Stagestruck: the making of a theater industry during the late Old Regime

The theater at Lille.

The theater at Lille.

During the decades preceding the French Revolution, city-dwellers in France became swept up in la théâtromanie, a cultural phenomenon that extended far beyond Paris to include cities throughout France and its empire. In my recent book, I set out to write a socio-cultural history of the profound transformations that marked the French stage during the era in which, I argue, the theater emerged as the most prestigious and influential urban cultural institution of the age of Enlightenment.

Stagestruck lifts the curtain to take readers behind the scenes of the rapidly commercializing world of eighteenth-century French theater, when many dozens of cities in provincial and colonial France opened their first public playhouses. An evening at the theater was a commodity that came to be produced and consumed in new ways. To bring the classics of Molière, the musical comedies of Favart, and the tragedies of Voltaire to life evening after evening and to generate enough revenue to keep the operation in the black was no easy business. These enterprises required a diverse cast of characters ranging from actors and actresses to directors (a position that was in fact an eighteenth-century invention) to shareholders who invested in the business of entertainment to a growing base of paying customers.

An audience in the theater at Reims.

An audience in the theater at Reims.

These theater spectators came to conceive of themselves as a community with rights and prerogatives, one that should have an important say in urban cultural life.

During the later Old Regime, the public adopted an explicitly consumerist language to defend its prerogative to comment on the show. In 1787, one contemporary summed up this prevailing spirit as: ‘I paid to enter the theater… so I acquired the right to state my way of thinking and to reject what displeases me.’ As audiences recognized the power they wielded, their growing sense of entitlement was manifested in rather extraordinary ways. They became very clever about leveraging consumer pressure – including even the use of organized boycotts – to ensure that their demands would not be ignored.

During the 1780s, in cities from Bordeaux to Rouen to Le Cap, Saint-Domingue, clashes between theater directors and police authorities and spectators escalated into full-scale public protests that crossed definitively from the aesthetic to the political. Perhaps most astonishingly, these consumer boycotts almost always succeeded in the sense that directors and authorities felt compelled to respond to audience demands for fear that if they refused, these prestigious cultural institutions might go bankrupt.

Inside and outside new public playhouses, the French were able to rehearse the civil equality and participatory politics that they would demand – and receive – in 1789.

– Lauren R. Clay

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