Reflections on translating French women playwrights

Curiously, I stumbled onto the study of French women playwrights essentially by accident. The process began over four decades ago, when I was recruited by my closest friend from graduate school to help him in preparing a critical edition of a tragedy by Pierre du Ryer and found out in the process that I enjoyed doing editions. My colleagues at my first tenure-track position did not much care for the topic of my dissertation (religious tragedy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). They advised me to forget about reworking it into a monograph and instead confine myself to doing critical editions. I consequently turned to another of my interests at the time: the debate over the existence of a literary baroque.

Portrait of Marie-Catherine de Villedieu by Charles Devrits, published in an 1845 book of portraits of Norman poets.

I worked on editions of three plays by Jean Rotrou that I viewed as typical examples of baroque drama. I got one of them published but soon realised that it would be difficult to publish multiple plays by the same author. I therefore began to look around for another suitable playwright. One of my colleagues, who had published a monograph on Mme de Villedieu at the start of his career, suggested that I look at her tragicomedy, Le Favori (1665). I was so impressed by that play, which struck me as a neglected masterpiece, that I decided to explore the overall history of female playwrights in France. There was no general study of that subject, and I was unable to find anyone else in the United States working on it, even though English women playwrights were garnering a lot of attention. Indeed, most scholars of early modern French literature seemed unaware that there were any women playwrights in that period.

At that point, it became clear that an edition of Le Favori by itself would be inadequate and that something on a much larger scale was needed. So I decided to embark on a full-length anthology of French women playwrights, covering multiple authors and genres. I also realised that, since Women’s Studies was taking off as an academic field, it was necessary to make the plays available to a wider audience, which meant translating them as well as preparing French editions. And that meant turning my anthology into a bilingual edition.

Frontispiece of the 1750 edition of Cénie by Françoise de Graffigny, the most successful play by a French woman on the Parisian stage prior to the Revolution (Paris: Cailleau, 1750).

The next question was how many plays to include and within which time period. Eventually, I settled on 1650 to 1750, for the following reasons. First of all, although I discovered a handful of women playwrights in the sixteenth century, starting with Marguerite de Navarre, none of the authors seems to have intended their works for public performance (with one exception, and that play is lost), and there is no indication that any of them knew about the others, meaning that there was not yet a sense of tradition. As for the first half of the seventeenth century, I found only one play, which survives in manuscript, was never performed, and in my opinion is not very good. It was not until 1650 that women playwrights started to find an audience, with a number of them publishing their works or getting them publicly performed, or both. Françoise Pascal, who published six plays between 1655 and 1662 and had at least two of them staged by professional companies, struck me as the proper place to begin. As for the endpoint, I chose Françoise de Graffigny, whose Cénie (1750) was the most successful play by a woman on the Parisian stage prior to the Revolution.

In order to show the diversity of genres cultivated by these writers, I included a short farce, a tragicomedy, a comedy-ballet, two tragedies, and a tearful comedy. Unfortunately, once I had completed the bilingual anthology, I was unable to find a publisher for it. Finally, I lucked out thanks to a casual conversation that I had with Wolfgang Leiner during a conference. He expressed his willingness to publish my book in the monograph series that he directed, Biblio 17, but he was not prepared to handle a bulky bilingual edition. Instead, he gave me the choice between submitting just the French originals or just the translations. I sent him an all-French version, which he accepted, and I was soon to find an American publisher for the companion volume with just the translations.

Françoise de Graffigny, author of Cénie. Victorine-Angélique-Amélie Rumilly, Presumed portrait of Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758), 1836, oil on canvas, 75.3cm x 65cm, Palace of Versailles.

The appearance of these volumes produced such a huge amount of interest in these women playwrights that I quickly realised the need to prepare a second volume, covering another six plays from the same period, with a greater emphasis on plays with explicitly feminist content, including Anne-Marie du Boccage’s 1749 tragedy about the Amazons. This time I included some works from the théâtres de société in addition to plays intended for public performance. The French-language edition was quickly accepted by the Biblio 17 series. However, finding a publisher for the translations was more difficult than anticipated, since the U.S. publisher that had accepted the first volume had ceased operations. I eventually got the volume accepted by the ‘Other Voice’ series, which is primarily devoted to early modern women authors, but there was an unexpected obstacle: at that time the series had a cut-off date of 1700. Since I had not yet translated all six of the plays from the French edition, I agreed to do a shorter volume with only the first four of the projected plays. Left out were works by Staal-Delaunay and Du Boccage.

Portrait of Anne-Marie Du Boccage by Charles Devrits, published in an 1845 book of portraits of Norman poets.

While I was engaged in preparing the second volume of both the English-language and French-language versions of my anthology, an exciting new project got underway. Henriette Goldwyn, one of the first American colleagues to share my interest in women playwrights, got in contact with the eminent French feminist scholar, Eliane Viennot, and with the French actress, director, and independent scholar, Aurore Evain. Together they developed a plan to publish a multi-volume anthology that would cover the entire Ancien Régime period. I was eventually invited to join the general editorial team alongside Aurore and Henriette. The original plan was for a three-volume collection, but it was ultimately expanded to five volumes, of which four have so far been published. This collection, far more comprehensive than my earlier two-volume anthology, included two-thirds of the plays that I had previously edited, but we decided that it was worthwhile to have a certain amount of duplication.

In addition to my work with the editorial team, I wrote the general introduction to two of the volumes and edited a number of the individual plays. After the publication of the third volume, the press handling the series, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, experienced financial difficulties and was unable to commit to publishing the remaining volumes. Eliane and Aurore successfully negotiated with Classiques Garnier to take it over, with the publisher insisting on reissuing the first three volumes under its own imprint. In the meantime, I collaborated on an edition of the pedagogical plays of Mme de Maintenon, which we felt did not properly fit into the five-volume anthology. At this point, I felt that I had arguably done enough with editions of French women playwrights in French.

Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700, ed and trans. by Perry Gethner (Toronto and Tempe: Iter Academic Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015).

More recently, however, I have started to feel that there is a need for an additional volume of women playwrights in translation. My plan is to focus just on comedy and to expand the period covered as far as 1800. I have not finalised the list of plays, but the authors will most likely include Louise-Geneviève de Sainctonge, Marie-Anne Barbier, Marguerite de Staal-Delaunay, Françoise de Graffigny, Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, and Olympe de Gouges. I expect this project to occupy me for roughly five years.

I have several broad considerations in mind when I work on these translations. I want them to be as accurate as possible yet readable, avoiding awkwardness and stilted language; I would like the readers to enjoy the plays as much as I do. I want the introduction and notes to provide adequate information to help non-specialists appreciate the works in their historical context. I try to make the translations suitable for actors, in the hope that my versions may be used in performance. In addition, I feel a responsibility to the playwrights, knowing that this is the first time their works are being rendered into English, and that quite possibly it will also be the last. Finally, I want to note that I have learned much from studying this neglected group of texts, especially the insights into the authors’ personal perspectives on such matters as women’s rights, their capacity for reasoning, leadership, and friendship, and their frustration with social injustice.

– Perry Gethner, Regents Professor of Foreign Language, Oklahoma State University

Bibliography

Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700, ed and trans. by Perry Gethner (Toronto and Tempe: Iter Academic Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015).

Femmes dramaturges en France (1650-1750) : Pièces choisies, ed by Perry Gethner (Paris, Seattle, Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature [Biblio 17, 79], 1993).

Femmes dramaturges en France (1650-1750) : Pièces choisies. Tome II, ed by Perry Gethner (Paris, Seattle, Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature [Biblio 17, 79], 1993).

The Lunatic Lover and Other Plays by French Women of the 17th & 18th Centuries, ed by Perry Gethner (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994).

Maintenon, Françoise d’Aubigné de, Proverbes dramatiques, ed by Perry Gethner and Theresa Varney Kennedy (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014).

Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, ed by Aurore Evain, Perry Gethner, and Henriette Goldwyn, 3 vols (Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2006-2011).

Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, ed by Aurore Evain, Perry Gethner, and Henriette Goldwyn, 5 vols [of which 4 have appeared] (Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2014-).

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

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

 

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