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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 16

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 23 June 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The English actors were a bit too unnatural in Hill’s time.[16.1] In particular their tragic acting was extremely wild and exaggerated; when they had to express strong passions they screamed and gestured like they were possessed, and they sang out the rest with a stiff, strutting solemnity that betrayed the actor in every syllable. Thus, when he endeavored to have his translation of Zaïre produced, he trusted the role of Zaïre to a young woman who had never before performed in a tragedy.[16.2] He reckoned thusly: this young woman has feeling, voice, figure, and grace; she has not yet adopted the false tone of the theater; she does not need to unlearn any bad habits; if she can just convince herself for a couple of hours that she really is what she pretends to be, then she needs only to speak naturally and everything will go well. It did, too, and the theater pedants, who had argued against Hill that only a very practiced and experienced person could do justice to such a role, were shamed. This young actress was the wife of the actor Colley Cibber, and her first effort, at the age of eighteen, was a masterpiece.[16.3] It is an odd coincidence that the French actress who first played Zaïre was also a beginner. The young charming Mademoiselle Gaussin was made famous overnight, and Voltaire himself was so enamored of her that he miserably regretted his age. [16.4]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The role of Orosman was taken on by a relative of Hill’s who was not an actor by profession, but rather a gentleman.[16.5] Acting was his hobby, and he did not have the least scruples about performing in public in order to demonstrate a talent that is as valuable as any other. It is not rare in England to see such examples of distinguished people occasionally performing for fun. “What is surprising about this,” M. de Voltaire says, “Is that it surprises us. We should consider that everything in the world depends on custom and opinion. In the past, the French court danced with opera performers on the stage, and no one found anything unusual in it, except that this type of entertainment is no longer in fashion. Is there any difference between these two arts, other than the fact that the one is superior to the other in the same way that abilities of the mind are superior to mere physical skills?” [16.6]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 [†]Count Gozzi translated Zaïre into Italian, very precisely and very gracefully; it can be found in the third volume of his Works.[16.7] In what language could tender complaints sound more moving than in this one? But we can hardly be pleased with the single freedom that Gozzi took toward the end of the play. After Orosman stabs himself, Voltaire has him say just a few more words to reassure us about Nerestan’s fate. But what does Gozzi do? The Italian doubtless felt it too cold to let a Turk die so undramatically. Thus he gives Orosman yet another tirade to speak, full of proclamations, whining, and despair. Because it is hard to find, I reprint it below.[*]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is curious how distant German taste is in these matters from Italian taste! For the Italians, Voltaire is too short; for us Germans, he is too long. Orosman has scarcely said “honored and avenged,” he has scarcely killed himself with a deadly thrust, and we let the curtain fall.[16.8] But is it really true that German taste demands this? We cut many plays along similar lines, but why? Do we really want a tragedy to end like an epigram? Always with the point of a dagger or with the last sigh of the hero? Where do we calm, serious Germans get such flittering impatience that we do not want to listen to anything more after the execution is done, even if just a few indispensible words to fully round out the play? But I search in vain for the cause of a thing that does not exist. We could be cold-blooded enough to hear the poet to the end, if the actor would trust us. We would gladly hear the last orders of the courageous sultan, gladly share the awe and the compassion of Nerestan, but this is not to be. And why not? I really have no reason. Is it the fault of the actors who play Orosman? It would be easy enough to understand why they wanted to have the last word. Stabbed and applauded! We must forgive artists their small vanities.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Zaïre found no sharper critic anywhere than among the Dutch. Frederik Duim, who may be related to the famous actor by this name at the Amsterdam Theater, found so much to criticize in the play that he thought he might as well write a better one.[16.9] And he really did write one, which is different in that the conversion of Zaïre is the primary focus, and which ends with the Sultan overcoming his love and sending the Christian Zaïre to her native land with all the pomp warranted by her elevated status. The old Lusignan dies of joy. Who needs to know more? The one unforgivable flaw of a tragic poet is this: that he leaves us cold. If he engages us, he can do whatever he wants with the small technical rules.[16.10] The Duims of the world may well find fault, but they should not presume to draw Ulysses’ bow. I say all this because I do not want to imply anything about the merits of his criticism merely because his improvement was inept. Duim’s criticism is in many places well grounded: he notes with particular astuteness how Voltaire is a bit clumsy in his presentation of place, and how he fails to provide sufficient motivation for character entrances and exists. Additionally, the contradictions in the sixth scene of the third act do not escape his attention. “Orosman,” he notes, “comes to fetch Zaïre in the Mosque; Zaïre refuses to go with him, failing to provide the least shred of an excuse for her refusal; she leaves, and Orosman is left standing there like a dolt (“als eenen lafhartigen”). Is this really suitable for one of his dignity? Does this correspond well with his character? Why does he not press Zaïre to explain herself? Why does he not follow her into the Seraglio? Is he not allowed to follow her there?”[16.11] – My good Duim! If Zaïre had explained herself sufficiently, where would the rest of the acts have come from? Wouldn’t the entire tragedy have been ruined? – Precisely! The second scene of the third act is equally misconceived: Orosman comes again to Zaïre, Zaïre again walks off without providing the slightest justification, and Orosman, the decent fellow (“dien goeden hals”), consoles himself with a monologue. But as I already said, the entanglements or uncertainties have to last until the fifth act; and if the whole plot hangs on a hair, many more important things in the world hang on nothing stronger.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This last mentioned scene is otherwise one in which the actor playing Orosman can show his finest skills in all their unassuming brilliance, and which only an equally refined connoisseur is capable of perceiving. He has to transition from one emotion to another, and he has to know how to make this transition look so natural through body language that the audience is not jolted, but pulled along through swift but gradual progression. At first the noble Orosman reveals himself willing to forgive Zaïre when he thinks her heart is set, as long as she is honorable enough not to keep it a secret from him any longer. But then his passion reawakens, and he orders the sacrifice of his rival. He is tender enough to ensure her of his favor at this point. But when Zaïre insists on her innocence, despite what he believed was such clear evidence, he is overcome with the most intense displeasure. And so he goes from pride to tenderness, and from tenderness to bitterness. All that Rémond de Saint-Albine wants to see achieved in The Actor is accomplished by Herr Ekhof in such a magnificent way, that one could believe he alone was the model for the critic. [16.12]


8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [*] Questo mortale orror che per le vene
Tutte me scorre, omai non è dolore,
Che basti ad appagarti, anima bella.
Feroce cor, cor dispietato, e misero,
Paga la pena del delitto orrendo.
Mani crudeli – oh Dio – Mani, che siete
Tinte del sangue di sì cara donna,
Voi – voi – dov’è quel ferro? Un’ altra volta
In mezzo al petto – Oimè, dov’è quel ferro?
L’acuta punta—
Tenebre, e notte
Si fanno intorno—
Perchè non posso—
Non posso spargere
Il sangue tutto?
Sì, sì, lo spargo tutto, anima mia,
Dove sei? – piu non posso – oh Dio! Non posso—
Vorrei – vederti – io manco, io manco, oh Dio!  [Gozzi, Zaira 62. – Ed.]

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages cut by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
  • [16.1] Lessing continues his discussion from [15] of Zara (Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaïre).
  • [16.2] Susanna Maria Cibber (1716–66).
  • [16.3] An error: Susanna Cibber was married to Colley Cibber’s son, Theophilus (1703–58), also an actor and playwright.
  • [16.4] Jeanne Cathérine Gaussin (1711-67). Voltaire’s laudatory poem “Épître Dédicatoire à Mademoiselle Gossin [sic], Jeune Actrice” [“Dedicatory letter to Mme Gossin, Young Actress”] was added to the 1732 edition of Zaïre.
  • [16.5] Aaron Hill (c. 1715-1739), nephew and namesake of the playwright; his performance of Osman (Orosman) on Zara’s opening night was a spectacular failure and he was removed from the cast.
  • [16.6] From Voltaire’s second letter to Fawkener (Voltaire, “Seconde Lettre” 411). See [15].
  • [16.7] Count Gasparo Gozzi (1713–86): Italian playwright, critic, poet, and translator whose collected works appeared in 12 volumes (1794–98). Not to be confused with his more famous brother, Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806).
  • [16.8] In the original (as well as in Schwabe’s translation) Orosman stabs himself, then orders safe conduct for Nerestan, who, in the final lines of the play, expresses his confusion over how to view the tragic figure. See Voltaire, Zaïre 523.
  • [16.9] Frederik Duim (1673–1754), playwright; possibly the father of Izaak Duim (1696–1782), a renowned actor. His adaptation is entitled Zaïre, bekeerde Turkinne [Zaïre, the Converted Turk] (1735).
  • [16.10] A departure from neoclassical models of playwriting.
  • [16.11] For Duim’s criticism of Voltaire, see the preface to his Zaïre.
  • [16.12] This paragraph is drawn from Le Comédien (1747), in which Sainte-Albine details the emotional and physical transitions that an actor playing Orosman must embody. See Sainte-Albine 208–14.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-16/