- Literary Sociability and Literary Property in France, 1775–1793: Beaumarchais, the Société des auteurs dramatiques and the Comédie-Française
This book on literary sociability and property in France between 1775 and 1793 serves as a logical companion piece to Gregory Brown's earlier book, A Field of Honor: Writers, Court Culture, and Public Theater in French Literary Life from Racine to the Revolution (www.gutenberg-e.org and Columbia University Press, 2003). Brown focuses on the difficulties faced by aspiring French playwrights such as Beaumarchais, who sought to establish their personal legitimacy in literary life in the 1770s and 1780s. The official royal stage, the Comédie-Française, offered opportunities but no guarantees and "provided no juridical, institutional, or financial framework to support young playwrights in their efforts" (3). Administered by the troupe and governed by four courtiers, the First Gentlemen of the Royal Bedchamber, the Comédie did not reward writers generously, even if their plays, like Beaumarchais's The Barber of Seville, had enjoyed wide public acclaim. Writers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to cede control and proceeds of their plays to the Comédie in order to ensure future performances, behave like gentlemen, and preserve their honorable reputations. This unfair situation led Beaumarchais, with the help of the duc de Duras, one of the four governors, to negotiate for changes in the royal regulations of the theater. Beaumarchais and twenty-two other authors whose works had been performed at the Comédie met on July 3, 1777 to form the Société des auteurs dramatiques (SAD). New regulations for the theater were issued in 1780 and then altered again in the early years of the French Revolution, from 1790 to 1793.
Brown's interpretation of Beaumarchais and the organization of SAD emphasizes the importance of recognized social status within the "existing lines of authority in eighteenth-century France, at the intersection of a reforming court, a monopolistic commercial theater, and fellow writers anxious about their status and identity in literary life" (7). The formation of SAD was not an attack against authority as such, according to Brown, but rather an attempt to establish literary identity and respect within the contemporary system. Beaumarchais's survival strategies included his ability to use the media to advantage and to represent [End Page 207] himself favorably to those at court and their elite Parisian networks as well as to the general public. It also helped that he had previous experience in handling legal disputes.
The history of the Comédie-Française, founded in 1680 as the only royal theater "authorized to perform comedies and tragedies in Paris or at court," reveals its prestigious position in eighteenth-century literary life (5). Brown interweaves this history with the concept of literary sociability and acknowledges that his approach has been influenced by sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu. As a result both literary scholars and historians are provided with an inside view of the Republic of Letters and those who lived and worked within it.
The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion, followed by detailed notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index. Chapter 4, "Literary Sociability and the Revolution: Social Interests, Politics, and Literary Property, July 1789–January 1791," examines legislative debates between 1789, when the revolution began, and 1791, when the Le Chapelier Law went into effect. This law broke the Comédie's theater monopoly and cleared the way for a public theater to perform all kinds of works. Named after the Jacobin deputy Isaac-Réné Guy Le Chapelier, the text held that "all privilege is destructive [and] . . . exclusive" and thus should be abolished and that new restrictions on the performance of new works by "great men of letters" would enable "despotism to exercise its tyranny . . . on the thought" of the French people...