Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Kings of France were formerly excommunicated; all from Philip I. to Louis VIII. were solemnly so; as also the emperors from Henry IV. to Louis of Bavaria inclusively. The kings of England had likewise a very decent part of these favors from the court of Rome. It was the rage of the times, and this rage cost six or seven hundred thousand men their lives. They actually excommunicated the representatives of monarchs; I do not mean ambassadors, but players, who are kings and emperors three or four times a week, and who govern the universe to procure a livelihood.

I scarcely know of any but this profession, and that of magicians, to which this honor could now be paid; but as sorcerers have ceased for the eighty years that sound philosophy has been known to men, there are no longer any victims but Alexander, Cæsar, Athalie, Polyeucte, Andromache, Brutus, Zaïre, and Harlequin.

The principal reason given is, that these gentlemen and ladies represent the passions; but if depicting the human heart merits so horrible a disgrace, a greater rigor should be used with painters and sculptors. There are many licentious pictures which are publicly sold, while we do not represent a single dramatic poem which maintains not the strictest decorum. The Venus of Titian and that of Correggio are quite naked, and are at all times dangerous for our modest youth; but comedians only recite the admirable lines of “Cinna” for about two hours, and with the approbation of the magistracy under the royal authority. Why, therefore, are these living personages on the stage more condemned than these mute comedians on canvas? “Ut pictura poesis erit.” What would Sophocles and Euripides have said, if they could have foreseen that a people, who only ceased to be barbarous by imitating them, would one day inflict this disgrace upon the stage, which in their time received such high glory?

Esopus and Roscius were not Roman senators, it is true; but the Flamen did not declare them infamous; and the art of Terence was not doubted. The great pope and prince, Leo X., to whom we owe the renewal of good tragedy and comedy in Europe, and who caused dramatic pieces to be represented in his palace with so much magnificence, foresaw not that one day, in a part of Gaul, the descendants of the Celts and the Goths would believe they had a right to disgrace that which he honored. If Cardinal Richelieu had lived — he who caused the Palais Royal to be built, and to whom France owes the stage — he would no longer have suffered them to have dared to cover with ignominy those whom he employed to recite his own works.

It must be confessed that they were heretics who began to outrage the finest of all the arts. Leo X., having revived the tragic scene, the pretended reformers required nothing more to convince them that it was the work of Satan. Thus the town of Geneva, and several illustrious places of Switzerland, have been a hundred and fifty years without suffering a violin amongst them. The Jansenists, who now dance on the tomb of St. Paris, to the great edification of the neighborhood, in the last century forbade a princess of Conti, whom they governed, to allow her son to learn dancing, saying that dancing was too profane. However, as it was necessary he should be graceful, he was taught the minuet, but they would not allow a violin, and the director was a long time before he would suffer the prince of Conti to be taught with castanets. A few Catholic Visigoths on this side the Alps, therefore, fearing the reproaches of the reformers, cried as loudly as they did. Thus, by degrees, the fashion of defaming Cæsar and Pompey, and of refusing certain ceremonies to certain persons paid by the king, and laboring under the eyes of the magistracy, was established in France. We do not declaim against this abuse; for who would embroil himself with powerful men of the present time, for hedra and heroes of past ages?

We are content with finding this rigor absurd, and with always paying our full tribute of admiration to the masterpieces of our stage.

Rome, from whom we have learned our catechism, does not use it as we do; she has always known how to temper her laws according to times and occasions; she has known how to distinguish impudent mountebanks, who were formerly rightly censured, from the dramatic pieces of Trissin, and of several bishops and cardinals who have assisted to revive tragedy. Even at present, comedies are publicly represented at Rome in religious houses. Ladies go to them without scandal; they think not that dialogues, recited on boards, are a diabolical infamy. We have even seen the piece of “George Dandin” executed at Rome by nuns, in the presence of a crowd of ecclesiastics and ladies. The wise Romans are above all careful how they excommunicate the gentlemen who sing the trebles in the Italian operas; for, in truth, it is enough to be castrated in this world, without being damned in the other.

In the good time of Louis XIV., there was always a bench at the spectacles, which was called the bench of bishops. I have been a witness, that in the minority of Louis XV., Cardinal Fleury, then bishop of Fréjus, was very anxious to revive this custom. With other times and other manners, we are apparently much wiser than in the times in which the whole of Europe came to admire our shows, when Richelieu revived the stage in France, when Leo X. renewed the age of Augustus in Italy: but a time will come in which our children, seeing the impertinent work of Father Le Brun against the art of Sophocles, and the works of our great men printed at the same time, will exclaim: Is it possible that the French could thus contradict themselves, and that the most absurd barbarity has so proudly raised its head against some of the finest productions of the human mind?

St. Thomas of Aquinas, whose morals were equal to those of Calvin and Father Quesnel — St. Thomas, who had never seen good comedy, and who knew only miserable players, thinks however that the theatre might be useful. He had sufficient good sense and justice to feel the merit of this art, unfinished as it was, and permitted and approved of it. St. Charles Borromeo personally examined the pieces which were played at Milan, and gave them his approbation and signature. Who after that will be Visigoths enough to treat Roderigo and Chimene as soul-corrupters? Would to God that these barbarians, the enemies of the finest of arts, had the piety of Polyeucte, the clemency of Augustus, the virtue of Burrhus, and would die like the husband of Alzira!

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25