«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College In partial fulfillment of ...»
In his exceptional work on theater audiences during the long eighteenth-century,16 Jeffrey Ravel illuminates a world of boisterous performance on and off the stage— including cabals, fights, thefts, and murders.17 Ravel specifically links the heightened So did the number of theaters. In 1700, only the Comédie-Française and the Opéra were in operation. By the Revolution, Paris had three main stages in the CF, Opéra, and Comédie-Italienne, as well as smaller theaters like the Odéon, St. Laurent, St. Germain, and more. For more information on the development of theaters during the eighteenth century, see Pruner’s La fabrique du théâtre, chapter 2.
Although not every social order could afford a parterre ticket, prices remained relatively low so that servants, valets, and students could afford to see plays. For more information on ticket prices and the socioeconomic makeup of audiences, see John Lough’s paramount study, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries, ch. 1.
Ravel uses the term “long eighteenth century” to focus on theater audiences from the establishment of the Comédie-Française in 1680 until the deregulation of theaters and abolishment of the censure in 1789.
Cabals were raucous groups of partisans that were usually paid by an interested party to cause a scandal. Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie defined them as “concert[s] ou conspiration[s] de plusieurs personnes, qui par des menées secrettes & illicites, travaillent sourdement à quelque chose d'injuste, comme à perdre un innocent, à sauver energy of theatergoers to performance, and he argues that “playwrights require bodies, voices, movement, and gestures to animate their ideas, and eighteenth-century audiences responded to performance in a vivid, often visceral fashion” (6).
Ravel’s inquiry into the behavior of eighteenth-century spectators will forever stand as an important breakthrough in the history of theater performance. In his work, Ravel admirably describes the emerging visibility of theatergoers throughout this period.
Building on Ravel but departing from him as well, I will consider how “visceral” reactions by spectators originated in writing that preconditioned those reactions—textual sources in circulation before the audio-visual event—as well as in the live performances that Ravel and witnesses during the eighteenth century describe. This triangular relationship among pre-performance strategies, theatrical performance, and dramatic criticism converge in what I call a “theatrical event.” When studied as an ensemble of interdependent elements, the “event” shows us how audiences gained a level of visibility and influence in pre-Revolutionary France that is incomparable to the relatively minor importance granted to the spectators that fill the seats of theaters at present.
Eighteenth-century theatrical production differed from today’s collaborative artistic effort among writers, directors, actors, and an audience: during the eighteenth century, other factors came into play such as the royal censure, aristocratic patronage, and politics. Because of its social importance during the middle of the eighteenth century, theater sought to convince, educate, and persuade the spectator about a variety of un coupable, à décréditer une bonne marchandise, un bon ouvrage, à ruiner quelque établissement utile, ou à faire éclorre quelque projet préjudiciable à l'état ou à la société (article: Cabale, http://diderot.alembert.free.fr/).
psychological, social, and political matters.18 Playwrights and political officials used theater as a means to communicate vital issues both internal and external to the Republic of Letters, and eighteenth-century dramatists staged such disparate concerns as the Salic law for royal ascendancy19 and contemporary reflections on what it means to be an attentive father or an obedient child.20 Most importantly, and in greatest contrast to today’s theater, eighteenth-century drama sought to teach a broad segment of society about issues such as political history, proper sexual roles, and ethics. I do not mean to belittle the importance of dramatic production at present, nor do I believe that theater has shied away from confronting vital social issues such as stem-cell research,21 the AIDS epidemic,22 or political injustices.23 In fact, some theaters, such as the Théâtre des ateliers in Lyon, France have made social awareness through the dramatic arts their chief enterprise.
Rather than address the declining importance of theater in our everyday lives owing to the advent of cable TV, Netflicks, Youtube, and other audio-visual outlets; I Eighteenth-century theater inherited an important social status from Ancient Rome, where “le théâtre et les jeux constituent un organe idéologique puissant du pouvoir impérial, qui en fournissant au peuple, aux plus forts moments d’absolutisme, du pain et des jeux (panem et circenses), achète sa soumission par le divertissement” (Naugrette 20).
Charles Collé’s Le parti de chasse d’Henri IV (1774).
Denis Diderot’s Le père de famille (1762).
Catherine Hargreaves staged the debate over stem cells in Un grand nombre (Théâtre des ateliers, November 2008, Lyon, France), a recent adaptation of Carol Churchill’s English play, A Number.
For example, the AIDS Theater Project, launched in 1987 by Chris Freedman aims to inform urban children from Los Angeles and New York about the AIDS epidemic through the dramatic arts.
Although the list of “politically charged” plays is long, Sophia Linden’s tragedy, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, which was staged as recently as 2007 in San Diego, California, serves as an obvious example of this genre.
want to underline the historical and quantitative difference between theater as a medium during the eighteenth century and the role of drama today.24 In this study of the texts, performances, and critical receptions of certain plays during the second half of the eighteenth century, I hope to locate specific forms of dramaturgy, spectatorship, and criticism inspired by changes in cultural practices and inherent to a tumultuous, preRevolutionary epoch.
Theatrical and Non-theatrical Considerations from the Eighteenth Century First, it is essential to note the difference between attending a performance during the eighteenth century and our contemporary notion of a night at the theater. In a recent monograph on political and literary representations during the Enlightenment, Paul Friedland writes that “the passive and silent individual, seated in the darkness, obsessed with the action on the lighted stage, did not exist in the middle of the eighteenth century” (23), and Ravel reminds us that, “…eighteenth-century parterre practices resulted in a theatergoing experience vastly different from the quietly contemplative aesthetic event with which we are familiar today” (54).
In short, theater was a participatory event during the eighteenth century.
Audiences responded vigorously to performances, and the dramatic arts played a significant role as a persuasive tool inside the Republic of Letters and as a cultural practice among Parisians from many different walks of life. By understanding the social characteristics of eighteenth-century theatergoing, we may best be able to locate how the Pruner shows that theater attendance has steadily declined during the twentieth century to the point that only 7% of the French public saw a theater performance of any kind in 1987 (239). Although the number may not have been that much higher during the eighteenth century (although it probably was), the social impact of theater, or what Pruner calls théâtromanie, reached its peak during the eighteenth century.
spectator played a role not only in the performance, but also in the creative dramaturgical process as well.
Parterres were locations of boisterous energy that could “make or break” a performance (sometimes literally) throughout the eighteenth century.25 As we shall see with a few examples, writers of the time recognized the critical power of the parterre and incorporated its tastes into their dramaturgy. But these authors also reached out to more privileged members of the audience in the loges—no doubt in order to secure personal gains and make references to previously circulated literary works inside the Republic of Letters.26 Through textual preconditioning and theatrical performance, authors such as Charles Palissot (1730-1814) and François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778) targeted members of the audience for the dissemination of their own theatrical theories, philosophical viewpoints, and social opinions. This hostile philo-literary atmosphere inspired a dramaturgy, which, as we shall see, diverged from contemporary norms of playwriting: the persuasion of the spectator by the writer emerges as the dominant goal of the dramatic text. Rather than strictly following classical predecessors with traditional situations and characters, playwrights incorporated contemporary eighteenth-century For examples of how dangerous theater attendance could become during this period, see chapter 4 of this dissertation, and specifically the eyewitness testimonies of spectators at the premieres of Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro and Marie-Joseph Cheniér’s Charles IX.
The philosophe Jean-François Marmontel’s article “Farce” in the Encyclopédie provides a clear image of how philosophes viewed eighteenth-century society as stratified. He writes that the “public comprend trois classes: le bas-peuple, dont le goût et l’esprit ne sont pas cultivés et n’ont pas besoin de l’être ; ce monde honnête et poli qui joint à la décence des mœurs, une intelligence épurée et un sentiment délicat des bonnes choses ; l’état mitoyen, plus étendu qu’on ne pense, qui tâche de s’approcher par vanité de la classes des honnêtes gens, mais qui est entrainé vers le bas-peuple par une pente naturelle” (qtd. by Saint Victor 1058).
cultural practices and personalities into their dramaturgy in an effort to render spectators intellectually comfortable with the events on the stage and to close the distance between everyday life and theater.
The energized atmosphere at the Comédie-Française parallels a general feeling of social turmoil during the second half of the eighteenth century. Previously accepted modes in criticism and reception changed to incorporate a more raucous relationship between spectator and stage, critic and play, and even subject and sovereign. By 1751, the famed statesman and friend of Voltaire, René Louis d’Argenson, prophetically pointed out that, “tous les ordres sont mécontents. Les matières étant partout combustibles, une émeute peut faire passer à la révolte, et la révolte à une totale révolution” (in Descotes, Histoire de la critique, 135).
However, to connect raucous theater attendance with Revolution is too simple a view of French society’s complexity at the time. In order to make a few documented, tangible observations about cultural changes during this period, I will stay inside the realm of theater and theater criticism. But what caused powerful reactions to performance by spectators during the Enlightenment? Or more generally, what caused a noticeable “change” in the “atmosphere” surrounding theater at the mid-century point (Descotes 135)?
One reason for this qualitative change in audience reception depends on a blend of texts and performance, i.e., between previously written works (a process of preconditioning the audience) and specific phenomena inherent to the audio-visual event of theater. Through the lens of on-stage literary debates during the middle of the eighteenth-century, we will perceive how the norms of dramaturgical construction and performance changed to include notions such as contemporary polemics, public opinion, and new forms of cultural production.
Over the next few chapters, I will show a complex relationship between written materials such as philosophical treatises, prefaces, introductions, and (most importantly) polemical pamphlets on the one hand; and performative phenomena such as pantomime, dramatic narrative, and staging techniques on the other. The cross-pollination of these two discursive modes developed a theatrical spectator who differed from his seventeenthcentury predecessor as well as from his equivalent during the nineteenth century and later. With close readings of the texts, the criticisms and the performances of a few preRevolutionary plays, I hope to show how playwrights conditioned theater audiences with polemical pamphlets and other written materials.