La comédie de mœurs: perversion du classique ou genre classique?

Pourquoi la comédie de mœurs fleurit-elle de 1680 à 1720? A cette question, l’histoire littéraire répond habituellement en évoquant le déclin de la France dans les dernières décennies du règne de Louis XIV, années de crise spirituelle et économique, favorisant la multiplication des escrocs en tous genres et le délitement des valeurs, à leur tour reflétés dans la comédie.

Pourtant, tous les thèmes de la comédie de mœurs préexistent largement cette période charnière entre les deux siècles, et j’en ai trouvé plusieurs illustrations dans des pièces des années 1630 ou 1640, dont je parle dans mon ouvrage La Comédie de mœurs sous l’ancien régime: poétique et histoire. Au-delà, se dessine même une tradition multiséculaire, remontant à l’antiquité grecque et latine, habituée à faire rire, de façon plus légère ou plus grinçante, d’un ‘aujourd’hui’ méprisable par rapport à un ‘hier’ idéalisé. En restant plus proche de la période charnière mentionnée plus haut, il suffit d’ouvrir les Satires de Boileau pour y découvrir tous les personnages caractéristiques de ce type de pièces: le financier indûment enrichi, le médecin assassin, le laquais parvenu, le procureur fourbe, le noble désargenté et prêt à se mésallier, la coquette.

En changeant de genre, on lit dans L’Histoire amoureuse des Gaules plusieurs scènes dignes de la comédie de mœurs, que Bussy-Rabutin donne pour ‘vraies’, mais qui semblent surtout avoir beaucoup emprunté au théâtre, avant de l’inspirer en retour. Pour ne donner qu’un exemple, on peut mentionner l’épisode de la séduction par l’argent, que Lesage devait avoir en tête en écrivant son Turcaret: le financier Paget, significativement désigné par le sobriquet ‘Crispin’, se fait précéder chez Ardélise par une lettre accompagnée d’une généreuse ‘subvention’, et qui lui ouvre à coup sûr le cœur et surtout le chemin du lit de la belle dame. L’ensemble du roman relève d’une esthétique de la médisance, Bussy expérimentant ainsi, avant les auteurs de la comédie de mœurs, une écriture qui crée un univers littéraire à partir d’une vision a priori, comme un pur exercice de l’esprit. L’enjeu n’est pas de fournir une lecture juste de la réalité, mais de faire illusion, en canalisant le regard du lecteur ou du spectateur uniquement vers les éléments qui confirment la perspective noire posée, sans tenir compte de tout ce qui l’infirme ou la nuance.

Ainsi, il est peut-être plus légitime de voir dans la comédie de mœurs non pas le résultat d’un déclin des mœurs et des goûts, mais la continuatrice d’une pensée classique. Celle-ci reprend à son compte d’anciennes critiques sur la modernité corruptrice, la couple avec la vision chrétienne du monde comme vallée des larmes, et décide de porter jusqu’à ses limites cette lecture sombre de l’humanité, en lui donnant une tournure décidément comique. Mettant au service de la satire son arsenal de types et de procédés, elle élabore une version policée, recevable si l’on peut dire, d’un jeu que l’on avait reproché à Bussy-Rabutin et à Boileau de pratiquer comme une attaque ad hominem. La représentation d’un monde d’où les principes moraux et la vertu ont généralement et définitivement disparu, à tous les échelons de la société, dilue les responsabilités et étouffe le scandale. Avec son côté absurde de neverland, la comédie de mœurs tire la représentation vers la farce. Sur fond d’essoufflement de la machine à caractères de premier plan, elle est certainement apparue aux comédiens comme une alternative de nature à relancer le théâtre et à renouveler le plaisir du spectateur.

Ioana Galleron

Comment faire parler un répertoire des spectacles de l’Ancien Régime?

evstratov_fig1

‘Répertoire général’ de la troupe française (1777), Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj istoričeskij arhiv (Archives historiques d’Etat de Russie).

L’heure est au big data dans les études du théâtre français de l’Ancien régime, de la Révolution et de l’ère napoléonienne. Les technologies de numérisation permettent de rassembler les données sur un répertoire, de les traiter quantitativement et de les rendre accessibles aux publics qui n’ont pas l’habitude des archives. Au moins trois projets collectifs mettent le souci d’analyse quantitative au cœur de leur investigation: Registres de la Comédie-Française, Therepsicore et French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era. Dans certains cas, comme dans l’étude de Rahul Markovits, la recherche du répertoire va au-delà du territoire français, en élargissant l’enquête jusqu’à ‘l’empire culturel’ français.[1]

‘Au XVIIIe siècle on ne joue pas une œuvre mais un répertoire’[2]: cette formule de Martine de Rougemont est souvent reprise par les historiens du théâtre. Or, les rapports entre les deux structures signifiantes, œuvre et répertoire, restent à éclairer. Certes, l’ensemble des œuvres disponibles pour la mise en scène, c’est-à-dire les textes et les emplois dont une troupe disposait à un moment précis, définissait l’offre d’un théâtre.[3] Mais, à ma connaissance, si les distinctions entre les troupes – de la Comédie-Française et du Théâtre Italien, par exemple – ont été formulées et intégrées dans la vie théâtrale de l’Ancien régime, la notion de ‘répertoire’ en tant qu’ensemble signifiant au sein d’une tradition théâtrale n’a été convoquée quant à elle que pendant la Révolution française. Quoi qu’il en soit, le traitement autonome de ce répertoire, c’est-à-dire en termes uniquement esthétiques (la part d’un tel genre) ou d’histoire littéraire (la part d’un tel auteur) paraît éminemment problématique.

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Dans mon livre Les Spectacles francophones à la cour de Russie (1743-1796): l’invention d’une société j’ai exploré les circulations théâtrales transnationales pour reconstituer un répertoire des pièces représentées en français dans un pays située à la périphérie de l’Europe. Une liste de 267 œuvres apparaît dans les appendices de mon étude. Cette liste alphabétique, qui recense l’ensemble des pièces françaises et francophones représentées à Saint-Pétersbourg ainsi que dans d’autres lieux de séjour de la cour a d’abord eu pour but d’accompagner une liste chronologique publiée dans le deuxième volume de ma thèse de doctorat.[4] A l’occasion de la sortie de ce livre, basé sur le premier volume de cette thèse, je souhaite mettre cet instrument de travail à la disposition de ceux qui s’intéressent à la constitution du quotidien théâtral dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle. Ce calendrier des spectacles met en avant l’aspect temporel de la vie théâtrale à la cour, ainsi que son inscription dans le cycle des cérémonies et des fêtes, politiques et religieuses.

La question qui me poursuit depuis le début de mon travail de thèse porte plus particulièrement sur les façons historiquement adéquates d’aborder quantitativement les répertoires dramatiques. Qu’est-ce que ces données chiffrées nous apprennent ? Est-il possible de tirer des conclusions ou, au moins, des renseignements de ces données de manière à aller au-delà de la présentation descriptive? Quels critères pourrait-on utiliser pour faire le lien entre une représentation théâtrale historiquement et socialement située et l’abstraction statistique? Dans mon livre je propose une tentative de réponse à ces questions en articulant la reconstitution du calendrier des spectacles et les premières analyses statistiques du corpus des pièces avec les contextualisations sociohistoriques. L’idée est pourtant d’inviter d’autres chercheurs à rejoindre une réflexion critique sur la portée épistémologique des données chiffrées et leur valeur argumentative – tout en utilisant les nouveaux instruments de travail.

– Alexeï Evstratov

[1] Rahul Markovits, Civiliser l’Europe. Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe siècle ([Paris], 2014).

[2] Martine de Rougement, Lа vie théâtrаle en Frаnce аu XVIIIe siècle (ParisGenève, 1988), p.54.

[3] D’après le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, Voltaire emploie le terme en 1769, pour désigner ‘liste des pièces que les comédiens jouent chaque semaine’. En 1798, le dictionnaire de l’Académie Française fixe une autre notion : ‘liste des pièces restées en cours de représentation à un théâtre’ (http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=2824323900;).

[4] Alexeï Evstratov, Le Théâtre francophone à Saint-Pétersbourg sous le règne de Catherine II (1762-1796). Organisation, circulation et symboliques des spectacles dramatiques, thèse de doctorat, vol. 2 (Paris, 2012), p.17-192.

When the stage meets the page – past and present

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-history-of-a-night-at-the-theatre/)

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-history-of-a-night-at-the-theatre/)

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’.[1] 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.

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Drury-Lane-Theatre/images-videos/drury-lane-theatre-london-the/5296)

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Drury-Lane-Theatre/images-videos/drury-lane-theatre-london-the/5296)

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).

[1] ‘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.

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

Mirabeau meets Voltaire and Rousseau in the underworld

‘Mais le voilà donc ce prétendu égoïste, cet homme dur, cet impitoyable misanthrope, que ses lâches ennemis déchirent plus que jamais après sa mort!’ (Mirabeau to Marie Thérèse Sophie Richard de Ruffey, marquise de Monnier, on the subject of Rousseau’s acts of kindness during his lifetime.)[1]

Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the death of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the comte de Mirabeau. A courter of controversy, Mirabeau is famous for being a nobleman who joined the third estate for the Estates General and became rapidly popular thanks to his oratory skills.[2] He died of a suspected inflammation of the diaphragm, on 2 April 1791, though some did question the rapidity of the illness and wondered if he had been poisoned.[3] Other than for a few individuals, such as Marat, who publicly rejoiced at his passing, Mirabeau’s death seems to have been overall a source of sorrow, provoking numerous displays of affection including prints and plays.

The representation of Mirabeau’s post-life is part of a wider Revolutionary fascination for the gathering of historical characters in the afterlife. Indeed, it was viewed by artists as an opportunity to create imaginary encounters between characters of different eras, stage reconciliations or provide a commentary on the situation in France. One can see an example of this in Olympe de Gouges’s rapidly penned Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, first performed on 15 April 1791, in which Rousseau and Voltaire are quick to shake hands and forgive each other in their joy at the French Revolution: ‘tu as posé les premières bases de tout ce qui s’est opéré de grand et d’utile en France’ exclaims Rousseau. [4]

Prints were more likely to pick either Voltaire or Rousseau as the object of Mirabeau’s affection. For instance, in ‘Le Voile est tombé’, Voltaire can state ‘Mon triomphe est beau sans doute, puisque il est l’ouvrage des Français’, while the archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, burns in the background.

Mirabeau_Voltaire

Le Voile est tombé (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

However, in ‘Mirabeau arrive aux Champs-Elysées’, it is to Rousseau that Mirabeau presents a charte constitutionelle as if it were ‘un de ses ouvrages’, involving him in the Revolution.

Mirabeau_Champs_Elysees2

These representations are not just a homage to Mirabeau, but also an occasion to revisit the historical thinkers who influenced Revolutionary ideology and to place Mirabeau within this illustrious canon. [5]

While only a few of these representations can be deemed negative, this was all to change with the discovery of the armoire de fer, a secret cupboard in the Tuileries which contained compromising correspondence, in November 1792. Even after death, there is no rest for the depicted.

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Apparition de l’ombre de Mirabeau (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

Claire Trévien

[1] Correspondance complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, ed. R. A. Leigh et al., 52 vol. (Oxford, 1965-1998), vol.44, p.187-91, letter 7686 (27 March 1780).

[2] John R. Neill and Charles F. Warwick, Mirabeau and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2005), p.431.

[3] Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Journal de la maladie et de la mort d’Honoré-Gabriel-Victor Riquetti Mirabeau, ed. Carmela Ferrandes (Bari, 1996), p.137.

[4] Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, p.6. Numerous plays and prints of the period staged what their creators saw as a long overdue reconciliation between the two feuding philosophes. See Ling-Ling Sheu, Voltaire et Rousseau dans le théâtre de la Révolution française (1789-1799) (Brussels, 2005).

[5] I will be exploring these representations in greater detail in an article, ‘Théâtre de l’ombre: visions of afterlife in prints of the French Revolution’, in Shadows of the Enlightenment: chiaroscuro in Early-Modern France and Italy, a study in analogy and metaphorology, a special issue of Journal of eighteenth-century studies,ed. Mark Darlow and Marion Lafouge (forthcoming).

Emilie Du Châtelet defends her life

Last night several of us went the short distance from the Voltaire Foundation to the intimate Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall to see Emilie: la marquise Du Châtelet defends her life tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Knowing nothing of the play, but a little about Emilie Du Châtelet, I was braced for an evening of nudity (read about the butler’s embarrassment here), gambling and adultery. I can assure you that it wasn’t. The Emilie Du Châtelet presented in this play is very much appropriate for a general audience wanting to find out about a woman scientist of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately the play presented quite a one-sided oversimplification of her life, with no hint, for example, of the bullying to which she subjected Mme de Graffigny. It seems wrong somehow, in a play about a possible feminist icon, to reduce another one to a mere annoying houseguest.

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

We had no such misgivings about the production. All the actors were fun to watch for their enthusiasm and quirkiness. The older Emilie Du Châtelet put in a great performance, despite the punishing task of being on stage for the entire play, including the interval. We particularly enjoyed the highly expressive face of her father, husband and new young lover (all played by the same actor). But Voltaire naturally stole the show for us!

Emilie defends her life again tonight and until 15 February 2014.

Anyone curious to round out their knowledge of Emilie Du Châtelet should read Emilie du Châtelet: rewriting Enlightenment philosophy and science, edited by Judith P. Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, or Cirey dans la vie intellectuelle du XVIIIe siècle: la réception de Newton en France, edited by François De Gandt (in French).

– ACB

The world’s a revolving stage

Voltaire wrote on most subjects under the sun but his particular area of expertise in his own eyes – and one about which he probably felt more entitled to offer an informed opinion than almost any of his contemporaries – was undoubtedly literature, and more specifically theatre. For although the modern reader will be familiar with the great man’s œuvre chiefly through his contes, his dramatic output far exceeded that of his tales. Consequently Voltaire saw himself first and foremost as a dramatist and a poet.

Title page of the first edition of the Appel.

Title page of the first edition of the Appel.

In this context, his Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (1761) makes fascinating reading. This text, just like another Appel launched by another great Frenchman almost two centuries later, is a call to national resistance. But in Voltaire’s case the invaders are not of the military but of the literary kind and they come not from outre-Rhin, but from outre-Manche.

Essentially what Voltaire aims to do in his Appel is to reassert France’s status as the leading nation for theatrical excellence, and to try to nip in the bud what he sees as a wave of rather irritating Anglomania spreading through French literary circles. His main target is none other than Shakespeare himself, whom, ironically, he had helped to popularise in France. Voltaire the Anglophile, who is usually more inclined to play down the virtues of the French nation than to extol them, is piqued into action by the seemingly unstoppable English success on the world stage – unlike France, England is having a very good Seven Years War – and he is therefore determined to defend France’s supremacy on the theatrical stage.

Voltaire duly sets out to analyse passages in Hamlet and Othello and to denounce the author’s unforgivable lapses in good taste and his disregard for the rules of classical theatre. Shakespeare, he concludes, is not without his merit or even genius, but he is too quintessentially English ever to rival the great Racine and Corneille – whose appeal is truly universal – on the stages of Europe.

For the modern reader, a certain pathos emerges from the pages of the Appel in view of how unprophetic it turned out to be. Voltaire’s spirited defence of his own conception of what theatre should be could not turn the tide of the ongoing shift in public taste, and one has a sense that, even in 1761, he was probably fighting somewhat of a rearguard action.

One can only wonder what he would have made of the recent adaptation of his Candide for the stage, by an Englishman, in a production full of sound and fury, performed in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Oh the irony!

–Georges Pilard