Stagestruck: The Business of Theater in Eighteenth-Century France and Its Colonies

Lauren R. Clay
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Stagestruck traces the making of a vibrant French theater industry between the reign of Louis XIV and the French Revolution. During this era more than eighty provincial and colonial cities celebrated the inauguration of their first public playhouses. These theaters emerged as the most prominent urban cultural institutions in prerevolutionary France, becoming key sites for the articulation and contestation of social, political, and racial relationships. Combining rich description with nuanced analysis based on extensive archival evidence, Lauren R. Clay illuminates the wide-ranging consequences of theater's spectacular growth for performers, spectators, and authorities in cities throughout France as well as in the empire's most important Atlantic colony, Saint-Domingue.

    Clay argues that outside Paris the expansion of theater came about through local initiative, civic engagement, and entrepreneurial investment, rather than through actions or policies undertaken by the royal government and its agents. Reconstructing the business of theatrical production, she brings to light the efforts of a wide array of investors, entrepreneurs, directors, and actors-including women and people of color-who seized the opportunities offered by commercial theater to become important agents of cultural change.

    Portraying a vital and increasingly consumer-oriented public sphere beyond the capital, Stagestruck overturns the long-held notion that cultural change flowed from Paris and the royal court to the provinces and colonies. This deeply researched book will appeal to historians of Europe and the Atlantic world, particularly those interested in the social and political impact of the consumer revolution and the forging of national and imperial cultural networks. In addition to theater and literary scholars, it will attract the attention of historians and sociologists who study business, labor history, and the emergence of the modern French state.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6821-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction: The Making of a French Theater Industry
    (pp. 1-13)

    “Never has talent been so rare among us,” complained theater director, dramatist, and talent scout Charles-Simon Favart. Writing from Paris in the early 1760s, Favart maintained that all of France was facing an acute shortage of able and experienced actors, actresses, and singers for hire. “We are beating the drum to find them,” he observed, “and if our capital, which is their usual rendezvous, lacks them today, one cannot hope to find them elsewhere.”¹ Favart, who corresponded widely with performers and auditioned talent in provincial cities as well as in Paris, understood France’s changing talent market well. In recent years,...

  6. Chapter 1 Investing in the Arts
    (pp. 14-39)

    In late 1774, residents of Le Mans, a city of about fourteen thousand located to the southwest of Paris, complained in the local newspaper, the Affiches du Mans, that their city was now “the only one in the whole [region] deprived of the pleasure of a theater.”¹ Many other French cities had recently dedicated public playhouses, but those acting companies willing to travel to Le Mans rented space in a private house to stage their performances. Although a group of citizens had petitioned the city government in 1768 to build a municipal theater, their request had been refused. Le Mans,...

  7. Chapter 2 Designing the Civic Playhouse
    (pp. 40-67)

    For the mayor and city councilors of Nantes, the inauguration of an impressive new municipal playhouse shortly after Easter in 1788 was an event long in the making. For several decades these magistrates had wanted to give the city a new theater to replace the dilapidated privately operated playhouse that had hosted performances in the city since the 1740s. As early as 1766, a master plan for urban renewal commissioned by the city featured a new public theater. Several parties came forward in the 1770s and early 1780s to point out the many deficiencies of the existing playhouse and to...

  8. Chapter 3 The Extent and Limits of State Intervention
    (pp. 68-96)

    In the summer of 1764, the naval commander in the port of Brest, the comte de Roquefeuil, wrote to Versailles with an unusual proposition. The wooden warehouse where acting companies performed in the city was badly decayed, and Roquefeuil proposed that the navy itself should construct a new playhouse to replace it.¹ When this ramshackle building burned down just a few months later, the commander pressed hard for the opportunity to enhance cultural and social life in the city, particularly for the noble-dominated officer corps. No garrison, he argued, should be without a theater. Roquefeuil, who had several thousand sailors...

  9. Chapter 4 Directors and the Business of Performing
    (pp. 97-131)

    In 1745, Jean Monnet, having abruptly lost his privilege to direct the successful Opéra-Comique theater at the Paris fairgrounds, left the capital to take up a new position as director of the Lyon stage. In order to secure the privilege for the theater of France’s second-largest city from the duc de Villeroy, Monnet agreed to purchase the previous director’s magasin—the sets, props, music, costumes, and other materials necessary to run such an enterprise—for twenty-five thousand livres. He also agreed to perform opera. Lyon enjoyed an operatic tradition dating back to the 1680s that had garnered political support from...

  10. Chapter 5 The Work of Acting
    (pp. 132-162)

    By all accounts, Madame Marion’s debut at the municipal theater of Lille in the spring of 1774 was a disaster. As the actress acknowledged, while she performed the role of Cleopatra in Pierre Corneille’s Rodogune, she could barely deliver her lines over heckling from the crowd. Nonetheless, she completed every last syllable: “I don’t say perform, this would have been impossible for me.”¹ Indeed, one Lille theater enthusiast reported that she “bombed like I’ve never seen.”² Her director Raparlier blamed the actress for her inability to win over the audience, and he used the incident to fire her just weeks...

  11. Chapter 6 Consumers of Culture
    (pp. 163-194)

    During his travels in the south of France in the late 1780s Johann Georg Fisch made a point to attend the theater in every city that boasted a playhouse. At the theater, he explained, “in one evening one can learn so much more about the nature, the character, the taste of a public than one could collect in weeks of arduous observations” in the streets among the people, in narrow social circles, or in coffeehouses, where everyone is looking for distractions.¹ While attending performances in cities such as Montpellier, Aix, Marseille, Nîmes, and Toulon, Fisch proved as interested in the...

  12. Chapter 7 The Production of Theater in the Colonies
    (pp. 195-224)

    In April 1766, the Affiches Américaines published an article that celebrated the inauguration of a new public theater in the city of Cap Français, Saint-Domingue, describing the playhouse in detail. Although local residents had founded a private, amateur theater society more than twenty years earlier, and a professional theater troupe had taken up residence two years prior, only at this point did Le Cap, as it was known, come to enjoy a playhouse befitting its stature as the largest and wealthiest of French colonial cities. On the interior, the theater, built by a local entrepreneur named Arthaud, seems to have...

  13. Epilogue: Culture, Commerce, and the State
    (pp. 225-234)

    In 2009, the French Ministry of Culture and Communication celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. This branch of government, created by Charles de Gaulle in 1959, advances a mandate “to make accessible the capital works of humanity and above all of France to the greatest possible number of French citizens, to assure the widest audience for our cultural patrimony, and to promote the creation of the works of art and the spirit that enrich it.”¹ Today’s ministry employs much of its multi-billion euro budget to sustain and encourage the arts and humanities, with a primary emphasis on French culture construed in the...

  14. Appendix: Timeline of Inaugurations and Significant Renovations of Dedicated Public Theaters in France and the French Colonies, 1671–1789
    (pp. 235-240)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 241-320)
  16. Bibliography of Primary Sources
    (pp. 321-326)
  17. Index
    (pp. 327-334)