- Staging the French Revolution: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra, 1789-1794 by Mark Darlow
Some studies are important for the insights they provide into vast, timeless questions; others, because they fill a gap in our understanding of a specific author, genre or institution. Mark Darlow's Staging the French Revolution does both. The first full-scale study of the Paris Opéra during the Revolution, it is unique not only in its subject matter, but also in its methodology. Whereas previous monographs on the cultural politics of Revolutionary theater have primarily focused on the content of the works themselves or on their reception, Darlow introduces a third element by examining the institutional structures that shaped the creation and reception of theatrical productions. By drawing on little studied internal archives of the Paris Opéra, he brings to light how the Opéra functioned—how it was governed and financed, and how it selected and created plays—as well as how it adapted to rapidly changing regimes with different perspectives on the arts. This innovative approach, combining institutional, cultural, and musical history, not only paints a clearer picture of the place and function of the Opéra during the Revolution, it also offers fresh insights into vast questions that have long been, and continue to be, the subject of much debate. Darlow explores, for instance, the shift from royal patronage of artists to a more modern business model; the presence during the Revolution of competing models of liberty, education, and publicity; the influence of the Revolution on the arts; and the uneasy relationship, to this day, between a "national culture" and a Republican state.
Most notably, Staging the French Revolution calls into question some widely accepted truths about the cultural politics of the Revolutionary era. First, it challenges the traditional portrayal of the Le Chapelier bill of 1791 [End Page 286] (which put an end to the privilèges of the royally-protected theaters) as the very opposite of the Terror's cultural policy—the former freeing the theater, the latter enslaving it once more. Darlow argues that the Le Chapelier bill, by outlawing corporations and longstanding distinctions between theaters, essentially made the State the sole guarantor of the quality and morality of the plays being performed; it thus, paradoxically paved the way for later attempts during the Terror at imposing governmental control over the theater. At the same time, and just as importantly, Darlow refines the predominant portrayal of the Terror as a period during which a unified state successfully imposed its will and repertory on frightened theaters. By studying the many different organs (the National Convention, the Commune, the executive committees, the Parisian sections, the police, etc.) that participated in the surveillance and censorship of the theaters, and by showing that they often disagreed as to the proper extent and function of such official control, Darlow reveals the lack of coherent policy or direction governing the Terror's cultural policy. As a result, he argues that scholars should focus less on the sporadic, unenforced and largely ineffective attempts at imposing a Republican repertory, and more on softer forms of influence, such as state subsidies, which were bestowed to theaters on the basis of their public "utility."
This recommendation strikes me as particularly important, because it might offer a way out of a common division in past scholarship on Revolutionary drama, which has tended to depict the political nature of the theater of the French Revolution as resulting either from state propaganda or from the spectators and the press (who often politicized apolitical plays). This traditional opposition—creation versus reception—is complicated by Darlow's addition of a third term: institutional structures and practices, which also played a big role in the politicization of theater (for instance, the financial context of opera production explains why state subsidies were so vital). Through this approach, Darlow shows that political art arises less from a simple top-down or bottom-up model, but instead from complex negotiations between ever-changing, oft-conflicting forces. This...