- Orientalism in French Classical Drama
French classical theater puts on stage a claustrophobic world from which there is no exit. Confined to one location, one day, one plot, the dramatic action does not easily admit of a world beyond, as Roland Barthes pointed out.1 Turned in on itself, this theater implicitly asks us to read its plays in an insular fashion.
Fortunately, Michèle Longino does not heed the call. In her pioneering study Orientalism in French Classical Drama, she boldly pushes against the constraints that theatrical conventions have imposed on our readings of the world they delineate. She shows how the confines of "the world" should be expanded to take in what lies beyond: the other. The most important other, in Longino's view, is located in the Orient, understood here as the Mediterranean world. Although the world represented on the French stage is ancient Greece and Rome, it really refers to contemporary France and its struggle to develop a collective identity. "Frenchness," Longino argues, was constructed from an oppositional relationship to the Orient. The theater was well suited to this task of construction, since plays were performed in public spaces and created social bonds. This theater was charged with fashioning the nation's official story and using it to advance a civilizing mission. The goal was to shape public opinion about the other, which in turn would shape France's emerging collective identity.
Thus classical French drama was strongly supported by the state and was privileged in the French literary canon. It was taken to embody France's self-understanding and to this day remains one of the strongest marks of Frenchness. But because the rules of classical drama stipulated that France's dramatists could not invent their own stories but had to borrow them from antiquity, classicism's fascinating paradox, as Longino astutely observes, is that the official story of France's identity was woven out of the stories of an other.
Longino studies the dynamic between the other and the French construction of identity in seven canonical plays: Corneille's Médée, Le Cid, and Tite et Bérénice; Racine's Bajazet, Bérénice, and Mithridate; and Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Longino's analysis of Le Cid, for example, focuses on the Moors' importance as quintessential figures of otherness whose exclusion helped unify the French community. While the Moors never appear onstage, their presence is strongly felt because of their central role as enemy outsiders [End Page 616] whom Rodrigue defeats offstage and then triumphs over again while describing the glorious battle onstage. The Moors are no ordinary enemy, since in the act of defeating them Rodrigue is suddenly elevated to a national hero and thus exonerated for the crime of killing Chimène's father. Longino's discussion of the other is nuanced with her treatment of "inside outsiders" such as the women, of whom Chimène is of course a case in point.
In general, Longino's approach is to show how seemingly marginal references to historical events or characters offstage shape the plays' dominant features. Her study responds to one of the greatest challenges facing twenty-first-century readers of these plays. Highly condensed works of art, they depend on knowledge common in the seventeenth century, "written nowhere, known by none and understood by all" (3), indeed so self-evident as to be implicit at every layer of the text. But we no longer share this knowledge. In reading Le Cid now, for instance, we do not feel the threat that Muslims posed for Christians then, since Corneille considered only the barest hint of it necessary in his play. Longino performs a crucial task of decoding by making available to us, through travel narratives and other contemporary texts, the kinds of knowledge and assumptions that the seventeenth-century theatergoing public shared.
Orientalism in French Classical Drama opens up exciting new paths for studies of classical theater. Most scholars have focused on seventeenth-century French theater as if it were entirely self-contained. What Longino...