Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century

By Marvin Carlson | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5
Voltaire and Germany, 1750-1755

In his final years as crown prince of Prussia, Frederick spent most of his time in the castle of Rheinsberg, which he had remodeled and fitted out to suit his own taste. French taste and culture was predominant among the German principalities at this time, and no one was more dedicated to it than Prince Frederick. The furnishings and gardens at Rheinsburg were in the French style, echoing the taste of Versailles. Paintings by Watteau and Lancret adorned the walls. On the ceiling of Frederick's bedroom was a painting of Minerva amid fluttering cupids holding an open book, on the pages of which were written only two names--Horace and Voltaire. Only French was spoken by Frederick and his companions, and the entertainments were in the French fashion--witty conversations on cultural and literary matters, and of course amateur theatricals, with Frederick playing the title role in Racine's Mithridate and Philoctetes in Voltaire Oedipe. Among the other Voltaire plays known to have been presented were L'Enfant prodigue and La Prude. The castle had no theatre, so performances were given between two screens in the concert hall. 1

Soon after moving into this retreat, in 1736, Frederick began his extensive correspondence with Voltaire, and to dream of bringing this most visible figure of contemporary French culture as the crowning evidence of Prussia's artistic significance. In 1738, under Voltaire's inspiration, Frederick began a drama in French verse, based on the Aeneid, but soon despaired of imitating the master, and turned instead to a refutation of Machiavelli, a rather turgid if well-meaning attack on arbitrary government and unjust wars that was widely viewed with a certain irony after Frederick's unprovoked invasion of Silesia.

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