Voltaire

Definition

Theater

  • (François-Marie Arouet; 1694 - 1778) French writerand thinker, whose attacks on political and religious tyranny madehim a leading figure of the Enlightenment. Amongst his numerous writingsare 53 plays, more than half of which are tragedies: others belongto the genres of the comédie larmoyante and the dramebourgeois (see drame).

    The son of a notary, Voltaire was educated at a Jesuit schoolin Paris. While serving a prison sentence in the Bastille for writinga satire on the regent, he finished his first play, the tragedy Oedipe(1718), which was performed to great acclaim. While living in England(1726 - 29), he visited the elderly William Congreveand discovered the works of Shakespeare. On his return to Paris, hewrote several plays on Shakespearean themes, such as Brutus(1730), and his great success, Zaïre (1732). Healso adopted his pen name, an anagram of Arouet l(e) i(eune).

    Voltaire, a good amateur actor, promoted restrained actingstyles and spectacular stage effects. He also campaigned successfullyagainst the practice of seating a section of the audience on the stage.Among his theatrical acquaintances were the actor Henri-Louis Lekain,whom he discovered and trained, and his close friend, the actressAdrienne Lecouvreur. However, he also had his detractors;when Voltaire asked the French playwright Alexis Piron (1689 - 1773)his opinion of a new play, Piron predicted that it would be hissed.Voltaire invited him to the first night, and, when the piece finishedto moderate applause, pointed out that nobody had hissed. "Mydear Sir," replied Piron, "how can people hiss when theyyawn?"

    After publishing Lettres philosophiques (1734), whichcompared France unfavourably with England, Voltaire had to take refugefor 15 years with Madame du Châtelet at Cirey. Whilst there,he wrote a number of successful tragedies, including Alzire(1736), Mahomet (1742), and Mérope (1743). Mahometwas banned until Voltaire passed off a commendatory letter from thepope about one of his poems as an approval of his play. He also embarkedon a battle of plays with his adversary, the former dramatic censorProsper Jolyot de Crébillon; Sémiramis (1748)and five other works by Voltaire trumped plays by Crébillonon the same subjects.

    When Madame du Châtelet died in 1749, Voltaire movedto the court of Frederick the Great. In 1758 he settled at Ferney,Switzerland, where he wrote Tancrède (1760), which begana vogue for plays based on French history. His fame was now so widespread,and visits by the famous so numerous, that he became known as the'Innkeeper of Europe'.

    In 1778, after an exile of 28 years, he returned triumphantlyto Paris to direct the rehearsals for Irène. At itssixth performance, his bust was ceremoniously crowned on stage whilehe watched from his box. He died two months later, and was hastilyinterred by the priests of the Abbey of Scellières before theauthorities could refuse a Christian burial.

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