Voltaire understood the limits of neoclassicism, yet still had difficulty surmounting them. Beginning with a French version of Oedipus in 1718, Voltaire wrote a number of tragedies, including Zaire, which dealt with Christian-Muslim relations. Voltaire acted in that play himself, and according to one account, forgot his lines and made up half a dozen new verses on the spot.
His play Mahomet, first performed in 1741, actually portrays the Muslim prophet onstage, a big no-no in Islam, so for that reason alone, I imagine the play is un-performable today. It’s not particularly kind to the prophet, but Voltaire seems to have intended the play as an attack on the Catholic Church, using Islam as a cover to shield himself from local authorities.
Voltaire’s play The Orphan of China reworks Ji Junxiang’s classic Yuan-era play The Orphan of Zhao. Though it wasn’t the first French adaptation of the Chinese play, the fact that this version was by Voltaire no doubt brought special attention to the piece, and the Comedie Francais premiered it in 1755. Unfortunately, many people attacked it for not maintaining unity of time, place, and action.
However, Voltaire himself campaigned against critics who felt rules were more important than drama. In his “Discourse on Tragedy” he wrote:
I know very well that the Greek tragedies, besides the superior ones in English, have erred in often taking up horror for terror, and the disgusting and the unbelievable for the tragic and the marvelous. The art was in its infancy in the time of Aeschylus, as in London in the time of Shakespeare; but despite the great faults of Greek poets, and even of ours, one finds a real pathos of singular beauty; and if some French who do not know the tragedies of different standards but in some translations and by hearsay, condemn them without any restriction, they are, it seems to me, like some blind men who affirmed that a rose could not have vibrant colors, because they in considering it had felt the thorns.
Voltaire went on to say that the Greeks, and especially the English, were inclined to surpass the boundaries of decorum, but that French writers often failed to achieve the truly tragic because they were too afraid of being indecorous.
While Voltaire’s dramas were progressive for the eighteenth century, he was still too stuck in the conventions of his own time to appeal to later generations of Frenchmen. Writing in the nineteenth century, Emile Deschamps concluded that while Voltaire was inventive in his plots and original in his thinking, he was still inferior to dramatists of the Golden Age such as Racine and Corneille. As Deschamps put it:
His Turks, Chinese, Arabs, and Americans are much more French than the Greeks and Romans of Racine and Corneille, and since they are Frenchmen of the age of Louis XV, rather than of Louis XIV, their language is less grand, less pure, and less idealized. They are addressing Madame de Pompadour rather than Madame de Valliere.Nevertheless, Voltaire’s tragedies, more than fifty in all, continued to have an impact on the French theatre well into the nineteenth century. Once Deschamps’ friend Victor Hugo had his play Hernani performed in 1830, however, Voltaire’s neoclassical plays looked quite old-fashioned, and today they are largely forgotten.