The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution by Cecilia Feilla (review)
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The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution. By Cecilia Feilla. (Performance in the Long Eighteenth Century: Studies in Theatre, Music, Dance.) Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. xvi + 258 pp., ill.

Various forms of ‘sentimentalism’ are studied here, as a way out of the polarized positions that Cecilia Feilla rightly claims have been taken on French Revolutionary theatre to date: that of a school of Republican conduct; and the subsequent challenge by Emmet Kennedy et al., in Theatre, Opera, and Audiences in Revolutionary Paris (Westport: Greenwood, 1996), whose statistics show clearly that the most performed works were not political fare but sentimental dramas and comedies that ‘sp[oke] the tender language of the heart and praise[d] the gentle virtues of familial affection, benevolence, compassion, and sincerity’ (Feilla, p. 10). In successive chapters Feilla considers four prominent case studies of the ‘bestsellers’ of the Revolution; the tableau aesthetics of the theatre; ritual aspects of theatre and festivals, particularly the oath, which she describes as ‘a new ritual basis for the revolutionary community’ (p.123); François de Neufchâteau’s Paméla according to concepts of virtue, which she sees as the principal reason for political opposition to the play; Voltaire’s Brutus (a finegrained, invigorating exploration of the problematic construal of virtue in the period, attending to its dual definition of abnegation and ostensible suffering); and François-Joseph Talma’s Notes sur Lekain and the body of the actor. The consistently engaging discussion covers a wide range of plays and other cultural works, not all of them familiar, and shows convincingly that sentiment is prevalent in the corpus and a significant aspect of its political and civic importance, thereby breaking down an otherwise sterile assumption that the works are ‘apolitical’, while attending fully to such plays’ literary qualities. The Introduction makes an important and valid distinction between ‘sensibility’ (a human intuitive capacity) and ‘sentimentality’ (a ‘crafted literary form’, p. 12), although the very profusion of references in notes to pages 12–15 shows how much work has already been done in this area; similarly, the suggestion that early Revolutionary culture was improvisational, not prescripted, was a central aspect of ‘revisionist’ work in the early nineties. But there are fresh readings and important insights in all chapters. A discussion of the relation between sentimentalism and sensationalism would have been welcome and might have helped frame some of the points made in later chapters about physiology and to place them in the context of eighteenth-century theories of knowledge. Few major studies of Revolutionary opera are cited, even though Feilla includes within her corpus of ‘plays’ several musical works. Péronne sauvée (p. 99) is not an alternative title of Beaumarchais’s Tarare but a separate opera from 1783 by Nicolas Dezède. Sade’s plays cannot reasonably be described as ‘thoroughly conventional fare’ that ‘uncritically reflect the theatrical ideals developed by the philosophes’ — at least Oxtien (recte: Oxtiern) certainly cannot (p. 132 n. 22). Terms awkwardly or wrongly construed or formed include ‘spondee’ (p. 114) and ‘éthoi’ (p. 183; recte: éthè). In spite of these blemishes this is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the culture of the French Revolution and offers a useful corrective to excessively political readings of its theatre. It is sure to be of vital interest to all those interested in the history of the emotions, in Revolutionary and eighteenth-century culture, and in theatre history.

Mark Darlow
University of Cambridge