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Rather than asserting a new way to “read” Voltaire’s comedic corpus or a different understanding of the Revolution, I hoped to have shown that eighteenth-century spectators responded to ephemeral, polemical pamphlets in addition to the events that occurred on stage. In doing so, theater audiences—and not just playwrights—emerged as important agents inside the world of pre-Revolutionary theater productions and literary criticism. What is perhaps even more interesting, however, is that this social practice— the strategic use of texts to precondition the public—also penetrated other aspects of eighteenth-century society.
After a decade of nasty squabbles with Elie-Cathérine Fréron and Lefranc de Pompignan during the 1750s, Voltaire entered a more serious battle to “écraser l’infâme:” the Calas affair, which lasted from 1762-1765. This famous example of religious intolerance began with the alleged suicide of Marc-Antoine Calas, the son of a prominent Toulousian protestant, Jean Calas. Implicated in the affair from the beginning (due to Toulouse’s arch-Catholic judges), Calas père was eventually accused of murdering MarcAntoine because of his son’s putative relationship with a Catholic woman. After a quick and slanted trial, Jean Calas was violently tortured and killed on the wheel in 1762.233 Voltaire caught wind of the case after Jean Calas’ death and was horrified by the overt anti-Protestantism of the Toulouse courts. The great “Patriarch of Ferney” then made it a personal goal to convince the court to overturn their original ruling symbolically and legally re-instate the Calas family in the Toulouse district.
The following excerpt is from Voltaire’s letter to his friend, Henri Cathala,
written shortly before the public “re-instatement” trial in July 1762:
On pense qu’il est important que les deux pièces originales, c’est-à-dire les lettres de la mère et du fils [de Jean Calas], soient imprimées à Paris, elles disposeront le public, elles l’animeront et la cour, déjà instruite, ne pourra s’empêcher de faire venir la procédure à Toulouse. […] Mon impression est qu’on touche le public par l’impression de la lettre de la mère et du fils auxquels on ne peut répondre et que le cri public force le chancelier à interposer l’autorité royale (D10554 [July 3 1762]) With a desire to publish strategic documents that might “disposer le public,” “animer” its heart and cause a general “cri public,” Voltaire’s treatment of Calas’ restitution procedure parallels the philosophe’s effort before the premiere of L’Ecossaise. In both cases, he hopes to create a knowledgeable and sympathetic public before a major event. However, before L’Ecossaise, Voltaire merely seeks to rally spectators against an ideological and literary opponent, whereas in the For more information on the Calas Affair, see Haydn Mason’s landmark work, Voltaire: A Biography, especially sections on Voltaire during the 1760s.
Calas Affair, Voltaire implores the public to aid the philosophe in vanquishing an ignorant enemy and pushing through the Enlightenment project of reason.
In a recent article about Voltaire in the 1760s, James Hanrahan points out that, “For Voltaire, the public was the educated and literate theatre-going public who read his works and those of his contemporaries. More than simply ‘lettré’, the public that Voltaire imagined was also enlightened” (151, emphasis mine).
Voltaire’s definition of his public has two important implications for this study on “theatrical events” in eighteenth-century France. First, Voltaire viewed theater spectators as agents of the Enlightenment—an important group of individuals who, like Voltaire, sought to destroy intolerance and sometimes push for social progress. This overt link between spectators and people who cause social change (like in the Calas Affair) explains why Voltaire prods, pleads, and persuades his audiences; but also, it shows us that Voltaire truly believed that theater spectators possessed a significant amount of social agency.
Secondly, Voltaire’s parallel treatment of publics shows that some of these preconditioning processes in theater permeated more serious arenas such as the judiciary and Civil Rights. Voltaire’s desire to heighten a spectator’s awareness of Fréron’s faults or Pompignon’s idiocy turns into a concerted effort to ready the public for an event that pits religious ignorance and state-sponsored torture against law and due process.234 For a more detailed discussion of philosophe opinions on capital punishment, see the first few chapters of Lisa Silverman’s monograph, Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France.
Preconditioning was an important practice inside the world of theater.
Realizing this fact, Voltaire brought this strategy to other aspects of French society, because for Voltaire, the theatergoer and the social activist were one and the same. Although he wasn’t alive to see the premiere of Chénier’s Charles IX, Voltaire probably would not have been shocked at the increased amount of agency that spectators demonstrated in subverting the intentions of censures, actors, and politicians—nor would he have found it bizarre to see perhaps some of these same audience members tear down the Bastille and dismantle the political underpinnings of the Ancien Régime.
The specific historical context in which these “theatrical events” occurred has long passed, and the public importance of theater has since lost considerable ground to serial novels (19th century), film (early 20th century), television (mid 20th century), and as of the 1990s, the Internet.235 The speed with which we now have access to information and the fact that we have no qualms about viewing live people from society in our media outlets create an insurmountable gap between us and the early-modern members of society who pioneered the rise of journalism and fully entered something that might be called a public sphere.236 I do not mean to downplay the qualitative differences among these media (i.e. the collective experience of theater vs. the atomistic privacy of the internet). I hope to merely show the chronology of media that society has viewed as important from the eighteenth century to today.
It is important to note the difference between the terms “first entered” and “fully entered” the public sphere. In Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle, Joan DeJean accurately points out that our notion of the term “public” was first used during the Le Cid affair in 1737 and further employed during the battle between Ancients and Moderns at the end of the seventeenth century (35-37). Whereas DeJean’s study shows the first evocations of a reading public, my study has attempted to highlight the crystallization of, and the dependence on, a sphere of readers and spectators.
During the Palissot/Voltaire affair, some spectators attended performances of Les Philosophes or L’Ecossaise after reading the prefaces, pamphlets, and published letters from a decade-long battle between philosophes and anti-philosophes. These audience members possibly entered the Comédie-Française with a keen notion of each play’s content—a fact perhaps confirmed by eyewitness testimony claiming that spectators shouted lines from plays even before the curtain rose and the actors opened their mouths.
Then, to stoke the fire even more, both Palissot and Voltaire bolster their preconditioning efforts with literary and performative criticisms of the rival cohort.
The use of media outlets as a venue for polemical stone throwing should not shock us as too far removed from current social practices—a fact most clearly demonstrated during any recent Presidential campaign. But also (and perhaps more interestingly), eighteenth-century audience preconditioning—a concerted effort to render somebody “bien disposé”—has clear successors in our society at present. Here is just one possible example among many.
When Pixar Pictures or Dreamworks Productions releases a new animated feature, their goal is to make sure that children (and their parents) know the name of each character in the film before the premiere—a feat that producers accomplish through interactive games on websites, TV commercials, and toys that fast food restaurants sell in specifically marketed meals to young consumers (e.g. the “Happy Meal”). Any intelligent marketing director would agree that a failure to precondition audience members before a movie premiere leads to a certain death at the box-office. What is more, these “ancillary” features like toys and video games have even subjugated the overall importance of the event itself—the film.237 The contemporary process of “enlightening” the viewer before the actual event has strong ties to material consumption—a factor that seems less pertinent (although not completely absent) in the eighteenth century than ideological, religious, or political concerns. This is largely due to the fact that there were only a limited amount of seats to sell at the Comédie-Française—therefore writers had to convince only enough people to attend a single “run” of performances. Quantitatively speaking, this is simply a far less amount of people than modern-day, international marketing campaigns seek to influence.
Nevertheless, “viral marketing” techniques238 such as the mass emailing of links to the film’s trailer, Facebook advertising, or even a Toy Story II doll sold at Burger King six months before the film’s debut—a toy that walks and talks and repeats lines from the film—might not be far cries from the pamphlets published before an eighteenth-century dramatic premiere. These “marketing techniques”—whether during the eighteenth century or today—seek to render a customer/spectator more “ready” for the big event.
Over two hundred years ago, the swirling whirlwind of a priori texts, public readings, and café discussions was an important component of the actual performance itself—and the desire to know information ahead of an important event continues into our For demonstrations of how video games have trumped motion pictures, see Clive Thompson’s “Gore is Less: Videogames Make Better Horror than Hollywood,” or Andrei Dumistrescu’s study on how video games bring in more revenue than films (see Works Cited for complete bibliographic information).
Viral marketing refers to the mass distribution of movie websites, snippets, and trailers through emailing, click-referencing advertisements on websites, or pre-existing social networks (e.g. Facebook or Myspace). For more information, see Stefano Calicchio’s Pass the Virus! How to exploit the viral marketing to give an uproarious success to your own ideas. New York: Lulu Books, 2008.
own era. Nowadays, we might consider it a bad idea to try a restaurant without reading a review, and rarely would we see a movie without first getting the opinion of our favorite critic. As paying customers, we want all the information that we can get our hands on;
otherwise, we might make the wrong decision. It appears that eighteenth-century spectators wanted this knowledge too—but unlike us, they didn’t always choose to sift through the paperasse. It was (sometimes quite literally in Beaumarchais’ case) thrown down from above.
Works Before 1850239 Alembert, Jean D’. Discours préliminaire de l’Encyclopédie. Paris: Briasson-Durand,
1751. Reprinted, Paris: Gonthier-Denoël, coll. “Médiations”, 1965.
---. Éloges lus dans les séances publiques de l’Académie française. Paris: Moutard, 1776.
--- and Denis Diderot. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. 1749-1760. Online at http://diderot.alembert.free.fr/.
Anonymous. Lettre sur la Comédie de L’Ecossaise. ?Paris?: 1760. Bibliothèque nationale de France (Richelieu): 8-RF14503.
Anonymous. La Vengeance de Thalie, poème critique. In O. Ferret. La comédie des Philosophes de Charles Palissot. St. Etienne: Publications Université St. Etienne,
2002. pp. 132-138. (orig. 1760) Aristotle. Poetics. London: Dover Pocket Edition, 1997.
Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de. Le Mariage de Figaro. Ed. Pierre Larthomas.
Paris: Gallimard, 1999. (orig. performed 1784, published 1785).
---. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Léopold Collin, 1809. And more specifically, Eugénie in tome i, II.
Cailleau, André Charles. Les Philosophes manqués. In O. Ferret. La comédie des Philosophes de Charles Palissot. St. Etienne: Publications Université St. Etienne,
2002. pp. 86-100. (orig. 1760) Chénier, Marie-Joseph. Charles IX, ou l’Ecole des Rois. Paris : Didot Jeune, 1790. BnF 8-Y-8900. Includes the Epître dédicatoire and the Discours préliminaire.
Clément, Jean Marie Bernard et Joseph de la Porte, Anecdotes dramatiques, t. 1. Paris:
Duchesne, 1775. BnF YF-1775.
Collé, Charles. Journal Historique ou mémoires critiques. Tome II. Paris: Imprimerie Bibliographique, 1807. BnF (Gallica pdf) Corneille, Pierre de. Le Cid (1637-1660) et L’Illusion comique. Ed. par Georges Forestier et Robert Garapon. Paris:Société des Textes Français Modernes, 2001.
I have chosen this date in order to differentiate between my own “primary” and “secondary” sources. Given that a significant number of eighteenth-century works were not published until well into the nineteenth century, and that many of my “primary” sources were secondary critical sources at the time of their publication, 1850 seems to be a logical choice to separate the works that I have consulted for this dissertation.
Coyer, Gabriel-François. Discours sur la satyre contre les philosophes. Athènes (Paris),
1760. BnF, 8-R-33842.
De Belloy, Pierre Buirette. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Moutard, 1779. (BnF Gallica pdf) Diderot, Denis. Entretiens sur le Fils naturel et Le Fils naturel ou les Epreuves de la vertu. Paris: GF Flammarion, 2005. (orig. 1757).
---. Les bijoux indiscrèts. Paris: Gallimard Folio Classique, 1982.
---. Le Paradoxe sur le comédien. Paris: Gallimard Folio Classique, 1994 (orig. 1770De la poésie dramatique. In Diderot, oeuvres esthétiques—Théâtre. Paris, Robert Laffont, 1996, pp. 1273-1350. (Orig. 1758)