Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century

By Marvin Carlson | Go to book overview
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Turning down the rue Dauphine, the cortege made a brief stop before the old home of the Comédie, its facade decorated with the usual bust of the poet, garlands, and a banner recalling "At the age of seventeen he created Oedipe." Night was falling as the procession reached the nearby new Comédie, also festooned with garlands, but with twenty-two medallions devoted to different theatrical works and a banner balancing that of the old Comédie: "At the age of eighty-four he created Irène." When the procession arrived, a curtain parted to reveal the lobby, with an illuminated statue of Voltaire and actors dressed as characters from his plays appearing to do him homage. At last, near midnight the procession moved on to the Panthéon, where Voltaire's remains were finally put to rest, just a few streets away from the spot where, ninety-seven years before, his remarkable life had begun.

These years, from his birth to his final apotheosis, are almost precisely those of the eighteenth century, and there is surely no figure who occupies so commanding a position in the cultural life of that century as Voltaire. He was unquestionably the leading figure of the theatre of this century, not only in France, but, thanks in part to France's cultural dominance, throughout Europe. This was partly due to his incredible literary productivity and influence, but also to his astonishing lifelong correspondence, thousands of letters to kings and commoners, actors and playwrights, indeed to most of the cultural leaders of the era. No understanding of the theatre, indeed of the cultural life of Europe in this century is possible without some familiarity with the astonishing career of Voltaire. This is true even though his many plays themselves, so dominant internationally in their own time, today are known only to scholars. He lies firmly on the other side of that great divide created in western literature by romanticism, and has suffered the fate of association with the old order. It is the revolutionary side of Voltaire, his political and social thought, that lives on today, while his conservative side, from which his theatre never escaped, has faded in the public memory. Could Voltaire return today, this situation would probably surprise him, for he always assumed that fame, even immortality, was to be sought in literary achievement, but on the whole he would probably not be displeased to be remembered less as a great poet than as a champion of freedom and liberty.

Journal de Paris 34 ( 3 February 1779): 136.
Madame de Campan, Mémoires sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette ( Paris: Firmin Didot, 1849), 3.


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