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What can the Enlightenment teach us about theater and emotion?

Friday, 10 January, 2020

What connects the religious zealots who tried to annihilate theater under Louis XIV to an early Enlightenment attempt to hoist theater up as the most complete method of understanding and influencing human behavior? How did theatrical affect transform from a dangerous contamination of the soul to a particular regime of emotional pedagogy that was supposed to help spectators navigate the complexities of society? What happens to spectators when they watch a play and how did notions of that “infiltrating” moment change during a tumultuous, yet understudied, period in French history? And most essentially, why should tensions and debates about theater, spectatorship, and emotion in early modern France interest us now?

In The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, I investigate a departure from discussions of dramatic literature and its undergirding rules to a new, relational discourse on the emotional power of theater. Through a diverse cast of religious theaterphobes, government officials, playwrights, art theorists and proto-philosophes, I show a concerted effort during the early Enlightenment to use texts about theater to establish broader theories on emotion, on the enduring psychological and social ramifications of affective moments, and more generally, on human interaction, motivation, and social behavior.

What emerges in this study is a fundamentally anthropological assessment of theater in the works of anti-theatrical religious writers such as Pierre Nicole, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bernard Lamy, and Armand de Bourbon-Conti. These enemies of the stage – and countless others – argued that emotional response was theater’s raison d’être and that it was an efficient venue to learn more about the depravity of human nature. A new generation of pro-theatrical writers – dramatists and theorists such as Jean-Baptiste (the abbé) Dubos, Antoine Houdar de La Motte, Marivaux, Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, and others – shared the anti-theatricalists’ intense focus on the emotions of theater as well as their conception of theater as a unique and powerful experience on the senses. However, unlike their skeptical counterparts, early eighteenth-century theatrical scientists of man did not view emotion as a conduit of sin or as a dangerous, uncontrollable process. For this group of playmakers, political operatives and theoreticians, performance provided for cognitive-affective moments of feeling and learning about oneself and others.

Theater scholars working in the French tradition have often dated this “transformative” conception of performance to the advent of Denis Diderot’s great theatrical project, the drame (or drame bourgeois). Diderot’s drame was a ground-breaking movement in the history of European theater. The famous philosophe recast the relationship between actor and spectator, invented a new theory of illusion, reoriented the purpose of drama towards intimate community engagement, and proved that sensibility could be a significant tool in creating a virtuous and “enlightened” society. The Emergence of a theatrical science of man reaches back a few generations before Diderot to find a surprising path to his revolutionary project. My book traces a moment when writers began to use plays, critiques, and other cultural materials about the stage to study (and, in their minds, “improve”) the emotional, social, and political “health” of kingdom. I hope that my book will encourage readers to wonder if this conception of theater, emotion, and transformation is still relevant today.

The European Enlightenment never settled any debates on the nature of theatrical emotion, nor did it provide any definitive conclusions about the struggle between absorbing effects and distance as the most effective means for promoting social understanding and change through the performing arts. From Antonin Artaud’s rekindling of theatrical contagion, to the alienating rationality of Brecht’s drama, to attempts to correct injustice and build knowledge through kinesthetic practice in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, more recent theatrical movements have continued to debate the most fundamental question about theater, that is, what can it do? If twentieth-century greats, like Artaud, Brecht, Boal, and others, labor to come to terms with theater’s power, then why should anyone expect to find definitive answers in the eighteenth century? However, if the Enlightenment was indeed a set of discourses, actions, and processes – an “age of Enlightenment” rather than “an Enlightened age”1 – it appears that writers at the time kept true to the Kantian claim by bringing to the forefront, but not forever resolving, the most complex questions of their day.

I invite students and scholars from disciplines as (seemingly) distant as contemporary performance studies to seventeenth-century religious history to read my book. I hope readers will appreciate a unique imbrication of emotion, religion, and theater; one story of how France became modern; one route to the Enlightenment and its theatrical science of man.

– Logan J. Connors, University of Miami

1 Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the question: what is Enlightenment? (1784), in What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-century answers and twentieth-century questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 58-64 (62).

Logan J. Connors is the author of the January volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, an exciting new perspective on the polemics of affect, emotion, and theatrical performance in early Enlightenment France.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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