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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 85

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 23 February 1768[85.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “Will you praise their course of events?[85.2] Those are generally so busy and complicated that it would be a miracle if so many things really happened in such a short time. The ruin or preservation of a kingdom, the marriage of a princess, the fall of a prince, all this happens as quickly as a turn of the hand. Is a conspiracy involved? It is conceived in the first act, pulled together in the second, all the measures are taken, all obstacles removed, and the conspirators are ready for action in the third; and in the next act there will be a revolt, an encounter, perhaps even a pitched battle. And you will call all this well-conducted, interesting, fiery, realistic? I can forgive you, least of all, such an opinion, you who know how much it often costs to carry off the most miserable intrigue, and how much time is absorbed by preambles, discussions, and consultations in even the smallest political affair.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 “It is true, Madame,” Selim answered, “our plays are a little exaggerated, but that is a necessary evil; we would be left cold without the help of the episodes.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 “So in a nutshell: In order to lend fire and spirit to the imitation of an action, one must represent the action neither as it is, nor as it should be. Can anything more ridiculous be imagined? Hardly, unless it were to have the violin play a lively tune or a jaunty sonata just when the spectators should feel concern for the prince who is on the point of losing his beloved, his throne, and his life.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 “Madame,” said Mongogul, “you are perfectly right; they ought rather to play sad arias, and I will go order some played for you right now.” At this he got up and left, and Selim, Ricaric, and the favorite continued the conversation among themselves.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “At the very least, Madame,” replied Selim, “you will not deny that if the episodes draw us out of the illusion, the dialogue pulls us back in again. I do not know of anyone who understands this better than our tragic writers.”

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 “Then no one understands it at all,” Mirzoza answered. “The labored language, the wit, and the playfulness that predominate in them are thousands of miles distant from nature. The author tries to conceal himself in vain; he never escapes my sight, and I see him constantly behind his characters. Cinna, Sertorius, Maximus, and Aemilia serve constantly as Corneille’s mouthpieces.[85.3] In the plays of our ancient Saracen authors, people do not speak to each other that way. M. Ricaric can translate some passages from them for you if you like, and you will hear the pure nature expressed by their words. I would love to say to the moderns: ‘My good sirs, instead of giving your characters wit for all occasions, try rather to put them into circumstances that inspire some wit in them.’”

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 “To judge by what Madame has said about the conduct and dialogue of our dramatic plays, it does not seem,” Selim said, “that she will grant much mercy to the resolutions.”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “No, certainly not,” the favorite rejoined, “there are a hundred bad ones for every good one. One is not sufficiently led up to, another comes about miraculously. If the author does not know what he should do with a character that he has dragged from scene to scene for five long acts, he quickly finishes him off with a good stab of the dagger, everyone starts to cry, and I, I laugh like a madwoman. And then, has anyone ever spoken the way we declaim? Do princes and kings tend to walk differently than any other man who is able to walk well? Have they ever gesticulated like people who are crazy or possessed? And when princesses speak, do they speak in such a shrill tone? People universally assume that we have brought tragedy to a high degree of perfection, and I, for my part, think there is little doubt that among all the genres of literature to which the Africans have applied themselves in recent centuries, this is the one that has remained the most imperfect.”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The favorite was at just this point in her diatribe against our theatrical works when Mongogul returned. “Madame,” he said, “you will do me a service by continuing. You see, I do understand how to cut short a poetical subject if I find it too long.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 “Let us assume for a moment,” the favorite continued, “someone were to come fresh from Angote who has never in his life heard anything about the theater, but who lacks neither understanding nor worldliness, who has some knowledge of how things go at court, who is not completely unacquainted with the intrigues of the courtiers, the jealousy of the ministers, and the provocations of women, and to whom I said in confidence: ‘My friend, there are terrible rumblings in the seraglio. The prince, who is displeased with his son because he suspects him of being in love with Manimonbanda, is a man I consider capable of wreaking the most gruesome revenge on both of them. Based on everything we know, this situation will have very dismal consequences. If you wish, I will arrange it so that you can be witness to all that occurs.’ He accepts my offer, and I lead him into a box screened by latticework, from which he sees the theater, which he takes to be the Sultan’s palace. Do you really think that, notwithstanding all the seriousness I try to maintain, this stranger’s deception could last a moment? Or rather, must you not admit that, on seeing the actors’ stiff walking, their marvelous clothing, their extravagant gestures, the odd emphasis of their rhymed and measured speech, and a thousand other striking inconsistencies, he would laugh in my face from the very first scene and straightaway say that either I was trying to put one over on him, or the prince and his whole court must have lost their minds?”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “I confess,” said Selim, “that this assumed case embarrasses me; but may I suggest that we go to the theater certain that we will be present at the imitation of an action, and not at the action itself.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “Should, then, this conviction keep the action from being represented in the most natural way possible?” rejoined Mirzoza. –

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 At this point the conversation moves gradually to other things that do not concern us. Let’s turn again to see what we have read. Nothing but pure Diderot! Yet all these truths fell on deaf ears at the time. They did not arouse any feeling among the French public until they were repeated with full didactic assiduity and accompanied by examples in which the author took care to remove some of the criticized shortcomings and better clarified the path of nature and illusion. Now envy awakened criticism. Now it was clear why Diderot did not find his nation’s theater at the peak of perfection, where we should absolutely believe it to be, and why he found so many faults in its lauded masterpieces: only and solely to make room for his own plays. He had to decry the method of his predecessors because he perceived that he would remain infinitely below them if he followed the same method. He had to be a miserable charlatan who condemned all foreign elixirs so that no one bought any but his own. And thus did the Palissots attack his plays.[85.4]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 To be sure, he had also given them several openings in his play The Natural Son.[85.5] This first attempt is far from equal to The Father of the Family.[85.6] Overly uniform characters that are also too romantic and sentimental, stiff and precious dialogue, a pedantic jingling of newfangled philosophical sentences: all of this made easy sport for the critics. In particular, the solemn Theresa (or Constance, as she was called in the original), who even goes courting philosophically, who speaks so wisely of the virtuous children she intends to have with a man who does not like her, drew laughter down upon her.[85.7] One cannot deny, moreover, that the form Diderot gave to the appended “Conversations” and the tone he adopted there were a bit vain and pompous; that several comments presented there as completely new discoveries were, in fact, not new and not the author’s own; and that other comments did not actually possess the soundness they seemed to have in their dazzling delivery.[85.8]

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • [85.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [85.2] Lessing continues, from [84], a long quotation from Chapter 38 (“A Conversation about Literature”) of Diderot’s erotic novel The Indiscreet Jewels (1748). The conversation, which here critiques the (French neoclassical) theater, takes place between Mongogul, the sultan of the Congo; Selim, a courtier; Ricaric, an academic; and Mirzoza, the sultan’s favorite, whose words begin this essay. Lessing’s translation is loose in several places. For more about the novel and the allegorical identity of these characters, see [84]. 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 (this quotation begins on page 165).
  • [85.3] Cinna, Maximus (Maxime), Aemilia (Emilie); Sertorius: characters from P. Corneille’s tragedies Cinna (1641) and Sertorius (1662), respectively.
  • [85.4] Charles Palissot de Montenoy (1730–1814): French playwright and satirist who attacked, through plays and essays, the writers of the Encyclopédie (one of the major works of the Enlightenment; Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert were its chief editors).
  • [85.5] Le Fils naturel (1757); see [84.5]. Palissot targets the play specifically in his Petites lettres sur de grands philosophes [Little Letters on Great Philosophers] (1757). The plot is as follows: Dorval, wealthy but illegitimate, is staying with Clairville (his best friend), Constance (Clairville’s sister), and Rosalie (Clairville’s fiancée), whose father is abroad. Dorval loves Rosalie, who also has feelings for him, as does Constance. Dorval, who is tormented by guilt, rescues Clairville from attackers; Clairville offers Dorval Constance’s hand in marriage. A devastated Rosalie learns that her father has lost his fortune; Dorval decides to transfer his fortune secretly to her and then retire from the world. Constance persuades Dorval that she cares only about his virtue (rather than birth or fortune) and that they should work to reunite Rosalie and Clairville before pursuing their own happiness. Rosalie’s father (Lysimond) returns and is revealed to be Dorval’s father as well; Lysimond gives each couple his blessing.
  • [85.6] Le Père de famille (1758); see [84.2].
  • [85.7] Constance’s name was changed to Theresa in Lessing’s translation; she is “philosophical” in that her arguments are based on reason, rather than emotion (as opposed to Dorval, who is brooding and idealistic). Lessing refers here to Constance and Dorval’s climactic conversation in Act Four, Scene 3. See Diderot, Le Fils naturel 89–102; for the English, see Diderot, The Illegitimate Son 40–3.
  • [85.8] Entretiens sur le Fils naturel [Conversations on the Natural Son] (1757); see [84.5].
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-85/