Voltaire, Metastasio, and Le Franc de Pompignan's Didon
by Theodore E. D. Braun
Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan's
(1734) was the only tragedy he was to see performed at the Comédie
Française. It was a success: 14 consecutive performances at the
outset, 18 in all during the first year, both of which are very good figures
for the time. "Attendance was good," notes Lancaster," but not to be compared
with that attracted by [Voltaire's] Zaïre or [Piron's]
(1) Receipts varied from 2,067 to 651 livres.
(2)Didon remained in the repertory until 1818,
with a total of 159 performances.
Didon appears to have
lost none of its appeal when it was reprised more than ten years after
its successful opening run. The Mercure de France, in an
article appearing in 1745, spoke of the "succès éclatant
de la reprise" of Didon, noting that the "applaudissemens
longs, redoublés & fréquens garantissent la vérité
de notre opinion." The author adds: "Ne pouvons-nous pas avancer sans témérité
de M. Le Franc, qu'il a commencé la carrière dramatique,
comme l'Auteur le plus habile souhaiteroit de la terminer?"
(3) The Journal des Sçavans, in May 1747,
having praised the tragedy in 1734, (4)
states that Didon "fut reçue du Public, & au Théatre,
& à l'Impression avec les plus grands applaudissemens" (p. 275).
Desfontaines, while pointing out some technical defects in Le Franc's play,
concludes that Didon
une des plus belles pieces qui depuis longtems ait paru sur notre Theatre,
& il est bien glorieux à un jeune auteur, d'avoir traité
avec tant de succès un sujet, qui avoit paru jusqu'ici peu dramatique.
Le stile en est pur & elegant; la versification énergique, noble
& coulante; les pensées brillantes & justes, la conduite
judicieuse, le Dialogue régulier, les situations touchantes, &
le dénoüment très-heureux. Il y a d'ailleurs de fort
belles sentences dans la piéce; ce qui est un des principaux ornements
de la Tragédie. (5)
Voltaire's reaction to the play is in
stark contrast to those offered by the semi-official press and by Desfontaines.
In a letter to Pierre Robert Cornier de Cideville dated 20 September 1735,
he had written: "J'ay lu les fêtes indiennes et tres indiennes [i.e.,
Fuzelier's Indes galantes], les adieux de Mars [a comedy
by Le Franc] tout propres à être reliez avec la Didon, à
être louez par le mercure galant, et par l'abbé Desfontaines,
et à faire bâiller les honnêtes gens."
(6) He adds two days later in a letter to Jean Baptiste Nicolas
le Franc, qui barbouille Didon,
Subsequent anti-Voltairean critics will
attribute his bile to jealousy or envy, or even fear that a young poet
might challenge his dominance of the tragic theatre.
(8) This might, however, be only another manifestation of a phenomenon
I have analyzed elsewhere: a willingness to believe rumors that work to
his advantage, and eventually to accept these rumors--even when proven
false--as fact. (9)
ses moeurs et faible dans son style,
Sur la Dufresne
allant à l'Hélicon,
vanté d'avoir passé Virgile. (7)
Indeed, he writes subsequently (15
November 1735) to Formont (D942):
viens d'apprendre que la Didon qui a fait tant de fracas sur notre théàtre,
est une espèce de traduction d'un opéra italien de Metastasio,
(10) se disant poète de l'empereur. Je tiens cette anecdote
d'un jeune Vénitien qui est ici. Personne ne sait cela en France.
The young Venetian
is Francesco Algarotti. Interestingly, Voltaire seems to have accepted
this statement on faith: if he had read Didon, he never mentions
having read Didone abbandonata. He will soon step up the
attack, changing the "espèce de traduction" into a "plagiat" a few
months later, in a letter to Nicolas Claude Thieriot (8 December 1735),
D958: "Le petit bon homme," he says, "est un tantinetto plagiaire; il avoit
pillé sa pauvre Didon tout entière d'un opéra de Metastasio."
Furthermore, Le Franc's talent as a playwright is so minimal, in Voltaire's
eyes at this moment, that he says, in another letter to Thieriot (20 March
1736), D996: "Si Mlle Dufresne ne
fout plus avec Lefranc,
Didon est foutue. La pauvre piece que cette Didon?" Near
the end of March 1738, Voltaire will again touch on this matter, when he
writes to Thieriot, "sa Didon toute médiocre qu'elle est luy tourna
la tête, et luy fit faire une préface impertinente au possible
qui mérite mieux l'Exil que tout discours à une cour des
aides" (D1474). (11) It is hard not to
believe that a possible rivalry between Le Franc and Voltaire is at some
level connected to the latter's behavior in this matter.
Le Franc had claimed, in the preface
to Didon, that there were some aspects in the fourth book
of Virgil's Aeneid that could be criticized, and that he
(Le Franc) had been able to improve upon the great Roman poet in these
areas. (12) Such a claim seems hardly enough
to justify the characterization of this preface as "impertinente au possible."
How had Metastasio and Le Franc approached
the daunting task of not only translating but also transforming the Aeneid,
or more precisely, the fourth Book of the
Aeneid, from Latin
epic to Italian opera and French tragedy? What were the problems they faced
in their tasks, and how did they solve those problems? What, if anything,
did Le Franc borrow, or translate, or plagiarize from his Italian contemporary?
It will be useful to begin our investigation by looking at Virgil's poem
from the perspective of young authors wishing to present dramatic versions
of this well-known story.
What they saw, at the outset of Book
IV, was that Dido had become violently and passionately in love with Aeneas,
enflamed with his presence. This shipwrecked mariner, thrown ashore on
her recently established and weak city state, had recounted the adventures
of his long escape from Troy, and his voyage across the Mediterranean to
establish, under the aegis of his mother, Venus, a new kingdom in Italy.
As Dido was herself a refugee from Tyre (like Troy, a city state in the
Eastern Mediterranean), and like Aeneas pursued by implacable enemies,
she had felt a certain empathy for him. Dido revealed her love to her sister,
Anna, who encouraged her to pursue this love and forsake her promise not
to marry again, so as to remain true to her dead husband, Sychaeus: she
needs a strong general to defend her against her suitors, including Iarbas
(the only one mentioned by name), who is actively pursuing her hand.
The action, however, shifts to Olympus,
where Venus and Juno pretend to put aside their quarrels to arrange a lover's
meeting during which the Tyrian and the Trojan yield to their mutual passion.
Juno's plan, however, is to keep Aeneas from fulfilling his destiny to
establish an empire in Italy; Venus wants her son to set off for his promised
land, and knows that Jupiter will make Aeneas remember his mission. Indeed,
Jupiter dispatches Mercury to persuade Aeneas to abandon Dido. Aeneas decides
to leave by night, at Mercury's urging, leaving Carthage and Dido behind.
When she learns of his departure,
Dido curses the future of Rome, wishes that Aeneas will see her funeral
pyre burn and find, as she thinks, an evil sign in it. She then commits
suicide, attended by Anna, while Carthage is plunged in inconsolable sorrow
and consternation. Juno sends Iris to end the suffering of this young woman
who died before her time, torn by grief and madness.
Interestingly, Metastasio cites his
sources very plainly in an "Argomento" which immediately precedes his opera
(p.5). But in his summary of the action recounted by Virgil, with some
augmentation by Ovid, he leaves out all mention of the Olympian divinities
while noting just two innovations on his part:
vedova di Sicheo, uccisole il marito da Pigmalione re di Tiro, di lei fratello,
fuggi con ampie richezze in Africa, dove edificó Cartagine. Fu ivi
richiesta in moglie da molti, e sopratutto da Iarba re de' mori, e ricusó
sempre, per serbar fede alle ceneri dell'estinto consorte. Intanto, portato
Enea da una tempesta alle sponde dell'Africa, fu ricevuto e ristorato da
Didone, la quale ardentamente se ne invaghi. Ment'egli, compiacendosi di
tale affeto, si trattenea presso lei, gli fu dagli dèi commandato
che proseguisse il suo cammino verso Italia, dove gli promettevano una
nuova Troia. Partí Enea; e Didone disperatamente si uccise.
A change of name and a theatrical device are the only changes
young Metastasio indicates. And yet his play, while faithful to Virgil
in its broad outline, is quite different in its significantly greater action
and its somewhat convoluted plot, as well as in the absence of the gods
from the stage. He also gives Didone an ambitious and traitorous general,
Osmida, who hopes to occupy the throne of Carthage once Didone marries
Iarba; and Iarba's confidant, Araspe, is as virtuous as his master is evil.
Tutto ciò si ha da Virgilio,
il quale con un felice anacronismo unisce il tempo della fondazion di Cartagine
agli errori di Enea. Ovidio, libro III de' Fasti, dice che
Iarba s'impadronisse di Cartagine dopo la morte di Didone, e che Anna,
di lei sorella (che sará da noi chiamata Selene), fosse anch'essa
occultamente invaghita d'Enea.
della scena si finge che Iarba, curioso di veder Didone, s'introduca in
Cartagine come ambasciadore di se stesso, sotto nome d'Arbace.
There are yet other changes in the
action. For instance, the opera begins with Enea preparing to leave, his
dead father having chided him in a dream for putting love before destiny,
personal pleasure before establishing a new kingdom of Troy that Aeneas's
son Ascanius will eventually inherit. Later in the first act, Araspe prevents
Iarba from killing Enea in a cowardly and dishonorable manner, from behind,
an action that ends by having the "ambassador" and the general put in chains,
with Didone intending to have them executed. She yields to Enea's plea
to save their lives, however; but Araspe will find a way to begin a duel
with Enea in the palace. Selene separates them, but notes that Enea, whom
she secretly loves, is determined to leave. Didone, desperate to keep Enea
in Carthage, tells him to choose between two alternatives: should she marry
Iarba or commit suicide? He heads for the port without responding. There,
Iarba challenges him to a duel, which he is about to lose when the Moors
come to his aid, only to be repelled by the Trojans. Enea, having defeated
Iarba, spares his life; but the Moor has Osmida killed, then sets fire
to Carthage. Didone curses Enea and kills herself amidst the flames as
the play ends.
While Metastasio does not state directly
in a preface that he has tried to correct character flaws in Virgil's Aeneas
(such as his ingratitude towards her: he leaves by night, abandoning Dido
to her own devices, being driven by Venus to found Rome), it is clear that
he has tried to make his Enea a more honorable hero to the audience of
a different age. He also has humanized, demythified the drama, which is
no longer acted out on Mount Olympus but in Carthage, and the humans are
not the tools of the gods but act on their own behalf. The play, while
lacking the poetic beauty of the original, is endowed with considerably
more action, as befits a stage presentation. And the opera was such a success
in Naples that Metastasio moved to Rome where within six years he went
on to compose five more tragic operas. None of these, however, matched
the power of Didone abbandonata. Joseph G. Fucilla says of
is a stirring sentimental play in which the temperamental Dido, with her
swiftly changing moods expressing pride, humility, anger, suspicion, jealousy,
vengeance, mockery, and desperation, kept the Settecento audiences in a
continual state of excited suspense... Didone is a drama
of character, specifically of one character who dominates all the others
and who has been aptly called the first living woman to appear on the Italian
This shift of
focus from Aeneas to Dido is another difference in Metastasio's opera and
Virgil's epic poem, a difference clearly indicated in the respective titles
of the works. But the young Italian was not the first author to make such
a transfer of focus.
Already in the Renaissance, in 1555,
Etienne Jodelle had adapted Book IV of the
Aeneid to the
nascent tragic stage under the title Didon se sacrifiant.
In 1603 Alexandre Hardy wrote a Baroque play, using the same title. The
authors of these two plays follow Virgil fairly closely and do not introduce
much dramatic action into the plot. Georges Scudéry's tragedy, written
in 1638, was entitled Didon; the author manages to squeeze
into this one play the second, third and fourth books of the Aeneid.
Jodelle, Hardy and Scudéry, in short, add nothing to the story as
recounted in the Aeneid that might interest us here.
However, abbé François
Le Métel de Boisrobert's version of the story, produced in 1642,
Didon la Chaste, ou les amours d'Hyarbas, is built
upon Dido's refusal to marry Iarbas, and does not commit Virgil's anachronism
in bringing Aeneas to Carthage while Dido is alive. Still, according to
the Annales dramatiques ou dictionnaire général des
Théâtres, "M. Lefranc a puisé dans la Chaste
Didon de l'abbé de Boisrobert l'idée de faire venir
Iarbe, sous le nom de son ambassadeur, à la cour de cette Reine."
(15) We do not know if Metastasio was familiar with this tragedy,
but whether he was or not, the authors of the Annales dramatiques
clearly believe that Le Franc's idea of having Iarbas appear as his own
ambassador has a French source, and not an Italian one.
Another innovation that might have
had a French source is the rivalry between Iarbas and Aeneas. Antoine Jacob
Montfleury (son of the actor and playwright Zacharie Jacob Montfleury)
wrote a comedy based on Virgil, Les Amours de Didon et d'Enée,
ou l'Ambigu comique, in 1673, in which he introduced for the first
time Iarbas as a rival of Aeneas. The Trojan and the Moor do not duel in
this play, however, and Aeneas, as in Virgil, abandons Dido despite his
promises to her. Did Metastasio know this play? Again, we do not know;
but it is very likely that Le Franc was acquainted with the French work.
Finally, in 1693, some 30 years before
Metastasio, Louise-Geneviève Gillot de Saintonge wrote a tragic
opera or, as she styled it, a "tragédie en musique" called Didon.
Here, too, under orders from Mercury, Aeneas abandons Dido in favor of
his rival Iarbas at a critical moment in the action. Metastasio's knowledge
of this opera is unclear, but it seems improbable that he would not have
heard of this opera when he set to work on his own, all the more so in
that it was revived in 1704 and republished in that year. Indeed, given
the hegemony the French generally enjoyed at the time on the Continent,
it is at least as likely that Metastasio had read Didon la Chaste,
Amours de Didon et d'Enée, and
Didon as he
began working on his opera, as that Le Franc had read Didone abbandonata
undertaking the composition of his tragedy.
With this in mind, it is worth looking
into the plot and characters of Le Franc's
Didon. But first,
what exactly had Le Franc said in his preface that was to irritate Voltaire?
How is the preface "impertinente au possible?" Here is what he wrote for
the new edition of his play, in 1745:
in 1734, que Virgile étoit un mauvais modèle
pour les caractères. L'expression est dure, & ne convenoit point
à mon âge, ni à mon peu d'expérience. Je la
rétracte aujourd'hui par respect pour Virgile, en pensant toujours
de même par respect pour la vérité.
of both Didon and Enée is somewhat harsh, and yet not without some
grounds for justification, from an eighteenth-century perspective:
dans l'Enéide, se livre trop légèrement à son
goût pour un Etranger, qui n'est, à le suivre de près,
qu'un Amant sans foi, qu'un Prince foible, qu'un dévot scrupuleux.
J'ai dû nécessairement abandonner Virgile dans le caractère
de mon Héros. J'ai même osé donner des bornes à
l'excessive piété d'Enée. Je l'ai fait parler contre
l'abus des Oracles, & l'impression dangereuse qu'ils font souvent sur
l'esprit des Peuples. J'ai voulu qu'il fût religieux sans superstition;
qu'il agît toujours de bonne foi, soit avec les Troyens, quand il
veut demeurer à Carthage, soit avec Didon, quand il se dispose à
la quitter; en un mot, qu'il fût Prince & honnête homme.
In short, he wants
his Enée to be a man corresponding to an eighteenth-century French
Catholic definition of an honnête homme, one his audience
can emulate. Lancaster says that "Le Franc's efforts to strengthen the
character of his hero are seen in his restraining him from seducing Dido,
in his prolonging the struggle between love and duty, and especially in
his having him defeat the Africans and kill his rival" (p. 175). Voltaire's
reaction to this passage of the preface, "impertinent au possible," is
surely an exaggeration.
Let us now turn to the plot of Didon.
As the play opens, Iarbe (here designated
as the King of Nubia, in present-day Sudan) encounters his old friend Madherbal,
who has become the minister and general of the Carthaginians. Unlike Osmida,
his counterpart in Didone abbandonata, Madherbal does not
wish to employ treachery to gain the throne of the new city state; he is
an honest friend to Iarbe, but above all a loyal and faithful follower
of Didon. Iarbe reveals that he has come, disguised as an ambassador, to
win the hand of Didon, whom he has loved since they met in Tyre and who
has refused his offer of marriage twice since she established Carthage.
His suspicion that she loves Enée is reinforced by her renewed refusal
of his hand.
Enée is torn between his love
of and gratitude for Didon on the one hand, and the need to proceed to
Italy, where he is to establish a new Troy. Didon comes to him to ask for
his protection against Iarbe; Enée decides to consult the gods first.
At this point, Iarbe reveals his identity, asks Didon to marry him, and
on her refusal promises vengeance. He tells Madherbal that he has decided
to destroy Carthage; Madherbal relays the information to Didon, who persuades
Enée, despite the warnings of the oracle, to stay and defend her.
However, when he learns that the sea is calm, the men ready to sail, and
his son deserving of his patrimony, Enée decides to move on, but
only after defending the Queen.
Didon, meanwhile, is accused in a
dream of betraying the faith she had sworn to her dead husband, Sichée.
Very early in the morning she learns that the Trojans have defeated the
Nubians and that Enée has killed Iarbe before leaving Carthage.
In despair, she curses Enée and the Trojans, predicts constant warfare
between Carthage and Rome, then stabs herself to death on stage, and dies
expressing her love for Enée.
There is little of Metastasio in this
play. Besides the differences noted above, there is considerable attention
paid to depicting an upright and honorable minister rather than a corrupt
and traitorous one. One might see in this an attempt on the part of the
future Premier Président of the Cour des Aides of Montauban to depict
a positive example of his notion of a virtuous minister; Metastasio's Osmida
is held up as a negative example, as is Iarba. If Le Franc has made use
of Osmida, it is only to present an insider to help him court Didon; Madherbal
combines the position of Osmida with the moral fiber of Araspe, Iarba's
lieutenant. Didon, while emotionally volatile, is less unstable than Didone,
has fewer of the emotional swings that we have seen in Metastasio's heroine
and seems a bit closer to Ovid's Dido. Selene, née Anna, disappears
entirely from the scene in Didon, as does the unnecessary
complication of her hidden love of Enea, which creates a minor sub-plot
that leads nowhere.
As far as the principal plot is concerned,
it is clear that both authors follow in a more or less linear fashion the
general outline of Ovid's masterpiece. The characterization, not to mention
the cast of characters, is altered for dramatic reasons, the role of the
gods is reduced to indirect reporting of their appearing in dreams, and
the end of the epic and the plays, while all culminating in the death of
the Queen, are notably different in the contexts in which they are cast,
the villainy of Iarba in Metastasio and his death in Le Franc. In addition,
the text of the tragedy is about three times as long as that of the opera,
which is to be expected, given the need for musical introductions, récitatif
Joseph G. Fucilla, noting that Metastasio's
opera was enormously popular, running to forty editions from 1733 to his
death in 1782, states (p. 9) that many readers were
to enjoy his melodramas as pure literature without musical accompaniment.
Some who were also creative writers used them as models for their won dramas.
In France, for instance, Le Franc de Pompignan imitated his Didone.
Not every critic would agree with Fucilla.
Lancaster, for one, had long since written (p. 174) that while Le Franc
may have derived from Didone abbandonata
importance given to Iarbe, his combat with the hero, and a reflection on
the priorities of the gods, but he omitted Dido's sister, who has a rôle
of some importance in the Italian work, he added Achate, and he had Aeneas
kill Iarbe, as Metastasio does not do. His main source is the fourth book
of the Aeneid, supplemented by information from the first.
not mention the French predecessors of Le Franc, who might also have given
him some of these ideas.
Fucilla's judgment, belied by the
evidence presented here, is nevertheless far more circumspect than the
repeated accusations of Voltaire, based on hearsay, that Le Franc had simply
translated or even plagiarized Metastasio. In Voltaire's defense, it might
be noted that, for whatever reason and even though he seems never to have
changed his mind about the supposed plagiarism (or for that matter, seems
to have never checked the facts despite his ability to read Italian), he
never put these accusations in print.
Didon an "espèce
de traduction" of Didone abbandonata? Was Le Franc a "tantinetto
plagiaire" of Metastasio? The intertextual indications point rather to
creative borrowings both from the primary source material--a Latin epic
poem--and from a number of secondary source materials--French plays in
three genres (tragedy, comedy, opera)--that it is possible for both authors
to have drawn on. Anyone who has read both plays can see at a glance that
the one is not a translation of the other. As far as the accusation of
plagiarism is concerned, it is unclear, and in any case unproven, that
Le Franc de Pompignan needed to make extensive use of Metastasio's opera
in composing his tragedy, and even less clear that he actually did do so.
What is clear is that Metastasio used his materials to produce an
opera that was extremely successful in its time, and that Le Franc drew
upon the same or similar sources to produce a tragedy that helped establish
his reputation in the 1730s.
Carrington Lancaster, French Tragedy in the Time of Louis XV and
Voltaire 1715-1774 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1950), I, 177.
Vieux Bibliophile," writing in the Journal des Débats,
1er novembre 1925, p. 3.
de France, juin 1745, p. 171.
des Sçavans, décembre 1734, p. 837.
Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines, Observations sur les écrits
modernes, année 1735, I, 55-56.
Complete Works of Voltaire (Genève: Institut et Musée
Voltaire and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 87, letter D915.
All letters are taken from this edition.
reference to Mlle Dufresne can be explained by the fact that Voltaire had
wanted this actress to play the role of Alzire in Voltaire's tragedy, but
that Le Franc apparently forced her not to play that role, even though
Voltaire claimed that "Le rôle était fait pour elle" (Letter
to Thieriot, 25 January 1736, D996).
for example, Dom Louis Mayel Chaudon: Les Grands Hommes vengés,
ou Examen des jugemens portés par M. de V., & par quelques autres
Philosophes, sur plusieurs Hommes célèbres... (Amsterdam
et Lyon, J.-M. Barret, 1769), I, 149; Edouard Mennechet: Matinées
littéraires: Etudes sur les littératures modernes
(Paris: Langlois et Leclercq, 1846), IV, 67-72; Charles Malpel, "Lefranc
de Pompignan, Grand Montalbanais" in Recueil de l'Académie
des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts de Tarn-et-Garonne, 2e
série, XXXVI (1922-1923), 55-71.
E. D. Braun, "Voltaire's perception of truth in quarrels with his enemies,"
on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, LV (1967),287-295.
Bonaventura Metastasio, Didone abbandonata (Napoli: F. Ricciardo,
1724). References to this opera will be to the edition prepared by Fausto
Nicolini in Pietro Metastasio: Opere (Bari: Gius. Laterza
& Figli, 1912), I, 1-90.
Franc, who at the time was Président of the Cour des Aides in Montauban,
had recently published his Discours...Sur l'Intérêt
Public (Montauban: J Teulières and Grenoble, Vve Groud,
1738), whose boldness had earned him a six-month exile in Barrèges,
in the Pyrenees.
will examine Le Franc's claims below.
regret that our Latin is not up to the task of reading the Aeneid
in the original. We have consulted the translation by Edward McCrorie in
Aeneid--Virgil (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995).
G. Fucilla, translator and editor, Three Melodramas by Pietro Metastasio
(Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981), p. 2.
dramatiques ou Dictionnaire général des Théâtres.
Par une Société de Gens de Lettres (Paris: Hénée,
1808-1812), III, 211.
Le Franc de Pompignan: Didon, in Oeuvres de Monsieur
le Marquis de Pompignan (Paris: Nyon l'aîné, 1784),
© 2001 by Theodore E. D. Braun
Last updated: 20 April 2005