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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 13-26

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Submission, Seduction, and State Propaganda in Favart's Soliman II, ou Les trois sultanes

Ziad Elmarsafy

The following essay aims at reading the propaganda value of Favart's Soliman II, ou Les trois sultanes. 1 Based on an eponymous short story by Marmontel, the play narrates the reformation of the Ottoman court through the good offices of a French woman, Roxelane. 2 Favart's Soliman is represented as a monarch leading a fairly profligate existence, jumping from one member of his harem (what he calls his "machines caressantes" (259)) to another. He is shown pining after a Spanish woman, Elmire, only to lose interest in her once she agrees to his offer and openly declares her love for him. Roxelane, on the other hand, attracts the sultan's interest with her native understanding of sovereignty, her brash critiques of life at the court, and, more significantly, her apparent indifference to the Sultan. Amidst the many chains of unrequited love that bind the sultan to the harem, her show of indifference stands her in very good stead. It also affords her a moral soapbox of sorts, from which she preaches opposition to the Sultan's harem politics in favor of a by now familiar message of liberty, equality and fraternity.

When Soliman II premiered on April 9, 1761, the Opéra-Comique was in an interesting position as both genre and venue. After a decade of managerial and aesthetic reforms, it had changed a great deal from the vulgar outlet for popular entertainment that it had been during the 1720s and 1730s. Under Favart's artistic direction, the scatological humor and buffoonery of the early years were replaced by more elevated concerns, turning it into a medium for sophisticated political and social commentary. 3 At the same time, the popular roots of the genre make themselves felt in Soliman II's patriotic register. Favart himself wrote that, "Cette comédie est d'un genre plus national que général; son principal agrément consiste dans l'opposition de nos mœurs à [End Page 13] celles des Turcs." 4 Accordingly, much is made of the inefficacy of Turkish court life in contrast with the sheer Frenchness of Roxelane's character and the reforms she introduces.

Of course, the reformation of the court is not a smooth process. It is held up by Roxelane's rivals and by Osmin, the chief eunuch, in particular. In fact, the eunuch's part in all of this is not insignificant, as his duties are those that would traditionally fall to the grand vizier, namely the organization and administration of anything connected with the sultan (other than military campaigns). Indeed, Favart seems to have taken tremendous interest in the character of the eunuch, endowing him with a name and a more active part than did Marmontel. This could, of course, be imputed to the demands of the Théâtre Italien—the eunuch does, after all, cut a rather buffoonish figure—but Favart's aesthetic decisions seem to respond to social as well as theatrical factors. The eunuch operates as a lens through which one might read the political subtext of Les trois sultanes, one dealing with the anxieties occasioned by the reign of Louis XV, or Louis le Bien-Aimé.

These anxieties have two components, each related to the essential ingredients of French royalty. The first related to the king as a universal object of desire. 5 The figure cut by the king in the image-complex that accompanied French absolutism was far from simple. Not only did the king have two bodies, one public and one private, in accordance with the tenets of medieval political theology; he also represented the conjunction of authority and desire. 6 The king rules absolutely, and his authority is total. The very totality of his authority, however, is created by the messianic sacrifice of his private desire to his public duty, a gesture that earns him, in principle at least, the undying love and loyalty of his subjects. This...


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