Monday, 6 February 2017

Comédie-Française and National State Propaganda

Anwen Jones (National Theatres in Context, 2007) considers the establishment of the Comédie-Française in 1680 by the king as an attempt to undermine the growth of the 'public sphere' - the space defined by Habermas as emerging in the sixteenth to eighteenth century as the location for debates about politics and society. While I doubt her depiction of a gleeful Louis XIV and Cardinal Richelieu rubbing their hands together at their fiendish plot to defeat an idea that wasn't noticed until the twentieth century, the idea that a national theatre could be instituted as a way of controlling performance (to the ends of the state) isn't unattractive. 

Jones contends that the activity of the actors in the subsequent century reveals a tremendous ambiguity about the role of state support: when they were awarded citizenship, for example, by the revolutionary government under Robespierre, they were equally worried that the all-new, all-democratic state would allow any clown to set up a rival theatrical venture...

And when I say clown, I'm not kidding. They'd already had one legal skirmish with Théâtre de la foire - which was more like a big festival - and got legislation that banned performers from - hold on, this can't be right - using words... la foire had loads of acrobats and harlequins and clowns, and the CF didn't mind that, as long as they... didn't chat about what they were doing... or told a story... or something...

Anyway, even though being the national theatre wasn't all sunshine and chuckles - the king made them move out to the west end of Paris, which isn't as convenient as the west end in Glasgow - the CF managed to sustain itself even after the revolution kicked off and started having these weird parades and fêtes which were like the revolution's big idea for replacing theatre and establish popular acceptance of the new regime. 

It's not that other national theatres are likely to start prosecuting circuses to maintain their cultural dominance - probably a bit late for that, now - but does the example of the CF suggest a potential for the medium of theatre as a medium for state propaganda? And how far can the notion of 'state' theatre be extended? Does state funded count?

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