Review by Emmet Kennedy, George Washington University
Brown focuses on one of the monarchy's three privileged theaters the Comédie Française whose archives he has thoroughly mined in addition to those of the Bibliothèque de l'Arsénal and the Beaumarchais family. The book situates dramatic authors within the wider world of the touted république des lettres and proceeds through the old regime in rough chronological order, with individual treatment of writers such as Louis Sebastien Mercier, Charles Palissot, and Olympe de Gouges. The Comédie's rules of acceptance, the role of actors, official censorship, the court, the public, royalties, and repertoire are all well examined. Several approaches have been hitherto employed in examining old regime theater: literary, institutional, biographical, and quantitative. Henri Lagrave, for instance, wrote a renowned study of box office receipts aimed at gauging the size of the Parisian theater public in the mid-eighteenth century. 1 Brown makes use of all these works but focuses on close analysis of the language, attitudes, and values found in correspondence, petitions, and memoirs of the playwrights with a view to situating them in the hierarchy of honor.
In Brown's study the literary evaluation of theatrical works is wholly secondary to the issue of the playwrights' status within the company or the Société de la Comédie (composed of the actors) that accepted or rejected a play and determined how soon it would be performed (which in turn determined its rank in the repertory). No one to my knowledge has "exploited" these archives to recreate the cultural world of the playwrights as opposed to that of actors, administrators, or audiences. This is research that could only be executed adequately for the three privileged theaters that have archives: the Opéra, the Comédie Italienne, and the Comédie Française. The choice of the Comédie Française (familiarly known as the Comédie) is logical because it was the largest, having a monopoly of all French plays, staging performances 300 days a year, and having enjoyed great longevity (1680-1793 and of course beyond).
The book begins with the theater regime of Louis XIV, which honored Corneille, Racine and Molière with privileges and pensions. The success of this regime proved itself by the recognition gained by these authors a recognition that lasted through the old regime and, in the case of Molière, through the Revolution. 2 Louis XIV's patronage was not to be matched even by Napoléon I.
What were the constituents of theatrical recognition in the Enlightenment, the period on which the book concentrates? We begin with an author, a script in hand, who comes to the Comédie (he could have gone elsewhere first, such as to one of the provincial theaters relatively neglected by historians). He presents the manuscript to the société d'acteurs. If they agree to a "reading" then the author has cleared the first hurdle, though it could be months after the first visit. The author then reads his text. He may have considerable difficulty gaining the attention of the actors, who mill around distractedly. The actors take a vote to accept or reject the play. If it is accepted, then the play receives a numbered place in the repertory, which pullulates with plays that have never been performed. The author will then remind the director from time to time of his play. He does not have the right to submit it elsewhere, and it is always risky for him to publish it before performance, since that would weaken the impact of the premiere. At last, if he is fortunate, the author's play is scheduled and he gets to assign the roles to specific actors.
Cabales (orchestrated responses in favor of the play) and claques (the reverse) help determine its success or failure. A poor reception on opening night, if repeated on subsequent dates, will most likely lead to infrequent performances and eventually to the lapse of the play en règles, which means that it belongs to the company and can be performed anytime without royalty payments. If it remains on the active repertory, it receives a royalty of one-ninth of box office receipts (excluding subscriptions to loges a sore point for authors).
This regime was obviously hard on authors without talent or appeal. He or she was bereft of honor, which, according to Brown, is primarily what an author desired. If one were a Voltaire, the story was quite different. He first worked the chain of patronage appealing to a marquise to use her influence to obtain a reading for his Oedipe, the printed text of which he dedicated to the Regent. The tragedy was performed thirty-two times in 1718, which was a hit for a five-act play. By the middle of the century he was "the most successful tragedian in the history of French theater to that time" (p. 51). His success as a historian, philosophe, and writer of fiction compounded the popularity of his plays and vice versa. He was a man of great "respectability" to say the least. His subsequent plays were read and performed almost automatically. Voltaire had become an independent man of letters with clout.
Brown develops very well the thesis that these playwrights eagerly sought to conform to the expectations of the regime. Alan Kors, Robert Darnton, and others have described the desperate urge of obscure writers to find a function or sinecure in the regime. This is curiously evident in their relationship with the censors. Jean-Baptiste Suard has been studied before and is reintroduced here as an active censor as well as a fairly prominent man of letters (being a royal censor did not preclude membership in the république des lettres). The playwright, whose livret was submitted to censorship, evidently did not object to this, especially if it received an approbation or a privilège. The latter gave him perhaps as much prestige as the acceptance of his play by the Comédie. It was even an element in his "self-fashioning" as an honnête homme, a remarkable paradox since the self in question was fashioned by authority.
Indeed, Brown calls into question the traditional notion of "autonomy" in literary and cultural studies of the period, which he believes do not take into account how extrinsic were its components. Again, Brown's interest is not so much dissidence and revolt but a fashioning according to the demands of social and cultural forces. The influence of the late Pierre Bourdieu is evident and acknowledged.
But what about Beaumarchais, whose Mariage de Figaro has been considered the literary death certificate of the old regime? Figaro was understandably held up by censors for three years. In 1777 Beaumarchais formed the Société des Auteurs Dramatiques, a sort of lobby and collecting agency for playwrights having trouble collecting royalties. Like Diderot and Rousseau, Beaumarchais was a son of an artisan, but this did not prevent him from acquiring the Queen and the Count d'Artois as protectors by the 1780s. Brown gives no explicit attention to the question of social mobility or its relevance to the acquisition of honnêteté.
Beaumarchais was always engaged in some practical commercial activity, such as selling arms to American insurgents or organizing a company to supply Paris with water. But his Eugénie won a success of twenty-three performances in 1783 and 400,000 livres in royalties. The Mariage de Figaro was finally given the express approval of the King, a royal censor/academician, a minister, and the lieutenant général de police. Brown does not believe initial censorship deprived Beaumarchais of autonomy but rather proved that "Beaumarchais sought to negotiate between ideals of civility and autonomy throughout his entire public life" (p. 236).
Madame Olympe de Gouges concludes Brown's study of individual playwrights. Like Beaumarchais, she is often presented as a "modern free spirit" (p. 249). But again like Beaumarchais, Brown finds her in the corridors of power seeking favors for her works. "The modernity of Beaumarchais and Gouges resulted less from their autonomy...than from their creative adherence to norms of sociability or engagement..." (p. 249). Both "were far from socially marginal or intellectually radical" (p. 250).
After all, did not Gouges (although Brown does not mention it) present the lead actor at the Comédie, François-René Molé, with two orange trees, 3 hoping to obtain a performance of her Esclavage des Noirs, which had been "read" and approved but then shelved because of the opposition of the colonial lobby? "Because she was a woman," Brown writes, "she enjoyed less access to the theater and had been treated less civilly than other writers" (p. 296). It would be interesting to know whether the gift of such épices at the Comédie and elsewhere was an old regime theatrical convenance if not honnêteté. This would sully somewhat Brown's rather flattering depiction of this culture (at least by present standards).
When Brown treats the breakdown of the old theater monopolies following the January 1791 Chapelier Law, he focuses on the transition from the court to the nation as the ultimate patron, audience, and censor. Again, his thesis is less libertarian than realistic in the sense that playwrights did not suddenly find themselves in a world free of all social and political restraints but rather encountered new restraints and new masters with whom they had to "negotiate" in order to succeed. The great change that took place was the substitution of patriotisme for honnêteté, not, Brown argues, the substitution of Rousseauian transparency for Molièresque courtliness. We can agree, otherwise it would be hard to understand why Molière was the second most performed playwright of the Revolution. 4
Brown draws intelligently from the vast scholarship on eighteenth-century theater to contextualize its playwrights. His writing is engaging and exact if not titillating or inspired. The subject of honnêteté is a story of strategy and survival, not one of Corneillean courage, literary tours de force, or even dramatic standoffs between actors, authors, and the gentilshommes de chamber, who were the official representatives of the King in the theater. The story here is one of instinct over free will; of ambition, interest, and self-fashioning over pure and simple autonomy. It is not as uplifting a story as the narratives of emancipation and maybe does not concede enough to them. But it is a story of how giants like Voltaire and Beaumarchais managed to beat the system, turn it to their advantage, and, in the case of Beaumarchais, make the Comédie work more in the interests of the profession.
But Brown does not neglect the authors whom the system beat. Some of these, like M.J. Chénier, were vindicated by the abolition of censorship (temporarily), the 1791 law on literary property rights, and the Le Chapelier Law, which resulted in the multiplication of theaters by a factor of about ten and so produced much greater opportunity for hitherto unperformed playwrights. The lives of those who succeeded in the forty odd theaters of the Revolution were, I believe, far more irregular, impromptu, and at risk. They did enjoy more freedom and, in many cases, profited from more license of expression to satirize and flout the old regime. Patriotisme supplanted honnêteté but it did not bear out the revolutionaries' contention that liberté would produce masterpieces superior to those published under the hated tyrant. The conventionnel, M.J. Chénier, was one of those who would testify to the fact.
Considering the chronological sweep of Brown's book, the depth of its research, the coherence of its theme, the questions it opens up to further investigation, and finally its widespread availability as an e-text, it is certainly an exceptional contribution to theater and cultural history.
Note 1: Henri Lagrave, Le Théatre et le public à Paris de 1715 à 1750 (Paris: Klincksiek, 1972). Back.
Note 2: Emmet Kennedy, M. L. Netter, James P. McGregor, and Mark V. Olsen, Theatre, Opera and Audiences in Revolutionary Paris, Analysis and Repertory (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 383. Back.
Note 3: Olympe de Gouges, Adresse aux représentants de la Nation (n.p., n.d.); see also Mémoire pour Madame de Gouges contre la Comédie française (n.p., n.d.). Back.
Note 4: Kennedy et al., Theatre, Opera and Audiences in Revolutionary Paris, pp. 204-206. Robineau de Beaunoir was the most performed playwright, with 1968 performances to Molière's 1864. Back.
From The American Historical Review, June 2003
Review by Kenneth Margerison, Southwest Texas state University
Gregory S. Brown's study examines the history of playwrights' attempts to establish themselves as legitimate men of letters in Old Regime France. During the seventeenth century, the status of playwrights was determined by royal sponsorship. The patronage of Cardinal Richelieu and, later, of King Louis XIV enabled authors such as Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Jean-Baptiste Molière torise from relatively modest circumstances to positions of respect. The establishment of the Comédie Française in 1680 shifted the initial responsibility for granting status to authors from the court to the actors of the troupe. From that date, the actors themselves were authorized to choose the new plays to be performed. An author's legitimization required more than simple acceptance and performance of plays, however. By the eighteenth century, authorial respect required the favorable reception of works by Parisian audiences as well as the honorable comportment of the playwright in his, and on occasion her, relationship with the troupe and, ultimately, the king's court.
To construct his history, Brown makes extensive use of the rich archive at the Bibliothèque de la Comédie Française while relying on Pierre Bourdieu and Norbert Elias for his theoretical foundation. The particular goal of the study is to uncover the nature of the relationship between the playwrights and the legitimizing authority of the Comédie Française, the royal court, and society. From this perspective, Brown, who engages Robert Darnton and other scholars of the public sphere in continual dialogue, modifies current interpretations of the attitudes and activities of Old Regime writers and the political culture in which they operated.
Despite the increased importance of public acceptance of dramatic works during the eighteenth century, Brown insists on the continuation of an older tradition of the republic of letters, which defined men of letters as those writers who conducted themselves honorably and were received into established, elite society. In this tradition, the outstanding example of a man of letters among eighteenth-century dramatists was Voltaire, who achieved both legitimacy and public success with his plays. Brown is more interested, however, in those individuals whose torturous paths to legitimization involved continuous struggles to have plays accepted and performed by the Comédie Française. Honorable conduct required authors to approach the troupe as one would have approached a patron in an earlier era. The author was required to present himself as virtuous and uninterested in pecuniary rewards, and the troupe was expected to reward worthy playwrights with generosity and markers of status.
These conventions were put under considerable strain during the course of the eighteenth century as an ever-increasing number of authors presented their work to the troupe and became frustrated by lack of success. Brown chronicles the developments in the relationship between playwrights and the Comédie Française through the century, paying particular attention to the language and conduct of the authors, including Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Buirette de Belloy, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Olympe de Gouges, Marie-Joseph Chénier, and a host of less well-known individuals. After 1760, frustrated playwrights began turning to the public to vent their frustrations. Their methods involved publishing plays before they were performed, writing prefaces to plays criticizing their opponents, and even filing lawsuits and publishing judicial briefs. Nevertheless, Brown demonstrates that these same frustrated authors continued to use the time-honored approach of honorable conduct to try to win the support of the actors of the Comédie Française. Only the onset of revolution in 1789 ended the conventions of authorial legitimacy that had prevailed during the Old Regime.
Although Brown gives considerable attention to numerous writers, Beaumarchais, whose career receives a very original interpretation here, occupies a special place in this study. Brown provides a detailed analysis of Beaumarchais's complicated maneuvers to achieve success, which involved pleas to patrons at court, a long-standing feud with the police censor Suard, threatened lawsuits, communications exhibiting honorable language and behavior toward the troupe, and prefaces to published plays to bring his case before the public. In the end, Beaumarchais lost public credibility while simultaneously failing to obtain legitimacy as a man of letters despite the immense popularity of his play, The Marriage of Figaro (1784).
Brown's book provides a fascinating analysis of the world of dramatic authors during the Old Regime. Unique among eighteenth-century writers, these individuals, who were continually corresponding with the Comédie Française, their patrons, and various other parties to promote their plays, left voluminous records that reveal much about their approach to authorial success and the social conventions within which they operated. Brown's study effectively challenges aspects of historians' current understanding of the political culture of Old Regime France while providing new interpretations of dramatic writers and their relationship with that culture. Ultimately, this work considerably broadens and deepens our understanding of the nature of the French public sphere and the society in which it functioned.
This book is the first dealing with Old Regime Europe to appear in the recently established Gutenberg-e publishing venture of the American Historical Association and Columbia University Press, and its overall quality is certainly equal to that of the best historical monographs published in the traditional manner. In addition to links to numerous primary sources and contemporary illustrations, the electronic format permits somewhat looser editorial standards regarding length. The volume would have benefited from stronger editorial insistence on a shorter, more tightly organized, and cogently argued text. This quibble aside, Brown's book establishes Gutenberg-e as an important publisher of monographs in the history of Europe before 1800, a sorely needed addition to the limited number of publishing alternatives currently available to scholars in this field.