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Reviewed by:
  • Le Théâtre de Voltaire
  • Edward Ousselin
Le Théâtre de Voltaire. Edited by Russell Goulbourne. (Special issue of Œuvres et critiques, 33.2 (2008)). Tübingen: Gunter Narr. 166 pp. Pb €38.00.

As Russell Goulbourne reminds us in his introduction to this collection of nine articles, Voltaire, who wrote more plays than Shakespeare and who dominated the Parisian stages during his lifetime, thought of himself first and foremost as a playwright: ‘il doit son succès et sa réputation même à son sens très vif de l’art scénique et à sa conception pratique de la performance théâtrale’ (p. 7). However, while there have been some recent signs of a minor revival, most of his plays remain absent from today’s theatres (nor have there been any notable film adaptations). At the venerable Comédie-Française, where one of his plays was last staged in 1965, Voltaire ‘ne figure plus dans la programmation que très sporadiquement au vingtième siècle, et plus du tout au vingt-et-unième’ (Jacqueline Razgonnikoff, p. 13). This volume of Œuvres et critiques merits attention simply for focusing critical consideration on what was once the central part of the Voltairean corpus, whose near-total eclipse, in terms of popular acclaim, has yet to be fully elucidated. It is no doubt symptomatic that most of the articles are devoted to the reception of Voltaire’s plays in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Divided into three parts (each containing three articles), Le Théâtre de Voltaire provides echoes of the playwright’s theatrical triumphs and occasional setbacks. The first part examines the reactions of theatregoers through anecdotes, letters (Françoise de Graffigny), and the extensive files of the Comédie-Française. The second part addresses the various forms of criticism levelled at Voltaire’s theatrical output, both in print and through staged parodies. The last part is devoted to the ways in which the best-known French playwright of his time was received and represented abroad (England, Germany, and Italy), in the form of translations and adaptations. Just as in France, Voltaire’s theatrical influence within neighbouring countries, once far-reaching, went into decline after the Revolution: ‘Cette disgrâce devait se généraliser au cours du dix-neuvième siècle avec l’essor du Romantisme’ (Christopher Todd, p. 131). In one of the most interesting articles, Valérie André considers the career of Julien-Louis Geoffroy, a literary critic who regularly contributed to L’Année littéraire (founded by a well-known nemesis of Voltaire, Élie-Catherine Fréron) and later to Le Journal des débats (which became Le Journal de l’Empire). Geoffroy’s extensive writings furnish a case study of the evolution of Voltaire’s image from the end of the Ancien Régime through the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. The nineteenthcentury stereotype of the philosophe as one of the main ideological wellsprings of the horrors and destructiveness of the Revolution — la faute à Voltaire — is already visible in the influential articles of a critic to whom André refers as a ‘croisé catholique et monarchiste’ (p. 116). Another noteworthy article is found in Charlotte Simonin’s study of the correspondence of a long-time friend of Voltaire who was also a regular [End Page 346] theatregoer: ‘Madame de Graffigny assiste à environ 300 représentations, c’est-à-dire au moins 500 pièces’ (pp. 34–35). Juxtaposed with the records of the Comédie-Française, this article provides an account of Voltaire’s once-dominant theatrical presence.

Edward Ousselin
Western Washington University


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pp. 346-347
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