¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 [†]As indisputable as it is that, without the happy twist Favart gives to the character of Roxelane at the end, we would have viewed the coronation that follows with mockery and scorn, as nothing other than the ridiculous triumph of a serva padrona – and as certain as it is that, absent the change, the Emperor would have seemed nothing but a despicable Pimpinello, and the new Empress nothing but an shrewd ugly Serbinette who, we could predict, would soon treat the poor Sultan, Pimpinello the Second, completely differently – so too does the change itself seem easy and natural, and thus we have to wonder why it has not occurred to many writers, and why therefore so many whimsical and apparently truly funny stories miscarry in the dramatic form.[36.2]
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Take for example the “Widow of Ephesus.”[36.3] This acerbic tale is well known; it is unquestionably the bitterest satire that has ever been written about female gullibility. It has been retold a thousand times since Petronius, and because even the worst version of it has always given delight, it seemed like it should be equally successful material for the theater. Houdar de la Motte, among others, made the attempt; but I appeal to more discriminating sensibilities to determine how this attempt fell out. The character of the widow, who provokes a rather enjoyable sardonic smile at the arrogance of marital love, becomes loathsome and awful in the drama. We find here in the drama that the persuasions the soldier employs against her are not nearly as subtle and pressing and convincing as they seem to us in the story. There we imagine a sensitive little woman whose grief is real, but is undermined by temptation and by her temperament; we see her weakness as the weakness of the whole sex and thus do not feel a particular hatred toward her. We believe that just about any woman would have done what she does, and we even feel ourselves obliged to forgive her for having the idea to save her living lover by means of her dead husband’s body, because it shows cleverness and presence of mind. Or even more, the cleverness of this idea brings us to surmise that it has probably just been added by the malicious storyteller, who wanted to end his tale on a really nasty note. But in the drama this presumption cannot arise – what we only hear about in the story, we actually see happen on stage; things we might continue to doubt there are incontrovertibly confirmed by our own perception here. The cleverness of the deed delighted us in its mere possibility; we only see the blackness of it when it is reality. The idea pleased our minds, but the execution of the idea completely shocks our sensibilities. We turn our backs to the stage and concur with Petronius’s Lycas (without finding ourselves in the same particular situation as Lycas): “Si justus Imperator fuisset, debuit patrisfamiliae corpus in monimentum referre, mulierem adfigere cruci.”[36.4] And she seems to deserve this punishment so much the more, when the writer has employed less art towards her seduction, for in that case we do not damn, in her, the weakness of women in general, but rather one extraordinarily reckless, licentious woman in particular. – In short, to bring Petronius’s fable successfully to the theater, it would have to keep the same outcome, and also not keep it; the widow would have to go as far as she does, and also not go so far. – The explanation of this will appear somewhere else![36.5]
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Voltaire wrote this tragedy in response to Maffei’s Merope, presumably in 1737, and presumably while staying at Cirey with his Urania, the Marquise du Chatelet.[36.7] For by January 1738 the manuscript was already in Paris in the hands of Pater Brumoy who, as a Jesuit and as the publisher of Théâtre des Grecs, was best suited to inspire the most positive advance opinions and attune the expectations of the capital to these opinions.[36.8] Brumoy showed it to the author’s friends; among others he must have sent it to old Father Tournemine who, quite flattered to have been consulted by his dear son Voltaire about a tragedy – a matter he little understood – wrote back to Brumoy a little letter full of praises and exaltations, which in turn was later printed in front of each copy of the play itself to instruct and warn any unwelcome critics.[36.9] In that letter, the play is declared to be one of the most perfect of tragedies, a very model, and from now on we can fully console ourselves over the loss of the play by Euripides with the same subject; or, rather, it is now no longer lost – Voltaire has restored it to us.[36.10]
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 As reassured as Voltaire must have been by this, he seems not to have wanted to rush the production, which finally took place in 1743. And from this politic delay, he enjoyed all the fruits he could possibly have anticipated. Merope met with the most exceptional applause, and the parterre bestowed an unprecedented honor on the writer. It is true that the public had previously given the great Corneille preferential treatment: his chair on stage was always kept free, even when there was a great crowd, and when he came, everyone stood – a distinction that, in France, is only shown to princes of royal blood. When Corneille was in the theater, he was regarded as if he were at home, and when the master of the house appears, what is more appropriate than for his guests to show him their courtesy? But something completely different happened to Voltaire: the parterre was curious to know in person the man they had admired so much, and so when the performance ended, they demanded to see him, and shouted, cried out, and made a racket until M. de Voltaire was compelled to step out and allow himself to be ogled and applauded. I do not know which of these two things would have disconcerted me more, the audience’s childish curiosity or the writer’s vain accommodation. What do people think a writer looks like? Not like other people? And what a weak impression must the work have made, if at that very moment we are not curious about anything other than what the maestro looks like. The true masterpiece, it seems to me, fills us so completely that we forget its creator; we don’t regard it as the product of a particular being, but of nature in general. Speaking of the sun, Young says that it would have been a sin if heathens hadn’t worshiped it.[36.11] If there is any sense in this hyperbole, it is this: the sun’s radiance and splendor is so great, so immense, that the primitive man is to be forgiven, indeed it only makes sense that he could not imagine a greater radiance or splendor of which the sun was a mere reflection, and for him to so completely lose himself in admiration of the sun that he did not think about the sun’s creator. I suspect the true reason we have so little authoritative knowledge about Homer’s life and character is the excellence of his poetry itself. We stand in front of the wide rushing river full of astonishment, without thinking about its source in the mountains. We do not want to know; it is to our advantage to forget that Homer the Smyrnian schoolmaster, Homer the blind beggar, is the very same Homer who so delights us in his works. He brings us among gods and heroes; we would have to be very bored in this company to inquire persistently about the doorman who let us in. The illusion must be very flimsy and we must perceive relatively little nature and much artifice if we are that curious about the artist. As unflattering, then, as the public’s desire to see him in person ought to be to the man of genius in principle (and, really, what does he have over the first marmot that comes around, which the mob is just as eager to have seen?), yet the vanity of French writers seems to have found it agreeable.[36.12] For as soon as the Parisian parterre saw how easily a Voltaire could be lured, how tame and unctuous such a man could become through dubious flattery, it entertained itself this way more frequently, and afterwards seldom was a new play performed without its author being immediately called forth, and coming forth very willingly. From Voltaire to Marmontel, and from Marmontel all the way down to Cordier, nearly all had to stand in this pillory.[36.13] How many hangdog looks must have appeared among them! In the end the farce went so far, that the more serious men in the nation became vexed about it. Wise Pulcinella’s clever idea is well known.[36.14] And just recently a young writer was bold enough to let the parterre call for him in vain. He did not appear at all; his play was mediocre, but his conduct all the more laudable. I would prefer to have done away with such an indecency through my example, than to have initiated it with ten Meropes.
- ¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
- [†] Text in blue indicates passages ommitted by Zimmern in her 1890 translation.
- [36.1] Actually published 15 December 1767.
- [36.2] Lessing continues his discussion, begun in , of Favart’s play Soliman second [Soliman the Second], an adaptation of Marmontel’s story “Soliman II;” the “happy twist” in Favart’s version is that Roxelane only acts in a flighty manner to test Soliman’s love. See . La serva padrona (The Maid the Mistress) (1733): short opera buffa with music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–36) and libretto by Gennaro Antonio Federico. Serpina (Serbinette) cons her elderly master Uberto (Pimpinello) into marrying her and making her mistress of the household. For an English version, see Federico.
- [36.3] Reference to a story told in the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter in Bk. IV, Ch. 111–112 (The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter I: 254–8 and II: 259–61). A young widow known for her chastity so deeply mourns her husband that she intends to starve to death in his tomb, but instead yields to the advances of a solicitous soldier guarding the crosses of crucified thieves. During his absence, one of the bodies is stolen; to save the soldier’s life, the widow offers her husband’s body as a replacement.
- [36.4] “If that governor had been a just man, he would have ordered the husband’s body taken down and carried back into the vault, and crucified the woman.” See The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter II: 261-2. Lycas (Lichas): character in The Satyricon who has been cuckolded.
- [36.5] Lessing does not provide further explicit commentary on the “Widow of Ephesus.”
- [36.6] Mérope (1744), five-act verse tragedy. First staged in 1743, it was an immediate success and remained so throughout Voltaire’s lifetime. See Vrooman and Godden “Introduction to Mérope,” 91–210. For a plot synopsis, see Robertson 86–7.
- [36.7] Voltaire may have begun work on Mérope as early as 1736. Maffei’s Merope (1713), also a five-act verse tragedy, was performed at the Comédie-Italienne in 1717. Cirey: Château of Voltaire’s lover and patroness Émilie du Châtelet (1706–49), the French natural philosopher, mathematician, and physicist. Urania: the muse of astronomy.
- [36.8] Pierre Brumoy (1688–1742), a French Jesuit humanist scholar. His internationally influential three-volume masterwork, Théâtre des Grecs (The Theatre of the Greeks), contained translations, summaries, and criticism of Greek tragedies.
- [36.9] René (Renatus) Joseph de Tournemine (1661–1739), Jesuit theologian and classical scholar; the addition of Tournemine’s letter was intended to circumvent criticism of Mérope.
- [36.10] Euripides’ Cresphontes, extant only in fragments.
- [36.11] Edward Young (1683–1765): English poet, playwright, and critic; famous for The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts (1742–45) and his Conjectures on Original Composition (1759).
- [36.12] During the eighteenth century, trained marmots were displayed at German fairgrounds and other locations.
- [36.13] Edmond Cordier de Saint Firmin (ca. 1730–1816), French abbé and author.
- [36.14] Pulcinella: traditional commedia dell’arte character.