Theater Review: Eighteenth Century Pen Pals — Voltaire and Frederick

Playwright Gericke-Schönhagen, hoping to avoid the phenomenon of talking heads, deliberately placed emphasis on those letters between Voltaire and Frederick that dramatized personalities rather than ideas.

Voltaire & Frederick: A Life In Letters. Conceived by Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by German Stage at the Goethe Institut, Boston MA. on October 15. The show will be performed at the University of Maine at Orono on October 30 at 7 p.m. at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, Cambridge, MA, on November 1 at 7 p.m., and at Suffolk University (73 Tremont Street, 9th Floor, Boston, MA), November 4 at 7.00 p.m.

By Ian Thal

Thomas Derrah (Voltaire) and Frederich II of Prussia (John Kuntz) trade ideas via letters in VOLTAIRE & FREDERICK: A LIFE IN LETTERS. Photo: Q Lam

On October 15th, 2012, the nineteenth-century ballroom of the Back Bay house that now houses the Goethe-Institut Boston was nearly filled to capacity for the new initiative of the Institut: German Stage, a series presenting contemporary, German plays in translation (See my discussion with the people behind German Stage elsewhere in the Arts Fuse.)

The first play is Voltaire & Frederick: A Life in Letters, a documentary play conceived by Goethe-Institut Boston Director Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and commissioned in honor of the tricentennial of Frederick II of Prussia. The play is based on the decades-long correspondence between the king and the French philosopher, historian, and satirist Voltaire.

This correspondence, originally conducted in French, is unique in the history of letters. Beginning in 1736 when the 24-year-old crown prince wrote what was essentially a fan letter to the controversial, 42-year-old philosopher and literary figure, it continued until 1778, when the 83-year-old Voltaire died in Paris. In that time, roughly 800 letters were exchanged between them. The crown prince, more interested in art and the life of the mind than he was in affairs of state, sought the approval of the man he saw as the foremost thinker on the European continent; Voltaire, at the time living in exile from Paris with his lover and sometime collaborator the Marquise Émilie du Chatelet, saw a pupil through whom he could test his ideas about enlightenment.

The philosopher and the prince shared a contempt for superstition, the influence of religious dogma in politics and jurisprudence, and an aristocracy that worked only to perpetuate their own power at the expense of the people. Indeed, despite his own destiny to wear the Prussian crown, Frederick rejected the doctrine of the divine right of kings that had long allowed established churches to hold political power throughout Europe (Frederick, while head of the German Lutheran Church, was, like many Enlightenment thinkers, a Deist). At the same time, they shared a faith in the power of human reason and education and were in favor of intellectual and religious freedom.

In 1740, Frederick ascended to the throne, and his first act as an Enlightenment monarch was to abolish torture throughout his domain; however, political reality did not always sit well with his idealism and he soon found himself fighting a long series of wars to unify Prussia. He proved to be an able military leader as well as a political reformer, which earned him both insult and praise from his friend and mentor. Frederick was by no means a democrat: he was an advocate and practitioner of enlightened absolutism and viewed his right to rule as stemming from a social contract to improve the lives of his subjects through reforms—a system of governance that met with Voltaire’s approval.

Documentary playwriting comes with certain risks: dramatizing historical texts, even with intelligent editing, does not guarantee compelling drama. While the rhetorical style of eighteenth-century letters provides heightened dialogue, much dramatic material is provided through the ever-shifting love-hate relationship. Because it was known that Voltaire and Frederick were writing one another, agents and intriguers of different governments and factions often sought to read the contents while the letters were en route, forcing them to use intermediaries. Frederick was often vague because of fear of an interception.

Despite their shared values and friendship, Voltaire was not above intrigue himself: On one of the only five times the two met in person, Voltaire was exposed as a spy working for France. On another, he was dismissed from the court due to illegal business dealings. On yet another occasion, Voltaire attempted to leave Prussia with plans to publish an unauthorized collection of Frederick’s satirical poems lampooning other heads of state. In order to avoid a diplomatic catastrophe, Frederick ordered Voltaire arrested and seized the manuscript. Insults were exchanged. Their friendship nonetheless survived even these incidents. Over the 42 years of a correspondence that began with lavish praise: they had come to know each other by their vices and weaknesses, and in their later years frequently discussed their failing health.

Though married, Thomas Derrah (Voltaire) and John Kuntz (Frederick), two of Boston’s most respected actors, rarely share a stage (the October 15th reading was their second performance together in 12 years). Though a staged reading gives very little rehearsal time, both Derrah and Kuntz always find the gesture, stance, or vocal inflection to bring out the various dimensions of their characters’ relationship and embellish the rhetorical devises that the philosopher and the king used to play upon one another.

Playwright Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and director Guy Ben-Aharon. Photo: Q Lam

Playwright Gericke-Schönhagen, hoping to avoid the phenomenon of talking heads, deliberately placed emphasis on those letters that dramatized personalities rather than ideas. Accordingly, he cut the correspondence of 800 letters down to a 67-page manuscript. Director Guy Ben-Aharon then, as per the custom in German theaters where directors are accorded the freedom to make excisions, to rearrange the chronology of the scenes, or to rework the staging, further trimmed the script to 39 pages. Even in this shortened version, a reading of Voltaire & Frederick: A Life in Letters reveals a story and text that can just as easily be adapted to a quasi-naturalistic, even a highly stylized stage presentation. The text could also be adapted to fit such dramatic media as radio or film.

Despite the emphasis on the duo’s human relationship, the letters frequently touch on issues as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century: Voltaire’s objections to the repeated attempts of theologians to use state power to limit freedom of thought and expression echo powerfully in an era when creationists are attempting to ban the teaching of evolution or when Salman Rushdie lives under a fatwa for writing a novel. Voltaire’s arrest at the hands of Frederick’s government illustrates the degree in which leaders are imprisoned by the public roles they play. Frederick’s meditatations on the gap between his ideal of how the world should be and his responsibility to face the world as it is revealed an irony that Voltaire must have appreciated: the king had a strong distaste for the wars he was so good at winning.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on October 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    I was at the kick-off staged reading for the German Stage and I agree with most of what Ian has to say above. It was an evening of civilized entertainment, delivered with comfortable (and comforting) skill via ace performers Thomas Derrah and John Kuntz, directed with efficiency by Guy Ben-Aharon. The exchange of missives did not overstay its welcome.

    But dramatist/complier Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen choose to push the sub-title of the play too hard: “Where Friendship is Concerned, I’m not to be Outdone.” His selection (with the assistance of Ben-Aharon) of the letters penned by Voltaire and Frederick is far too tidily diplomatic, perhaps for the sake of making the contentious give-and-take more inspiring than it was in reality.

    In truth, according to many historians, particularly Peter Gay in his invaluable volume Voltaire’s Politics, the letters from monarch to French Enlightenment philosopher dramatize a brutal relationship between political power player and naive intellectual, a chic game that is still played today, with scheming politicians wooing high profile thinkers who hope, but ultimately fail, to exert influence on affairs of state. “Once in power, Frederick revealed himself as a worthy successor to his boorish father,” writes Gay, “niggardly and authoritarian, efficient and hard-working, wholly dedicated to Prussia’s territorial growth, financial stability, and military might. But he also admired French culture, sought to emulate French men of letters, and craved their applause. I suspect that he admired and despised Voltaire as much as he admired and despised himself.” Out of that psychological conflict a suavely gritty drama could be fashioned.

    As for Voltaire, his stark verdict on Frederick and the supposed enlightenment of the Prussian court was expressed in a letter to a friend: “There are absolutely no resources here. There are a prodigious number of bayonets and very few books. The king has greatly embellished Sparta, but he has transported Athens only into his study.” In other words, buried under customary eighteenth century effusions of hyperbolic praise raged anger, hatred, shock, back-stabbing, egomania, and horror. At the very least, it would have been eye-opening for Gericke-Schönhagen to supply some of what Voltaire and Frederick wrote about their friendship to others. In Voltaire’s words (quoted by Gay), the King of Prussia was ‘the most dishonest man alive,” whose “greatest talent is to lie like a lackey.” His state was “a marriage of aristocracy and bureaucracy.” Showing the soft side of Frederick is part of the picture, but overemphasizing it thins out the potential drama (and relevance) of the letters: the equivalent of an eighteenth century knife-fight is calmed into an evening of charmingly articulated historical chatter.

  2. Ian Thal on October 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Bill raises some interesting points. I’m less versed on Prussian history, and so there were nuances that exist outside of the play text with which I am unfamiliar. Of course, in my interview with Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, he was more interested in Frederick II the reformer and intellectual (and he comes across as a more honorable figure than Voltaire in the play.) Heiner Müller’s (one of DGS’s heroes) Gundling’s Life Frederick of Prussia Lessing’s Sleep Dream Scream which I just began reading after this review was posted, has a far less flattering (albeit more surreal) portrayal of Frederick.

    Nonetheless, with the sort of freedom that German theatrical practice allows directors to rework a script — even conducting a “mash-up” to use contemporary terminology, there’s an opening for a more historically informed director to insert other texts like the ones that Bill cites, or to stage actions not specifically cited in the script, say as a dumbshow like the ones in the Müller play.

    • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on October 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      Another script about Frederick has been brought to my attention — Romulus Linney’s The Sorrows of Frederick. I will have to take a look — anyone out there read or attend a production of this play? How does it treat Frederick?

      As for my reservations about the portrait of Frederick in Gericke-Schönhagen’s play. Whenever Voltaire questioned Frederick about his more brutal actions, the response from the king was inevitably a version of “I am a galley slave chained to the vessel of state.” A play should see in the cat’s paw power imbalance between the two a foreshadowing of a Stalin/dissident artists relationship, not just a liberal vision of political enlightenment.

      • Ian Thal on October 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm

        Müller’s play (which I have not finished, as I started it yesterday while on the subway) does treat the manner in which Frederick describes himself as a matter of bad conscience.

        I have to wonder if Voltaire ever questioned his support of enlightened absolutism (governance by an absolute monarch who has been educated in Enlightenment values) given the real world example of Frederick and other enlightened monarchs of his era– or did it cause his political philosophy to change in his latter years? Or was he simply too invested in his mission to turn secular power against clerical power?

      • Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen on October 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm

        Historically I cannot see an imbalance between Frederick and Voltaire . As a French citizen Voltaire was not under the control of the Prussian king, the Prussian police or Prussian censorship.

        Additionally Voltaire understood early in his life that financial independence is the condition of intellectual independence. Beside his academic activities he made much money in a short time and belonged to the very rich people of Europe, somehow the 1% of his time. He was completely independent.

        Voltaire was in no moment of his life obliged to answer the letters of Frederick. And he would not have suffered consequences by not answering. He answered anyway. More than 400 times during 42 years. He wanted to influence politics, and he did. He was the intellectual power machine of his time. It makes no sense to compare Voltaire with a Soviet dissident and Frederick II with Stalin.

        I have actually used several letters of Voltaire and Frederick to other people. I did this when the letters in itself did not explain the dynamic of their relation.

        I could add comments of Voltaire about Frederick and vice versa which are still worse than those which Bill had mentioned.

        I apologize for writing so short but I have to prepare for hurricane Sandy.

    • Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen on October 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      Heiner Müller called Friedrich a “murdered Mozart,” the only intellectual among the German rulers, and a permanent source of dramatic material. In an TV talk with Alexander Kluge in March 1992 he also talked about his play Gundling.

  3. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on October 28, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    I was being a bit provocative with the Stalin/artists idea, but the imbalance in power is obvious to me — Frederick could and did (to my understanding) have Voltaire arrested. He also had some of Voltaire’s writings burned. Frederick invited Voltaire to treat him as an equal but, though they shared some beliefs, that was simply not possible. Voltaire was not about to write anything that would upset Frederick much, while the king had the power to trouble Voltaire. I am not sure that Frederick had any secret police at his command — but his successor, Joseph II, did.

    • Guy Ben-Aharon on October 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Just a quick historical note: Frederick II’s successor was not Joseph II, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but Frederick William II of Prussia.

      • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on October 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm

        Thanks — I got my monarchs mixed up. Frederick the Great may or may not have had secret police, but my reading suggests that his successors did.

        My point is that the imbalance of power between Frederick and Voltaire foreshadows (in some ways) the oppression that authoritarian political authority would exert on independent writers in the centuries to come. And that any dramatization of the relationship between them should be informed by that historical reality.

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