Saturday, 5 December 2015

Control of the French Theatre in the period before the 1789 Revolution

French Theatre in the neo-classical era

Each chapter begins with a long selection of documents of control - including permission for actors to retire or move, demands by peers of the realm for companies to admit new members and comments from The Intendant des Menus Plaisirs on various disorders within the performance sector (most notably around the affaire Sainval, an argument about repertoire at the Comedie-Francaise). There is even a declaration by the chief of police regarding the wearing of large headdresses by women at the Comedie-Italian (pg423)

The nature of state control over the theatre is made clear by these documents, although their effectiveness might be disputed. A royal decree in 1720 condemning unruly audience behaviour (pg 412) is followed by a further decree from 1780 that 'shows that the problem has still not been resolved'. The specific authority of the monarch, however, is made explicit by Riccoboni (Reflexions historiques et critiques).

There is a theatre at court where the players perform whenever they are summoned. If the princes and princesses of royal blood attend the Comedie, their birth gives them the right to occupy the premieres loges, even if these places have been paid for by other individuals... it is more common for the royal princes to seat themselves on stage; when they arrive, the actors interrupt the performance, all the spectators stand as a mark of respect. (pg421)

This apparent enthusiasm for the control of small matters did, however, extend to the content of the plays. in 1763, Bachmaumont (Memoires Secret, pg625) notes:

the sieur Martin, police censor, has spent twenty-four hours in the Bastille for having approved the text of a play... within a few months, he will be obliged to give up his office.

Unsurprisingly, Voltaire gave considerable attention to the problem of censorship. His play Mahomet (1740) caused complaints in the Paris Parlement: even a dedication to the Pope (1745) didn't end the controversy. Later, he would adopt a series of pseudonyms to get one play past the censor. 

In 1761 he moaned that 'the public does not want to be deprived of its enjoyment by the ill-tempered behaviour of a police censor' (pg624), even though in 1748, he had written to D'Argental in the hope that 'a first gentleman... (might) put the fear of God into wretches who might otherwise perform a play that the authorities did not want to see performed, and to get their way by threats'. He was trying to censor a parody of his own work. 

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