The following article is reprinted from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. August Wilhelm Schlegel. London: George Bell & Sons, 1904. pp. 295-304.
To Voltaire, from his first entrance on his dramatic career, we must give credit both for a conviction that higher and more extensive efforts remained to be made, and for the zeal necessary to accomplish all that was yet undone. How far he was successful, and how much he was himself blinded by the very national prejudices against which he contended, is another question. For the more easy review of his works, it will be useful to class together the pieces in which he handled mythological materials, and those which he derived from the Roman history.
His earliest tragedy, Œdipe, is a mixture of adherence to the Greeks (with the proviso, however, as may be supposed, of improving on them,) and of compliance with the prevailing manner. The best feature of this work Voltaire owed to Sophocles, whom he nevertheless slanders in his preface; and in comparison with whose catastrophe his own is flat in the extreme. Not a little, however, was borrowed from the frigid Œdipus of Corneille; and more especially the love of Philoctetus for Jocaste, which may be said to correspond nearly with that of Theseus and Dirce in Corneille. Voltaire alleged in his defence the tyranny of the players, from which a young and unknown writer cannot emancipate himself. We may notice the frequent allusions to priestcraft, superstition, etc..., which even at that early period betray the future direction of his mind.
The Merope, a work of his ripest years, was intended as a perfect revival of Greek tragedy, an undertaking of so great difficulty, and so long announced with every note of preparation. Its real merit is the exclusion of the customary love scenes (Of which, however, Racine had already given an example in the Athalie); for in other respects ... readers hardly need to be told how much is not conceived in the true Grecian spirit. Moreover the confidants are also entirely after the old traditional cut. The other defects of the piece have been circumstantially, and, I might almost say, too severely, censured by Lessing. The tragedy of Merope, if well acted, can hardly fail of being received with a certain degree of favour. This is owing to the nature of its subject. The passionate love of a mother, who, in dread of losing her only treasure, and threatened with cruel oppression, still supports her trials with heroic constancy, and at last triumphs over them, is altogether a picture of such truth and beauty, that the sympathy it awakens is beneficent, and remains pure from every painful ingredient. Still we must not forget that the piece belongs only in a very small measure to Voltaire. How much he has borrowed from Maffei, and changed--not always for the better--has been already pointed out by Lessing.
Of all remodellings of Greek tragedies, Oreste, the latest, appears the farthest from the antique simplicity and severity, although it is free from any mixture of love-making, and all mere confidants are excluded. That Orestes should undertake to destroy Ægisthus is nowise singular, and seems scarcely to merit such marked notice in the tragical annals of the world. It is the case which Aristotle lays down as the most indifferent, where one enemy knowingly attacks the other. And in Voltaire's play neither Orestes nor Electra have anything beyond this in view: Clytemnestra is to be spared; no oracle consigns to her own son the execution of the punishment due to her guilt. But even the deed in question can hardly be said to be executed by Orestes himself: he goes to Ægisthus, and falls, simply enough it must be owned, into the net, and is only saved by an insurrection of the people. According to the ancients, the oracle had commanded him to attack the criminals with cunning, as they had so attacked Agamemnon. This was a just retaliation: to fall in open conflict would have been too honourable a death for Ægisthus. Voltaire has added, of his own invention, that he was also prohibited by the oracle from making himself known to his sister; and when carried away by fraternal love, he breaks this injunction, he is blinded by the Furies, and involuntarily perpetrates the deed of matricide. These certainly are singular ideas to assign to the gods, and a most unexampled punishment for a slight, nay, even a noble crime. The accidental and unintentional stabbing of Clytemnestra was borrowed from Crebillon. A French writer will hardly venture to represent this subject with mythological truth; to describe, for instance, the murder as intentional, and executed by the command of the gods. If Clytemnestra were depicted not as rejoicing in the success of her crime, but repentent and softened by maternal love, then, it is true, her death would no longer be supportable. But how does this apply to so premeditated a crime? By such a transition to littleness the whole profound significance of the dreadful example is lost.
As the French are in general better acquainted with the Romans than the Greeks, we might expect the Roman pieces of Voltaire to be more consistent, in a political point of view, with historical truth, than his Greek pieces are with the symbolical original of mythology. This is, however, the case only in Brutus, the earliest of them, and the only one which can be said to be sensibly planned. Voltaire sketched this tragedy in England; he had there learned from Julius Caesar the effect which the publicity of Republican transactions is capable of producing on the stage, and he wished therefore to hold something like a middle course between Corneille and Shakespeare. The first act opens majestically; the catastrophe is brief but striking, and throughout the principles of genuine freedom are pronounced with a grave and noble eloquence. Brutus himself, his son Titus, the ambassador of the king, and the chief of the conspirators, are admirably depicted. I am by no means disposed to censure the introduction of love into this play. The passion of Titus for a daughter of Tarquin, which constitutes the knot, is not improbable, and in its tone harmonizes with the manners which are depicted. Still less am I disposed to agree with La Harpe, when he says that Tullia, to afford a fitting counterpoise to the republican virtues, ought to utter proud and heroic sentiments, like Emilia in Cinna. By what means can a noble youth be more easily seduced than by female tenderness and modesty? It is not, generally speaking, natural that a being like Emilia should ever inspire love.
The Mort de César is a mutilated tragedy: it ends with the speech of Antony over the dead body of Cæsar, borrowed from Shakespeare; that is to say, it has no conclusion. And what a patched and bungling thing is it in all its parts! How coarse-spun and hurried is the conspiracy! How stupid Cæsar must have been, to allow the conspirators to brave him before his face without suspecting their design! That Brutus, although he knew Cæsar to be his father, nay, immediately after this fact had come to his knowledge, should lay murderous hands on him, is cruel, and, at the same time, most un-Roman. History affords us many examples of fathers in Rome who condemned their own sons to death for crimes of state; the law gave fathers an unlimited power of life and death over their children in their own houses. But the murder of a father, though perpetrated in the cause of liberty, would, in the eyes of the Romans, have stamped the parricide an unnatural monster. The inconsistencies which here arise from the attempt to observe the unity of place, are obvious to the least discerning eye. The scene is laid in the Capitol; here the conspiracy is hatched in the clear light of day, and Cæsar the while goes in and out among them. But the persons, themselves, do not seem to know rightly where they are; for Cæsar on one occasion exclaims, "Courons au Capitole!"
The same improprieties are repeated in Catiline, which is but a little better than the preceding piece. From Voltaire's sentiments respecting the dramatic exhibition of a conspiracy ... we might well conclude that he had not himself a right understanding on this head, were it not quite evident that the French system rendered a true representation of such transactions all but impossible, not only by the required observance of the Unities of Place and Time, but also on account of a deman for dignity of poetical expression, such as is quite incompatible with the accurate mention of particular circumstances, on which, however, in this case depends the truthfulness of the whole. The machinations of a conspiracy, and the endeavours to frustrate them, are like the underground mine and counter-mine, with which the besiegers and the besieged endeavour to blow up each other. Something must be done to enable the spectators to comprehend the art of the miners. If Catiline and his adherents had employed no more art and dissimulation, and Cicero no more determined wisdom, than Voltaire has given them, the one could not have endangered Rome, and the other could not have saved it. THe piece turns always on the same point; they all declaim against each other, but no one acts; and at the conclusion, the affair is decided as if by accident, by the blind chance of war. When we read the simple relation of Sallust, it has the appearance of the genuine poetry of the matter, and Voltaire's work by the side of it looks like a piece of school rhetoric. Ben Jonson has treated the subject with a very different insight into the true connection of human affairs; and Voltaire might have learned a great deal from the man in traducing whom he did not spare even falsehood.
The Triumvirat belongs to the acknowledged unsuccessful essays of his old age. It consists of endless declamations on the subject of proscription, which are poorly supported by a mere show of action. Here we find the Triumvirs quietly sitting in their tents on an island in the small river Rhenus, while storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes rage around them; and Julia and the young Pompeius, although they are travelling on terra firma, are depicted as if they had been just shipwrecked on the strand; besides a number of other absurdities. Voltaire, probably by way of apology for the poor success which the piece had on its representation, says, "This piece is perhaps in the English taste."--Heaven forbid!
We return to the earlier tragedies of Voltaire, in which he brought on the stage subjects never before attempted, and on which his fame as a dramatic poet principally rests: Zaire, Alzire, Mahomet, Semiramis, and Tancred.
Zaire is considered in France as the triumph of tragic poetry in the representation of love and jealousy. We will not assert with Lessing, that Voltaire was acquainted only with the legal style of love. He often expresses feeling with a fiery energy, if not with that familiar truth and naïveté in which an unreserved heart lays itself open. But I see no trace of an oriental colouring in Zaire's cast of feeling: educated in the seraglio, she should cling to the object of her passion with all the fervour of a maiden of glowing imagination, rioting, as it were, in the fragrant perfumes of the East. Her fanciless love dwells solely in the heart; and again how is this conceivable with such a character? Orosman, on his part, lays claim indeed to European tenderness of feeling; but in him the Tartar is merely varnished over, and he has frequent relapses into the ungovernable fury and despotic habits of his race. The poet ought at least to have given a credibility to the magnanimity which he ascribes to him, by investing him with a celebrated historical name, such as that of the Saracen monarch Saladin, well known for his nobleness and liberality of sentiment. But all our sympathy inclines to the oppressed Christian and chivalrous side, and the glorious names to which it is appropriated. What can be more affecting than the royal martyr Lusignan, the upright and pious Nerestan, who, though in the fire of youth, has no heart for deeds of bloody enterprise except to redeem the associates of his faith? The scenes in which these two characters appear are uniformly excellent, and more particularly the whole of the second act. The idea of connecting the discovery of a daughter with her conversion can never be sufficiently praised. But, in my opinion, the great effect of this act is injurious to the rest of the piece. Does any person seriously with the union of Zaire with Orosman, except lady spectators flattered with the homage which is paid to beauty, or those of the male part of the audience who are still entangled in the follies of youth? Who else can go along with the poet, when Zaire's love for the Sultan, so ill-justified by his acts, balances in her soul the voice of blood, and the most sacred claims of filial duty, honour, and religion?
It was a praiseworthy daring (such singular prejudices then prevailed in France) to exhibit French heroes in Zaire. In Alzire Voltaire went still farther, and treated a subject in modern history nevery yet touched by his countrymen. In the former piece he contrasted the chivalrous and Saracenic way of thinking; in this we have Spaniards opposed to Peruvians. The difference between the old and new world has given rise to descriptions of a truly poetical nature. Though the action is a pure invention, I recognize in this piece more historical and more of what we may call symbolical truth, than in most French tragedies. Zamor is a representation of the savage in his free, and Monteze in his subdued state; Guzman, of the arrogance of the conqueror; and Alvarez, of the mild influence of Christianity. Alzire remains between these conflicting elements in an affecting struggle betwixt attachment to her country, its manners, and the first choice of her heart, on the one part, and new ties of honour and duty on the other. All the human motives speak in favour of Alzire's love, which were against the passion of Zaire. The last scene, where the dying Guzman is dragged in, is beneficently overpowering. The noble lines on the difference of their religions, by which Zamor is converted by Guzman, are borrowed from an event in history: they are the words of the Duke of Guise to a Huguenot who wished to kill him; but the glory of the poet is not therefore less in applying them as he has done. In short, notwithstanding the improbabilities in the plot, which are easily discovered, and have often been censured, Alzire appears to be the most fortunate attempt, and the most finished of all Voltaire's compositions.
In Mahomet, want of true singleness of purpose has fearfully avenged itself on the artist. He may affirm as much as he pleases that his aim was directed solely against fanaticism; there can be no doubt that he wished to overthrow the belief in revelation altogether, and that for that object he considered every means allowable. We have thus a work which is productive of effect; but an alarmingly painful effect, equally repugnant to humanity, philosophy and religious feeling. The Mahomet of Voltaire makes two innocent young persons, a brother and sister, who, with a childlike reverence, adore him as a messenger from God, unconsciously murder their own father, and this from the motives of an incestuous love in which, by his allowance, they had also become unknowingly entangled; the brother, after he has blindly executed his horrible mission, he rewards with poison, and the sister he reserves for the gratification of his own vile lust. This tissue of atrocities, this cold-blooded delight in wickedness, exceeds perhaps the measure of human nature; but, at all events, it exceeds the bounds of poetic exhibition, even though such a monster should ever have appeared in the course of ages. But, overlooking this, what a disfigurement, nay, distortion, of history! He has stripped her, too, of her wonderful charms; not a trace of oriental colouring is to be found. Mahomet was a false prophet, but one certainly under the inspiration of enthusiasm, otherwise he would never by his doctrine have revolutionized the half of the world. What an absurdity to make him merely a cool deceiver! One alone of the many sublime maxims of the Koran would be sufficient to annihilate the whole of these incongruous inventions.
Semiramisis a motley patchwork of the French manner and mistaken imitations. It has something of Hamlet, and something of Clytemnestra and Orestes; but nothing of any of them as it ought to be. The passion for an unknown son is borrowed from the _Semiramis_ of Crebillon. The appearance of Ninus is a mixture of the Ghost in Hamlet and the shadow of Darius in Aeschylus. That it is superfluous has been admitted even by the French critics. Lessing, with his raillery, has scared away the Ghost. With a great many faults common to ordinary ghost-scenes, it has this peculiar one, that its speeches are dreadfully bombastic. Notwithstanding the great zeal displayed by Voltaire against subordinate love intrigues in tragedy, he has, however, contrived to exhibit two pairs of lovers, the partie carrée as it is called, in this play, which was to be the foundation of an entirely new species.
Since the Cid, no French tragedy had appeared of which the plot was founded on such pure motives of honour and love without any ignoble intermixtures, and so completely consecrated to the exhibition of chivalrous sentiments, as Tancred. Amenaide, though honor and life are at stake, disdains to exculpate herself by a declaration which would endanger her lover; and Tancred, though justified in esteeming her faith less, defends her in single combat, and, in despair, is about to seek a hero's death, when the unfortunate mistake is cleared up. So far the piece is irreproachable, and deserving of the greatest praise. But it is weakened by other imperfections. It is of great detriment to its perspicuity, that we are not at the very first allowed to hear the letter without superscription which occasions all the embarrassment, and that it is not sent off before our eyes. The political disquisitions in the first act are extremely tedious, Tancred does not appear till the third act, though his presence is impatiently looked for, to give animation to the scene. The furious imprecations of Amenaide, at the conclusion, are not in harmony with the deep but soft emotion with which we are overpowered by the reconciliation of the two lovers, whose hearts, after so long a mutual misunderstanding, are reunited in the moment of separation by death.
In the earlier piece of the Orphelin de la Chine, it might be considered pardonable if Voltaire represented the great Dschingis-kan in love. This drama ought to be entitled The Conquest of China, with the conversion of the cruel Khan of Tartary, &c. Its whole interest is concentrated in two children, who are never once seen. The Chinese are represented as the most wise and virtuous of mankind, and they overflow with philosophical maxims. As Corneille, in his old age, made one and all of his characters politicians, Voltaire in like manner furnished his out with philosophy, and availed himself of them to preach up his favourite opinions. He was not deterred by the example of Corneille, when the power of representing the passions was extinct, from publishing a host of weak and faulty productions.
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