Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

An Elusive Controversy: The Beginnings of Polemics against the Stage in France

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

An Elusive Controversy: The Beginnings of Polemics against the Stage in France

Article excerpt

It is generally acknowledged that writings against the theater appeared much later in France than in England-where the first pamphlets date from the 1570s-and even later than in Italy and Spain. In France, three successive periods of writing against the theater are usually identified: the 1630s, the 1660s and the 1690s.1

The first period is linked to the Cardinal Richelieu, who is personally an ardent supporter of the theater but who is essentially interested in its political usefulness. In 1641 he has Louis XIII promulgate a decree that, while it condemns scandalous spectacles, affirms that the theater is not, in itself, the source of the crimes imputed to it.2 The second period largely centers on Molière, who challenges the critics and, in response, is the main target of his enemies' attacks: this is the period of the important trea- tises of Pierre Nicole, of the Prince of Conti, of the abbé d'Aubignac, and of Father Voisin.3 The last crisis began when the Theatine Father Caffaro stated, in answer to a question by the playwright Edme Boursault, that the Church had never condemned the theater. His letter, published by Boursault, raised such an outcry that he was forced to withdraw his statement. He was reprimanded by Bossuet, who launched a very violent denunciation of the theater, which was followed by a wave of pamphlets emanating from the clergy.4

It is not the aim of this article to revisit these successive crises but to look instead into the beginnings of the controversy. The situation in France is very different from that of England in the last quarter of the sixteenth century: rather than a frontal assault, the attacks in France were occasional and rare. The first published treatise is a Traité des jeux comiques et tragiques. Contenant instruction, et resolution de la question: Assavoir, si tels esbats, et passe temps sont permis aux chrestiens [Treatise of Comic and Tragic Games, Which Treats and Resolves the Question Whether Entertainments and Pastimes are Permitted to Christians] (Sedan, 1600), published under the initials D.T.5 It provoked a reaction: in La Première Atteinte contre ceux qui accusent les Comédies, par une Demoiselle Françoise [First Blast Against Those Who Accuse Comedies, By a French Lady] (Paris, 1603), Mademoiselle de Beaulieu attacks a volume "printed in Germany" that "accuses Catholics" of an idolatrous tendency leading to an unworthy love of the theater. Even though Mlle de Beaulieu's brochure was reprinted in 1609, these two publications did not create any stir. The first anti-theatrical pamphlet to be really noticed comes much later. André Rivet, a Calvinist minister from La Rochelle living in Holland, published in The Hague in 1639, the Instruc- tion chrestienne touchant les spectacles publics des Comoedies et Tragoedies, où est décidée la question, s'ilz doibvent estre permis par le Magistrat, et si les enfans de Dieu y peuvent assister en bonne conscience [Christian Instruction Concerning Public Spectacles of Comedies and Tragedies, Where the Question is Solved Whether They Must Be Allowed By the Magistrate and Whether the Children of God May Attend Them in all Good Conscience].6 He was followed by another minister from La Rochelle, Philippe Vincent, who published a Traitté des Theatres in La Rochelle in 1647. Prior to that, just a few polemical pamphlets related to certain local events appeared, which I will discuss later. On the other side, there were Richelieu, Georges de Scudérÿs Apologie du theater [Defense of the Theater], published in Paris in 1639 and probably instigated by Richelieu, and the royal decree of 1641 inspired by Richelieu. One cannot really speak of a "crisis" because the adversaries do not address each other directly. Because of the publication dates, it was thought that Scudéry's work was a response to that of Rivet, but in fact it was not.7 Moreover, the debate began much earlier than these few publications would suggest, but it is hard to find its traces, for reasons that I shall try to elucidate. …

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