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
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 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.