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As French society began to examine its political, literary, and social underpinnings—as France started to take “conscience d’elle-même”—it most often did so with the efficiency and power of theater and theatrical discourse. Theater’s natural affinity for dialogue, bodies, and movement confronted a gradual rise in importance of the written text that culminated during the eighteenth century.34 Reading texts and attending theater performances were two of the most important pastimes of the very same Parisians who either incited groups to storm the Bastille in 1789 or took the prison apart themselves. In order to achieve even a small glimpse of the cultural world of preRevolutionary France, what better location is there to study than the complex spaces between texts and performance?
Roger Chartier studies the rise of literacy and textual production in a number of his works: for more information on the increasing importance of written materials during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see Lectures et lecteurs dans la France d’Ancien Régime and Les Origines intellectuelles de la Revolution française (see Works Cited for complete bibliographic information).
CHARLES PALISSOT’S LES PHILOSOPHES
Echoing Fréron, Pierre-Louis d’Aquin argued that Palissot’s play had “excité[e] une curiosité et une rumeur qui n’ont jamais été portée à ce violent degré pour les drames les plus célèbres” (qtd. by Ferret, “Introduction” 10). According to Fréron and d’Aquin, Paris had not seen an event like this in some time—if ever. Palissot’s play had caused a noisy public reaction that surpassed some of the best efforts by Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire—in short, by some of the most prolific dramatists in French history.
In his satirical comedy, Palissot pits philosophes against “bons citoyens” on stage in order to draw distinct lines between two opposing worldviews. Even though they disagreed on the merits of Palissot’s work, partisans from both ideological camps had to agree that audience members reacted to Les Philosophes with an intense fervency that bordered on overt chaos.
The eyewitness testimony that we first encountered in the introduction to this dissertation confirms the tumultuous reception of Les Philosophes, and at the same time,
it provides more detail on the cause of the event:
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. in Masseau, 143) Barbier’s testimony warrants a close examination: we can discern three important elements in his account. First, he points out that the bruit did not occur because of the performance, but rather, that it began beforehand and then culminated at the premiere of Palissot’s comedy. Energy surrounding the play reached its climax during the day of the play’s first performance, thus indicating the existence of a fermenting energy already in place in and around the Comédie-Française.
Next, Barbier argues that the premiere added to an already energized atmosphere, which turned the Comédie-Française into a veritable tumulte. The witness distinguishes Les Philosophes from other eighteenth-century plays by arguing that the spectators reacted uncharacteristically to Palissot’s comedy (“on n’a point vu un pareil tumulte”).
Lastly, Barbier writes that the play was both “applaudi” and “critiqué” at the same time by spectators—a statement that spins the energetic mood of theatrical performance into the realm of divisive partisanship.
Why did eighteenth-century theatergoers react so viscerally to Palissot’s comedy?
Or, (and maybe a more pertinent question) why did writers portray spectators in such a manner? The answer to these questions, as we shall see, incorporates both writing and performance. In this section, I will investigate events occurring on the stage and in French society to highlight a complex but powerful relationship between written texts and audio-visual performances of Palissot’s Les Philosophes. As we shall see, Palissot incorporates arguments and citations from Counter-Enlightenment pamphlets and other written documents into his dramatic composition; but also, he uses narrative twists and specific strategies that are inherent to the performing arts. This multifaceted strategy surpasses the mere mise-en-scene of polemical texts and invites us to consider Palissot’s effort as a true theatrical event—or otherwise stated—as a tumultuous series of connected moments that highlight changes in dramaturgy, spectatorship, and theater criticism.
Following Olivier Ferret’s example in his monograph, La Fureur de nuire, I will focus on the genesis and manifestation of attacks surrounding the philosophe/antiphilosophe debate in mid-eighteenth-century France. Whereas Ferret concentrates mainly on polemical pamphlets during this period, I hope to widen the general discussion by including an analysis of attacks in the theatrical genre. In his work, Ferret pays acute “attention à l’organisation rhétorique des textes pamphlétaires, rhétorique qui serait à définir comme une agonistique particulière qui n’est pas celle, par exemple, des autres types d’écrits polémiques” (La Fureur de nuire 13). In this chapter, I will delve into theater, one of those “autres types d’écrits polémiques,” with the hope of differentiating between a dramaturgical effort like Palissot’s, and the litany of anti-philosophique pamphlets that littered Paris during the 1750s and 1760s.
An analysis of Palissot’s arguments against the philosophes coupled with a study of how those attacks were manifested may reveal a sophisticated blend of socioeconomic, political, literary, and philosophical issues, and provide an accurate picture of the interdisciplinary nature of the Republic of Letters during this precarious preRevolutionary period. By demonstrating his knowledge of previously written CounterEnlightenment and philosophe works, and by understanding the specific, ephemeral qualities of performance, Palissot recognizes a strong correlation between pedagogy and theater.35 In so doing, the playwright brings to light two symbiotic tensions in the theatrical genre, providing a powerful example of how theater is, “à la fois une pratique d’écriture, et une pratique de représentation” (Roubine 1).
Critics of Les Philosophes highlight spectator reactions to the performance, rather than the play’s dramatic composition or aesthetic features. This emphasis on audience participation in the theatrical event (as we shall see in chapter three) diverged from norms in literary criticism of the time and might have been caused by Palissot’s own departure from more “normal” ways of playwriting.
Palissot’s dramatic text was not an effort in “pure dramaturgy”—it was not the result of a linear process such as:
“Playwright’s idea”ManuscriptPerformancePublication In Palissot’s case, Counter-Enlightenment pamphlets and philosophe works altered this standardized practice.
Although he relied heavily on non-dramatic texts, Palissot did not ignore previous examples from inside the theatrical genre, and borrowed extensively from playwrights such as Aristophanes and Molière. In fact, Palissot lifts at least seven lines directly from Molière’s Les Femmes savantes.36 But what truly makes Palissot’s effort unique is the fact that the playwright gleaned most of his ideas from quarrels between philosophes and anti-philosophes during the 1750s. Besides stealing from theatrical predecessors, Palissot Palissot’s pedagogical plan seeks to illuminate the fallacy of philosophe thinking.
Paradoxically, his notion of comedy cum didactic tool parallels Voltaire’s notions. In a letter to the Marquis Capacelli on 23 December 1760, the philosophe ponders this precise link between learning and theater, stating: “Qu’est-ce, en effet, que la vraie comédie ?
C’est l’art d’enseigner la vertu et les bienséances en actions et en dialogues” (qtd. by Lever, Théâtre et Lumières 10). Although the content of his message contrasts with Voltaire’s, the use of comedy to persuade, convince, and teach emerges as Palissot’s course of action in Les Philosophes.
For a complete list of lines that Palissot lifts directly from Molière, see Ferret’s “Introduction” to Les Philosophes (2002).
also incorporated ideas from at least ten years of polemical pamphleteering that sought to denounce philosophes like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius. These non-canonical texts—ephemeral and poorly circulated libelles—thus came publicly into fruition by reaching a larger audience at the Comédie-Française during the summer of 1760 with Palissot’s Les Philosophes, and then, with Voltaire’s L’Ecossaise.
1750-1760: The Origins of Palissot’s “Théâtre anti-philosophique” Before delving into Palissot’s play, it is first important to describe the charged atmosphere that marked Palissot’s career, French theater, and the Republic of Letters during the years leading up to 1760. Opportunism characterizes the life and works of Charles Palissot de Montenoy (1730-1814). After finishing his studies in philosophy at the Université de Pont-à-Mousson at the precocious age of twelve, the young attorney’s son from Nancy briefly flirted with careers in the religious orders and the family law practice, before moving to Paris in 1750.37 Unhappy in the legal field, Palissot was drawn to the belles lettres, and during this period, he penned two mediocre tragedies: Pharaon, which never saw a single performance, and Zarès, which was performed just three times in regional theater.
Besides his early attempts at tragedy, Palissot wrote several brochures—short pamphlets with modest circulations and with subjects that moved back and forth, between art and politics, and between literary criticism and overt attacks on writers’ personalities.
Most interestingly, many of Palissot’s early pamphlets praised the same philosophe works that Palissot would later harshly criticize in his Les Philosophes.
See D. Delafarge’s La Vie et l’oeuvre de Palissot (1912) for a more detailed description of Palissot’s early biography.
For example, in his L’Histoire des Rois de Rome (1753), Palissot extols the writings of both Montesquieu and Voltaire, and specifically, Montesquieu’s cyclical notion of history to explain the rise and fall of Rome. Palissot’s warm remarks for Voltaire and Montesquieu would continue into the 1760s and later—a fact that blurs any overt claim that Palissot was an immutable partisan of the Counter-Enlightenment.
Nevertheless, sometime during the late 1750s and as the two sides of an ideological and institutional battle crystallized, Palissot formed relationships with well-known antiphilosophes such as Lefranc de Pompignan, the duc de Choiseul, and Elie-Catherine Fréron. As the decade (1750s) progressed, he forged strategic friendships with CounterEnlightenment writers, and his once congratulatory remarks vis-à-vis the philosophes took on a more negative spin.
Part of this abrupt change in opinion is probably due to the association of terms between philosophe and encyclopédiste that solidified during the 1750s. After the first entries of Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers were published in 1751, learned academies throughout Europe were forced to take sides and either support philosophes like Melchior Grimm, Diderot, D’Alembert, Helvétius, Jean-François Marmontel, and Charles Duclos;
or condemn them in the name of religion, morality, or even good taste.
During the second half of the 1750s, the term “philosophes” gradually became associated with the members of the Encyclopédie project, whether or not a philosophe had contributed in any part to editing or writing the hefty volume.38 As a political ally of Palissot’s staging of Diderot and Rousseau on the same stage is, then, the most egregious example of the new practice of combining philosophes into one “type.” During the 1750s, the opinions of these two intellectuals diverged considerably, especially after the conservative Duc de Choiseul and literary protégé of the anti-philosophe critic Fréron, Palissot naturally fell into a philo-literary style of critiquing the Encyclopédie for its pronounced theories on politics and art. Differing from other staunch enemies of the Encyclopédie, however, Palissot never took up a religious hard-line against the philosophes, choosing instead to parallel Fréron’s conservative views on art and literature.39 As his relationship with Fréron took shape, Palissot’s opinion of philosophes turned overwhelmingly negative (except for Voltaire, whom Palissot continued to admire and Fréron started to single-out critically). In a 1758 letter from Palissot to Fréron, the young polemicist highlights how close his and Fréron’s feelings were: “Si j’ai quelque valeur, c’est par la conformité de nos façons de penser, et je n’en veux avoir d’autre à mes yeux que mon attachement pour toi” (qtd. in Balcou, Fréron contre les philosophes 136). Palissot’s relationship with an overt feuilletiste and enemy of the philosophic party aided the young playwright’s literary apprenticeship in both content and form. Armed with Counter-Enlightenment ideas and a pamphleteer’s style, Palissot soon began to produce theatrical works marked by the denunciatory tone of polemical pamphlets.