The Age of Enlightenment came to the University of Maine on Tuesday, Oct. 30 in a three-part series featuring the 18th century’s greatest thinkers: Voltaire and Frederick II.
The evening began with a discussion panel in the Bumps Room of the Memorial Union featuring Alexander Grab, a professor from the History Department; David Gross, the interim dean of the Honors College; Raymond Pelletier, an associate professor from the Department of Modern Languages and Classics and Associate Director of the Canadian-American Center; and Guy Ben-Aharon, the founder of Israeli State & Artist in Residence, Goethe-Institut. Liam Riordan, an associate professor from the History department, moderated the discussion.
Pelletier began the discussion by giving a background of Voltaire, a French writer, historian and philosopher from the Enlightenment. According to Pelletier, Voltaire was “invested in every idea that came his way, [whether he was] pro or con.” Pelletier spoke briefly about Voltaire’s childhood, his rejection and abuse from those in power, his time in exile, and the beginning of his career. Voltaire reached a wide audience through his writing, including women and the poor. Though he wrote in a variety of mediums, much of his work still remains unread.
Grab followed Pelletier, discussing Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, the most important Prussian monarch. Two of Frederick’s most important aspects as a leader were the reforms he carried out and scholars he surrounded himself with. He was tolerant of other religions and worked to make punishments proportional to crimes.
Gross spoke third, giving a different and more modern perspective on the Enlightenment. Gross discussed the book “Dialectic of Enlightenment” by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. He began by saying that the word “enlightenment” has a positive connotation, but the book argues that there is a dark side to the Enlightenment. The upside is that social freedom and the Enlightenment are inseparable. The other side, however, is that the Enlightenment and barbarism are also inseparable. The Enlightenment was based on reason, analyzing and investigating, which led to knowledge. While knowledge leads to civilizations, knowledge is power and therefore fuels domination.
Ben-Aharon was the last to speak. He talked about his role in the production of plays. His job is to “personalize and humanize” theater. He wanted to take Voltaire and Frederick the Great and make them relatable to people today. To do this, he looked at the hundreds of letters between Voltaire and Frederick and extracted a story. The result was the play “Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters,” written by Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and directed by Ben-Aharon himself.
After each panelist spoke, Riordan opened the floor up to questions.
Following the discussion panel was a community gathering and reception featuring a display on Frederick II by Annette Rodrigues, instructor of German, and Elisa Sance, a French teaching assistant. Culturally appropriate food, such as madeleine cookies, was also served during the reception.
The third part to the series was a performance of “Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters” in Hauck Auditorium, with actors Thomas Derrah as Voltaire and John Kuntz as Frederick.
Derrah is a founding member of the American Repertory Theater and has appeared in many television and film productions such as “Mystic River” and “The Pink Panther II.” He teaches acting at Harvard and Emerson College and is a Yale graduate.
Kuntz is a founding company member of the Actors Shakespeare Project and has written 14 full-length plays. He received an Elliot Norton Award and New York International Fringe Festival Award. Kuntz teaches at Suffolk University and is on the faculty of The Boston Conservatory.
After opening remarks by Pelletier and Grab, the play began with Derrah and Kuntz. The entire play was Voltaire and Frederick reading their letters to one another, highlighting the pen pal relationship the two shared. In their letters, they discussed a variety of subjects such as human rights, governance, war and many more topics that still apply to politics today. In addition to the political topics, we also see the ups and downs of their friendship. According to Ben-Aharon, there is even a theory that Frederick was in love with Voltaire.
“Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters” was produced by Goethe-Institut Boston, in association with the Consulat Général de France. The next performances of this play will be in Toronto, Waterloo and Ottawa on Nov. 9, 10 and 11 and at the Goethe Kulturzentrum Atlanta on Nov. 19. Previous performances have been at Brandeis University, Harvard University and Suffolk University.