A New and Complete Translation

Essay 21

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 10 July 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†]On the twenty-sixth evening (Friday, the 29th of May), Nivelle de la Chaussée’s School for Mothers was performed. [21.1]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This is the story of a mother who receives a just comeuppance for her biased tenderness toward a worthless, sycophantic son. Marivaux has a play with the same title. [21.2] But his tells the story of a mother who, in order to turn her daughter into a properly obedient child, raises her in total innocence, giving her no knowledge of the world and no experience; and how does that go? Just as one might readily guess. The sweet girl has a sensitive heart, she does not know how to avoid danger because she is unaware of any danger, she falls in love with the first and best that comes along, without asking mama about it, and mama can thank heaven that things go as well as they do. In that School there are many serious observations to be made; in this one there is more to laugh at. The one is a companion to the other, and I believe it would be an additional pleasure for experts to be able to see both consecutively on the same evening. They are also formally suited to such a pairing: the first play has five acts, and the second has one.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 On the twenty-seventh evening (Monday, the 1st of June), M. de Voltaire’s Nanine was performed. [21.3]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0Nanine?” asked so-called critics, when this comedy first appeared in 1749. “What kind of title is that? What is one to think of it?” – Nothing more and nothing less than one should think of a title. A title does not have to be a menu. The less it reveals of the content, the better it is. Both writers and spectators are best served this way; moreover, the ancients rarely gave their comedies anything other than meaningless titles. I hardly know of three or four that indicated the main character or gave away any hint of the plot. Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus belongs among these. [21.4] How is it that no one has noticed that only half this title belongs to Plautus? He simply called his play Gloriosus, just as he called another Truculentus[21.5] Miles must have been the addition of a grammarian. It is true, the braggart that Plautus depicts is a soldier, but his swaggering is not only related to his rank and his military deeds. He is just as boastful on the subject of love; he prides himself not only on being the bravest but also the most handsome and appealing of men. Both of these can reside in the word “gloriosus,” but as soon as one adds “miles” the “gloriosus” is limited to the first. Perhaps a passage from Cicero[*] misled the grammarian who made this addition, but in this instance he should have paid attention to Plautus instead of Cicero. [21.6] Plautus himself writes:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Alazon Graece huic nomen est Comoediae

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Id nos latine Gloriosum dicimus – ” [21.7]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Moreover, in the passage from Cicero it is by no means certain that he is discussing Plautus’s play. The character of the boastful soldier appeared in several plays. Cicero could just as well have been aiming at Terence’s Thraso[21.8] – But all this is incidental. I recall that I have already expressed my general opinion about the titles of comedies. [21.9] It could be that the subject is not so insignificant. Many a bungler has written a bad comedy under a beautiful title, simply on account of the title.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 I would prefer a good comedy with a bad title. If one looks into all the character types that have been explored, you will hardly be able to think of one after whom a play has not been named (particularly by the French). “That one has already been around for a long time!” someone cries. “That one too! That one’s been borrowed from Molière, and that other one from Destouches!” Borrowed? That is what comes from beautiful titles. What kind of ownership does a poet have over a certain character type just because he took his title from it? If he had made tacit use of the character, then I might also tacitly use it, and no one would make me out to be an imitator as a result. But let someone dare just once, for example, to write a new play about a misanthrope. Even if he does not take a single characteristic from the Molière, his misanthrope will still be called just a copy. It is enough that Molière was the first to use the name. The new writer is to blame for living fifty years later, and because language does not have infinite names for the infinite varieties of human dispositions.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Although the title Nanine tells us nothing, the subtitle does say more: Nanine, or Prejudice Overcome. And why shouldn’t a play have two titles? We human beings also have two or three names. The names exist to differentiate; it is harder to confuse people with two names than with one. With the second title, M. de Voltaire appears to be unsure of himself. In the same edition of his works he calls it on one page “Prejudice Overcome,” and on another, “The Man without Prejudice.” [21.10] Of course, they are not very far apart. The play is about the prejudice that a proper marriage requires equality of birth and social standing. In short, the story of Nanine is the story of Pamela[21.11] M. de Voltaire certainly did not want to use the name Pamela, since several years earlier a couple of plays already appeared under this name and had no great success. The Pamela of Boissy and that of de la Chaussée are also rather barren pieces, and Voltaire did not even need to be Voltaire in order to make something far better. [21.12]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Nanine is a sentimental comedy. It has, however, quite a few funny scenes; Voltaire only seems to tolerate these in comedy when the funny scenes take turns with the touching ones. An entirely serious comedy, where no one ever laughs or even smiles, where one only wants to cry, is for him a monstrosity. On the other hand, he finds the transition from the sentimental to the comedic, and from the comedic to the sentimental, very natural. Human life is nothing other than a constant chain of such transitions, and the comedic genre should be a mirror of human life. “What is more familiar,” he says, “than a house in which the angry father stomps around, the infatuated daughter sighs, the son considers himself superior to both of them, and each relative feels something different within the same scene? In one room, they make fun of what is extremely moving in another room; and it is not uncommon that within a quarter of an hour, the same person both laughs and cries over the same situation. A worthy matron sat by one of her daughters who lay dangerously ill in bed, and the entire family gathered around her. She dissolved into tears, she wrung her hands and cried, ‘O God! let me, let me keep this child, just this one, even if you take all of the others from me in exchange!’ At this point a man who had married one of her other daughters stepped forward, tugged at her sleeve, and asked: ‘Madame, the sons-in-law, too?’ The dispassion, the comical tone with which he spoke these words made such an impression on the distressed lady that she had to burst into laughter. All followed suit and laughed; the sick girl herself, when she heard it, nearly choked with laughter.” [21.13]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “Homer,” he says at another point, “has the gods themselves laugh over the farcical dignity of Vulcan as they are deciding the fate of the world. Hector laughs at the fear of his young son while Andromache weeps bitter tears. It really can happen, in the middle of the horrors of battle, in the middle of the terrors of a conflagration or some such tragic doom, that a thought or a casual joke, despite all the anxiety, despite all the compassion, provokes uncontainable laughter. At the Battle of Speyer, a regiment was ordered to show no mercy. A German officer begged for pardon, and the Frenchman whom he addressed answered: ‘Ask whatever you will, my good man; just do not ask for your life. I am unable to help you with that!’ This naiveté instantly made the rounds; they laughed and butchered. Think how much more readily laughter can follow touching sentiments in comedy. Does Alcmena not touch us? Does Sosia not make us laugh? What sorry and futile work, to fight against experience.” [21.14]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Indeed! But doesn’t M. de Voltaire fight against experience when he declares serious comedy as a flawed and boring genre? Perhaps not at the time when he wrote that. At that time there was not yet a Cenie, not yet a Father of the Family; a genius has to make something first, so that we can perceive it as possible. [21.15]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [*]De Officiis Book I. Chap. 38.

  • 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  • [21.1] L’école des mères (1744), five-act verse comedy by Nivelle de la Chaussée.
  • [21.2] L’école des mères (1732), one-act prose comedy by Marivaux.
  • [21.3] Nanine (1749), three-act verse comedy by Voltaire.
  • [21.4] Miles Gloriosus: The Braggart Captain (c. 205 BCE).
  • [21.5] Truculentus: The Churl (c. 190 BCE).
  • [21.6] Final line in Book I, Ch. 38 of Cicero’s De Officii: “Still further, it is in bad taste to talk about one’s self, especially to lie about one’s self, and, with the derision of the audience, to play the part of the Braggart Soldier.”
  • [21.7] Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 2.1: “Alazon is the title of the comedy in Greek; in Latin we would say Gloriosus.” Alazon: stock character of ancient Greek comedy; a braggart.
  • [21.8] Thraso: another braggart soldier, from Terence’s comedy The Eunuch (161 BCE).
  • [21.9] See [9] and [17].
  • [21.10] Nanine was originally published in 1749 with the first of these subtitles, “Prejudice Overcome” (le préjugé vaincu); the second, “The Man without Prejudice” (l’homme sans préjugé) was added later, perhaps to avoid confusion or comparison to Marivaux’s Le Préjugé vaincu (1746) (see Labriolle and Duckworth 22). Both subtitles appear singly or together in later editions.
  • [21.11] Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1741): popular epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), in which a young servant, fending off rape and seduction, is rewarded by her master’s proposal of marriage. Voltaire’s play also centers on a mésalliance, but otherwise does not resemble Richardson’s novel. Lessing draws his statement directly from Léris, Dictionnaire portatif: “Le sujet de cette piece est tiré du Roman de Pamela” (313).
  • [21.12] Paméla en France (1745) by Louis de Boissy, and Paméla (1743) by Nivelle de la Chaussée.
  • [21.13] Loosely taken from Voltaire’s preface to L’enfant prodigue 94.
  • [21.14] From Voltaire’s preface to Nanine, 72. Vulcan, Hector and Andromache: from Homer’s Iliad (Books I and VI, respectively). Battle of Speyer (1703): disastrous German defeat by the French during the War of Spanish Succession. Alcmena, Sosia: characters from Plautus’s Amphitryon.
  • [21.15] Cénie: see [20]. The Father of the Family: Diderot’s Le Pere de famille (1758), translated by Lessing in his collection Das Theater des Herrn Diderot (1760). See [14.2].
  • [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
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