«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College In partial fulfillment of ...»
Je sais qu’on imprime encore, à la fin du dix-huitième siècle, que la philosophie est une invention pernicieuse, et que tout sera bouleversé, si elle vient à triompher dans l’esprit des hommes. C’est dire en d’autres paroles, que tout sera bouleversé quand les hommes auront du bon sens. Si c’est une vérité, il faut convenir du moins qu’elle n’est pas évidente. On peut d’ailleurs prédire aux ennemis de la philosophie, que tous leurs efforts seront inutiles. Permis à eux de retourner de la lumière aux ténèbres; mais qu’ils ne se flattent pas d’y ramener l’Europe; elle s’avance à grands pas des ténèbres à la lumière. C’est la marche nécessaire de l’esprit humain, qui ne peut rétrograder depuis l’invention de l’imprimerie.
(Chénier, Discours préliminaire 27) For Chénier, the progression and perfection of humankind is closely linked with technological inventions such as the printing press. Although some of his contemporaries use this tool to speak ill of philosophes, the press nonetheless remains a vital part of the Enlightenment project and a way to further disseminate lumières throughout French society and beyond.
After this praise of the press in theoretical terms, Chénier, over the next few years, would show his affinity for the printed word in very practical ways. In addition, the playwright’s evocation of anti-philosophes proves that debates between two diametrically opposed ideological groups—a fight that reached its climax with Palissot’s and Voltaire’s plays in 1760—continued to the eve of the French Revolution.
To make sure that audience members were well disposed to his play, Chénier launched a pamphlet campaign that echoed Voltaire’s efforts during the staging of L’Ecossaise in the early summer of 1760. With a strong affinity for Voltaire and his conception of drama, and then by personally witnessing Beaumarchais’s model pamphleteering campaign just five years earlier, Chénier had the intellectual and practical tools to successfully create a “theatrical event.” But what is more, Chénier might also have learned the art of publicity from another one of the masters of the trade, none other
than Charles Palissot, the now-former anti-philosophe! Rodmell attests that:
Readings, pamphlets, marketing campaigns: Chénier’s Charles IX is a clear successor to Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro—and like Beaumarchais, Chénier suffered intense criticism by royal authorities. Part of the reason that the censure disliked Chénier’s play so much was because it linked the weak sixteenth-century king Charles IX with his contemporary counterpart, Louis XVI.227 At the time, writers criticized Chénier’s staging of real moments from French history, a practice that conservative reviewers thought of as unfit for high tragedy at one of Europe’s most prestigious theaters. Chénier drew from the Chénier cleverly blends historical analysis with contemporary polemics by writing about both Charles IX and Louis XVI in the same paragraph of his Epître dédicatoire that accompanied his tragedy. At a certain point in the text, the reader must have wondered which King Chénier was referring to when he wrote about a pernicious “wall of separation” between the King and the people (Chénier, Epître dédicatoire 6).
same arguments that some of his friends had used to justify themselves in earlier battles at the Comédie-Française. According to Rodmell, Chénier harked back to theatrical norms in Ancient Greece to rationalize his mise-en-scène of contemporary figures from
Chénier’s evocation of Ancient Greece parallels Palissot’s justification for staging philosophes such as Diderot and Rousseau in his 1760 satire. According to Palissot, the great Greek dramatist Aristophanes put contemporaries like Socrates and Cleon on the boards, and therefore, it was permissible for Palissot to do the same.228 However, Chénier’s work is less polemical than Palissot’s—Chénier chooses his terms wisely, and calls his on-stage evocations of actual people “praise”—a strategy he hopes will soften some of the harsh criticisms made against him during the late 1780s. Undeterred by critics and helped by strategic alliances with theater personalities such as Palissot and Joseph Talma (the lead actor at the Comédie Française), Chénier continued his battle to get Charles IX up on the theater’s boards.
In one of the first English-language studies on Chénier’s tragedy, H.C. Ault argues that, “from August 1789 to August 1790, Chénier was agitating, in pamphlets and in the Journal de Paris, to have his play performed and, that achieved, was equally busy justifying the performance and defending his tragedy” (398). Ault then goes on to describe the effect of this “campaign,” noting that the premiere of Charles IX was “a For a more detailed discussion on Palissot’s justification for staging the philosophes, see chapter one of this dissertation.
night of boundless and noisy enthusiasm,” and “the most successful, as it had been the longest awaited first night of the century” (398).
Did spectators greet the premiere of Charles IX with more acclaim than the first night of Le Mariage de Figaro? Even with a quantitative analysis of ticket sales and write-ups in contemporary newspapers, it would be difficult to measure the difference in audience reception of the two plays (how does one measure ‘bruit’?). What is perhaps more interesting is that both plays follow the Palissot/Voltaire affair insofar as they were all performed for an audience in a heighted state of anticipation due to pamphlets, letters, and published prefaces.
All three of these “theatrical events” from after the Palissot/Voltaire affair caused nothing short of an uproar at the Comédie-Française—and in Chénier’s case, one could even credit the relationship between pamphlets and spectators as the chief reason for the play’s eventual performance on August 20, 1789. Reluctant to perform the play, actors at the newly established Théâtre National originally rejected Charles IX out of a desire not to offend royalist protectors.229 Not wanting to bite the hands that fed them, actors viewed associates to the Crown as important sources of revenue because the rich nobility paid comédiens more than the average rate for performances in privately owned théâtres de société.230 Joseph Talma, the lead actor at the Comédie-Française, disagreed with his fellow Comédiens over Chénier’s tragedy and was temporarily expulsed from the troup for several months (Walton 131).
For more information on the world of “théâtres de société,” see Dominique Quero and
Marie-Emmanuelle Plagnol-Diéval’s Les théâtres de société au XVIIIe siècle. Brussels:
Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles. 2005.
With opposing views on Charles IX, audiences and actors clashed at the theater in late August, 1789. In an article about the staging of Charles IX, Charles Walton writes
about the power of the parterre to determine the actors’ choices:
Walton’s perspicuous chronology of Chénier’s premiere shows the eventual victory by spectators over the more “conservative” actors at the Théâtre-National. Providing evidence for Walton’s link between pamphlets and spectator behavior, eyewitness accounts indicate that the crowd’s pent up anxiety from the night before turned into sheer bedlam the following day. In his Souvenirs de la Terreur, Georges Duval sets the scene of the performance on August 20, or, one day after Chénier published his Appel aux
Duval’s choreographic vocabulary of agitated, militant bodies resembles Fréron’s description of Diderot, Marmontel and Grimm’s behavior at L’Ecossaise’s premiere in
1760.231 Both authors use a polemical vocabulary to indicate that the audience attended the play with a predesigned goal in mind.
Spectators had not just arrived at the theater to see any old tragedy: the audience was there for the sole purpose of watching Chénier’s Charles IX, and they would settle for nothing less. What is more, newspaper readers from the period probably noticed that the distinction between real violence in the Marais and choreography in the theater blurred in reviews of the performance. Using primary sources such as the Chronique de
Paris, Walton sheds light on the premiere:
This testimony makes the explicit link between the audience’s desire to see Charles IX and the political implications (a Counter-Revolution) of not giving spectators what they want. The blatant political rhetoric in this account, however, differs from the vocabulary used in the previous accounts of Les Philosophes or L’Ecossaise—and this important change invites us to note differences as well as similarities among some of the “theatrical events” in this dissertation.
The reported behavior of spectators at Charles IX’s premiere emphasizes violence and tumult to a higher degree than critics who wrote about audience members at performances of plays by Palissot, Voltaire, De Belloy, and Beaumarchais. Primary sources reveal that some audiences during the Revolution moved from an energetic, See my analysis of Fréron’s Relation d’une grande bataille in chapter three of this dissertation.
visceral reaction to theater into acts of overt violence at performances. Or, taking another point of view, the reviews of Charles IX differ from the reviews of our previous examples—the rhetorical use of an energetic spectator has been replaced with the rhetorical use of a violent one by theater critics.
In either case, the spectator’s reaction to the performance of Charles IX seems to have superseded other factors for consideration in reviews from the Revolutionary years.
Over the course of this dissertation, I hope to have shown that the shift of critical discourse onto the audience was a gradual process in theater and its criticism; and therefore, this discursive phenomenon did not originate with Revolutionaries. It is essential to point out that the rhetorical rise of the visible spectator did not have any overt link with political change or Revolution.
The relationship between Revolution and theater is particular to each play, venue, and historical event—a fact that prevents us from making sweeping associations between the two. After the abolishment of censorship, the explosion in the number of theatrical venues and political events such as the King’s trial or 8 Thermidor, it becomes increasingly difficult to make wholehearted statements about either “theater” or “The Revolution.” And even if we focused only on the early Revolution years, Rodmell reminds us that, “it would be mistaken to suppose that the events of July 1789 immediately effected a radical transformation in either the organization of the Parisian theatre world or the nature of plays performed on its stages” (14).
While this analysis of the relationship between political power and theater is most definitely true, it nevertheless leaves space for us to examine a noticeable change in spectator behavior at the theater or the reporting of spectator behavior in eighteenthcentury theater criticism. Even without an overall conclusion about how theater “worked” during the Revolutionary years, we can nevertheless conclude here by asserting that as political and social rhetoric became increasingly violent and boisterous, so did testimonies to how spectators reacted to theater.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, as I hope to have shown, writers incorporated the spectator into every part of the dramatic process—from dramaturgical construction, to performance, to criticism. This process culminated during the preRevolutionary period, surpassing in intensity the nascent seventeenth-century concern for audiences that we examined in reactions to Corneille’s Le Cid.
French literature textbooks have argued for decades that seventeenth-century dramatists focused their efforts on placating a selective group of royal doctes, whereas through their theater and theoretical works on theater, Enlightenment philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot brought about a fundamental change in shifting the intellectual burden from the text to the live event, and from the institutional critic to the subjective spectator. With this study, I hoped to have modestly diverged from more canonical accounts of Enlightenment theater by pointing out that more “lowly” writers such as Charles Palissot, and more “dirty” practices such as pamphleteering, also aided in the gradual, rhetorical rise of the theatrical spectator.
Although most brochures or libelles from this era never find their way to a modern reader, these often-polemical texts can reveal some of the “subjugated knowledge” that hides behind more canonical works from the eighteenth century.232 In a recent study on theater and politics during the French Revolution, Paul Friedland The term “subjugated knowledge” derives from Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, p. 7. Foucault argues that academic discourse tends to use and reuse the same sources and secondary studies, a process that hides important, forgotten texts and ideas behind canonical norms.
underlines the relationship between pamphlets and major works from the period.
Friedland argues that pamphlets,
Diderot’s theoretical works on the drame, Voltaire’s poetics of tragedy, Beaumarchais’ exciting biography, political pamphlets during the Revolutionary years: students of eighteenth-century France have analyzed these concepts for decades—if not centuries— but rarely as a series of interdependent events inside the dramatic arts.
In this study, I have concentrated on the genesis of polemical plays, highlighted visible changes in critical discourse as a result of those dramatic works, and theorized about the different ways a spectator could have interpreted a dramatic performance.