- Inventing the Spectator: Subjectivity and the Theatrical Experience in Early Modern France by Joseph Harris
The mention of ‘spectator’ in the title of this book does it no favours in that it is possible to come to it with false expectations. For this is in fact a discussion of French dramatic theory in the early modern period, and the ‘spectator’ in question encompasses all those different, hypothetical individuals fashioned by thinkers to illustrate the ideas they were attempting to propound. So, setting aside the question of the spectator, what we have here is a dense and subtle analysis of the topic that is much more than a simple revisiting of the familiar terrain of unities, catharsis, vraisemblance, and so on. The approach is only approximately chronological (for example, a section on opera comes at the end of a first [End Page 241] chapter that opens with a discussion of ‘The Rise of Regularity’). As a result d’Aubignac, Corneille, Chapelain, Dacier, Dubos, Voltaire, Marmontel, Rousseau, Rapin, La Motte, Diderot, Beaumarchais, and others — not forgetting the ‘father’ of them all, Aristotle — are made to meet and engage in a way that is illuminating if sometimes a little difficult to follow (although we are assisted by brief recapitulations at appropriate points). Harris also offers fascinating detailed linguistic analyses of the theorists in question, representing what they say almost despite themselves. His own expression, though, occasionally verges on precious (as in the discussion of ‘place’ (p. 220) or ‘suspension’ (p. 242), or when Beaumarchais is said to be ‘swimming against this electric current’ (p. 254)). It is also possible to quibble with some of his assertions, for example regarding the crime and punishment of Phèdre. As previously noted, the spectator him- or herself is curiously absent from this book (did they have nothing to say about their experiences?), but then so too are actors. Indeed, there is virtually no consideration of either practice or material conditions, other than with regard to scene changes. I was also surprised to find no mention of such eighteenth-century practitioner/theorists as Riccoboni or Lekain. The study is very much end-stopped, with no nod towards later interpretations of topics (for example by Artaud or Genet), nor reference to potential modern applications. (I was particularly struck by Singlin’s assertion that some spectators were so affected by dramatic performances that ‘elles ont fait les mêmes crimes qu’elles ont vu représenter’ (p. 186)). I also felt that Harris was somehow missing the point in that theorists can tell an author how to write a play, but they cannot tell a spectator how to watch it. Nevertheless, this volume offers a masterful re-examination of early modern dramatic theory: I, for one, am not sure that I will ever be able to watch a play in quite the same way again.