Goethe Institute: Voltaire and Frederic: A Life in Letters

The Enlightment’s Epistolary Exchange

Nélida Nassar  10.22.2012

In an era of world turmoil, strife, lack of leadership, and especially during an election year, Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters comes at a very opportune moment to demonstrate that diplomacy and friendship are better strategies than the recourse to violence.

Commissioned in honor of the Frederick the Great’s 300th birthday, this is an overview of the pen-pal friendship between these two great figures that spanned almost half a century. Witty, politically insightful, and thought-provoking, this new theatrical work was translated from the German and French by Hans Pleschinski and was conceived and compiled during a seven-month period by Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, the Goethe Institute of Boston’s director. It is premiering at several academic institutions in Massachusetts, Maine and Atlanta before traveling abroad.

Based on the correspondence between the great French philosopher and the Royal Prince and, later, King of Prussia, which begins when Frederick was a mere 24 years old and Voltaire, was 42. The latter’s amicable exchange with the prince was unofficially favored and encouraged by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The correspondence ends with the eulogy Frederick II penned on the occasion of Voltaire’s death in 1778, despite their falling out in 1752, concluding: “The fame of M. de Voltaire shall increase with increasing ages, and transmit his name to immortality.”

Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen weaves tactfully, selected excerpts of the letters creating an integrated plot despite the slight alteration of the temporal sequence. His heterodiegetic narration brilliantly conveys the correspondence’s epistemology with a clear
story structure.

Frederick the Great was a contradictory figure, at once a soldier, a savvy politician: “I am engaged in arguing with a score of more or less dangerous Machiavellis,” a philosopher, and a great admirer of French culture. Frederick sent an ode he had composed to Voltaire accompanied with these words: “…read it with all the inflexibility of a master, and all the
rigid severity of a critic. I shall gain instruction by your corrections,” prompting Voltaire’s reply “…Such are the reflections which your royal highness commanded me to make on the ode with which your royal highness has deigned French poetry.” He was also a misanthrope and, generally, a mysterious man. His conquests made him one of the most formidable, and feared leaders of his era. At one point Voltaire wrote: “The spirit of gentleness would create brothers, but one of intolerance can only create monsters.” … “I heard that your majesty made an excellent treaty, excellent for yourself, beyond all doubt; for you have formed your virtuous mind to the grand scale of politics; but that this treaty will be found excellent for us Frenchmen, is a thing doubted of in Paris.” But as a patron of artists and intellectuals, Frederick turned Berlin into one of the Continent’s great cities, matching his state’s reputation for military ferocity with one for cultural achievement.

Voltaire, the irreverent author of Candide or Optimism, an admirer of Newton’s theories and a philosopher of the Enlightenment, had trouble with the authorities for even mildly criticizing the government and religious intolerance: “One of the greatest benefits you can confer upon mankind is to trample under foot superstition and fanaticism; not to allow a man in a gown to persecute others who do not think as he does.” His activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. Following the failure of his numerous plays to achieve success with the French public, he accepted Frederick’s invitation to come to live at Sans Souci Palace.

Their mutual admiration is amply attested by their voluminous correspondence. However, their relationship started deteriorating when Voltaire was accused of overcharging the monarchy. Then, when he got involved with a scandal involving Saxony’s bonds, Frederick accused him of treason: – “…You resemble a weathervane and have not decided on any party. You are ungrateful and unfaithful…I do not call this dubious but treason.” It reached its nadir when Voltaire had an argument with Maupertuis, the president of the Berlin Academy of Science, which provoked his book Diatribe of Doctor Akakia, where he satirized some of Maupertuis’ theories and his abuse of power in his persecutions of a mutual acquaintance, Samuel Koënig. This greatly angered Frederick, who banned Voltaire from his court, complaining, “you tried to ridicule the president of my academy in front of all of Europe.” Despite their differences, they resumed their letter writing during the Seven Years’ War Voltaire longing for the Monarch: “I like your verses, your prose, your wit, your bold and firm philosophy. I cannot live with you or without you. I am not speaking to the king, to the hero, who is the concern of the sovereigns; I am speaking to him who enchanted me, whom I loved, and with whom I am still angry.”

The two men’s intensive correspondence sounds surprisingly modern and is very pertinent in today’s highly politicized and volatile times. The writing varies from complimentary and laudatory remarks to more serious discussions of governance: Frederick to Voltaire “Your poems are a course of morality whereby we learn to think and to act… she has created them! Voltaire’s replied: “I saw that the world holds a prince who thinks like a man, a philosophical prince, who will make men happy. There have been no truly good ones.” “There have been no truly good kings except those who began like you, by educating themselves, by learning to know men, by loving the truth … why do so few kings seek out this advantage?”

Humor abounds in their epistolary exchange such when Voltaire exclaims after mistakenly believing that Frederick had sent him his portrait only to find out that it was Socrates bust: “Socrate ne m’est rien, c’est Frederic que j’aime.” At moments, Voltaire’s manipulates the kind-hearted King while not hesitating to rail against his own countrymen. Neither hesitates to borrow words of wisdom from the fables of La Fontaine, like The Lion and
the Rat.

Nowadays, rulers worldwide would benefit from these two progressive men’s ideas and attitudes, not least the leaders of the European Union, a union that is being fiercely questioned. They would do well to consider these words of Voltaire’s: “I have some hope that your Majesty will strengthen Europe as much you have shaken it and that my colleagues, the human race, will bless you after having admired you.”

Fittingly and in this spirit of respect, camaraderie and diplomacy, the German Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany Rolf Schütte played Frederick, and his French counterpart Fabien Fieschi, Voltaire, when they gave the initial performance of this work at the Goethe Institute of Boston. It was received with great enthusiasm. The piece is now on tour with the two Elliot Norton Award-winning actors, Thomas Derrah (a founding member of the American Repertory Theater) as Voltaire and John Kuntz as Frederick. Derrah’s great acting skills and vibrant presence could not have been more suited to portray the philosopher’s gravitas. John Kuntz humanizes the bigger-than-life Frederick the Great. So far, audiences have found the readings very exciting.

The play is sponsored and produced by the Goethe Institute in association with the Consulate General de France, a testimonial to the friendship of the two nations despite years of tension and war.

Following its USA debut, the play will travel to three Canadian cities: Toronto, Waterloo and Ottawa. The stage reading is of 75 minutes. It is highly recommended.
Brandeis University, October 22, 2012, 7.30 p.m.
University of Maine Orono, October 30, 2012 7.00 p.m.
Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, November 1, 2012 7.00 p.m.
Suffolk University, November 3, 2012 7.00 p.m. (73 Tremont Street, 9th Floor, Boston)
Toronto, Waterloo and Ottawa, November 9, 10 and 11, 2012
Goethe Kulturzentrum Atlanta, November 19, 2012 7.00 p.m.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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