In the preface to his tragedy Sémiramis (1749), Voltaire damningly characterized the typical eighteenth-century French theatre as ‘a tennis court with a tasteless set at one end, in which audience members are positioned contrary to all laws of order and reason, some standing on the stage itself with others standing in what is known as the parterre, where they are obscenely hemmed in and crushed, and sometimes surge forward over one another impetuously, as though caught up in a popular uprising’. By contrast, the modern experience of theatre in London’s West End is one of slipping into expensive seats booked months in advance, flicking through a glossy programme, and sinking into reverential silence as the lights dim – always double checking that our mobile phones are switched off, lest we be the unfortunate soul to break the spell.
Where we seek to eliminate distractions in order to immerse ourselves in the story so that fiction becomes reality, our eighteenth-century ancestors were constantly immersed in the reality outside the fiction. Eighteenth-century theatres were a raucous microcosm of city life – a cacophony of catcalls, flirtations, and brawls – with actors on-stage often demolishing the fourth wall with conspiratorial asides to the audience. While Voltaire may have been keen to preserve the purity of his verse by creating a more suitable environment than this ‘tennis court’, other writers fully embraced the exuberant chaos of the eighteenth-century theatrical experience.
In Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer presents a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between stage and page at a critical point in literary history: the eighteenth century, when theatre was an established feature of the cultural landscape, and the novel still a nascent and mutable form, far removed from its modern dominance of the literary scene.
The advent of the novel, and its private consumption in the comfort of a study or drawing room, might seem a far cry from the world of the theatre as Voltaire describes it, yet many of the early English novelists – such as Widmayer’s case studies Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, William Congreve, and Henry Fielding – were also playwrights, who deployed the dramatic devices honed on stage to highlight the novel’s status as a fictional construct. The conspiratorial aside between actor and spectator was transferred to the private theatre of the reader’s imagination. While we might think of metafiction as a twentieth-century invention, the eighteenth century proves itself once again to have been at the forefront of modernity. With sophisticated playfulness, Behn, Manley, Congreve and Fielding not only created humorous effects but also questioned the capacity of their art to represent reality. Exaggeration and finely tuned irony, create a novelistic play (in all senses of the term) in which readers are invited to participate, questioning the traditional sources of textual authority as they sift through multiple layers of perception, and discover that the narrator has become an unreliable conduit for information – a player in the tale he narrates.
Challenging, and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, these early novels still defy our assumptions about the novel as a form. Despite evolutions in their nature and status, the eighteenth-century intermingling of drama and prose continues to influence contemporary English writers, as the self-conscious narrator-performer Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and the metafictional Russian doll narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) illustrate. With critical studies into notions of identity as performance, the legacy of these bold and experimental eighteenth-century writers is likely to continue – the scene is set for a long and fruitful encounter between stage and page!
– Madeleine Chalmers
Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, July 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1165-3).
See also: Roman et théâtre au XVIIIe siècle: le dialogue des genres, Catherine Ramond (SVEC 2012:04, Voltaire Foundation, April 2012, ISBN 978-0-7294-1043-4).
 ‘un jeu de paume, au bout duquel on a élevé quelques décorations de mauvais goût, & dans lequel les spectateurs sont placés contre tout ordre & contre toute raison, les uns debout, sur le théâtre même, les autres debout, dans ce qu’on appelle parterre, où ils sont gênés & pressés indécemment, & où ils se précipitent quelquefois en tumulte les uns sur les autres, comme dans une sédition populaire’ [translation my own], in Voltaire, ‘Sémiramis, tragédie’, ‘Dissertation sur la tragédie’, ed. R. Niklaus, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.30A (Oxford, 2003), p.157, lines 424-31.