The Contested Parterre: Public Theater and French Political Culture, 1680-1791

The Contested Parterre: Public Theater and French Political Culture, 1680-1791

The Contested Parterre: Public Theater and French Political Culture, 1680-1791

The Contested Parterre: Public Theater and French Political Culture, 1680-1791

Synopsis

In the playhouses of eighteenth-century France, clerks and students, soldiers and merchants, and the occasional aristocrat stood in the pit, while the majority of the elite sat in loges. These denizens of the parterre, who accounted for up to two-thirds of the audience, were given to disruptive behavior that culminated in full-scale riots in the last years before the Revolution. Offering a commoner's eye view of the drama offstage, this fascinating history of French theater audiences clearly demonstrates how problems in the parterre reflected tensions at the heart of the Old Regime. Jeffrey S. Ravel vividly depicts the scene in the parterre where the male spectators occupied themselves shoving one another, drinking, urinating, and confronting the actors with critiques of the performance. He traces the futile efforts of the Bourbon Court-and later its Enlightened opponents-to control parterre behavior by both persuasion and force. Ravel describes how the parterre came to represent a larger, more politicized notion of the public, one that exposed the inability of the government to accommodate the demands of French citizens. An important contribution to debates on the public sphere, Ravel's book is the first to explore the role of the parterre in the political culture of eighteenth-century France.

Excerpt

Writing in the 1830s, only two generations removed from the fall of the absolutist monarchy, Tocqueville had in mind a critical point: the public theaters of the Old Regime were not simply an extension of the court at Versailles. The durable image of the Sun King's performances of power, first formulated by Louis's own propagandists and then reinscribed in the memoirs of the Due de Saint-Simon and subsequent commentators, has tended to obscure other prerevolutionary configurations of theater and politics. Louis himself staged these rituals of absolutist power from the first festive cycles celebrated at the royal chateau in the 1660s and 1670s down to his death in 1715. In spite of the reluctance of his less theatrically flamboyant successors, the many set pieces in which the French King represented his power to quiescent courtiers and subjects continued until the Revolution at the end of the century. Only 1789 and its aftermath, it is commonly thought, with its revolutionary journees and civic festivals, broke the Bourbon stranglehold on the official theatrics of power. Since then, French regimes have continued to rely on theatrical formulae to legitimize their use of power, as Marx suggested when he labeled the 1799 coup d'état of Napoleon Bonaparte a tragedy and the 1851 coup of Napoleon III a farce. But these performances have used props and scripts different from those used at Versailles; most significantly, they have often claimed to blur the distinction between performers and observers on which the legitimacy of the Sun King rested. The huge bicentennial Bastille Day parade, for example, commissioned by the Mitterand government and designed by an advertising guru, depended on modern technology to carry its inclusive message of liberty, equality, and universal solidarity to every corner of the globe.

See the account in Steven L. Kaplan, Farewell Revolution: Disputed Legacies (Ithaca, 1995),
270–330.

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