Voltaire’s theater is characterized both by innovation and by certain recurring themes. He draws primarily on the French classical theater, and uses techniques popularized by his contemporaries, such as Denis Diderot’s bourgeois drama and heroic romance, and his rival Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon ’s recognition scenes. Voltaire’s sources of inspiration include exotic settings such as China in The Orphan of China, America in Alzire, and French national history, as in Adélaïde du Guesclin. At the same time, he uses Greek sources in five plays: Oedipus, Ériphyle, Mérope, Semiramis, and Oreste. In these plays, the ancient theme of the avenging deity is uppermost, yet as early as Oedipus (1718), Voltaire displays his humanism in showing the hero as an innocent victim who protests his independence. Voltaire wrote four plays of Roman inspiration: Brutus, La Mort de César, Rome sauvée, and Le Triumvirat. Less successful than his Greek-inspired plays, they extol a patriotic and republican theme, to which Voltaire himself was not very committed.
In the classical tradition, Voltaire kept alive the three unities as well as vraisemblance (verisimilitude), and bienséance (propriety). Yet his innovative emphasis on action, the influence of Shakespeare, and his use of recognition scenes evidence his inexact observance of the classical rules of theater. Many plays fail in unity of action, as in, for example, his first play, Oedipus: The addition of yet one more character to the action, Jocasta’s former lover Philoctetes, overdoes an already complex plot. The classical unity that Voltaire most frequently violates is that of place, as in Mahomet the Prophet, Mérope, and Alzire. In these plays, to give an appearance of exactness, Voltaire brings unlikely characters together in one location. Influenced by the English theater, at times Voltaire disregards the classical and contemporary French taboo against violence onstage, as in the murder scene in Mahomet the Prophet. (Such a case is an exception, however, since Voltaire generally preserves the French sense of delicacy with the classical device of a messenger who reports an act of violence.) Voltaire often fails in verisimilitude: The sudden change in Genghis Khan (in The Orphan of China) from a barbarous destroyer to a benevolent protector is unlikely; Semiramis’s failure to recognize Assur as her husband’s murderer is equally unbelievable; Mérope’s blindness to her son’s presence is improbable.
This lack of strict adherence to classical rules reflects Voltaire’s changing dramatic theories. Although in many ways he resembles Racine, unlike that pillar of French classicism Voltaire subordinates psychological analysis to action, which in turn gives rise to an emphasis on staging and decoration—all highly untraditional at that time. Voltaire’s later plays often resemble operatic performances. With Tancrède, Voltaire succeeded in eliminating spectators from the stage, where they had been accustomed to sit and witness characters discuss action that had taken place previously or offstage. The action in Voltaire’s plays depends mainly on the coup de théâtre (an abrupt turn of events), surprise, and unexpected recognition scenes. Most frequently a child lost in early years is reunited with his or her parents. For example, in Mahomet the Prophet, Séïde and Palmire, who plan on marrying, learn that they are brother and sister, the children of Mahomet’s rival, Zopire. In Mérope, a suspected murderer is discovered to be Egisthe, Mérope’s lost child, and Zaïre, about to renounce her religion for her lover, discovers that she is Lusignan’s daughter. Even Voltaire’s comedies use this device; the impoverished Miss Lindon in The Highland Girl is really Montross’s daughter, who was taken from him at age five.
Although Voltaire made action primary in his plays, and used a variety of sources for his inspiration, he actually rewrote the same play again and again and shows a pattern in his themes. Some are hardly distinguishable: Ériphyle and Semiramis; Zaïre, Alzire, and Mahomet the Prophet; Mérope and Mahomet the Prophet. Because of Voltaire’s belief in the theater as a moralizing device, he intended his plays to instruct spectators. In the theater, as elsewhere, Voltaire directed all his efforts against intolerance in religion and injustice in government. As early as Oedipus, Voltaire cited the danger in the power of priests. Alzire and Zaïre show the superiority of natural religion. In Alzire, the uninstructed Zamore is more compassionate than the inflexible Gusman, who compels the Indians to accept Christianity. Mahomet the Prophet is itself a fanatic apology for tolerance, falsifying history to present Muḥammad as a merciless murderer and adulterer. Although Voltaire dedicated his play to Pope Benedict XIV, its anticlerical intent was not lost on the critics, among them Voltaire’s rival Crébillon, at that time a censor, who outlawed the play.
Voltaire’s character analysis is for the most part rather superficial; his characters develop through action rather than through expression of their thoughts or through conversation. They resemble one another from play to play, usually revealing only one side, so that each character represents a human quality: Mérope and Idamé are maternal love; Alzire and Zaïre, romantic love; Zamti, patriotism; Mahomet and Polyphonte, tyranny. Yet owing to Voltaire’s genius, his characters...
(The entire section is 2358 words.)