Voltaire wrote on most subjects under the sun but his particular area of expertise in his own eyes – and one about which he probably felt more entitled to offer an informed opinion than almost any of his contemporaries – was undoubtedly literature, and more specifically theatre. For although the modern reader will be familiar with the great man’s œuvre chiefly through his contes, his dramatic output far exceeded that of his tales. Consequently Voltaire saw himself first and foremost as a dramatist and a poet.
In this context, his Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (1761) makes fascinating reading. This text, just like another Appel launched by another great Frenchman almost two centuries later, is a call to national resistance. But in Voltaire’s case the invaders are not of the military but of the literary kind and they come not from outre-Rhin, but from outre-Manche.
Essentially what Voltaire aims to do in his Appel is to reassert France’s status as the leading nation for theatrical excellence, and to try to nip in the bud what he sees as a wave of rather irritating Anglomania spreading through French literary circles. His main target is none other than Shakespeare himself, whom, ironically, he had helped to popularise in France. Voltaire the Anglophile, who is usually more inclined to play down the virtues of the French nation than to extol them, is piqued into action by the seemingly unstoppable English success on the world stage – unlike France, England is having a very good Seven Years War – and he is therefore determined to defend France’s supremacy on the theatrical stage.
Voltaire duly sets out to analyse passages in Hamlet and Othello and to denounce the author’s unforgivable lapses in good taste and his disregard for the rules of classical theatre. Shakespeare, he concludes, is not without his merit or even genius, but he is too quintessentially English ever to rival the great Racine and Corneille – whose appeal is truly universal – on the stages of Europe.
For the modern reader, a certain pathos emerges from the pages of the Appel in view of how unprophetic it turned out to be. Voltaire’s spirited defence of his own conception of what theatre should be could not turn the tide of the ongoing shift in public taste, and one has a sense that, even in 1761, he was probably fighting somewhat of a rearguard action.
One can only wonder what he would have made of the recent adaptation of his Candide for the stage, by an Englishman, in a production full of sound and fury, performed in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Oh the irony!