Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: a new translation

A preface on Voltaire and Islam by Malise Ruthven

Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, translated by Hanna Burton (Sacramento, 2013).

Until recently, it was generally considered that Islam, the youngest of the great world religions, was born ‘not amidst the mystery which cradles the origin of other religions, but rather in the full light of history’, as Ernest Renan, the French scholar of Middle East civilizations, put it in 1883. Most textbooks and popular biographies still take Renan’s line: Islam originated among the tribal Arabs of the Hijaz (the coastal region of western Arabia that includes both Mecca and Medina) who heeded the divine messages transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad as contained in the holy text of the Quran.

The traditional view of Muhammad’s life, conveyed by the vast majority of biographies, runs as follows. Muhammad began preaching around 510 CE in his native Mecca, the site of an ancient shrine to which Arabs made regular pilgrimages. His attacks on the local gods brought him into conflict with the city’s rulers, and in 622 CE, he and his band of followers migrated to the neighbouring settlement of Yathrib – later known as Medina, the Prophet’s ‘city’ – where he formed an alliance with local tribes, three of which adhered to Jewish rites. After a series of raids and battles (to which there are allusions in the Quran but no descriptions), he overcame the Meccan polytheists and restored the shrine at Mecca to the true worship of the God of Abraham. The recalcitrant Jews who refused to accept his message were expelled from Medina – and in one instance massacred for allegedly treacherous dealings with Muhammad’s Meccan enemies.

Illustrations de Description de l’Univers contenant les différents systèmes du Monde, les cartes générales et particulières de la géographie ancienne et moderne, etc., text by Alain Manesson Mallet (Paris, 1683) (Bibliothèque nartionale de France).

Modern scholars, taking their view from more than a century of biblical criticism, have begun to cast doubt on the traditional narrative. The first written accounts of Muhammad’s life were forged out of a vast body of stories known as Hadiths (‘traditions’ or reports), passed down orally by the generations that followed him. The earliest biography, by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833 CE, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who is thought to have lived between 707 and 767 CE. By that time the Muslim armies had long defeated the Persian Empire, wrested control of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt from the heirs of Constantine and Justinian, and established a fragile imperium that stretched from Iberia to the Indus Valley. The Arabian prophet, whose exemplary life and preaching are supposed to have inspired this remarkable series of conquests was already famous, and his biography came fully supplied with the supernatural tropes – angelic visitations and miracles – that adorn the lives of holy persons in almost every human culture.

There are clearly problems with this biography to which modern scholars are drawing increasing attention. The dating of the first written narrative to at least a century after Muhammad’s putative death in 632 CE may be contrasted with that of Mark’s gospel, considered by most Bible scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and to have been written up to four decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. The story of Jesus contained in the synoptic gospels has long been subjected to the rigors of formal criticism, with scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann claiming that almost nothing can be known about the life and personality of Jesus, as distinct from the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus. Despite its greater antiquity, the Christian narrative appears to have had a shorter oral transmission time than its Muslim counterpart. Furthermore, while there are allusions to Jesus in the writings of Josephus and Pliny that provide some cross-referencing for the events described in the Gospels, the Muslim accounts have no such historical anchoring: they are almost entirely ‘insider narratives’ composed in the spirit of piety. Some verses from the Quran, including references to Muhammad, are inscribed on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, dating from 692 CE. Yet even these have been questioned as sources for the life of Muhammad. The word ‘muhammad’, written in Arabic script without an initial capital letter, can be treated as a passive participle meaning ‘the praised one’. At least one scholar, drawing on numismatic and archaeological evidence, suggests that the inscriptions actually refer to Jesus.

The text of the Quran, the ‘discourse’ or ‘recitation’ that is said to contain the exact words dictated by God to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel, is supposed to have been fixed by Uthman (R. 644-656), the third caliph, or successor to Muhammad’s worldly power. It may have provided some clues to Muhammad’s biography – but they are only clues. The text is not arranged chronologically, and its style is highly allusive and elliptical. There are few extended narratives: the Quran’s auditors were evidently familiar with the materials in its discourses. There are references to stories contained in the Hebrew Bible and the Midrash (biblical commentaries), allusions to the Jesus narratives in the Gospels, including Gnostic versions expurgated from the official canon, and stories about Arabian prophets and sages who do not feature in the Judeo-Christian repertoire. The earliest Muslim exegetes – many of whom were Persian converts to Islam and far removed culturally from Muhammad’s supposed Bedouin milieu in western Arabia – were inspired to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography in order to understand the holy text, in particular, allusions to events in the Prophet’s life or ‘occasions of revelation’. There is a sense in which the Quran’s textual history conforms to Muslim piety: far from Muhammad being its ‘author’, the Quran, as the unmediated Word of God, is in a literary-historical sense the ‘author’ of Muhammad.

Scholars who have examined Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Hebrew sources alongside the earliest Arabic texts of the Quran and the hadiths have advanced a variety of alternatives to the conventional narrative. The American linguist John Wansbrough, who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, suggested that Islam, rather than originating in the arid deserts surrounding Mecca and Medina, arose much further north in a sectarian milieu of Christians and Judaized Arabs in the lands of the Fertile Crescent. More recently, in Muhammad and the Believers (2010), Fred Donner, doyen of American Islamic scholars, has argued that Islam began in the same region as part of an ecumenical movement of monotheists living in the daily expectation of End Times.  This revisionist view has recently been given a more popular currency by a British classical author, Tom Holland, in his book In the shadow of the sword (2012).

Following in Wansbrough’s wake, Holland suggests that Islam was born, not in the deserts of Arabia, but in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars – the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes. Muhammad’s Qurayshite enemies may not have been Meccans but Arab tribes that had grown rich on Roman-Byzantine patronage. Far from being illiterate (as the traditional biographies claim, with a view to emphasizing the Quran’s miraculous character), Muhammad was a sophisticated man who ‘laid claim to traditions of divine inspiration that were immeasurably venerable’, knowing full well what he was about.

The religion he founded began as a classic millennial cult comprising Jews, Christians, and Arabs driven by an apocalyptic belief in the end of the world, with Jerusalem as its original focus. The early caliphs of Islam, who saw themselves as God’s vice-regents, were both heirs and beneficiaries of the same millennial expectations – long entrenched in the region’s culture – that surface in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to this view, the purely Arabian provenance attributed to Islam and its prophet were later inventions by pious scholars who tried to curb the power of the caliphs by using the memory of Muhammad, with its by now well-established iconic moral authority.

None of the revisionist discourse, which has been strongly contested by some scholars working on the earliest manuscript sources, would have been known to Voltaire. As a religious iconoclast he would, no doubt, have relished the debate that has recently opened up over Islamic origins. As a dramatist, however, he explicitly rejected any requirement for historical accuracy. As Hannah Burton points out in the introduction to her elegant prose translation, the character of Mahomet is a fiction created for dramatic effect, not an attempt to portray a real historical actor. ‘Where would Virgil and Homer be if people had bothered them about the details?’ Voltaire asks. The same question is currently being asked of Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose skeletal remains were recently discovered under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. Shakespeare’s murderous villain, crook-backed and leering, dragging his misshapen body round the historical stage, bears little relationship to the somewhat prudish devotee of St Anthony the Hermit, patron of those who struggle against the sins of the flesh, who is documented in the historical record. Just as Shakespeare’s character was invented to appease the Tudors who had defeated Richard on the field of Bosworth, Voltaire’s Mahomet was invented to annoy the religious.

Mahomet (Bruxelles, 1742).

The great philosophe was clearly familiar with the more positive details of the Prophet’s life as contained in the ‘Preliminary discourse’ attached to Sale’s English translation of the Quran (1734), and in two French biographies of Muhammad, Henri de Boulainvilliers’s La Vie de Mahomed (1730), and Jean Gagnier’s La Vie de Mahomet traduite et compilée de l’Alcoran (1732). As a passionate anti-cleric, however, he simply plundered these sources and distorted them for his wider purpose, which was to attack the hypocritical religiosity he saw as underpinning France’s ancien régime. Richard Holmes quotes from one of his many ill-tempered diatribes against priests of every denomination who ‘rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God’ (‘Transubstantiation’, in Dictionnaire philosophique). The intellectual forebear of such ‘enlightenment fundamentalists’ as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Voltaire viewed Muhammad initially through anti-Christian and, specifically, anti-Catholic spectacles.

Depicted as an impostor and a lecherous villain, Voltaire’s Mahomet is singularly lacking in redeeming features. Far from having the qualities that grace the heroes of classical tragedy, he appears as a scheming, ambitious, and wicked tyrant, an impostor motivated by lust. The remorse he exhibits at the end of the play – added, it has been suggested, for ‘public edification – is, in Ahmad Gunny’s view, ‘at best a passing impression and not a permanent trait of character’. Some critics have seen Mahomet as being more of a tract than a play – an attack on religion generally, and in particular the fatalism that Voltaire and many of his contemporaries associated with Islam. Discerning critics saw it as a coded attack on the Catholic Church, cleverly disguised as a polemic against its principal religious enemy. Lord Chesterfield thought that under the guise of Muhammad, Voltaire was really attacking Christ, and was surprised that this was not noticed at the time of its first performance in Lille (1741). Chesterfield met a good Catholic there ‘whose zeal surpassed his insight, who was extremely edified by the way in which this imposter and enemy of Christianity had been depicted’ (‘dont le zèle surpassait la pénétration, qui était extrêmement édifié de la manière dont cet imposteur et ennemi du Christianisme était depeint’). One can easily imagine Voltaire smiling with his tight-lipped grin of ‘a maimed monkey’ (un singe estropié), as he himself described it. How satisfying to have stimulated a bigoted response from a play whose original title page reads Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète, tragédie.

Voltaire’s attack on fanaticism in Mahomet may have been pitched at the supposed enemy of Christianity, but there was a more immediate polemical purpose in his distortion of the Muhammad story. In his life of the Prophet, Boulainvilliers follows Ibn Hisham and subsequent chroniclers, including the Syrian Abu al-Fida al-Hamawi (1273-1331), from whom Boulainvilliers drew his narrative, who relates that Abu Sufyan, leader of the Qurayshites, inspired by the Prophet’s magnanimity, eventually converts to Islam. In Voltaire’s play, however, the Abu Sufyan character (who is called Zopire, possibly after a Persian who features in Herodotus’s Histories as helping Darius trick his way into Babylon) is murdered for failing to embrace Islam. Voltaire’s treatment not only blackens Muhammad’s character, but sabotages the image of the charismatic visionary who defeated his enemies by force of the Quran’s eloquence as much as by his prowess in battle. A similar purpose is evident from his treatment of Palmira, who resists Mahomet’s advances and kills herself rather than succumbing to them. The model for Palmira in Muhammad’s biography is Zainab bint Jahsh, ex-wife of Muhammad’s adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha, whom Muhammad married – correctly, in accordance with Islamic practice – after she had been divorced from her husband. Instead of embracing the more sympathetic image of Muhammad depicted by Boulainvilliers and Sale, Voltaire defaults to an older vision of Islam as a ‘religion preached by the sword and violence without any element of persuasion’. Doubtless it was this wholly negative depiction of the Prophet that secured papal approval for the play by Benedict XIV – an anti-Jansenist pope who would have seen the attack on Muhammad as a critique of the influential Jansenist party in France. A leading figure of this puritanical Catholic movement was the procurator Joly de Fleury, who was responsible for withdrawing the play after its successful Paris debut in 1742.

Voltaire, however, was far from being uniformly hostile to Islam. In a private letter to Frederick of Prussia he acknowledged that he had made Muhammad worse than he was: ‘Mahomet did not exactly weave the type of treason that forms the subject of this tragedy’ (‘Mahomet n’a pas tramé précisément l’espèce de trahison qui fait le sujet de cette tragédie’ D2386). His earlier play Zaïre, set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, presents the Muslim religion more pragmatically. The heroine Zaïre, whose husband, the sultan Orosmane, tragically mistakes her encounter with her lost brother, a Christian, for sexual infidelity, offers a rather more tolerant view:

‘My heart doesn’t know itself … Custom and law moulded my earliest years to the happy Muslim religion. I see only too clearly: the training that we are given as children shapes our feelings, our mores, our belief. On the banks of the Ganges, I would have been a slave to false gods; in Paris, a Christian; in this place, a Muslim.’

Zaïre (Paris, 1733).

Voltaire’s subsequent essay, De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet (1748), maintains his view that Muhammad was an impostor who exploited beliefs in the supernatural while having no such supernatural help himself. In this respect, he regarded Islam as inferior to the Chinese religion because – unlike Muhammad –  Confucius depended neither on revelation, nor on lies, nor on the sword for his teachings, but only on reason. However, in disputing the claim that Muhammad was illiterate – a theme he took up in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les mœurs – Voltaire also makes some positive comments about the founder of Islam:

‘How can one imagine that a man who had been a merchant, poet, legislator and sovereign was unable to write his name? If his book is unsuitable for our times and for ourselves, it was truly good for his contemporaries. His religion was even better. We should recognise that he virtually rescued the whole of Asia from idolatry. He taught the unity of God and forcefully denounced anyone claiming that God has partners. He banned the usurious exploitation of strangers, and enjoined the giving of alms. Prayer is an absolute requirement; acceptance of eternal decrees animates all. It is hardly surprising that a religion so simple and wise, taught by a man who was always victorious in the field took power in much of the world. In actuality the Muslims made as many converts by the word as by the sword, including Indians and many Negroes. Even the Turkish conquerors submitted themselves to Islam’ (OCV, vol.20B, p.335).

Voltaire’s articles in the Mercure de France in 1745 proceed on similar lines. In one of them he disposes of the myth that the Muslim conquerors of Spain were wild monsters whose only superiority lay in force. While acknowledging the cruelty that always accompanies conquests, he points out that the Moors were not without humanity, and that in all their provinces they tolerated Christians. Despite the asymmetrical Islamic approach towards mixed marriages (whereby a Christian man would be executed for marrying a Muslim woman unless he converted to Islam), the Muslims were merciful conquerors, leaving the vanquished their property, laws, and religion. Hence, Spaniards who had hitherto followed Catholicism were not reluctant to leave it, becoming Mozarabs instead of Visigoths. Turning his attention eastward, he likewise commends the Turks for their tolerance. Whereas no Christian nation allows the Turks to build a mosque on its soil, the Turks allow the Greeks to have their churches in lands under their control, and he commends the way that, in their European domains, they have retained ‘Asian’ traditions, such as building caravanserais for travellers, or schools and hospitals attached to mosques.

In his excursion into early Islamic history in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire commends the Caliph Umar for allowing Jews and Christians full liberty of conscience following the capture of Jerusalem. Interestingly, in discussing the succession to Muhammad he takes the Shi‘ite view: that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his Caliph, or successor. As Voltaire’s knowledge of Islam deepened, he clearly became better disposed towards the faith. In the Essai, for example, he dwells on the contrasting historical trajectories of Christianity and Islam. From being a religion initially spread by arms, Islam became increasingly tolerant, whereas Christianity, after starting out from a ‘meek and humble’ stance, became ever more barbaric and intolerant. The contrast is underlined in the Examen de Milord Bolingbroke (1766), where it is Christianity that fails the test of reason. Belief in an all-powerful God, says Voltaire, is the only Muslim dogma: without the coda proclaimed in the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) that Muhammad is rasul Allah (the Messenger of God), Islam could have been every bit as ‘pure and beautiful’ as the Chinese religion. There is an implicit endorsement of this view in the final chapters of Voltaire’s masterpiece Candide (1762). After their bizarre and traumatic adventures in Europe and Latin America, it is in Muslim Turkey that Candide and his companions find the peace of mind where they may ‘cultivate their garden’.

Malise Ruthven

Note: Since there is virtually no connection between Voltaire’s ‘Mahomet’ and the prophet of Islamic tradition, I have adopted Voltaire’s spelling when referring to this character and used the conventional spelling ‘Muhammad’ when referring to the Prophet.

Previously published at https://litwinbooks.com/voltaires-fanaticism-or-mahomet-the-prophet-preface/, where references to the citations may be found.

Theatre and colonialism: the show goes on

The cover image of Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean shows a black and white detail from a wonderful color map of Le Cap, from the collection of the John Carter Brown Library, which can be viewed in exquisitely high detail here. I encourage strolling through the city! The theatre, pictured on the cover of the volume, occupies a rectangular corner lot below the government complex gardens, with its shorter face spilling onto the Place de la Fontaine Montarcher, and its longer face allowing for dramatic arrivals along the end of the broad cours of the Rue Espagnole. Theatre was literally at the heart of the Saint-Domingue’s cultural capital, a haven of spectacle that, as the essays in our collection show in so many ways, was adopted and adapted in the Caribbean slave colonies, to lasting effect.

Place et Fontaine Montarcher. (Manioc – Bibliothèque numérique caraïbe)

As editors of this volume, Karine Benac-Giroux and I are delighted to share this collection of essays with scholarly communities around the world. We feel that this is a particularly opportune time to look back at how popular entertainment shaped perceptions and identities in the transatlantic French empire, and the ways in which the legacy of these eighteenth-century cultural practices has continued to inform the artistic production and historical understanding of the modern Francophone Caribbean. By presenting these essays in English, we also hope that they can help to extend the growing body of research around slavery and culture across early modern European colonial empires.

Over the course of the time that this volume was in preparation the world has been rocked by a number of epoch-defining events. The international wave of protests set off by the killing of George Floyd in 2020 has shone a bright light on the continued structural disadvantages imposed on descendants of African slaves in America and abroad. These events unfolded during a worldwide public-health crisis that has, amongst other depredations, forced the closing of almost all live performance venues. While we join the world in our outrage and mourning over these trials, we also recognize the rare timeliness of essays on eighteenth-century studies and theatre, to reflect on the cultural and representational apparatus of a slave-labor driven political empire that was an important contributor to the mentalities and practices that continue to shape the lives of Black people around the world. Performance, in the eighteenth century as today, retains a unique ability to reflect and mold our social perception; each of these essays confirms this power, offering a range of critical tools and past examples to underscore the long history that led up to this point, and how we might seize on these same representational tools to forge a more equitable future.

Map of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola), by Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720). (John Carter Brown Library)

Here is a quick summary of the volume’s contents. The volume is divided into three parts. The first looks at the cultures of performance in France’s most profitable eighteenth-century colony, Saint-Domingue. Before the Haitian revolution made this colony into the New World’s first Black Republic, Saint-Domingue’s economy was driven by slave labor at the island’s sugar plantations. Life in Saint-Domingue may have lacked much of the refinement of life in Paris, but in addition to importing unspeakably brutal labor practices, the colonists also brought a semblance of French theatrical life to the Caribbean. Travelling companies from Europe could profitably tour the colony with popular works from France, where the reigning théâtromanie made playhouses an important site for the negotiation of national values, tastes, and identity, all functions that theatre at once retained and modified in colonial Saint-Domingue. Logan Connors’ exploration of military-themed entertainment played in the colony reflects the increasing importance of an armed presence necessary for the commercial success of the slave-driven plantation economy, just as Julia Prest’s close reading of blackface performance illuminates the ways in which theatre helped to metabolize the conflicting moral valence of the racialized other under the ancien régime. In her exploration of the changes made to a successful pantomime spectacle when it was brought to Saint-Domingue by a traveling company of actors from France, Béatrice Ferrier’s research shines a light on the preferences of local audiences, while Bernard Camier details the emergence of a Creole theatrical culture articulated around the sophisticated use of the island’s homegrown idiom, notably in the works of the author and composer Clément, whose adaptation of Rousseau’s smash hit Le Devin du village provides a compelling case study for the emergence of a new identity – not French, but in dialogue with France – in Saint-Domingue.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le Devin du village.

In turn, Sean Anderson turns his focus on the dance performances of enslaved people, detailing how increasing colonial efforts at regulating this cultural expression were nevertheless unable to suppress this vital embodied expression of community and identity among slaves. Laurence Marie rounds out this section, and provides a transition into the next part of the book, with an attentive reading of the theatrical notices in the Saint-Domingue newspaper, Les Affiches américaines, analyzing how this publication reflected and promoted the unique theatrical culture in the Atlantic colonies, both within the Caribbean space and before the curious public in continental France.

The second part of the book turns its focus to how Atlantic slavery was represented on Europe’s stages, beginning with Catherine Ramond’s review of the theme of slavery in eighteenth-century French theatre, where the topic received largely comic treatment until the early days of the revolution. My own article, on the representation of slaves in Revolution-era theatre focuses on linguistic caricature (the infamous ‘baragouin’ of Black characters on the French stage), is followed by Pierre Saint-Amand’s penetrating analysis of an explicitly abolitionist play, La Liberté générale, written following the declaration of universal emancipation by the Convention nationale in 1794, a scathing denunciation of the machinations of the colonial planter class in Paris.

La Liberté générale. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The view then moves to a larger European stage, with Fredrik Thomasson’s chronicle of slave-plays in Stockholm, triggered by the Swedish crown’s takeover of the slave island of Saint-Barthélémy, ceded by France in 1784, making Sweden a slave-holding colonial power for the first time in its history. While the Haitian Revolution is now recognized as a signal realization of the French Revolution’s ostensible goals of liberty and equality, it was nevertheless experienced as a deep trauma for the French nation, a trauma that Pascale Pellerin situates in the cultural context surrounding Napoleon’s Egypt expedition through her reading of two plays written by Népomucène Lemercier during this campaign, whose focus on North African slavery comes to stand in for the anxieties of a diminished France following the loss of Saint-Domingue.

The final section pivots to look at the inheritance of this eighteenth-century theatrical culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Laurent Dubois and Kaiama Glover’s collaborative contribution probes the porous borders of history and fiction through the intellectual relationship between Jean Fouchard, the pioneering mid-century historian of Saint-Domingue’s eighteenth-century theatre culture, and Marie Vieux-Chauvet, whose novel La Danse sur le volcan (1957) draws on Fouchard’s research to fill in the story of the mixed-race performer Minette, the colony’s most celebrated actress. Following this, Emily Sahakian turns her attention to two contemporary Guadeloupian artists, LénaBlou and Gilbert Laumord, whose respective artistic practice enters into dialogue with the experience of the enslaved people – their ancestors – whose voices are muted in eighteenth-century stage culture, but whose testimony lives on through the Caribbean dance and music traditions that form the basis of these artists’ work.

Colonialism and slavery in performance, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2021.

The final two essays look at contemporary creations in Martinique, beginning with Karine Bénac-Giroux’s reflections on Histoires de valets, her Creole-feminist adaptation of Louis de Boissy’s La Surprise de la haine, performed by Martinican college students in Schoelcher in 2017, in which she stages a literal confrontation between eighteenth-century theatre and the lives of contemporary French citizens, descendants of slaves, who live in France’s overseas departments. Nadia Chonville closes our collection with an analysis of gender construction in a Daniely Francisque’s 2018 play Ladjablès, illustrating how the stage remains as important a site for exploring the contours of a French-Caribbean identity that is forever marked by the legacy of ancien régime slavery.

Jeffrey M. Leichman, Louisiana State University

Jeffrey M. Leichman and Karine Bénac-Giroux are co-editors of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, March 2021.

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

‘Beyond too much’: Shakespearean excesses in the 18th century

From the mid-1750s an unprecedented Anglophilia took hold of Europe. It manifested itself throughout Germany from the mid-1770s onwards with the rampant ‘Hamlet fever’, which succeeded and fed on an earlier ‘Werther fever’. It also became apparent in the many creative interactions with Shakespeare’s plays in the works of Goethe, Schiller and Kleist. Roger Paulin speaks of Germany in the 1770s as a ‘Shakespeare-haunted culture’, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, in 1827, diagnoses a ‘Shakespearomania’, James Joyce’s Ulysses later calls the phenomenon ‘Shakespeare made in Germany’.

French texts played a crucial role in disseminating English writing about the theatre in Germany. Diderot and Voltaire acknowledged the art of David Garrick, and Voltaire’s own intense engagement with Shakespeare carried many nuances. He regarded Hamlet’s monologue ‘To be or not to be’ as theatrical raw material: ‘un diamant brut’, but he also launched into a number of famous invectives against Shakespeare, as for instance in his Essai sur les mœurs, et l’esprit des nations: ‘C’est dommage qu’il y ait beaucoup plus de barbarie encore que de génie dans les ouvrages de Shakespeare’.[1]

Shakespeare Denkmal

Shakespeare Denkmal, by Otto Lessing (1846-1912), the only Shakespeare monument on the European mainland, in Weimar.

There is a great sense of abundance in Shakespeare’s plays themselves. To many readers and audiences, his works convey a sense of copious richness of themes, ideas, characters and possibilities of language. His characters continuously cross boundaries into excess. Antony and Cleopatra dream of an ‘Egypt without bounds’, the melancholic Orsino starts Twelfth Night by saying: ‘if music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it’, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet realises: ‘my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth’. King Lear expounds a self-surpassing dynamic of negative excess when Goneril purports to love her father in a manner that goes ‘beyond all manner of so much’.

Yet, it seems paradoxical that the texts of one of the most glorified poets in Germany, France and England could be least tolerated in their original form. What with all the enraptured admiration for Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre, editors and translators could not bear to stage them without extensive alterations. Eighteenth-century criticism and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays for the German stage like the adaptations of D’Avenant, Dryden, Tate or Cibber in England, were by no means guided by the principles of truth to the original, nor did they present a Shakespeare verbatim, but they rather delivered a tamed and domesticated version of the original.

Franz Heufeld’s highly successful Hamlet in Vienna (1773), for instance, dispensed with Fortinbras, Laertes, Rosencrantz and the gravedigger, leaving out the play’s political background and, instead, focused on the Danish family drama. He changed Shakespeare’s Latinate names into such that he considered more apt to the Danish setting: Polonius became Oldenholm, Horatio became Gustav, etc. Most importantly, he changed the ending of the tragedy, which as a consequence was no longer tragic. Quite unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that ends in a bloodbath, in Heufeld’s Denmark law and order as well as a kind of poetic justice are restored. Such ‘taming of the bard’ on German and Austrian stages operated on the basis that closeness to the original meant taking risks with the audience’s reactions. Indeed, fainting, collapse, and even premature labour were registered among the effects caused by a performance of Othello (1777) by Schröder, the ‘German Garrick’, in Hamburg.

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth, 1745.

The question ‘Shakespeare yes or no, and if yes how?’ rapidly rose to a question about the ‘right’ conception of contemporary drama. To German and French criticism and theatre in the eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s works were too much, too disturbing, too complicated, too confusing, too terrifying if not utterly devastating, bloodthirsty and gruesome. And yet, it seems that his plays fascinated their directors, actors, critics and audiences not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. Their reception reveals ambivalences about the rationale of a late-Enlightenment, bourgeois morality and its claim to art.

Voltaire invited the suitably flattered Garrick to visit him in Ferney, but alas, the meeting never took place. Voltaire died in May 1778 and Garrick outlived him by only eight months. What if they had met? Would Garrick have succeeded, as he had planned, in converting Voltaire fully to his own dramatic faith?

– Claudia Olk

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.25 (2012), p.293-94.

‘All together now’: accessing national theatre before the internet

Since the spread of global lockdowns to combat coronavirus, there has been an explosion of theatre productions that have been made freely available online. From New York to Delhi, from Cape Town to Rome, people have been able to come together and watch theatre in the space of their homes and to delve into the theatrical scenes of other cultures near and far. That’s without mentioning, of course, the prolific social media accounts of national theatres such as the Comédie-Française, the Opéra national de Paris, the National Theatre, or the Nationaltheater Mannheim (to name but four) which are sharing their content and behind-the-scenes snippets with confined spectators.

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon is the May 2020 volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. It offers an exciting new perspective on the Napoleonic state and how it attempted to use theatre to reunite the nation after the Revolution.

Certainly, questions remain about the funding of the arts, and how they will survive the easing of social distancing measures, but more people than ever can access productions (the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night gained nearly 880,000 views on YouTube within a week, far more than the auditorium could hold in an entire run). But before the advent of the internet, how did people come together through theatre? How did they consume it without necessarily being in the auditorium that night? How did it give them a sense of community? How did it spread ideas of a national culture? These are some of the questions that are at the heart of my new book, Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon.

In what follows, I will briefly touch on three different ways during the Napoleonic period that people across France could relate to what was going on at the Comédie-Française, France’s national theatre for spoken theatre. Although this was a period long before the advent of the internet, people continue to access theatre in remarkably similar ways today.

The first and most prolific medium was the press. Accounts of the Comédie-Française’s performances were reprinted in provincial newspapers so that, whether you were sitting in Bordeaux or Marseille, in picking up the review the reader could engage with the performances that were meant to encapsulate the nation’s identity. Indeed, as today, these reports spread beyond France’s borders and became emblematic of its national culture through publications such as Le Spectateur du Nord (published in Hamburg). This was particularly important for the displaced members of the French population who were unable to return to their homeland after the Revolution.

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer (Paris: Martinet, c. 1803). (gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

The second important vein was through educational books (somewhat akin to today’s textbooks) and cheap editions of the classics which were performed at the Comédie-Française – for the era before PDFs and Kindle editions. These educational books were assembled in Paris, creating an anthology of the highlights of French theatre and literature with extensive introductions and footnotes to offer a guided reading. Indeed, as one publication noted, this was not just useful for the younger generations of the 1810s, but also for those who had lost out on an education during the ancien régime or the Revolution. Similarly, though more independently, publishing houses produced affordable runs of the classics which were well below the price of even the cheapest ticket at the Comédie-Française (just as today it is much cheaper to watch a production on YouTube than pay tens of pounds for a ticket), increasing the accessibility of these plays. This was national education on a large and – at 0.4 francs in one case – relatively cheap scale.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Joseph Karl Stieler, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1828, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. (Neue Pinakothek München)

Finally, there were the actors themselves, who toured the provinces and the Empire to perform the hits of the Comédie-Française repertoire (either for their own financial gain or because Napoleon ordered them to) – for a comparison to our modern world, we might think about Sir Ian McKellen’s recent tour, which featured a heavy dose of Shakespeare. The Napoleonic period witnessed an increased interest in celebrity: people were intrigued to find out quite how magical a performance by the great actor Talma could be, or who was better in the intense rivalry between Mlles Duchesnois and Georges. Indeed, these performances were accessible to those who could not go to Paris (practically, or because they were exiled), and the existence of many free tickets meant that most ranks of society could try and slip inside the theatre. What is more, these provincial performances were in turn recorded, not just by local critics, but also by some of Europe’s greatest minds, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who saw the Comédie-Française’s performances in Erfurt, or Germaine de Staël, who famously recorded Talma’s provincial performance in On Germany, published in both London and Paris.

People have long been aware of theatre’s educative, morale-boosting, and entertaining effects. Theatre and Nation in the Age of Napoleon considers a time before the birth of the internet, but its questions of how theatre creates a sense of community and spreads national culture remain acutely pertinent to our current world.

– Clare Siviter, University of Bristol

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

What can the Enlightenment teach us about theater and emotion?

What connects the religious zealots who tried to annihilate theater under Louis XIV to an early Enlightenment attempt to hoist theater up as the most complete method of understanding and influencing human behavior? How did theatrical affect transform from a dangerous contamination of the soul to a particular regime of emotional pedagogy that was supposed to help spectators navigate the complexities of society? What happens to spectators when they watch a play and how did notions of that “infiltrating” moment change during a tumultuous, yet understudied, period in French history? And most essentially, why should tensions and debates about theater, spectatorship, and emotion in early modern France interest us now?

In The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, I investigate a departure from discussions of dramatic literature and its undergirding rules to a new, relational discourse on the emotional power of theater. Through a diverse cast of religious theaterphobes, government officials, playwrights, art theorists and proto-philosophes, I show a concerted effort during the early Enlightenment to use texts about theater to establish broader theories on emotion, on the enduring psychological and social ramifications of affective moments, and more generally, on human interaction, motivation, and social behavior.

What emerges in this study is a fundamentally anthropological assessment of theater in the works of anti-theatrical religious writers such as Pierre Nicole, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bernard Lamy, and Armand de Bourbon-Conti. These enemies of the stage – and countless others – argued that emotional response was theater’s raison d’être and that it was an efficient venue to learn more about the depravity of human nature. A new generation of pro-theatrical writers – dramatists and theorists such as Jean-Baptiste (the abbé) Dubos, Antoine Houdar de La Motte, Marivaux, Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, and others – shared the anti-theatricalists’ intense focus on the emotions of theater as well as their conception of theater as a unique and powerful experience on the senses. However, unlike their skeptical counterparts, early eighteenth-century theatrical scientists of man did not view emotion as a conduit of sin or as a dangerous, uncontrollable process. For this group of playmakers, political operatives and theoreticians, performance provided for cognitive-affective moments of feeling and learning about oneself and others.

Theater scholars working in the French tradition have often dated this “transformative” conception of performance to the advent of Denis Diderot’s great theatrical project, the drame (or drame bourgeois). Diderot’s drame was a ground-breaking movement in the history of European theater. The famous philosophe recast the relationship between actor and spectator, invented a new theory of illusion, reoriented the purpose of drama towards intimate community engagement, and proved that sensibility could be a significant tool in creating a virtuous and “enlightened” society. The Emergence of a theatrical science of man reaches back a few generations before Diderot to find a surprising path to his revolutionary project. My book traces a moment when writers began to use plays, critiques, and other cultural materials about the stage to study (and, in their minds, “improve”) the emotional, social, and political “health” of kingdom. I hope that my book will encourage readers to wonder if this conception of theater, emotion, and transformation is still relevant today.

The European Enlightenment never settled any debates on the nature of theatrical emotion, nor did it provide any definitive conclusions about the struggle between absorbing effects and distance as the most effective means for promoting social understanding and change through the performing arts. From Antonin Artaud’s rekindling of theatrical contagion, to the alienating rationality of Brecht’s drama, to attempts to correct injustice and build knowledge through kinesthetic practice in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, more recent theatrical movements have continued to debate the most fundamental question about theater, that is, what can it do? If twentieth-century greats, like Artaud, Brecht, Boal, and others, labor to come to terms with theater’s power, then why should anyone expect to find definitive answers in the eighteenth century? However, if the Enlightenment was indeed a set of discourses, actions, and processes – an “age of Enlightenment” rather than “an Enlightened age”1 – it appears that writers at the time kept true to the Kantian claim by bringing to the forefront, but not forever resolving, the most complex questions of their day.

I invite students and scholars from disciplines as (seemingly) distant as contemporary performance studies to seventeenth-century religious history to read my book. I hope readers will appreciate a unique imbrication of emotion, religion, and theater; one story of how France became modern; one route to the Enlightenment and its theatrical science of man.

– Logan J. Connors, University of Miami

1 Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the question: what is Enlightenment? (1784), in What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-century answers and twentieth-century questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 58-64 (62).

Logan J. Connors is the author of the January volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, an exciting new perspective on the polemics of affect, emotion, and theatrical performance in early Enlightenment France.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Behind the scenes of eighteenth-century music and theatre

Operahuset

Gustaf Nyblaeus (1783–1849), Interior from Gustav III’s opera house, scene from Méhul’s Une folie, which was performed at the Opera from 1811 onwards. Photo credits: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Licence: CC BY SA.

In recent years cross-disciplinary encounters and research agendas have stimulated an upsurge of interest in the history of early modern and eighteenth-century music and theatre, resulting in new insights into musical methods, artistic milieus and hubs, and the professional practices of actors and musicians.

It was clearly an opportune time to weave these strands into a single publication.

The story of our book began on the shores of the Mediterranean, where two ANR research programmes (CITERE and THEREPSICHORE) and one Academy of Finland research project (‘Comic opera and society in France and Northern Europe, c.1760–1790’) pooled their resources to stage a series of research meetings that enabled a thought-provoking exchange of ideas between historians, literature specialists, linguists and musicologists, paving the way for a truly interdisciplinary volume. An added bonus was the pleasure of working with such a cosmopolitan team of authors from Europe, the US and Australia.

The result, Moving scenes: the circulation of music and theatre in Europe, 1700-1815, certainly reflects something of the repeated crossing of borders – political, linguistic and stylistic, and borders of convention and genre, society and culture – that characterized musical and dramatic production in the eighteenth century. By adopting a case study approach it is our hope that this volume will provide insights into life behind the scenes, such as:

  • The various personal or political motives and struggles related to particular productions, as in the case of Grétry or the productions of French plays in Germany during the coalition wars.
  • Conditions of the recruitment of actors and musicians, illustrated by Favart’s efforts to hire French comedians for the Viennese stage.
  • The sociology of the artistic profession and the material conditions of artistic careers, as exemplified by the Huguenot actor and writer Joseph Uriot, who crossed social, political and linguistic borders between French-speaking territories and the German-speaking world.

Beaumarchais

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1755), oil on canvas, 82.3 x 64.5 cm. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC PD Mark.

The book may be in English but the geographic framework is largely European, the eighteenth century being a Europe of French theatre and Italian music. The Leitmotif, however, is circulation: circulation of people, ideals, musical themes, and literary innovations and appropriations. These are stories about high art and the canon of good taste, about patronage and collecting, about translation and imitation, and about earning a living as an artist. They take us from Stockholm to Madrid and from Moscow to New York, and show the extent to which travelling and mobility was, and always has been, part of the artistic and musical sphere. Indeed, it is also part of the academic sphere.

The disciplines of intellectual history and cultural history can tend to be mutually suspicious – or indeed ignorant – of each other. With our book, Moving scenes, we want to demonstrate that by focusing on the actual circulation of people, texts and works across Europe, it is possible to overcome many theoretical obstacles and initiate fruitful debates that cross any disciplinary barriers.

– Charlotta Wolff and Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire

 

Rousseau on stage: Vitam impendere vero

Pygmalion.

Fig. 1: João Luís Paixão in the role of Pygmalion, in the research project Performing Premodernity’s production of Rousseau’s Pygmalion at the Castle Theatre of Český Krumlov 2015. Photo by Maria Gullstam.

In the Lettre à d’Alembert (1758) – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critical assessment of the Parisian theatre – the philosopher writes in a footnote: ‘[J]’ai presque toujours écrit contre mon propre intérêt. Vitam impendere vero. Voilà la devise que j’ai choisie et dont je me sens digne. Lecteurs, je puis me tromper moi-même, mais non pas vous tromper volontairement; craignez mes erreurs et non ma mauvaise foi. L’amour du bien public est la seule passion qui me fait parler au public.’[1] Rousseau claims to be writing with the ‘public good’ in mind, even though it might go against his own interests – such as his love for theatre and opera. When approaching Rousseau’s writings for and about theatre, we need to consider the often forgotten parts of his œuvre, as well as highlight the relation between these works and his political, musical, and literary writings. There are still numerous links to be made, and the task of making the connections is not always easy.

An illustrative example of this is Rousseau’s essay De l’imitation théâtrale – a translation and adaptation of parts of the tenth book of Plato’s Republic, with personal annotations by Rousseau himself. Originally, the text was composed in connection with the Lettre à d’Alembert in 1758, and Rousseau planned to publish the two texts together. However, he writes in the preface of De l’imitation théâtrale, ‘n’ayant pu commodément l’y faire entrer, je le mis à part pour être employé ailleurs’.[2] A few years later, Rousseau finds himself in a similar situation when publishing Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse in 1761. Its preface in dialogue form had to be published separately from the novel, ‘sa forme et sa longueur ne m’ayant permis de le mettre que par extrait à la tête du recueil’, as its author writes in the avertissement of the separate publication.[3] Interestingly, he then attempts to publish it together with De l’imitation théâtrale, though without success.

Pygmalion.

Fig. 2: Laila Cathleen Neuman as Galathée and João Luís Paixão as Pygmalion, in the research project Performing Premodernity’s production of Rousseau’s Pygmalion at the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) in Stockholm 2016. Photo by Maria Gullstam.

Two years later, in 1763, Rousseau has new plans to publish his ‘extrait de divers endroits où Platon traite de l’Imitation théatrâle’[4] – this time together with the Essai sur l’origine des langues and Lévite d’Ephraïm, and he starts to write a preface (Projet de préface).[5] But, just as in previous attempts, this third initiative to publish De l’imitation théâtrale is never finalised. Instead, the text is published on its own in 1764.

Rousseau saw fit to publish his essay on theatrical imitation together with texts ranging over a whole spectrum of topics and genres: his apparently complex treatise the Lettre à d’Alembert – criticising the Parisian theatre from both an anthropological and a moral perspective; the Préface to his novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse, which when published separately in 1761 carried the subtitle Entretien sur les romans; further, the Essai sur l’origine des langues, which has strong connections to both Rousseau’s political writings (through its kinship with the Discours sur l’inégalité) and his writings on music (parts of the Essai started to develop in his unpublished response to Rameau’s accusations in the Erreurs sur la musique dans ‘l’Encyclopédie’); and finally, his moral tale Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. Thus, Rousseau could see connections between his essay on theatrical imitation and all these works. This is just one example amongst his many works for or about theatre that need to be reincorporated in his œuvre as a whole.

Rousseau loved drama passionately, he was aware of the consequences of attacking the Parisian theatre, and yet he criticised the Comédie-Française so fiercely in his Lettre à d’Alembert that this work’s inflammatory reputation still echoes in the twenty-first century. The Lettre’s notoriety has kept most theatre scholars from further exploring Rousseau’s own works for the stage, while the widespread labelling of Rousseau as an homme à paradoxes has every so often justified loose ends within Rousseau studies on the topic. Rousseau’s seemingly dual position in relation to theatre does entail numerous challenges. Our volume Rousseau on stage: playwright, musician, spectator does not claim to resolve these challenges, but to aim, nonetheless, at probing certain difficulties and starting to unravel others. The point of departure for Rousseau on stage is Rousseau’s passionate and double relationship to theatre as expressed and elaborated in the Lettre à d’Alembert, his theoretical texts on music and opera, his compositions for the stage and many descriptions of his experiences as a theatre-goer. Its authors and editors hope to add to the recent increasing interest in Rousseau as playwright, musician and spectator.

– Maria Gullstam and Michael O’Dea

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, 5 vols (Paris, 1959-1895) (henceforward OC), vol.5, Lettre à d’Alembert, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Jean Rousset, p.120.

[2] Rousseau, OC, vol.5, ‘Avertissement’ in De l’imitation théâtrale, ed. André Wyss, p.1195.

[3] Rousseau, OC, vol.2, Préface de la Nouvelle Héloïse, ou Entretien sur les romans, ‘Avertissement’, ed. Henri Coulet and Bernard Guyon, p.9.

[4] Rousseau, OC, vol.5, ‘Avertissement’ in De l’imitation théâtrale, p.1195.

[5] Neuchâtel, Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, MS R 91.

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.

ose-2016-07-50pc

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.