- Laughing Matters: Farce and the Making of Absolutism in France
Sara Beam’s Laughing Matters convincingly and productively refines our understanding of the relationship between the comic theatre and political culture of early modern France. Starting from the premise that “laughter can function as a litmus test of shifts in people’s ideas about themselves and the political culture in which they live” (2), Beam argues that “the gradual demise of satirical farce was not the product of absolutism but one of its central constituents” (4). Beam seeks to revise the widely accepted timeline of the decline of French farce, claiming that it preceded and directly contributed to the triumph of absolutist discourse. To support [End Page 664] her claim, she draws on a prodigious array of city council and royal court documentation, play texts, pamphlets, ledgers, and memoirs from the period.
Taking her cue from this evidence, which reveals loose and at times overlapping distinctions between theatrical genres of the period, Beam uses the term “farce” to refer to all French comic theatre of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. For Beam, the suppression of French farce occurred during two stages: first, the devastating Wars of Religion (1562–98) between Catholics and Huguenots; and second, the reign of Henri IV (1589–1610), whose Edict of Nantes granted religious freedoms to Protestants and ended the wars. These two transitional stages form the heart of Beam’s book and announce the author’s attention to religious influences on the rise of absolutism. In this way, Beam explicitly distances her argument from that of sociologist Norbert Elias, who proposed the now commonplace idea that the driving force behind French absolutism was the court culture of Versailles. By contrast, Beam stresses that the various components of absolutism, particularly theatrical censorship, required collusion and enforcement by religious and urban political officials.
The book’s first chapters explore farce players’ contributions to the public sphere prior to the Wars of Religion. These farce players were predominantly young men of means who performed comic theatre not just to challenge the honor of their social superiors, but also to gain honor for themselves. Beam demonstrates that farce permitted these men, usually students and law clerks, to insist on their place in the body politic. According to the early modern political theory of the king’s two bodies, the body politic consisted of the king as its head and his subjects as its organs and limbs; the head ruled over the body, but could not survive without it. Thus by gently mocking local officials and staging comedies in honor of visiting monarchs, farce players and the festive societies they belonged to reminded the political head that it was supported by, and dependent upon, the body.
The next chapters trace rising tensions between Catholics and Protestants and the concomitant crackdown on farce: “Fearing that festive societies’ performances might spark religious riots and undercut the Catholic faith, city officials throughout France outlawed farce in the 1560s” (140). To an extent, it was the cultural prominence of students and law clerks—the very prominence that had protected their farces from censorship in decades prior—that necessitated the regulation of their comedies in such tumultuous times. Here, Beam emphasizes that censorship originated not with the French kings, but with the local officials confronted every day with “the realities of urban violence” (141).
The final chapters detail the replacement of amateur festive societies by professional actors and the emergence of neoclassicism in the seventeenth century. Critical for Beam is when during the seventeenth century this occurred: “[t]he marginalization of farcical theater highlights that the shift toward public deference to the monarchy and civility took place, even in the provinces, as early as 1600” (209). The shift in public interest from farce to neoclassicism was not imposed by the absolutist monarchy; it was, rather, one of the preconditions for that absolutist monarchy to exist. Amateur theatre did persist, of course. Jesuits continued to mount student theatrical productions, but such plays served primarily as a...