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'All together now': accessing national theatre before the internet

Thursday, 14 May, 2020

Since the spread of global lockdowns to combat coronavirus, there has been an explosion of theatre productions that have been made freely available online. From New York to Delhi, from Cape Town to Rome, people have been able to come together and watch theatre in the space of their homes and to delve into the theatrical scenes of other cultures near and far. That’s without mentioning, of course, the prolific social media accounts of national theatres such as the Comédie-Française, the Opéra national de Paris, the National Theatre, or the Nationaltheater Mannheim (to name but four) which are sharing their content and behind-the-scenes snippets with confined spectators.

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon

'Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon' is the May 2020 volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. It offers an exciting new perspective on the Napoleonic state and how it attempted to use theatre to reunite the nation after the Revolution.

Certainly, questions remain about the funding of the arts, and how they will survive the easing of social distancing measures, but more people than ever can access productions (the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night gained nearly 880,000 views on YouTube within a week, far more than the auditorium could hold in an entire run). But before the advent of the internet, how did people come together through theatre? How did they consume it without necessarily being in the auditorium that night? How did it give them a sense of community? How did it spread ideas of a national culture? These are some of the questions that are at the heart of my new book, Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon.

In what follows, I will briefly touch on three different ways during the Napoleonic period that people across France could relate to what was going on at the Comédie-Française, France’s national theatre for spoken theatre. Although this was a period long before the advent of the internet, people continue to access theatre in remarkably similar ways today.

The first and most prolific medium was the press. Accounts of the Comédie-Française’s performances were reprinted in provincial newspapers so that, whether you were sitting in Bordeaux or Marseille, in picking up the review the reader could engage with the performances that were meant to encapsulate the nation’s identity. Indeed, as today, these reports spread beyond France’s borders and became emblematic of its national culture through publications such as Le Spectateur du Nord (published in Hamburg). This was particularly important for the displaced members of the French population who were unable to return to their homeland after the Revolution.

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer

'La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer' (Paris: Martinet, c. 1803). (gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

The second important vein was through educational books (somewhat akin to today’s textbooks) and cheap editions of the classics which were performed at the Comédie-Française – for the era before PDFs and Kindle editions. These educational books were assembled in Paris, creating an anthology of the highlights of French theatre and literature with extensive introductions and footnotes to offer a guided reading. Indeed, as one publication noted, this was not just useful for the younger generations of the 1810s, but also for those who had lost out on an education during the ancien régime or the Revolution. Similarly, though more independently, publishing houses produced affordable runs of the classics which were well below the price of even the cheapest ticket at the Comédie-Française (just as today it is much cheaper to watch a production on YouTube than pay tens of pounds for a ticket), increasing the accessibility of these plays. This was national education on a large and – at 0.4 francs in one case – relatively cheap scale.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Joseph Karl Stieler, 'Johann Wolfgang von Goethe', 1828, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. (Neue Pinakothek München)

Finally, there were the actors themselves, who toured the provinces and the Empire to perform the hits of the Comédie-Française repertoire (either for their own financial gain or because Napoleon ordered them to) – for a comparison to our modern world, we might think about Sir Ian McKellen’s recent tour, which featured a heavy dose of Shakespeare. The Napoleonic period witnessed an increased interest in celebrity: people were intrigued to find out quite how magical a performance by the great actor Talma could be, or who was better in the intense rivalry between Mlles Duchesnois and Georges. Indeed, these performances were accessible to those who could not go to Paris (practically, or because they were exiled), and the existence of many free tickets meant that most ranks of society could try and slip inside the theatre. What is more, these provincial performances were in turn recorded, not just by local critics, but also by some of Europe’s greatest minds, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who saw the Comédie-Française’s performances in Erfurt, or Germaine de Staël, who famously recorded Talma’s provincial performance in On Germany, published in both London and Paris.

People have long been aware of theatre’s educative, morale-boosting, and entertaining effects. Theatre and Nation in the Age of Napoleon considers a time before the birth of the internet, but its questions of how theatre creates a sense of community and spreads national culture remain acutely pertinent to our current world.

– Clare Siviter, University of Bristol

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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