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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Drama
By Voltaire (1694–1778)
 
From a Letter to an Italian Nobleman

THE THEATRE is the chef-d’œuvre of society. Men in general are compelled to labor at the mechanic arts, and their time is happily occupied; while men of rank and wealth have the misfortune to be abandoned to themselves, to the ennui inseparable from idleness, to gaming more fatal than ennui, to petty factions more dangerous than play and idleness.  1
  What is the true drama? It is the art of teaching virtue and good manners by action and dialogue. How cold in comparison is the eloquence of monologue! Have we retained a single phrase of thirty or forty thousand moral discourses? And do we not know by heart admirable sentences placed with art in interesting dialogues? “Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  2
  It is this which makes one of the great merits of Terence; it is that of our own good tragedies, of our good comedies. They have not excited a profitless admiration; they have often corrected men. I have seen a prince pardon an injury after a representation of the clemency of Augustus. A princess, who had despised her mother, went away to throw herself at her feet after witnessing the scene in which Rhodope asks her mother’s forgiveness. A man well known sought reconciliation with his wife after seeing ‘Préjudice à la Mode.’ I saw the proudest man in the world become modest after the comedy of the ‘Glorieux.’ And I could cite more than six sons of distinguished families whom the comedy of the ‘Prodigal Son’ reformed. If our bankers are no longer coarse, if the people of the court are vain dandies no longer, if doctors have abjured the robe, the cap, and consultations in Latin, if some pedants have become men,—to what are we indebted for it? To the theatre,—to the theatre alone.  3
  What pity ought we not, then, to have for those who wage war upon this first of the literary arts; who imagine that we ought to judge the theatre of to-day by the trestles of our ages of ignorance; and who confound Sophocles, Menander, Varius, and Terence, with Tabarin and Punch! But how much more to be pitied are they who admit Punch and Tabarin, while rejecting ‘Polyeucte,’ ‘Athalie,’ ‘Zaïre,’ and ‘Alzire’! Such are the inconsistencies into which the human mind falls every day.  4
  Let us pardon the deaf who speak against music, the blind who hate beauty: such persons are less enemies of society, less conspirators to destroy its consolation and its charm, than the unfortunate beings to whom nature has denied certain organs.  5
  I have had the pleasure of seeing at my country-house ‘Alzire’ performed,—that tragedy wherein Christianity and the rights of man triumph equally. I have seen Mérope’s maternal love bringing tears without the aid of the love of gallantry. Such subjects move the rudest soul, as they do the most refined; and if the common people were in the habit of witnessing such spectacles of human worth, there would be fewer souls gross and obdurate. It was such exhibitions that made the Athenians a superior nation. Their workmen did not spend upon indecent farces the money which should have nourished their families; but the magistrates, during their celebrated festivals, summoned the whole nation to representations which taught virtue and the love of country. The plays which are given among us are but a feeble imitation of that magnificence; but after all, they do preserve some idea of it. They are the most beautiful education which we can give to youth, the noblest recreation after labor, the best instruction for all orders of citizens; they furnish almost the only mode of getting people together for the purpose of rendering them social beings.  6
 
 
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