Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century

By Marvin Carlson | Go to book overview
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The stir that L'Ecossaise created in Paris encouraged no less than three Italian adaptations of the play in 1761, but only one, Goldoni La Scozzese, was a significant success. Unable to rely on the specifically Parisian references, Goldoni deepened the characters around Frélon, especially Freeport, the bluff English merchant who had proven one of the unexpected attractions of the play in Paris. Thanks largely to Voltaire and Goldoni, the gruff English businessman with a heart of gold became a very popular figure in later eighteenth-century comedy, returning to his homeland in the 1760 The Coffee-house and in George Colman The English Merchant. La Scozzese was one of Goldoni's last Venetian comedies. The Diderot affair and the praise of Voltaire had won him a considerable reputation in Paris and an invitation to come there as resident playwright for the Comédie Italienne. Discouraged by the Venetian public's current preference for the fantastic dramatic fables of his rival, Carlo Gozzi, over his own more realistic work, Goldoni happily accepted, remaining in France from 1762 until his death in 1793.

The clearing of the spectators from the Comédie stage encouraged Voltaire to complete Tancrède, a tragedy that he had been planning since 1755. This pathetic story of a heroic knight who believes, incorrectly, in a report of unfaithfulness in the woman he loves, anticipated romanticism in its medieval setting, which was exploited for its local color and spectacle. The first performance boasted sixty-six supernumeraries, an elaborate chevalric hall, and a public square with a palace and temple. Voltaire rejected, however, Clairon's desire for a scaffold for the heroine, which he considered beyond the bounds of propriety.

The first new play to take full advantage of the recently cleared stage, and buoyed by the talents of Clairon and Lekain in the leading roles, Tancrède enjoyed a great success in the fall of 1760 and eventually surpassed all other eighteenth-century tragedies at the Comédie, except Zaïre. Voltaire, though now sixty-six years of age and forty-two years after his first success, still, remarkably, had many plays ahead of him. This, however, was the last to have a long career in the active repertoire, being regularly revived at the Comédie until 1855.

"Extrait des registres du Consistoire de Genève, 31 Juillet 1755," quoted in Lucien Perey and Gaston Maugras, La Vie intime de Voltaire aux Délices et à Ferney ( Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1892), 93 (henceforward PVI).
Edward Gibbon, Memoires of My Life, ed. Georges A. Bonnard, ( London: Nelson, 1966), 84.


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