The Comédie-Française by the numbers, 1680-1793

The Comédie-Française in 1790, by Antoine Meunier

The Comédie-Française in 1790, by Antoine Meunier. (Bibliothèque en ligne Gallica, ARK btv1b10303194d)

Almost every evening at the playhouse of the Comédie-Française in Paris from 1680 to 1793, once the curtain had fallen and the theatre crowd had gone home, a designated member of the troupe retired to the box office (no doubt with a verre!) to count the evening’s proceeds, and enter the ticket sales by category in a folio-sized register. One hundred and thirteen of these registers, which allowed the troupe’s actors to divvy up the nightly proceeds, have remained in the possession of the troupe for over three centuries.

Register for the 1680-81 season (Paris, 1680)

Register for the 1680-81 season (Paris, 1680).

During the past decade an international team of scholars and developers has made digital versions of the registers available on the website of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP), and extracted the data they contain into a searchable database. Now a new volume of open-access, bilingual essays, Databases, Revenues, and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 | Données, recettes et répertoire. La Scène en ligne (1680-1793), published exclusively online by the MIT Press, scrutinizes the data assiduously recorded by the eighteenth-century actors to come up with new and surprising conclusions about the business of the stage in the Age of Enlightenment, as well as observations about the potentials and perils of the digital humanities for contemporary scholarship.

Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793

Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 (MIT, 2020).

Scholars of the French eighteenth century know that the plays of the seventeenth-century greats, Molière, Racine, and Pierre Corneille, were frequently performed, but the troupe’s full repertory in this 113-year period consisted of more than 1000 plays written by over 300 authors, spread across more than 33,000 nightly performances. Essays in this new volume explore how politics, economics, and social conflict shaped the troupe’s repertory and affected its finances, and reveal some surprising conclusions. First, contributors Pierre Frantz and Lauren Clay underscore the fact that Voltaire, who wrote over two dozen plays that have largely been forgotten, was the financial mainstay of the troupe in the eighteenth century. By the second half of the century, revenue from the staging of his plays had overtaken that generated by the works of the seventeenth-century triumvirate, the authors that literary and theatre historians today tend to associate with the French theatre before 1800. The implication is that Voltaire was a box office draw because of his passion for political causes, thereby suggesting that the theatre was far more politicized in this period than we may have imagined.

The Crowning of Voltaire after the sixth performance of Irène in 1778, by Charles-Etienne Gaucher, after Jean-Michel Moreau

The Crowning of Voltaire after the sixth performance of Irène in 1778, by Charles-Etienne Gaucher (1741-1804), after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814). (Art Institute of Chicago, public domain)

Second, as economic historian François Velde points out, this extraordinarily complete business archive, detailing the expenditures and revenues of a major cultural enterprise over more than a century, offers important financial and economic insights into Enlightenment France. After 1750 the box office revenues of the troupe grew every year, suggesting both increasing prosperity and growing interest in cultural activity among many classes in the decades leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. The actors adapted accordingly, adjusting ticket prices and altering their repertory to appeal to changing public taste. The nightly record of plays staged and box office receipts provides surprising insight into the changing political culture of eighteenth-century France.

This volume and the initial phase of the CFRP were focused on the nightly box office receipt data for 113 seasons. An essay by project co-director Jeffrey Ravel in the recent Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital humanities and the transformation of eighteenth-century studies (eds. Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe), charts the history of the project and addresses questions of audience in the digital humanities. In subsequent phases of the CFRP, already underway, the team will be recording data on the troupe’s daily expenditures and its casting decisions for each night’s plays. The expenditure data, when analyzed alongside the box office receipts, will tell us much more about the troupe’s aesthetic and financial decisions during this key period of French political and cultural history. The record of casting choices promises important insights into the history of celebrity and its financial impact on political and cultural institutions in both the past and the present. The team will also be digitizing the registers from 1799 through 1914, thereby providing an unparalleled run of over two centuries of box office receipt data for one of the major theatrical and cultural institutions in the world in this period.

If only those lonely, tired actors counting their livres tournois each evening had known the uses to which their labours would be put by interested scholars three hundred years later!

Jeffrey S. Ravel

Digitising the margins: a classification of Voltaire’s scribbles

The most famous squiggly lines relating to eighteenth-century writing are almost certainly to be found in Tristram Shandy. Sterne uses them to illustrate the non-linearity of stories (see about halfway down that page) and digressions from the main narrative, before reviving the device several volumes later to render graphically for his readers the movement of the stick brandished by the character Trim. But these squiggles from 1761-1762 are far from alone. Both before and after Sterne’s foray into wiggly line design, Voltaire was peppering the margins of his books with marginalia, which involved both verbal and non-verbal elements – that is, words and squiggles.

When a team of Russian scholars began to publish the marginalia from his library in the 1970s in the Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, they decided that a facsimile edition would be both too expensive and not sufficiently clear to read. They settled on a compromise editorial policy, which entailed transcribing Voltaire’s words and reproducing graphically any accompanying marks and lines (usually made in ink or lead pencil, but also comprising scratches or indentations in the paper, for example crosses scored with the thumb-nail). When the edition passed to the Voltaire Foundation, we adhered to the same principles for the remaining volumes, much to the chagrin of our typesetter, who nevertheless heroically drew hundreds of scribbles electronically to incorporate into the typeset file.

Vauvenargues, p.90; OCV, vol.145, p.484.

The example above and those that follow are from books that Voltaire annotated with the intent of returning them to their authors with suggestions for improvement. In principle this should mean a greater likelihood that any shapes drawn should be intelligible and contribute to the meaning of the verbal marginalia. Indeed, in the first case, in a copy of Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, we can see that the vertical wavy line in the margin brackets the passage generally, and is connected with the note ‘peu déve / lop[p]é’ (poorly developed), while the second + sign links ‘sage’ in the printed text to ‘fort’ in the margin, indicating that rather than referring to a wise person, the author should be talking about a strong person (in opposition to the weak person indicated by the first + sign higher up).

Vauvenargues, p.48; OCV, vol.145, p.477.

Here Voltaire uses + signs again to flag the word ‘dans’ twice at the top of the page, and indicates by the curved line and a further ‘dans’ in the margin that Vauvenargues should be consistent in beginning each in the series of adverbial clauses with the same preposition. At the beginning of the new section lower down, he uses a sort of Greek gamma in the margin to show that an insertion should be made. All very clear for the addressee of the annotations. And between those two? The squiggly line in the margin is hard to interpret and may simply bear testament to his reading: did he stumble on this passage? Did he dislike it? Perhaps he wanted to write a criticism or a suggestion but couldn’t decide on what to say. At any rate, the squiggle draws our eye, nearly 300 years after it was penned, to a passage to which Voltaire must also have paid particular attention.

Frederick, p.122; OCV, vol.145, p.156.

This final example is a bit different insofar as it is not actually in Voltaire’s hand, but is a careful copy made of an original that was subsequently destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War. Slanted crosses, several with double verticals (reminiscent of the letter H), indicate lines of verse by Frederick, king of Prussia, with which Voltaire, preeminent poet of his day, was unhappy and which are commented in the margins. The ‘gamma’ again probably draws the king’s attention to the replacement word written over the line. Here, the limits of the typeset page become apparent as the slashing lines and crosses come so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to fit them all in. An apparatus of notes at the bottom of the page helps, but the effect at first glance is really not quite the same.

Digitising these volumes, as part the Voltaire Foundation’s new initiative Digital Enlightenment, poses new challenges, but can it also bring new solutions? On first analysis the infinitely flexible nature of Voltaire’s squiggles seems to be at odds with the ordered discipline inherent in our approach to digitising the Œuvres complètes. We soon decided that we were not going to scan every mark in the source volume and virtually paste it into the digital text – not only would madness likely that way lie, but also considerable expense, and it would be a distinctly inelegant way of solving the problem. The more you look at the corpus of squiggles, however, the more you see that although in strict terms you have a very large number of different marks, you have a much smaller number of different types of mark, and if we can successfully classify and label those types, we can use that classification and those labels when we digitise the content. Instead of the data saying ‘here’s a picture of a squiggle’, it will instead say ‘at this point there’s a mark of type X.’

How, then, to classify these marks? If you think of what makes up a mark or a squiggle, it will be one or more line-type marks, and where there is more than one line-type mark, they may meet or cross each other at a particular point. We call the line-type marks edges, and the points where they meet or cross nodes, and if you count the number of edges and nodes you find you have a ready-made way of classifying – and even sorting – your squiggles. For example:


has one edge, and no nodes:


has two edges, but still no nodes, and:

has one edge and one node. If we turn these counts into parts of a label (e.g. n0e1) we can start to distil order out of infinite variety, and we can pretty soon have an easy lookup for our digitisers to use:

There is, of course, a degree of discretion involved here in grouping marks according to type – there is a slanted line 10º from the vertical and another 10º from the horizontal, but what if we find a line precisely 45º from both? Or a vertical line that wiggles not once or twice but… seven times? Well, we may then need to add a shape and a code, but the method allows that, and if there’s one thing this digitisation exercise has taught us, it’s that until you’ve marked up the final full stop, novelty may at any time appear before you. Expect, and accommodate, the unexpected.

Using this method, we will be able to allow readers to search for particular marks. Or, more correctly, for particular classifications of marks, e.g. for ‘a straight line slanting from bottom left to top right at an angle of inclination less than 45º from the horizontal’ rather than for a specific slanting line. But the classification should be sufficiently specific that a reader encountering a mark in one text, and wondering where else Voltaire has used it, should be able to see the other relevant instances.

How will we deal with squiggles that defy classification? We defy squiggles to defy this classification! Time will, of course, tell, but we’re confident that we can accommodate anything that Voltaire felt necessary to add to the texts he was reading, blissfully unaware of the coding system that awaited his scribbles.

– Gillian Pink and Dan Barker, dancan Ltd


The Literary and scientific stakes of transgender in eighteenth-century Italy and England: the case of Catterina Vizzani

The power of narrative prose to capture, represent, and inspire transgender lives bursts forth in the pages of the new anthology, Resilience, reminding us that identities remain invisible until they are featured in fictional enactments, documentaries, and life stories. At such moments, through narration, aesthetic and political spheres are collapsed, acquiring perspective-changing potential for readers who begin to imagine themselves and others in the participatory life of society, whether the intent of the narration is to be uplifting or condemning. By being present and performing their lives on the page, transgendered lives acquire agency, one of the purposes of a publication like Resilience, to name but one of the many LGBTQ+ publications that have rendered queer lives visible in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Giovanni Bianchi, Breve storia della vita di Catterina Vizzani

Giovanni Bianchi, Breve storia della vita di Catterina Vizzani, romana, che per ott’anni vestì abito da uomo in qualità di servidore la quale dopo varj casi essendo in fine stata uccisa fu trovata pulcella nella sezzione del suo cadavero (Venice, Simone Occhi, 1744), title page.

Resilience is relatively new and reminds us of one of the most important publications in North America addressing the LGBTQ+ community, Out, in circulation since 1992. Out represents all aspects of LGBTQ+ life, including discrimination and the life-threatening scenarios to which the diverse, non-CIS community is subjected on a daily basis, with violence against those identifying as transgendered extremely high. As of September 2020, Donald Padgett reports in Out, 30 transgender people have been killed in the United States and Puerto Rico this year, the highest annual death toll ever. Reading through their stories of death and burial, the terms ‘misgendered’ and ‘deadnamed’ emerge often. In death there is no peace and their gender classification is often erroneous, with the wrong pronouns and forms of address being used, and with no care taken even to assure accuracy in the person’s name, with birth names often used instead of the names transgender people have chosen for themselves.

Closely mirroring our own twenty-first century narrative trajectory and debate about gender and sexuality are parallel publications appearing in eighteenth-century Europe about the transgendered Catterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni, whose life story was interwoven into a medical novella penned by a professor of anatomy from Rimini, Giovanni Bianchi (1693-1775). His 1744 novella, Brief history of the life of Catterina Vizzani, Roman woman, who for eight years wore a male servant’s clothing, who after various vicissitudes was in the end killed and found to be a virgin during the autopsy of her cadaver (Venice, 1744), constitutes the first recounting of early modern transgender identity in Italy, and even Europe, with the intent of memorializing transgendered life and normalizing it for readers.

Giovanni Bianchi, An Historical and physical dissertation on the case of Catherine Vizzani

Giovanni Bianchi, An Historical and physical dissertation on the case of Catherine Vizzani, translated by John Cleland, 1st edition (London, printed for W. Meyer, in May’s-Buildings, near St Martin’s Lane, 1751), title page.

From the time Catterina Vizzani, a young Roman woman, began wooing the woman she was attracted to, she did so dressed as a man. Fleeing Rome to avoid the wrath of her friend Margherita’s father, and a potential trial for sexual misdeeds, Catterina Vizzani became Giovanni Bordoni, transitioning and becoming a male in spirit, deed, and body, through what was the most complete physical change possible in the eighteenth century for a transgendered man: the permanent use of a dildo, considered a true body part by Vizzani/Bordoni, and also Bianchi. The novella was also published in England, thanks to its English-language reworking by none other than John Cleland, author of the erotic 1748 novel, Memoirs of a woman of pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill. As can be seen from the title pages on the right and below, Cleland made significant, sensationalizing changes to the title in both the 1751 and 1755 editions of the novella that he published.

Giovanni, like the transgender people who were killed for their sexuality in 2020 as documented by Out, would also die for his gender, and upon his death would be ‘misgendered’ and ‘deadnamed’ exactly like transgender people some 276 years later, for the story is based on the autopsy of the body that Bianchi performed and his desire to undo the misgendering and deadnaming for posterity. However, when Bianchi’s slim volume made its way into Cleland’s orbit, he immediately seized upon the possibility of exonerating himself after the legal debacle that had ensued following the publication of Fanny Hill.

Giovanni Bianchi, The True history and adventures of Catharine Vizzani

Giovanni Bianchi, The True history and adventures of Catharine Vizzani, translated by John Cleland, 2nd edn (London, printed for W. Reeve, Fleet Street, and C. Sympson, at the Bible-warehouse, Chancery Lane, 1755), frontispiece and title page.

The Brief History of Catterina Vizzani, whose title he would sensationalize, offered him with a golden opportunity to present himself as a writer concerned with the public good by warning girls who passed as men of the stigma that awaited them were they to continue in their ‘lewd’ (Cleland’s term) behaviour. Indeed, Cleland’s intentions in reworking the story are completely different from Bianchi’s. Cleland blames Catterina as depraved, likening her to so many ‘female husbands’, who passed as men and about whom Henry Fielding had already written ominously in in The Female Husband, published in 1746.

Meanwhile Bianchi normalizes Vizzani/Bordoni by showing them in human interaction, building their lives, planning a wedding, and making a new life. Cleland, as we have seen, uses Vizzani as a cautionary tale of social disintegration and ruin, which naturally resulted in the most dire of consequences for Catterina, whom he never can ‘transition’ to accepting as Giovanni Bordoni, all of which is explained in the set of ‘needful remarks by the English editor’ he added to Bianchi’s Brief history, in which he explicitly argues his case for Catterina as negative exemplum. Nothing could contrast more starkly with Bianchi, who demands respect for all lives, seeing his role as doctor as that of succouring and saving every living being so that they could live the most fulfilling lives possible with whomever they wanted.

Henry Fielding, The Female husband

Henry Fielding, The Female husband, or the surprising history of Mrs Mary, alias Mr George Hamilton (London, printed for M. Cooper at the Globe in Paternoster Row, 1746).

Despite Cleland’s divergent representation of Catterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni in his ‘translation’ of Bianchi’s novella, the work, nonetheless has made a tremendous impact on the representation of LGBTQ+ sexualities in the eighteenth century. Considered a salient example of Sapphic love and exclusive lesbianism prior to our reading of Vizzani/Bordoni’s as transgender, despite Cleland’s spin, the work proves what we set out to establish at the opening of this blog: narration of LGBTQ+ lives renders them visible. It is hoped that the availability of Giovanni Bianchi’s text in a faithful English translation for the first time in my volume will finally restore to Catterina/Giovanni all of the visibility, dignity, and agency to LGBTQ+ lives that the Italian author intended.

Clorinda Donato, California State University, Long Beach

Clorinda Donato is the author of the October volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, The Life and legend of Catterina Vizzani: sexual identity, science and sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford. In this new volume Clorinda Donato analyses the medical, societal, and narrative transcultural stakes in the life story of the transgendered Catterina Vizzani, and the right to live free from social stigma and the resulting physical danger suffered by transgender people both yesterday and today.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.