- The Performance of Male Nobility in Molière's Comédie-Ballets: Staging the Courtier
Professor Smith's study of Molière's comédies-ballets is based on her 1995 PhD dissertation, in which she explored Louis XIV's patronage of the form — especially his use of it "to eliminate the political voice of the French nobility" (UMI diss. abstract). The author focused on the initial performances of four works: Les fâcheux (1661), George Dandin (1668), Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), and Les amants magnifiques (1670). For the book version, Smith has chosen to offer the presentation of the courtier characters in these plays as a way to illuminate Louis XIV's agenda to "renegotiate courtier behaviour during the 1660s" (xii). She has added a chapter to cover the mid-1660s, discussing Le mariage forcé, Les plaisirs de l'île enchantée, and La princesse d'Élide, and expanded her discussion of the form in 1670 to include Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
The author presents highly engaging descriptions of the performances. Such ephemeral events are not easy to capture: visual elements, spatial reconstructions, sound, and the improvisational aspect of theatrical performances pose complex problems for scholars. Fortunately, Smith is herself a playwright with a solid theater background, and therefore in a position to present richly imaginative reconstructions of theatrical events. In addition, her background allowed Smith to think critically about the artistic challenges Molière would have faced in working within the comédie-ballet form, which intermingled full-length plays with interludes of dance and music. [End Page 539]
The interpretation of Molière's comédies-ballets becomes even more complex when scholars consider the historical context in which they were produced. Intricacies of the complicated court and social structure of seventeenth-century Versailles must be taken into account when writing about such events. Smith intends to carry out just such a study: "By analyzing the presence of this [courtier] character and the original from which he is drawn, a new appraisal can be made of Molière's comédies-ballets as a performance genre deeply entwined with the personal politics of the first decade of the reign of Louis XIV" (xiv). To do this, Smith relies heavily on the livrets of the performances — souvenir pamphlets of text and illustrations, printed for sale to both the audiences of the events and admirers of the court. Her other sources include modern editions of the plays, anecdotes written by early modern authors, and official court documents relating to the performances, all filtered through a lens of Molière scholarship and theorists from Brecht to Foucault to Chartier.
This approach to the historical context of performance is not unusual, but the lack of sophistication in interpreting the historical sources is all too frequent in theater studies. For example, the use of court historiographer André Félibien's descriptive account of the July 1668 entertainments to generate pages of speculation about audience behavior for the play is highly problematic. Taking Félibien's testimony that the king "opened the gates of Versailles" (93) as proof that there were peasants teeming through the throngs of invited guests, Smith applies that interpretation to a passage about the refreshments offered to guests during festivities, which says that after the royal family was finished eating, "the king abandoned the tables to the pillaging of the people who followed" (114). Smith argues that this event "dramatized . . . the central conflict" of George Dandin (Dandin being a peasant). "By bringing the classes in close proximity, the king highlighted the type of behavior that separated nobles from the middle and lower classes." The issue here is that Félibien's description is simply not descriptive enough to draw such conclusions about the people present at the event, let alone apply these conclusions to Molière's play and Louis's patronage of it. To whom exactly did the king open the gates? Were the people pillaging the refreshment...