«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College In partial fulfillment of ...»
avocat Barbier notes in his Journal:
Comme cette pièce [Les Philosophes] était connue et qu’elle avait fait du bruit avant d’être représentée, l’empressement et le concours du public ont été jusqu’à l’extrême le jour de la première représentation. On n’a point vu un pareil tumulte : j’y ai assisté aux premières places. Elle a été applaudie et critiquée tout à la fois. (qtd. by Masseau, 143) Later in this dissertation, I will analyze in detail Barbier’s account and other eyewitness testimonies of the premiere of Palissot’s play. But for the moment, we can draw out two important inferences from Barbier’s review. First, the audience was prepared to act in a certain way before the curtain was raised on opening night (“avant d’être représentée”).
Palissot’s audience was preconditioned through the use of pamphlets, letters, and other texts. Secondly, the critic uses a terminology of tumulte and bruit to describe spectator behavior at the debut. Paralleling Grimm’s focus on audience reaction, Barbier shifts his critical lens to show the response of the public instead of the action on the stage.
De Belloy’s tragedy is dramaturgically different from either Palissot’s Molièreinspired Les Philosophes or Voltaire’s drame-like L’Ecossaise. It would be impossible to show any natural affinity between the genre and the storyline among these three plays.
But criticisms of all three plays radiate a polemical energy that surpasses the traditional experience of theater attendance. Each play bolsters the spectator’s participation in the dramatic construction of the work as well as in journalistic-like critical responses. The spectator, as we shall see, finds her voice inside of the theatrical space as well as in critical pieces about the dramatic works. Lastly, all three cases caused an irrefutable “theatrical event”—a constellatory phenomenon that incorporates visceral reactions by audience members to performance, an increased dependence on extra-theatrical texts, and an often militant, polemical discourse on the stage and in the subsequent criticism.
Over the next few chapters, we will examine the genesis and the suite of the theatrical staging of philosophical debates during the summer of 1760. This analysis will uncover the reasons behind a marked illumination of the dramatic spectator. In order to persuade more easily members of French society into agreeing with philosophe or Counter-Enlightenment ideals, writers from both camps used every rhetorical tool or media at their disposal in order to garner more critical support. This proliferating battle to denounce and persuade reached its social pinnacle with Palissot’s Les Philosophes and Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise.
This study will not reveal the complex nature of French society on the eve of the Revolution, nor will it provide an account for aesthetic changes in one specific version of theater during the eighteenth century. We probably will not find another cultural or ideological reason behind the French Revolution nor attest that Palissot and Voltaire forever altered comedy as a genre. This study treats aesthetics and society as they were examined during the Enlightenment—inseparable and irrefutably important. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the following texts—because we will analyze comedies, drames, and tragedies, as well as pamphlets, critical works, and philosophical dialogues—this study can serve as a window into the complexity of the Republic of Letters.
Although the plays that make the core of this study have long been forgotten by the troupes of most contemporary playhouses, they were important enough to shock audiences at Comédie-Française, encourage critics to denounce theater as a medium, and convince Voltaire, France’s most prolific living dramatist, to postpone more “serious” works in order to focus on literary polemics.32 The polemical theater of 1760 may best reveal answers to important questions such as: a) Who determined good theater during the eighteenth century—and with what criteria? b) How did critics negotiate between textual and performative aspects of theater? And, c) How did members of the Republic of Letters consider the rising power of the spectator?
In chapters one and two, I zoom in on the “theatrical event” and provide close readings of two comedies: Palissot’s Les Philosophes and Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise. In addition to describing the action on stage, I underline how both dramatists depended on “ancillary” texts for the genesis of the theatrical works, as well as how and why strategists published pamphlets during each play’s run at the Comédie-Française.
For example, we examine Voltaire’s pamphlet, À Messieurs les parisiens—a satirical work that was published the night before the first performance of L’Ecossaise in an obvious attempt to precondition spectators and effect the way they received the audiovisual event. By looking at one comedy from each “team,” we can discern how both philosophes and members of the Counter-Enlightenment used similar and different methods to convince and cajole theatergoers at the Comédie-Française. As France’s critical circle opened to include less prominent members of society, writers such as Voltaire worried about the effects of this phenomenon on literary creation and criticism.
In chapter two, I take a look at how Voltaire’s ambivalence towards public judgment echoed a larger philosophe inconsistency vis-à-vis literary criticism. For example, in his speech about how one should judge a successful piece of theater,
D’Alembert harks back to the ancient disparity between performance and text:
For instance, Voltaire’s decision to postpone the debut of his tragedy Tancrède in order to work on and stage L’Ecossaise.
Aussi ses ouvrages, applaudis d’abord par le parterre, et lus ensuite avec plaisir dans le silence du cabinet, ont trouvé grâce devant ces deux tribunaux également redoutables, l’un parce qu’il est tumultueux, l’autre parce qu’il est tranquille ; succès d’autant plus flatteur pour un écrivain dramatique, que le tribunal tranquille semble affecté d’être plus sévère à proportion que le tribunal tumultueux a marqué plus d’enthousiasme ;
l’inexorable lecteur se refuse le plus qu’il peut aux éloges que le spectateur a voulu lui prescrire, et se sent toujours bénignement disposé à casser en dernier ressort les arrêts favorables trop légèrement rendus en première instance. (Éloges lus dans les séances publiques de l’Académie française, 384) On the one hand, the public is the deciding factor, a status best illustrated by the heightened level of importance given by D’Alembert to its most visible agent: the parterre. On the other hand, the parterre (and the public’s opinion in general) is perhaps too quick to judge, influenced by ephemeral fads and trends, and possibly not even educated enough to form an accurate opinion on aesthetics. This two-sided image of the public will invite us to consider questions such as, “Is it better to let the reading, erudite public judge the aesthetic work?” D’Alembert’s reflections on the public echo Scudéry and Chapelain’s remarks from one century earlier. As we delve into a few theatrical examples from the middle of the eighteenth century, we will keep in clear focus the delicate tension between an emerging desire to give the spectator the agency necessary to judge cultural materials, and a competing drive to close the circle only to those inside a literary group, or, to those who pledge their allegiance to either the philosophes or their rivals.
Chapter three examines the energetic atmosphere that characterized the receptions of Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise during the summer of 1760. Here, we look in depth at theater criticism, and more specifically, at a raucous language of denunciation in order to draw out a few conclusions as to why critics wrote about these two works with such urgency. With literary battles at an all time high, critics of both pieces use exaggerated rhetoric to convert the reader to “the right camp.” Instead of describing actual theater reception, critics fictionalized public responses and denounced pre-conditioning texts in order either to bolster the “reception” of their side’s play or to describe the other cohort’s theatrical work as a failure.
In criticisms of both plays, writers move past the mere reporting of facts, peppering their reviews with calls for mobilization against the enemy, evidence of audience-stage interaction, and comments on the effect of pamphlets and other “extratheatrical” materials on performance. Critics such as Elie-Cathérine Fréron stage theatrical performance inside of their literary criticisms and create a sort of extra-scenic dramaturgy—a critical composition of bodies, voices, and movements that combines both factual and fictional elements. In Les Philosophes and L’Ecossaise, textual elements intrude on theatrical performance to produce new relationships between written document and audio-visual representation.
After the tumultuous summer of 1760, members of a literary elite grew tired of the nasty battle between philosophes and anti-lumières. With parodies of both plays at every major theater and foire, Paris was effectively suffocated by the quarrel between philosophes and Counter-Enlightenment writers. A few months after the initial performances of Palissot’s and Voltaire’s comedies at the Comédie-Française, voices on both sides of the fence began to call for a ceasefire. Europe’s main stage had been “tainted” by extra-scenic problems and subjected to the tastes of polemical pamphleteers—it was time for the overt theatrical battle to retreat to the alcoves and for more traditional tragedies and comedies to fill the playbill at the Comédie-Française.
But playwrights never forgot the “events” from the summer of 1760. In chapter four of this dissertation, I investigate how later dramatists sought to (re)create visceral public reception using elements from the Palissot/Voltaire affair, specifically, with preconditioning tactics such as pamphleteering and with more “performative” strategies like the staging of living people from French society. Here, we follow the debate into such disparate genres as historical tragedy and comédie plaisante in order to prove that Voltaire’s and Palissot’s lesser-known theatrical works influenced a more canonical dramatic corpus that includes Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro and Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX ou l’école des rois.
The Palissot/Voltaire affair, although only on stage for a short time, helped change the theatrical atmosphere in Paris and urge dramatists from that point on to persuade and convince theater spectators. This historical event paralleled theoretical movements inside the Republic of Letters. Diderot is often credited with closing the distance between the spectator and the stage by urging playwrights to choose a subject that resonates easily with his audience, create a “fourth wall” between the parterre and the stage, and demand that actors adopt a more “natural” language in their roles.33 However, as we shall see, this exact theoretical concern paralleled the actions of writers during the summer of 1760: Diderot’s dramatic construct was further disseminated by Diderot reflected at length on more “practical” aspects of acting and theater, beginning in 1757 with his Entretiens sur le fils naturel and culminating with his Paradoxe sur le comédien, which he wrote during the late 1760s and early 1770s. One key element in Diderot’s “poetics” of acting is the philosophe’s insistence that actors adopt a more “everyday” language rather than assert a declamatory style inherited from Renaissaince rhetoricians. For example, he lauds the actress Dumesnil because of her nonchalant speech and ability to “monter sur les planches sans savoir ce qu'elle dira” (Diderot, Paradoxe 40). For more information on Diderot’s ideas on acting, see Derek Connan’s Innovation and Renewal: A Study of the Theatrical Works of Diderot.
facts like Voltaire’s temporary attachment to the drame and Palissot’s desire to convince spectators of the “crimes” committed by philosophes.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly as performance asserted itself as equally important as the dramatic text, the audience emerged as vital to the dramaturgical process. Very few writers could argue that the dramatic genre exists without either actual or imagined spectators in the theater’s seats. In her erudite, threepart semiotic analysis of the performing arts, Anne Ubersfeld describes the paramount
importance of the theatrical spectator:
Il y a dans ce procès qu’est la représentation théâtrale, dans cet événement à multiples personnages, un personnage-clé, quoiqu’il n’apparaisse pas sur scène et semble ne rien produire : c’est le spectateur. Il est le destinataire du discours, le récepteur dans le procès de communication, le roi de la fête ; mais il est aussi le sujet d’un faire, l’artisan d’une pratique qui s’articule continuellement avec les pratiques scéniques. (Lire le théâtre, II 253) For Ubersfeld, the audience is not a mere witness to the result of the dramaturgical process: authors, actors, stage directors, and critics integrate the public into every step of theater—from creation, to rehearsal, to performance, to criticism. Nowhere does this modern pattern of dramatic construction emerge more clearly than in the following dramatic works from the eighteenth century. Instead of adhering to strict rules of dramatic poetics or even to the status quo of literary acceptability, Palissot’s Les Philosophes and Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise went right to the heart of drama’s new docte— the paying customer.
Because of the interdependent, multi-modal, and communicative nature of theater, it is perhaps the most efficient way to portray everyday experiences such as family discussions, interactions at the workplace, and social gatherings. Alan Read reminds us that “theatre begins from a point of coalescence, not a polarity”—theater is inherently inclusive and not exclusive—and theater, like everyday life, is comprised of sounds, movements, emotions, and events (11).