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.


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