«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College In partial fulfillment of ...»
before the 1700s. During the seventeenth century, for example, theatrical works were judged against classical standards, and cornerstone theoretical texts from Antiquity such as Aristotle’s Poetics served as the paradigmatic base for dramatic criticism. Writers like Georges de Scudéry, Jean Chapelain, and François d’Aubignac judged both comedy and tragedy on the playwright’s ability (or not) to keep in line with unities of time, action, and place.4 Moreover, the theatrical work was viewed as a static text and writers either downplayed or belittled scenic considerations such as the actor’s role, the play’s staging, or the public’s reception of a live performance.
“La Querelle du Cid” and the Emergence of a public The critical reception of Pierre de Corneille’s Le Cid provides an interesting though somewhat ambiguous example of the seventeenth-century disregard for public reception. Despite an overwhelming number of ticket sales and a warm reception by the public at performances, critics of the work constantly attempted to downplay the importance of theatrical spectators and bolster their own reflections on the play.5 In her groundbreaking work on the emergence of a literary public during the seventeenth century, Hélène Merlin-Kajman writes that the disdain shared by Scudéry and Chapelain stemmed from their narrow definition of and overt distaste for theater spectators. She writes that “les adversaires du Cid cherchent à démontrer que ce succès n’est pas public, In his work on seventeenth-century tragedy, Christopher Braider defines the three unities as: “The singular French insistence not only on maintaining the tightly focused dramatic necessity of the plot, but on observing a rigid singleness of place and a narrow span of time commensurate with those in which the play is heard and seen” (30).
I will be using the following edition of Corneille’s tragedy throughout this dissertation:
Le Cid (1637-1660) et L’Illusion comique. Ed. par Georges Forestier et Robert Garapon.
Paris: Société des Textes Français Modernes, 2001.
c’est-à-dire qu’il ne concerne pas le public, mais qu’il s’agit d’un succès populaire, au sens négatif du terme, au sens d’une force informe menaçant toujours le public” (169).
Merlin-Kajmin argues that the relationship between performance and dramatic text emerged as one of the most divisive issues among participants in the quarrel over Le Cid. To illustrate her point, Merlin-Kajmin examines Scudéry’s vituperative letters against Corneille and Chapelein’s authoritative response to the dramatist as representative of the newly established Académie Française. Both Scudéry and Chapelain underline
seventeenth-century prejudices against live performance:
Avant [la] publication, la pièce [selon Chapelain et Scudéry] n’est rien qu’un amusement, et ses spectateurs ne constituent pas un public au sens ontologique du terme. Pour commencer à exister dans le registre des belles-lettres, elle doit trouver écho dans la faculté de juger des honnêtes gens, c’est-à-dire d’un collectif de personnes disposant d’un cabinet et de la faculté rationnelle de juger un texte par sa lecture…L’espace public du théâtre forme un espace favorable à toutes les « tromperies », tant par les
effets propres à la scène que par les mouvements désordonnés du peuple :
là où l’espace public du théâtre publie en aveuglant, l’impression, elle, publie en éclaircissant les défauts du Cid. (174).
According to Chapelain and Scudéry, spectators enjoyed Corneille’s tragedy because they were caught up in the play’s tricky staging effects and blind to its literary faults—an unfortunate tromperie and easily rectified with a silent reading of the dramatic text by a learned member of le public.
In his own reading of the Querelle du Cid, Christopher Braider argues that “Scudéry’s point is that theatrical illusion, the overwhelming affective presence of dramatic action and delivery, disables judgment by actuating sensuous appetite and unconscious identificatory response” (36). According to the newly established order at the Académie Française, people enjoyed Le Cid because of the “eventful” nature of theatrical performance rather than the play’s narrative or Corneille’s reflections on themes such as unrequited love, obligation, and transgression.
Not all members of the seventeenth-century theatrical world shared this disdain for the play’s effect on spectators. Most importantly, the anti-performance construct was at odds with the play’s author, Pierre de Corneille, and his concept of theater.6 Corneille, in an effort to rectify his reputation after Scudéry’s vicious attacks,7 underlines a different idea of theater—a more ludic construction of the dramatic arts—and a concern for the theatergoing public that was shared by some playwrights during the classical era. After being accused numerous times of not following Aristotelian rules in the strictest sense, Corneille wrote a letter to the Académie Française arguing that his goal as a dramatist should be to please the audience with a good performance (“représentation”) and only follow the rules “s’il se peut” (“Préface,” Le Cid et l’Illusion comique xiv).
What emerges, then, is a sharp divide between some dramatic writers and theoreticians over the meaning of the term “public.” Aside from Corneille and a few of his followers, most dramatic theoreticians bolstered the agency of a reading public that viewed the written document’s adherence to theatrical laws as the sine qua non condition But in general, when seventeenth-century writers analyzed the effect of theater on spectators, they rarely made any laudatory remarks. For example, Blaise Pascal wrote about the dangerous effect of theater on the spectator, especially in comedy: “Tous les grands divertissements sont dangereux pour la vie chrétienne; mais entre tous ceux que le monde a inventés, il n’y en a point qui soit plus à craindre que la comédie. C’est une représentation si naturelle et si délicate des passions, qu’elle les émeut et les fait naître dans notre cœur, et surtout celle de l’amour ; principalement lorsqu’on le représente fort chaste et fort honnête” (304).
Braider highlights Scudéry’s variety of attacks, as well as his motive: “Goaded in part by envy at Le Cid’s spectacular popular success, Scudéry launches an avalanche of furious accusations, alleging everything from incompetent plotting and flagrant breaches of plausibility and decorum to sexual depravity, hypocrisy, lèse-majesté, and plagiarism” (35).
of successful drama. Jean-Jacques Roubine’s analysis of seventeenth-century drama goes beyond battles surrounding Le Cid and discusses literary criticism in general during the period. Roubine writes about an almost institutional disregard for spectators during the seventeenth century, attesting that “le seul public ‘légitime’ aux yeux des ‘doctes’, ces ‘connaisseux’ qui savent les règles ou ces ‘honnêtes gens’ qui ont des lumières de tout, constituait davantage un lectorat que le vrai public des théâtres” (41 emph. added).8 According to seventeenth-century doctes, tragedies and comedies were first read by the appropriate readership, and then judged strictly on their poetic construction. At no point do spectators or their reactions to performance enter the doctes’ critical equation. In theater criticism from this period, the economic or public success of the play pales in importance to its ability to stay within a framework of dramatic rules. Despite the fact that spectators received Le Cid with open arms and that the tragedy amassed significant sums of money, a powerful critical circle nonetheless judged Corneille’s work only on its merits as a literary text. The doctes focused uniquely on poetics and their criticism avoided any discussion of consumption (ticket sales, printed copies of the text) or the popular taste of Parisian audiences.9 In his Troisième dissertation concernant le poème dramatique (1663), D’Aubignac slightly widens the narrow construction of public criticism at the time. Nevertheless, the abbé’s definition of ‘peuple’ is a far cry from the same term one century later: “Le peuple est le premier juge de ces ouvrages; ce n’est pas que je les commette au mauvais sentiment des coutauds de boutique et des laquais, j’entends par le public cet amas d’honnêtes gens qui s’en divertissent et qui ne manquent ni de lumières naturelles, ni d’inclination à la vertu, pour être touches des beaux éclairs de la poésie” (qtd. by Roubine 19).
William Howarth argues that so many people wanted to see Corneille’s Le Cid that rich patrons, for lack of important loges in the theater, paid for expensive seats on the stage at the Théâtre de Bourgogne. This practice, or “cantonnade,” lasted until 1759, when Voltaire, Diderot, and other dramatic authors—realizing the dramatic constraints Over the next few chapters, I hope to show that eighteenth-century theatrical concerns paralleled and diverged from this important seventeenth-century debate among doctes, playwrights, and spectators. Seventeenth-century literary and dramatic criticism is qualitatively and quantitatively incongruent with criticism during the eighteenth century.
With a relatively small number of gazettes and newspapers (in comparison with the eighteenth century), seventeenth-century theater critics used prefaces, letters and speeches—critical media that had less social impact because of their reduced circulations.
For example, Scudéry and Corneille battled each other mostly in letters to the Académie Française or in prefaces to their own literary works from the 1630s and 1640s.10 Due to publishing norms, literacy rates and ideals such as the docte paradigm, literary criticism from the seventeenth century, not withstanding a few exceptions, was not the social event that it would become a generation later.11 Even so, the evocation of the public during the querelle du Cid in both positive and negative terms ushered in ideas that would blossom and even become institutionalized during the eighteenth century. In her analysis of intellectual battles associated with having dozens of extra people on stage—finally convinced the theater to outlaw the practice (Beaumarchais and the Theatre 58).
For a detailed analysis of the Querelle du Cid’s chronology and social impact, see chapter 5 of Merlin-Kajman’s Public et littérature en France au XVIIe siècle (pp. 153or Armand Gasté’s collection, La querelle du Cid, pièces et pamphlets publiés d’après les originaux avec une introduction.
Although it focused on the reception of a novel and not a theatrical work, the querelle surrounding the publication of Madame de LaFayette’s La princesse de Clèves (1678) shows a significant link between judgment and le public during the seventeenth century.
Unlike the use of letters and prefaces in Corneille’s Le Cid, participants in this battle used early newspapers such as the Mercure galant to criticize their rival side (Lafayette’s supporters on one side and detractors who thought her character compositions were too indecent and unrealistic on the other side). For more information on the the reception of La princesse de Clèves, see Merlin-Kajman’s chapter 9 (pp. 307-334), Maurice Laugaa’s Lectures de madame de Lafayette, or Gérard Genette’s famous article about the quarrel, “Vraisemblance et motivation.” during the end of the seventeenth century, Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle, Joan DeJean argues that critical discourse surrounding Corneille’s Le Cid evoked le public in an unprecedented manner. DeJean writes that,
DeJean’s analysis of Le Cid moves forward the chronological discussion of the public, and what is more, her study is an erudite refusal of the traditional notion that the public remained an abstract, enigmatic force until the late eighteenth century.12 My study will in part follow this notion of an emerging public, and especially one of theatergoers, into the pre-Revolutionary years in order to see how it gained visibility in theatrical discourse.13 But I also hope to make clear the important difference between after-the-fact evocations of the public—uses of the term after the work’s publication or performance—during the seventeenth century, and à priori considerations of the public— notions of their needs during the creative process—just one century later. During the eighteenth century, playwrights integrated the desires of spectators into their dramaturgy and demonstrated an acute attention to contemporary fads, social changes, and political concerns.
In his oft-quoted The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Jürgen Habermas makes a clear distinction between Stuart England (1603-1714) and the corresponding period in France, arguing that the former allowed for an early adoption of the public sphere that the latter could only muster during the middle-to-late years of the eighteenth century.
By “theatrical discourse,” I mean any writing that focuses on theater, including plays, prefaces, reviews, pamphlets, and letters.
Eighteenth-Century Theaters: A Period of Proliferation During the eighteenth century, theater attendance consistently increased as France moved toward the Revolution.14 The theater historian William Howarth attests that in 1700, “Paris theatres provided between them accommodation for some 4,000 spectators;
around 1750, this figure is thought to have increased to 6,000 or more; and on the eve of the Revolution, to 12,000 or 13,000” (58). Over the course of the eighteenth century, venues such as the Comédie-Française brought in spectators from multiple economic levels in French society, which gave theater a relatively heterogeneous social character when compared to other cultural outlets such as the Royal ballet or the Opera.15 Before the French Revolution, theater was an important socializing event, and possibly even “le seul lieu où la Nation pourra prendre conscience d’elle-même” (Roubine 66).