La Comédie des ‘Philosophes’ et autres textes
In some respects, French theatre of the eighteenth century has been rather slower to attract the attention of scholars than the novel, and even some of the major figures such as Diderot and Sedaine are only now receiving due critical scrutiny. Among the lesser lights, the name of Charles Palissot has never been entirely forgotten; although he was a prolific author, whose works ran to seven stout octavo volumes in the 1778 Liège edition, he owes his fame (or notoriety) mainly to the unforeseen effect of his satirical comedy Les Philosophes (1760). In Le Neveu de Rameau, Diderot, outraged at the way he had been portrayed in the work, poured unremitting scorn on Palissot and his circle of backbiting scribblers and hacks; hence, if Palissot's name means anything today, it is largely because it was immortalized in vitriol by one of the principal victims of his pen. The scandal provoked by the play has led commentators to look at it afresh from time to time, in the hope of rediscovering some unsuspected merit in it, but to little avail. If the style is sometimes elegant, the vindictive bitterness behind the writing overwhelms any other qualities it may possess. Olivier Ferret quite rightly makes no exaggerated claims for the artistic worth of Les Philosophes; his aim is, rather, to provide the text of the work with footnotes, variants and emendations where necessary, and to situate it in the polemical context of the wider struggles between the philosophes and their enemies. To this end, his edition offers, in addition to the play itself, no fewer than twenty parodies, commentaries, rejoinders and other ephemera [End Page 396] generated by the affaire. These writings are not easily found elsewhere, and it is convenient to have them brought together in one volume. However, although the annotations are helpful, the introductory section seems rather skimpy in some respects, and could usefully have been developed further. It is true, for example, that the 1752 arrêt did officially suppress the first two volumes of the Encyclopédie, but its effect on the enterprise was negligible at that stage. Again, the curious and ambiguous relationship between Voltaire and Palissot needs to be more fully elucidated than it is here; Voltaire was, after all, the only major philosophe who was not attacked in the play. Ferret should have pointed out, too, that the name of Rosalie, one of the female characters in the play, was borrowed directly from Diderot's Le Fils naturel, which Palissot had more than once gone out of his way to attack. It would have been helpful, finally, to refer the reader to the abbé Irailh's Querelles littéraires (1761), which provides one of the earliest and clearest contemporary accounts of the animosity between the philosophes and their enemies. Despite these omissions, Ferret has rendered a valuable service to scholarship, and his work will be welcomed be anyone wishing to explore one of the more notable episodes in the history of French theatre of the Ancien Régime.