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

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