The theatre as a dangerous place

The performance of a Molière's play in a French theater in Eighteenth-century
The performance of a Molière’s play in a French theater in Eighteenth-century

Most of the Enlightenment philosophers defended theater and even wrote for it, like Voltaire and Diderot. Educated people and nobility could be crazy about theater, like the Queen Marie-Antoinette, who used to go to theater in Paris really regularly, created a private theater at Versailles and even performed on it! But theater had bad reputation for the Church especially. D’Alembert when writing the Encyclopedia, did the article about Geneva and regretted that the city did not have a theater:

“If the actors were not -only suffered in Geneva, but hold by wise regulations, protected then, & even considerate as soon as they would be worthy, finally absolutely placed on the same line that the other citizens, this city would soon have the advantage of possessed what we believe rare, & that it is only by our fault, a troupe of actors priceless. Let’s add that this troupe will become soon the best of Europe: several persons full of taste & aptitude for theater, & who fear the dishonor while engaging in would come in Geneva, to grow not – only without shame, but even with respect, a talent so nice & so unusual. The stay in this city, that many French considered sad because of its loss of shows, would become then the stay of honest pleasures, as is the one of Philosophy & Freedom; & foreigners would not be surprised to see that in a city where decent & regular shows are defended, it allows pranks coarse and without mind, as contrary to good taste than to morality. This is not all: slowly the example of Geneva’s actors, the regularity of their conduct, & the thoughtfulness that they would have, would be a role model for the foreign actors, & as lesson to those who have treated them so far with so much rigor and even inconsistency. We would not see them on a side pensioned by the government, and on the other a cursed object; our priests would lose the habit of excommunicating them, & our bourgeois to look at them with contempt; & a small republic would have the glory of having reformed Europe on this point, perhaps more importantly maybe that we think.

The Lettre à d’Alembert written by Rousseau was an answer to that article. The philosopher argued against the creation of a theater in Geneva because of the corruption of the performers that makes it a dangerous place for virtuous citizens. For him, theater gives bad examples which encourage immorality (like Figaro in Le Barbier de Séville of Beaumarchais who is disrespectful to his master or like Molière’s characters who are making fun of virtuous). This idea was followed by some play writers at the end of the Eighteenth-century like Mercier (who wrote the famous Tableaux de Paris) or again Olympe de Gouges. To elevate the public’s feelings (and the actors), they wrote plays with good examples of heroes: no more Figaros, but virtuous male and female characters who are facing fate or Machiavellian enemies; but they success and even their enemies realize their mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

More than the immorality of the plays, that was more the immorality of the performers that was pointed by its critics. It was a very common view that theaters were places of debauchery especially because of the scandalous live of the actresses. Actresses were visible, influent, creating rumors and new fashions like nowadays. But most of them had luxury tastes and their salary was not enough to pay for everything, so most of them were high-level courtesans, using men’s fortunes to finance their home (which could be a mansion for the one with the richest lovers), their furniture, jewelry and clothing (there was no stage costumes, so they used to wear their own clothes when performing and having the richest one was a sign of high level status). Beauty, charm, and sensuality facilitated the struggle for success. These were also the qualities that would allow an actress, who had few other assets except her talent, to obtain the “protection” necessary to establish a career at the best theaters.’

Theater had such a bad influence that the performers were almost never coming from middling and high social classes. The very few examples that we have (like the sisters Saint-Val) explain that they had to find a way to survive after their families’ ruin. Otherwise, performers were mostly coming from theatrical families or were recruited because of their talent and/or their protector (Madame Deschamps for example as never been a good actress or dancer, but her powerful lovers guaranteed her protection and position in the theater). Because of this (or despite it) theaters were in vogue in the second half of the Eighteenth-century: there was 4,000 sits in 1700 and 13,000 on the eve of the Revolution. The leading actresses of the Comédie-Française (and some of the lesser theaters) were among the most celebrated women of the Eighteenth-century France. And for most of men, women with even a very small and marginal power was a threat and thus dangerous for the society.

The sexually public woman: the prostitute

Let’s call a cat a cat, in Eighteenth century France, a public woman was a prostitute. But such as in our modern society, a prostitute is a generic term which goes from the most dodgy street-walker to the gorgeous and refined courtesan. Who were they? What were the differences between them? It seems to be a terrible and sad cliché but they almost all had the same kind of story: a countryside girl who came to Paris to work, fall in love and was abandoned by their lover. Sometimes pregnant, sometimes ruined, they had only one way to survive: to sell their body. The other possibility is the will of countryside and poor girls to work enough to have a dowry and married. Most of the prostitutes had between 15 and 30 years old, and were from the lower class; were not accepted as femmes galantes very young girls and women from middling and upper-class families.

First of all, we have to take in consideration the regularity of their prostitution. Is being a prostitute their ‘full-time’ job or do they have occasional sexual encounters to supplement their income? According to the police documents, a lot of the girls had a proper job (like hairdresser or customer advisor in some shops) at the time of their first arrest. Second, it is important to have a closer look on their customers: did the girls accept any client or did they have regular ones, or even only one? In this case, the client is called patron and pay for most of the expenses of the girl, like rent, debts, servants, clothes or jewellery.

Moreover, there was a distinction in Eighteenth century between public woman and private woman, or public prostitute and private prostitute. Obviously the public prostitute was the street-walker, the girls in brothels, in short the prostitute who did not have the choice of their customer, neither of their number. They were the target of the police and the public opinion because of their bad morality. On the other hand, a kept woman or a courtesan, even if everybody knew who she was and who was her lover, was quite rarely in trouble with the police or even the public opinion (at least not during the first half of the century): it was accepted that French nobleman should have a mistress and look after her. A courtesan could even have several lovers, changing partner every night, she still would have a better reputation than any of the street-walkers.

Street-walkers and girls in brothels were the cheapest prostitute. But if a girl was lucky enough to catch a fish (noble man or bourgeois, in preference with money) he would not let her in the brothel, but would install her in an apartment with few servants (at least a maid and a cook) and give her regular income. The girl would become a kept woman (femme galante) and the gentleman her patron. In exchange of money, gifts and financial support, the patron expected obviously sexual encounters. This relation was most of the time not really binding for the girl: the patron would come two to three times a week, bring her to the theater or to do a walk, have a diner and would almost never stay to sleep at hers. Only few exception had been noticed when the patron was madly in love of his mistress and could not bear to spend a night away from her. To be in this kind of relationship was not only about sex, but a kind of companionage. Some couple lasted for years, even decades. It is interesting to notice that patrons were not really faithful to their mistress, neither were the mistresses. They often have another patron, occasional sexual encounters to make extra money or a lover, called a greluchon.

A courtesan is the opposite of the whore and implied to have a refined libertine above mercenary considerations, above the rough subculture of the brothel and the street. Moreover, the courtesan was able to sing, play music and have a brilliant conversation to distract her patron and impress his friends. However, this is the definition of the Italian Renaissance, really embodied in France only during the Sixteenth-century by the courtesan and brilliant writer Ninon de Lenclos. Courtesans in Eighteenth-century might have a beginning of education, but they did not have culture, so elevated conversation could only be made with salonnières. Like femmes galantes, courtesans were above prostitutes: their beauty and their personality made them have a great success and so the most wealthy and prestigious patrons.

We loose the tracks of most of the prostitutes after their thirties. Marriage was the ultimate goal for women in Eighteenth-century France. Most of the kept women who married did it when they were young and had few resources, those marriages were most of the time catastrophic. Some married, sometimes to wealthy men, but did not. Femmes galantes and courtesans have to retire of elite prostitution from the beginning of their thirties: childbirths, loosing teeth, venereal diseases and just getting old made them lose their appeal. Those who were not money wise or did not find a husband probably went back to basic prostitution, ending their live as street-walker.