Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Collaboration and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century French Theater

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Collaboration and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century French Theater

Article excerpt

Theatrical collaboration often described in morbid terms in the eighteenth century. In Alexis Piron's Le Facheux Veuvage (1725) the poet Abok and the musician Abak jointly sired a son ("Il se nommait Opera") who promptly died, and each blames the other for his feeble constitution. (1) A similar scenario is found in Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais's Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), when the clerk Double-Main announces one of the cases to be judged: "Noble, tres noble, infiniment noble, don Pedro George, hidalgo, baron de Los Altos, y Montes Fieros, y Otros Montes; contre Alonzo Calderon, jeune auteur dramatique. Il est question d'une comedie mort-nee, que chacun desavoue et rejette sur l'autre." (2) Collaboration may be harmful to more than just the artwork, as evidenced in Voltaire's letter to Nicolas Thieriot of April 23, 1739, in which he refers to a failed collaboration with Jean-Philippe Rameau (D1990): "A l'egard d'un opera, il n'y a pas d'apparence qu'apres l'enfant mort-ne de Samson, je veuille en faire une autre. Les premieres couches m'ont trop blesse." (3) Collaboration, Voltaire implies, endangers the author. The link between morbidity and collaboration was repeated on November 26, 1778, when the Berlin Academy held an extraordinary meeting to commemorate Voltaire, who had died six months earlier. Composed by Frederick II himself, the encomium that was delivered to the assembled academicians described Voltaire's preoccupation with Irene in the weeks before his death:

   Son usage etait d'assujettir ses pieces a la critique la plus
   severe, avant de les exposer en public. Conformement a ses
   principes, il consulta a Paris tout ce qu'il y avait de gens de
   gout de sa connaissance, sacrifiant un vain amour-propre au desir
   de rendre ses travaux dignes de la posterite. Docile aux avis
   eclaires qu'on lui donna, il se porta avec un zele et une ardeur
   singuliere a la correction de cette tragedie; il passa des nuits
   entieres a refondre son ouvrage; et soit pour dissiper le sommeil,
   soit pour ranimer ses sens, il fit un usage immodere du cafe:
   cinquante tasses par jour lui suffirent a peine. Cette liqueur qui
   mit son sang dans la plus violente agitation, lui causa un
   echauffement si prodigieux que pour calmer cette espece de fievre
   chaude, il eut recours aux opiates dont il prit de si fortes doses,
   que loin de soulager son mal, elles accelerent sa fin. Peu apres ce
   remede pris avec si peu de menagement, se manifesta une espece de
   paralysie qui fut suivie du coup d'apoplexie qui termina ses jours.
   (4)

Voltaire, it would appear, died as a result of collaboration. (5) His eagerness to rewrite this final tragedy in light of the invited recommendations led, in no uncertain terms, to the death of the author.

The preceding remarks imply that collective literary creation jeopardizes both the status of individual writer and the quality of the work. They seem to confirm the sense that collaboration was disparaged in Old Regime France--La Bruyere notes that "l'on n'a guere vu jusques a present un chef d'oeuvre d'esprit qui soit l'ouvrage de plusieurs" (6)--and, as a consequence, to substantiate the claim that there had been little dramatic coauthorship before the nineteenth century. (7) Decentering the first-person narrative of literary creation and focusing on both process and product, this article argues that selective collaboration was in fact an effective means by which an eighteenth-century author might aspire to social recognition and legitimacy. We shall see that collaboration extends beyond coauthorship (such as that between Alain-Rene Lesage and Jacques-Philippe d'Orneval at the foire) to encompass a range of collective and consensual practices. The unique voice of the playwright was certainly celebrated in the period, especially at its end, as evidenced in the hymn that Marie-Joseph Chenier composed for the transfer of Voltaire's remains to the Pantheon: "Tes tragiques pinceaux, des Demi-Dieux du Tibre / Ont su ressusciter les antiques vertus; / Et la France a concu le besoin d'etre libre / Aux fiers accents des deux Brutus. …

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