Born in the final years of the seventeenth century, and dying a decade before the beginning of the French Revolution, François Marie Arouet, who subsequently assumed the name Voltaire, was a central, in fact quintessential figure of the eighteenth century, so much so that this era has sometimes been called the "Age of Voltaire." At a time when French culture dominated Europe, Voltaire dominated French culture, and like Goethe, another key figure of the next generation, he was interested in and made major contributions to almost every sphere of human intellectual activity--the sciences, trade and commerce, politics, and most particularly the arts.
Despite the astonishing range of Voltaire's pursuits, indeed of his literary activities alone, the theatre maintained a central position in his interest and affection from the beginning to the end of his career. His pamphlets, novels, short stories, histories, philosophical treatises, and poems were read throughout Europe, but his first and last literary triumphs were plays: Oedipe, written when he was only seventeen; and Irène, completed when he was eighty-four. Both were produced amid the greatest public enthusiasm at the Comédie Française (the preeminent theatre in France, and indeed in Europe), and between these two, the Comédie also presented dozens of other Voltaire plays. He created a total of fifty-six, and there was rarely a period in his long life when he was not actively working on a theatrical script. During the latter part of his career, and for many years after his death, he was produced more often on the national stage (and on the stages of much of Europe) than any other serious dramatist, including Racine and Corneille, and his plays served as models for aspiring young dramatists throughout Europe.