A New and Complete Translation

Essay 10

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 2 June 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 On the fifth evening (Tuesday, the 28th of April) the play was The Unexpected Obstacle, or the Obstacle without Obstacle, by Destouches.[10.1]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 When we look through the annals of the French theater, we find that the funniest plays by this author are also the ones that have received the least public acclaim. Neither the present play, nor The Hidden Treasure, The Nocturnal Drummer, or The Country Poet have survived; and even when they were new they were only performed a few times.[10.2] A great deal hinges on the tone that a writer uses to introduce himself, or that he uses to produce his best works. We tacitly assume that he has entered thereby into a commitment never to diverge from this tone, and if he does, we consider ourselves entitled to be confounded by it. We seek the author in the author and believe that we have found something worse the moment we find something different. In his plays The Married Philosopher, The Conceited Count, and The Spendthrift, Destouches produced examples of a finer and higher comedy even than Molière in his most serious plays.[10.3] The critics, who so gladly classify, immediately identified this as his unique sphere. That which for the poet was perhaps nothing more than incidental choice was identified by the critics as superb instinct and masterful ability; that which he once or twice chose not to do, they declared him incapable of doing, and once he did want to, how typical of the critics that they would rather not do him justice than alter their hasty judgment? I am not saying here that the low comedy of Destouches is of the same quality as Moliere’s. It is really a great deal stiffer; a clever mind is more in evidence than a faithful painter. His fools are seldom the kind of easy fool that comes from nature, but more often of the wooden sort that art tends to carve, and overloaded with affectation, with an ill-conceived way of life, with pedantry. As a result, his Schulwitz and his Masures are more chilly than ridiculous.[10.4] But that notwithstanding — and this is all I wanted to say — his humorous plays are not nearly so lacking in genuine comedy as an overly refined taste might find them to be. They occasionally contain scenes that make us laugh from the heart, and that alone might assure him a considerable rank among the comic poets.[10.5]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 [†] A new comedy in one act followed, called The New Agnes.[10.6]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Madame Gertrude pretends to be a pious prude before the eyes of the world, but secretly she is the obliging, fiery girlfriend of a certain Bernard.[10.7] “How happy, oh how happy you make me, Bernard!” she cries out in ecstasy—and she is overheard by her daughter. The following morning, the sweet simple girl asks, “But mama, who is this Bernard, who makes people happy?” The mother realizes she is discovered, quickly pulls herself together. “It is the saint whom I have recently chosen, my daughter; one of the greatest in Paradise.” Not long afterward, the daughter gets to know a certain Hilar. The good child finds great pleasure in his company, mama gets suspicious, mama sneaks up on the happy pair, and mama hears as lovely a sigh from the darling daughter as this darling daughter recently heard from mama. The mother gets angry, attacks her, rages. “What is all this, dear mama?” the calm girl finally says. “You chose St. Bernard for yourself, and I chose St. Hilar. Why not?” — This is one of the educational little fairytales that the divine Voltaire in his wise old age bestowed upon the young.[10.8] Favart found it so edifying that he felt compelled to turn it into a comic opera.[10.9] He saw nothing objectionable in it beyond the name of the saint, and so he removed this irritation. Out of Madame Gertrude he made a platonic sage, a follower of the teachings of Gabalis, and “Saint Bernard” becomes a sylph, who visits in the name and form of a good friend of the virtuous woman.[10.10] Hilar also becomes a sylph, and so forth. In short, he wrote the operetta Isabelle and Gertrude, or the Imagined Sylphs, which is the foundation for The New Agnes. There was an attempt to bring the moral conventions closer to our own, there was an attempt to observe all respectability, the sweet girl possesses the most charming, admirable innocence, and strewn throughout the whole are many good comic ideas, some of which are the German author’s own. I cannot go more specifically into the changes that he makes to his original; but people of taste who know it might wish that he had retained the woman next door rather than the father. —The role of Agnes was played by Mademoiselle Felbrich, a young woman who promises to be an excellent actress and thus deserves the warmest encouragement.[10.11] Age, figure, expression, voice—everything comes together in her; and even if these natural gifts allow her to perform much of this role automatically, one still must concede that she adds many refinements revealing forethought and art—but not more nor less than should be revealed in an Agnes.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 On the sixth evening (Wednesday, the 29th of April) M. de Voltaire’s Semiramis was performed.[10.12]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This tragedy was brought to the French stage in 1748, received great acclaim, and was to a certain degree epoch-making in the history of that theater. After M. de Voltaire had delivered his Zaïre and Alzire, and his Brutus and Caesar, he was confirmed in his opinion that the tragic poets of his nation far overtook the ancient Greeks in many particulars. From us French, he says, the Greeks could have learned a more skillful exposition, and the grand art of joining scenes together such that the stage is never empty, and characters never enter or exit without purpose.[10.13] From us, he says, they could have learned how rivals in love, male and female, converse with each other in witty repartee, and how the poet must dazzle and astonish with plenty of lofty, brilliant thoughts. From us they could have learned—But of course, what is there that cannot be learned from the French! Here and there a foreigner who has also read a little of the ancients might humbly beg to differ in opinion. He might perhaps object that all of these French merits have in fact no great influence on the substance of tragedy, that these are superficial beauties which the simple greatness of the ancients looked upon with scorn. But what use is it to object to anything M. de Voltaire says? He speaks and people believe. There was only one thing he found lacking in the French theater—that its great masterpieces were not being performed with the kind of magnificence that the Greeks deemed worthy of their trifling attempts at a newly evolving art. The theater in Paris—an old tennis court with decorations of the worst taste, where standing spectators push and shove each other in a dirty parterre—rightly offended him; and he was particularly offended by the barbaric practice of tolerating spectators on the stage, where they left the actors barely enough room for their most necessary movements.[10.14] He was convinced that this unseemly practice alone deprived France of much that doubtless would have been ventured in a sumptuous theater that was more open and accommodating to action. And in order to test this, he wrote his Semiramis.[10.15] A queen, who gathers together the nobles of her realm in order to announce her marriage; a ghost who climbs out of his crypt to prevent incest and to revenge his own murder; this same crypt, into which a fool enters in order to re-emerge as a criminal: all of this was in fact something completely new for the French.[10.16] It makes as much fuss on the stage, it demands as much pageantry and change of scene as we have only ever been used to in an opera. The playwright thought he had provided the model for a very special genre; and even if that model was made not for the French stage as it was, but rather as he wished the stage to be, in any case it was played on that stage more or less as well as it could be played for the time being. At the first performance the audience still sat on the stage, and I really would have loved to see an old-fashioned ghost appear in such a gallant circle.[10.17] Beginning with the second performance this impropriety was remedied. The actors took over their stage, and what was once only an exception for the benefit of such an unusual play has since become the lasting arrangement. But only, for the most part, for the theaters in Paris, for which, as mentioned above, Semiramis was epoch-making. In the provinces they often continue with the old fashion, and would rather relinquish all illusions than give up the privilege of being able to step on Zaïre’s or Merope’s gown.[10.18]

  • 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages that were cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [10.1] Philippe Néricault Destouches, L’Obstacle imprévu, ou, L’obstacle sans obstacle (1717). German translator unknown.
  • [10.2] Destouches, Le Trésor caché (1745), Le Tambour nocturne (1736), and La fausse Agnès, ou Le poète campagnard (wr. 1727); the latter two were translated by Luise Adelgunde Gottsched as Das Gespenste mit der Trummel [The Ghost with the Drum] and Der Poetische Dorfjunker [The Poetical Village Squire] in volumes 2 and 3 respectively of J. C. Gottsched’s Die Deutsche Schaubühne (1741-45). Le Tambour nocturne was itself an adaptation of Joseph Addison, The Drummer, or the Haunted House (1715/16).
  • [10.3] Destouches, Le Philosophe marié (1727), Le Glorieux (1732), and Le Dissipateur (1733). Le Glorieux was translated as Der Ruhmredige [The Conceited Count] by J. E. Schlegel (1761); Le Dissipateur was translated by L. A. Gottsched as Der Verschwender [The Spendthrift] (1741). An English version of The Conceited Count appears in Regnard, et. al., Heirs of Moliere 89-196.
  • [10.4] Herr Schulwitz, character in Das Gespenst mit der Trummel (M. Pincé in the original). Herr von Masuren, character in Der Poetische Dorfjunker (M. des Mazures in the original).
  • [10.5] Lessing upholds the view that comedy is both moral and useful; its function is to heighten our ability to recognize the ridiculous and to avoid such behaviors in ourselves. (Cf. “Letter to Nicolai,” Werke und Briefe 11/1: 120). If too moralistic, however, comedy no longer generates genuine laughter; conversely, if its characters are too ridiculous, they become merely repellent.
  • [10.6] Johann Friedrich Löwen, Die neue Agnese.
  • [10.7] Lessing is synopsizing Voltaire’s verse poem Gertrude, ou, L’éducation d’une fille [Gertrude, or the Education of a Daughter] (1763).
  • [10.8] Lessing’s animosity toward Voltaire in this and other essays can be attributed in part to an incident between the two authors. While still a young unknown, Lessing was lent a portion of a work in progress by the renowned French author; fearing piracy or an unauthorized translation, Voltaire demanded its return. (“Letter from Voltaire,” Werke und Briefe 11/1: 37-8; and Nisbet 92-3.) Lessing was later denied the post of Royal Librarian by Voltaire’s patron, Frederick II of Prussia; it is speculated that the earlier incident may have been a contributing factor, although Frederick had always maintained a low opinion of German authors.
  • [10.9] Charles-Simon Favart (1710-92), French dramatist, librettist, and director of the opéra comique, author of Isabelle et Gertrude ou les Sylphes supposés [Isabelle and Gertrude, or the Supposed Sylphs] (1765).
  • [10.10] Gabalis, a master of the occult in the satirical novel Le Comte de Gabalis, ou Entretiens sur les sciences secretes [The Count of Gabalis, or Conversations about the Secret Sciences] (1670) by the Abbé de Montfaucon de Villars (1635-73). A sylph is a folkloric, elemental being of the air.
  • [10.11] Cordelia (or Cornelia/Cornelie) Felbrich left the company in November 1767, joining Karl Döbbelin’s troupe in Berlin.
  • [10.12] Five-act tragedy. Sémiramis, Queen of Babylon, has colluded in the murder of her husband Ninus, whose ghost rises to demand justice. The German translation was provided by Löwen.
  • [10.13] Lessing refers to the “Dissertation sur la tragédie ancienne et modern” [“Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy”] (1748), published as a preface to Sémiramis, in which Voltaire argues for the superiority of modern French tragedy over that of the ancients.
  • [10.14] As theater became increasingly oriented toward the middle classes over the course of the eighteenth century, new dramatic modes such as bourgeois drama as well as new audience demographics necessitated a shift in theater-going practices that had favored aristocratic privilege. This shift included the elimination of the seventeenth-century practice of allowing (sometimes more than a hundred) socially important spectators to sit on the stage.
  • [10.15] The ambitious staging called for by Sémiramis was not realized at its premiere, despite financial support from Louis XV.
  • [10.16] Queen Sémiramis seeks to marry a young general, Arzace, not knowing he is her long-lost son; the ghost of Ninus prevents the marriage by revealing their true relationship. In the final act of the play, Arzace fatally stabs his mother in his father’s tomb, mistaking her for his enemy.
  • [10.17] The playwright and historian Jean-François Marmontel recounts that the ghost of Ninus had to struggle to make his way through the throng of spectators on the stage. (Common lore has that an usher—some say Voltaire himself—was forced to call out “Gentlemen, make way for the ghost!”) The ensuing hilarity fueled Voltaire’s campaign to remove spectators from the French stage; the practice was abolished in 1759.
  • [10.18] Zaïre and Merope, titular characters in tragedies by Voltaire.
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