The French Enlightenment and Drama

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The French Enlightenment and Drama

Decline of the Theater.

During most of the seventeenth century the theater in Paris had a relatively limited appeal, drawing its audience primarily from aristocratic and upper-class circles that were centered around the court. Often provincial theaters located in such cities as Lyons and Rouen had proven more innovative than the troupes of Paris, producing the plays that made their way to the capital after they had been successful in these smaller cities. While the years from 1630 to about 1680 had seen a great theater thrive in Paris, the size of the city's audience had always been relatively small when compared to the huge audiences for commercial productions that existed in early seventeenth-century London or Golden-Age Spain. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine or the comedies of Molière had been great critical successes, and had been widely read and imitated throughout Europe, but keeping Paris's theaters afloat was always a risky financial venture. No theatrical troupe survived without the king's patronage, and even a gifted dramatist like Molière who received substantial support frequently had to struggle to make his productions clear a profit. While a number of sparkling successes had been staged in the years before 1680, royal patronage for the theater in the final two decades of the century actually shrank as Louis XIV became involved in a series of costly European wars and as the king fell under the influence of his pious second wife, Madame de Maintenon. One sign of the increasing disfavor in which the king held the theater was his expulsion in 1697 of the Comédie-Italienne, a troupe of Commedia dell'arte performers that had performed for a generation in the capital. Louis found the group's broad, sexual humor distasteful, and the troupe was not allowed to return to Paris until 1716, the year following the king's death. As the audience for the theater shrank, Paris for a time had only one public performing troupe, the Comédie-Française, which had been forged by the merger of Molière's troupe and two others.

Revival and Growth.

This bleak state of affairs soon began to change in the years after 1715, as the theater entered upon a century of unprecedented expansion in Paris. By the end of the eighteenth century, the city had almost thirty theaters, making it the undisputed dramatic capital of Europe. A complex combination of factors produced the rise of this professional and commercial stage in Paris, but the expansionary trend became evident in the years immediately following Louis XIV's death. The king's successor, Louis XV, was only five years old when he assumed the throne, and thus his uncle Philip of Orléans served as his regent. Philip disliked the imposing spaces and lofty grandeur of Versailles, and between the years 1715 and 1723 he set up government in Paris rather than Versailles. As aristocrats streamed back to the city from the now abandoned royal retreat, they demanded entertainment that fit the changing tastes of the age. Drama, the opera, ballet, and the visual arts were all enriched by this brief period of Louis XV's regency, and when the king returned to set up government at Versailles several years later, many French nobles did not return to the country palace. Instead they stayed in Paris and prolonged the city's artistic revitalization. At the same time, the dramatic growth that the French theater witnessed in the course of the eighteenth century cannot be credited to aristocratic patronage alone. For the first time in France's history, a significant class of bourgeois patrons began to enter the ranks of theatergoers; they found in the drama, not only a source of leisure entertainment, but an elevated art form that appealed to their desire to be educated in the issues of the day. The ideas of the Enlightenment were to affect this new class of aristocratic and bourgeois patrons. Although the Enlightenment was an international movement, it attracted some of its largest numbers of adherents in France, particularly in Paris and the country's other major cities. In small circles known as salons the devotees of the movement discussed the necessity of change in France's social structure, even as they hoped to foster greater tolerance, liberty, and reason in everyday affairs. The theater was soon to be affected by these trends. The apex of the growing theatrical world in Paris was the Comédie-Française, the national theater that Louis XIV had chartered at the end of the seventeenth century and whose acting troupes were formed out of the merger of previously disparate groups in the city. This institution, a descendant of which still survives today, continued to produce elevated dramas in the tradition of Corneille and Racine. As a national institution supported by the crown, the Comédie-Française often proved to be resistant to the winds of change that were beginning to sweep through France in the eighteenth century. But even in this aristocratic bastion of privilege, forces were at work that were questioning France's religious, social, and political order, and the works of Voltaire and other playwrights inspired by the Enlightenment came to be performed in the venerable institution. Beyond the Comédie-Française, an increasingly variegated theatrical scene began to take shape in the capital, and many far less prestigious venues for drama developed, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century as a broader audience for entertainment emerged in Paris.


The greatest, and frequently most controversial, French dramatist of the time was François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778) who has always been known by his pen name Voltaire. Despite being educated by the Jesuits like Molière and Corneille before him, Voltaire came to criticize organized religion; and although he mistrusted the French king Louis XV because he himself had been persecuted by him, he was fundamentally a royalist who believed in enlightened despotism as a way to progress. When he had completed his education and served for a time as a diplomat, he made his way into Parisian society, establishing himself with his cultivated sense of satire. Exiled from Paris and then briefly imprisoned by the regent, the Duke of Orléans, on the suspicion of libel, he was released after a year, and produced his first great work Oedipe in 1717. In the wake of the success of Oedipe he was hailed as the successor to Racine and Corneille. Although he came to the attention of the royal court and for a time was admitted into high circles, he soon found himself in opposition to the regent again when he fell for a second time under the suspicion of libel and was taken into custody, placed in the Bastille, and then exiled from Paris. In the 1720s he rehabilitated himself with the Duke of Orléans and received a government pension. He became a spy for the crown, but once Orléans was dead, he soon fell from grace again by insulting a high-ranking noble in 1725. Again, he was imprisoned in the Bastille, beaten up, and promptly escorted to the port of Calais in northwestern France. From there, he made his way to England, where he spent more than two years in exile. English society and English theater captivated Voltaire, and he admired the greater freedom of life in the country and became in these years an admirer of Shakespeare, whom he credited with having a kind of barbarous energy. Upon his return to France, he began to try subtly to imitate the style of Shakespeare in his tragedies. These first few plays were not successful, but by 1732 Voltaire had scored a hit in the production of his Zaïre. In the years that followed, the playwright continued to write tragedies for the Comédie-Française, but he also turned to history and philosophy. Voltaire also rehabilitated himself at court, particularly with Louis XV's mistress Madame de Pompadour, although the king and many of his courtiers continued to distrust him. After making an indiscreet remark one evening at a party in which members of the court were in attendance, Voltaire was forced into hiding in 1747. The disfavor in which he was now held, the recent failures of some of his plays, and most importantly, the death of his long-term mistress Madame du Châtelet in 1749 left the artist exhausted and disoriented. According to his accounts, he seemed to suffer the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. To recover his composure, Voltaire accepted the invitation of his friend Frederick the Great to visit Prussia and he left for Berlin in 1750. Here initial enchantment between Frederick and Voltaire soon gave way to increasing disaffection. He quarreled with members of the Prussian nobility, was sued by a banker, and touched off controversy by publishing a poem attacking the president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. The French dramatist tried to flee the country in 1753, but he was captured by Frederick's forces and imprisoned for a time before being allowed to continue. In the meantime he had received word from Louis XV that he was not to return to Paris and so after a year spent in the city of Colmar, he took refuge in Switzerland at Geneva.

Voltaire 's Later Years.

Voltaire was at first hailed in Switzerland for his wit and sophistication as well as for the salon that he set up in his country retreat. Members of Swiss society streamed there to hear his views on religion and politics. Gradually, he excited controversy, particularly when he expressed doubts on key elements of Christian religious orthodoxy. By 1758, the situation had grown so uncomfortable in Switzerland that Voltaire was forced to flee, this time back to France, where he bought a country villa at Ferney directly on the French-Swiss border. Long experience had taught Voltaire that his ideas were inevitably going to be controversial, and in purchasing the house at Ferney he desired to be close to Switzerland for a quick escape across the border if he learned that the king's men were approaching. In these final twenty years of his life, Voltaire continued to write, and his correspondents grew to include an ever-larger number of European intellectuals. His house at Ferney also played a key role in furthering the ideas of the Enlightenment. There Voltaire set up a kind of intellectual court, and he was visited by many of the greatest thinkers and political figures of the age. Rich and secure from his writing as well as questionable business deals he had conducted earlier in his life, Voltaire finally achieved the peace and tranquility at Ferney that he had long desired. Although even then the irascible author continued to quarrel with the local peasants and religious leaders of the province. The themes of his work in these years persisted along the lines that he had long outlined: religious tolerance, the rule of human reason, and the establishment of a more humane and just society. Finally in the year in which he died, he was allowed to return to Paris, where a performance of his play Irène caused a sensation. Exhausted from the warm reception he received in the French capital, he soon grew ill and died on 30 May 1778.


introduction: The French dramatist and Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694–1788) spent several years in England while in exile from his native France. There he became acquainted with a number of playwrights. While Voltaire admired the English stage's energy, he nevertheless detested its "barbarous" violation of the rules of drama. At the same time he came to be influenced by its conventions, some of which found their way into his later works. In his Philosophical Letters, Voltaire discussed the current English stage. While he believed that writers of tragedy were too deeply influenced by Shakespearean models, he admired English comic dramatists and discussed those who wrote for the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century stage.

The late Mr. Congreve raised the glory of comedy to a greater height than any English writer before or since his time. He wrote only a few plays, but they are all excellent in their kind. The laws of the drama are strictly observed in them; they abound with characters all which are shadowed with the utmost delicacy, and we don't meet with so much as one low or coarse jest. The language is everywhere that of men of honour, but their actions are those of knaves—a proof that he was perfectly well acquainted with human nature, and frequented what we call polite company. He was infirm and come to the verge of life when I knew him. Mr. Congreve had one defect, which was his entertaining too mean an idea of his first profession (that of a writer), though it was to this he owed his fame and fortune. He spoke of his works as of trifles that were beneath him; and hinted to me, in our first conversation, that I should visit him upon no other footing than that of a gentleman who led a life of plainness and simplicity. I answered, that had he been so unfortunate as to be a mere gentleman, I should never have come to see him; and I was very much disgusted at so unseasonable a piece of vanity.

Mr. Congreve's comedies are the most witty and regular, those of Sir John Vanbrugh most gay and humorous, and those of Mr. Wycherley have the greatest force and spirit. It may be proper to observe that these fine geniuses never spoke disadvantageously of Molière; and that none but the contemptible writers among the English have endeavoured to lessen the character of that great comic poet. Such Italian musicians as despise Lully are themselves persons of no character or ability; but a Buononcini esteems that great artist, and does justice to his merit.

The English have some other good comic writers living, such as Sir Richard Steele and Mr. Cibber, who is an excellent player, and also Poet Laureate—a title which, how ridiculous soever it may be thought, is yet worth a thousand crowns a year (besides some considerable privileges) to the person who enjoys it. Our illustrious Corneille had not so much.

To conclude. Don't desire me to descend to particulars with regard to these English comedies, which I am so fond of applauding; nor to give you a single smart saying or humorous stroke from Wycherley or Congreve. We don't laugh in reading a translation. If you have a mind to understand the English comedy, the only way to do this will be for you to go to England, to spend three years in London, to make yourself master of the English tongue, and to frequent the playhouse every night. I receive but little pleasure from the perusal of Aristophanes and Plautus, and for this reason because I am neither a Greek nor a Roman. The delicacy of the humour, the allusion, the à propos—all these are lost to a foreigner.

source: Voltaire, Letters on the English. Vol. 34 of The Harvard Classics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1909–1914): 139–140.

Diderot and Middle-Class Drama.

Despite the dubious notoriety that Voltaire achieved in many circles throughout his life, the author was recognized at the time as one of the great prose stylists and verse dramatists of the French language. Born at the time when the style of Racine tragedy held sway over the theater in Paris, he never abandoned this form of drama in the works he completed for the theater. Although Voltaire exercised a powerful hold over the development of the Enlightenment in France, his dramatic ideas increasingly seemed old-fashioned to later generations of French dramatists. Admired and respected for the depth of his commitment to rational thought, Voltaire's plays, with their faithfulness to older forms of verse tragedy, seemed by the 1750s to be increasingly dated. The greatest exponent of a new kind of theater at this time was Denis Diderot (1713–1784). While Voltaire had often fashioned his dramas from ancient myths, classical history, and exotic tales, Diderot argued that the theater should represent bourgeois values and seek to present a realistic mirror of everyday life. Only two of his plays, The Illegitimate Son (1757) and The Father of the Family (1758), achieved anything above a level of moderate success, and they are rarely even read today. Diderot believed that the theater should not only hold up a mirror to bourgeois society, but that it might play a powerful role in teaching people the views of the Enlightenment. Thus some heavy-handed philosophizing often found its way into his works. While the quality of his dramas may not have been high, the playwright made a powerful impact on eighteenth-century taste by virtue of his role as the editor of the Encyclopédie, the massive multi-volume project of Enlightenment thinkers in France that was published between the 1750s and 1770s. As one of the editors of this project, Diderot chose writers to write entries about the theater whose views approximated his own. Besides his role in shaping the Encylopédie's views on theater, he also continued in his later years to publish works on the theory of drama and acting. His opinions about acting, in particular, were influential, and tended to favor the naturalistic portrayal that was beginning to become the fashion at the time. This style of acting sought to represent the passions and emotions faithfully, in contrast to the artificial style of elaborately declaiming the text in the fashion that had held sway in seventeenth-century France. While his own works of drama may not have been so inspiring, he played a key role in establishing the "middle-class" drama of the later eighteenth century throughout Europe. In particular, his influence on the great German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was profound. In the years that followed his pronouncements on the subject, a more bourgeois set of sensibilities flourished in the French theater. The studied artificiality, grand gestures, and elevated verse that had once dominated the great works of Racine and his followers seemed increasingly outdated as a new theater that treated everyday life emerged.


The rise of bourgeois sentiments, and the problems that they might engender in an absolutist state like France, can be brilliantly witnessed in the works and career of Pierre Beaumarchais (1732–1799), who was the author of two brilliant comedies that long provided other artists with inspiration. The first of these, The Barber of Seville, was first staged in 1775, after having been prohibited for two years because of its anti-aristocratic tone. It was not an immediate success, since although a comedy, it was laden with heavy allusions to the author's own recent legal troubles. Beaumarchais revised the play—shortening it—and staged it once again. This time the comedy was a definitive success since it treated more neatly the comic exploits of a Spanish nobleman's servant. Through his wit, the servant is continually able to outsmart his lord, and thus Beaumarchais began to score success by criticizing the privileges of aristocrats. Despite his political stance, the author was very much a part of the "in-circle" of court and cultivated society in Paris. For a time he served on diplomatic missions in England, and was in part responsible for France's support of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. Within a few years of The Barber of Seville Beaumarchais had written its even more famous sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, a work that immediately touched off a firestorm of controversy and which languished for many years without being performed. Although the light gaffs and jabs that the work makes against aristocratic privilege scarcely seem to raise an eyebrow today, the mood in France had changed dramatically from the time of the author's Barber of Seville. Reform programs aimed at curbing the powers and privileges of the nobility were now an imminent threat to France's large class of nobles. In order to secure the performance of his play, Beaumarchais was forced to intrigue at court so that he might secure a license for its staging, which was only granted after years of deliberation and a private performance before the royal court. When the play was finally performed before audiences in Paris, it caused a sensation and ran for a total of 75 performances, a huge number at the time. It attracted criticism from some as "godless" and "immoral," while at the same time acquiring many admirers. Beaumarchais long kept his silence against the attacks of his critics, but when he did finally respond to the accusation that his play was immoral, he was hastily imprisoned for a time in the Bastille. Such measures, though, did little to halt the play's rising popularity, not only in France, but throughout Europe as well. It is a testimony to how well Beaumarchais captured the brittle spirit of the times that in Austria the brilliant composer Mozart set to transforming the work into an opera only a little more than a year after it had been performed and published in Paris. Admiration for Beaumarchais' wit and earthy wisdom persisted, so much so that the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini used the dramatist's earlier Barber of Seville as late as 1816 to serve as the basis for the libretto of his famous opera of the same name. Despite Beaumarchais' attacks on aristocratic privilege, he himself was part of the court circle that was swept away by the tide of the French Revolution. The artist was imprisoned for a time during the 1790s because of his own aristocratic connections, but eventually released through the ministrations of a former lover. His dramatic efforts, although light-hearted and written in a spirit of satirical good fun, helped to realize the theater of bourgeois values in France that had been envisioned by such Enlightenment thinkers as Diderot.


Derek F. Connan, Innovation and Renewal: A Study of the Theatrical Works of Diderot (Oxford: The Alden Press, 1989).

Peter France, Diderot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

William D. Howarth, French Theatre in the Neo-Classical Era, 1550–1789 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Haydn Mason, Voltaire: A Biography (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

Peyton Richter and Ilona Ricardo, Voltaire (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980).

Jack Rochford Vrooman, Voltaire's Theatre: The Cycle from Œdipe to Mérope (Geneva: Institut et musée Voltaire, 1970).

Marie Wellington, The Art of Voltaire's Theatre: An Exploration of Possibility (New York: Lang, 1987).

see also Literature: French Literature during the Enlightenment ; Philosophy: The Enlightenment in France

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The French Enlightenment and Drama

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