Moliere, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife (Studies Theatre Hist & Culture)

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Vitam impendere vero. There are still numerous links to be made, and the task of making the connections is not always easy. Instead, the text is published on its own in Thus, Rousseau could see connections between his essay on theatrical imitation and all these works. 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. Its authors and editors hope to add to the recent increasing interest in Rousseau as playwright, musician and spectator.

Bernard Gagnebin and Jean Rousset, p. Henri Coulet and Bernard Guyon, p. Detail from Spectacle Gratis — G. 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.


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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. 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.


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  5. 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.

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    Challenging, and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, these early novels still defy our assumptions about the novel as a form. 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! Niklaus, in The Complete Works of Voltaire , vol. In my recent book, I set out to write a socio-cultural history of the profound transformations that marked the French stage during the era in which, I argue, the theater emerged as the most prestigious and influential urban cultural institution of the age of Enlightenment.

    Stagestruck lifts the curtain to take readers behind the scenes of the rapidly commercializing world of eighteenth-century French theater, when many dozens of cities in provincial and colonial France opened their first public playhouses. An evening at the theater was a commodity that came to be produced and consumed in new ways. These enterprises required a diverse cast of characters ranging from actors and actresses to directors a position that was in fact an eighteenth-century invention to shareholders who invested in the business of entertainment to a growing base of paying customers.

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    These theater spectators came to conceive of themselves as a community with rights and prerogatives, one that should have an important say in urban cultural life. During the later Old Regime, the public adopted an explicitly consumerist language to defend its prerogative to comment on the show. During the s, in cities from Bordeaux to Rouen to Le Cap, Saint-Domingue, clashes between theater directors and police authorities and spectators escalated into full-scale public protests that crossed definitively from the aesthetic to the political.

    Perhaps most astonishingly, these consumer boycotts almost always succeeded in the sense that directors and authorities felt compelled to respond to audience demands for fear that if they refused, these prestigious cultural institutions might go bankrupt.

    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. 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. To return to the dramatic text referenced by the playbill, then, only allows us to speculate on the crowd-pleasing possibilities of its performance as adapted aboard the Crown. As captured French officers were rarely held on the hulks, the dramatic society producing the performance on the Crown was likely made up of ordinary sailors and soldiers — not officers — in the French military.

    By the time of this production, the British and the established republic of Haiti shared a common enemy: Napoleon. During this period of warfare, the British population was also divided over the issue of the abolition of the slave trade, debated in Parliament.

    This national debate was settled partially in — just four months before the Crown production — with the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade; although, slaves in British colonies were not emancipated until With this brief historical account of the complicated political tensions and social relationships in play during the period, we can more accurately imagine the performance event aboard the Crown by using the playbill as a lens to view the venue, dramatic texts and historical context discussed in previous sections.

    Moliere, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife

    In distributing the bill, the dramatic society aboard the prison ship offered a skeletal narrative of the anticipated event, and the structure of this narrative is revealing. The playbill announces to a British reader an event that will happen one week in the future.


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    However, it does not explicitly state that the performance will be in French but, instead, translates the titles, adding brief descriptions so that the subject matter might be deduced. Notably, the playbill devotes more attention to stage action than to description of the plot. Beyond the general emphasis on the violence depicted in the play, the playbill also suggests hostility toward the British even while it targets a British audience. Using the passive voice, the author of this playbill avoids mentioning that this honour has been granted by any particular person, though playbills for amateur performances generally acknowledge a patron of the announced performance.

    The playbill, thus, advertises a play in which prisoners will be armed with prop swords and pistols, provided by a dramatic society who refuses to acknowledge their captors as patrons. Of course, the fact that the bill translates the play titles into English foregrounds that the performance might not be completely understood by the authorities in attendance.

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    This is a feature Garneray highlights in his account of theatricals aboard the Crown. These responses could differ in terms of interpretation and language. Of further importance to the understanding of audience response on the level of language is the distinction between the action of the play, which shows black insurgents holding white hostages, and the more complex dialogue, which reveals a white villain instigating this violence by manipulating the righteous indignation of an enslaved black man.

    The illustrated stage directions of the play included below reveal this disparity, as the Philanthrope is not pictured in the tableaux depicting the threat of violence. When performed in French, presumably staged according to these illustrations, the British spectators would see a conventionally acceptable depiction of the black character Spartacus ordering his second in command to hold a sword to the neck of a Daubigny daughter, while the dialogue would give this visual villain powerful rhetoric expressing freedom from oppression, inspired by the rhetoric of the revolutionary philanthropist.

    The playwright gives Spartacus a hymn in response to this verbal liberation:. Let all tyrants perish!

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    The language here is the language of French patriotism against those vile whites, potentially interpreted by French prisoners as the British, while what is shown on stage is a black revolutionary threatening to kill a French family. However, this tone does not come across in the action, where Spartacus models the violent executor of vengeance. The culminating action of the play occurs just after this speech by Spartacus. The stage directions describe the following action: the second chief of the slave rebellion, Boucman, is about to deal Daubigny a murderous blow when the three white heroes appear and leap on the leaders of the rebellion.

    During the struggle the young slave cuts the rope that binds his master, and together, the master and the three heroes chase the leaders of the rebellion off stage. They are not seen again; the black and white villains in the play remain an off-stage threat. This possibility of a separate experience for Anglophone and Francophone members of the audience can be understood as a coded way for the French prisoners to express their indignation against the British keepers. With attention to the live production, the moments in the play when Spartacus speaks the language of liberty, modeled on the language of the revolutionary philanthropist, become fairly complex.

    Though it would certainly not be the first time that literal slavery functioned metaphorically to describe conflicts between free men, the live performance has the potential to create differing visual and auditory symbols. Instead, he may interpret Spartacus as the primary executor of vengeance on the Daubigny family. Evident from the image above, the white philanthropist is not pictured in the tableaux depicting the threats on the Daubigny family.

    However, prisoners with sympathy for the exiled white Plantocracy might identify with the captured Daubigny family. Most importantly, by depicting the events of the slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue, the French playwright avoids pitting French heroes against British villains. In other words, the leaders of the slave rebellion and the French radical philanthropist combine to provide a safe intermediary — a complex common villain — for both French and British members of the shipboard audience. In the play, for example, characters are beaten but stand up the next moment to deliver comical rebukes; further, they execute an escape without the deadly consequences prisoners in the audience would likely meet, should they attempt a real escape.

    This element of absconding from detention or punishment could be made even more entertaining if the play had been liberally adapted, as it was in Parisian theatres after the Revolution. Add to this the physical humor and the fact that the performance would likely have been cast entirely by men, and this play seems a perfect opportunity for prisoners to momentarily forget their horrible circumstances to enjoy the obscene and the farcical. The existence of the Crown playbill prompts many questions, and some remain unanswered even after this analysis: What inspired the dramatic society aboard the Crown and who were the members?

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    Was this the only performance given by this dramatic society? Who was invited to this event?

    Of course, these peripheral events are also ephemeral and reconstructed through traces — albeit more plentiful ones. These texts do not offer objective reports but can be read alongside and against the primary artifact. Notably, this analysis of the only material trace of a performance event has revealed the likelihood of many other performance events that left similar traces which, however scanty, can usefully further or at least complicate existing histories of the English hulks during the Napoleonic Wars and our understanding of the circulation of ideas across national, cultural and linguistic borders via performance and print in this period.

    These performances by unknown actors in makeshift venues have much to tell us about the diverse responses to revolution and empire, responses inaccessible through the published writings of well-known thinkers and the recorded performances in professional theatres. Bratton, Jacky. New Readings in Theatre History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, Garneray, Louis Ambroise.

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    Richard Rose. London: Conway Maritime P, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Jane E. Paris: Le Robert, James, C. New York: Vintage, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA. Leon, Mechele. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, Lloyd, Clive L. Albert Bermel. New York: Theatre Book Publishers, Popkin, Jeremy D. Chicago: U of Chicago P,