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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 44

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 29 September 1767[44.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I now come to the criticism made by Lindelle that applies to Voltaire just as much as Maffei, for whom alone it was meant.[44.2] I will set aside the two points that Voltaire himself realized would rebound back upon him. – Lindelle had said that in Maffei’s play, the signs by which Merope deduced that Aegisthus was her son’s murderer were very weak and ignoble. Voltaire answers: “I cannot deny it; I think Maffei has shown more art than myself in the way he has Merope believe that her son is the murderer of her son. He could make use of a ring for this purpose, which I dare not, because ever since the royal ring that Boileau mocks in his satires, it would seem very trite in our theater.”[44.3] But did Voltaire then have to choose an old suit of armor instead of a ring? When Narbas took the child with him, what in the world moved him to take his murdered father’s armor as well?[44.4] So that Aegisthus, when grown, could get by with his father’s old armor and not have to buy himself a new one? The farsighted old man! Did he also take some old clothes from the mother? Or did this just happen so that one day Aegisthus could be recognized by the armor? Was there really no other armor like it? Was it, perhaps, some kind of family armor that Vulcan himself had made for the great-grandfather?[44.5] An impenetrable armor? Or at least decorated with beautiful figures and symbols, by which Euricles and Merope could immediately recognize it again after fifteen years? If that is the case, then of course the old man had to take it along, and M. de Voltaire has reason to require of him that even in such bloody confusion, in which another man would only have thought of the child, he could also think of such a useful furnishing! For even if Aegisthus already lost his father’s kingdom, at least he did not also have to lose his father’s armor, in which he could someday reconquer that kingdom. – Secondly, Lindelle had railed against Maffei’s Polyphontes, who wants to marry Merope by hook or by crook. As if Voltaire’s Polyphontes did not also want this! Voltaire answers him so: “Neither Maffei nor I have given urgent enough reasons to explain why Polyphontes absolutely must have Merope for his wife. That is perhaps a fault inherent in the source material, but I confess to you that I find such a flaw trivial if it awakens considerable interest.”[44.6] No, the fault is not inherent in the source material. For in this circumstance Maffei had in fact adapted the original material. Why did Voltaire need to adopt this change, if he did not see any advantage in doing so? –

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 There are a number of points on which Voltaire might similarly have examined himself, but what father sees all his child’s faults? The stranger, to whom they are obvious, does not need to have sharper eyes than the father; he only needs not to be the father. Let us suppose, then, that I am this stranger!

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Lindelle alleges that Maffei often does not connect his scenes, that he often leaves the stage empty, that his characters often enter and exit without cause; these are all significant defects, which nowadays are no longer tolerated in even the most minor poets.[44.7] – These are significant defects? But that is generally the language of the French critic; I must allow him this if I do not want to start with him from the very beginning. As significant or insignificant as these defects may be, do we want to take Lindelle at his word that they are so rare among the poets of his nation? It is true, they are the ones who pride themselves on being the greatest adherents to the rules, but they are also the ones who either broaden these rules so much that it is hardly worth the effort anymore to set them out as rules, or they observe them in such a heavy-handed and forced way that it offends more to see them observed in this way than not at all.[*][44.8] In particular Voltaire is a master at making the chains of art so light and loose that he maintains full liberty to move as he wants; and yet he often moves so awkwardly and heavily and makes such anxious contortions that one might think each of his limbs had its own ball and chain. It takes great effort for me to look at a work of genius from this perspective, but because it remains fashionable among the common class of critics to look at works from no other perspective than this one, and because this is the perspective from which the admirers of French theater clamor most loudly, I will first inspect it more closely before I join in that clamor.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 1. The setting is Messene, in Merope’s palace. From the start, this is not the strict unity of place demanded by a Hedelin, according to the principles and examples of the ancient writers.[44.9] The setting need not be an entire palace, but rather only part of a palace, as it can be seen from one given standpoint. Whether it is an entire palace, or an entire city, or an entire province is fundamentally the same nonsense. But while we find no explicit mandate in the ancient writers, Corneille did stretch this rule to claim that a single city ought to suffice as unity of place.[44.10] He had to be this expansive if he wanted to justify his best plays in line with this rule. So what was allowed to Corneille must also be right for Voltaire. Thus I will not object to the fact that the action has to be imagined first in the queen’s chamber, then in this or that hall, then in the vestibule, and then in who knows what other place. It is just that he should have observed the same caution with these changes that Corneille recommended: namely, they must not occur in the same act, much less in the same scene. The location where the act begins should remain constant throughout the whole act; to change it completely in the very same scene, even just to broaden or narrow it, is completely idiotic. – The third act of Merope could take place in an open space, under a colonnade, or in a hall that permits a view of Cresphontes’s tomb in the background, the tomb on which the queen intends to execute Aegisthus with her own hand. Can one imagine anything worse than watching Euricles close off the back of the scenery as he leads Aegisthus away in the middle of the fourth scene? How does he close it? Does a curtain fall behind him? If ever the use of a curtain fit what Hedelin says about such curtains in general, it would be this one,[†] especially if we consider the reasons why Aegisthus must be led away so suddenly, why he must be whisked from our sight through this mechanism, which I will discuss later.[44.11] – Just such a curtain is raised in the fifth act. The first six scenes play out in a hall of the palace; in the seventh scene we are suddenly supposed to get an open view into the temple, so that we can see a dead body in a bloody robe. Through what miracle? And was this sight really worth this miracle? It seems that the doors of this temple suddenly open, Merope bursts through them with the entire populace behind her, and this is how we gain sight of the temple’s interior. I understand: this temple was her widowed Royal Majesty’s palace chapel, which abutted right against the hall and was connected to it, so that her Highness could always get to her place of devotion without getting her feet wet. But we should not only see them exit by this route, but also enter; at the very least we should have seen Aegisthus do so, who, at the end of the fourth scene, has to run and must take the shortest path if eight lines later he is to have completed his deed.


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [*] This was, in part, also our Schlegel’s opinion. “To tell the truth,” he says in his “Thoughts on the Improvement of the Danish Theater,” “the English, who do not boast of any unity of place, observe that unity for the most part much better than the French, who take great pride in observing Aristotle’s rules so exactly. That the decor of a scene not be changed is really the least important factor. But when we are given no clear reason why characters find themselves in one place rather than having remained where they were before; or why one character behaves like the owner and resident of a room in which, moments before, another character, also acting like the owner of the house, has conversed with himself or a confidante with equanimity, without any probable justification given for this occurrence; in short, when the characters only come into the indicated room or garden so that they can enter the stage: then the playwright, instead of writing ‘The setting is a room in Climene’s house,’ would have done better simply to put under the list of characters: ‘The setting is in the theater.’ Or to speak seriously, it would have been far better if the author had followed the custom of the English and changed the scene from one house to another, thereby having the spectator follow his hero, rather than putting his hero to the trouble of pleasing the spectator by showing up somewhere he does not belong.”

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [†] On met des rideaux qui se tirent & retirent, pour faire que les Acteurs paroissent & disparoissent selon la necessité du Sujet – ces rideaux ne sont bons qu’à faire des couvertures pour berner ceux qui les on inventez, & ceux qui les approuvent. Pratique du Théâtre Liv. II. chap. 6

  • 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  • [44.1] Actually published 29 December 1767.
  • [44.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from [36] to [50], of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7. Beginning with [41], Lessing has been addressing criticisms of Maffei’s Merope made by Voltaire (both as himself and as the pseudonymous M. de La Lindelle).
  • [44.3] Lessing provides these lines in French in [41]. For the English see “The Answer of M. de Voltaire to Mr. de La Lindelle” 275.
  • [44.4] Narbas: the old servant who takes Aegisthus from Messene; called Polydorus in Maffei’s play.
  • [44.5] Vulcan: Roman god of fire, forger of weapons for the gods.
  • [44.6] Voltaire, “Réponse de M. de Voltaire à M. de La Lindelle” [“The Answer of M. de Voltaire to Mr. de La Lindelle”] 243.
  • [44.7] See Voltaire, “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” 236, and “A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire” 267–8.
  • [44.8] For the Schlegel passage in Lessing’s footnote, see “Gedanken zur Aufnahme des dänischen Theaters” in Johann Elias Schlegels Werke 3: 294.
  • [44.9] See Aubignac, François Hédelin, La Pratique du théâtre 93–4; The Whole Art of the Stage Bk 2 Ch. 6 p. 104.
  • [44.10] “Unity of Place” is not discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics; the rule was established with the codification of French neoclassicism. Corneille: Lessing refers to Pierre Corneille’s discussion of Unity of Place in “Sur les trois unités” [“On the Three Unities”]; see P. Corneille, Trois discours sur le poème dramatique [Three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry] 101–27. For an English translation, see Discourses 236–7.
  • [44.11] See Aubignac, François Hédelin, La Pratique du théâtre 94; for an English translation see The Whole Art of the Stage Bk 2 Ch. 6 p. 104.
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