French Drama in the Age of Louis XIV
The reign of Louis XIV in France from 1643 to 1715 marked a period that is often described as the "Golden Age" of French drama. Producing such dramatists as Jean Racine, Pierre and Thomas Corneille, and Molière, the theater of the period is noted for classicism, social commentary, and a growing audience outside the royal court. Tragedy and comedy, the most prominent dramatic genres of the seventeenth century, were governed by the rules of classicism, which emphasized reason over emotion, and universal, rather than personal, experience. As proponents of classicism, French theorists of the time also advocated that dramatists provide a moral lesson, avoid mixing tragic and comic aspects, and maintain dramatic unity of action, time, and place in their works. Tragicomedy, a third genre, combined components of comedy and tragedy. Although popular during the early years of the century, the genre's failure to conform to the strict guidelines of classicism contributed to its increasing disfavor. Although governed by the rules of classicism, tragedy and comedy also became vehicles for addressing social and political tensions. The most prominent of such issues was the relationship between the monarchy, the nobility, and an emerging middle class, composed primarily of merchants, traders, and non-agrarian craftsmen, which was growing in wealth and size as a result of trade and industry development. The efforts of members of this class to improve their status challenged the traditional hierarchy of aristocrats and peasants which had existed prior to Louis XIV's reign. Racine's tragedies, such as Britannicus (1669), encourage intellectual and emotional resistance to the monarchy among members of the middle class. In contrast, Corneille's tragedies, such as Horace (1640), emphasize the acceptance of the social, economic, and political conditions of monarchal rule. Molière's comedies also address the social behavior and attitudes of the newly emerging middle class. In L'Ecole des Femmes (1662), for example, Molière deals with the education of women, criticizing men who believed that marital security could be achieved by raising female children in an environment devoid of temptation. Seventeenth-century theater audiences expanded to include the middle class as well as the aristocracy. Despite the King's own fluctuating interest in the theater, dramas of all genres were presented to Louis and his courtiers at the French court. Additionally, nobles viewed performances alongside members of the middle class at local theaters. Enthusiasm for the theater was barely dampened by the Roman Catholic Church's indictments against actors, playwrights, and spectators. The Church's harshest criticisms involved actors and playwrights of comedy, on the basis that the genre served no moral purpose; rather, it offered lessons in the vices it purported to denounce. Proponents of comedy responded that it served as a means of moral instruction by displaying as the object of ridicule characters who embodied vice. The success of comedies such as Molière's Le Misanthrope (1666), Les Chinois (1692) by Jean Regnard and Charles Dufresny, and Florent Dancourt's Les Bourgeoises de qualité (1700), and tragedies such as Horace, Thomas Corneille's Timocrate (1656), and Britannicus deflated the public's interest in tragicomedy. Tragicomedy, commonly understood as tragedy with a happy ending, involved complicated plots filled with action and aristocratic characters. The genre began to dwindle in popularity from the mid-1600s to the end of the seventeenth century, with audiences showing less interest in the contrivances and exaggerations often typical of the genre. Theorists also displayed increasingly vehement disapproval of a genre which was not recognized by Aristotle or Horace (the main sources of the rules of classicism). As public and critical disfavor grew, some dramatists reclassified their tragicomedies as either tragedies or comedies. Pierre Corneille, for example, originally labeled Le Cid (1637) as tragicomedy, but the 1648 edition was published as tragedy. While seventeenth-century critics, most notably Abbé d'Aubignac, scrutinized dramatic performances primarily to gauge dramatists' adherence to classic ideals, later scholars have examined the same works with a view to understanding such issues as politics and society in the age of Louis XIV. Many critics agree that the age witnessed the advancement of drama to a new plateau in which it played an increasingly important role in society. Geoffrey Brereton claims that tragedy is recognized "as one of the outstanding achievements of [Louis XIV's] reign," and John Lough has argued that "drama saw its most brilliant period at the French court in the seventeenth century."
Bouscal, Guérin de
Le Gouvernement de Sanche Pansa (comedy) 1642
Clotilde (tragedy) 1659
Campistron, Jean Galbert de
Andronic (tragedy) 1685
Le Cid (tragicomedy) 1637
Horace (tragedy) 1640
Don Sanche d'Aragon (tragicomedy) 1650
Timocrate (tragedy) 1656
Le Comte d'Essex (tragedy) 1678
Les Bourgeoises de qualité (comedy) 1700
Du Ryer, Pierre
Scevole (tragicomedy) 1647
Tucaret (comedy) 1709
L'Ecole des Femmes (comedy) 1662
Le Tartuffe (comedy) 1664
Le Misanthrope (comedy) 1666
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (comedy) 1670
* Psyché (comedy) 1671
Andromaque (tragedy) 1667
Britannicus (tragedy) 1669
Regnard, Jean François
†Les Chinois (comedy) 1692
Rotrou, Jean de
Venceslas (tragicomedy) 1648
*In collaboration with Thomas Corneille and Philippe Quinault.
†In collaboration with Charles Rivière Dufresny.
SOURCE: "The Introduction of a Regular Stage Censorship," in The Stage Controversy from Corneille to Rousseau, Publications of the Institute of French Studies, Inc., 1933, pp. 130–55.
[In the excerpt that follows, Barras describes the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to seventeenth-century theatre.]
Led by [Jacques-Bénigne] Bossuet the Church presented, officially at least, a united front against plays [during the seventeenth century]. In the Jubilee of 1694 the condemnation of the pariah comedians was solemnly confirmed. On December 9, 1695, Guy de Sève de Rochechouart, Bishop of Arras, in accordance with the explicit policy of the Church, issued a severe Mandement, proscribing the stage in general with all its satellites—actors, playwrights and spectators. The French clergy soon became so intolerant that in 1696 a number of Parisian actors decided to carry an appeal to Rome. They accused the clergy specifically of refusing to grant them the sacraments. But the Papal authorities evidently considered their quarrel as of not enough importance to risk a conflict of opinion with French churchmen. The actors were notified that they should bring their case to the Archbishop of Paris, since the Papal court did not consider it weighty enough for a special decision. As was to be expected, the Archbishop fully upheld the action of the French clergy and again excluded comedians from the fold of the faithful. And yet a note of Monsignor Nuzzi, which accompanied the reply from Rome, stressed very clearly that the Papal authorities considered "infamous" only those comedians who acted indecently on the stage. The Archbishop apparently believed that all plays were evil and therefore that all acting was unavoidably immoral. As an example of actual persecution we may cite the case of the famous actor Rosimont, [Claude la Rose, Sieur de Rosimont], who died suddenly in 1691 and was refused regular church burial. "Rosimond … fut enterré sans Clergé, sans luminaire, et sans aucune prière, dans un endroit du Cimetière de Saint-Sulpice où l'on enterre les enfans morts sans Baptême." And in 1697 the Cardinal de Noailles refused to allow comedians to marry, since marriage was a sacrament forbidden to outcasts of the Church. Communion was constantly denied them—and this situation lasted, in a stagemad France that adored plays, until the eve of the French Revolution!
Yet the incessant attacks of the clergy upon the stage and actors seems to have had little effect upon the patrons of the theatre. Notwithstanding these thundering anathemas, or indeed, largely perhaps because of them, and of the attraction of forbidden fruit, they flocked in ever-increasing numbers to all kinds of spectacles. At this period the Comédie-Italienne was more popular—and far more im moral—than the Comédie-Française. In another respect also the Italian actors in Paris were more fortunate than their French confires—they were not excommunicated, and they suffered none of the undeserved penalties that hailed down upon their colleagues engaged in public amusement. In 1697 they were expelled, not because of the immorality of their acting, but because they had offended Mme de Maintenon.
But their exile did not in the least improve the decency of the Parisian stage. The acteurs forains, who had been drawing the crowds at the annual fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent, did not hesitate to grasp the opportunity that offered itself through the forced withdrawal of their competitors. They promptly appropriated the Italian repertory and drew an ever-growing public to their stalls. Their productions were fully as crude,—from the moral point of view,—as those of any of their predecessors.
The last decade of the seventeenth and the early years of the eighteenth century witnessed an enormous increase in popular affluence to the theatre. Among literary men, playwrights were the only ones to get any considerable monetary recompense for their labors, although they did not receive any honoraria that could be at all compared to those of the dramatists of the end of the century. The increase in material reward for the production of popular plays acted, no doubt, as a stimulus in favor of the theatre and the dramatist, especially after 1740. Yet, even before that date Le Sage, Dancourt, Regnard and Dufresny were relatively well paid for their labors, whereas lyric or epic poets had to find a patron if they wanted their work printed at all. The stage at least had an assured public and furnished an income that, although modest and uncertain, compared favorably with the absolute non-productiveness of other literary endeavors, however highly praised.
Although censorship of plays was introduced into France during this period, the theatre enjoyed greater freedom than ever before. Strangely enough, a number of daring plays like Legrand's Amour du diable, which was performed in 1708, were permitted. In 1701 the lieutenant of police of Paris was given control over all plays performed in the capital. His consent had to be obtained before they could be staged. This was the beginning of the formal and organized stage censorship which was going to become so important a factor during the entire eighteenth century. A letter of Pontchartrain to d'Argenson, who was then Lieutenant of Police, brings proof that this step was taken because the King had been informed that the Parisian comedians were acting on the stage in an indecent and revolting way. This action of the civil authorities seemed to approve fully of the stand taken by the Church.
However, division of opinion was manifest even in the ranks of the clergy, and this notwithstanding the authority of Bossuet. The magnificent tradition of Richelieu lingered on and instigated many a churchman to open mutiny against the intolerance of his colleagues. Some of the most noteworthy paladins of the stage arose from among the secular abbés, whom one would expect to have been cowed by Bossuet's overbearing influence.
In 1695 Claude Boyer, an abbé and in addition a member of the French Academy, published a tragedy, Judith. In his preface the author defended Biblical dramas. He claimed that it was fully possible to reconcile these plays with the views of the Church on the theatre, provided that one had the ability to produce a truly Christian play. Boyer asserts that if others have failed, it was because of their lack of talent, their ignorance of art, their sterility of invention—and above all, because of their lack of feeling for matters pertaining to religion. This explains the genesis of Judith, for Boyer felt that he was the exception to the rule and had succeeded. His play was quite successful in its day, although entirely forgotten now. He attempts to defend comedians, and urges them to produce Biblical plays and thus prove their own worth; in fact, his preface shows that he was willing to permit all plays, provided they were decent. Soon, however, there appeared an anonymous Réponse à la préface de la tragédie de Judith, which tried to refute Boyer with the usual arguments against the theatre.
Pierre Le Brun, the official spokesman for the Archbishop of Paris, delivered a sermon at the Church of Saint-Magloire toward the end of 1695, taking as his text Boyer's Judith. The title of his sermon, which was first published in 1731, was: "S'il y a lieu d'approuver que les Pièces de Théâtre soient tirées de l'Ecriture Sainte." His thesis is that one cannot display upon the stage holy scenes without corrupting them. In spirit the two are irreconcilable.
Another clerical defender of the stage issued a volume during the same year, 1695. The Abbé Pierre de Villiers, who later evolved into one of the most liberal churchmen in the stage controversy, published an interesting work: Traité de la satire, où l'on examine comment on doit reprendre son prochain et comment la satire peut servir à cet usage. He claimed that the comedy owes its origin to the zeal which has always existed in attacks against evils. Although the author blames the contemporaneous theatre for its pernicious spirit, he sanctions the use of the comedy to correct certain vices.
A still more liberal-minded clergyman, the Abbé Morvan de Bellegarde, favored the stage in his Lettres curieuses de Littérature et de Morale. His volume appeared in 1702 at The Hague, and in 1707 at Amsterdam. This writer admitted the imperfections of the stage of his day, but claimed that they were remediable….
Etienne Souciet, a Jesuit, published an article in the Mémoires de Trévoux for July and August, 1709, in which he gives his opinion of the moral effect of the tragedy. His basic thought is that "the Tragedy must serve morality." It must try to correct in the spectator whatever vices he may have, by causing him to be horrified at the results of the same vices on the stage, and by making him fear for himself the same punishment which he has witnessed in the play. The spectator must be made to realize that the vice which has just been chastised is the very one of which he himself is guilty. Souciet also discusses the theoretical and technical aspects of the tragedy, reducing the number of good subjects to five or six, all of which have been treated by the Greeks. His general attitude is evidently favorable to the theatre.
In 1711 the abbé Pierre de Villiers published a poem lauding the opera and other spectacles. He had himself recently composed a musical comedy, so that it is only natural that he favored this species of entertainment. The Abbé Jean Terrasson, in a discussion of the drama, contained in his Dissertation critique sur l'Iliade, which was published in Paris in 1715, lauds the theatre in no uncertain terms. His defense of the stage is based upon the theory that most people can be made better morally by attending plays, and not through hearing sermons. He admits that the priest performs a higher type of service for humanity than the comedian, but claims that the latter fits into a certain niche which the former cannot reach. Terrasson calls morality "the very Soul and Genius" of the drama. He views love in the same light as that in which partisans of the theatre considered plays in general, that is, he claims that in itself it is indifferent, but may become good or bad, depending upon the use which is made of it.
The protests of this minority of dissidents among the clergy prove that the anathema of the stage was not generally accepted, even among churchmen. Conclusive testimony that ecclesiastics attended the theatre is found in the decree issued in 1704 by the Bishop of Toulon, Monsignor de Chalucet, who threatened the priests of his diocese with excommunication if they further patronized the stage:
Et nous défendons à tous Prêtres, Bénéficiers et Ecclésiastiques de ce Diocèse ou y résidant, d'assister aux Bals, Opéras ou Comédies, à peine d'excommunication encouruë ipso facto.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the vast majority of the French clergy followed Bossuet's lead against the stage and against his victim Father Caffaro. The famous quarrel of 1694 awakened echoes for several years to come, and even the mere enumeration of the pamphlets, satires, and controversial writings which carried on the debate, would soon become tiresome. Yet their very number indicates how living an issue the theatre problem remained, and with what tragic earnestness it was approached by both attackers and defenders.
Among the clergymen who fully sympathized with Bossuet one may cite Pierre Bardou, Prior of La Voux, who toward the end of 1694 issued an Epître sur la Condamnation du Théâtre. He was an ardent admirer of Racine, but nevertheless he condemned the theatre. His epistle, which is addressed to this great author of tragedies, consists of about 150 lines of verse. Although Bardou praises Athalie and Esther and approves of Biblical dramas in general, he inveighs against the love-themes and pagan pomp which characterize plays. In his opinion, since Racine has renounced the theatre, it is really dead. He compares Racine's Biblical dramas to the sermons of Bourdaloue:
Des poèmes si beaux, chaque fois qu'on les joue,
Exercent sur nos coeurs les droits de Bourdaloüe.
A comparison with Bourdaloue seemed to him the highest praise he could give to Racine.
A curious document was penned in Latin by an obscure priest, L. Soucanye, in 1694, as a eulogy of Bossuet's answer to Caffaro. The title of his poem is very interesting. It is as follows: Illustrissimo Ecclesiae Principi Jacobo Benigno Bossuet, Meldensium episcopo, artis comicae aequissimo nuper Judici. In Pestem Theatralem Carmen. The author acclaims Bossuet as the heavenly-appointed avenger through whose labors the theatre will be destroyed. A maze of classic mythology, which must have been distasteful to Bossuet personally, adorns his rhetoric. Needless to say, this poem influenced very few peopie.
Ambroise Lalouette, a French priest, published anonymously at Orléans in 1697 a book entitled: Histoire et Abrégé des ouvrages latins, italiens et françois, pour et contre la comédie et l'opéra. His volume, which was printed with the approbation of the authorities, also appeared in the same year with the following caption: Histoire de la comédie et de l'opéra où l'on prouve qu'on ne peut y aller sans péché. The latter title clearly indicates the views of the author on the stage. Lalouette summarizes the church doctrine regarding the theatre, basing it upon Scripture, the Church Councils, and the Fathers. Among the limited number of works which he discusses are those of del Monaco and Ottonelli,—both of whom were Italian priests,—Nicole, the Prince de Conti, d'Aubignac and Caffaro. He also summarizes several of the replies which the famous letter of the Theatin priest evoked. Concerning Caffaro, he asserts that this author quotes only the passages of the Church Fathers which denounce plays on account of their idolatry. Like the Archbishop of Paris, he misinterprets the answer received in Rome by the deputation of French comedians in 1696 concerning the attitude of the Church towards actors. His conclusion is, of course, that attending a play is a mortal sin.
The end of the seventeenth century witnessed many sermons which attacked the theatre. Among the priests who denounced the stage from the pulpit were Colombière, LeJeune, Girouet, Cheminais, Soanen, Le Brun and Bourdaloue. They were echoing the official severity of the Church toward plays. To defend the theatre openly at this period was attended with great risks, for not only was the clergy opposed to plays, but the king had also withdrawn his favor. People admitted that the Church was right in condemning the stage, but nevertheless they continued attending plays in great numbers. The partisans of the drama had to be content with a discreet voicing of their opinions. Thus, La Bruyère, in his famous Caractères, says that plays could be useful if their bad features were eliminated, for one can see on the stage such striking examples of virtue that they must have a good effect upon the individuals who compose the audience.
The Ritual of Auch, printed in Paris in the year 1701, presents an interesting commentary upon the attitude of local church authorities toward the theatre. It expressly refuses ecclesiastical burial "to those who, known as public sinners, die without giving proofs of real repentance; among these are Comedians, Farce-players and others of this category." Chalucet, Bishop of Toulon, was even more severe the next year, for his Ordonnance of March 5, 1702 "commands Confessors, under penalty of suspense, to refuse absolution to the Faithful who scorning his 'Mandement,' shall have attended these plays."
Esprit Fléchier, the famous Archbishop of Nîmes, issued a Mandement against plays on September 8, 1708. He had found some merit in Caffaro's letter of 1694, although he had not been quite sure that it was right to spread such doctrines among the masses. However, as he grew older, he must have become more severe, for his Mandement of 1708 shows that he thinks plays are opposed to the spirit of Christianity and morality, and that he has previously warned his flock against the dangers of the theatre.
The opinion of the Jesuits about the stage seems to have been divided. One of them, Etienne Souciet, had shown great toleration for the theatre in the Mémoires de Trévoux of 1709; but another, Father Courbeville, issued in 1713 a French translation of Jeremy Collier's violent attack against the English stage. The original title, which had been A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, Together with the Sense of Antiquity upon this Argument, was now transformed by Father Courbeville into La Critique du Théâtre Anglois, comparé au Théâtre d'Athènes, de Rome et de France et l'Opinion des auteurs tant profanes que sacrez, touchant les Spectacles. In his preface the translator gives the correct title of the English work. He admits that the French theatre is not as bad as the English, but nevertheless he desires its total suppression, which explains why he has translated Collier's book. What he especially objects to in plays is the ever-present love theme. What the English clergyman had objected to in the stage of his own country was the obscenity of its language, its impiety, the attacks upon the clergy, and the immorality of contemporaneous plays. Courbeville had hoped to demonstrate to the French public how immoral plays in general are; but the net result of his volume was that everyone saw clearly that the English stage, as described by Collier, was much more immoral than the French. In spite of which, the English author had tacitly admitted that he believed in the utility of plays, while Courbeville condemned them completely. The number of people attending the French theatre was not lessened by this book.
Jean Frain du Tremblay, a little-known priest who in 1685, in his Conversations morales sur les Jeux et les Divertissements, had denounced amusements in general, continued the attack in 1713 when his Discours sur l'origine de la poésie appeared in Paris. He believed that both the theatre and actors were incorrigibly wicked and that therefore nothing could be done about the matter except to abstain from attending plays.
Fénelon, Bossuet's opponent in many a theological debate, agreed with him on the condemnation of the stage. He treats the theatre very harshly in his Lettre à M. Dacier, secrétaire perpétuel de l'Académie Française, sur les Occupations de l'Académie, written in 1714. Fénelon protests especially against love in tragedies, although granting that it is possible to perfect them. He finds many defects in Molière, while admitting him to be a great writer of comedies. Among the great comedian's faults, one of the most unpardonable, in the opinion of Fénelon, is that Molière has made vice attractive and virtue odious. Surely the Archbishop of Cambrai has judged the great master of comedy too severely!
Among the laymen there was one group, that of the playwrights themselves, which, of course, staunchly defended the stage. In 1697, three years after the beginning of the Bossuet-Caffaro conflict, Boursault carried on his protheatre warfare by publishing an open letter to Monseigneur Harlay de Champvallon, Archbishop of Paris, "touchant une Lettre ou Dissertation en faveur de la Comédie." The author expresses his regret at not being well enough acquainted with the Archbishop to pay him a personal visit in order to expound his cause and to provide him with an explanation of the Caffaro incident. He assumes full blame for the printing of Caffaro's letter in the 1694 edition of his own plays, although he does not mention the Theatin priest by name. Strange as it may seem, while Caffaro had been punished quite severely, the real culprit did not suffer in the least.
Boursault claims that while composing a comedy in one of the French provinces, he obtained absolution from a country priest, but only upon condition that he consult someone more learned who would be able to decide whether or not he could have his plays performed without compromising the future of his soul. As a result, the dramatist applied to his regular confessor as soon as he reached Paris, sending him several of his plays and begging him to examine them carefully, as it was a question of his peace of mind and perhaps of the salvation of his soul. He admits that he committed a serious mistake in publishing Caffaro's answer without his knowledge or consent. His excuse, which is very weak, is that he wanted to influence the public by showing his readers that the Church Fathers and Councils forbade only indecent plays.
Among the reasons which, according to Boursault, justify the theatre are: (I) the stage is necessary in order to amuse the public, (II) the Fathers blamed only the pagan elements in plays and (III) even Popes have attended performances of plays. He praises Corneille, Racine and especially Molière. Boursault stresses the utility of the stage as an effective weapon for correcting vices and asserts that it is a moral institution. He further points out that as a result of the weak arguments alleged against plays during the commotion caused by the publication of Caffaro's letter, theatres are more crowded than ever. The reasons for which the Church Fathers and Councils condemned the stage no longer exist. As proof of the innocence of the contemporaneous theatre, he sends to the Archbishop one of his own comedies for examination. The dramatist closes his letter with an explanation of how he himself is preaching morality in all his plays.
Caffaro's letter, in the meanwhile, had become internationally known. It was utilized in London, in an English translation, as a kind of preface to a play written in English in 1698 by Motteux, a French refugee. The title of this work was as follows: Beauty in distress. A tragedy … with a discourse of lawfulness and unlawfulness of plays, lately written in French by the learned Father Caffaro, Divinity professor at Paris. England was at this time in the throes of a great struggle over the theatre, induced to a great extent by the preacher Jeremy Collier, who with great vigor had justly denounced the iniquity of the contemporaneous English stage. Curiously enough, Motteux claims to have had the same conscientious scruples as Boursault, and to have requested advice of an English clergyman, who sent him Caffaro's letter.
On the other hand, to further his campaign of propaganda against the stage in England, Jeremy Collier translated into English and published in London in 1699 the volume which Bossuet had written against plays and actors. The English title was Maxims and Reflections on Plays.
In France also, literary men had given their support to Boursault and Caffaro. A very compromising defender of their cause was François Gacon, the "Poète sans Fard," whose satiric rapier was wielded too frequently and against too many different persons and causes, to remain at all effective. In 1694 he published anonymously a reply in verse, an Epître, to Bossuet. It was inserted two years later in his volume of satires, Le Poète sans Fard, ou discours satiriques en vers, with a new title, Satire à Mgr. Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, Evêque de Meaux, sur son livre touchant la Comédie. Gacon claims that invincible obstacles block the church's desire to abolish plays. The idleness of the court will always maintain the theatre, and if people were deprived of this innocent pleasure they would perhaps find another which would be worse. Besides, as long as great prelates live in ostentatious luxury and vie in feasts with princes, in vain will they urge penitence and declaim against plays, for the public will scoff at them. Before the church can successfully do away with the theatre, the higher clergy must mend its ways. Gacon is probably attacking the renowned Archbishop of Paris. This onslaught, of course, begs the question entirely, for it merely answers one attack with another. The author's satirical style is well exemplified in the last four lines of his poem:
C'est ainsi, Grand Prélat, que le peuple raisonne
Et fait une leçon aux docteurs de Sorbonne:
Pour imposer silence, il faudroit réformer
Nombre d'autres abus que je n'ose rimer.
Gacon also mercilessly attacked Pégurier and Lelevel in 1694 in short poems, which were republished in 1696.
An anonymous volume, that may possibly have been the work of a priest, Noël Varet, appeared in 1698: Caractères tirés de l'Ecriture Sainte et appliqués aux moeurs de ce siècle. The author turns the tables on the censors and preachers by proclaiming his gratitude to the comedians for their effective help in combating the evils of the day, which they expose to ridicule on the boards. He remarks seriously,—or perhaps ironically,—that actors are powerful helpers and aids for weak and powerless preachers.
Beside this defense by a Catholic, we may place one by a Protestant. Under the name of Theodore Parrhase, J. Le Clerc, one of Bayle's friends, published in 1699 a work in two volumes called Parrhasiana ou Pensées diverses sur des Matières de Critique, d'Histoire, de Morale et de Politique. He seems to approve of plays in a rather lukewarm fashion; he quotes Aristotle's definition of the tragedy and claims that although moral plays are possible, dramatists write only in order to please. Le Clerc asserts that when morality is found in a tragedy, its purpose, from the viewpoint of the dramatist, appears usually to be an embellishment of the subject and a means of winning the favor of the audience rather than of calming the passions. For comedies the author has nothing good to say, being of the opinion that their originators seek only "to amuse the public and to gain a reputation and money by amusing it."
Baudot de Juilly, an employee of the department of finance, dared to condemn the current practice of denouncing all pleasures without exception. In his Dialogues entre MM. Patru et d'Ablancourt sur les plaisirs, published in Paris in 1700, he approves the theatre as an institution. His volume was suppressed by the authorities soon after it appeared in print.
A decided stand in favor of the stage was taken in 1706 by Chavigni de Saint-Martin, who published his encomium in Brussels, where he could not be so easily reached by irate French prelates: Le Triomphe de la Comédie, ou Réponse à la critique des Prélats de France. He dedicated his work to the Duke of Bavaria, whom he acclaims as a patron of plays. The author tells us that he has written this volume "in order to enlighten the public concerning the injustices which are being disseminated against the theatre." He claims that it is manifestly unfair to condemn the stage of today upon the pretext of its origin. Likewise, it is not right to bring into the limelight the personal affairs of actors, for their lives are not more immoral than those of merchants. He stresses the fact that comedians have never been excommunicated by any ecumenical council. The contemporaneous stage is moral, for it blames vice and always punishes it. As for the arousing of passions, the theatre is no worse than the Bible, for passages like the description of Cain's fury against Abel abound in Scripture. Finally, he asserts that on account of their utility, plays are performed in institutions of learning. His general thesis is that the theatre is a necessary and useful relaxation in civilized countries.
A more weighty defense, though not a very long one, was furnished by Nicolas Boileau, then at the height of his European reputation as a legislator in Parnassus. In 1707 he engaged in polemics over the stage with Massillon and Jacques Losme de Monchesnay, who had been a playwright, but who, like Racine, had become "converted." Monchesnay had written for the Théâtre Italien of Gherardi several plays, such as La Cause des Femmes, 1687; Mezetin, grand Sophi de Perse, 1689; Le Phénix, ou la Femme fidèle, 1691, which obtained great success; Les Souhaits, 1693. Soon after, he recognized the essential frivolity and sinfulness of his literary occupations and "burned what he had adored." He called his plays the aberrations of his youth, and his devotional scruples incited him to decry any form of acting or singing as infected with diabolical propensities. At this time he became one of Boileau's admirers and visited him frequently, though the satirist is said not to have had any particular friendship for him. "Il semble que cet homme-là soit embarrassé de son mérite et du mien," he is reputed to have remarked. Monchesnay sent him a fiery dissertation wherein he announced a paradox which later was to be developed by J.-J. Rousseau, namely, that Molière and his plays had been the principal factor in "la corruption des moeurs."
Against him Boileau made the same point which Chavigni de Saint-Martin had brought out the preceding year. In discussing the morality of the stage, one should disassociate the question of the private lives and personal affairs of comedians from the question of the inherent morality of the plays they perform. Boileau admits that certain plays are immoral, but he does not concede that, for that reason, all performances should be indiscriminately banned….
It has been pointed out previously that the detractors of the stage were found among Protestants as well as among Catholics. One of the principal Protestant theologians, Jean de la Placette, sometimes called "le Nicole protestant," attacked plays in a section of his Réflexions chrétiennes sur divers sujets (1707), entitled De l'Usage que nous devons faire de notre temps. He sets forth the entire group of the known religious and moral objections to prove that the stage is not a justified pastime for the Christian.
At this point it seems appropriate to take stock of the progress of the theatre quarrel and to summarize briefly the period that terminates about 1715, for the death of Louis XIV is really the historical line of demarcation between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the realm of French thought. During the course of the seventeenth century the opponents and partisans of the stage based their arguments chiefly upon theological grounds—Scripture, the opinions of the Church Fathers and the decisions of the early Church Councils. Each party interprets specific utterances of the Fathers from its own point of view. Tertullian is the principal ecclesiastical authority cited against plays, and St. Thomas is quoted most frequently for the opposite side.
Those who favored the theatre claimed that Scripture does not specifically condemn plays, and that the Church Fathers and early Councils denounced only the contemporaneous stage, chiefly on account of its obscenity and idolatry, and that neither of these factors could be found in the French drama of the seventeenth century. The opponents of the theatre cited numerous local Rituals which condemned plays, but the friends of the stage countered by asserting that neither the Pope nor any ecumenical Council had ever forbidden plays in general. Toward the end of the period which we have been discussing, the partisans of the theatre begin to urge more strongly the utility of plays. This clearly foreshadows the reasoning of the eighteenth century.
SOURCE: "Audiences," in Seventeenth-Century French Drama: The Background, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1979, pp. 76–98.
[In the following excerpt, Lough discusses the changing social status of the theatre during the seventeenth century and the composition of theatre audiences, observing that the middle classes were strongly represented.]
Even if the seventeenth-century playwright probably gave no thought to the spectators in the despised provinces, he had to bear in mind that he was writing for two rather different, if overlapping audiences—that of the court and that of the public theatres of Paris. From one end of the century to the other, the king and court took an interest in drama either by having plays performed in the royal palaces in Paris or Versailles or even occasionally in the provinces or else by attending the public theatres.
It is true that the interest shown by the king and court in drama was greater in some periods of the century than in others, it is also better documented in certain reigns. We know very little about the interest shown by Henry IV in the theatre at a period when, it must be remembered, it was not yet the fashionable entertainment it was later to become. Yet we do know that he and his Italian queen, Marie de Médicis, went to great trouble to persuade companies from Italy to come to Paris and entertain them and their court. Moreover, in those days when French companies from the provinces could not long hold out at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, we find at least one reference to a visit paid to that theatre by Henry and his court. In January 1607 a contemporary noted in his Journal: 'Le vendredi 26e de ce mois fut jouée, à l'Hôtel de Bourgogne, à Paris, une plaisante farce, à laquelle assistèrent le roi, la reine, et la plupart des princes, seigneurs et dames de la cour.' In 1609 and again in 1611, first as dauphin and then as king, the young Louis XIII was taken on several occasions to see plays at the Hôtel de Bourgogne.
If we know little of Louis XIII's visits to this theatre after his early youth, it is an interesting fact that Louis XIV did not disdain to frequent the public theatres of the capital, either before he took over the reins of power in 1661 or for some time afterwards. In 1656, for instance, when he was eighteen, he went to the Théâtre du Marais for a performance of Thomas Corneille's highly successful tragedy, Timocrate. Two years later Louis and his court went to the rival theatre of the Hôtel de Bourgogne for a performance of a lost tragedy and shortly afterwards saw a performance given by the Italian actors. At the beginning of 1659 they went to see Pierre Corneille's latest tragedy, Œdipe, again at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Molière's the atre was not left out of these visits; in 1663, for instance, La Grange recorded the king's presence at a performance of L'École des femmes and La Critique: 'Le Roi nous honora de sa présence en public'; and six months later, in January 1664, we find the following entry: 'Joué dans notre salle au Palais Royal pour le Roi la Bradamante ridicule'. In 1666 Louis attended a performance of Boyer's pièce à machines, Jupiter et Sémélé, at the Marais
theatre which specialized in this type of production. However, it was much more usual for plays to be performed in the royal palaces. Although our information about such performances in the first half of the century is decidedly scrappy, we catch occasional glimpses of both French and Italian actors performing at court during the reign of Henry IV. Such court performances continued during the reign of Louis XIII. We know of one particular period of intensive dramatic activity at court during his minority; in the space of fifteen months, between November 1612 and Febrary 1614, over 130 performances were given at court by professional actors, both French and Italian. Our information about theatrical performances at court during the rest of Louis XIII's reign and the regency which followed his death in 1643 is decidedly meagre, but there is no doubt that they took place fairly frequently·
It was, however, during the period between Louis XIV's assumption of power in 1661 and his estrangement from the theatre in his years of piety that the drama saw its most brilliant period at the French court in the seventeenth-century. After the death of his queen in 1683 and his attachment to Mme de Maintenon Louis gradually began to lose interest in the drama; in November 1691 the Marquis de Dangeau noted in his journal: 'Le soir il y eut comédie; le roi n'y va plus du tout.' Theatrical performances still continued at court in the latter part of the reign; even if they no longer took place with all the splendour of of the sumptuous fêtes of the 1660s and 1670s, they had become a regular part of the routine of life at court and were to remain so right down to the Revolution. At the high point of the reign most of the performances took place in Paris or later at Versailles when the court was permanently established there; in addition, they were sometimes given at Fontainebleau or other royal palaces in the provinces.
Not only did the king and court see performed new plays or older ones which had first been put on in the public theatres; quite a number of the plays of the time were given their first performance at court. Racine's first great success in tragedy, Andromaque, received its first performance not at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, but at the Louvre. The Gazette de France carried the following item on 19 November 1667: 'Leurs Majestés eurent le divertissement d'une fort belle tragédie, par la Troupe Royale, en l'appartement de la Reine, où étaient quantité de seigneurs et de dames de la cour.' Seven years later the Gazette announced another court première for a Racine play, Iphigénie (even managing to give the author's name on this occasion):
De Versailles, le 24 août 1674,
… Le soir, Leurs Majestés, avec lesquelles étaient Monseigneur le Dauphin, Monsieur, et un grand nombre de seigneurs et de dames, prirent ici, dans l'Orangerie, le divertissement d'une pièce nouvelle de théâtre intitulée Iphigénie, composée par le sieur Racine, laquelle fut admirablement bien représentée par la Troupe Royale et très applaudie de toute la Cour. Ensuite elles eurent aussi le divertissement d'un grand feu d'artifice sur le Canal.
When Molière and his company—known after their patron, Louis XIVs brother, as 'la Troupe de Monsieur'—made their return to Paris in 1658, the first performance which they gave in the capital was at the Louvre, as La Grange records in his register: 'La Troupe de Monsieur, frère unique du Roi, commença au Louvre devant sa Majesté le 24e octobre 1658 par Nicomède et Le Docteur amoureux. '
Indeed in the fifteen years which followed down to his death Molière became very much a court entertainer. If most of the plays—Le Misanthrope is a notable exception—which he put on first in the Petit Bourbon and Palais Royal theatres were given subsequently at court during his lifetime, quite a number received their first performance before the king, mostly as part of a more or less elaborate court entertainment.
The long and complicated history of the most successful of all his comedies, Tartuffe, began in 1664 when his company took part in the fêtes held at Versailles under the title of Les Plaisirs de l'Ile enchantée. His company's contribution consisted of performances of a new 'comédie galante mêlée de musique et d'entrées de ballet', La Princesse d'Élide, specially written for the occasion; a comedy, Les Fâcheux, first performed three years earlier at Vaux-le-Vicomte at a fête offered by Foucquet to Louis XIV; then, according to La Grange's register, 'trois actes du Tartuffe qui étaient les trois premiers'; and finally a comédie-ballet, Le Mariage forcé, in which the king had danced when it was performed in the Louvre a few months earlier. Some of these court performances were given in royal palaces at quite a distance from Paris. Thus in 1670 the well-known comédie-ballet, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, received its first performance at Chambord, one of the royal palaces in the Loire valley, as La Grange records: 'La troupe est partie pour Chambord par ordre du Roi. On y a joué entre plusieurs comédies Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, pièce nouvelle de M. de Molière.' The première took place on 14 October, and it was not until 23 November that the first public performance of this new play was given at the Palais Royal theatre.
Thanks to La Grange's register we are fairly well informed about the performances given at court by Molière's company and from this and other contemporary sources we know what they performed there, whether completely new plays or others which had had their first performance in Paris. From 1680 onwards we know from the registers of the Comédie Française exactly what court performances the new company gave. Unfortunately for the period before 1680 we have only rather scrappy information about the court performances given by companies like the Hôtel de Bourgogne. We must not, however, imagine that Molière's company had anything like a monopoly of court performances between 1658 and 1673. We have seen, for instance, that Andromaque and Iphigénie were given their première at court by the rival company of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.
While it would no doubt be a mistake to imagine that all the spectators at these court performances were required to furnish written proof of their noble birth before being allowed in to enjoy the spectacle, it is pretty clear that such court audiences must have been markedly more aristocratic than those in the public theatres. Indeed for the opening decades of the century—a period of scarcely relieved darkness so far as the history of the theatre is concerned—it has often been argued that the spectators who frequented the Hôtel de Bourgogne and various improvised theatres were the very opposite of aristocratic. The striking thing about the plays of the opening part of the century—be they comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, or pastoral plays—is their aesthetic and moral crudity. It is perhaps too easy to conclude that theatre audiences must therefore have been decidely plebeian, lacking the refining influence of the upper classes of society and especially that of respectable women. Tempting as this conclusion may be, it is not altogether borne out by the facts. The theatre was undoubtedly a much less fashionable entertainment than it was to become by about 1630; the plays produced were of little literary worth and were often extremely crude, even obscene, in their subjectmatter and language. Yet though the theatre was a much cheaper form of entertainment than it was to become later in the century, there are fragments of evidence which indicate that audiences were much more mixed than is often suggested.
There is, for instance, some evidence that no only some young bloods of the aristocracy, but even some solid bourgeois attended the theatre in these decades. What is more, the documents on which historians of the theatre rely in order to exclude respectable women from audiences of the time are no more conclusive than those produced by scholars who attempt to do the same for the London theatres of Shakespeare's day. Thus the apparently categorical statement of Abbé d'Aubignac, writing in the 1660s, that 'il y a cinquante ans qu'une honnête femme n'osait aller au théâtre' is considerably modified by the rest of the sentence: 'ou bien il fallait qu'elle fût voilée et tout à fait invisible, et ce plaisir était comme réservé aux débauchées qui se donnaient la liberté de regarder à visage découvert.' In other words d'Aubignac does admit that some 'honnêtes femmes' did go to the theatre in the opening decades of the century, even if they went veiled. Charles Sorel, writing a few years later, is even further from denying that respectable women were present in the theatre at that period in the century. 'A trefois', he declares, 'toutes les femmes se retiraient quand on allait jouer la farce.' Even if information about the composition of theatre audiences at the beginning of this period is extremely hard to come by, it would certainly seem rash to conclude that neither men of the upper classes of society nor respectable women frequented the theatre in these years.
We have seen that the attitude of the court of Henry IV and the young Louis XIII to drama was not as negative as has often been imagined. Meagre as our information undoubtedly is, it suffices to prove that in these years the court did not regard theatrical performances as entirely beneath contempt, as an entertainment suited only for the plebs, for a horde of ruffians, and dissolute women. Whether the king along with other members of the royal family and his courtiers, male and female, attended theatrical performances given in the various royal palaces or (this seems to have happened much less frequently) at that alleged place of perdition, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, there is no doubt that they saw exactly the same plays—French or Italian—as were presented to the ordinary spectators in the public theatre. Clearly we do not possess, for the opening decades of the seventeenth century, one set of crude plays written for the plebeian audiences of the Hôtel de Bourgogne and another set of refined plays written to please the more sophisticated taste of the court.
It is characteristic that the only two anecdotes in Tallement's Historiettes relating to Henry IV's interest in dra ma concern encounters with actors who were particularly distinguished for their roles in farce—Arlequin and Gros-Guillaume. His Italian queen, Marie de Médicis, naturally took a keen interest in actors from her own country, but she seems also to have enjoyed performances by French actors, particularly in farce. After the murder of her favourite, Concini, she endeavoured to while away the time in her exile at Blois with visits from two well-known farce actors. The accounts of her household show that in May 1618 the sum of 90 livres was paid to 'Robert Guérin, dit La Fleur', better known as Gros-Guillaume, and in December of the same year she gave 600 livres to 'Phillipe Mondor, médecin' and to 'ceux qui l'ont assisté pour jouer les comédies qu'ils ont représentées diverses fois devant nous pour notre plaisir et service'. Philippe Mondor (his real name was Philippe Girard) was the brother of a more illustrious personage, the famous farce actor, Tabarin, of whom Boileau was to write with such contempt in the Art poétique where he laments the fact that in his comedies Molière should too often have
Quitté, pour le bouffon, l'agréable et le fin
Et sans honte à Térence allié Tabarin.
Both brothers are mentioned in another item in these accounts, dated February 1619; Marie de Médicis orders her treasurer to pay 'Philippe de Mondor, docteur en médecine, et Antoine Girard, dit Tabarin, la somme de trois cents livres de laquelle nous leur avons fait don tant en considération de ce qu'ils ont représenté plusieurs comédies devant nous pour notre plaisir et service que pour leur faire sentir notre libéralité. It is obvious that in the opening decades of the seventeenth century there was not an unbridgeable gulf between the taste of the court and that of the low-born spectators who applauded farce actors like Gros-Guillaume and Tabarin, and that the public performances given at the Hôtel de Bourgogne and at other places in Paris did not provide an exclusively plebeian entertainment.
Fortunately we do not need to get involved in the controversies concerning the social composition of theatre audiences in the opening decades of the century for which, as for other questions concerning the theatrical life of the period, solid information is sadly lacking. In contrast, for the decades of the century which concern us, the period from roughly 1630 to 1680 which saw the production of all but one of the masterpieces of Corneille, Molière, and Racine, our knowledge is much less scrappy and is sufficient to give us a fairly clear idea of what sort of people frequented the public theatres of the capital.
It may well be that with the changes which took place in the theatrical world of Paris, roughly in the period 1625–35, audiences became rather less mixed than they had previously been. With two companies permanently installed in the capital and a new generation of playwrights supported by the patronage of great noblemen and above all Richelieu, the theatre became much more fashionable. For a time one continues to find references to the presence of plebeian spectators in the different Paris theatres. As late as 1663, in Molière's little play, La Critique de l'École des femmes, there is the famous reference to the presence of lackeys among the audience in his theatre. In making fun of the prudish reactions of some women spectators to L'École des femmes, one of the characters declares: 'Quelqu'un même des laquais cria tout haut qu'elles étaient plus chastes des oreilles que de tout le reste du corps.' Indeed it seems that it was not until rather later that lackeys were banned by royal edict from attending the theatre.
It is true that the word peuple when applied to seventeenth-century theatre audiences can be highly ambiguous as in certain contexts it can mean simply 'audience, public', and sometimes, as in 'la cour et le peuple', it is used in a sense which obviously includes people who were very far from plebeian in the modern sense of the term.
None the less in the 1630s and 1640s there are clearly some occasions when the term peuple applied to part of the audience had a definitely plebeian meaning. In 1639 in his Apologie du théâtre Georges de Scudéry makes some extremely rude references to plebeian spectators in the parterre such as 'cette multitude ignorante que la farce attire à la comédie'. At about the same time (although not published until 1657, his Pratique du théâtre was written much earlier) Abbé d'Aubignac speaks scathingly of the low tastes of the plebeian section of the audience. …
Then there is the much quoted passage from Sorel's La Maison des jeux, published in 1642, in which he denounces the noisy racaille to be found among the spectators in the parterre:
Le parterre est fort incommode pour la presse qui s'y trouve de mille marauds mêlés parmi les honnêtes gens, auxquels ils veulent quelquefois faire des affronts, et ayant fait des querelles pour un rien, mettent la main à l'épée et interrompent toute la comédie. Dans leur plus parfait repos ils ne cessent aussi de parler, de siffler et de crier, et pource qu'ils n'ont rien payé à l'entrée et qu'ils ne viennent là qu'à faute d'autre occupation, ils ne se soucient guère d'entendre ce que disent les comédiens. C'est une preuve que la comédie est infâme, de ce qu'elle est fréquentée par de telles gens, et l'on montre que ceux qui ont la puissance dans le monde en font bien peu de cas, puisqu'ils n'empêchent point que toute cette racaille y entre sans payer, pour y faire du désordre.
If we are to believe such witnesses, the audiences for which Corneille and his contemporaries catered in the 1630s still contained a noticeable plebeian element.
It is, however, significant that from the middle of the seventeenth century until the closing decades of the Ancien Régime one finds scarcely any references to the presence of such spectators. It is only from the 1760s onwards that writers begin to refer, naturally with scorn, to the gradual infiltration of plebeian spectators into theatres like the Comédie Française and the Théâtre Italien. In the hundred years or so before that date it would seem as if the cheapest part of the various Paris theatres, the parterre, was largely a middle-class preserve. Among the spectators in this part of the house about whose presence we have ample evidence were budding playwrights. Naturally once they had established themselves, they enjoyed the privilege of free admission and could choose a more comfortable way of seeing a play. We are told that Pierre Corneille—the 'vieux poète malintentionné' whom Racine refers to in his savage first preface to the play—sat in a box at the first performance of his younger rival's Britannicus, but he himself refers in La Suite du Menteur to the presence of writers in the parterre applying the famous rules to other people's plays. In this comedy he makes the main character, Dorante, and his servant, Cliton, discuss putting their new adventures on the stage as in Le Menteur:
Again one of the characters in Sorel's Maison des jeux replies to the criticisms of the spectators in the parterre which we have just quoted, pointing out that 'la plupart de nos poètes qui sont les plus capables de juger des pièces, n'y vont point ailleurs.'
It may be objected that this period saw too much poverty among writers, too many 'poètes crottés' to use the language of the time, for the presence of writers in the parterre to throw much light on its social composition and in particular to prove that it contained many solid bourgeois. Yet there is plenty of evidence that this was the case, so much so that it would take several pages to quote all of it; only a few examples can be given here. The expression 'le noble et le bourgeois' is frequently used in writings of the time as shorthand for the theatre audiences, as when Jean Loret in his rhymed news-sheet speaks of a tragedy being performed at Molière's theatre 'pour le noble et le bourgeois'. 'Le bourgeois' is often mentioned in his own right as one of the pillars of the Paris theatres as in Loret's references to Molière's Dom Juan with its 'changements de théâtre/Dont le bourgeois est idolâtre', or in Chappuzeau's statement that, since the royal edict of 1673 has put an end to disorders there, 'le bourgeois peut venir avec plus de plaisir à la comédie.' That the bourgeois mainly frequented the parterre is made clear in official documents such as that provided by d'Argenson, the Lieutenant de police, who speaks of the greater part of the large number of spectators in the parterre of the Comédie Française one day in 1700 when disorders broke out there, as being 'gens de collège, de palais ou de commerce', that is teachers, lawyers, and merchants. A vivid picture of the spectators on the stage contrasted with the bourgeois spectators in the parterre of the Théâtre Italien towards the end of the century is to be found in the final scene of Regnard and Dufresny's comedy, Les Chinois, performed in 1692:
Les Italiens donnent un champ libre sur la scène à tout le monde. L'officier vient jusques au bord du théâtre étaler impunément aux yeux du marchand la dorure qu'il lui doit encore. L'enfant de famille, sur les frontières de l'orchestre, fait la moue à l'usurier qui ne saurait lui demander ni le principal, ni les intérêts. Le fils, mêlé avec les acteurs, rit de voir son père avaricieux faire le pied de grue dans le parterre pour lui laisser quinze sols de plus après sa mort.
There is also in the literature of the time an extraordinary number of references to the presence in the parterre of groups of 'marchands de la rue Saint-Denis'; these were not small shopkeepers, but prosperous retailers of luxury goods.
English travellers of the time who were men of some social position made no difficulty about standing in the cheapest part of the Paris theatres which they frequented. In 1664 Edward Browne, the son of Sir Thomas Browne, the author of Religio Medici, visited Paris as part of his grand tour. At this time he was only twenty-two; he was in due course to follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor. When he went to the Palais Royal to see a performance by Molière's company, he felt no compunction about buying a ticket to stand in the parterre: 'In the afternoon I heard a Comedy at Palais-Royal. They were Monseir's Comedians; they had a farce after it. I gave Quinze Solz to stand upon the grounde. The name of it was Coeur de Mari. They were not to be compared with the Londoners.' Two years later Philip Skippon, the son of Cromwell's Major-General, a young Cambridge graduate who not long afterwards was to become an M.P. and a knight, saw both the Italian actors and Molière's company perform at the Palais Royal, and once again neither he nor his companion (or companions) made any difficulty about standing in the parterre:
Palais Cardinal is a fair palace with handsome walks. Here Madame Henrietta, the duchess of Orleans, lives. At one side of this house is a public stage where the Italian and French comedians act by turns. I saw here Il marîtaggion d'una Statua, a merry play where the famous buffoon Scaramuccio, acted. Three antick dances pleased the spectators. The Quatre Scaramuccie was another pleasant Italian comedy. We stood in the parterre, or pit, and paid 30 sols apiece for seeing the first, and but 15 sols for the last.
We saw a French comedy entitled L'estourdye which was better acted than we expected. We paid for seeing this, and standing in the pit, 15 sols a man.
Nor did a French nobleman disdain to stand in the parterre if he went to the theatre on his own or in male company. It is true that we chiefly learn of the presence of such spectators in that part of the house when they were drunk and created a disturbance, but presumably they also frequented it when they were sober.
The spectators in the parterre were certainly not always well behaved. We know from unimpeachable documents that twice during the last few months of Molière's life there were disorders in his theatre. On Sunday, 9 October 1672, during a performance of La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas and L'Amour médecin 'plusieurs gens de livrée et autres firent insulte à un homme d'épée auquel ils donnèrent quantité de coups de bâton desquels il est grièvement blessé, et même jetèrent plusieurs pierres aux acteurs qui jouaient la comédie.' While Molière himself was on the stage, 'il fut jeté du parterre le gros bout d'une pipe à fumer sur le théâtre'. Witnesses who gave evidence about the incident all agreed that the culprits were pages; their victim, described as 'un homme d'épée', might or might not have been an officer.
On 13 January 1673, just over a month before Molière's death, further disorders took place at the Palais Royal during a performance of the highly successful tragédie-ballet, Psyché, which he had composed with the assistance of Pierre Corneille and Quinault. A commissaire au Châtelet was fetched to the theatre by the news that 'dans le parterre il y avait quantité de gens d'épée entrés sous prétexte d'entendre la comédie … lesquels composaient entre eux, contre la volonté de sadite Majesté, … un désordre et une sédition comme il a été ci-devant fait à l'Hôtel de Bourgogne'. The commissaire went on to the stage,
d'où aussitôt que la première entrée s'est faite, avons aperçu dans ledit parterre, à la faveur de la clarté des chandelles, quelques gens d'épée à nous inconnus qui se seraient approchés dudit théâtre, lesquels murmuraient et frappaient du pied à terre, et quand la machine de Vénus est descendue, le choeur des chanteurs de cette entrée récitant tous ensemble Descendez, mère des Amours! lesdits gens d'épée, autant que nous avons pu remarquer être au nombre de vingt-cinq ou trente, de complot, auraient troublé lesdits chanteurs par des hurlements, chansons dérisionnaires et frappements de pied dans le parterre et contre les ais de l'enclos où sont les joueurs d'instruments.
The uproar caused by these rowdies finally brought the performance to an end; they were offered their money back, but they refused and demanded instead that the play should start all over again. When this was done, they apparently behaved themselves; at least the commissaire's report breaks off at this point.
Once again we have no means of telling what was the rank of these 'gens d'épée', but if this was conduct unworthy of an officer and a gentleman, we cannot necessarily conclude that they were 'other ranks'. At the Comédie Française in 1691 a performance of La Devineresse, the pièce à machines of De Visé and Thomas Corneille, was brought to an end by the disorders created by a gang of rowdies, led by a drunken officer with the delightful name of Sallo. This officer, 'capitaine au régiment de Champagne', the documents in the case relate, 'força la garde et entra dans le parterre', followed by other members of his company. Sallo then climbed up on to the stage from the parterre and shouted: 'Connais-tu ce bougre qui est à la porte de la Comédie? Je lui viens de foutre un bon coup d'épée dans le ventre. Je suis un capitaine qui ai vingt amis dans le parterre.'
Despite successive royal edicts trouble continued from this quarter to the end of the century….
[I]f the parterre appears to have been largely the preserve of the middle classes, of merchants and professional men, including writers and aspiring writers, it also contained at least a sprinkling of noblemen, drunk or sober.
There is no question but that the all male spectators in this part of the theatre had a considerable influence. Thanks to the register kept by Hubert for the last year of the existence of Molière's theatre, we know that at 113 out of 131 performances more than half the spectators stood in the parterre. It is true that both in Molière's theatre and at the Comédie Française from 1680 the custom of doubling prices in the parterre during the opening performances of a new play tended to reduce the number of tickets sold for that part of the house, but under ordinary conditions these spectators formed a majority among the audience whenever older plays were revived and during the first run of new plays as soon as prices for the parterre had been reduced to normal. Clearly such spectators were extremely important from the numerical point of view, and even though the proportion of the audience which they represented generally fell during the opening performances of new plays, these were mostly well attended and on such occasions there could be at least three or four hundred spectators in the parterre. This mass of men, packed together like sardines, was obviously in a position to express its reactions in a way which could have a considerable effect on the fate of the play.
At any rate from the 1660s onwards, we continually find most flattering references to the good taste of the parterre. Molière's Critique de l'École des femmes (1663) furnishes the first example of such praise; here we see the actor-manager who knew on which side his bread was buttered and was very conscious of the fact that the spectators who bought tickets for the parterre generally represented more than half his audience. His spokesman, Dorante, makes a vigorous defence of the taste of the spectators in this part of the theatre when he rebukes the Marquis for his contemptuous attitude towards them:
Apprends, Marquis, je te prie, et les autres aussi, que le bon sens n'a point de place déterminée à la comédie; que la différence du demi-louis d'or et de la pièce de quinze sols ne fait rien du tout au bon goût; que debout ou assis, on peut donner un mauvais jugement; et qu'enfin, à le prendre en général, je me fierais assez à l'approbation du parterre, par la raison qu'entre ceux qui le composent, il y en a plusieurs qui sont capables de juger d'une pièce selon les règles, et que les autres en jugent par la bonne façon d'en juger, qui est de se laisser prendre aux choses, et de n'avoir ni prévention aveugle, ni complaisance affectée, ni délicatesse ridicule.
Flattery of the parterre is carried much further in Les Chinois, the comedy written by Regnard and Dufresny for the Théâtre Italien. In the last scene the Parterre enters to act as judge in the debate between Colombine, representing the Théâtre Italien, and Arlequin, who represents the Comédie Française. Arlequin is made to greet the arrival of the Parterre with the words: 'Malepeste! il faut ouvrir la porte à deux battants, c'est notre père nourricier. Qu'il entre, en payant, s'entend.' The Parterre puts forward sweeping claims as to its function in the theatre: 'Ne savez-vous pas que je suis seul juge naturel, et en dernier ressort, des comédiens et des comédies? Voilà avec quoi je prononce mes arrêts (Il donne un coup de sifflet),' When Colombine speaks of 'son Excellence, Monseigneur le Parterre', Arlequin protests at such flattery, but she retorts with comic enthusiasm:
Non, ce n'est point la flatterie qui me dénoue la langue; je rends simplement les hommages dus à ce souverain plénipotentiaire. C'est l'éperon des auteurs, le frein des comédiens, l'inspecteur et curieux examinateur des hautes et basses loges, et de tout ce qui se passe en icelles; en un mot, c'est un juge incorruptible, qui, bien loin de prendre de l'argent pour juger, commence par en donner à la porte de l'audience.
When the Parterre finally gives its judgement, Arlequin exclaims in horror: 'O tempora! O mores! J'appelle de ce jugement-là aux loges', to which the former replies: 'Mon jugement est sans appel.'
No doubt it would be very unwise to take all this literally; one must bear in mind the effect which such paradoxes must have had on theatre audiences drawn from the profoundly aristocratic society which existed in France in the reign of Louis XIV. Given the prevailing worship of rank and social position, it was inevitable that the outlook and ideals of the aristocracy should exercise a considerable influence on the drama of the age. The section of the nobility which gravitated around the king in Paris and later at Versailles was powerfully represented in the different theatres which served Paris in the course of the seventeenth century. There was clearly a considerable overlap between the audiences present at court performances and those to be found in the public theatres.
It is obvious that the more expensive seats in these theatres were occupied by persons of rank or wealth. Theatre prices rose fairly steeply in the course of the century for all sorts of reasons, including taxes; a ticket to the parterre at the Hôtel de Bourgogne cost a mere 5 sous at the beginning of the century compared with 18 at the Comédie Française at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Although numerically the parterre might be extremely important, its contribution to the total box-office receipts was much smaller than its numbers might at first suggest. This is particularly striking in Molière's theatre as there the best seats, those in the first row of boxes and on the stage, were very expensive. The result was that, to take the example of the first performance of Le Malade imaginaire in 1673, while 394 out of the 682 spectators stood in the parterre, tickets for that part of the theatre, even with prices doubled, accounted for less than a third of the total receipts—591 livres out of 1,892. In contrast seats on the stage and in the premières loges contributed more to the total—682 livres.
At the Comédie Française the charges made for the best seats in the theatre were proportionately less heavy in relation to the cost of tickets to the parterre than they had been in Molière's theatre. Even so, despite the large numbers of spectators present in the parterre on most occasions, their contribution to the total receipts of the performance fell well below 50 per cent, and could even fall as low as a quarter. Thus even if the society of the time had not accorded the respect which it did to birth and money, the men and women of blue blood and wealth who sat in the first row of boxes or on the stage had an importance, from the financial point of view, which far outweighed their numbers, and, of course, both actors and actresses did bestow upon the upper classes of the society of their age the respect which the prevailing social outlook demanded.
If the ladies of the aristocracy, with their male escorts, chiefly frequented the premières loges, another part of the theatre which sometimes counted among its spectators illustrious personages of both sexes was the amphithéâtre, the rows of seats facing the stage at the far end of the parterre. Thus in December 1672 Louis XIV's brother, Monsieur, accompanied on one occasion by his second wife, the German princess Charlotte Elizabeth, was twice present at performances of Psyché at Molière's theatre and occupied with his suit 'deux bancs de l'amphithéâtre'. The other part of the theatre which contained a high proportion of aristocrats—this time men only—was the stage. While on occasion the number of these spectators could be quite small, there were times when they were so numerous that it is difficult to imagine how both they and the actors were accommodated on the stage. On one occasion in the last year of the life of Molière's company there were as many as thirty-six, while the registers of the Comédie Française record for its first performance in 1680 as many as 150. Writers—Corneille and Molière among others—are shown by contemporary documents to have gone on occasion to this part of the house, but it seems mainly to have been frequented by the young bloods of the aristocracy….
There is certainly no evidence that Louis XIV and his courtiers showed any particular discernment in their choice of plays to be performed in the various royal palaces. During Molière's lifetime Les Fâcheux appears to have been the play of his most often given at court, and there is no evidence that he ever performed Le Misanthrope there. However, to conclude that in its dealings with the theatre the aristocracy did not exhibit any particular refinement of taste is not to deny that it exercised an influence on drama commensurate with its exalted place in the society of the day. The ladies and their male escorts in the more expensive boxes and the noblemen sitting or standing on the stage did play an important part in moulding the taste of the day in the theatre as in other forms of literature. Although middle-class and even for a time plebeian spectators were undoubtedly present among the audiences of the capital, given the social structure of seventeenth-century France, the upper classes, from the princes of the blood and the grands seigneurs and their womenfolk downwards, exercised an influence on drama which was out of proportion to the fairly considerable numbers which they furnished to the theatre audiences of the time.
Mixed as the audiences in the public theatre undoubtedly were, from the point of view of social composition, in sheer numbers they none the less represented a small élite. It is true that it is only for the last year of Molière's career in Paris that, thanks to the Registre d'Hubert, we can calculate for the first time how many spectators paid to see his company perform in the course of the theatrical year. In considering these figures, we have to bear in mind that Paris probably had a population of some half a million, one which was temporarily swollen by visitors from the provinces and from further afield, some of whom, as we know from their letters and diaries, frequented the theatres of the capital. In the...
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SOURCE: "The People in Seventeenth Century French Tragedy," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LII, No. 11, November, 1937, pp 475–81.
[In the essay that follows, Baudin discusses the depiction of popular sentiment in seventeenth century French tragedy in relation to the changing political atmosphere of the time.]
[Cardinal] Richelieu and Louis XIV established an order in which the people had no voice; accordingly, in the theater, public opinion, a counterpart to tyranny, was no more than a relic of another age that had become a cliché. Like obsolete tyranny, emancipation may tempt the skill of a du Ryer or a Corneille, but does...
(The entire section is 17575 words.)
Eleanor F. Jourdain
SOURCE: "Comedy," in Dramatic Theory and Practice in France: 1690–1808, 1921. Reprint by Benjamin Blom, 1968, pp. 6–43.
[In the following excerpt, Jourdain discusses the development of comedy by Molière's successors.]
It would have been difficult for any successors of Molière to avoid the dangerous homage of imitation of his methods. Molière had succeeded in making the theatre national in France, and in popularising the painting of manners in the middle classes of society. Now the whole tendency of the drama in the eighteenth century was to throw more light on the middle classes, and it is important to notice that...
(The entire section is 20293 words.)
Henry Carrington Lancaster
SOURCE: "Subsequent History of the Tragi-Comedy," in The French Tragi-Comedy: Its Origin and Development from 1552 to 1628, 1907. Reprinted by Gordian Press, Inc., 1966, pp. 148–54.
[In the following excerpt, Lancaster explains the decline of French tragicomedy in the late seventeenth century.]
Toward 1650, … the number of tragi-comedies that appeared each year was decreasing and by 1660 had become very small, if one may judge by those of which the names have been preserved. With the Psyché of Corneille, Molière, and Quinault (1671) and the Parfaits Amis of Chappuzeau (1672) the genre...
(The entire section is 16718 words.)
Baudin, Maurice. The Profession of King in Seventeenth Century French Drama. The Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages, vol. XXXVIII. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1941, 111 p.
Provides a detailed analysis of several topics related to the role of the king in seventeenth-century French drama, including the king as conqueror, and the role of the people in the drama of this time period.
Fuller, Edmund. "The Theatre of France," in A Pageant of the Theatre, pp. 137–160. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1965.
Discusses the work of several seventeenth-century French dramatists...
(The entire section is 287 words.)