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  • From Prose peinture to Dramatic tableauDiderot, Fénelon and the Emergence of the Pictorial Aesthetic in France
  • Romira Worvill (bio)

The concept of the dramatic tableau was first articulated in clear and coherent fashion by Denis Diderot in the Entretiens sur le Fils naturel (1757) and the Discours de la poésie dramatique (1758). Diderot's spokesperson, Dorval, presents the stage tableau as a scenic device that he would like to see replace the coup de théâtre, a traditional mechanism of plot.1 It is defined by his interlocutor as "une disposition [des] personnages sur la scène, si naturelle et si vraie, que, rendue fidèlement par un peintre, elle me plairait sur la toile."2 Pierre Frantz, in his illuminating study of Diderot's introduction of the dramatic tableau into the theory and practice of eighteenth-century French theatre, examines the background to Diderot's choice of term.3 Traditionally, in the context of poetics, the word tableau was used by French critics as a synonym for the rhetorical category of hypotyposis, defined by Quintilian as "the expression in words of a given situation in such a way that it seems to be a matter of seeing rather than of hearing."4 This vivid and visual manner of describing intensifies the reader's sense of being present to the scene or object, and brings about deeper imaginative and emotional involvement. In early Greek rhetoric, this effect was named ekphrasis, but this latter term was subsequently limited in its meaning and came to signify not any kind of vivid verbal representation but the description of a work of visual art (real or imagined).5 What both [End Page 151] hypotyposis and ekphrasis in the strict sense have in common is the use of words to cause the reader or listener to visualize the object of description in his or her mind. However, while the goal of hypotyposis is to dissolve the distance between reader and representation, ekphrasis often has the opposite effect. By inviting comparison with the achievement of another artist in a different medium, ekphrasis may introduce an element of rivalry between forms, and so distance the reader from its object through a self-conscious display of verbal virtuosity.6 Diderot's choice of the word tableau for the dramatic technique he is promoting associates his concept with rhetorical categories that denote pictorial effects; but at the same time, as Frantz emphasizes, it embodies something very new and productive. With Diderot, the comparison between the stage tableau and the art of painting is not being made at the level of how the words of a play might work in relation to the eye of the mind, but at the level of the combined effect of all the artistic means available to the playwright and the appeal these make to the physical eye. Diderot`s approach thus shifts attention away from strictly literary preoccupations and directs it towards all that is visual in stage representation, thereby investing the traditional Horatian topos of ut pictura poesis with new significance.7

Diderot asserts that a good play would offer the spectator "autant de tableaux réels qu'il y aurait dans l'action de moments favorables au peintre" and he compares the stage to "une toile où des tableaux divers se succéderaient par enchantement."8 This conception of stage representation as a succession of life-like scenes ("naturelle[s]," "vraie[s]"), modeled on the workings of figurative painting and presented to the gaze of the spectator invests drama with a captivating appeal to the senses which neoclassical theory had sought to minimize through its privileging of the word.9 For Diderot, however, it is precisely the appeal to the senses embodied in the stage tableau that confers on drama the power fully to engage the imagination and the emotions of the spectators, and thus render them more susceptible to the moral and improving intentions of the play.10

In his dramatic theory, Diderot also addresses the fact that creating plays which incorporate scenic tableaux entails a different way of writing for the stage and a shift of focus for the writer. If a play presupposes a spectator in...


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pp. 151-170
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