The Problem of the Bienseances in Voltaire's Oreste


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In a previous article entitled "Voltaire and the Theater of Involvement," I have attempted to point out that one of Voltaire's great weaknesses as a dramatist was his inability to divorce himself from his material and to refrain from using the theater as a springboard for his social and philosophical propaganda.1 It would be dangerous, however, to assume that Voltaire's eclipse as a dramatist was due solely to his philosophical posturing upon the stage. Indeed, a close reading of his best-known tragedies will reveal other weaknesses, principally his inability to reconcile the demands of historical and mythological authenticity with the prevailing rules of bienséance.2 Confronted with the task of presenting well known themes from classical mythology that might prove offensive to the French public, French dramatists could either follow the advice that Boileau had offered in Chant ID of his Art poétique:

Il n'est point de serpent ni de monstre odieux

Qui, par l'art imiteé, ne puisse plaire aux yeux:

D'un pinceau delicat !'artifice agréable

Du plus affreux objet fait un objet aimable3

or he could alter the material and thereby make it conform to French tastes. This is what Corneille had done in his Oedipe, justifying his alternations by stating that the speculate of Oedipus' blood running down his face "ferait soulever la délicatesse de nos dames, qui composent la plus belle partie de notre auditoire."4

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