Inside Baron Hollbach's shooting lodge, Diderot, half-naked, is sitting for Mme Therbouche. They are engaged in a delicate and witty tête-à-tête, when Diderot's secretary comes in and brutally puts an end to their badinage. The famous philosopher has to write the article on morals for the Encyclopedia as a matter of the utmost urgency.

This is the starting point of a crazy day for Denis Diderot, who will meet with constant interruptions in his philosophical as well as his sentimental ventures. Following his hugely successful The Visitor and Enigma Variations, already regarded as classics the world over, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has now brought back the libertine comedy, adding some philosophical paradoxes to which he holds the key. The Libertine is also a lively tribute to desire.


« Of all my plays, this... »

Of all my plays, this is the most exuberant. I wrote it in the spring, for the spring, with a strong feeling of renewal and renewed vital energies. It looks the most light-hearted, but the play is the result of years of work and research. Diderot, the main character of the play, has been one of my passions since I was a teenager and he was the subject I chose for my academic study. I read and re-read Diderot, I dissected and analysed his writings. I studied all the materials we have about him, and after several years, I ended up with my own perception of the philosopher - a vision I presented in the thesis I wrote in 1987.While finishing my thesis I had promised myself that one day I would dedicate a play to this extraordinary figure. I wanted to portray him as he was in the flesh with all his follies and vitality; I wanted to show how free he had been: free to change his mind, free to contradict himself, free to start everything all over again, always thinking but always doubting. Posterity has struggled to categorise him but has never managed to get rid of him. People have tried to immortalise him, bestow on him the role of a scientific thinker or set him up as a precursor to materialism. But Diderot is not the type to be cast in bronze. Along with Lucretius and Montaigne he is one of the "Knights of Doubt", those who are aware that to think is not to know. A theory is nothing but a fiction, philosophy belongs to literature. To explain the world means to formulate hypotheses, to risk analogies, to have strokes of genius, which are quite similar to fits of madness. It means taking risks. A philosopher must admit that what he puts forward is never beyond doubt; truth is a goal, but a goal you never reach, like the horizon, which retreats as long as you walk towards it.Philosophers like Lucretius, Montaigne and Diderot hold that any thought is constituently fragile but that you have to go on thinking anyway. The Libertine is based on a true anecdote. Diderot and Mme Therbouche had met one day for a sitting. Mme Therbouche wanted to paint Diderot's portrait and she asked him to undress completely. Diderot obeyed and since the lady was rather pretty, his lust was aroused and his desire became obvious. The lady, half-shocked and half-delighted, gave a cry and Diderot came out with the following witty remark: "Don't be afraid madame, I'm not the harder of the two!"I liked the way situations and values were reversed, with a man as the object and a woman as the subject - the philosopher sitting for his portrait without any of the standard clichés that usually symbolize "vanities": the skull, books, a sandglass, the meditation of an old man about to die lit by the weak light of a flickering candle.I inserted the problems Diderot had had for twenty years with the Encyclopedia. Right-thinking readers of the 18th century were shocked that there was no article on the notion of Virtue in what was to be the first encyclopedia in the world. In my play, Virtue has been replaced by Ethics, which is more suggestive for us today. All the difficulties Diderot meets with in one day to write his article on Ethics stand for the struggles he encountered throughout his life in his search for a solid and definitive ethical philosophy. Like so many philosophers, Diderot's ambition was to write a treatise on Moral Philosophy. Maybe he only started writing to achieve this aim. That is how I show him at the beginning of the play.At the end of his career, after a number of attempts, he admitted that he had failed to find the ethics he had been looking for. He had only discovered moral issues that require thorough discussion and which need to be studied one after the other and whose solutions are always improvised, always contingent, always fragile and above all, always debatable. That is how I show him at the end of the play. But what happens in the meantime? From the point of view of the individual, Diderot is in favour of permissive and libertarian morals. Everything is allowed except what you yourself or others may be hurt by. There are no longer any divine or religious referents to pin our behaviour to. So, for Diderot, sexual particularities, from onanism through homosexuality to gang bang, are allowed as far as they are practised by consenting adults. Marriage must not be overburdened with some silly oath of faithfulness, because desire comes in a multitude of different forms and it would be against nature if it were restricted. So, being married is not a code of behaviour or some legal and religious straitjacket, but a contract of mutual commitment which is mainly focused on property and children.Unless it is harmful, any impulse can be satisfied in a man or a woman's life. It is forbidden to forbid. However, when it comes to society, Diderot sees things differently and sticks with a traditional moral code. Marriage remains necessary for the education of children, for their legal future and for the passing on of property. He wishes to marry his daughter to a man he will choose so that she will be settled firmly in society. Diderot is worried because his daughter is too influenced by her desires and he fears her whims might prevent her from finding a rich and respected husband. In brief, passing from the individual to society, or from himself to his children, the libertarian becomes a bourgeois and the revolutionary starts talking like a reactionary.It is true that these contradictions are funny. They are the essence of comedy. And above all they are human. Who has never been torn between desire and the law? Who has never wavered between what they allow themselves to do and what they forbid others to do? Diderot hoped he would find a code of ethics and in fact he found two, often conflicting. Far from finding a unique and coherent thesis, Diderot is always confronted by irreconciable tensions. He gives up writing his Treatise; from now on, he will potter from one case to another in doubt and deliberation. I have purposely made things more difficult by developing the character of Madame Therbouche. If she really was a painter, she was also a true crook who conned Diderot. And yet, once he has been undone by her, he feels angry. Much to his surprise, he is seduced. Why? Because a beautiful crime has aesthetic value. Nearly a work of art. "Nero was an artist when he treated himself to the sight of Rome in flames." Diderot, here, is not far from heresy and not far from Baudelaire. He thinks he is looking for Good and tracking down Evil. In fact, he is looking for Beauty. Beauty in all its forms and styles, including immoral Beauty. "The appeal of a beautiful crime... ."The ethics of Beauty, of the aesthete, the pulverisation of Good and Evil being replaced by Beauty and Ugliness. So, end of the ethics. Poor Diderot! His ethics on the individual were founded on the notion of Pleasure and Displeasure. His social morals on Good and Evil and his implicit and initial ethics on Beauty and Ugliness. The matter was even more complex than he had wanted to admit... If The Libertine looks like a light comedy, it is first and foremost a philosophical comedy. Women come in and leave the stage. Some women are hidden in bedrooms. These women are obviously characters but also ideas. They are all clever, all charming. They make our philosopher's head spin. On the stage, there is only one setting but it is an objective spot: Diderot's studio. It is also the mental space of the character.Its geography is also philosophical. Diderot in The Libertine, like Freud in The Visitor, is going through a meditation, wide-awake, a dream for some, a nightmare for others; in any case, it is a very intimate moment, even if doors are being slammed everywhere and even if, as I always saw in so many performances all over the world, what the play first offers is a moment of charm, full of flesh, silk, elegance and sensual delight. Rome, Italy, 4 July 2000Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt


L'Echos - « The Libertine »

The seductive philosopher.The author of The Visitor wrote his doctoral thesis on Diderot, and today, Diderot has become the hero of his latest play. It is brilliant, sensuous and funny. A well-deserved success.The curtain rises on Diderot in wig and red cape seated alluringly with a goose quill in his hand, but he cannot help fidgeting and laughing, showing off under the gaze of the woman sketching him behind an easel, and who soon asks him to undress in order to pose naked. Diderot has granted himself a few hours' respite in the untidy hunting lodge of his friend Baron Holbach, who has opened his doors to Diderot so that the latter can write his famous Encyclopedia. Enter Diderot's secretary to tell his master that Rousseau does not want to write the four pages on Ethics. Only Diderot can do it and it is a matter of the utmost urgency because the printers are waiting for them. But Diderot has other fish to fry: women, always women!It is hard not to see The Libertine as one of the triumphs of the season. The whole production has all the assets you could dream of: it is as brilliantly written as The Visitor and the director is once again Bernard Murat, who knows all the tricks of the trade and especially how to make a sparkling cast look their best. And what an outstanding cast it is, with Bernard Giraudeau in the lead role, a seducer with a lascivious smile, who gives the philosopher, with his "hundred different physionomies" and his ready answers to "the whims and necessities of life", a dynamism, a vitality and appetites to set the stage on fire...Schmitt knows his stuff, of course, having studied Diderot's philosophy at PhD level, and he really does seem to know the man like the back of his hand. Once described as "a lad unparallelled for endless digressions", Diderot himself used to say, "It drives me mad being stuck with a devil of a philosophy that my mind cannot help but approve and which my heart cannot help denying!" But he was also able to prove everything and its opposite, especially when it came to Ethics. According to Schmitt, the ethics Diderot would have had for individuals were "permissive, liberating and libertarian" and far from compatible with the ethics of society, especially during the Age of Enlightment.Have no fear: Schmitt wears his learning lightly and his play provides first-class entertainment. In the course of this crazy day, some delightfully licentious gallantries will take over from all the didactic dissertations, without having the slightest chance of reaching a happy end since Diderot and his women will be continually interrupted by unexpected visits. We are not far from farce here. Diderot, played by Giraudeau has to deal with four women: - his Polish-Russian portrait painter who reveals herself to be a sumptuous thief, but who is no less quick-witted for that; his wife, who comes in to complain that her husband cheats on her too often, sowing the seed of doubt in the mind of her macho husband; his daughter who has decided that she wants to have a child out of wedlock with a man who is as old as her father (which horrifies Diderot); Baron Holbach's daughter, a bewitching young lady, much more artful and cunning than she appears...Every tête-à -tête is a real joy, one more temptation, one more pretext for one more witticism, paradox and contradiction. And between sensuality and humour, you have just the time to feel intelligent too... There is artifice at work, of course, but it is so ingenious that we cannot blame the author for anything.As for the actors: the female cast around Giraudeau, clearly enjoying himself to the full, is perfect. From two ravishing young beauties (Claire Keim and Danielle Arditi) to Elisabeth Commolin, a most delicious Mme Diderot to Christine Cohendy (who got the Molière for best actress for Decadence at the Theatre de la Colline), masterly as the painter-burglar and who also proves that you can go successfully from public to subsidised theatres.Sparkle and irony are the hallmarks of this show, which is not without seriousness beneath the charm: a pleasure not to be missed.Annie Coppermann

Le Figaro Magazine - « The Libertine »

The Libertine: a real pleasure.What a gift from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. The portrait of a delicious libertine so easily sketched, so naturally funny and lively at the same time. A pleasure indeed! This is not a montage of Diderot's works, far from it, even if Schmitt has made ample use of them. It is a genuine, intelligent, original, clever comedy, stylishly written and constructed around a few characters, who existed in real life. The concept is highly entertaining.Diderot, in whom Schmitt is well versed, is having a rest in the country at Baron Holbach's. His mind is not at peace, however. Love affairs and women, of whom there is no shortage in this delightful shooting-lodge in the depths of the park, pleasantly take up most of his time - Nicholas Sire's scenery is stunning. Unfortunately, a chore looms: an article on Ethics must be written for the Encyclopedia. But what is the meaning of ethics when what you want is to make love? The only answer is to be found in the ethics of happiness. But doesn't this go against the social ethics to which an 18th-century philosopher is at least supposed to pay lipservice? Life can really be too complicated. Diderot does his best to wade through a perpetual whirl of funny and embarrassing situations and hilarious new developments. The comic plot is total invention on the part of Schmitt, but he has invented nothing of Diderot's character, who was well-known for his ability to reconcile opposites. The Libertine's success is due to this admixture of fiction and truth. Add Schmitt to Diderot and you get a real firework!Philippe Tesson

La Tribune - « The Libertine »

Schmitt has altered nothing of Diderot's thoughts, musings and digressions on the art of living and the art of loving, which are not to be savoured in the same way. In order to express and reveal all Diderot's contradictions from all the elements, Schmitt has created for Diderot a crazy day (...) The whole thing is just an excuse to bring to life the misdemeanours of a philosopher whose one fear was to hurt his fellow men.Caroline Alexander

Le Canard Enchaîné - « The Libertine »

With this crazy day in the life of Denis Diderot, Schmitt has proved his brilliance as a playwright. Adding to his natural brio the shimmer of the 18th century, Schmitt holds all the winning cards and has written a play that is more graceful than light-hearted, with plenty of witty repartee. Bernard Thomas

Le Figaro Magazine - « The Libertine »

A royal treat at the Théâtre Montparnasse in the aptly-named Rue de la Gaité. Schmitt brings Diderot alive again with all the modernity of his thinking, his derision and his energy. Exuberance, strength and fantasy are key-words for Diderot, the main character traits of this curious and insatiable man.Marion Thiébaud

Le Spectacle du Monde - « The Libertine »

When he imagined this crazy day in the life of Denis Diderot, a day divided between the lure of light-hearted gallanteries and the necessity of writing his essay on Ethics, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt did not yield to the temptation of paying the conventional tribute to the Age of Enlightment. On the contrary, he points up the contradictions... the better to let them seduce the audience completely. Following in Beaumarchais's footsteps, he makes us love a vain, unreliable mind by turning him into a Figaro-like character. (...) Brilliant, superb, intelligent and delightful entertainment.M. de J.

Le Parisien - « The Libertine »

A play that brings us philosophy with the laughter of farce and some wonderfully witty repartee. Diderot is about to write his article on Ethics for his Encyclopedia. But first, he has to escape the advances of a female portraitist whose aim has nothing to do with painting. Diderot is to be continually interrupted by other female visitors, all very flattering for his self-respect but extremely dangerous for his theories. Schmitt has written a play that is like a brilliant piece of embroidery, and light and funny at the same time. Giraudeau as Diderot is superb, amply highlighting the libertine flavour. André Lafargue

Italianotizie (Italie) - « Il libertino in Catania »

The owner of Catania's Piccolo Teatro, Gianni Salvo, once again has confirmed his choosing texts of the highest quality which characterize his theatre: this time he has chosen the play of a French author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: "Il libertino", a comedy rich of irony and lightness which someone has defined a "philosophical vaudeville". Our first compliments are due to the young director, whom we had already clapped as a good actor in this same theatre, Nicola Alberto Orofino, who has been able to accept this defy which was not easy, above all for the subject dealt: a whole day in the life of Diderot, one of the most famous French philosophers. We have greatly appreciated, and the public has shared our praise, Orofino's choice not to break the play in two acts in order not to lose the pathos created. Before talking about the two protagonists we want to praise once again the stage designer, Oriana Sessa, who has imagined and created a set with all the objects in the tone of white and black, very functional to the various moments of the performance, perfect her attention to the particulars. Now we want to tribute a long standing ovation to the absolute protagonist of the play, Fiorenzo Fiorito, performing the role of Diderot, compelled to face four different women who embody four stereotypes of the female world and who make him reflect about the concept of "moral" and "being a libertine": absolutely wonderful in this demanding role ether from the recitation point of view or from the gesture one. And together with Fiorito our compliments go to the female protagonist, Anna Passanisi, who interprets a false portrait-painter who, in the end, will turn out to be a very good and cunning swindler who will work on her sex appeal to swindle Diderot who, notwithstanding this, will not denounce her.: very good indeed Anna. A clap also to the other female protagonists: Tiziana Bellassai in the role of Diderot's wfe who, first, performs a jealousy scene and later instills, with wise cunning, the doubt of her unfaithfulness; Luana Toscano who performs the role of the young daughter of the owner of the house where Diderot lives and is still a bit immature in her love choices and Egle Doria, performing the role of Diderot's daughter, who first would like to make a provocative choice of life which let her famous father upset but later, accepting his wise suggestions, makes up her mind about the mistake she was going to do. Giuseppe Carbone performs in a nice way, with his ingenuous way of being, the role of Diderot's nuisance secretary. Schmitt's play, lasting more than two hours without a break with philosophical considerations, smiles and bursts of laughter, has given, according to our humble opinion, an example of the function that theatre should have: educating through smile. Thanks.Daniela Domenici 


  • In Bulgarian, published by Lege Artis


The Libertine