Tales from the Reading Room – Episode 40

Voltaire, Garrick and Shakespeare, September 6-9th and a man in a blue suit decorated with frogs….! Another week of connections and finding items in the collections with unexpected links!

Readers frequently want discuss current productions with us and this week talk has all been about Mark Ravenhill’s new play, Candide.  This is billed as a response to/ conversation with Voltaire’s classic novel and contrasts new reactions to the mantra of optimism with scenes and lines taken directly from the original (and the memorable, but wholly in keeping, addition of Candide being carried away by balloons on the back of a yellow sheep!).  It is by turns entertaining, witty and disturbing and whilst it may not seem to provide as satisfactory a solution as Voltaire’s original “Il faut cultiver son jardin” (a decision to concentrate on rewarding physical work to avoid the perils of overthinking, ennui etc.) it has certainly provoked discussion and reawakened interest in Voltaire’s work.

Voltaire, taken from our Oeuvres de Voltaire

Voltaire, taken from our Oeuvres de Voltaire

It’s interesting that the RSC is staging a play which is linked to and features Voltaire and which makes references to Shakespeare (both directly and in the form of allusions to other plays currently being staged), as François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, claimed to have been the first person to have introduced Shakespeare and his works to France.  Voltaire’s views had seen him exiled to England between 1726 and 1728 and affording him the opportunity to read Shakespeare’s plays in English and see them performed (often as adaptations) on the London stage.  In his Lettres Philosophiques, published in 1734 , he credited Shakespeare with having ‘created’ the theatre in England and praised the strength and richness of his sublime and natural genius. He tempered this by adding that he didn’t have a spark of good taste, nor the least knowledge of the rules!  He went on to cite the strangling in Othello and the gravedigger scene in Hamlet as scenes of violence and folly that he couldn’t believe were still being played in the reign of Charles II – a golden age of the fine arts.

In these same letters, he translated fragments of Hamlet.  Much as he intended this as a compliment – bringing the “To be or not to be speech” to French readers, it is doubtful whether many people would now consider it in any way a fitting rendition of the original.  It doesn’t really flow like Shakespeare’s verse and the dramatic appeals to “Dieux cruels” and other questions and exclamations are  more reminiscent of French tragedy.  It did however bring Hamlet and Shakespearean tragedy into the public consciousness in France.

Torn between the need to refresh French tragedy with new inspiration and a desire to uphold adherence to Aristotle’s principles of the three unities (plays should, in the interests of verisimilitude, be set in a single place, within ‘real’ time or at least not spanning a period of more than 24 hours and should have a single thread / action running through them and should convene to the ‘bienséances’ – in the interests of decorum and morals there should be no bloodshed, sex or violence and any such actions should merely be reported to the audience), he tried to bring Shakespearean inspiration into the traditional classical framework.  His view, which was shared by others at the time, was that Shakespeare needed to be transformed or assimilated in order to suit French tastes and maintain the Aristotelian traditions of the legendary Corneille and Racine.   Pure Shakespeare was too much for France! Voltaire wrote plays drawing on Shakespeare’s Julius CaesarHamlet and Othello (La Mort de Cesar, 1743, Zaïre, 1732 and Sémiramis, 1748) . Though these didn’t live up to Shakespeare’s historic realism, they were some  of Voltaire’s most popular tragedies.

Title page of  La Place's Le théâtre anglois (original spelling)

Title page of La Place’s Le théâtre anglois (original spelling)

Beyond Voltaire’s fragmentary translation of Hamlet,  the next real glimpse the French reading public got of Shakespeare was in Pierre-Antoine de La Place’s “Le théâtre anglois” (1746) – this multi-volume work provided French translations of 23 English plays, including 10 by Shakespeare.  Whilst de La Place worked hard to adapt the plays to French tastes and avoid a literal translation, he did make considerable changes and some plays were reduced to mere summaries.  We have an original set of these volumes in our collections.

Later on Voltaire became a fierce critic of Shakespeare as it became clear that his works might pose a threat to the status of Racine and Corneille and the maintenance of the French classical tradition.  He went as far as dismissing Shakespeare’s plays as barbaric.

It’s interesting that Voltaire has ‘returned’ to Stratford (in thought at least) this month as this weekend marks the anniversary of the beginning of Garrick’s 1769 Jubilee.  This great celebration of Shakespeare in the town of his birth, which saw the first beginnings of the town’s tourist industry,included a direct defence of the Bard against the criticisms of Voltaire.  Voltaire may not have attended in person, but he was certainly present in the minds of Jubilee-goers.

Mr Garrick wearing his medallion at the Jubilee

Mr Garrick wearing his medallion at the Jubilee

After reciting his famous Ode to Shakespeare, Garrick challenged the audience asking them to speak for or against Shakespeare.  He staged a dramatic response to this challenge and had his trusted colleague and friend Tom King

Mr King as Lord Ogleby in his blue suit

Mr King as Lord Ogleby in his blue suit

(the leading comedian at Drury Lane Theatre) step up to the front of the stage, removing his rather ordinary great coat to reveal a  stunning blue satin suit decorated with silver frogs.  Those present would have recognised this as the costume he had worn in roles such as Lord Ogleby in The Clandestine Marriage.  King  played the role of devil’s advocate as a Frenchified fop and parroted and exaggerated Voltaire’s criticisms of Shakespeare in an affected, lisping voice, much to the amusement of the the audience.  Garrick had also primed members of the orchestra to pipe up in Shakespeare’s defence to heighten the mood.

He was so proud of his Ode (even if the weather had made the rest of the Jubilee are rather mixed success) , that he sent a copy to Voltaire, with the rather ambiguous words: “Sir, I have taken the liberty of offering my small poetical tribute to the first Genius in the World….”

Garrick himself also played a part in introducing Shakespeare to France.  Having French ancestry (his grandfather was a Huguenot), he visited France several times and performed readings in salons.  Contemporary diaries recount his impressive sketch of a scene from Macbeth during his visit in 1751.  Whilst in France he purchased Voltaire’s works in eleven volumes and became acquainted with key writers and philosphers who welcomed him enthusiastically. Despite his fervour for Shakespeare and his defence of him against critics such as Voltaire, it seems David Garrick was not immune from the influence of his French friends. In his Oration at the Jubilee he had managed to argue against those who pointed out Shakespeare’s lack of adherence to the classical rules of drama by saying that Aristotle had based his principles on existing drama and were therefore a mere description, not a model to be followed.  And yet in 1772 Garrick audaciously rewrote Hamlet to create Hamlet with Alterations,  which got rid of what he called ‘the rubbish of the fifth act’ – leaving audiences in suspense over the fate of Ophelia and removing the gravediggers, which Voltaire had taken such offence to.  Writing to his French friend Abbé Morellet he said:

“I have play’d the Devil this Winter,I have dar’d to alter Hamlet,[...] , I have met with more applause than I did at five & twenty – this is a great revolution in our theatrical history, & for wch 20 years ago instead of Shouts of approbation, I should have had ye benches thrown at my head-”

An original 1773 playbill for Hamlet with Alterations

An original 1773 playbill for Hamlet with Alterations

However, this did mean that Garrick restored far more of Shakespeare’s original text to the first four acts – which was a great revolution as he described given the Restoration fashion for cutting lines, adding extra characters and musical interludes.  Part of David Garrick’s success may also have been due to his approach to acting. Whilst his style of acting and use of props and costume (such as the mechanical wig which stood on end at the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father) was far from the naturalism of later centuries, he did show commitment to understanding his characters and their motivation, writing:

“I pronounce that the greatest strokes of genius have been unknown to the actor himself, till…the warmth of the scene has sprung the mine…the [great actor] will always realise the feelings of his character and be transported beyond himself”.

A simple conclusion from all of this is that, then as now, all publicity was good publicity and both Garrick and Voltaire, individually and through their debate and influence on each other, did a great deal to promote interest in and knowledge of Shakespeare and to contribute to his lasting legacy.

The silver-gilt and mulberry wood medallion presented to David Garrick at the Jubilee.  He wore it throughout.

The silver-gilt and mulberry wood medallion presented to David Garrick at the Jubilee. He wore it throughout.

We now have many French translations in our collections as well as a wealth of material relating to Garrick’s career and the Jubilee.  The Garrick Jubilee will be one of the themes in our upcoming Heritage Open Days stack tours(12th-15th September) where visitors will get to see behind the scenes in our basement strongrooms and get close to early printed books, historical documents and museum objects.  The tours will also give an insight into our local history collections.  One of the items on show will be a scrapbook by Captain James Saunders, who is responsible for recording much of what we know about the Garrick Jubilee.  Read Tales from the Reading Room – Episode 39 to find out more!

  • Liski

    I read “Candide” while studying in unuversity. Later, I also read a short story by Victoria Tokareva. It was called “The best of worlds”. The main character is the same Candide who suddenly appears in modern Moscow. He meets different people – good and evil, and gets in troubles, as he is wearing unusual clothes (by the way, at the end he’s lost it, almost all) and can’t speak Russian. At the end he comes to a conclusion: “Everything’s mixed up here, in this best and most horrible of worlds. No need to wait for the death: it’s all here – paradise and hell”.

A freely available online exhibition exploring keys aspects of the music in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as music inspired by Shakespeare.