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  • New Plays in New TonguesBilingualism and Immigration at the New Italian Theatre in France
  • Matthew Mcmahan (bio)

When the Regent Philippe d'Orléans invited Modenese actor Luigi Riccoboni to reinstitute the Comédie-Italienne in 1716, almost twenty years had passed since an Italian troupe had played in Paris. The new Italian troupe (aka the Nouveau Théâtre Italien) was led by Riccoboni, who had established himself as one of the more reputable actors in northern Italy at the time.1 However, Riccoboni soon discovered that language was a significant barrier in Paris. The audience had not heard Italian on the French stage for nearly twenty years and, therefore, could scarcely understand the dialogue. In an effort to combat this problem, Riccoboni sought the collaboration of several French dramatists, such as Jacques Autreau and Louis Fuzelier, who wrote French dialogue on behalf of the Nouveau Théâtre Italien. Because not every actor could speak French well, the dramatists wrote multilingual plays that allowed for the Italians' varying linguistic talents. The resulting Franco-Italian plays offered the Italian troupe a new type of writing that not only experimented with language but also exploited the transitional and linguistic compromises that took place in the Italians' early years in France.

The multilingual aspect of the Nouveau Théâtre Italien was of great importance to its evolution in France. Some of the plays it performed were in Italian, others were in French, and some featured both languages simultaneously. The latter belongs to a literary category known as macaronics, defined as any text, word, or speech act that mixes two or more languages. In her book Printers without Borders: Translation and Textuality in the Renaissance (2015), Anne Coldiron defines macaronic texts as contact zones that offer the [End Page 129] historian "shorthand expressions of wider cultural conflict."2 Apropos the Nouveau Théâtre Italien, the macaronic plays deal directly with the theme of cultural conflict by depicting Italian characters in the very act of assimilation. The plays do not characterize the conflict as oppositional; rather, they convey a reciprocal relationship between the French and Italian languages. Conflict arises through the characters' desires to speak in the other's tongue.

The Italian troupe used the bilingual comedies to poke fun at its own limitations, exploit the comic tension of a French-Italian interchange onstage, and characterize itself as a company in translation. This essay addresses two of the Nouveau Théâtre Italien's earliest macaronic works that experiment with the performative nature of language and its correlation and import on immigrant and national identity: Le Naufrage au Port-à-l'Anglais (Shipwreck at the Port-àl'Anglais, 1718), by Jacques Autreau, and L'Amour, maître de langue (Love, the Language Instructor, 1718), by Louis Fuzelier. I focus on these works because they were the troupe's first collaborations with French dramatists and, as such, are new writings in the repertoire of the Comédie-Italienne, new plays emblematic of the transitional and linguistic compromise that took place in the Italians' early years.

The two plays share a deliberate attempt to incorporate the performers' status as immigrants in France into the dramatic landscape of the play. On the one hand, performing macaronic plays was a contrivance for an Italian troupe ill-versed in the French language; on the other, the performers cleverly used the macaronic plays to comment on the very act of border-crossing and cultural translation that they performed. For this troupe of immigrant performers, language was merely one boundary that had to be crossed to develop a meaningful relationship with their audience: other, much deeper cultural rifts (such as taste, style, stereotypes, and prejudice) threatened the success of Riccoboni's troupe. By staging macaronic plays in their repertoire, the Italians made their process of acculturation a matter of public concern. They placed their bodies center stage and presented their foibles and their compromises, their tactics and their failings, as part of the dramatic landscape of their plays.

Cultural Stakes and National Integrity

For Riccoboni, the adoption of macaronic plays was more than a mere expedient to compensate for the inadequacies of his actors. In addition to producing, writing, and directing for the...


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