Though the French seventeenth century has left a number of accounts of actors and acting, a consistent feature is their theoretical underdevelopment.
This underdevelopment may seem perplexing since a signal achievement of so-called classical France was the invention of theory itself in a specifically modern sense. We meet the self-consciously professional discipline René Descartes brought to the scientific “search for truth,” imposing order on the rational pursuit of knowledge through close logical analysis of the conditions of possibility of rational thought as such. We get the systematic lessons in statecraft laid down in Cardinal Richelieu’s posthumous Testament politique (Political Testament) (1688) or Gabriel Naudé’s Considérations politiques sur les Coups d’Etat (Political Reflections on Coups d’Etat) (1639), reducing government to a rigorous science grounded in unblinking scrutiny of the material interests that drive political agents. Boileau’s L’Art poétique (The Art of Poetry) (1674) presents a synoptic system of literary forms based on the principle of rational self-possession that, for all the awe-inspiring sublimity of its most telling effects, enables poets to say just and only what they mean to say as a function of the critical “idea” that governs poetic utterance. And we have the equally critical goal Pierre Corneille sets himself in the three discourses on dramatic art framing his collected Théâtre of 1660, deriving practical rules from [End Page 57] theoretical clarification of theater’s constitutive effects and the formal means they require.
Yet while, like thought, politics, or verse in general, the dramatic poem was theorized in comprehensive detail, the art of acting on whose success both poetic fame and public pleasure depend was rarely so. Period commentators were aware of the actor’s contribution. In the preface to Les Précieuses ridicules (The Precious Maidens Ridiculed) (1660), Molière worries about what readers will make of the text when deprived of the added value of scenic performance:
Mais comme une grande partie des grâces qu’on y a trouvées dépendent de l’action et du ton de voix, il m’importait qu’on ne les dépouillât pas de ces ornements, et je trouvais que le succès qu’elles avaient eu dans la représentation était assez beau pour en demeurer là.1
But since many of the graces people found in the play depend on physical action and tone of voice, I was concerned that they not be shorn of these ornaments, and I felt that the success it had enjoyed in production was handsome enough to leave it there.
Yet despite everyone’s awareness of it, what actors do, and the craft they bring to doing it, fell under some taboo. Like sex, violent death, or manual labor, activities rigorously banished from the stage, acting was regarded as an unsightly because, at bottom, irremissibly material operation. As such, it rubs our noses in the messy contingent stuff to which, however lofty the ideals they serve, all works of art risk being reduced.
One reason, then, for the period’s striking reticence about the art of acting, a reticence underscored rather than contradicted by the torrent of prurient speech about the civil condition of actors as publicly private persons,2 was a reality principle paradoxically intensified by the fact that actors are comédiens: fakers who merely play at being the people they portray onstage, and nowhere more distressingly than when the people they play are meant to be seen as nobly surmounting the lower registers of human existence. This idea conditions the underlying thrust of Pierre Nicole’s Traité de la comédie (Treatise on Theater) (1665). Like his later Les Visionnaires (The Visionaries, or The Delusional) (1667), which broadens the attack to prose romance as well as theater, the Traité focuses on heroic genres as opposed to [End Page 58] the self-evidently lower mode of comedy precisely in order to spotlight the gap between the standards of nobility aimed at and the depravity of the means involved. What makes theater so diabolical as well as “visionary” or delusional is not just the incorrigibly carnal...