Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Society Theater's Self-Criticism: The AntiTheatrical Discourse in Moncrif's Les Abdérites and Piron's la Métromanie

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Society Theater's Self-Criticism: The AntiTheatrical Discourse in Moncrif's Les Abdérites and Piron's la Métromanie

Article excerpt

In France, the eighteenth century is known as the century of théâtromanie [theatromania].1 This term refers to an obsession with everything relating to theater: from attending plays, to writing for the stage, to acting in private. This passion for the theater started in the first decades of the century and manifested itself through a rapid increase in the number of private theatrical venues and performances. People from different social groups built theaters on their estates, formed "societies," and acted in private for audiences of their peers. The number of playwrights creating content2 for society theater (or théâtre de société) also increased, and, concomitantly, so did the number of society plays. This phenomenon of society theater was remarkable enough that the Mercure de France mentioned it in its April 1732 issue:3

Never has the taste for declamation and for theatrical representations been so strong and so general, not only in France, but also in foreign countries. In Paris and in some beautiful country houses of the capital's surroundings, one counts more than fifty theaters, quite well arranged and properly decorated, where private societies make it their pleasure to act in tragic and comic plays with lots of intelligence and finesse; and the people of the first quality get involved as do the bourgeois. (Mercure de France, April 1732, 775)4

The theatromania noted by the Mercure intensified throughout the decade and continued to grow until the end of the eighteenth century. The natural reaction to this phenomenon was a renewal of anti-theatrical feelings; in turn, the anti-theatrical debate-which had been in a relative lull in the first two decades of the century-also escalated. As Jonas Barish points out, "the bitterest opposition to the theater develops when the theater itself most plentifully prospers" (191). The rise of theatromania indicates that theater was indeed prospering, so the animosity against it also grew.

If during the seventeenth century anti-theatrical voices had been strongest from religious and moralist circles,5 in the early decades of the eighteenth century they gradually extended to other groups; in the 1730s, they included playwrights and theatrical texts. Surprisingly, echoes of the antitheatrical feeling appeared even in plays destined for the private stage. Two plays, one created solely for society theater, the other written by an avid society theater practitioner, are excellent reflections of this growing antitheatrical attitude. The first of these works is a one-act comedy entitled Les Abdérites (1732) written by François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, a poet, playwright, and French Academy member. The second is arguably Alexis Piron's most famous play: La Métromanie (1738).6 Moncrif found inspira- tion in a legend of the classical Greek world, while Pirón looked to recent events for his comedy. Through very different subjects, the two playwrights incorporated the anti-theatrical discourse of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and subversively transformed it into a "défense et illustration" of theater. This article aims to determine why and how these two dramatic authors incorporated anti-theatricality in their texts; it also seeks to identify the new directions these two plays brought to the anti-theatrical debate; ultimately, it aims to discern the playwrights' intentions in using anti-theatricality within dramatic texts.

Both plays are comedies and deal with theater, its powers and dangers, and its impact on participants and spectators. Created only a few years apart, these two comedies are considered "society theater" because they were staged in private and without public funding. The CESAR database lists only three performances of Moncrif's Les Abdérites, all three in a private context.* * 7 Similarly, La Métromanie was first staged "in society," but later the play achieved great success on the public stage, becoming one of Piron's most celebrated and imitated works. …

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