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


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-).

Digital approaches to ballet as an interdisciplinary theatrical form

What might the discourse around pantomime ballet tell us about the priorities of Enlightenment aesthetics, and what might a literary study of ballet during the Enlightenment reveal about ballet’s legacies? These are two of the larger questions that I address in Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, but they also point the reader toward a third question, less obvious from the book’s title but nevertheless situated at the core of the project: how did the rampant textual borrowing that took place during the Enlightenment shape the creation and dissemination of knowledge? Larger projects such as Commonplace Cultures have addressed this question on a macroscopic level. In Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, conversely, I have used digital tools in combination with close reading to attend to the micro level, focusing on a small number of authors and using paratexts to trace specific borrowings from one publication to the next.

Although the theorizing of ballet might seem an unusual place to begin to answer a question about textual borrowing, ballet’s disciplinary situation in fact makes it an ideal case study: during the second half of the eighteenth century, during which regional variants of the newly established genre of pantomime ballet flourished across Europe, no one seemed quite certain where to situate the artform. In the Encyclopédie, librettist Louis de Cahusac (1706-1759) crafted an interdisciplinary definition for ballet at the crossroads of opera and dance, with strong ties to the spectacular forms of the past, such as comédie-ballet and fêtes de la cour de France. Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the reform-minded ballet master and theorist, made the case in his Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (1760) for ballet as a theatrical form that emphasized its spatial and visual qualities. For Noverre and Cahusac, in other words, pantomime ballet was a narrative, theatrical form that relied on the body to tell a story. Anchoring their writings in the aesthetic theories of Charles Batteux and Jean-Baptiste Dubos, they used ballet’s literary and visual elements to justify its place among the so-called high arts, alongside painting and poetry.

Jean-Georges Noverre, Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets, title page (BnF).

Yet by the last decades of the eighteenth century, when the premise of a narrative ballet had already been widely accepted, editors and theorists of drama and dance would begin to complicate this idea. Charles-Joseph Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique – which brought together ballet-related texts by Cahusac, Noverre, Rousseau, Marmontel, and others – located ballet within five different subject dictionaries: Grammaire et littérature, Arts académiques. Equitation, escrime, danse, et art de nager, Antiquités, mythologie, diplomatique des chartres, et chronologie, Encyclopédiana, and Musique. Each of these dictionaries’ treatments, siloed away from the others, has the potential to be read as a standalone treatment of the subject; readers may have approached them singly, or worked with just a few volumes at a time, as in the case study of Antonio Piazza, editor of the Gazzetta urbana veneta, in my book’s fourth chapter.

Whether read as a whole or independently, the Encyclopédie méthodique is an ideal case study for demonstrating how knowledge was reordered through textual borrowing and editorial decisions. In the case of ballet, Panckoucke’s editors dissolved many of Cahusac’s original cross-references, nullifying the structure that linked his articles together. At the same time, they created new ways of understanding ballet’s past and future, especially through its inclusion under the rubric of dance, rather than the other way around. In this manner, the textual borrowing in the Encyclopédie méthodique demonstrates one way in which encyclopedic structure, just as much as content, can create and change the meaning of individual articles.

Most of the sources upon which this book’s argument rests are literary texts, which I have examined with attention to their underlying structure and arguments. However, I should underscore that I could not have even begun to approach these questions without access to the digital texts that allowed me to map areas of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, to connect it to and inventory changes in the encyclopedic structure made in the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, and to identify textual borrowings across the Encyclopédie and its Supplément, the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, the Encyclopédie méthodique, and Charles Compan’s Dictionnaire de danse. In particular, I have relied on the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Encyclopédie and the Inventaire de l’Encyclopédie d’Yverdon. Through my circuitous navigation of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, I have endeavored to follow the directive prescribed by D’Alembert in his ‘Discours préliminaire’, that is, to understand cross-references as representative of the disciplinary links between articles (and not to define one article by another). This approach has allowed me to reclaim an understanding of eighteenth-century ballet not within a field, as the encyclopedists would have deemed any attempt at its categorization to be reductive, but as a complex form of dramatic performance without disciplinary bounds.

– Olivia Sabee (Swarthmore College)

Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this post appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

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

‘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). ( / 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


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.


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


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.


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 beauté du débris

André Chénier

André Chénier, par Gabriel-Antoine Barlangue (1950), d’après Joseph Benoît Suvée (1795) – Image WikiTimbres.

L’inscription des poésies d’André Chénier au programme de l’Agrégation de Lettres modernes relève du roman.

En 2006, avait été choisi le tome premier récemment paru (2005) d’une édition nouvelle des Œuvres poétiques entreprise par Édouard Guitton et Georges Buisson pour la maison orléanaise Paradigme. N’était jusque là disponible que la vieille édition Becq de Fouquières (1872) que les éditions Gallimard avaient choisi, en 1994, de reproduire dans leur collection « Poésie / Gallimard », volonté assumée – Chénier manquait à l’appel – mais choix par défaut, pour pallier précisément l’absence de projets aboutis d’édition moderne.

Ce choix du travail (par ailleurs considérable) d’Édouard Guitton et Georges Buisson s’était révélé fort problématique. Leur édition de Chénier affichait l’ambition d’être « scientifique » et définitive mais était étouffée par l’érudition (identification des papiers, spéculations sans fin sur les dates de composition de chaque pièce). Elle entendait revenir au texte premier mais se révélait assez interventionniste (ajout de titres fantaisistes pour L’Art d’aimer, modifications de la ponctuation avec mention du désaccord entre les deux éditeurs…). Sur le plan de l’interprétation, l’orientation était à la fois biographique et hagiographique, insistait sur le destin glorieux et tragique d’un poète sacrifié par l’Histoire. Enfin, le premier tome de 2005 regroupait pour l’essentiel les premiers essais de Chénier, ses « Préludes poétiques » et ne comprenait aucune de ses pièces reconnues par la tradition comme « majeures ».

Quand la rumeur a circulé que les poésies d’André Chénier revenaient l’année prochaine au programme de l’Agrégation – quand d’autres choix de poésies auraient pu être faits, mais c’est une autre question –, le premier réflexe fut de penser que serait inscrit le tome II des Œuvres poétiques paru en 2010 et comprenant, entre autres, les Bucoliques et L’Invention. Certes, l’opus second aurait réservé son lot de surprises, à commencer par le choix d’Édouard Guitton de « cess[er] de participer à cette édition, à l’occasion d’un différend sur la manière de rendre la ponctuation à la fois méticuleuse et anomale d’A. Chénier »…

Aurait réservé, car le choix des responsables du Ministère s’est porté pour ce « retour » de Chénier à l’Agrégation… sur la vieille édition Becq de Fouquières de la collection « Poésie / Gallimard ».

Inscription en hommage à André Chénier

Inscription en hommage à André Chénier sur la tombe de son frère Marie Joseph au Père Lachaise.

Plutôt que de s’interroger sur et commenter plus avant les raisons d’un tel choix, on préférera rattacher ce « feuilleton » éditorial et institutionnel à l’histoire tragi-comique du corps poétique d’André Chénier qui fut, dès « l’origine », l’objet de toutes les attentions et de toutes les violences.

En 1872, Becq de Fouquières avait dénoncé la manière dont Henri de Latouche, maître d’œuvre de l’édition des Œuvres complètes d’André de Chénier de 1819, était intervenu sur le texte : pièces « altérées », « ïambes composés à Saint-Lazare […] disloqués, coupés, hachés ». La violence du propos était nourrie du sentiment que nombre de ces blessures étaient à jamais définitives : deux ans plus tôt en effet, en 1870, la maison de Latouche au Val d’Aulnay avait été pillée par les troupes allemandes et détruit l’ensemble des manuscrits de Chénier qui étaient en sa possession…

En 2006, après avoir déroulé l’histoire des atteintes ultérieures faites au corps poétique de Chénier (le classement par niveau d’achèvement par Paul Dimoff en 1908-1919 ; la distinction entre pièces finies et pièces ébauchées par Gérard Walter en 1940), Édouard Guitton et Georges Buisson proclamaient être parvenus à reconstituer le corps perdu, à réparer les dommages opérés par les précédents éditeurs : leur édition « réintègr[ait] résolument dans la trame d’une vie, afin de leur rendre mieux qu’un semblant d’unité, les œuvres du poète si souvent dépecées ou réduites à quelques pièces d’anthologie. » Quand on ne proposait de l’Art d’aimer jusqu’à eux que quelques « résidus épars que les éditeurs ont disloqué à qui mieux mieux », aveugles aux ruses du signifiant typographique, ils proclamaient : « Agissant à l’opposé, nous avons tenté de reconstituer l’A.A. d’A.C. ». Et de présenter plus loin un « remembrement ainsi substitué aux morcellements antérieurs », et une « réorganisation du corpus élégiaque. »

Gravure anonyme

Gravure anonyme (probablement XIXème siècle) illustrant Caïus Gracchus, de Marie Joseph Chénier.

Sous ce qu’il faut bien appeler des fantasmes, dorment de nombreux mythes et une histoire familiale, dont je n’évoquerai pour finir qu’un fragment, littéraire. Deux ans avant la mort d’André dont il porterait sa vie durant le lourd poids, son frère Marie-Joseph avait fait jouer Caïus Gracchus (1792). Cette tragédie antique met en scène un héros romain, dont l’une des premières actions vise à récupérer le corps mort de son frère, égorgé sur ordre du sénat (« Je vis, je rassemblai ses membres dispersés / Ma bouche s’imprima sur ces membres glacés ») et de l’apporter à leur mère qui se remémorera douloureusement le moment « Où je vis à mes pieds le second de mes fils / De mon fils égorgé m’apportant les débris ». Plus avant dans la pièce, Caïus Gracchus ne ménagera pas ses efforts, dans une double résilience, politique et poétique, pour fédérer le peuple romain et retrouver le pouvoir : « Romains, ralliez-vous, rassemblez vos débris »…

– Jean-Christophe Abramovici
Université Paris-Sorbonne

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


‘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.


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’ (;s=2824323900;).

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

When the stage meets the page – past and present

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source:

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source:

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:

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source:

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.