Voltaire, Metastasio, and Le Franc de Pompignan's Didon

by Theodore E. D. Braun

    Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan's Didon (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] Gustave." (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

est 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 Formont (D916):
Martin le Franc, qui barbouille Didon,
Vain dans ses moeurs et faible dans son style,
Sur la Dufresne allant à l'Hélicon,
S'était vanté d'avoir passé Virgile. (7)
    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)
    Indeed, he writes subsequently (15 November 1735) to Formont (D942):
Je 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. (13)
    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:
Didone, 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.
    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.

Per comodo della scena si finge che Iarba, curioso di veder Didone, s'introduca in Cartagine come ambasciadore di se stesso, sotto nome d'Arbace.
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.
    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 Didone:
It 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 stage. (14)
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, entitled 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, Les Amours de Didon et d'Enée, and Didon as he began working on his opera, as that Le Franc had read Didone abbandonata before 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:
J'écrivis 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. (16)
His characterization of both Didon and Enée is somewhat harsh, and yet not without some grounds for justification, from an eighteenth-century perspective:
Didon, 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. (pp. 333-334)
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 and arias. 
    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 
able 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
the 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.
Lancaster does 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.
    Was 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. 


1. Henry Carrington Lancaster, French Tragedy in the Time of Louis XV and Voltaire 1715-1774 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950), I, 177.

2. "Un Vieux Bibliophile," writing in the Journal des Débats, 1er novembre 1925, p. 3.

3. Mercure de France, juin 1745, p. 171.

4. Journal des Sçavans, décembre 1734, p. 837.

5. Abbé Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines, Observations sur les écrits modernes, année 1735, I, 55-56.

6. The 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.

7. The 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).

8. See, 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.

9. Theodore E. D. Braun, "Voltaire's perception of truth in quarrels with his enemies," Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, LV (1967),287-295.

10. Pietro 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.

11. Le 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.

12. We will examine Le Franc's claims below.

13. We 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 The Aeneid--Virgil (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995).

14. Joseph G. Fucilla, translator and editor, Three Melodramas by Pietro Metastasio (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1981), p. 2.

15. Annales dramatiques ou Dictionnaire général des Théâtres. Par une Société de Gens de Lettres (Paris: Hénée, 1808-1812), III, 211.

16. Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan: Didon, in Oeuvres de Monsieur le Marquis de Pompignan (Paris: Nyon l'aîné, 1784), III, 334. 

© 2001 by Theodore E. D. Braun

Last updated: 20 April 2005