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  • La Reine Boit! Print, Performance, and Theater Publics in France, 1724–1725
  • Jeffrey S. Ravel (bio)


French playwrights at the outset of the reign of Louis XV encountered more militant theater audiences than their classical predecessors had in the early years of the reign of Louis XIV. Take the testimony of the Abbé Pellegrin, whose play The Divorce of Love and Reason failed on the stage of the Comédie-Française after five performances in September 1723. 1 In a preface to the print version of his play entitled “Discourse on the Manner in Which One Judges Theatrical Works,” Pellegrin, in the guise of an anonymous writer disavowing any authorial ambitions of his own, attacked the spectators in the parterre, or pit, who rejected his play. Dividing the parterre into three categories, the “troublemakers,” the “cafe halfwits,” and the minuscule number of knowledgeable auditors, Pellegrin’s defender castigated “these insects of Parnassus, whose pernicious winds had often stifled” promising authors. 2 In recent years, the writer continued, authors and actors had sustained “a general assault” each time a new play premiered; the parterre seemed to have proudly conquered the “battlefield,” insolently asserting to all authors, “We will judge you.” 3 The preface’s condescending references to the audience, its military metaphors for the playhouse, and its unwillingness to submit to the parterre’s judgment reflected a writer’s perspective on the increasingly interventionist audiences frequenting the public playhouses of the French capital. [End Page 391]

Half a year later the most controversial playwright of the period, Voltaire, saw Mariamne, his third tragedy, fall spectacularly in a single evening. 4 On 6 March 1724, Parisian theater-goers anxiously awaited the premiere of a new offering by the notorious author of the epic poem La Ligue; according to the Mercure de France, demand for tickets was so great that the loges were rented far in advance and the actors were able to charge double the normal admission price. 5 The huge audience, 1257 people in all, listened attentively during the first three acts and a part of the fourth as the actors recited the Voltairean verse in the declamatory style adopted during the seventeenth century. 6 By the fifth act, however, the actors had difficulty making themselves heard over the tumultuous reactions of the spectators. Finally, at the play’s climactic moment, as the doomed heroine Mariamne raised a cup of poison to her lips, a spectator yelled out, “La Reine boit!” (The Queen is drinking!). This cry paraphrased the traditional shout “Le Roi boit!” (The King is drinking!) associated with Epiphany celebrations. Despite the disruption the players finished the tragedy, but Voltaire withdrew his work from the repertory. 7

The play did not reappear until 10 April 1725, when it opened the Comédie-Française’s new season. Far from being jeered off the stage, Herod and Mariamne, as the playwright had retitled his tragedy, enjoyed a successful first run of sixteen performances in April and May of that year, and a total of twenty-eight performances during the 1725–1726 season. 8 Voltaire’s official version of the play appeared in print in August 1725; the performance of his tragedy at Court the next month during the festivities surrounding the wedding of Louis XV lent further legitimacy to his theatrical enterprise. (See Table 1.)

Table 1

A 1724–1725 Mariamne Chronology

6 March 1724 Voltaire’s first version of Mariamne at the Comédie-Française.
March 1724 Carolet’s Inès and Mariamne on the Elysian Fields, a parody for marionnettes, at the St-Germain fair.
1 April 1724 Fuzelier’s Theater’s Holiday at the St-Germain fair.
1724 Publication of a new edition of Tristan l’Hermite’s seventeenth-century Mariamne.
3 February 1725 Piron’s Chimeras at the St-Germain fair.
15 February 1725 Nadal’s Mariamne at the Comédie-Française.
1 March 1725 Fuzelier’s Four Mariamnes at the Opéra-Comique.
10 April 1725 Voltaire’s Herod and Mariamne at the Comédie-Française.
20 April 1725 Piron’s Eight Mariannes at the Comédie-Italienne.
19 May 1725 Dominique and Legrand’s The Unhappy Marriage at the...

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