regulating theater in eighteenth-century Paris

In pre-Revolutionary France, the French king awarded theater-process patents to particular theater companies.  The Académie d’Opéra, founded in 1669, received letters patent giving it exclusive rights to present to the public works with texts that were sung or danced.  The Comédie-Française, which incorporated Molière’s acting company, received the exclusive right to present drama in verse.  The Comédie-Italienne, a troupe of Italian actors, held rights to Italian comic opera and the commedia dell’arte. Of course, just like U.S. communications companies argue over the boundaries between telecommunications and information services, Old-Regime French theater companies argued over the types of singing and dancing each had the legal right to do.

These three major Parisian theater companies found common ground in seeking to suppress theatrical entrepreneurs that built theatrical businesses within the annual Parisian trade fairs.  These trade fairs occurred at the St-Germain abbey in the Latin Quarter (late winter and early spring) and at the St-Laurent abbey on the right bank of the Seine (late summer and early fall).  The trade fairs were special trade zones within which many normal guild regulations and commercial privileges did not apply.  Trade-fair theaters developed performances that served popular tastes and were quite successful.  Concerned in part about audience losses, the major theater companies asserted their privileges over the trade-fair theaters.  The trade-fair theaters responded with a variety of jurisdictional arguments and clever legal forum-shopping.  These tactics gained the trade-fair theaters years of business, but ultimately the superior legal-political power of the major theaters prevailed.

The trade-fair theaters also responded with successful business innovations.  For example, Parlement in 1707  forbid the performance of any “play, colloquy, or dialogue” in French at the fairs.  The order did not explicitly forbid monologues, interpreted as having only one speaking actor on the stage at a time. Hence fair performances had actors alternately run on and off the stage to speak their lines, or had one actor on stage and another actor speaking from off stage. When the actors were forbidden to sing, stage assistants held up placards with written verse.  With the aid of these prompts, actors planted in the audience got the audience to sing the songs that accompanied the performance. To skirt the category of play, some fair theaters offered productions with three acts rather than the classically inspired standard of five acts.

More dramatic freedom came with the French Revolution.  The Théâtre des Délassements-Comiques, founded in 1785, was soon restricted to performing pantomimes, with no more than three actors on stage, and a gauze curtain hung between the stage and the audience so that the audience could see the stage action only obscurely.  In 1789, after the fall of the Bastille, the theater director Plancher-Valcour reportedly tore down the veil and declared, “Long Live Liberty!”

Liberty lives long only with politically engaged citizens, good law, and innovative persons and organizations.

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Isherwood, Robert M. 1986. Farce and fantasy: popular entertainment in eighteenth-century Paris. New York: Oxford University Press (Ch. 4).

Ravel, Jeffrey S. 1999.  The contested parterre: public theater and French political culture, 1680-1791. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (Ch. 3).

Hemmings, Frederick William John. 1994. Theatre and State in France: 1760-1905. Cambridge: Cambridge university press (Ch. 4).

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