Feb 10: The French they are a funny race

Among my many character defects is that outmoded prejudices seem funny to me. Current prejudices not so much, because we can do something about them, but back before WWII there used to be a lot of hooey about the characteristics of the “Anglo-Saxon” “race” that seems, well, funny to me – it’s like one of those old-time bathing costumes. (this book is only tangentially about that but it has great examples of admissions officers of the 20s talking frankly about the natural manliness of Anglo-Saxons when compared to, say, Italians (and especially Jews).) It really reinforces that Harvard is, as they say, a construct.

All this is prologue to the blurb in today’s DRG:

"Voltaire once visited Congreve. This famous dramatist requested to be regarded only as a plain gentleman. "Had you been that I should never have come to see you," Voltaire cynically replies."

“Cynically”! This is a complement, but, because he’s a Frenchman, of course he’s cynical. To me it betrays an undercurrent in this project – all of our Western Heritage was really just a way to lead up to Imperial Britain, and we in America are maintaining it and maybe improving it a little around the edges, probably by drinking coffee. In fact it’s remarkable (though not amazing) how un-American the HC is. There’s a volume of American Historical Documents (sexy already!) And Franklin’s Autobiography. And “Two Years Before The Mast”. And they shoehorn some Emerson in. (Granted, according to the universities of the time, American literature has as yet not been produced by 1910.)

Anyway, Voltaire (and this has to be the most ridiculous anniversary yet: it’s Congreve’s anniversary of his baptism. I think it’d be easier if they just threw darts at the books.) It’s “Letters on the English” (natch) – number XVIII (Tragedy) and XIX (Comedy).

Tragedy first: Voltaire complains about Shakespeare’s barbarity (He did not know “one rule of the drama”.) He then translates “To Be Or Not To Be” and a passage of Dryden which I very much enjoyed, especially in light of having to vote on the writers’ contract. Here, here it is:

“When I consider life, ’t is all a cheat,
Yet fooled by hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on and think, to-morrow will repay;
To-morrow’s falser than the former day;
Lies more; and whilst it says we shall be blest
With some new joy, cuts off what we possessed;

See, Dryden knew all about negotiating year 3 residuals against a fixed cap. I’m helpless about the translations, of course. But I do like this line: “Their dramatic pieces, most of which are barbarous and without decorum, order, or verisimilitude, dart such resplendent flashes through this gleam, as amaze and astonish.”

Having just weighed in against prejudice I'm about to contradict myself, but it seems very French to condemn plays for not conforming to regulations.

The comedy essay isn’t as interesting, as he discusses a bunch of playwrights I’ve never heard of, then summarizes their plots, with all of the intense interest plot summarization is known for. And then, at the end, Voltaire himself explains why his essay isn’t interesting:

If you have a mind to understand the English comedy, the only way to do this will be for you to go to England, to spend three years in London, to make yourself master of the English tongue, and to frequent the playhouse every night. I receive but little pleasure from the perusal of Aristophanes and Plautus, and for this reason because I am neither a Greek nor a Roman. The delicacy of the humour, the allusion, the à propos—all these are lost to a foreigner.
First of all, kudos to Voltaire for saying Aristophanes isn’t funny to read (although I think you could rescue it in staging -- it would still smell like a museum, perhaps). But it also shows why we who labor in comedy are building our houses out of straw. (Maybe the only difference is, we know we are the whole time.)

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