When the stage meets the page – past and present

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

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

In the preface to his tragedy Sémiramis (1749), Voltaire damningly characterized the typical eighteenth-century French theatre as ‘a tennis court with a tasteless set at one end, in which audience members are positioned contrary to all laws of order and reason, some standing on the stage itself with others standing in what is known as the parterre, where they are obscenely hemmed in and crushed, and sometimes surge forward over one another impetuously, as though caught up in a popular uprising’.[1] By contrast, the modern experience of theatre in London’s West End is one of slipping into expensive seats booked months in advance, flicking through a glossy programme, and sinking into reverential silence as the lights dim – always double checking that our mobile phones are switched off, lest we be the unfortunate soul to break the spell.

Where we seek to eliminate distractions in order to immerse ourselves in the story so that fiction becomes reality, our eighteenth-century ancestors were constantly immersed in the reality outside the fiction. Eighteenth-century theatres were a raucous microcosm of city life – a cacophony of catcalls, flirtations, and brawls – with actors on-stage often demolishing the fourth wall with conspiratorial asides to the audience. While Voltaire may have been keen to preserve the purity of his verse by creating a more suitable environment than this ‘tennis court’, other writers fully embraced the exuberant chaos of the eighteenth-century theatrical experience.

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

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

In Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer presents a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between stage and page at a critical point in literary history: the eighteenth century, when theatre was an established feature of the cultural landscape, and the novel still a nascent and mutable form, far removed from its modern dominance of the literary scene.

The advent of the novel, and its private consumption in the comfort of a study or drawing room, might seem a far cry from the world of the theatre as Voltaire describes it, yet many of the early English novelists – such as Widmayer’s case studies Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, William Congreve, and Henry Fielding – were also playwrights, who deployed the dramatic devices honed on stage to highlight the novel’s status as a fictional construct. The conspiratorial aside between actor and spectator was transferred to the private theatre of the reader’s imagination. While we might think of metafiction as a twentieth-century invention, the eighteenth century proves itself once again to have been at the forefront of modernity. With sophisticated playfulness, Behn, Manley, Congreve and Fielding not only created humorous effects but also questioned the capacity of their art to represent reality. Exaggeration and finely tuned irony, create a novelistic play (in all senses of the term) in which readers are invited to participate, questioning the traditional sources of textual authority as they sift through multiple layers of perception, and discover that the narrator has become an unreliable conduit for information – a player in the tale he narrates.

Challenging, and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, these early novels still defy our assumptions about the novel as a form. Despite evolutions in their nature and status, the eighteenth-century intermingling of drama and prose continues to influence contemporary English writers, as the self-conscious narrator-performer Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and the metafictional Russian doll narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) illustrate. With critical studies into notions of identity as performance, the legacy of these bold and experimental eighteenth-century writers is likely to continue – the scene is set for a long and fruitful encounter between stage and page!

– Madeleine Chalmers

Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, July 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1165-3).

See also: Roman et théâtre au XVIIIe siècle: le dialogue des genres, Catherine Ramond (SVEC 2012:04, Voltaire Foundation, April 2012, ISBN 978-0-7294-1043-4).

[1] ‘un jeu de paume, au bout duquel on a élevé quelques décorations de mauvais goût, & dans lequel les spectateurs sont placés contre tout ordre & contre toute raison, les uns debout, sur le théâtre même, les autres debout, dans ce qu’on appelle parterre, où ils sont gênés & pressés indécemment, & où ils se précipitent quelquefois en tumulte les uns sur les autres, comme dans une sédition populaire’ [translation my own], in Voltaire, ‘Sémiramis, tragédie’, ‘Dissertation sur la tragédie’, ed. R. Niklaus, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.30A (Oxford, 2003), p.157, lines 424-31.

Mirabeau meets Voltaire and Rousseau in the underworld

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

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

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

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

Mirabeau_Voltaire

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

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

Mirabeau_Champs_Elysees2

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

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

Mirabeau_apparition

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

Claire Trévien

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

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

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

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

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