden makes Antony say:
It is very difficult to conceive that Antony should ever really talk thus to Cleopatra. In the same play, Cleopatra speaks thus to Antony:
It is not improbable that Cleopatra might frequently talk thus, but indecencies of this kind are not to be represented before a respectable audience: some of your countrymen may perhaps say this is pure nature; but we may tell them in answer, that if it be so, it is that nature which ought carefully to be concealed: it shows but little knowledge of human nature, to imagine that we can please the more by presenting these licentious images; on the contrary, it is shutting up the avenues to true pleasure: where everything is at once discovered, we are disgusted; there remains no more to look for or desire; and in our pursuit of pleasure we meet with languor and satiety: this is the reason why those who are truly qualified for society, taste pleasures far more exquisite than grosser appetites can have any idea of: the spectators, in this case, are like lovers who are satiated by too quick possession; those ideas which, when brought too close, would make us blush, should be seen, as it were, through a cloud. It is this veil to which, to a right mind, they are indebted for all their charms: there is no pleasure without decorum. The French are certainly better acquainted with this than any other nation upon earth; not because they are without genius and spirit, as the unequal and impetuous Dryden has ridiculously asserted; but because, ever since the regency of Anne of Austria, they have been the most sociable and the most polished people in the universe: and this politeness is not an arbitrary thing, like what they call civility, but a law of nature, which they have happily cultivated far beyond any other nation.
The translation of Zaire has, almost throughout his whole piece, strictly observed those decencies of the stage which are common to us both; but there are, at the same time, some places where he has entirely adhered to ancient customs.
For instance, when in the English piece Osman comes to tell Zaire that he can no longer love her, she answers him by rolling upon the ground: the Sultan is not moved at seeing her in this ridiculous posture of despair, and yet the moment after is astonished at Zaire’s weeping, and cries out, “Zaire, thou weepest.” He should have said to her before; “Zaire, thou rollest upon the ground.”
Insomuch that those three words, “Zaire, thou weepest,” which have so fine an effect on our stage, have none on yours, because they were displaced: those familiar and simple expressions derive all their power from the manner in which they are introduced. “My lord, you change countenance,” is nothing of itself: but when these words are pronounced by Mithridates, we shudder at them.
To say nothing but what we ought to say, and that in the manner in which it ought to be said, is a point of perfection which the French have come nigher to than the writers, myself excepted, of other countries: on this subject we have, I think, a right to dictate to them: you can teach us perhaps greater and more useful things, we ought to acknowledge it. The French, who have written against Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries, with regard to light and colors, are ashamed of it; those who oppose his system of gravitation will soon be still more so.
You ought to submit to our rules of the stage, as we submit to your philosophy: we have made as good experiments on the human heart, as you have in physics: the art of pleasing seems to be the art of Frenchmen; the art of thinking is all your own. Happy are those, sir, who like you, can unite them.
osman, zaïre, fatima.
osman, zaïre, fatima, orasmin.
osman, zaïre, fatima, orasmin, nerestan.
End of the First Act.
zaïre, chatillon, nerestan.
zaïre, lusignan, chatillon, nerestan,Several Christian Slaves.
zaïre, lusignan, chatillon, nerestan, orasmin.
End of the Second Act.
End of the Third Act.
osman, orasmin, melidor.
osman, zaïre, orasmin.
End of the Fourth Act.
osman, orasmin,a Slave.
zaïre, fatima,a Slave.
osman, orasmin,a Slave.
osman, zaïre, fatima.
[In the dark, at the bottom of the stage.
osman, zaïre, nerestan, orasmin,Slaves.
End of the Fifth and Last Act.
|JULIUS CÆSAR, Dictator.|
|MARK ANTONY, Consul.|
|JUNIUS BRUTUS, Prætor.|
SCENE, the Capitol at Rome.
cæsar, antony, dolabella.
cæsar, antony, brutus, cassius, cimber, decimus, cinna, casca, etc., lictors.
End of the First Act.
brutus, antony, dolabella.
brutus, cassius, cinna, casca, decimus,Attendants
brutus, cassius, decimus, cimber.
End of the Second Act.
cassius, cimber, decimus, cinna, casca,with the rest of the Conspirators.
cæsar, dolabella, romans.
cassius,a dagger in his hand,dolabella, romans.
antony, romans, dolabella.
End of the Third and Last Act.
Fierenfat, President of Cognac, second son of Euphemon.
Rondon, a Citizen of Cognac.
Lise, Daughter of Rondon.
Martha, Chambermaid to Lise.
Jasmin, Valet to young Euphemon.
This piece was produced in 1736, anonymously, and was a great success.
Come, come, cheer up, my old, melancholy friend, how happy will it make me to see you merry again! and merry we will be: what a pleasure it is to think my daughter will revive your drooping family! But this same son of ours, this Master Fierenfat, seems to me to behave strangely in the affair.
Puffed up with his presidentship, he makes love by weight and measure: a young fellow putting on the gray beard, and dictating to us like a Cato, is, in my opinion, a mighty ridiculous animal; I would prefer a fool to a coxcomb at any time; in short, brother, he is too proud, and self-sufficient.
And let me tell you, brother, you are a little too hasty.
I cannot help it; it is my nature: I love truth, I love to hear it, and I love to speak it: I love now and then to reprove my son-in-law, to rate him for his coxcombial, pedantic airs: to be sure, you acted like a wise father, to turn your elder son out of doors; that gamester, that wild rake-helly profligate, to make room for this prudent younger brother; to place all your hopes on this promising youth, and buy a presidentship for him. O ’twas a wise act no doubt: but the moment he became Mr. President, by my troth, he was stuffed up with vanity and impertinence: he goes like clock-work, walks and talks in time, and says he has a great deal more wit than I have, who, you know, brother, have a great deal more than you: he is—
Nay, nay, what a strange humor this is! must you always be—
Well, well, no matter; what does it signify? all these faults are nothing when people are rich: he is, as I was going to say, covetous, and every covetous man is wise: O it is an excellent vice for a husband, a most delightful vice. Come, come, this very day he must be my son-in-law; Lise shall be his: it only remains now, my dear sorrowful friend, that you make over all your goods and chattels, hereditary or acquired, present and future, to your son, only reserving to yourself a moderate income: let everything be signed and sealed as soon as possible, that this same young gentleman of yours may throw a good fortune into our laps, without which my daughter will most certainly look another way for a husband.
I have promised you, sir, and I will keep my word: yes, Fierenfat shall have everything I am possessed of: the sad remainder of my unhappy life shall glide away silently in some distant retreat: but I cannot help wishing that one, for whom I design my all, was less eager to enjoy it: I have seen the mad debauchery of one son, and now behold with concern the soul of the other devoted to interest.
So much the better, man, so much the better.
O my dear friend, I was born to be an unfortunate father.
Let me have none of your lamentations, your sighs, and your groans: what! do you want your elder hopeful to come back, that prodigal spend-thrift, to spoil all our pleasure at once, and drop in like a trouble-feast on the day of marriage?
Would you have him come, and swear the house down?
Beat you, and run away with my daughter, with my dear Lise; my Lise, who—
Long may that charming maid be preserved from such wicked fellows!
Do you want him to come again to plunder his father? Do you want to give him your estate?
No, no: his brother shall have it all.
Ay! or my daughter will have none of him.
To-day he shall have Lise, and all my fortune: his brother will have nothing of me but the anger of a father, whom he hath grievously injured: he has deserved my hatred; an unnatural boy!
Indeed you bore with him too long; the other at least has acted with discretion: but as for him, he was a profligate: my God, what a libertine! Do you not remember, ha! ha! that was a droll trick enough, when he robbed you of your clothes, horses, linen, and movables, to equip his little Jourdain, who left him the very next morning. Many a time have I laughed at that, I own.
O what pleasure can you find in repeating my misfortunes?
And then his staking twenty rouleaux upon an ace; O dear! O dear!
Have done with this.
Don’t you remember, when he was to have been betrothed to my little Lise in the face of the church, where he had hid himself, and upon whose account, too?—the debauched rogue!
Spare me the remembrance, good Rondon, of these unhappy circumstances, that only set his conduct in the worst light: am I not already unfortunate enough? I left my own house, the place of my nativity, on purpose to remove as far as possible from my thoughts the memory of a misfortune, which, whenever it recurs, distracts me. Your business led you to this place; we have entered into a connection with, and friendship for, each other; let me entreat you, Rondon, make the proper use of it. You are always repeating truths of some kind or other; but let me tell you, truth is not always agreeable.
Well, well, it is agreed; I say no more; I ask pardon; but surely the devil was in you, when you knew his violent temper, to make a soldier of him.
Forgive me, but really you ought—
I know it: I know I ought to forget everything but my younger son, and his marriage: but tell me sincerely, Rondon, think you he has been able to gain your daughter’s heart?
O no doubt of it: my girl is a girl of honor, and will be obedient to her father: if I tell her she must fall in love, her little docile heart, which I can turn and wind just as I please, falls in love immediately, without any arguing about the matter: I know how to manage her, I warrant you.
I have notwithstanding some doubts about her obedience in this affair, and am greatly mistaken if she answers your expectation: my elder son had a place in her affections: I know how strong the first impressions of love are upon a tender heart; they are not worn out in a day; indeed, my friend, they are not.
Say what you please, that wild fellow knew how to be agreeable.
Not he indeed: he was nobody: a poor creature: no, no; never you fear that: after his behavior to you, I bade my daughter never to think of him any more; therefore set your heart at rest. When I say no, who shall dare to say yes? But you shall see, here she comes.
euphemon, rondon, lise, martha.
Come hither, my dear: this day, my dear, is a grand holiday for you, I am sure; for this day I intend to give you a husband: now tell me, my little Lise, be he old or young, handsome or ugly, grave or gay, rich or poor, shall you not have the strongest desire to please him? have you not already an inclination for him? are you not in love with him?
O ho! my liege: why, your power is a little on the decline. What is become of your despotic authority!
Ha! how is this! what, after all I said to you, have you no passion for your future husband? no inclination? no—
None in the least, sir.
Don’t you know your duty obliges you to give him your whole heart?
No, sir; I tell you, no. I know, sir, how far a heart, obedient to the dictates of virtue, is obliged by the solemn tie of marriage. I know, sir, it is a wife’s duty to make herself as amiable as possible, and to endeavor to deserve a husband’s tenderness; to make amends by goodness for what she wants in beauty; abroad to be discreet and prudent; at home, affable and agreeable; but, as for love, it is quite another thing: it will not endure slavery: inclination can never be forced, therefore never attempt it: to my husband I shall yield up everything—but my heart, and that he must deserve before he can possess it: depend upon it, that the heart will never be taught to love by the command of a father; no, nor be argued into it by reason, nor frightened into it by a lawyer.
In my opinion, the girl talks sensibly, and I approve the justice of her argument: my son, I hope, will endeavor to make himself worthy of a heart so noble and so generous.
Hold your tongue, you old doting flatterer, you corrupter of youth: without your encouragement, the girl would never have thought of prating to me in this ridiculous manner.
Hark ye, miss, I have provided you a husband, perhaps he may have a little of the coxcomb, and take upon him rather too much; but it is my business to correct my son-in-law, and yours to take him, such as he is: to love one another as well as you can, and obey me in everything, that’s all you have to do: and now, brother, let us go sign and seal with my scrivener, who will give us a hundred words where four would be sufficient: come, let us away, and rattle the old brawler: then will I come back, and scold my son, and your daughter, and yourself.
Mighty well, sir: come along.
My God! what an odd mixture it is! how strangely the old gentleman jumbles his ideas together!
I am his daughter still; and his odd humors, after all, don’t alter the goodness of his heart. Under this violence of passion, and air of resentment, he has still the soul of a father; nay, sometimes, even in the midst of his freaks, and while he is scolding me, he will take my advice: to be sure, when he finds fault with the husband he has provided for me, and tells me of the hazard I run in such a marriage, he is but too much in the right: but when, at the same time, he lays his commands on me to love him, then indeed he is most miserably wrong.
How is it possible you should ever love this Monsieur Fierenfat? I’d sooner marry an old soldier, that swears, gets drunk, beats his wife, and yet loves her, than a coxcomb of the long robe, fond of nobody but himself; who, with a grave tone and pedantic air, talks to his wife as if he was examining her in a court of justice; a peacock that is always looking at his own tail, who bridles under his band, and admires himself; a wretch who has even more covetousness than pride, and makes love to you as he counts out his money.
Thou hast painted him to the life; but what can I do? I must submit to this marriage: we are not the disposers of our own fate: my parents, my fortune, my age, all conspire to force me into the bonds of wedlock. This Fierenfat, in spite of my dislike of him, is the only man here who can be my husband: he is the son of my father’s friend, and I can’t possibly shake him off. Alas! how few hearts are bestowed according to their own inclinations! I must yield: time and patience perhaps may conquer my disgust of him; I may reconcile myself to the yoke, and come at last to pass over his faults as I do my own.
Mighty well resolved indeed, my beautiful and discreet mistress: but your heart, I am afraid, is not quite so open—O if I dared—but you have forbidden my ever mentioning—
Euphemon—who, spite of all his vices, I know, had once an interest in your heart; who loved you.
O never, never: mention no more a name which I detest.
Well, well, I say no more about him.
[Pulling her back.
It is true, his youth did for a little time betray me into a tenderness for him; but was he formed to make a virtuous woman happy?
A dangerous fool indeed, madam.
[Pulling her back.
He met with too many corrupters to lead him astray, unhappy youth! he took his round of pleasures, but knew little, I believe, of love.
And yet there was a time when you seemed to think you had caught him in the toils.
If he had really loved, it might have reformed him; for, believe me, a real passion without disguise is the best curb on vice; and he who feels it, either is a worthy man, or soon will be so: but Euphemon despised his mistress, left love and tenderness for folly and debauchery. Those worthless villains, who pretended to be his friends, and drew him into the snare, after having exhausted all his mother’s fortune, robbed his unhappy father, and laid it upon him: to complete his misery, those vile seducers took him away from his father’s protection, and snatched him from me; hid him forever from these eyes, which, bathed in tears, still lament his vices and his charms. I think no more about him.
His brother, it seems, succeeds to his fortunes, and is to marry you; more’s the pity, I say: t’other had a fine face, fair hair, a good leg, danced well, sang well, in short, was born for love.
What are you talking of?
Even in the midst of all his freaks and follies, all his strange conduct, one might see a fund of honor in his heart.
There was; he seemed formed for virtue.
Don’t think, madam, I mean to flatter him: but to do him justice, he was not mean, nor servile; no railer, no sharper, no liar.
Away: here comes his brother.
Nay: we must stay now, it is too late to get off.
lise, martha, fierenfat,the President.
To be sure, madam, this augmentation of fortune must make the match more agreeable: increase of riches is increase of happiness, and, as I may say, the very soul of housekeeping: fortune, honor, and dignity will not be wanting to the wife of M. Fierenfat. At Cognac, madam, you will have the precedency of the first ladies of the beau-monde, let me tell you, madam, no little satisfaction: you will hear them whispering as you go along, “There she goes, Madame la Presidente”: really, madam, when I reflect upon my rank, my riches, the privilege of my high office, and all the good qualities I possess altogether, with my right of eldership which will be made over to me, I assure you, madam, I pay you no small compliment.
Now, for my part, I am of another opinion: always to be talking of your quality, your rank, and your riches, is extremely ridiculous: a Midas and Narcissus at once, blown up with your pride, and contracted with avarice; always looking at yourself and your money; a petit-maitre with a band on; the most unnatural of all human creatures: a young coxcomb may pass off, but a young miser is—a monster.
I believe, sweetheart, it is not you whom I am to marry to-day, but this lady; therefore, you will please, madam, to trouble your head no more about us; silence will become you best.
[Turning to Lise.
You, madam, I hope, who in an hour or two are to be my wife, will, I hope, favor me so far as, before night, to dismiss this blustering body-guard of yours, who makes use of a chambermaid’s privilege to give rein to her impertinence: but I would have her know I am not a President for nothing, and may, perhaps, lock her up for her own good.
Speak to him, madam, and defend me: if he locks me up, he may lock you up, too, for aught I know.
I augur ill from all this.
Speak to him then, and don’t mutter.
What can I say to him?
No: I’ll reason with him.
That will never do, take my word for it; t’other’s the better way.
rondon, fierenfat, lise.
Upon my word, a pleasant affair this.
What’s the matter?
You shall hear. As I was tramping to your old gentleman with the parchments, I met him at the foot of this rock, talking with a traveller who had just alighted from a coach.
A young traveller?
No: a toothless old fellow leaning on a crutch. I observed them rubbing their gray beards against each other for some time, shrugging up their humpbacks, and sighing most piteously; then they turned up the whites of their eyes, and fell to snivelling together: at last Euphemon, with a crabbed face, told me he had met with a great calamity, that at least he must have time to weep before he could sign the articles, and at that time could not talk to anybody.
O I must go myself and comfort him: you know I can manage him as I please; besides, the affair is really my own concern; but as soon as he sees me with the contract in my hand, he will sign immediately. Time is precious, and my new right of eldership a matter of importance.
There is no hurry, sir, you need not be so impatient.
But I say he shall be in a hurry: all this is your doing, madam.
How, sir! mine!
Yes, yours, madam. All the crosses and disappointments that make families unhappy, come from undutiful daughters.
What have I done, sir, to disoblige you?
What have you done! turned everything topsyturvy; put us all in confusion: but I’ll let these two wiseacres lay their heads together a little, and then marry you off in spite of their teeth; in spite of yourself, too, if you provoke me.
End of the First Act.
I see this matrimony frightens you a little: this noise and bustle of preparation has something terrible in it.
To say the truth, so it has; and the more I think on the weight of this yoke, the more this heart of mine trembles at it. Marriage, in my opinion, is the greatest good, or the greatest evil; there is no such thing as a medium in it: where hearts are united, where harmony of sentiment, taste and humor strengthen the bonds of nature, where love forms the tie, and honor gives a sanction to it, it is surely the happiest state which mortals can enjoy. What pleasure must it be to own your passion publicly, to bear the name of the dear beloved object of your wishes! your house, your servants, your livery, everything carrying with it some pleasing remembrance of the man you love; and then to see your children, those dear pledges of mutual affection, that form, as it were, another union: O such a marriage is a heaven upon earth: but to make a vile contract, to sell our name, our fortune, and our liberty, and submit them to the will of an arbitrary tyrant, and be only his first slave, an upper servant in his family; to be eternally jarring, or running away from one another, the day without joy, and the night without love; to be always afraid of doing what we should not do; to give way to our own bad inclinations, or to be continually opposing them; to be under the necessity either of deceiving an imperious husband or dragging out life in a languid state of troublesome duty and obedience; to mutter, and fret, and pine away with grief and discontent; O such a marriage is the hell of this world.
The young ladies of this age have certainly, they say, some little demon, some familiar, to inspire them! Why, what a deal of knowledge this girl has picked up in so short a time! the most expert, artful widow in Paris, that ever comforted herself with the thought of having buried three husbands, could not have talked more learnedly on this head than my young mistress here; but we must have a little éclaircissement with regard to this marriage, which it seems is so mighty disgusting: you don’t approve of Monsieur le President, pray how should you like his brother? Come, unriddle the mystery to me. Has not the elder brother supplanted the younger? Come, whom do you love, or whom do you hate? Tell me the truth at once, and speak honestly.
I know nothing about it: I cannot, dare not tell you the cause of my dislike. Why would you search for a melancholy truth at the bottom of a heart already but too deeply afflicted? We can never see ourselves in the water, whilst the tempest is howling around us; no; first let the storm be hushed, the wind calm, and the surface smooth.
Comparisons, madam, will never pass for argument: it is easy enough sometimes to see the bottom of a heart, it’s clear enough: and if the passions are now and then a little tempestuous, a young lady of understanding can generally guess from what corner the wind blows that has raised the storm. She knows well enough—
I tell you, I know nothing; and I am resolved to shut my eyes, and see nothing. I would not wish to know whether I am still weak enough to retain a passion for a wretch whom I ought to abhor, nor would I increase my disgust for one man by regretting the charms of another. No: let the false Euphemon live happy and content, if he can be so; but let him not be disinherited; never will I be so cruel and inhuman as to make myself his sister on purpose to ruin and destroy him. Now you know my heart, search into it no further, unless you mean to tear it in pieces.
lise, martha,a Servant.
Madam, the baroness of Croupillac waits below.
Her visit astonishes me.
She is just arrived from Angoulême, and comes to pay her respects to you.
Upon what occasion?
O upon your marriage, no doubt.
The very subject I would wish to avoid. Am I in a condition to listen to a heap of ridiculous compliments, a register of commonplace cant, and hypocrisy, that tires one to death; where common sense is murdered by the perpetual exercise of talking without saying anything? What a task I have to go through!
lise, mme. de croupillac, martha.
Here her ladyship comes.
Ay, I see her but too well.
They say she wants vastly to be married, is apt to be a little quarrelsome, and almost in her dotage.
Some chairs here. Madam, you will pardon me, if—
I, madam, must likewise beg—
Pray be seated.
Upon my word, madam, I am quite confounded, and wish, from the bottom of my soul, it was in my power to—
Yes, madam, I heartily wish I could steal your charms; it makes me weep to see you so handsome.
Pray, madam, be comforted.
No, madam, that’s impossible. I see, my dear, you may have as many husbands as you please. I had one, too, at least I thought so; only one, and that’s a melancholy consideration; and trouble enough I had to get him, too, and you are going to rob me of him. There is a time, madam—O dear! how soon that time comes about!—when if a lover deserts us, we lose our all, and one is quite left alone: and let me tell you, madam, it is very cruel to take away all from one, who has little or nothing left.
You must excuse me, madam, but I am really astonished both at your visit and your conversation: what accident, pray, has afflicted you so? Whom have you lost, or whom have I robbed you of?
My dear child, there are a great many wrinkled old fools, who fancy that, by the help of paint and a few false teeth, they can stop the course of time and pleasure, and fix wandering love; but, to my sorrow, I am a little wiser: I see too plainly that everything is running away, and I can’t bear it.
I am sorry for it, madam, if it be so; but I can’t possibly make you young again.
I know it; but I have still some hopes: perhaps to restore my false one to me, might, in some measure, give me fresh youth and beauty.
What false one do you mean?
My ungrateful, cruel husband, whom I have run after so long; and little worthy he is of all my care. The President, madam.
Yes, madam: when Croupillac was in her bloom, she would not have talked to presidents; their persons, their manners, their everything was my aversion, but as we grow old, we are not quite so difficult.
And so, madam—
And so, madam, in short, you have reduced me to a state of misery and despair.
I, madam? how? by what means?
I’ll tell you. I lived, you must know, at Angoulême, and, as a widow, had the free disposal of my person: there, at that very time, was Fierenfat, a student, a president’s apprentice, you understand me: he ogled me for a long time, and took it into his head to be most villainously in love with me. Villainously, I say, most horrid and abominable; for what did he make love to? my money. I got some people to write to the old gentleman, who interested themselves too far in the affair, and talked to him in my name: he returned in answer, that he would—consider it: so you see the thing was settled.
For my part, I had no objection: his elder brother was at that time, so I was informed, engaged to you.
He was a foolish fellow, my dear; but had then the honor to be in your good graces.
This silly fellow, my dear, as I was telling you, being quite out at elbows, kicked out of doors by his father, and wandering about the wide world, dead, perhaps, by this time (you seem concerned), my college hero, my President, knowing extremely well, that your fortune was, upon the whole, much better than mine, has thought fit to laugh at my disappointment, and go in quest of your superior—portion. But do you think, madam, to run in this manner from brother to brother, and engross a whole family to yourself? I do here most solemnly enter my protest against it: I forbid the banns: I’ll venture my whole estate, my dowry, and everything; in short, the cause shall be so managed, that you, his father, my children, all of us shall be dead, before ever it is put an end to.
I assure you, madam, with the utmost sincerity, I am very sorry that my marriage should make you miserable: I am sure, however, you have no reason to be angry with me; but I find we may make others jealous without being happy ourselves: look no longer, madam, I beseech you, with an eye of envy upon my condition; he is a husband I shall not quarrel with you for.
Not quarrel for him?
No: I’ll give him up to you with all my heart.
You have no taste then for his person? you don’t love him?
I see very few charms in matrimony, and none at all in a lawsuit; and so, madam—
mme. de croupillac, lise, rondon.
So, so, daughter, here’s fine work; protests, declarations, and lawsuits, enough to make one’s hair stand on end. Ouns! shall Rondon be talked to thus? but I’ll ferret them out, the impertinent rascals.
Must I suffer more indignities! Hear me, M. Rondon.
What would you have, madam?
Your son-in-law, sir, is a false villain, a coxcomb of a new species, a gallant, and a miser, a widow-hunter, a fellow that loves nothing but money.
He’s in the right of it.
In my own house has he a thousand times vowed eternal constancy to me.
Promises of that kind, madam, are very seldom kept.
And then to leave me so basely.
I believe I should have done the same.
But I shall talk to his father in a proper manner.
I’d rather you would talk to him than to me.
’Tis a wicked thing, so it is; and the whole sex will take my part, and cry out shame upon him.
They can’t cry louder than yourself.
I’ll make the world know how they should treat a baroness.
I’ll tell you how: laugh at her.
A husband, look ye, I must have; and I will take him, or his old father, or you.
I defy you.
We’ll try it: I’ll go to law with you.
rondon, fierenfat, lise.
Pray, madam, what’s the reason you receive such visitors in my house? you are always bringing me into some scrape or other.
And you, sir, Mr. King of Pedants, what nonsensical demon inspired you with the thought of courting a baroness, only to laugh at and abuse her? A pretty scheme indeed, with that flat face of yours, to give yourself the airs of a flighty young coxcomb; with that grave sorrowful countenance to play the gallant: it might have become the rake your brother, but for you—fie! fie!
My dear father-in-law, don’t be misled: I never was desirous of this match; I only promised her conditionally, and always reserved to myself the right of taking a richer wife, if I could get one; the disinheriting my elder brother, and coming into immediate possession of his fortune, have given me pretensions to your daughter: come, come, money makes the best matches.
So it does, my boy; there you’re in the right.
Now that right I take to be quite wrong.
Pshaw! pshaw! money does everything, that’s certain; let us therefore settle the affair immediately: sixty good sacks full of French crowns will set everything right, in spite of all the Croupillacs in the universe. How this Euphemon makes me wait! I’m out of all patience; but let us sign before he comes.
No, sir, there I enter my caveat: I will only submit on certain conditions.
Conditions! impertinence! you pretend to say—
I say, sir, what I think: can we ever taste, can we enjoy that guilty happiness, which springs from another’s misery? and you, sir, [to Fierenfat] can you in your prosperity forget that you have a brother?
A brother? I never saw him in my life: he was gone from home when I was at college, hard at my Cujatius and Bartole. I’ve heard indeed of his pranks since; and, if he ever comes back again, we know what we have to do, never fear that; we shall send him off to the galleys.
A brotherly and a Christian resolution! In the meantime you’ll confiscate his estate; that, I suppose, is your intention: but I tell you, sir, I detest and abhor the project.
Heigh! heigh! very fine; but come, my dear, the contract is drawn, and the lawyer has taken care of all that.
Our forefathers have determined concerning this matter; consult the written law: let me see, in Cujatius, chapter the fifth, sixth, and seventh, we read thus: “Every debauched libertine that leaves his father’s house, or pillages the same, shall, ipso facto, be dispossessed of everything, and disinherited as a bastard.”
I know nothing about laws or precedents, nor have ever read Cujatius; but will venture to pronounce, that they are a set of vile unfeeling wretches, foes to common sense and without humanity, who say a brother should let a brother perish: nature and honor have their rights to plead, that are more powerful than Cujatius and all your laws.
Come, come, let’s have none of your codes, and your honor, and your nonsense; but do as I’d have you: what’s all this fuss about an elder brother? there should be money.
There should be virtue, sir: let him be punished: but leave him at least something to subsist on, the poor remains of an elder brother’s right: in a word, sir, I must tell you, my hand shall never be purchased at the price of his ruin: blot out, therefore, that article in the contract which I abhor, and which would be a disgrace to us all: if lucrative views induced you to draw it up thus, it is a shame and a dishonor to us, and therefore, I desire it may be expunged.
How very little women know of business!
What! you want to correct two attorneys-at-law, and make a contract void: O lud! O lud!
You’ll never make a good housewife; you’ll let everything go to rack and ruin.
At present, sir, I cannot boast my knowledge of the world, or of economy; but I will maintain it, the love of money destroys more families than it supports; and if ever I have a house of my own, the foundation of it shall be laid on—justice.
She is light-headed; but let us humor her a little: come, give him a little portion, and the business will be over.
Ay, ay, well—I give to my brother—ay, I give him—come along—
Not a single farthing.
euphemon, rondon, lise, fierenfat.
O here comes the old gentleman. Well, I have brought my daughter to reason; we want nothing now but your hand to the contract. Come, come, let’s have no more delays, cheer up, put on your jovial countenance, your wedding looks, man; for in nine months’ time, I’ll lay my life, two thumping boys—come, come, let us laugh and sing, and cast away care: sign, my boy, sign.
I can’t, sir.
Ay, here’s another now!
For what reason, pray?
What is all this madness? Are all the world turned fools? Everybody says no. Why how is this? what’s the meaning of it?
To sign the contract at a time like this, would be flying in the face of nature.
What! is my lady Croupillac at the bottom of all this?
No: she’s a fool, and wants to break off the match for her own sake: ’tis not from her ridiculous noise that my uneasiness arises, I assure you.
Whence comes it then? Did that fellow out of the coach put it into your head? Are we indebted to him for all this?
What he told me must at least retard our happy marriage, which we were so eager upon.
What did he tell you, sir?
Ay, sir, what news did he bring?
News that shocked me: at Bordeaux this man saw my son, naked, friendless, and in prison, dying with hunger; shame and sickness leading him to the grave: sickness and misfortunes had blasted the flower of his youth; and an obstinate fever, that had poisoned his blood, seemed to threaten that his last hour was not far off: when he saw him, he was then just expiring: alas! perhaps by this time he is no more.
Then his pension’s paid.
Don’t be frightened, child, what is it to you?
Ha! the blood hath forsaken her cheeks; she looks pale as death.
The jade has a little too much sensibility about her, that’s the truth of it: but as he’s dead, I forgive thee.
But after all, sir, do you mean—
Don’t be afraid; you shall have her; it is my desire you should: but to choose a day of mourning for a wedding-day, would be highly unbecoming. How would my griefs interrupt your mirth! how would your chaplets fade when wetted with a father’s tears! no, my son, you must put off your happiness, and give me one day to indulge my sorrow: joy so ill-timed as this would be an affront to decency.
No doubt it would: for my part, I had much rather share with you in your affliction, than think of marriage.
Nay, but, my dear father—
Why, you’re an old fool: what! put off a wedding, that has been the Lord knows how long upon the anvil, for an ungrateful young dog, who has been a hundred times disinherited: a p—x on you and your whole family!
At such a time a father must still be a father; his errors, his vices, and his crimes always made me unhappy; and it hurts me still more to think, that he is dead without ever repenting of them.
Well, well, we’ll make that matter easy: ha! boy, let us give him some grandsons to make him amends: come, come, sign, and let’s have a dance: what nonsense this is!
But—ouns! this makes me mad: to be sorry for the luckiest accident that could happen, ridiculous! Sorrow is good for nothing at the best; but to whimper and whine, because you have got rid of a burden, intolerable absurdity! This eldest son, this scourge of yours, to my knowledge, two or three times had like to have broken your heart; sooner or later he would have brought you to the grave: therefore, prithee, man, take my advice, and make yourself easy; the loss of such a son is the greatest gain.
True, my friend; but it is a gain that costs me more than you think: alas! I lament that he died, and I lament that ever he was born.
Away, follow the old gentleman, and be as expeditious as you can; the dead, you see, has got hold of the living; so take the contract, I’ll not be haggled with any longer; take his hand, and make him sign. For you, madam [to Lise] we shall expect you to-night; everything will go well, I warrant you.
I’m in the utmost despair.
End of the Second Act.
I have served you, sir, now two years, without knowing who or what you are: you were then my master; permit me now to call you my friend: you are now, like myself, thrown upon the wide world, and poverty has put us on a level: you are no longer the man of pleasure, the gallant and gay Euphemon, treated and caressed by the men, surrounded and courted by the women. Every stiver you had is gone to the devil; and you have nothing now to do but to forget you were ever worth a shilling; for surely the most insupportable of all evils is the remembrance of happiness which we no longer enjoy: for my part, I was always plain Jasmin, and therefore the less to be pitied: born as I was to suffer, I suffer contentedly; to be in want of everything is only natural to me; your old hat there, for instance, and coarse ragged waistcoat, was my usual garb; and you have great reason to be sorry that you had not always been as poor as myself.
How shame and ignominy attend upon misfortune! how melancholy a consideration is it to reflect, that a servant shall have it in his power to humble me! and what’s worse, I feel that he’s in the right, too; he endeavors to comfort me, after his manner; he keeps me company; and his heart, rough and unpolished as it is, is sensible, tender, and humane: born my equal—for as a fellow-creature so he was—he tried to support me under my affliction, and follows my unhappy fortune, while every friend I had, abandons me.
Friends, did you say, sir? Pray, my good master, who are they? how are those people made whom they call friends?
You have seen them, Jasmin, coming into my house whenever they pleased, troubling me forever with their importunate visits; a crowd of parasites, who lived upon my bounty, complimented my fine taste, my elegance, my delicacy; borrowed my money, then praised me before my face, and stunned me with their ridiculous flattery.
Ay, poor devil! you did not hear them laughing at you as they went away, and making a joke of your foolish generosity.
I believe it; for in the beginning of my misfortunes, when I was arrested at Bordeaux, not one of those, on whom I had lavished my all, ever came near me, or offered me his purse; and when I got out sick and friendless, I applied to one of them, in this poor ragged condition, and almost famished, for a little charitable assistance to lengthen out my wretched life, he turned away his unrelenting eye, pretended even to know nothing of me, and turned me out like a common beggar.
Not one to comfort or support you?
Such wretches! friends indeed!
Men are made of iron.
And women, too.
Alas! from them I expected more tenderness; but met with even a thousand times greater inhumanity: one of them in particular I well remember, who openly avowed her passion for me, and seemed to take a pride in obliging me; and yet in the very lodgings, which she had furnished at my expense, and with the money I had squandered upon her, did she procure every day new gallants, and treat them with my wine, while I was perishing with hunger in the street: in short, Jasmin, if it had not been for the old man, who picked me up by chance at Bordeaux, and who, he said, knew me when I was a child, death had by this time put an end to my misfortunes: but knowest thou, Jasmin, whereabout we are?
Near Cognac, if I am not mistaken; where, they tell me, my old master Rondon lives.
Rondon! the father of—whom did you say?
Rondon, a blunt, odd fellow; I had the honor of belonging to his kitchen once; but being always of a roving disposition, chose to travel; and after that was an errand boy, a lackey, a clerk, a foot-soldier, and a deserter; at length in Bordeaux you took me into your service. Rondon perhaps may recollect me: who knows but in our adversity—
How long is it since you left him?
About fifteen years. He was a character; half pleasant, and half surly; but at the bottom a good honest fellow: he had a child, I remember, an only daughter, a perfect jewel; blue eyes, short nose, fresh complexion, vermilion lips; and then for sense and understanding, quite a miracle. When I lived there, she was, let me see, about six or seven years old, by my troth a sweet flower, and by this time fit to be gathered.
But why should I talk to you about her? It can be of no service to you; I see you are concerned, and the tears trickle down your cheeks: my poor master!
What unhappy fate could guide me to this place! O me!
You seem in deep contemplation, and as if the sight of this place made you unhappy; you weep, too.
I have reason.
Do you know Rondon? Are you any way related to the family?
O let me alone, let me alone.
For pity’s sake, my dear master, my friend, tell me who you are.
I am—I am a poor unhappy wretch, a fool, a madman, a guilty abandoned criminal, whom heaven should punish, and earth detest: would I were dead!
No: we must live. What, die with famine while we can help ourselves! we have our hands at least, let us make use of them, and leave off complaining: look on those fellows yonder, who have no fortune but their industry, with their spades in their hands, turning up the garden; let us join them: come, work, man, and get your livelihood.
Alas! those poor beings, mean as they are, and approaching nearer to animal than human nature, even they taste more pleasure and satisfaction in their labors, than my false delicacy and idle follies could ever afford me; they live, at least, free from trouble, and remorse, and enjoy health of body and peace of mind.
mme. de croupillac, young euphemon, jasmin.
What do I see? or do my eyes deceive me? the more I look on him, the more I think it must be he. [She looks steadfastly at Euphemon.] And yet surely it cannot be the same; it can never be that gallant squire of Angoulême, that played so high, and seemed to be lined with gold: it is he: [She comes forward] but the other was rich and happy, handsome, and well-made; this fellow looks poor and ugly. Sickness will spoil the finest face, and poverty makes a still more dreadful alteration.
What female apparition is this that haunts us with her malignant aspect?
If I am not mistaken, I know her well enough; she has seen me in all my pomp and splendor: how dreadful it is to appear mean and destitute in the eyes of those who have seen us in affluence and prosperity! let us be gone.
[Coming up to Euphemon.
What strange accident, my dear child, hath reduced thee to this pitiful plight?
My own folly.
Why, what a figure dost thou make!
Ay, madam, the consequence of having good friends; of being robbed, and plundered.
Plundered? by whom? how? when? where?
O from mere goodness of heart: our thieves were mighty honest creatures, persons that figured in the beau-monde, amiable triflers, gamesters, bottle-companions, agreeable story-tellers, men of wit, and women of beauty.
I understand you: you have squandered away all you had in eating and drinking: but you will think this nothing when you come to know the distresses I have undergone, and the losses I have suffered with regard to—matrimony.
Your humble servant, madam.
Your servant indeed; no, no, positively you shall stay, and hear my misfortunes; you shall be sorry for me.
Well, well, I am sorry for you; good by to you.
Nay, now I vow and swear you shall hear the whole story. One Monsieur Fierenfat, a lawyer by profession, got acquainted with me at Angoulême, about [she runs after him] the time when you beat the four bailiffs, and ran away; this Monsieur Fierenfat, you must know, lives not far from hence, with his father, Euphemon.
For heaven’s sake, madam, that Euphemon mean you, so celebrated for his virtues, the honor of his race, could he—
And does he live here?
And may I ask you, madam, how is he? how does he?
Very well, I believe, sir: what the deuce ails him?
And pray, madam, what do they say—
Of whom, sir?
Of an elder son he had formerly.
O an ill-begotten rogue, a rake, a rattle-pate, an arrant sot, a madman, a fellow given up to every vice; hanged, I suppose, by this time.
Indeed, madam—but I am ashamed of interrupting you in this manner.
To proceed then: this Monsieur Fierenfat, as I was telling you, his younger brother, made strong love to me, and was to have been married to me.
And is he so happy? have you got him?
No: would you think it, sir, this fool, puffed up with the thoughts of stepping in to all his mad brother’s fortune, growing rich, and wanting to be more so, breaks off this match, which would have been so honorable to him, and now wants to lay hold of the daughter of one Rondon, a vulgar cit, the cock of the village here.
Going to marry her, say you?
And here am I most dreadfully jealous of her.
That beautiful creature—Jasmin here was just now giving me a picture of her—would she throw herself away—
[Aside to Euphemon.
What are you about, sir? this husband is as good as another for her, I think: but my master’s a strange man, everything afflicts him.
This is beyond all bearing.
[Aloud to Mme. de Croupillac.
My heart, madam, is deeply sensible of the injury you have received; this Lise should never be his, if I could prevent it.
You take it rightly, sir; you lament my unhappy fate; the poor are always compassionate; you had not half the good nature when you rolled in money; but mind what I have to say, in this life we may always help one another.
Help us then, dear madam, I beseech you.
You must act for me in this affair.
I, madam! how is it possible for me to serve you?
O in a thousand ways! you shall take my cause in hand: another dress and a little finery will make you still look tolerably handsome: you have a polite, insinuating, address, and know how to wheedle a young girl: introduce yourself into the family, play the flatterer with Fierenfat, compliment him on his riches, his wit, his dress, everything about him, get into his good graces, and while I enter my protest against the unlawful procedure, you will do all the rest; by this means I shall at least gain time.
[Seeing his father at a distance.
What do I see? O heaven!
[He runs off.
Hai! hai! the fellow’s mad sure.
He’s afraid of you, ma’am, that’s all.
A blockhead! here, you, stop, hark ye, hark ye. I must follow him.
old euphemon, jasmin.
Even the imperfect glance I had of that poor wretch, whoever he is, has, I know not why, filled my heart with anguish and disquietude: he had a noble air, and a turn of features that, somehow or other, affected me: alas! I never see a poor creature of that age, but the sad image of my unhappy son recurs to me; I have still a father’s tenderness for him: but he is dead, or only lives with infamy to disgrace me: both my children make me miserable: one by his vice and debauchery is my eternal punishment, while the other abuses my indulgence, and knows but too well that he is the only support of my old age: life is a burden to me, and I must soon sink beneath it. Who art thou, friend?
[Perceiving Jasmin, who bows to him.
Honored sir, noble and generous Euphemon, don’t you remember poor Jasmin, sir, who lived with Rondon?
Ah, Jasmin, is it you? time alters our faces, as you see by mine: when you lived here I had a good fresh complexion, was hearty and well; but age comes on, my time is almost over: and so, Jasmin, you are come back to your own country at last?
Yes, sir: I grew weary of such a fatiguing life, of rambling about like a wandering Jew, so I even came home. Happiness is a fugitive being, I am sure it has been so to me. The Devil took me out, I believe, led me a long walk, and now has brought me back again.
Well, I may assist you perhaps, if you behave yourself well: but who was that other poor wretch you were talking with, he that ran off just now?
A comrade of mine, a poor wretch, half-starved like myself, without a farthing; he’s in search of employment as well as I.
Perhaps I may find some for you both: is he sober and sensible?
He ought to be so: he has very good parts, I know; can write, and read, understands arithmetic, draws a little, knows music; he was very well brought up.
If so, I have a place ready for him: as for you, Jasmin, my son shall hire you; he is going to be married, to-night perhaps: as his fortune is increased, he’ll want more servants; and one of his is going away, too, and you may step into his place: to-night I’ll present you both; you shall see him at my neighbor Rondon’s; I’ll talk to him there about it; so fare thee well, Jasmin; in the meantime, here’s something for you to drink.
The good man! blessings on him! Could I ever have thought in this vile age to meet with so good a heart? his air, his demeanor, his benevolent soul, form together a speaking picture of the integrity of former ages.
young euphemon, jasmin.
Well, I have got a place for you; we are both to serve Euphemon.
Yes, if you like it: you seem surprised: why are your eyes turned up in this manner, as if you were going to be exorcised? what is the meaning of those deep sighs, that will not let you speak?
O Jasmin, I can no longer contain myself; tenderness, pain, remorse, all press upon me.
What! has my lady there said anything to you? what has she told you?
She told me nothing.
What’s the matter then?
My heart will no longer suffer me to conceal it from you: in short, that Euphemon—
Well, what of him?
O he is—my father.
Your father? sir?
Yes, Jasmin; I am that elder son, that criminal, that unfortunate, who has ruined his unhappy family. O how my heart fluttered at the sight of him, and offered up its humble prayers! O with what joy could I have fallen down at his feet!
Thou, Euphemon’s son! forgive me, sir, forgive my rude familiarity.
O Jasmin, thinkest thou a heart, oppressed as mine is, can be offended?
You are the son of a man whom all the world admires; a man of a million: to say the truth, the reputation of his son shows to no great advantage when placed near his father’s.
’Tis that which gives me most uneasiness. But tell me, what did my father say?
I told him, sir, we were two unfortunate youths, very poor, but well educated, and would be glad to serve him: he lamented our fate, and consented to take us. This evening he will introduce you to his son, the President, who, it seems, is to marry Lise; that fortunate brother, to whom my old master Rondon is to be father-in-law.
And now, Jasmin, I will unfold my heart to you: hear the history of my misfortunes, and think how wretched I must be, to draw upon myself, by a variety of follies, the just indignation of a beloved parent; to be hated, despised, disinherited; to feel all the horrors of beggary and want; to see my fortune given to my younger brother, and forced after all, in my state of ignominy, to serve the very man who has robbed me of everything: this is my fate, a fate I have but too well deserved. But would you believe it, Jasmin, in the midst of all my calamities, dead as I am to pleasures, and dead to every hope, hated by the world, despised by all, and expecting nothing, I yet dare to be—jealous.
Jealous! of whom?
Of my brother; of Lise.
So, you are in love with your sister! well, that’s a stroke worthy of you, the only sin you had never yet committed.
You are to know, Jasmin—for I believe you had then left Rondon—that we were no sooner out of our infancy, than our parents promised us to each other: our hearts readily obeyed, and were united: the conformity of our ages, our taste, our manners, our situation, everything conspired to strengthen the tie; like two young trees, we grew up together, and were to have joined our branches: time, that heightened her charms, improved her tenderness, and love made her every day more lovely: the world at that blest time might have envied me; but I was young, foolish, and blind; linked in with a set of wretches, who seduced my innocence; intoxicated with folly and extravagance, I made a merit of despising her passion for me, nay, even affronted her: O I reflect on it with horror. The crowd of vices, that rushed in upon me, carried me away from my father and my friends; what was my fate after this I need not inform you. Everything is gone; and heaven, which tore me from her, has left me nothing but a heart to punish me.
If so it be, and you really love her still, notwithstanding all your distress, Mme. de Croupillac’s advice was good, to insinuate yourself, if possible, into Rondon’s family. Your purse is empty, and love perhaps may find means to fill it again.
Could I ever dare to look upon her, to come in her sight, after what I have done, and in this miserable condition? No. I must avoid a father and a mistress; I have abused the goodness of them both and know not—but it is too late to repent—which should hate me most.
young euphemon, fierenfat, jasmin.
O here comes our wise President.
Is it he? I never saw his face before; my brother, and my rival!
Come, come, this does not go amiss. I have pressed, and rated the old gentleman in such a manner, that I believe we shall be able to finish the affair in spite of him. But where are these fellows who are to serve me?
We are come, please your honor, to offer ourselves—
Which of you two can read?
And write, too, I suppose?
O yes, sir, and cipher, and cast accounts.
Ay, but he must know how to talk, too.
He’s a little modest, sir, and but just recovered from a fit of sickness.
He looks bold enough, I think, and as if he knew his own merit. Well, sir, what wages do you expect?
O sir, we have a most heroic soul.
Well, upon those conditions I take you into my service: come, I’ll present you to my wife.
Your wife, sir?
Yes, I’m going to be married.
O heaven! pray, sir, forgive me, but are you deeply in love with her, sir?
And are you beloved?
I hope so. A droll fellow, this! You seem extremely curious, sir.
How I wish to contradict him, and punish him for his excess of happiness!
What does he say?
He says, he wishes with all his heart he was like you, formed to please.
The ambition of the coxcomb! but come, follow me: be diligent, sober, prudent, careful, clever, and respectful. What, ho! la Fleur, la Brie, you rascals, where are you all? follow me.
[He goes out.
Now could I like to salute him with two good boxes on the ear, to make that lawyer’s face of his twinge again.
I find, my friend, you are not mended much.
I’m sure it is time to be so; and I assure you, I intend to be wiser for the future: from all my errors I shall at least reap this advantage, to know how to suffer.
End of the Third Act.
mme. de croupillac, young euphemon, jasmin.
I have taken care, my friend, by way of precaution, to bring two sergeants from Angoulême; have you performed your part as well, and done as I desired you? Shall you be able, think you, to put on an air of consequence, and sow a little dissension in the family? Have you flattered the old gentleman? Have you looked forward a little?
Believe me, madam, I long to throw myself at her feet.
Pray then make haste and do it; begin your attack as soon as possible, and restore my ungrateful seducer. I’ll go to law for you, and you shall make love for me: cheer up, man, put on your best looks; assume that air of importance and self-sufficiency, which is sure to conquer every heart, which baffles wit, and triumphs over wisdom: to be happy in love, you must be bold; resume your wonted courage.
O I have lost it all.
How so, man? what’s the matter?
I had courage enough when I was not in love; but at present—
There may be other reasons why he should be rather bashful; this Fierenfat, you must know, is our lord and master, and has taken us both into his service.
So much the better; a lucky circumstance: to be a domestic in your mistress’ family, let me tell you, is a singular happiness: make your advantage of it.
Yonder’s something pretty, and coming this way, too, to take the air, I suppose: she seems to come out of Rondon’s house.
’Tis she: come, my dear lover, make haste, now’s your time: pluck up your courage, and speak to her: what! sighing and trembling, and pretend to love her, too? O, fie, fie!
O if you knew the situation of my heart, you would not wonder at my trembling and confusion!
[Seeing Lise at a distance.
Sweet creature! how beautiful she looks!
’Tis she: O heaven! I die with love, with remorse, with jealousy, and despair.
Adieu: I will endeavor to return the obligation.
All I ask of you is, if possible, to put off this cruel marriage.
That’s what I shall immediately set about.
Alas! I tremble.
We must try to get her by herself; let us retire a little.
I’ll follow you: I scarce know what I have done, or what I am going to do. I shall never be able to face her.
lise, martha, jasmin,at the farther end of the stage, andyoung euphemonbehind him.
In vain do I go in and out, backwards, and forwards, endeavoring, if possible, to hide myself from myself; in vain do I seek for solitude, and examine my own heart: alas! the more I look into it, the more am I convinced that happiness was never made for me. If I do at any time enjoy a momentary comfort, it is from that old ridiculous creature Croupillac, and the thought of her preventing this detested match; but then all my apprehensions return, when Fierenfat and my father urge it upon me with repeated importunities: they have gained over the good Euphemon.
In troth, the old man is too good-natured, and Fierenfat governs him most tyrannically.
I pardon him, he’s fond of an only child; his elder, poor man, gave him a great deal of uneasiness, and now he relies entirely upon the other.
But after all, madam, notwithstanding everything that has been reported, it is not clear that the other is yet dead.
Alas! if dead, I must lament; if living, I must hate him: cruel alternatives!
The news of his danger, however, seemed to have a powerful effect upon you.
One might be sorry for his misfortunes without loving him, you know.
But one may as well be dead as not be loved: and so you are really to be married to his brother?
My dear child, I am distracted at the thought of it: you have long known my indifference for Fierenfat; it is now changed to horror and detestation: marriage with him is a potion most dreadfully bitter, which, in my present desperate case, I must swallow much against my will, I assure you; though my hand, at the same time, rejects it with horror and indignation.
[Pulling Martha by the sleeve.
Hark’ee, fair lady, will you give me leave to whisper a word or two in your ear?
Most willingly, sir.
O cruel fate! why didst thou prolong a life, which an ungrateful, guilty lover has made so truly miserable?
One of the President’s servants, madam, but just now hired to him: he says, he should be glad to speak to you.
Let him wait.
Friend, my lady desires you would wait a little.
Always teasing me thus! even when he is absent I can have no peace for him. O dear! how weary am I of this marriage already!
My dear girl, procure us this favor, if you can.
Madam, he says he must speak with you.
So! I see I must go.
There is a person, it seems, who is very desirous of seeing you; he must speak to you, he says, or die.
I find I must go in and hide myself.
lise, martha, young euphemonleaning onjasmin.
I can neither walk nor speak; my sight, too, fails me.
Give me your hand; we’ll cross her as she comes.
O I feel a deadly coldness at my heart [to Lise] will you permit—
[Without looking at him.
What would you, sir?
[Throwing himself on his knees.
What would I? that death which I deserve.
What do I see? O heaven!
Amazing! Euphemon! good God, how changed!
Changed indeed: yes, Lise, you are avenged of me. Well may you wonder, for I am changed in everything: no longer do you behold in me that madman, that false wretch, so feared and detested here; he who betrayed the cause of nature and of love: young and thoughtless as I was, I fell a prey to every passion, and adopted every vice from my loose companions: but O the worst of all my crimes, which never can be blotted out, never atoned for, was my offending you: but here I swear, by thee, and by that virtue, which, though I have forsaken, I yet adore, I have found my error. Vice, though I admitted it, was a stranger to this heart, which is now no longer stained with those guilty blemishes that obscured its native lustre; that pure, that sacred passion, which is still reserved for you, hath refined it; that tender passion, and that alone, brought me hither, not to break off your new engagements, or oppose your happiness, that would ill become a poor abandoned wretch like me: but since the misfortunes, which I so well deserved, have brought me, even in the prime of life, to the brink of the grave, I could not help seeking you, to be a witness of my last moments; and happy, thrice happy shall I be, if he, who was once destined to be your husband, at length shall die, and not be hated by you.
I am scarce myself: can it be Euphemon? can it be you? O heaven! in what a condition too, and what a time is this: wretch as thou art, what cruel injuries hast thou done to both of us!
I know it: at sight of thee, every folly I have been guilty of appears doubly inexcusable: they were dreadful, and you know they were, that is some punishment, but not so much as I deserve.
And is it true, unhappy man, that thou hast at last repented of thy follies; that your rebellious heart is at length subdued, and misfortune hath pointed out to you the road of virtue?
Alas! what will it avail, that my eyes are opened, when it is too late! In vain is that heart subdued, in vain is my return to virtue, since I have lost in you its best, its only valuable reward.
Yet, answer me, Euphemon; may I believe you have indeed gained this glorious victory? consult your own breast, and do not again deceive me: can you yet be prudent and virtuous?
I am so; for still my heart adores you.
And dost thou still love, Euphemon?
Do I love? by that I live, that alone has supported me. I have borne everything, even infamy itself; and a thousand times I would have put an end to my wretched life, but that still I loved it, because it belonged to you: yes, to you I owe my present sentiments, my being, and that new life which now dawns upon me: to you I owe the return of my reason: with love like mine, would to heaven I may be able to preserve it! O do not hide from me that charming face: look at me: see how changed I am: see the cruel effect of care and sorrow: the roses of youth are withered by remorse and misery: there was a time when Euphemon would not thus have affrighted you: do but look on me, ’tis all I ask.
If I see the thinking, the reformed, the constant Euphemon, it is enough: in my eyes he is but too amiable.
What says my Lise? gracious heaven! she weeps.
O support me, my senses fail. Can I ever be the wife of Euphemon’s brother?
[Turning to Euphemon.
But tell me, have you yet seen your father?
O I blush to appear before that good old man, whom I have so dishonored: hated as I am, and banished from his presence, I love and reverence, but dare not look upon him.
What then is your design?
If heaven should graciously prolong my days, if you must be my brother’s happy lot, I propose to change my name and profession, serve as a soldier, and seek for death in the field of honor; perhaps success in arms may acquire me some glory, and even you may hereafter shed a tear over the unhappy Euphemon. My honor at least will never suffer by the employment; Rose and Fabert set out as I shall do.
’Tis a noble resolution; and the heart that was capable of making it must be above guilt and meanness: sentiments like these affect me much more even than the tears you shed at my feet. No, Euphemon, if I am left at liberty to dispose of myself, and can possibly avoid a hateful match proposed for me, if it is in my power to determine your fate, you shall not go so far to change your condition.
O heaven! and does thy generous heart melt at my misfortunes?
They affect me most deeply: but your repentance hath secured me.
And will those dear eyes, that looked on me so long with indignation, will they soften into love and tenderness? O thou hast revived a flame in the breast of Euphemon, which his follies had almost extinguished. Fond as my brother is of riches, though my father has given him all that inheritance which nature had designed for me, he still must envy my happiness. I am dear to you; he alone, and not Euphemon, is disinherited. O I shall die with joy.
Deuce on him, here he comes.
Be upon your guard, Euphemon; keep in those struggling sighs, and dissemble.
Why should I, if you love me?
Consider my relations, consider your own father. Your brother saw us together, saw you at my feet; and all that we can now do is, not to let him know who you are.
I can’t help laughing, to think what a passion his gravity will be in.
lise, martha, jasmin, fierenfat,at the farther end of the stage,young euphemonturning his back to him.
Either some devil has impaired these eyes of mine; or, if I see clear, I most certainly beheld—O yes—it is so—it’s all over with me.
[Coming forward towards Euphemon.
O it is you, sir, is it? traitor, rascal, forger.
I, I could—
[Placing himself between them.
Sir, sir, this—this is an affair of importance that was going forward, and you interrupt it, sir; an affair of love, sir, tenderness, respect, gratitude, and virtue—for my part I’m distracted when I think of it.
An affair of virtue! O yes, and kissing her hand, too! call you that virtue? rascal, slave.
O Jasmin, if I dared—
No: this is a gallant indeed with a witness: had he been a gentleman, but a servant, a beggar—if I was to sue him in a court of justice, it would be only so much money flung away.
Be calm; if you have any regard for me, I beg you will.
The traitor! I’ll have you hanged, you dog.
You laugh, mistress.
I do, to be sure, sir.
And why do you? what do you laugh at?
Lord, sir, ’tis such a comical affair.
You don’t know, madam, the danger you are in: you little think, my good friend, what the law inflicts on such delinquents as you, and how often you may be—
Pardon me, sir, I know it mighty well.
You, madam, seem to be deaf to all this, faithless woman! with that air of innocence, too, to play me such a trick: your inconstancy is a little premature on our very wedding-day, and just before we are married: ’tis a wonderful mark of your chastity.
Don’t be in a passion, sir, nor lightly condemn innocence on bare appearances only.
Yes, sir: when you know my sentiments, you will esteem me for them.
You go an excellent way to gain esteem.
This is too much.
What madness! for heaven’s sake be calm, restrain—
No: I will never suffer him to cast reproach on you.
Do you know, madam, that you lose your jointure, your estate, your portion, everything, as soon as—
[In a passion and putting his hand on his sword.
Do you know, sir, how to hold your tongue?
Come, come, Mr. President, lay aside your assuming airs, be a little less fierce, and haughty: a little less of the judge, if you please: this lady has not yet the honor to be your wife, nor is she even your mistress, sir: what right have you then to complain? your claim is void: you should have known how to please, before you had a right to be angry: such charms were never made for you, and therefore jealousy sits but ill upon you. You see she’s kind, and forgives my warmth; it will become you, sir, to follow her example.
[In a posture of defence.
I’ll bear no more: where are my servants? help here.
Fetch me a constable here.
Retire, I beseech you.
I’ll make you know, sir, the respect that’s due to my rank and profession.
Observe, sir, what you owe to this lady: as to myself, however things may now appear, the respect perhaps is due to me.
You, sir, you?
Yes, sir, me, me.
This is a pure impudent fellow: some lover, I suppose, in the disguise of a servant. Who are you, sir? answer me.
I know not who I am, nor what will be my fate: my rank, condition, fortune, happiness, my very being, all depend on her heart, her kind looks, and her propitious bounty.
They may soon depend upon a court of justice, that I assure you. I’ll go this instant, prepare my records, and hasten to sign the instrument. Begone, ungrateful woman, and dread my resentment; I’ll bring your relatives, and your father; then your innocence will appear in its proper light, and they will esteem you accordingly.
lise, young euphemon, martha.
For heaven’s sake, conceal yourself; let us go in immediately; I tremble at the consequence of this. If your father should find out it was you, nothing will appease him: he will conclude that some new extravagance brought you back here on purpose to insult him, and to sow division between our families; and then you will be confined perhaps, even without being so much as heard in your own defence.
Let me conceal him, and I’ll warrant they shan’t easily find him out.
Come, come, you must away; I must endeavor to reconcile your father: the return of nature shall, if possible, be the work of love: you must be concealed awhile—take you care [to Martha] he does not appear: begone immediately.
Well, my Lise, how is it? I was in search of you and your husband.
Thank God! he is not so yet.
Where are you going?
Decency, sir, at present obliges me to avoid him.
[She goes out.
This President is a dangerous man, I find: now should I like to be incog. in some place close to them, only to see how two lovers look when they are just going to be married.
fierenfat, rondon,Constables, etc.
Where are they, where are they? ha! gone; the subtle villains have escaped me: where have the rascals hid themselves?
Your reverence seems out of breath? what are you in such a hurry about? whom are you hunting after? what have they done to you?
Made a cuckold of me, that’s all.
Ha! ha! a cuckold! ha! how! what is all this?
Yes, yes, my wife, heaven preserve me from ever giving her that name! Yes, sir, a cuckold I am, in spite of all the laws in the kingdom.
Yes, my father-in-law, ’tis but too true.
Well, but the affair—
Is as clear as possible.
You try my patience too far.
I’m sure they have mine.
If I could believe—
You may believe it all, sir, I assure you.
But the more I hear, the less I understand.
And yet it’s very easy to comprehend.
If I were once convinced of it, the world should be a witness of my resentment, I would strangle her with my own hands.
Strangle her then by all means, for the thing is fairly proved.
Something no doubt is wrong, by my finding her here in that condition; she hung down her head, and could scarce speak to me; seemed frightened, and embarrassed too. Come, my son, let us in, and surprise her. This is a case of honor, and where that is concerned, Rondon listens no longer to reason. Away.
End of the Fourth Act.
What a desperate situation is mine! scarce can I believe myself safe, even with you. Think what it must be for a soul so pure, so delicate, as mine, to suffer even for a moment such injurious suspicions: Euphemon, thou dear but fatal lover, thou wert born but to afflict me; thy absence was worse than death to me, and now thy return exposes me to infamy: [turning to Martha] for heaven’s sake, take care of him, for they are making the strictest inquiry.
O never fear; I shall put them to their trumps, I warrant you: I defy all their search-warrants: I have some certain little cunning holes in my cabinet which these ferrets can never get at; there, madam, your lover lies snug, safely concealed from the inquisitive eyes of long-robed pedants. I have led the hounds a pretty good chase, and now the whole pack is at fault.
lise, martha, jasmin.
Well, Jasmin, how stand our affairs?
O I have passed my examination most gloriously, gone through it like an old offender, grown gray in the profession, and answered every question without fear or trembling. One of them drawled out his words with all the solemnity of a pedagogue; another put on a haughty air, and would have brow-beaten me; a third, in a pretty, silvery tone, cried out: “Child, tell us the truth:” while I, with most laconic brevity, and unalterable firmness, fairly routed the whole group of pedants.
They know nothing then.
Nothing: to-morrow perhaps they may know all: time, you know, brings everything to light.
I hope at least Fierenfat will not have time to prejudice his father against me: I have a thousand fears about it: I tremble for him, and for my own honor: in love alone I have placed my hopes, that will assist me—
For my part, I’m in a sad quandary about it, and wish everything may not go wrong: consider, madam, we have against us two old fathers, and a president, besides scolds, and prudes innumerable: if you knew what haughty airs they give themselves, what a supercilious sneer, and severe tone, their proud virtue puts on upon this occasion, with what insolent acrimony they have persecuted your innocence, believe me, madam, their clamors, with their affected zeal, and most religious fury, would raise your laughter, perhaps even make you tremble.
I have travelled, madam, and seen noise and bustle enough, but never before was I witness to such a hubbub; the whole house is turned topsy-turvy; they are all knaves, fools, or madmen; whispering lies against you, and adding one untruth to another; telling the story a hundred different ways; the poor fiddles are sent back without receiving a farthing, or a drop of drink: six tables prepared for the wedding feast, full of the finest delicacies, overset in the confusion: the people run backwards and forwards; the footmen drink and laugh; Rondon swears, and Fierenfat is employed in writing the case out.
And what does the worthy father of Euphemon do amidst all this bustle?
O madam, in his dejected aspect we may read the sorrow of afflicted virtue: he lifts up his eyes to heaven, and cannot bring himself to believe that you have stained the honor of your spotless youth with so black a crime: he defends you to your friends by the strongest arguments: and when at length he is staggered by the proofs they bring against you, he sighs, and says, if you are guilty, he will never again depend on any mortal breathing.
The good old man, how his tenderness affects me!
Here comes another, of a different kind, Master Rondon; let us avoid him, madam.
By no means; my heart is innocent, and should be afraid of nothing.
But I am, I assure you.
lise, martha, rondon.
O thou subtle gypsy, thou forward, thou unnatural girl! O Lise, Lise. But come, madam, I must know the bottom of this vile proceeding: how long have you been acquainted with this robber, this pirate? Tell me his name, his rank, his profession; how got he into your heart? Whence comes he, and where is he? Answer me, madam, answer me. You contemn me, madam, and laugh at my resentment; are not you ashamed?
Always no, no, to me: am I never to hear anything but no? It increases my suspicion: when I am injured, I expect at least to be treated with respect. I will be feared, madam, and obeyed, too.
And so you shall, sir. I will discover everything to you.
Well, that’s saying something at least: when I begin to threaten, people will mind me a little, and—
I have only one favor to beg of you—that, before I say anything to you, Euphemon will be so obliging as to let me speak a few words to him.
Euphemon! why, what has he to do with it? I think I am the proper person to be spoken to.
My dear father, I have a secret to intrust to him: let me beg you, for the sake of your own honor, to send him to me: permit me—but I can tell you no more.
I must even yield to her request; she wants to explain herself to my good old friend, and I think I may safely trust her alone with him; and then to a nunnery with the little hussy immediately.
O that I may be able to melt the good Euphemon! How my heart flutters and leaps within me! my life or death depends on this important moment. He comes. Hark’ee, Martha.
[Whispers to her.
I’ll take care, madam.
old euphemon, lise.
A chair here—pray, sir, be seated. Oh! [Sighs] permit me, sir, on my knees—
[Raising her up.
You mean to affront me, madam.
Far from it, sir; my heart esteems and reveres you; I have ever looked on you as a father.
Are you my daughter?
Yes, sir. I flatter myself I have not been unworthy of that name.
After the unhappy affair, madam, that has broken off our connection, I must own—
Be you my judge, sir, and look into my heart; that judge, I doubt not, will one day be my protector: but hear me, sir, I will speak my own sentiments, perhaps they may be yours also.
[She takes a chair and sits by him.
And now, sir, tell me; if your heart had for a long time been bound by the purest and most tender regard to an object, whose early years gave the fairest promise of all that is amiable, who every day advanced in beauty, merit, and accomplishments; if, after all, his easy and deluded youth gave way to inclination, and sacrificed duty, friendship, everything, to unbridled licentiousness—
If fatal experience should teach him what false happiness he had so long pursued, should teach him that the vain objects of his search sprang but from error, and were followed by remorse; if at length, ashamed of his follies, his reason, instructed by misfortune, should again light up his virtues, and give him a new heart; if, restored to his natural form, he should become faithful, just, and honest, would you, sir, could you then shut up that heart which once was open to receive him?
What am I to conclude from this picture, or what has it to do with our affair, and the injury I have received from your conduct? The wretch who was seen at your feet is a young man, utterly unknown to everybody here: the widow says indeed she remembers him six months at Angouleme: another tells me he is a hardy profligate, with a head full of dark intrigues, and every kind of debauchery; a character which doubles my astonishment: I shudder with horror at it.
O sir, when I have told you all, you will be much more astonished; for heaven’s sake, hear me then: I know you have a noble and a generous heart, that never was formed for cruelty; let me then ask you, was not your son Euphemon once most dear to you?
He was, I own to you, he was, and therefore it is that his ingratitude calls for a severer vengeance: I have wept his misfortunes and his death; but nature, in the midst of all my anguish, left my reason but the more sensible of my injuries, and more resolved to punish them.
And could you punish him forever? could you still be so unhappy, so miserable, as to hate him? could you throw from you a repenting child, an altered son, whose change would bring back to you the image of yourself? could you repulse this son were he now in tears at your feet?
Alas! you have forgotten, you should not thus open a wound that bleeds too fresh, and inflict new torments on me: my son is dead, or far hence remains still hardened in his follies. O if he had returned to virtue, would he not come, and ask forgiveness of me?
Yes, and he will come to ask it; you shall hear him; and hear him with compassion, too, indeed you shall.
What say you?
Yes, sir: if death has not already put an end to his shame and grief, you may perhaps see him dying at your feet with excess of sorrow and repentance.
You see too well how deeply I am affected: my son alive!
If he yet lives, he lives to love and honor you.
To love and honor me! impossible! how can I ever know it? from whom must I learn that?
From his own heart.
But, do you think—
With regard to everything I have said concerning him, you may depend on my veracity.
Come, you have kept me in suspense too long; have pity on my declining years. Alas! I am full of hopes and fears: I did indeed love my son, these tears speak for me: I loved him tenderly. O if he yet lives! if he is returned to virtue! explain, I beseech you, speak to me, tell me all.
I will: it is time now, and you shall be satisfied.
[She comes forward a little, and speaks to young Euphemon behind the scene.
old euphemon, young euphemon, lise.
Good heaven! what do I see?
My father! O sir, know me, acknowledge me, decide my fate, for life or death depends upon a word.
What could bring you hither at this time?
Repentance, love, and nature.
[Kneeling with young Euphemon.
At your feet behold your children. Yes, sir, we have the same sentiments, the same heart.
[Pointing to Lise.
Alas! her tender kindness has pardoned all my offences: O gracious sir, follow the example which love has set, and forgive your unhappy son; driven as I was to despair, all I hoped for was to die beloved by her and you; and if I live, I will live to deserve it. You turn away from me; what is it, sir, that transports you thus? I see your heart is moved: is it with hatred? is your wretched son condemned—
[Raising up his son, and embracing him.
’Tis love; ’tis tenderness: I forgive thee: if thou art restored to virtue, I am still thy father.
And I thy wife. O sir, long since our hearts were united; permit us at your feet to renew our vows: it is not your riches he asks of you, he brings you now a heart too pure for such a wish; he wants nothing: if he is virtuous, I have enough for both, and he shall have it all.
To themrondon, mme. de croupillac, fierenfat,Bailiff’s Follower, Attendants.
Yonder he is, talking to her still; let us show ourselves men of courage, and take him by surprise.
Ay, let us be bold, we are six to one.
Now, sir, open your eyes, and see who it is I love.
The same, sir.
You are pleased to jest, sir: this scoundrel my brother?
Upon my honor! I am very glad to hear it.
What wonderful metamorphosis; why, this is my droll valet.
So, so, I play a pretty extraordinary part here: why, what brother is this? ha!
He is your brother, sir; I had lost him; but heaven and repentance have restored him to me.
And luckily enough for me.
The rascal is come back only to take away my wife from me.
’Tis fit, sir, that you know me; and let me tell you, sir, ’twas you took her from me, not I from you. In better days I had her heart: the folly of rash and unexperienced youth deprived me of a treasure which I did not know the value of: but on this happy day I have found again my virtue, my mistress, and my father: the rights of blood and the rights of love are at once restored to me, and perhaps you envy me the sudden, the unexpected blessings. But take my inheritance; I give it you freely: you are fond of riches, and I of her: thus shall both be happy; you in your possessions, and I in my Lise’s heart.
His disinterested goodness shall not be thus rewarded. No, Euphemon, thou shalt not be so unworthy of her.
Very good; very fine indeed!
For my part, I’m astonished, and yet not displeased: ’tis a comfort to me to think the gentleman is come on purpose to avenge, as it were, my charms.
Quick, quick, sir; marry her as soon as possible; heaven is on your side, and, to be sure, made that lady on purpose for you; you were born for each other; and, by this lucky accident, ’tis ten to one if I don’t recover my President.
With all my heart. You, my dear father, will permit my faithful heart, which can be given but to one, to return to its right owner.
Why—if his brain is not quite so much turned, and—
O I’ll answer for him.
If he loves you; if he is prudent—
O doubt it not.
And if Euphemon will give him a good fortune, why—I agree.
To be sure, I am a great gainer in this affair, by finding a new brother; but then I lose my wedding expenses, my fortune, and a wife into the bargain.
For shame, thou sordid wretch, forever in pursuit of riches! have I not, in notes, bonds, and houses, enough to live upon, and more, much more, than you deserve? Am I not your first love? Didst thou not swear fidelity to me? Have I not it all under your own hand? your madrigals without sense, your songs without wit, your promises without meaning? But we’ll try it at law, sir: I’ll produce them in a court of justice; and the parliament, in such a case, I am sure, ought to make an act on purpose to punish ingratitude.
My good friend, take care of yourself, and tremble at her resentment: let me advise you to marry, if it be only to get shut of her.
[To Mme. de Croupillac.
I am surprised at the passion you express for my son; methinks even the suit you threaten him with must soothe his vanity; the cause of your anger does him too much honor: but permit me to address myself to the dear object that has restored my son. Be united, my children, and embrace as brothers: and you, my friend, [turning to Rondon] must return thanks to heaven, whose goodness hath done all for the best. And henceforth,
End of the Fifth and Last Act.
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.
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, 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; 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.
(This “Advertisement” is prefixed in the first edition.)
[This tragedy differs in many respects from that which appeared at Paris under the same title in 1752, when it was transcribed from the representation by some vile copyists, who most shamefully disfigured it; the parts then omitted were filled up by other hands, and over a hundred verses interpolated not written by the author of “Catiline.” From this imperfect copy was published a surreptitious edition, full of errors from beginning to end, which was followed by another in Holland, still more faulty. The present edition was carefully inspected by the author himself, who even altered several whole scenes in it. It is certainly a most flagrant abuse, which calls every day for redress, that the works of authors should be printed in spite of themselves. A bookseller is in a hurry to publish a bad edition of a work that falls into his hands, and this very bookseller will afterward complain most bitterly, when the author whom he has injured gives us the performance as it really is. Such is the miserable condition of modern literature.]
Two motives induced me to make choice of a subject for tragedy, which seemed on the first view of it but ill adapted to the manners and customs of the French theatre. I was willing to endeavor once more, by a tragedy without any declarations of love in it, to put an end to the reproaches so often thrown out against us in the learned world, of filling our stage with nothing but gallantry and intrigue, and at the same time to make our young men, who frequent the theatre, better acquainted with Cicero. The amazing grandeur of Rome in past times still commands the attention of all mankind; and modern Italy derives part of her glory from the discoveries she is every day making of the ruins of the ancient. The house where Cicero lived is shown to us with some degree of veneration, his name is echoed by every tongue, and his writings are in every hand. Those who are unable to inform us who presided at the courts of justice within these fifty years in their own country, can tell you when Cicero was at the head of Rome. The more light we have into the last period of the Roman commonwealth the more do we admire this great man; though it must be confessed that most of our too lately civilized nations have entertained very false and imperfect ideas concerning him; his works indeed made a part of our education, but we remained still ignorant of his true merit; the author was superficially studied, the consul almost utterly unknown; the lights which we have since acquired let us into his real character, and set him far above all those who ever were employed in the affairs of government, or were distinguished by their eloquence.
Cicero might, perhaps, have been anything, and everything that he chose to be; he gained a victory in the town of Issus, where Alexander had conquered the Persians; it is very probable, that if he had applied himself entirely to the art of war, a profession which requires a good understanding, and extraordinary industry, he would have shone among the most illustrious commanders of his age; but as Cæsar would have been but the second of orators, Cicero would have been but the second of generals: he preferred to all other glory that of being the father of Rome, the mistress of the world; and how extraordinary must have been the merit of a private gentleman of Arpinum, who could make his way through such a number of great men, and attain, without intrigue, the most exalted place in the whole universe, in spite of the envy and malice of so many Patricians, who at that time bore sway in Rome!
What we have still more reason to be astonished at is, that amidst a thousand cares and disquietudes, and during a whole tempestuous life, burdened as he was both by public and private affairs, this wonderful man could yet find leisure to acquaint himself with all the various sects of religion in Greece, and shine forth one of the greatest philosophers, as well as orators, of his age. Are there many ministers, magistrates, or lawyers, now in Europe, of any eminence, who are able, I will not say to explain the discoveries of Newton, or the ideas of Leibnitz, in the same manner as Cicero illustrated the principles of Zeno, Plato, and Epicurus, but even to solve any difficult problem in philosophy?
Cicero, a circumstance which very few are acquainted with, was withal one of the best poets of the age he lived in, when poetry was yet in its infant state; he even rivalled Lucretius. Can anything be more beautiful than these verses yet remaining of his poem on Marius, which make us still regret the loss of that excellent performance?
I am thoroughly persuaded that our language is incapable of expressing the harmonious energy of Greek and Latin verses; I will, however, venture to give a slight sketch from this little picture, painted by the great man whom I have characterized in my “Rome Preserved,” and whose Catiline I have imitated in some parts of the tragedy.
Those who have the least spark of taste will perceive, even in this imperfect copy, the force of the original; whence comes it then that Cicero should pass for a bad poet? Simply because Juvenal has thought fit to say so, and imputed to him that ridiculous verse,
So ridiculous that the French poet, who was desirous of pointing out the absurdity of it in a translation, could not succeed in it:
does not express half the nonsense of the Latin.
Is it possible the author of those fine verses I just now quoted could ever write anything so ridiculous! there are follies which a man of sense and genius can never be guilty of: but the real truth is that prejudice, which will never allow two species of excellency to one man, denied Cicero’s ability to make verses, because he himself thought fit to renounce it. Some low buffoon, who envied the reputation of this great man, wrote that foolish verse, and attributed it to the orator, the philosopher, the father of Rome. Juvenal, in the succeeding age, adopted this popular error, and handed it down to posterity in his satirical declamations. I believe many a reputation both good and bad is established in the same manner. These two verses, for instance, are imputed to Malebranche:
To which it is added, that he made them purposely to show that a philosopher could be a poet whenever he had a mind to. What man, with common sense, could ever be persuaded that Malebranche was capable of writing anything so absurd? Yet let a retailer of anecdotes, or a literary compiler, transmit this idle tale to posterity, and in process of time it will gain credit; and though Malebranche was one of the greatest of men, it will be said one day or other that this great man turned fool when he got out of his sphere.
Cicero has been reproached for too much sensibility, and too much dejection in adversity; he imparts his well-grounded complaints to his wife and friends, and his frankness is imputed to cowardice; but let who will blame him for pouring into the bosom of friendship that grief which he concealed from his persecutors, I love him the more for it; the virtuous soul alone is capable of feeling. Cicero, fond as he was of glory, had no ambition of appearing to be what he was not. We have seen men in our own times dying with grief at the loss of very trifling emoluments, after a ridiculous pretence of not regretting them at all. What is there then so mean or cowardly in acknowledging to a wife or friend that a man was unhappy at being banished from his country, which he had served, or at being persecuted by a set of ungrateful and perfidious villains? Surely we ought to shut our hearts against the tyrants who oppress us, and open them to those we love.
Cicero was free and ingenuous throughout his whole conduct; he spoke of his afflictions without shame, and of his thirst after true glory without disguise: this character is natural, at the same time that it is great. Shall we prefer to this the policy of Cæsar, who tells us in his “Commentaries,” that he offered peace to Pompey, and yet in his private letters vows that he never had any such intention? Cæsar was a great man, but Cicero was an honest man: but his having been a good poet, and philosopher, an excellent governor, or an able general, his having had a feeling and a good heart, are not points that concern our present purpose. He saved Rome in spite of the senate; one-half of which at least opposed him, from motives of the most inveterate envy and malice; even those whose oracle, whose deliverer and avenger he was, were among his worst foes; he laid the foundation of his own ruin by the most signal service that man ever performed for his country. To represent this is the principal design of the tragedy; it is not so much the ferocious spirit of Catiline, as the generous and noble soul of Cicero, which I have there endeavored to describe.
It has always been asserted, and the opinion gains ground among us, that Cicero is one of those characters which should never be brought upon the stage.
The English, who hazard everything without knowing what they hazard, have given us a tragedy on the conspiracy of Catiline, wherein Ben Jonson has made no scruple of translating seven or eight pages of Tully’s oration; he has even translated them into prose, not imagining it possible to make Cicero speak in verse. The consul’s prose, to say the truth, mingled with the verse of the other characters, forms a contrast worthy of the barbarous age of Ben Jonson; but to treat a subject so grave, and withal so totally void of those passions which generally captivate the heart, we must have to do with a serious and cultivated people, worthy in some measure of having the manners of ancient Rome exhibited before them. I acknowledge at the same time that this subject is not well adapted to our stage: we have much more taste, decorum, and knowledge of the theatre than the English, but our manners for the most part are not so strong. We are only pleased with the struggle of those passions which we ourselves experience; those among us who are best acquainted with the works of Cicero and the Roman republic are not frequenters of a play house, they do not in this respect follow the example of Tully himself, who, we know, was constantly there. It is astonishing that they should pretend to more gravity than he; they have only less taste for the fine arts, or they are withheld by a ridiculous prejudice. What progress soever those arts may have made in France, those gentlemen of distinguished genius and abilities who have cultivated them among us have not yet imparted true taste to the whole nation. We are not born so happy as the Greeks and Romans, but frequent the theatre more out of idleness than from any real regard to literature.
This tragedy seems rather to be made for the closet than the stage; it met with applause indeed, and even more than “Zaïre,” but it is not of such a species as to support itself on the stage like “Zaïre:” still it is written with more strength. The single scene between Cæsar and Catiline was executed with more difficulty than half those pieces which are filled with nothing but love; but to these the heart returns with pleasure, whilst our admiration of the ancient Romans is quickly exhausted. In our times nobody enters into conspiracies, but everybody is in love. The representation of Catiline requires withal a large company of actors, and a magnificent apparatus.
The learned will not here meet with a faithful narrative of Catiline’s conspiracy; a tragedy, they very well know, is not a history, but they will see a true picture of the manners of those times: all that Cicero, Catiline, Cato and Cæsar do in this piece is not true, but their genius and character are faithfully represented; if we do not there discover the eloquence of Cicero, we shall at least find displayed all that courage and virtue which he showed in the hour of danger. In Catiline is described that contrast of fierceness and dissimulation which formed his real character; Cæsar is represented as growing into power, factious, and brave; that Cæsar who was born at once to be the glory and the scourge of Rome.
I have not brought on the stage the deputies of the Allobroges, who were not the ambassadors of Gaul, but agents of a petty province of Italy, subject to the Romans, who only appeared in the low character of informers, and were therefore not proper persons to appear in company with Cicero, Cæsar, and Cato.
If this performance should appear tolerably well written, and to give us some idea of ancient Rome, it is all that the author pretends to, and all the reward which he expects from it.
The Mérope which you desired to be returned last night. I have sent you this morning at eight o’clock. I have taken time to read it with attention. Whatever success the fluctuating taste of Paris may think proper to bestow on it, I am satisfied that posterity will applaud it as one of our best performances, and indeed as the model of true tragedy. Aristotle, the legislator of the stage, has allotted to Mérope the first rank among the fine subjects for tragedy. It is treated by Euripides, we know, and in such a manner, as we learn from Aristotle, that whenever his Cresphontes was exhibited at Athens, that ingenious people, who were accustomed to the finest dramatic performances, were struck, ravished and transported in the most extraordinary manner. If the taste of Paris should not correspond with that of Athens, we know which is to blame. The Cresphontes of Euripides is lost; M. Voltaire has restored it to us. You, my dear sir, who have given us an Euripides in French, exactly as he appeared to admiring Greece, have acknowledged in the Mérope of our illustrious friend, the natural, the simple, and the pathetic of Euripides. M. Voltaire has preserved the simplicity of the subject, has not only disencumbered it from superfluous episodes, but from many unnecessary scenes also; the danger of Ægisthus alone fills the stage; the interest increases from scene to scene, till we come to the catastrophe, the surprise of which is managed and prepared with the greatest art. We expect it indeed from the grandson of Alcides. Everything passes upon the stage as it did in Mycenæ. The theatrical strokes are not forced and unnatural; nor such as, by their great degree of the marvellous, shock all probability: they arise entirely from the subject; it is the historical event represented to us in the most lively manner. It is impossible not to be deeply moved and affected by that scene where Narbas arrives, at the very instant when Mérope is going to sacrifice her son, on a supposition that she is about to avenge him: or by that scene, where she has no other means of saving him from inevitable death, than by revealing him to the tyrant. The fifth act equals, if not surpasses, any of those few excellent last acts, which our stage has to boast of. Everything passes without; notwithstanding which the author has so artfully and judiciously contrived, as to bring all the action before us; the narration by Ismenia is not one of those studied artificial pieces which are foreign to the subject; where the poet’s wit is made to shine out of its place, such as throw an air of coldness and insipidity over the whole fable. This is nothing but action throughout. The trouble and agitation visible in Ismenia are expressive of the tumult she describes. I say nothing of the versification, which is more clear and beautiful than any I remember to have seen, even in Voltaire, who is certainly an excellent poet; all those, in short, who feel an honest indignation at the corruption and depravity of our present taste; all who have at heart the reformation of our stage; who wish, that, by a careful imitation of the Greeks, whom in many perfections of the drama we have surpassed, we might endeavor to obtain the true end and design of it, by making the theatre what it might be made, the school of virtue: all those, who think thus rationally and seriously, must be pleased to see so great and celebrated a poet as Voltaire employing his fine talents in such a tragedy as this, without love in it.
He has not imprudently hazarded the success of so noble a design; but in the place of love has substituted sentiments of virtue, which are not less forcible. As much prejudiced as we are in favor of tragedies founded on love intrigues, it is nevertheless true—and we have often observed it—that those tragedies, which have met with the greatest success, were not indebted to their love scenes for it: on the other hand, all our good critics allow that romantic gallantry has disgraced and degraded our stage, and some of our best writers also. The great Corneille was sensible of this; he submitted, not without reluctance, to the reigning taste of the age; not venturing to banish love entirely, he went at least so far as to banish successful love; he would not permit it to appear weak or mean, but raised it even to heroism, choosing rather to go beyond nature than to sink it into a too tender and contagious passion.
Thus, reverend father, have I sent you that judgment of which your illustrious friend seemed desirous; I wrote it in haste, which is a proof of my regard; but the paternal friendship which I have had for him, even from his infancy, has not so far prevailed as to blind me in his favor. You will let him see what I have written. I have the honor to be, my dear friend, my dear son, the glory of your father, as I ever must be, sincerely yours,
Dec. 23, 1738.
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 verses 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.
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.” The lover says to his mistress: “Adieu, thou too virtuous, and too charming object;” to which the heroine replies: “Adieu thou too unhappy and too perfect lover.” Cleopatra tells us, that a princess, “who loves her reputation, if she owns her love, is sure to be beloved;” and that Cæsar, “sighs, and in a plaintive tone acknowledges himself her captive, even in the field of victory;” 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.”
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:
The original footnote shows that Voltaire wrote this as “Mr. Fatima.” For some unknown reason, or as a mere whim.
It has been said by one author, and repeated by another, that the simple representation of a merely virtuous man, without passion or intrigue, cannot possibly meet with applause on the stage, which I look upon as an injurious reflection on human nature, and the falsehood of it is sufficiently proved by this performance, written by the late Mr. Thomson. The famous Mr. Addison was a long time in doubt as to whether he should make Socrates or Cato the subject of his tragedy; he thought Cato a virtuous man, and as such a proper object of imitation; but that Socrates was much superior to him: the virtue of the latter, he observed, had more softness and humanity in it, and was withal more resigned to the will of God than that of the former: the Grecian, he used to say, did not, like the Roman, imagine that he was at liberty to destroy himself, or to quit the post which God had allotted to him; Addison, in short, considered Cato as the victim of liberty, and Socrates as the martyr of wisdom. Sir Richard Steele, however, persuaded him that Cato was a subject better adapted to the theatre than the other, and at the same time likely to prove more agreeable to the nation, while it was in a political ferment. To say the truth, the death of Socrates would perhaps have made very little impression in a country where no man is ever persecuted on account of his religion; where a general toleration has so prodigiously enriched and peopled the community; as it has also in Holland, my native country. Sir Richard Steele says expressly, in his Tatler, that the subject of a dramatic piece should always be the reigning vice or foible of the nation where it is represented. The success which Addison met with in his Cato encouraged him to sketch out the death of Socrates, in three acts. The place of secretary of state, which he had some time after, prevented his finishing this work; he gave the manuscript to his pupil, Mr. Thomson, who was afraid to hazard on the stage a subject so extremely grave, and at the same time void of all those fashionable embellishments which had then taken possession of the English theatre.
He began therefore with some other tragedies, “Sophonisba,” “Coriolanus,” “Tancred,” etc., and finished with the “Death of Socrates,” which he wrote in prose scene by scene, and showed to his illustrious friends, Mr. Doddington and Mr. Lyttleton, persons deservedly ranked among the first geniuses in England. These two gentlemen, whom he always consulted, advised him to follow the example of Shakespeare; to introduce the whole body of the people into his tragedy; to print Xantippe, the wife of Socrates, just as she really was, a peevish, cross-grained city madam, scolding her husband, and yet fond of him; to bring the Areopagus on the stage; and, in a word, to make the whole piece a simple representation of human life; one of those pictures that exhibit a view of every state and condition. This is an undertaking attended with some difficulty; and though the sublime continued throughout is a species of writing infinitely superior to it, this mixture of the pathetic and familiar has its degree of merit. One may compare them to the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Mr. Lyttleton would not suffer the piece to be played, because the character of Melitus too closely resembled that of Sergeant Catbrée, to whom he was related; besides, that the whole was rather a sketch than a finished performance.
He made me a present of this drama when he last came to Holland. I translated it immediately into Dutch, my mother tongue. I did not, however, think proper to bring it on the stage at Amsterdam, though, thank God, among all our pedants, we have not one there so hateful or so impertinent as Sergeant Catbrée. The great number of actors which this play requires, deterred me from any thoughts of exhibiting it. I translated it afterward into French, and shall let this translation pass, till I have an opportunity of publishing the original.
Since this “The Death of Socrates” has been represented at London, but that was not the play written by Mr. Thomson.
N. B. There have been some people ridiculous enough to endeavor to refute the palpable truths advanced in this preface; pretending that Mr. Fatima could not have written it in 1755, because he died in 1754: if it was really so, what a foolish reason! The fact is, he died in 1757.
[By the First Editor.]
The literary world will perhaps think themselves obliged to me for publishing the tragedy of “Mahomet,” which had been barbarously mangled in two surreptitious editions. I can venture to assure the reader that it was written in 1736, and a copy of it then sent by the author to the Prince Royal, now King of Prussia, who at that time cultivated the belles-lettres with astonishing success, and continues to make them his principal amusement.
Is there a good and worthy citizen who would not adopt all the maxims of “La Henriade?” Does not that poem inspire us with the love of virtue? “Mahomet” appears to me to be written in the same spirit, and this, I am persuaded, the author’s greatest enemies will frankly acknowledge.
(On the Tragedy of “JULIUS CÆSAR,” by M. de Voltaire.)
I have deferred sending you the “Julius Cæsar” which you desired, till now, that I might have the pleasure of communicating to you the tragedy on that subject, as written by M. de Voltaire. The edition of it printed at Paris some months ago is extremely faulty; one may easily perceive in it the hand of some of those gentlemen whom Petronius calls “Doctores Umbratici.” It is even so shamefully defective as to give us verses that have not the proper number of syllables. This piece, notwithstanding, has been as severely criticized as if M. de Voltaire himself had published it: would it not be cruelly unjust to impute to Titian, the bad coloring of one of his pictures, that had been daubed over by a modern painter? I have been fortunate enough to procure a manuscript fit to be sent to you; you will see the picture exactly as it came out of the hand of the master: I will even venture to accompany it with the remarks which you desired of me.
Not to know that there is a French language and a French theatre, cannot show a greater degree of ignorance, than not to know to what perfection Corneille and Racine carried the drama. It seemed, indeed, as if, after these great men, nothing remained to be wished for, and that all which could be done was to endeavor to imitate them. Could one expect anything in painting after the “Galatæa” of Raphael and yet the famous head of Michelangelo, in the little Farnese, gave us an idea of a species more fierce and terrible, to which this art might be raised. In the fine arts, we do not perceive the void till after it is filled up. Most of the tragedies of the great masters I just now mentioned, whether the scene lies at Rome, Athens, or Constantinople, contain nothing more than a marriage concerted, or broken off: we can expect nothing better in this species of tragedy, wherein love makes peace or war with a smile. I cannot help thinking that the drama is capable of something infinitely superior to this. Julius Cæsar is to be a proof of it. The author of the tender “Zaïre” breathes nothing here but sentiments of ambition, liberty, and revenge.
Tragedy should be an imitation of great men; it is that which distinguishes it from comedy; but if the actions which it represents are likewise great, the distinction is still better marked out, and by these means we may arrive at a nobler species. Do we not admire Mark Antony more at Philippi than at Actium? I am apprehensive, notwithstanding, that reasonings of this kind will meet with the strongest opposition. We must have very little acquaintance with human nature not to know that prejudice generally gets the better of reason; and above all, those prejudices that are authorized by a sex that imposes laws upon us, which we always submit to with pleasure.
Love has been too long in possession of the French theatre to suffer any other passions to supplant it, which inclines me to think that Julius Cæsar will meet with the fate of Themistocles, Alcibiades, and many other great men of Athens, that of being admired by all mankind; while ostracism banished them from their own country.
In some places M. de Voltaire has imitated Shakespeare, an English poet, who united in the same piece the most childish absurdities and the finest strokes of the true sublime. He has made the same use of him as Virgil did of Ennius, and taken from him the last two scenes, which are, doubtless, the finest models of eloquence which the stage ever produced.
What is it but the remains of barbarism in Europe, to endeavor to make those bounds which power and policy have prescribed to separate states and kingdoms, the limits also of science, and the fine arts, whose progress might be so widely extended by that commerce and mutual light which they would throw on each other; a reflection which may be more serviceable to the French nation than any other, as it is exactly in the case of an author, from whom the public expect more in proportion to what they have already received from him. France is so highly polished and cultivated that we have a right to demand of her, not only that she should approve, but that she should adopt and enrich herself with everything that is excellent among her neighbors:
There is one objection to this tragedy, which I should not have mentioned to you, but that I heard it made by many, that it has but three acts; this, say the critics, is against all the rules of the stage, which require that there should be exactly five. It is certainly one of the first rules of the drama that the representation should not take up more time than the real action. They have therefore very rationally limited that time to three hours, because a longer would weary the attention; and, at the same time, would prevent our uniting in the same point of view, the different circumstances of the action. Upon this principle, we have divided the play into five acts, for the convenience of the spectators, and of the author also, who has leisure to bring about, during these intervals, any incident necessary to the plot or catastrophe. The whole of the objection, then, is no more than that the presentation of “Julius Cæsar” lasts but two hours instead of three; and if that is no fault, neither can the division of its acts be esteemed as one; because the same rule which requires that an action of three hours should be divided into five acts, will require also, that an action of two hours should be divided into three only. There is no reason why, because the utmost extent of the play is limited to three hours, we should not make it less; nor can I see why a tragedy, where the three unities are observed, which is interesting, and excites terror and compassion, which in short does everything in two hours, that others do in three, should not be equally good. A statue wherein the fine proportions and other rules of the art are observed, is not a less fine statue, because it is smaller than another, made by the same rules. Nobody, I believe, thinks “The Venus de Medici” less perfect in its kind than “The Gladiator,” because it is but four feet high, and “The Gladiator” six. M. de Voltaire, perhaps, gave his “Cæsar” less extent than is usually allowed to dramatic performances, only to sound the opinion and taste of the public by an essay, if we may give that name to so finished a piece. It would have made a kind of revolution in the French theatre, and had been, perhaps, too bold a venture, to talk of liberty and politics for three hours together, to a nation that had been so long accustomed to see Mithridates fighting and whining, when he was just on the point of marching to the capitol. We are surely obliged to M. de Voltaire for his conduct, and should by no means condemn him for not bringing love or women into his play; born, as they are, to inspire soft and tender sentiments, they would have played an absurd and ridiculous part between Brutus and Cassius, atroces animæ. They make indeed such conspicuous figures elsewhere, that they have no reason to complain of being excluded from “Cæsar.” I shall pass over the many detached beauties to be met with in this piece, the strength of its numbers, and the variety of images and sentiments scattered throughout. What might we not expect from the author of “Brutus” and “La Henriade.” The scene of the conspiracy is one of the finest we have ever seen on any stage: it has called into action that which we never met with before but in dull narration.
Even the death of Cæsar passes almost in sight of the spectators, and thus prevents a recital of it, which howsoever beautiful, must have been comparatively cold and languid; events of this kind, together with every circumstance attending them, being already known to all the world.
I cannot sufficiently admire this tragedy, when I consider what a variety of incidents there are in it, how great the characters are, and how finely supported; what a noble contrast between Brutus and Cæsar! What makes this subject most difficult to handle is the great art required to describe, on the one hand, Brutus with a savage, ferocious virtue, and even bordering on ingratitude, but at the same time engaged in a righteous cause, at least to all appearances, and conformable to the times he lived in; and on the other hand, Cæsar, full of clemency and the most amiable virtues, heaping favors on his enemies, and yet endeavoring to destroy the liberty of his country. We are strongly interested for both of them during the whole action of the piece, though it should seem as if the passions must hurt and destroy each other reciprocally in the end, like two several weights equal and opposed to each other, and consequently could produce no effect but that of sending the spectators back disgusted, and without any emotion. Some such reflections most probably induced a brother poet to declare, that he looked upon this subject as the rock of dramatic authors, and that he would gladly propose it to any of his rivals. But M. de Voltaire, not content with these difficulties, seems desirous of creating more, by making Brutus the son of Cæsar; which, however, is founded on history. He has even, by these means, found an opportunity of introducing some charming scenes, and throwing into his piece a new interest, which is united to the action, and brings on the catastrophe. The harangue of Antony produces a fine effect, and is, in my opinion, a model of seducing eloquence. Upon the whole, we may with truth assert that M. de Voltaire, in this tragedy, has opened a new path, and, at the same time, trod in it with the highest success.
If the question concerning physical evil ever deserves the attention of men, it is in those melancholy events which put us in mind of the weakness of our nature; such as plagues, which carry off a fourth of the inhabitants of the known world; the earthquake which swallowed up four hundred thousand of the Chinese in 1699, that of Lima and Callao, and, in the last place, that of Portugal and the kingdom of Fez. The maxim, “whatever is, is right,” appears somewhat extraordinary to those who have been eye-witnesses of such calamities. All things are doubtless arranged and set in order by Providence, but it has long been too evident, that its superintending power has not disposed them in such a manner as to promote our temporal happiness.
When the celebrated Pope published his “Essay on Man,” and expounded in immortal verse the systems of Leibnitz, Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Bolingbroke, his system was attacked by a multitude of divines of a variety of different communions. They were shocked at the novelty of the propositions, “whatever is, is right”; and that “man always enjoys that measure of happiness which is suited to his being.” There are few writings that may not be condemned, if considered in one light, or approved of, if considered in another. It would be much more reasonable to attend only to the beauties and improving parts of a work, than to endeavor to put an odious construction on it; but it is one of the imperfections of our nature to put a bad interpretation on whatever has a dubious sense, and to run down whatever has been successful.
In a word, it was the opinion of many, that the axiom, “whatever is, is right,” was subversive of all our received ideas. If it be true, said they, that whatever is, is right, it follows that human nature is not degenerated. If the general order requires that everything should be as it is, human nature has not been corrupted, and consequently could have had no occasion for a Redeemer. If this world, such as it is, be the best of systems possible, we have no room to hope for a happy future state. If the various evils by which man is overwhelmed, end in general good, all civilized nations have been wrong in endeavoring to trace out the origin of moral and physical evil. If a man devoured by wild beasts, causes the well-being of those beasts, and contributes to promote the orders of the universe; if the misfortunes of individuals are only the consequence of this general and necessary order, we are nothing more than wheels which serve to keep the great machine in motion; we are not more precious in the eyes of God, than the animals by whom we are devoured.
These are the inferences which were drawn from Mr. Pope’s poem; and these very conclusions increased the sale and success of the work. But it should have been seen from another point of view. Readers should have considered the reverence for the Deity, the resignation to His supreme will, the useful morality, and the spirit of toleration, which breathe through this excellent poem. This the public has done, and the work being translated by men equal to the task, has completely triumphed over critics, though it turned on matters of so delicate a nature.
It is the nature of over violent censurers to give importance to the opinions which they attack. A book is railed at on account of its success, and a thousand errors are imputed to it. What is the consequence of this? Men, disgusted with these invectives, take for truths the very errors which these critics think they have discovered. Cavillers raise phantoms on purpose to combat them, and indignant readers embrace these very phantoms.
Critics have declared that Pope and Leibnitz maintain the doctrine of fatality; the partisans of Leibnitz and Pope have said on the other hand that, if Leibnitz and Pope have taught the doctrine of fatality, they were in the right, and all this invincible fatality we should believe.
Pope had advanced that “whatever is, is right,” in a sense that might very well be admitted, and his followers maintain the same proposition in a sense that may very well be contested.
The author of the poem, “The Lisbon Earthquake,” does not write against the illustrious Pope, whom he always loved and admired; he agrees with him in almost every particular, but compassionating the misery of man; he declares against the abuse of the new maxim, “whatever is, is right.” He maintains that ancient and sad truth acknowledged by all men, that there is evil upon earth; he acknowledges that the words “whatever is, is right,” if understood in a positive sense, and without any hopes of a happy future state, only insult us in our present misery.
If, when Lisbon, Moquinxa, Tetuan, and other cities were swallowed up with a great number of their inhabitants in the month of November, 1759, philosophers had cried out to the wretches, who with difficulty escaped from the ruins, “all this is productive of general good; the heirs of those who have perished will increase their fortune; masons will earn money by rebuilding the houses, beasts will feed on the carcasses buried under the ruins; it is the necessary effect of necessary causes; your particular misfortune is nothing, it contributes to universal good,” such a harangue would doubtless have been as cruel as the earthquake was fatal, and all that the author of the poem upon the destruction of Lisbon has said amounts only to this.
He acknowledges with all mankind that there is evil as well as good on the earth; he owns that no philosopher has ever been able to explain the nature of moral and physical evil. He asserts that Bayle, the greatest master of the art of reasoning that ever wrote, has only taught to doubt, and that he combats himself; he owns that man’s understanding is as weak as his life is miserable. He lays a concise abstract of the several different systems before his readers. He says that Revelation alone can untie the great knot which philosophers have only rendered more puzzling; and that nothing but the hope of our existence being continued in a future state can console us under our present misfortunes; that the goodness of Providence is the only asylum in which man can take refuge in the darkness of reason, and in the calamities to which his weak and frail nature is exposed.
P. S.—Readers should always distinguish between the objections which an author proposes to himself and his answers to those objections, and should not mistake what he refutes for what he adopts.
an inquiry into the maxim, “whatever is, is right.”
The God who holds the chain can’t be enchained; By His blest will are all events ordained:
It is generally known that this poem was not intended for the public; it long remained a secret between a great king and the author. About three months ago a few copies were handed about in Paris, and soon after several impressions of it were published, as incorrect as those of other works by the same hand.
It would be no more than justice to be more indulgent to a work forced out of the obscurity to which the author had condemned it than to a work offered by the writer himself to the inspection of the public. It would also be agreeable to equity not to pass the same judgment on a poem composed by a layman as on a theological thesis. These two poems are the fruits of a transplanted tree. Some of these fruits may perhaps not be to the taste of certain persons; they come from a foreign climate, but none of them are poisoned, and many of them may prove highly salutary.
This work should be considered as a letter, in which the author freely discloses his sentiments. Most books resemble those formal and general conversations in which people seldom utter their thoughts. The author, in this poem, declares his real opinions to a philosophical prince, whom he then had the honor of living with. He has been informed that persons of the best understanding have been pleased with this sketch: they were of opinion that the poem on the “Law of Nature” was intended only to prepare the world for truths more sublime. This consideration alone would have determined the author to render his work more complete and correct, if his infirmities had permitted it. He was at last obliged to content himself with correcting the faults which the first edition swarm with.
The praises bestowed in this work upon a prince by no means solicitous about praise should not surprise anybody, they came from the heart; they are very different from that incense which self-interestedness lavishes upon power. The man of letters might not perhaps have deserved the praises or the favors poured upon him by the monarch, but the monarch was every way deserving of the encomiums bestowed upon him in this poem by the man of letters. The change which has since happened, in a connection which does so much honor to learning, has by no means altered the sentiments which gave occasion to these praises.
In fine, since a work never intended for publication, has been snatched out of secrecy and obscurity, it will last among a few sages as a monument of a philosophical correspondence, which should not have ended, and if it shows human weakness throughout, it, at the same time, makes it appear that true philosophy always surmounts that weakness.
To conclude, this weak essay was first occasioned by a little pamphlet which appeared at that time. It was entitled, “A Treatise on the Sovereign Good,” and it should have been called “A Treatise on the Sovereign Evil.” The author of it maintained that there is no such thing as virtue or vice, and that remorse of conscience is a weakness owing to the prejudice of education, which a man should endeavor to subdue. The author of the following poem maintains, that remorse of conscience is as natural to us as any passion of the human soul. If the violence of passion hurries man into a fault, when come to himself he is sensible of that fault. The wild girl who was found near Châlons, owned, that in her passion she gave her companion a blow, of the consequence of which the poor wretch died in her arms. As soon as she saw her blood, she repented, she wept, she stopped the blood, and dressed the wound with herbs. Those who maintain that this relenting of humanity is only a branch of self-love do that principle a great deal of honor. Let men call reason and conscience by what names they will, they exist, and are the foundation of the law of nature.
God has given men ideas of justice and conscience to admonish them just as He has given them everything else necessary. This is that Law of Nature upon which religion is founded. This is the only principle herein discussed. The author speaks only of the Law of Nature, and not of religion and its awful mysteries.
Containing answers to the objections against universal morality, with a demonstration of that truth.
Shows that as men have for the most part disfigured, by the various opinions which they have adopted, the principle of natural religion which unites them, they should mutually bear with each other.
Proves that it is the business of the government to put an end to the unhappy disputes of the schools, by which the peace of society is disturbed.
That cardinal, whom every one must know by this picture, desired me one day to accompany him to the Temple of Taste. “ ’Tis a place,” said he, “which resembles the Temple of Friendship, which everybody speaks of, which few visit, and which most of those who travel to it, have never thoroughly examined.”
“Ah,” replied he, “at Rome infallibility is confined to things which men do not comprehend: in the Temple of Taste, it concerns what all think they understand. You must positively come with me.” But, continued I, if you carry me with you, I will make it my public boast.
However, as we should never refuse ourselves an innocent pleasure, for fear others should think ill of us, I followed the guide who did me the honor to be my conductor.
In our journey we had many difficulties to encounter. We first of all met with Messrs. Baldus, Scioppius, Lecicocrassus, Scriblerius, and a crowd of commentators, who made it their business to restore passages, and compile volumes upon a word which they did not understand.
After this ingenuous confession, these gentlemen would have had us read some passages of Dictys, of Crete, and Metrodorus of Lampsacus, which Scaliger had spoiled. We thanked them for their kind offer, and continued our journey. We had not walked a hundred steps, when we met a person surrounded with painters, architects, carvers, gilders, pretended connoisseurs, and flatterers. They turned their backs to the Temple of Taste.
I thought we should meet with no further delay, but that we should approach the Temple without encountering any other difficulty; but the journey is more dangerous than I imagined. We soon after fell into a new ambuscade.
This was a concert given by a gentleman of the long robe, infatuated with music, which he never learned, and chiefly with the Italian music, which he had no knowledge of, but from some indifferent airs which were never heard at Rome, and which are very badly sung in France by some girls belonging to the opera.
He then caused a long French recitative, set to music by an Italian, who did not understand our language, to be performed. It was to no purpose to remonstrate to him, that as this sort of music is nothing more than noted declamation, it is of consequence, subjected to the genius of the language; and that nothing can be as ridiculous as French scenes sung in the Italian taste, except Italian ones sung in the French taste.
No sooner were these judicious remarks made, but the pretended connoisseur, shaking his head, cried, “Come, come, you shall soon see something new.” We could not refuse to enter, and immediately after, the concert began.
We left the place as rapidly as we could, and we did not arrive at the Temple of Taste, until after we had met with many adventures of this kind.
It is much easier to give a negative than a positive idea of this Temple. To avoid so difficult an attempt I shall only add,
The Temple was surrounded with a crowd of virtuosos, artists and connoisseurs of various kinds, who endeavored to enter, but did not succeed.
How many men of quality, how many persons in high vogue with the public, who dictate so imperiously to little clubs, are refused admittance into that Temple!
The obscure enemies of all-shining merit, those insects of society, which are taken notice of only because they bite, were repelled with equal rudeness. These would have envied the great Condé the glory he acquired at Rocroi, and Villars the reputation he gained at Denain, as much as they envied Corneille for having written “Polyeucte.” They would have assassinated Lebrun for having painted the family of Darius; and they in fact forced Lemoine to lay violent hands upon himself for having painted the admirable salon of Hercules. They always hold in their hands a bowl of aconite, like that which men of the same character caused Socrates to drink.
These persecuting wretches fled as soon as they saw my two guides. Their precipitate flight was followed by something of a more diverting nature; this was a crowd of writers of every rank, age and condition, who scratched at the door and begged of Criticism to permit them to enter. One brought with him a mathematical romance, another a speech made before the Academy; one has just composed a metaphysical comedy; another held in his hand a poetical miscellany long since printed, with a long approbation and a privilege; another presented a mandate wrote in an affected and over-refined style, and was surprised to find that all present laughed instead of asking his blessing. “I am the reverend father,” said one: “Make room for my lord,” said another.
Bardou then cried out, “The world’s in an error, and will always continue so; there’s no God of Taste, and I’ll prove it thus.” Then he laid down a proposition, divided and subdivided it; but nobody listened, and a greater multitude than ever crowded to the gate.
Criticism knew him by his gentle deportment and the roughness of the two last lines, and she left him awhile between Perrault and Chapelain, who had laid a fifty years siege to the temple, and constantly exclaimed against Virgil.
At that very moment there arrived another versifier supported by two little satires, and crowned with laurels and thistles.
“I come hither to laugh, to sport, and to play, And make merry,” said he, “till the dawn of the day.”
“What’s this I hear?” said Criticism. “’Tis I,” answered the rhymer; I am just come from Germany to visit you, and I have chosen the spring of the year to travel in.
Spring, the season in which the young Zephyrs dissolve
The bark of the floods, and to fluid resolve.”
The more he spoke in this style, the less was Criticism disposed to open the door to him. “What,” said he, “am I then taken for
“Heavens,” cried Criticism, “what horrible jargon is this!” She could not immediately guess who the person was that expressed himself in this manner. She was told it was Rousseau, and that the Muses had altered his voice as a punishment for his misdeeds. She could not believe it, and refused to open the door. He blushed and cried out,
Criticism, upon hearing these words, opened the door and spoke thus:
Criticism, after having given this advice, adjudged that Rousseau should take place of La Motte as a versifier; but that La Motte should have the precedence whenever genius or understanding were the subjects of dispute.
These two men, so different from each other, had not walked four steps, when the one turned pale with rage, and the other leaped with joy, at the sight of a man who had been a long time in the temple, sometimes in one place, and sometimes in another.
“What!” cried Rousseau, “shall I see that man here, that man against whom I have written so many epigrams? What! shall Taste suffer in her temple the author of the Chevalier D’Her’s letters, of an ‘Autumnal Passion,’ of ‘Moonlight,’ of ‘A Brook in Love with a Meadow,’ of ‘The Tragedy of Aspar,’ of ‘Endymion,’ etc.”
“No,” answered Criticism. “’Tis not the author of those works that you see before you; ’tis the author of the plurality of worlds, who composed ‘Thetus and Peleus,’ an opera that excites your envy, and the history of the Academy of Sciences, which you are not capable of understanding.”
Rousseau was going to write an epigram, and Fontenelle looked upon him with that philosophical compassion which every man of an enlightened mind must have for a mere rhymer, and then went and seated himself with great composure between Lucretius and Leibnitz.
I asked how Leibnitz came to be there. I was told that it was because he had written tolerably good Latin verses, though he was versed in both metaphysics and geometry, and that Criticism admitted him into her temple to soften by such an example the austerity of his scientific brethren.
Criticism then turned to the author of the “Plurality of Worlds” and said: I shall not reproach you with some of your juvenile performances, as these zealous cynics have done; but I am Criticism; you are now in the presence of the God of Taste, and I must thus address you in the name of that god, the public and myself; for we all three agree in the main.
As for Lucretius, he blushed as soon as ever he saw the cardinal, his adversary; but no sooner did he hear him speak than he conceived a friendship for him; he ran to him and accosted him in very fine Latin verses, which I translate into indifferent French ones.
The cardinal answered this compliment in the language of Lucretius. All the Latin poets present, from his air and style, judged him to be an ancient Roman; but the French poets are highly displeased at authors composing verses in a language which is no longer spoken; and they affirm that since Lucretius, born at Rome, wrote a Latin poem upon the philosophy of Epicurus, his adversary, born at Paris, should have written against him in French. To conclude, after several such amusing delays, we at last arrived at the Temple of the God of Taste.
I was surprised that I did not meet at the sanctuary several persons, who, sixty or eighty years ago, passed for the greatest favorites of the God of Taste. The Pavillons, the Benserades, the Pellissons, the Segraises, the St. Évremonds, the Balzacs, the Voitures, were no longer in possession of the first places. They possessed them heretofore, said one of my guides; they made a figure before the bright period of the learned world; but they have at length given place to men of real genius. At present they are but little considered; and, in fact, most of them had only the wit peculiar to their age, and not that species of wit which reaches posterity.
Segrais attempted one day to enter the sanctuary at the same time, repeating the following verse of Boileau:
But Criticism having, unhappily for him, read a few pages of his “Æneid” in French verse, dismissed him a little roughly, and in his place admitted Madame de la Fayette, who published the delightful romance of “Zada”; and the Princess of Cleves, under the name of “Segrais.”
Pellisson is not easily excused, for having in his history of the French Academy gravely related so many puerilities, and cited as strokes of wit things which by no means deserve that name. The soft, but weak Pavillon, humbly pays his court to Madame Deshoulières, who is placed far above him. The unequal St. Èvremond does not presume to speak of poetry. Balzac, with his long-winded hyperbolical phrases, tires the patience of Benserade and Voiture, who answer him by antitheses and quibbles, which they are presently after ashamed of themselves. I went in quest of the famous Count de Bussy. Madame de Sévigné, who is beloved by all who dwell in the Temple, told me that her dear cousin, a man of great wit, but a little too vain, could never succeed so far as to make the God of Taste entertain the same favorable opinion of Mons. Roger de Rabutin, which the Count de Bussy had of him.
The god had a great affection for these gentlemen, especially for those who piqued themselves upon nothing. He hinted to Chaulieu that he should look upon himself as the first of careless and negligent poets, not as the first of good poets.
They conversed with some of the most amiable men of their age. Their conversations were equally free from the affectation of the Hotel de Rambouillet, and from the confusion which reigns amongst our young fellows.
Chapelle was there; that genius more debauched than delicate; more natural than polite; an easy versifier, incorrect in his style and licentious in his thoughts. He constantly answered the God of Taste in the same rhymes. ’Tis said that God once answered him thus:
In this agreeable company I met the President de Maisons, a man of a very different character, not at all used to utter words without a meaning; a man as solid as agreeable, and equally a lover of all the arts.
Among these wits we met some Jesuits. A Jansenist would say upon this that the Jesuits intrude everywhere, but the God of Taste receives their enemies too; and it is diverting to see in this Temple Bourdaloue conversing with Pascal upon the great art of uniting eloquence and close reasoning. Father Bouhours stands behind them, setting down in his pocketbook all the improprieties and inelegances of language which escape them. The cardinal could not help addressing Father Bouhours thus:
This reprimand was expressed in terms, much more polite than those which I have made use of; but we poets are sometimes guilty of deviations from good breeding for the sake of a rhyme. When I visited this temple my attention was not entirely engaged by the wits.
I saw the muses by turns place upon the altar of the god, books, designs, and plans of various kinds. The plan of that beautiful front of the Louvre (for which we are not indebted to Bernin, who, with great expense and to no purpose, was brought into France, it being the work of Perrault and Louis la Vau, great artists, whose merit is too little known) is to be seen upon that altar. There also is the plan of St. Denis’s gate, the beauty of which most Parisians are as insensible of, as they are ignorant of the name of Francis Blondel, the architect, to whom they owe this monument.
That admirable fountain, so little taken notice of, which is adorned with the precious sculptures of John Gougeon, but which is in every respect inferior to the admirable fountain of Bouchardon, at the same time that it seems to upbraid the rude taste of all the others. The porch of St. Gervais’ church, a masterpiece of architecture, to which a church, a proper situation and admirers, are wanting, and which should immortalize the name of Desbrosses, still more than the palace of Luxembourg, likewise was built by him. All these monuments, neglected by the vulgar, ever barbarous, and by people of the world ever inattentive, often attract the observation of the deity. The library of this enchanted palace was next shown us; it was not very big. It will be readily believed that we did not find in it.
Most of the books there have passed through the hands of the muses, and been by them corrected. The work of Rabelais is to be seen there, reduced to less than half a quarter of its bulk.
Marot, whose only merit is his style, and who in the same taste, sings the Psalms of David, and the wonders of Alix, has but eight or ten leaves left. The pages of Voiture and Sarrasin together, do not exceed sixty in number.
The whole genius of Bayle, is to be found in a single volume, by his own acknowledgment; for that judicious philosopher, that enlightened judge of authors and sects, often declared that he would never have written more than one volume in folio, if he had not been employed by booksellers.
We were at last admitted into the innermost part of the sanctuary. There the mysteries of the God were unveiled: there I saw what may serve as an example to posterity: a small number of truly great men were employed in correcting those faulty passages of their works, which would have been beauties in those of inferior geniuses.
The amiable author of “Telemachus,” retrenched the repetitions and useless details of his moral romance, and blotted out the title of epic poem, which the indiscreet zeal of some of his admirers had given it; for he frankly owns that there is no such thing as a poem in prose.
The eloquent Bossuet was ready to strike out some familiar expressions, which had escaped his vast, impetuous, and free genius, and which, in some measure disgrace the sublimity of his funeral orations; and it is worthy of remark, that he by no means vouches for the truth of all he has said concerning the pretended wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.
La Fontaine, who retained the simplicity of his character, and who in the Temple of Taste joined acuteness and penetration to that happy instinct, which inspired him during his life, blotted out some of his fables. He abridged almost all his tales, and tore the greater part of a collection of posthumous works, printed by those editors who live by the folly of the dead.
Boileau, at the express command of the God of Taste, was reconciled to Quinault, who may be considered as a poet, formed by the graces, as Boileau was by reason.
“I’ll never be reconciled to you,” said Boileau, “except you acknowledge that there are many insipid lines in those agreeable operas.” “That’s very possible,” answered Quinault, “but you must at the same time acknowledge that you were never capable of writing Atys or Armida.”
After saluting Boileau, and tenderly embracing Quinault, I saw the inimitable Molière, and I made bold to accost him in these terms:
“Ah,” said he, “why was I ever under a necessity of writing for the people? Why was I not always master of my time? I should have invented much more happy intrigues; I should have seldom descended to low comedy.”
‘Twas thus these masters, in their several arts, showed their superiority, by owning those errors to which human nature is subject, and from which the greatest geniuses are not exempt.
I then found that the God of Taste is very hard to be pleased, but that he is never pleased by halves. I perceived that the works which he criticises the most are those which he likes best.
When my company was going to retire, the God addressed them in terms to this effect, for I am not permitted to use his own words.
If all histories were written like that which you sent me, we would be better acquainted with the manners of all ages, and less imposed upon by historians. The longer I know you, the more I admire your abilities. No style can, in my opinion, be finer than that in which the “History of Louis XIV.” is written. I read every paragraph three or four times over, to such a degree do I admire it: every sentence is striking, it everywhere abounds with admirable reflections: there is not a false thought in it, there is nothing in it any way puerile, and its impartiality is unexceptionable. When I have read the work through, I shall send you a few remarks on it, amongst the rest, on the German names which you have a little disfigured, this might render the work somewhat obscure, as some of them are so disguised that we are puzzled to guess at them.
I wish every work capable of conveying instruction, was to come from your pen. We should then be sure of being improved by the books we read.
I sometimes am vexed at the puerilities, the trivial remarks, and the dry style of certain books. These things readers are often obliged to digest. You spare your readers that trouble. Let a man have judgment or not, he is equally improved by your works: he has no occasion for anything but memory. Pray, my dear friend, tell me how you pass your time at Cirey, ’tis a retreat which I envy you.
to an english friend who had compared voltaire to the sun.
Villars, Sept. 1, 1720.
The ladies at Villars are quite spoiled by reading your “Treatise of the Plurality of Worlds.” We could have wished it had rather been by your “Pastorals,” for we would much rather have seen them shepherdesses than philosophers. They spend time in contemplating the stars which they might employ to much greater advantage; and as our taste is regulated by theirs, love for them has made us all turn natural philosophers.
As we pass the whole night in taking a view of the stars, we very much neglect the sun, to which we rarely pay a visit till he has run one-half of his course. We were informed a while ago, that he looked bloody the whole morning: that afterward, without the air being any way obscured, he, by insensible degrees, was deprived both of his magnitude and his light; this information we did not receive till five o’clock in the evening. We thereupon looked out at the window, and we took the sun for the moon on account of his paleness. We have no doubt you have seen the same phenomenon at Paris.
On this occasion, sir, we address you as our master. You know how to make those things pleasing which are scarcely made intelligible by other philosophers, and such a man as you was necessary in France, and indeed, in all Europe, to inform the literati, and inspire the ignorant with a taste for the sciences.
Paris, Feb. 21, 1747.
Berlin, Dec. 12, 1751.
You see, sir, that the desire of serving you has united two men very, very different from each other.
Our first intention was to send your highness a regular composition, half verse, half prose, as was customary with the Chapelles, the Des Barreaux, and the Hamiltons, who were the abbé’s contemporaries and our masters. I should have added, Voitures, if I was not afraid of offending the abbé, who pretends, I don’t know for what reason, that he is not old enough to have seen him.
As there are many bold things to be said concerning the times, the wiser of us two—I don’t mean myself—did not choose to speak of them without enjoining profound secrecy.
This god happened unluckily not to be at Sully; he was then, as we were told, engaged by — and Madam de —, or else we should have finished our work under his inspection.
We have here given you a weak sketch of the picture we intended to draw.
Sully, July 3, 1717.
I write to you from Sully, where Chapelle lived, that is, got drunk for two years together. I wish he had left something of his poetical talent in this castle; it would be very convenient for those who undertake to write to you. But as we are told that he bequeathed it entirely to you, I was obliged to have recourse to magic, of which you have frequently made mention.
I asked him by what art he, during his residence in our world,
I should never have thought that such a man as you could have any faith in spirits, and still less that you could believe what they say when they return from God knows where. The Epicurean philosophers, to whose sect you say I belong, have, thank heaven, enabled me to doubt of the reality of Chapelle’s apparition, and equally to distrust the insinuations of his shade, of your politeness, and of my own self-love, which you have with great address endeavored to interest upon this occasion. Among many other good reasons which should induce you to distrust this apparition, you have in yourself an essential one, which should determine you to give it no sort of credit, as it did me.
This is all I can say in answer to the prettiest letter that ever was written, a letter whose flattery I should not listen to, and whose brilliancy of imagination deters me from attempting to answer it in form, as the answer would, in all likelihood, be unworthy of a pupil of Chapelle, to whom you might very possibly show it, as you have so great an intimacy with him forty years after his death.
But though I distrust my head, I am always sure of my heart, and in proof of the esteem and affection I have for you, of which you ask me a token that cannot be called in question, I shall with the sincerity which I have always professed, tell you my real opinion of the affair which you have communicated to me.
Paris, July 26, 1717.
Cirey, Sept. 2, 1744.
After this hymn to the goddess of health, which I have made with the utmost sincerity of friendship, permit me, sir, to add to it mentally a short Gloria Patri. I have as much occasion for it as you, but I am more solicitous about your welfare than my own. May the goddess of health first shower down her favors upon you; drink the waters of Plombières cheerfully, and return with all speed to Cirey before the Austrian hussars enter Lorraine. Such folks give no waters to drink but those of the river Styx. Do not forget that amongst the multitude of your well-wishers there are two here who desire that you should stop awhile in your journey for their sakes.
Found among his papers after his decease.
I was at Lille in 1741, where M. de Voltaire came to pass a few days; there was then the best company of actors in the town that had even been in Provence, who presented this piece to the satisfaction of a very numerous audience. The governor and the intendant were several times present at the performance. A tragedy written in so new a taste, and on so delicate a subject, treated with such judgment and discretion, induced many prelates to have it acted in a private house by the same persons. Their opinion confirmed that of the public. The author was at the same time so happy as to get his manuscript presented to one of the first men in the church, and indeed in all Europe, who supported the weight of public affairs with firmness, and judged concerning works of genius with true taste, at an age when few men have, and still fewer preserve their wit and delicacy. He decided that the piece was written with all proper decorum and circumspection, and that it was impossible to handle with more prudence so dangerous a subject; but that with regard to the poetry, there were many things in it that wanted correction; these the author, to my knowledge, afterward retouched with the greatest care. This was also the opinion of another eminent personage of equal rank, and of equal abilities.
At length this excellent performance, which had been licenced according to form in many other places, was exhibited at Paris on August 9, 1742: a whole box was filled with the principal magistrates of the city; the ministers were also present, and all were of the same opinion as the excellent judges above mentioned. There were, however, some persons at the first representation who disapproved of it: whether it was that in the hurry of the action they did not sufficiently attend to the gradual process of it, or that they were little versed in stage matters, they seemed shocked at Mahomet’s ordering a man to commit murder, and making use of his religion to stir up an innocent youth, the instrument of his crimes, to an assassination. These gentlemen, struck with the horror of the action, did not sufficiently consider, that this murder is represented in the tragedy as the most atrocious of all crimes, and that indeed it was morally impossible it should be otherwise. The truth was, they saw indeed but one side, the usual method which men take to deceive themselves. And as they considered that side only, it was no wonder they should take offence, which a little more attention would easily have removed: but in the first heat of their zeal they cried out that it was a dangerous performance, and fit only to produce Ravaillacs and Jacques Cléments. A most extraordinary piece of criticism which these gentlemen no doubt are by this time heartily ashamed of. This would in effect be to affirm that Hermione teaches us to assassinate kings, Electra to kill our mothers, Cleopatra and Medea to slay our own children: that Harpagon makes misers, the Gamester gamesters, and Tartuffe hypocrites. The censure of Mahomet would carry with it even more injustice than this, because the iniquity of that false prophet is represented in a light more odious and detestable than any of the vices or follies satirized in those performances. The tragedy was written directly in opposition to the Ravaillacs and Jacques Cléments, insomuch that, as a person of excellent judgment lately observed, if “Mahomet” had been written in the time of Henry III. and Henry IV. it might have saved both their lives. Would one think it possible that the author of “La Henriade” would ever have met with such a reproach, he who has so often in that poem, and in other parts of his works, lifted up his voice, not only against such crimes, but against all those pernicious maxims which are the causes of them? The more I read that writer’s works, the more have I always found the love of public good their distinguishing characteristic: every part of them inspires horror and detestation of rebellion, persecution, and fanaticism.
He soon perceived that a formidable party was raised against him; some of the most violent among them got the ear of a few great men, who not having seen the piece themselves believed everything that these gentlemen thought proper to report concerning it. The celebrated Molière, the glory of France, was once in nearly the same condition, when his “Tartuffe” was first exhibited; he had immediate recourse to Louis the Great, who knew and loved him. The authority of that monarch soon put an end to the sinister and malevolent misrepresentations of “Tartuffe;” but times are changed; that protection which is given to arts in their infant state cannot be expected to continue after those arts have been cultivated for a length of time: besides one man may not have interest to obtain that which another has procured with ease; hence some instruments must be set to work, some discussions made, some new examinations passed through, before anything can be done in his favor. The author therefore thought it most advisable to withdraw his piece, after the third representation, in hopes that time would get the better of prejudice, which must inevitably happen among a people so sensible and judicious as our own. It was stated in the public papers, that the tragedy of “Mahomet” had been stopped by order of the government, which was an absolute falsehood; no such order was ever given; and the first men in the kingdom, who had seen this tragedy, unanimously concurred in their admiration of it. Some persons having hastily transcribed a few scenes from the actors’ parts, two or three imperfect editions crept into the world; it is easy to see how much they differ from the true work which I have here given. Prefixed to this tragedy are several interesting pieces; one of the most curious among them, in my opinion, is a letter written by the author to his majesty, the King of Prussia, on his return through Holland, after a visit to him. In papers of this kind, which were not originally designed for the public, one sees the real sentiments of men: I flatter myself they will afford the same pleasure to every true philosopher which they gave me in the perusal.