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The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution by Cecilia Feilla (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 560-563 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0047

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It is not so long ago that the theater of the Revolution was largely ignored, when it was not openly mocked as poorly written propaganda. Recent decades have done much to improve our knowledge of the dramatic culture of the Revolution, revealing its significance both to the transformative final years of the eighteenth century and to modern political and dramatic practice. The story of the rediscovery of Revolutionary drama needs no retelling here, especially since the introduction to Cecilia Feilla’s The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution already covers much of this ground. Suffice it to say that this story now has a new chapter, and that future attempts to chronicle the history of Revolutionary drama as a scholarly field will need to include Feilla’s book among the most significant contributions to our understanding of the theater of the French Revolution.

One of the greatest strengths of The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution lies in Feilla’s close readings of plays that have traditionally been treated as historical artifacts, rather than aesthetic creations in their own rights. For nearly two centuries, scholars of Revolutionary drama focused almost exclusively on its documentary value, looking at individual plays for evidence of broader ideological fluctuations. Even modern studies, while more theoretically subtle, have still tended to study the theatrical culture of the French Revolution primarily for what it reveals about the sociopolitical transformations triggered by the Revolution. By contrast, Feilla’s analysis of the plays is literary before it is political (though the two are not mutually exclusive); she aims to reconstruct the aesthetic principles and assumptions of Revolutionary theater, particularly as they relate to eighteenth-century sentimentalism. This unique approach finds an echo in the other key innovation of Feilla’s book—the corpus of plays she studies. Noting on several occasions that recent inventories by Emmet Kennedy and others have shown that sentimental dramas and comedies were performed far more frequently than the overtly political plays that have occupied center stage in nearly all studies of Revolutionary drama, Feilla sets out to paint a more accurate portrait of the theatrical culture of the Revolution by focusing on plays that were genuine “best-sellers” (as determined by the fact that they were performed regularly over an extended period of time, unlike the fleeting success of political pièces de circonstance).

One such play is Le Déserteur, which Feilla studies in the first chapter (along with three other plays). By looking at different versions of this story, Feilla shows that the sentimental storylines and conventions so prevalent in pre-Revolutionary theater retained their popularity after the Revolution, even as they were transformed by it through the addition of “songs and symbols emphasizing egalitarianism and democratic patriotism” (49). According to Feilla, such rewritings reveal the extent to which sentimentalism represented a natural, fertile soil for the growth of Revolutionary ideals. For instance, she notes that the plays of the Revolution, unlike classical tragedies, rarely portray love and duty as conflicting emotions, but tend instead to present love of freedom and nation as a natural extension of the love for women. In doing so, Feilla challenges an accepted narrative about the theater of the Revolution, which states that portrayals of love and familial devotion increasingly lost favor to displays of male heroism and patriotism.

Perhaps because it is less grounded in the analysis of specific plays, the second chapter, on the use of tableaux in Revolutionary drama, struck me as less original and provocative than the others. As Feilla herself concedes, the notion of the dramatic tableau has already been the subject of numerous excellent studies (67). She applies the insights of these studies to the plays of the Revolution, in an attempt to show not only that they employed the sentimentalist convention of the tableau, but also that they transformed it in significant ways. She establishes the former claim beyond any doubt, but is slightly less convincing with regard to the second. According to Feilla, Revolutionary tableaux differ from their precursors in that they form not only the virtuous, affective communities idealized by Diderot, but explicitly political ones as well. The tableaux in Revolutionary plays inspire active participation in a...

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