How Voltaire Went from Bastille Prisoner to Famous Playwright

Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian:

François-Marie d’Arouet was the kind of precocious teen who always got invited to the best parties. Earning a reputation for his wit and catchy verses among the elites of 18th-century Paris, the young writer got himself exiled to the countryside in May 1716 for writing criticism of the ruling family. But Arouet—who would soon adopt the pen name “Voltaire”—was only getting started in his takedowns of those in power. In the coming years, those actions would have far more drastic repercussions: imprisonment for him, and a revolution for his country. And it all started with a story of incest. In 1715, the young Arouet began a daunting new project: adapting the story of Oedipus for a contemporary French audience. The ancient Greek tale chronicles the downfall of Oedipus, who fulfilled a prophecy that he would kill his father, the king of Thebes, and marry his mother. Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the earliest version of the play in his tragedy, Oedipus Rex. As recently as 1659, the famed French dramatist Pierre Corneille had adapted the play, but Arouet thought the story deserved an update, and he happened to be living at the perfect time to give it one.

On September 1, 1715, Louis XIV (also known as the “Sun King”) died without leaving a clear successor. One of the most powerful rulers in the history of France, raising its fortunes and expanding colonial holdings, Louis also dragged the country into three major wars. He centralized power in France and elevated the Catholic Church by ruthlessly persecuting French Protestants. The king’s only son predeceased him, as did his grandson. His great-grandson, at age 5, needed a regent to oversee the ruling of the state. That duty fell to Philippe Duc d’Orléans, who used his position to essentially rule the country as Regent until his own death. Philippe change the geopolitical trajectory of France, forming alliances with Austria, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. He also upended the old social order, opposing censorship and allowing once-banned books to be reprinted. The atmosphere “changed radically as the country came under the direction of a man who lived in the Palais-Royal, at the heart of Paris, and was widely known to indulge mightily in the pleasures of the table, the bottle, and the flesh—including, it was no less commonly believed, the flesh of his daughter, the duchesse de Berry,” writes Roger Pearson in Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom.

More here.