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Politics of the Stage: Theatre and Popular Opinion In Eighteenth-Century Paris

Kimberly Meeker

The eighteenth century is widely reputed to have been the Age of Theatre in France. A unique form of entertainment and mass communication, theatrical productions brought together representatives from all degrees of social and economic status in one building to share a common experience. Despite an attitude that emphasized the glorification of French culture, the government viewed the theatre primarily as a form of entertainment and sought to prevent any deviation from this main emphasis. Although plays were monitored through censorship of scripts, the agents of authority made little attempt to shape popular views on specific political issues through drama. In contrast, practitioners of bourgeois drama aimed at converting the theatre into a schoolhouse for moral values and virtue in social interaction. Parisian audiences, especially those standing in the open parterre area in front of the stage, often used the theatre as a forum for voicing their own opinions on political issues. Far from being mindlessly molded by any agenda of the French playwrights or royal patrons, the spectators claimed for themselves the capacity to pass judgment on the plays presented on the stage. The Crown's formal regulation, the playwrights' didactic intention, and the spectators' vocal reactions created an interaction of control, manipulation, and political articulation in eighteenth-century Parisian theatre.

From the popularity of amateur productions among the moneyed and elite to the general trend of rising ticket sales at public theatres, drama played an important role in the social life of eighteenth-century France. According to registers of attendance at the Comédie-Française from the 1750 to 1774, that playhouse averaged approximately 168,000 spectators each year. Since the theatre offered an opportunity to impress people of every rank, the French government could not neglect this aspect of life. The Crown assumed that the productions called for regulation, that troupes required consistent personnel, and that theatre crowds needed supervision. In 1680, Louis XIV granted monopolies on stage production to the Académie Royale de Musique for opera, and to the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne for French and Italian language drama, respectively. The avowed purpose for establishing these theatres was "to perfect the representation of the lyric and dramatic arts for the greater glory of the French state." This objective promoted plays that extolled the monarchy and perpetuated the powerful system of privilege. In 1706, the king charged the Paris police with maintaining control and order in these playhouses.

The Crown supported the three royal theatres financially and governed their management until the end of the ancien régime. The First Gentlemen of the Bedchamber directed the administration of the Comédie-Française by hiring and dismissing personnel, and by composing rules regulating everything from requiring actors to accept their assigned roles to demanding that players be punctual for rehearsals. The actors were considered servants of the king, with the expectation that they would entertain at court and accept the disciplinary actions of royal authority. With the Crown providing royal patronage, the actors served the king first, and only secondarily answered to the public. Although the theatre troupe counted on ticket sales to underwrite the largest share of its productions, the Crown's monetary patronage provided a continuous subsidy to compensate the actors and a justification for extensive royal control over administration. In spite of the cultural function of the theatre and its support from the state, the Roman Catholic Church denied actors the benefit of religious rites, and the occupation carried the penalty of excommunication. Voltaire highlighted the hypocrisy of the religious and social stigma placed on actors whose vocation was patronized by the nobility and sanctioned by the law.

The reality of a state theatre demanded that the productions would promote the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church. Playwrights were personally obligated to obtain official approval for their works. Dramatic censorship was the responsibility of the Lieutenant-General of Police, who delegated the task of reading and approving the manuscripts to a man of letters known as the censeur de la police. The rules of censorship revolved around the Church, the Crown, and political notables. Plays could not mock or violate Roman Catholic beliefs and ceremonies, nor was drama allowed to satirize living public figures or resort to personal attacks on the monarch. If the censor had reservations about a play, he could refer the case to a higher authority in the Church or the state. On occasion, the king took a personal interest in delaying or condemning a play. Even foreign ambassadors could be invited to give endorsement of a play referring to their country. Approval of a manuscript could require the consultation of bishops and court officials, making censorship an important matter of state and potentially an international affair.

State censorship aimed to eliminate references and situations that would arouse the political passions of the audience, either positively or negatively. While the quality of the monopoly theatres' productions reflected French achievement and generally supported the values of a system of monarchy and social privilege, the censors steadily avoided references to contemporary political situations. Government officials generally concurred with the assessment of the theatre as an "innocent diversion for [the] people from certain blameworthy activities." While welcoming the theatrical element for personal entertainment, the Crown did not exhibit a desire to appeal to the masses by using drama to sway public opinion on specific political topics. The French state refused to invite popular comment on the conduct of government. Because the monarch controlled the deployment of royal prerogatives and official policies did not require popular approval, the Crown probably viewed use of the theatre to generate political sentiments among the populace as unnecessary.

Since the official censorship restrictions applied only to the privileged playhouses of Paris, plays banned in the capital could be produced in the provinces if local authorities granted permission. Playwrights whose works might be denied the approval of the censor on political grounds or rejected by the privileged players for artistic reasons could also seek production by the boulevard troupes in Paris. Jean-Baptiste Nicolet opened the first boulevard playhouse in 1760 as alternative entertainment. Here the actors were hired individually by the owners of the theatre, rather than performing in a troupe supported and administered by the Crown. Boulevard theatre was generally dismissed by royal officials and policy makers as a form of entertainment beneath their concern. If French authorities had actively attempted to use the theatre to influence the masses, they would not have ignored this portion of the Parisian public who attended plays. Instead, the regulators were satisfied to control the content of plays produced in the privileged theatres, which they viewed as direct representatives of the monarchy. After 1769, the authorities introduced means of inspecting proposed scripts for boulevard theatre productions. Rather than being monitored for quality or political purposes, censors screened new plays for infringement of the artistic monopolies held by state theatres. Boulevard troupes continued to perform low caliber drama, while many plays deemed to demonstrate aesthetic taste or redeeming moral value were appropriated for performance at one of the three privileged theatres.

In these major playhouses, seating was divided into several sections. Less expensive seating included the amphithéâtre directly opposite the stage, and the highest balcony, or paradis. In the parterre, between one-half and two-thirds of the audience members paid twenty sous, roughly equivalent to a day's wages for a laborer, to stand in an open area in front of the stage. The nobility and wealthy bourgeois occupied the elevated loges on the sides of the theatre.

Aristocratic tastes dominated the French theatre of the eighteenth century, and the patronage of the Crown continued to be instrumental in determining theatrical plots and stage settings. Playwrights operated in a society that revolved around the French court, and its tastes in drama shaped the themes and presentations. Correspondingly, most dramatists catered to royal and aristocratic preferences in order to obtain influential positions at court and in the Académie Française. These authors typically produced classical tragedies and comedies of manners featuring characters of noble birth. During the years before the Revolution, audiences were increasingly drawn from diverse status levels, as a greater number of plebian members of society, who had been exposed to drama at the boulevard theatres, purchased tickets for the privileged playhouses. Students, professionals, army officers, and others who lacked the means or inclination to purchase a seat filled the space in the pit. Reflecting the heterogeneous composition of these audiences, some plays that were originally applauded by the court at Versailles failed to receive plaudits from the audiences of the capital's public theatres. Parisians did not blindly accept aristocratic tastes, but expressed their own satisfaction with or disapproval of the plays they watched. As the century progressed, a system of market values emerged to compete with the tradition of aristocratic sponsorship. For many men of letters, dramatic popularity in public performance was becoming more important to a playwright's reputation and income than patronage. Dramatists later in the century, such as Denis Diderot, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, and Louis-Sébastien Mercier, wrote moralistic comedies and tragedies in an attempt to influence more diverse metropolitan audiences.

While the Crown was mainly concerned with the policing and censorship of the theatre, bourgeois dramatists made a more direct attempt to influence the thinking and behavior of their audiences. Diderot viewed drama not only as entertainment but also as a method of promoting Enlightenment beliefs based on the idea of human perfectibility. Mercier argued that the theatre should endeavor to appeal to the masses, not just to the upper classes of society. A social reformer with many egalitarian ideas, Mercier reasoned that drama should have less emphasis on refined tastes and be more accessible to common contemporary interests.

Advocates of the bourgeois drama viewed the theatre as an ideal didactic medium for representing the illusion of an alternate universe in which morality was rewarded and good ultimately triumphed. These theorists assumed that their audiences could be enlightened because of the essential goodness of humans and their ability to learn virtue. The playwright became the educator by instructing citizens in the ideals of charity, mutual aid, honest work, and liberty. The dramatists worked for an illusion of reality, emphasizing realism of production and influencing people through emotions. As the didactic impact of plays increased, Diderot envisioned the theatre replacing the church as a teacher of virtue. The shared theatrical experience performed a service of uniting people in a sense of common humanity. In the playwrights' vision, bourgeois theatre could function as an ideological instrument of cultural change, creating new ways of thinking and communicating in a perfected social order by shaping virtue on a personal level. Through identification with the characters on stage, the audience would internalize a moral lesson, which could then be translated into changed behavior.

In an attempt to influence theatre audiences more intimately through character identification, bourgeois dramatists endeavored to present players from all social standings in contemporary settings. These theorists created the drame, a new type of drama that intermingled characteristics of domestic tragedy with moralizing comedy. They used realism to enhance theatrical illusion and exploited sentimentality to amplify the moral lessons by manipulating the spectators' emotions. According to Mercier, the purpose of the theatre was to create an awareness of injustice and inhumanity. He advocated the use of lines in a play to influence political or social sentiment by commenting on issues that would be understood by the audience. For instance, Beaumarchais' Le Mariage de Figaro included satirical passages illustrating the abuses of the contemporary social system. The 1770 production of Mercier's Le Déserteur exemplified the inclusion of propaganda techniques to influence the political debate on capital punishment for desertion from the army. While several individual drames were popular in the public theatres, most specimens of the new drama received a cold reception. These realities seemed to limit the prospects of Diderot's notion of the theatre as the ultimate didactic medium. Theatre-goers refused to absorb passively the moralizing influence of all plays with which they were presented, opting to employ their own criteria in judging this new form of dramatic work. Audiences apparently demanded that moralistic plays also be entertaining or artistically pleasing.

The patrons in the parterre, due to their number and their proximity to the stage, had a distinctive influence over the reception of a play. These theatre-goers used applause and catcalls to voice their reaction to a performance, and the written reviews of plays frequently included the response of the audience. A play's reception on one night could therefore bias the reactions of future spectators, highlighting the degree to which audience approval was instrumental to a production's success or failure. At times, the "cabal" of the parterre were paid by the author to applaud his plays, or bribed by rival playwrights to heckle a new production. While the use of monetary incentives may have been exaggerated, rumors of cabal bribery were another indication of the importance of the parterre reception. The parterre patrons also became a voice of political opinion. The crowds were safe in their anonymous expressions of assessments of the play and in conveying their political sentiments to the Crown. Special government agents relayed audience reactions to their superiors. In response, the authorities could withdraw a play or cut the offending lines, but there was little fear of personal reprimand.

After the censors had combed a script for offending phrases, situations, and insinuations, the theatre patrons' shouted responses could give even banal lines contemporary significance and pertinent political weight. The audience, especially members of the parterre, used vocal responses and applause to signify the relevance of a play to current issues. In a 1787 performance of an adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone, for instance, the line, "A nation is silent when it condemns its king," was met with thunderous applause. The effectiveness of the audience reaction was unmistakable, and authorities endeavored to delete that line from future presentations of the French version of Antigone. In addition to using plays to make contemporary applications, audiences also had a limited control over the plays produced in the privileged theatres. A theatre company statute required the troupe to have a second play ready to perform in the instance when a given play was rejected by the audience. Thus, spectators claimed the right to question authority indirectly by refusing a play that had been approved by the state.

As the playgoers gradually assumed the attitude of consumers with rights and privileges, the standing parterre became a subject of debate in the second half of the eighteenth century. Seating the parterre was an attempt by the government and by intellectuals to influence theatre-goers and their vocalized reception of the works presented. The parterre was crowded, noisy, and highly excitable, as well as potentially volatile and violent. The pit's unsanitary and uncomfortable conditions were viewed as deleterious to sound judgment of plays. These denizens did not always value the same cultural tastes as the more refined people of the upper classes who sat in the loges. Beginning in 1751, armed soldiers with loaded weapons policed the theatres, but the parterre could not be controlled effectively. Jean François de La Harpe, Jacques- François Blondel, and other influential intellectuals believed that there should be more control in the popular theatre. Reformers called for restored order by installing benches in the pit area. Theatre ticket prices could be raised to encourage more middle class attendance, with the social undesirables relegated to the paradis seats far from the stage and from the view of the rest of the spectators. According to these architects and dramatists, seating the parterre would create a more predictable and tractable audience. Seated audiences would be safer for the public and would provide more control for the playwright. Authors voiced their confidence that artistic merit would be rewarded when plays were judged more rationally.

In contrast to the quest for limitation and control, other intellectuals argued that installing seats would threaten the bastion of republicanism that the parterre's denizens incarnated. A play's reception by the pit was, in essence, a male consensus that represented equality. The parterre could pass judgment on the work of the playwright, and indirectly on the monarchy that supported the theatre. Proponents of these arguments for a standing parterre depicted seats as an encroachment of liberty. The parterre crowd nightly formed a consensus in an atmosphere in which all patrons stood on an equal level, regardless of social status. Advocates of these ideas concluded that justice and reason were inherent in the decisions of the parterre expressing its majority opinion.

Although aspects of monopoly, regulation, and manipulation on the part of the government and playwrights shaped the theatre of eighteenth-century Paris, spectators used public performances to voice their own artistic and political opinions. The Crown adopted a defensive approach to influencing popular opinion by editing politically charged materials rather than sponsoring its own specific propaganda. Government leaders consistently ignored the opportunity to mold the views of the patrons of the boulevard theatres. Prompted by the ideals of human perfectibility, some playwrights took an interventionist approach by creating the bourgeois drama to persuade the masses through an internalization of the moral lessons played out in a contemporary setting. The parterre represented an increasingly diverse share of the audience, critically judging theatrical productions rather than mindlessly accepting the delivery of the actors. This vocal and notoriously self-willed group insisted on endowing performances with political significance. Their collective voice became a force in demanding greater individual rights and freedoms in eighteenth-century France.


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Last Updated: 8/12/16