What really brought me to studying theater was how radically different the experience of theater-going was in the 18th century compared to our idea of a nice quiet night at the playhouse. It was an interesting period.
A raucous, riotous crowd shouting insults and even death threats at the performers on stage sounds more like a professional wrestling match than a night out at the theater. Welcome to French theater 200 years ago.
"What really brought me to studying theater was how radically different the experience of theater-going was in the 18th century compared to our idea of a nice quiet night at the playhouse," says Assistant Professor of French Logan Connors. "It was an interesting period."
The debut of "The Marriage of Figaro (Le Mariage de Figaro)" by Pierre Beaumarchais, for example, was delayed for years by government censors. "Finally, when it came out in 1784, it was such a big event. There are reports of stampeding, police interaction, of actual deaths at the premiere," Connors says. "It was a huge event in French theater history and also in the history of the way crowds acted." Connors sees foreshadowing and similarities in the violent theater crowds and the violence of the French Revolution, five years after "Figaro's" debut.
What triggered the violence of theater crowds is a question that Connors tries to answer by poring through archives of manuscripts, police reports, theater criticism and eyewitness accounts from the time.
"That's where the critical inquiry begins," he says. "Are people reacting to the fact that it was so scandalous and wasn't able to be performed for so many years? Are people reacting to a certain aesthetic that Beaumarchais uses that is dramatically different from other plays in the 18th century? Are people reacting to the overt political messages that were on the stage? Is this a set-up; are people acting in a certain way before the curtain even rises? Or is it caused by the performance? Or are these just rhetorical tricks used by critics after the event? These are complicated questions and they don't have easy answers."
Connors introduces students to the life and energy of French theater. "These are not just words on a white page that were put into an anthology at some point to teach students about French literature," he says. "No. This was the way people thought, the way people acted, the way they felt about themselves and the society around them." Toward that end, Connors requires his students to act. "I can't preach all this importance of theater and then have students just do a lot of reading."
Posted Sept. 27, 2010