A New and Complete Translation

Essay 12

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 9 June 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I see yet one more difference between the ghosts of the English poets and those of the French.[12.1] Voltaire’s ghost is nothing but a poetic machine, there only to serve the plot; on its own it does not interest us in the least.[12.2] Shakespeare’s ghost on the other hand is a real and active person whose fate engages our sympathy; it awakens not only a shiver of fear, but also compassion.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Without doubt this difference originated in the two poets’ divergent way of thinking about ghosts in general. Voltaire considers the appearance of a dead person to be a wonder; for Shakespeare it is a completely natural occurrence.[12.3] There should be no question which of the two is the more philosophical thinker, but Shakespeare was the more poetic. Voltaire never considered the ghost of Ninus to be a being who is still capable – even on the other side of the grave – of pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and for whom we thus might feel compassion. He merely wished to use it to demonstrate that the highest Power can make an exception to its eternal laws in order to bring hidden crimes to light and to punish them.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I do not wish to say that it is a mistake for a dramatic writer to arrange his story in such a way that it can serve to explain or confirm some great moral truth. But I will say that this arrangement of the fable is anything but necessary – there can be very instructive and accomplished plays that do not aim at imparting such individual maxims – and we commit an injustice when we focus on the moral statement at the end of many ancient tragedies as if the play only existed for its sake.[12.4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Thus if M. de Voltaire’s Sémiramis had no other merit than the one of which he is so proud – namely that we will learn to venerate the highest justice, which chooses exceptional methods to punish exceptionally vicious actions – then in my opinion Sémiramis would be only a very mediocre play. Particularly since this moral is hardly the most edifying.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 For it is without question far worthier of the wisest being not to resort to these extraordinary methods, and we imagine the punishment of good and evil woven into the proper order of things.[12.5]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [†]But I will not dwell longer on this play, other than to say a word about the way it was produced here. We have every reason to be satisfied in this respect. The stage is roomy enough to contain without confusion the multitude of characters that the writer puts on stage in several scenes. The decorations are new and in the best of taste, and to the best extent possible they bring together the all-too-frequently changing locations.[12.6]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 On the seventh evening (Thursday, the 30th of April), The Married Philosopher by Destouches was performed.[12.7]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This play first appeared in 1727 on the French stage and received so much acclaim that it was produced thirty-six times over the years. The German translation is not the prose version from the Berlin translation of Destouches’ collected works; rather, it is in a verse form that several hands have patched and improved.[12.8] It has many very successful verses, but also many passages that are hard and unnatural. It is impossible to describe how difficult those passages make it for the performers to act, and yet there are few French plays that could ever succeed better on any German stage than this one did on ours. The roles have all been cast to perfection; in particular Madame Löwen plays the moody Celiante masterfully, and Herr Ackermann is excellent as Geront. I need not talk about the play itself. It is too well known, belonging unquestionably among the masterpieces of the French stage that even we Germans always see with pleasure.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The play on the eighth evening (Friday, the 1st of May) was The Coffee-house, or the Scotch Woman by M. de Voltaire.[12.9]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 There is a long story to be told about this comedy. Its author sent it out into the world as a translation from an English work by Hume, not the historian and philosopher, but rather another of this name who had made himself known to the world through the tragedy Douglas.[12.10] Some of its characters are similar to those in Goldoni’s The Coffee House; in particular Goldoni’s Don Marzio seems to have been the model for Frélon.[12.11] But where in that play he is just a malicious fellow, in this one he is also a miserable writer, whom the author named Frélon so that the interpreter might thus more quickly make the connection to his sworn enemy, the journalist Fréron.[12.12] The author wished thereby to strike this man down, and no doubt he dealt him a sore blow. We foreigners, indifferent to the spiteful infighting among French intellectuals, look past the identities in this play and find in Frélon simply a faithful depiction of a type of person not unknown among us. We have our Frélons just as the French and English do; they just create less of a sensation here because we generally respond more indifferently to our literature.[12.13] But even if in Germany we completely fail to appreciate who is represented by the character, the play still has enough interest without him; the honorable Freeport alone could keep us engaged. We love his bumbling magnanimity, and the even the English found themselves flattered by this depiction.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In fact, it is only because of this character that they have just recently transplanted the whole tree to what was claimed to have been its original soil. Colman, unquestionably their best comic writer, translated The Scotch Wife under the title The English Merchant, and gave it all of the national coloring that was lacking in the original.[12.14] As much as M. de Voltaire claims to know English customs, he nevertheless made many mistakes – for example, when he has Lindane live at a coffee house. Colman has her rent instead from an honorable woman who has furnished rooms, and this woman is far more suitable as the friend and benefactor to the young abandoned beauty than Fabrice. Colman also sought to shape the characters more strongly to English tastes. Lady Alton is not just a jealous fury; she aspires to be a lady of genius, taste, and education, and puts on the appearance of a literary patroness. Colman thereby thought to make a more plausible connection between her and the sorry Frélon (whom he names Spatter). Above all, Freeport gets an expanded sphere of influence, and he is as passionately concerned for Lindane’s father as he is for Lindane herself.[12.15] What Lord Falbridge does to secure the father’s pardon in the French is done by Freeport in the English, and he alone brings everything to a happy end.[12.16]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 English critics found Colman’s adaptation to have exquisite sentiments, fine and lively dialogue, and well-drawn characters. But they far prefer Colman’s other plays (one of which, The Jealous Wife, was previously seen here in the Ackermann theater; those who remember that play can judge for themselves).[12.17] The English Merchant does not have enough action for them. There is not enough in it to feed their curiosity; the whole development of the plot is apparent in the first act. What follows strikes them as having too many similarities with other plays, and the best situations lack originality. Freeport, they claim, should never have felt the least spark of love for Lindane; his good deed would lose all of its merit, etc.[12.18]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Some of this criticism is not completely unfounded; at the same time, we Germans are quite satisfied that the plot is not richer and more complicated. On this point, the English fashion distracts and wearies us; we love a simple plot that can be taken in at a glance. Just as the English have to cram French plays full of episodes if they want them to succeed on their stage, so we Germans have to unburden English plays of their episodes if we hope to enrich our theaters successfully with them.[12.19] Their best comedies by Congreve and Wycherley would be unbearable to us without this trimming of their all-too-voluptuous girth.[12.20] We do better with their tragedies; for the most part, these are not nearly as confusing as their comedies, and some have had success here without even the tiniest change, which is more than I can say of any of their comedies.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The Italians also have a translation of The Scotch Wife that appears in the first volume of Diodati’s Theatrical Library.[12.21] It follows the original step by step, just as the German does, except that the Italian version has added one more scene to the end. Voltaire said that in his English source Frélon was punished in the end, but as deserved as this punishment was, for Voltaire it seemed to have taken away from the main interest of the play, and he therefore left it out. This excuse did not seem sufficient to the Italian translator, so he supplied a punishment for Frélon out of his own imagination; the Italians are great lovers of poetic justice.[12.22]

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • [12.1] Lessing continues his critique, begun in [10], of Ninus’s ghost in Voltaire’s Sémiramis.
  • [12.2] Lessing uses the word “Maschine” as a deliberate play on the term deus ex machina.
  • [12.3] As in [11], Lessing’s criticism of Voltaire’s ghost privileges the creation of poetic illusion over strict verisimilitude.
  • [12.4] Another instance in which Lessing condemns sermonizing theater. See [2.2].
  • [12.5] Tr. note: “punishment of good and evil” is a faithful translation of Lessing’s “Bestrafung des Guten und Bösen.” We would assume that Lessing intended his reader to interpret this phrase as “judgment of good and evil.” As with many of his contemporaries, Lessing’s metaphysical beliefs are grounded in the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) and Christian Wolff (1679–1754).
  • [12.6] The Hamburg National Theater was in fact rather small; see Robertson for a description of the theater and its dimensions (14–15). The first French productions of Sémiramis presented neither the four scene changes – nor the multitude of onstage characters and extras (a total of forty-eight) – called for by Voltaire. See Niklaus 42–44, 47.
  • [12.7] Destouches, Le Philosophe Marié (1727). For an English translation (in prose), see that of John Kelly.
  • [12.8] Lessing refers to Des Herrn Nericault Destouches sämtliche theatralische Werke (1756). Le Philosophe Marié was translated under a number of German titles; this particular translation (in alexandrines), Der verheyrathete Philosoph, appears to have beenby Johann Christian Krüger (1722–50), in collaboration with Konrad Ekhof (see Devrient, Johann Friedrich Schönemann, 145).
  • [12.9] Voltaire, Le Caffé, ou L’ecossaise (1760). The translation used was that of Johann Joachim Christoph Bode (1731–93), Das Caffeehaus, ein rührundes Lustspiel (The Coffeehouse, a moving comedy) (1760), later published as Das Caffeehaus, oder die Schottländerinn (1765). For an English translation see Francklin. Voltaire’s play is set in a London inn, run by the landlord Fabrice. Its inhabitants are Lord Monrose, a Scottish nobleman condemned to death; an impoverished young lady, Lindane; and a scheming journalist, Frélon, who hopes to profit from the others’ misfortunes. Lindane is revealed as the daughter of Monrose, but is in love with Lord Murray, whose family ruined hers. Murray’s erstwhile mistress, Lady Alton, seeks revenge against Murray by having Lindane charged with treason. Thanks to the intervention of Freeport, a London merchant, Lindane is saved and reunited with her father. Murray obtains a pardon for Monrose and is allowed to marry Lindane.
  • [12.10] Voltaire speciously presented L’Ecossaise as a translation of a play by “Monsieur Hume,” meaning to cite Scottish playwright John Home (1722–1808), author of the controversial tragedy Douglas (1757). A defense of Douglas by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) was prefaced to printed editions of Home’s play. See Duckworth, “Introduction to L’Écossaise,” 243–44.
  • [12.11] Don Marzio: the meddling slanderer in La bottega del caffè (c.1750), a comedy by Carlo Goldoni (1707–93).
  • [12.12] Voltaire created Frélon (or Wasp, in some editions) to retaliate against critic Élie Catherine Fréron (1719–76), who attacked Voltaire and other members of the French Enlightenment in his periodical L’Année littéraire and other writings. See Duckworth 225–32.
  • [12.13] Lessing frequently complains about the indifference of German audiences.
  • [12.14] George Colman (the Elder) (1732–94). Le Caffé, ou L’ecossaise was originally translated as The Coffee-House, or The Fair Fugitive in 1760; Colman’s adaptation, The English Merchant, was first performed and published in 1767. Lessing’s critique of English conditions and characters in Voltaire’s play, and his praise of Colman’s alterations, are drawn almost verbatim from English criticism in The Monthly Review. See G. H., “The English Merchant, A Comedy,” 224–5.
  • [12.15] The success of Colman’s playis usually ascribed to his choice to make the plainspoken and generous Freeport the moral center of his play.
  • [12.16] An error: Murray obtains Monrose’s pardon in L’ecossaise. In The English Merchant, Colman replaces Murray with a reformed rake (Lord Falbridge); he renames the father Sir William Douglas and the daughter Amelia.
  • [12.17] The English Merchant was more sentimental than Colman’s most popular comedies, The Jealous Wife (1761) and The Clandestine Marriage (1766) (a collaboration with David Garrick). Konrad Ernst Ackermann (1712–71), an important German actor-manager, constructed a new theater in Hamburg in 1765; this theater was taken over by Johann Friedrich Löwen in order to form the Hamburg National Theater. Ackermann’s company performedBode’s translation of The Jealous Wife in 1765.
  • [12.18] In Colman’s play, Freeport confesses that his generous actions were initiated by tender feelings for Amelia.
  • [12.19] In multiple essays of the Hamburg Dramaturgy Lessing discusses the English taste for action-packed plays and what he perceives as a German aversion to excessively complex plots.
  • [12.20] William Congreve (1670–1729) and William Wycherley (c. 1640–1715), English comic playwrights.
  • [12.21] Il Caffè o La Scozzese (1762) (see Diodati I: 180–259).
  • [12.22] Frélon is banished in the Italian translation.
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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