A New and Complete Translation

Essay 84

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 19 February 1768[84.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 On the fifty-first evening (Monday, July 27th) M. Diderot’s The Father of the Family was performed.[84.2]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As this excellent play (which the French find only so-so – it only managed with great effort to appear once or twice in the Parisian theaters) will, to all appearances, survive long, very long – and why not forever? – in our theater, as it cannot be performed here enough;[84.3] I hope to have sufficient space and opportunity to dig out everything I have noted from time to time, not only about the play itself, but also about the author’s entire dramatic system.[84.4]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I will reach quite far back. – The conversations appended to The Natural Son, which he published in 1757, were not the first place where Diderot expressed his dissatisfaction with his nation’s theater.[84.5] Several years earlier, he observed that he did not share the grand conception of French theater with which his countrymen deceived themselves, and with which by extension Europe allowed itself to be deceived. But he did this in a book in which, it must be said, people did not seek such things, in a book so dominated by a satiric tone that even what was sound and reasonable in it appeared to most readers to be nothing but farce and mockery. Doubtless Diderot had his reasons for preferring to publish his real opinions initially in such a book; a clever man often first says with a laugh what he wants to repeat later in earnest.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This book is called Les Bijoux indiscrets, and now Diderot wishes he had never written it.[84.6] He is quite right in wishing this, too; but he did write it, and he must have written it if he does not want to be a plagiarist.[84.7] It is also certain that this book could only have been written by the sort of young man who would later be ashamed of having written it.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It is probably for the best if only the fewest among my readers know this book. I will be very careful not to make it better known to them than serves my business here. –

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 An emperor – I know not where, or which – made certain jewels blab so much ugly drivel by means of a certain magic ring, that his favorite did not wish to hear any more of it.[84.8] She would have liked to disown the whole of her sex; at the very least she resolved to limit her company only to that of the Sultan himself and a couple of clever men. These were Selim and Ricaric: Selim, a courtier, and Ricaric, a member of the imperial academy, a man who had studied the classics and admired them greatly without being a pedant.[84.9] At one point the favorite entertains herself with these two, and the conversation lights on the miserable tone of academic speeches, a topic that irritates no one more than the Sultan because it annoys him to always hear himself praised at the expense of his father and forefathers, and because he foresees that the academy will one day likewise sacrifice his fame to the fame of his successors. Selim, as a courtier, agrees with everything the Sultan says, and thus the conversation about theater begins, which I share with my readers in full.[84.10]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 “I believe, my lord, you are mistaken,” said Ricaric to Selim. “The academy is still the sanctuary of good taste, and its finest days have boasted neither philosophers nor poets whom we cannot match with those from our time. Our theater was, and still is, considered the best theater in all of Africa. What a work is the Tamerlane of Tuxigraphe![84.11] It combines Eurisope’s pathos with Azophe’s sublimity.[84.12] It is pure antiquity!”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “I saw the first performance of Tamerlane,” said the favorite, “and similarly found the play’s threads drawn very correctly, its dialogue very elegant, and the propriety very well observed.”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “What a difference,” interrupted Ricaric, “between an author like Tuxigraphe, nourished through reading the ancients, and the majority of our moderns!”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 “But these moderns,” said Selim, “whom you attack so vigorously here, are not nearly as despicable as you pretend. Or what? Do you find no genius, no invention, no passion, no character, no details, no tirades there? What do I care about rules if I am given to feel pleasure? Indeed, it is not the observations of the wise Almudir and the learned Abdaldok, nor the poetics of the erudite Facardin, none of which I have read, which make me admire the plays of Aboulcazem, Muhardar, Albaboukre, and so many other Saracens! Is there any rule other than the imitation of nature? And have we not the same eyes that they used to study her?”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “Nature,” answered Ricaric, “shows us a different form every moment. They are all true, but they are not all equally beautiful. We must learn how to choose from these works, which you seem not to esteem very highly. They are the collected experiences of their authors and their predecessors. No matter how intelligent we may be, we still only acquire our insights one after the other, and a single person flatters himself to think he alone could observe, in the short space of his life, everything that had been discovered in the centuries that preceded him. Otherwise it could be said that a science owed its origin, its progress, and its perfection to one single mind, which, of course, flies in the face of all experience.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “My good sir,” Selim answered him, “nothing follows from that except that the moderns, who can benefit from all of the treasures that have been collected to date, must be richer than the ancients; or if you do not like that comparison – that having climbed on the shoulders of these giants, they must be able to see much further than the giants themselves. What, indeed, is their physics, their astronomy, their navigation, their mechanics, their mathematics in comparison to ours? Why then should we not be equally superior to them in eloquence and poetry?”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 “Selim,” the Sultan’s favorite responded, “the difference is significant, and Ricaric can explain the reasons for it another time. He may tell you why our tragedies are worse than those of the ancients, but I can easily prove to you myself that they are so. I will not,” she continued, “accuse you of not having read the ancients. You have pursued too much refined knowledge for the theater of the ancients to be unknown to you. Now put aside certain ideas that relate to their customs, their morals, and their religion, and that only offend you because circumstances have changed; and now tell me whether their subjects are not still noble, well-chosen, and interesting? Does the action not develop, as it were, on its own? Does not the simple dialogue come very near to nature? Are the resolutions the least bit forced? Is the interest divided, the action overloaded with episodes? Transport yourself in thought to the island of Alindala, examine everything that happened there, listen to everything said there from the moment the young Ibrahim and the devious Forfanti landed on it, approach the cave of the unhappy Polipsile, do not lose a single word of his complaints, and tell me if the slightest thing occurs that could disturb your illusion?[84.13] Name for me one single modern play that could withstand the same test and can lay claim to the same degree of perfection, and you will have won.”

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 “By Brahma!” the Sultan cried out, yawning, “Madame has made us an excellent academic lecture.”

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “I do not understand the rules,” the favorite continued, “and even less the scholarly words in which they have been couched. But I know that only the true can please and move us. I also know that the perfection of a play consists of such an exact imitation of an action that a spectator, continually deceived, believes he is present at the action itself. Is there anything even the least bit similar to this in the tragedies you praise so highly?”

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0  

  • [84.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [84.2] Le Père de famille (1758): five-act bourgeois drama in prose by Denis Diderot. Lessing’s translation was published anonymously in 1760, with the play’s accompanying essay De la Poésie Dramatique [On Dramatic Poetry], often referred to as the Discours sur la poésie dramatique [Discourse on Dramatic Poetry] (1758). See Das Theater des Herrn Diderot [The Theater of M. Diderot] in Werke und Briefe 5/1: 10–230; Lessing’s name was added to the second edition. Lessing quotes extensively from his own largely idiomatic translation of Diderot’s essay in [48].
  • [84.3]The play was in fact a theatrical success when it was first performed in Paris in 1761, but was critically attacked. It had twelve performances at the Hamburg National Theater.
  • [84.4] Lessing’s critical engagement with Diderot, which dates back to his review of Diderot’s Lettre sur les sourds et muets [Letter on the Deaf and Dumb] (1751), significantly influenced his own dramatic and performance theory, as well as his playwriting. Diderot’s advocacy for new illusionistic theater practices appealed to Lessing, as the latter sought to undermine the supremacy of French neoclassicism in the German theater. Lessing’s admiration of Diderot is hardly slavish, however, as his criticism in the succeeding essays demonstrates.
  • [84.5] Diderot’s essay Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel [Conversations on the Natural Son] was appended to his five-act bourgeois drama in prose Le Fils naturel [The Natural Son] (1757); the essay provides the theoretical background for Diderot’s experimental play, in the form of a dialogue between the author and his protagonist Dorval, For Lessing’s (originally anonymous) translation of both play and essay, see Das Theater des Herrn Diderot [The Theater of M. Diderot] in Werke und Briefe 5/1: 10–230.
  • [84.6] The Indiscreet Jewels (1748): Diderot’s satirical, politically subversive, and enormously popular erotic novel, which was published anonymously and suppressed by the authorities; Diderot later claimed to regret writing the novel and officially apologized to the police, but would go on to add three new chapters between 1770 and 1775. A German translation, Die Verräther [The Traitors] (1793) is by Carl Friedrich Cramer.
  • [84.7] Diderot’s later work echoes ideas found in Les Bijoux indiscrets; Diderot therefore cannot disavow the earlier work or he will seem to have plagiarized it.
  • [84.8] In Diderot’s novel, the sultan Mangogul of the Congo is given a magic ring that can make women’s “jewels” (genitals) speak their secrets aloud; eventually, the sultan’s principled and keen-minded favorite, Mirzoza, becomes disgusted by what she learns of other women and asks for a respite from their company. Mangogul and Mirzoza (as Lessing well knows) represent Louis XV, the king of France (1710–74), and his mistress Madame de Pompadour (1721–64), a prominent patron of literature and the arts. The origins of Les Bijoux indiscrets date back to a medieval French fabliau (short comic tale in verse), Le Chevalier qui fit les cons parler [The Knight Who Made Cunts Speak], attributed to the jongleur Guerin (or Garin).
  • [84.9] Selim: a courtier; believed to represent Louis-François-Armand du Plessis, Duke de Richelieu (1696–1788), soldier, diplomat, and grandnephew of Cardinal de Richelieu. Ricaric: possibly Antoine Houdar de la Motte, although, as a leader of the “Moderns,” his views align more with those of Selim.
  • [84.10] The topic of theater is introduced in Chapter 37; the discussion from which Lessing quotes significantly follows in Chapter 38, “Entretiens sur les lettres” [“A Conversation about Literature”], and is contextually situated within the aftermath of the seventeenth-century literary quarrel between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns.” For the entire exchange, see Diderot, “Entretiens sur les lettres” in Les bijoux indiscrets; for the English, see “A Conversation about Literature” in The Indiscreet Jewels 160–70 (Lessing’s quotation begins on page 163).
  • [84.11] Diderot substitutes fantastical “exotic” names for those of figures from the contemporary French literary scene.
  • [84.12] Eurisope: Euripides. Azophe: Sophocles
  • [84.13] Polipsile: Philoctetes, titular character of Sophoclean tragedy. Alindala: island on which Philoctetes was exiled. Ibrahim (Neoptolemus), Forfanti (Odysseus): also characters in Philoctetes.
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