Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Carlson gets on The French Stage

The French Stage  chronicles an idiosyncratic period - effectively the nineteenth century - in the history of Parisian theatre. With major events on either side of the century - the revolution of 1789 and the First World War in 1914 - ignored and existing only as ghosts within Carlson's study, the context of the events he discusses is sadly limited to the immediate chronology of the period.

Beginning in 1800, Carlson deals with the theatre during Bonaparte's reign as emperor. Lacking a study of the revolution's impact on the arts, the stories of censorship and imperial interference in the programming of the state theatres are isolated, and the huge impact of Bonaparte's defeat is subsumed within broad discussion of the shift from neo-classicism towards romanticism. 

Identifying a tension between Bonaparte's taste for the neo-classical (and his banning of any plays that could be considered political pg12) and the rise of melodrama, Carlson sketches the influence of the emperor in terms of taste and legislation. He ignores the political reasons why Bonaparte might have had a predilection for the neo-classical.

The neo-classical model - new plays in the style of the Greek tragedies, with emphasis on the supposed Aristotlean rules - was the favoured mode for the kings of the ancien regime. Bonaparte was making a clear identification with the pre-revolutionary aesthetics, and establishing his lineage as a monarch. 

In the second chapter, Carlson describes the blossoming of the romantic movement on the stage in France. He carefully notes that romanticism had a currency across the arts - and a more lasting presence in other nations, such as Germany, and in other forms. Relating it to the arrival of English companies in the late 1820s - long enough after the British victory over Bonaparte for enmity to have dissolved - he recognises that the romantic fashion was competing with the more melodramatic fare of the boulevard theatres (set in opposition to the state theatres) and that a growing 'realism' in set design and script - and the interest in both historical accuracy and contemporary subject matter - led to the triumph of the 'well-made play'.

Again, Carlson's limited historical period ensures that his analysis is limited. He ascribes romanticism to the inspiration of Rosseau, and mentions Diderot only once (a revival of one play). He does not spot the influence of Diderot's writing on the growth of the dram, a style that evolves into the social dramas which come to dominate Parisian theatre after 1850, and are the subject of his third chapter.

The final chapter takes on 'realism' (which seems akin to the 'naturalism' of Ibsen et al) and symbolism. This 'realism' pays special attention to historical accuracy - and much of the critical debate at the time, Carlson explains, was around the scenography as much as the script. The clear through-line from melodrama, via romanticism into the dram and the well-made play - now emerges as 'realism', but Carlson does not draw on Diderot to clarify the ideas behind this process. 

The book is a remarkable cataloguing of information - it is almost an almanac of Paris' performance schedule through the century, and references the critical writing of the period, with an interest in how performers shaped the public reception of plays - this concludes with an almost actor-manager model by the end of the century, as Sarah Bernhardt rose to celebrity. 

It also exposes the subtle changes in the relationship between national and commercial theatre, with attention paid to individual theatres, both state supported and the commercial boulevard. 

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