Voltaire Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2358

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...

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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 manage to be human and touching. They are usually victims of love, be it maternal or romantic, and are often on the verge of committing incest before the recognition scene. In many cases, Voltaire the humanist prevents his tragedy from becoming tragic (in the classical sense), for he spares the innocent victim, as in The Orphan of China. René Pomeau sees Oedipus as marking the end of traditional French tragedy, as the victim accuses the gods. In fact, it is for this humanizing dimension that Voltaire’s plays are best appreciated, for he brought into a theater dominated by classical reason the Romantic trait of feeling, sensibilité, that was to characterize it in future years.


Oedipus, says Pomeau, is important because it is Voltaire’s first tragedy, and among his best. In it, Voltaire announced the themes that he would spend his life proclaiming: justice and tolerance. Voltaire had begun the play before his imprisonment in the Bastille in 1718 and finished it there. It enjoyed a run of forty-five performances and featured two of the best-known actors of the time in the leading roles: Dufresne as Oedipus and Mlle Demarès as Jocasta. The play is obviously based on Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), though at the actors’ insistence Voltaire added the love scenes. The play was an enormous success, yet was attacked by critics as a plagiarism of Corneille, to which it does have strong resemblances. Voltaire responded to critics with several Lettres philosophiques, which form an excellent documentation of his literary views at the time.

Although Voltaire uses the story of Oedipus’s search for the truth as narrated by Sophocles, like Corneille (whom he imitated), he complicates the plot with extraneous events. Such is the introduction of Philoctetes into the action of the story. Jocasta’s former lover is accused of killing Laius but denies the charge. Although he still loves Jocasta, he is not jealous of Oedipus, who is noble and has saved the city. Oedipus in turn respects Philoctetes and even wishes to have him as his successor. Oedipus learns his identity from Phorbas, originally Laius’s companion, and from Icarus, his former guardian. As in Sophocles’ play, Oedipus blinds himself and Jocasta commits suicide.

Voltaire shows his anticlerical tendencies in act 2, scene 5, in which he points out the dangerous effects of priestly power. Voltaire also shows his humanism, differing from Sophocles in presenting an Oedipus who is not submissive to fate but assertive in protesting his innocence. Jocasta, too, defends Oedipus in act 4, scene 3; her suicide at the end is less convincing than her belief in justice. According to Pomeau, Voltaire’s Oedipus is a new dimension in the theater, actually bringing to an end the traditional concept of tragedy.


Zaïre has always been one of the most popular of Voltaire’s plays, with thirty-one performances in its first season alone and a long time in the repertory of the Comédie-Française. Voltaire’s aim was that there should be “nothing so Turkish, nothing so Christian, so full of love, so tender, so furious,” as Zaïre. He added the love element lacking in the unsuccessful Ériphyle; in fact, as Jean-Baptiste Rousseau commented, passion seems to triumph over grace. Set in Jerusalem, it shows the widening geographical frontiers of Voltaire’s drama.

Zaïre is a captive of the sultan Orosmane, who loves her and wishes to marry her. She has abandoned her Christian faith for him and has forgotten Nerestan, who returns with her ransom. Orosmane, however, refuses to part with her or with the aged Lusignan. Lusignan, about to die, recognizes Nerestan and Zaïre as his lost children and as his last request wants to see Zaïre convert to Christianity. She accepts, though she does not wish to abandon Orosmane. He intercepts a letter that seems to indicate that Zaïre has betrayed him for Nerestan, and following a secret rendezvous, unknowingly stabs Zaïre. When he discovers his error, Orosmane frees Nerestan and then kills himself.

Zaïre’s Deistic overtones were immediately perceived by the critics. Orosmane is as virtuous as Nerestan because Voltaire wished to show the equality of all beliefs. Zaïre herself states the relativity of religion: Had she been brought up along the Ganges, she would have been a “heathen”; in Paris, a Christian; she is a Muslim in Jerusalem. The play, however, is touching and very human; hence, Voltaire’s daring ideas did not prevent its success.


Alzire also treats the question of true religion, and has always been among the most popular of Voltaire’s plays. In Alzire, for the first time in the French theater, the scene was set in America—in Peru—and according to critic Theodore Besterman it remains one of the most modern of Voltaire’s plays because it deals with the problem of colonization and of “the relations between an occupying power and a subject people.” Besterman believes that Voltaire does not solve this problem, but rather shows the triumph of force. This may be the de facto answer, but it is not necessarily the ideal proposed by Voltaire. The play is preceded by a lengthy preface, in which Voltaire declares his purpose: “to discover to what extent the true spirit of religion is superior to the natural virtues.” For Voltaire, to harbor this true spirit is not to practice useless rituals, but rather “to consider all men as brothers, to do good and to forgive evil.”

The brutal Spanish conqueror Gusman receives the governorship of Peru from his gentle father, Alvarez. Gusman is in love with Alzire, the Aztec king Montezuma’s daughter, who refuses the man responsible for the death of her lover Zamore. Zamore, however, is not dead; in fact, he has saved Gusman’s father, Alvarez, and returns to avenge the wrong done by Gusman. When Zamore arrives, Alzire has just been married to Gusman to appease the Spaniards. Alzire, though faithful to Gusman, pleads for mercy for Zamore, who in turn attacks Gusman. Both Alzire and Zamore are condemned, but are saved by Gusman’s pardon of Zamore. Zamore, inspired by Gusman’s gesture of forgiveness, accepts the Christian religion and will live to marry Alzire.

Although Voltaire extolled the virtue of forgiveness, he did not make a convincing case for Gusman’s superiority. In fact, Zamore is equally virtuous, and Gusman’s sudden change of heart is highly improbable. D’Argental, Voltaire’s constant friend, found fault with the unconvincing ending, as do more modern critics, among them Pomeau and Besterman. Once again, however, Voltaire’s play has charm because of the touching love story it recounts and the deeply human character of Alzire.


The popular subject of Mérope is based on a nonextant tragedy of Euripides. Voltaire used the play by Francesco Scipione Maffei (Mérope, 1713), performed in Paris in 1717, as his main source. First planning a translation, Voltaire worked on the tragedy from 1736 to 1743, and dedicated it to Maffei. It was the best received of all Voltaire’s plays, and broke all records in its proceeds. This was surprising, as the play has no love element other than maternal affection directly inspired by Racine’s Andromaque (pr. 1667; Andromache, 1674). Mérope also repeats the theme of Mahomet the Prophet in Polyphonte, tyrant of Messène, who insists on blind obedience and fear in his followers. Besterman notes a Rousseauian element in Egisthe, “the virtuous man brought up far from cities and courts in an atmosphere of rustic simplicity.”

Polyphonte, tyrant of Messène, wishes to marry Mérope, widow of the slain Cresphonte. She, however, detests Polyphonte and yearns only for the return of her lost son Egisthe. Egisthe has in fact returned, but his identity is unknown both to him and to Mérope, and he is accused of being the murderer of Mérope’s lost son. Although Mérope wishes to punish Egisthe, the alleged murderer, at the same time she feels tenderness for him. The mystery of his identity is solved by Narbas, Egisthe’s guardian; Polyphonte insists on punishing the young stranger, but on learning the truth, Polyphonte agrees to spare Egisthe on the condition that Mérope marry him and Egisthe swear homage to him. Egisthe kills the tyrant and becomes king in his place.

The critic Fernand Vial ascribes the popularity of this tragedy to its simplicity. Voltaire’s contemporaries also hailed it as a model of true classical drama, although in fact it is not tragic, since the innocent triumph over the guilty. It is free from Voltaire’s usual complications, however, though it does violate unity of place and has several improbable situations, such as the delays in recognition. Nevertheless, it is human and touching, and shows Voltaire’s greatest merit as a dramatist: a sense of warmth and feeling, sensibilité.

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