- Molière, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife
"All beginnings contain an element of recollection" (6), observed Paul Connerton in his classic How Societies Remember (1989), before turning to a consideration of this principle as it played out in the French Revolution, one of the most cogent examples of a society drawing on continuity with its own past to legitimate regime change. Recent historians of the French Revolution, such as Mona Ozouf and Lynn Hunt, have explored how it invented itself through a negotiation with the cultural inheritance of the Ancien Régime. In her lively new book, Molière, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife, Mechele Leon teases out a clever narrative of this negotiation by focusing on the revolution's reappraisal and reintegration of Molière's work into a revolutionary context.
Molière proves to be a fruitful subject: his primacy in the French literary canon, his troubled relationship with Louis XIV, and the incoherence of the documentation of his extra-theatrical life made the circulation of his work particularly significant in the revolutionary context. From 1680 until the revolution, his reputation was regularized and protected by the Comédie-Française—"the Gabriel guarding the gate of his theatrical afterlife" (3)—which monopolized the performance of his plays. In January 1791, however, new laws liberated the theatre from royal supervision, effecting a sea change in French dramatic culture and casting the classic French repertory to the whims of a "dramatic free-for-all" (24). As Molière's work passed into new hands, it underwent a reframing that Leon points out "did not have an indiscriminate effect on his repertory but a surgical one" (52-53).
This "surgical" process is the focus of Leon's early chapters. Chapter 1, "Repertory," offers quantitative data showing the extent to which Molière's plays were performed during the 1790s. Among other insights, this data shows that his shorter plays were performed more frequently during this period than his full-length ones, in direct contrast to the last years of the Ancien Régime. Leon expands on this in chapter 2, "Performance," by considering this repertory change as a neutralization of the hierarchical construction of a "high/low" Molière—that is, "Molière the sublime painter of human nature versus Molière the crude clown" (37). In chapter 3, "History," Leon shows how revolutionary-era theatres and audiences dealt with the sticky problem of Molière's alliance with Ancien Régime nobility and Louis XIV in particular. She illustrates this challenge by showing how reformers "corrected" Tartuffe in performance; Leon considers the alternative versions of the play from this period and finds that none were fully successful in eradicating the monarchical authority that was embedded in the text.
In chapter 4, "Function," she examines revolutionary ideas about the social function of laughter, engaging [End Page 705] Robert Darnton's theory that revolutionaries prized Rousseauistic moralizing over Voltairean satire. She then goes on to compare Fabre d'Eglantine's Le Philinte de Molière (a "sequel" to Le Misanthrope) to Rousseau's writings, a comparison that has recently been echoed by Susan Maslan. Leon complicates Darnton's and Maslan's work, however, by exploring propagandistic appropriations of Molière's George Dandin that preserved the spirit of Molièrean ridicule. Leon argues that caricaturists and other propagandists of the revolutionary era were able to separate Molière's spirit of ridicule from its aristocratic elitism and re-conceive it as a corrective for political—rather than social—deviance.
In her remaining two chapters, Leon turns from the treatment of Molière's plays themselves to a more explicit investigation of his literary reputation as it was negotiated in the revolutionary period. Chapter 5, "Life," looks at biographical plays about Molière that came out of the French vaudeville after 1795. By contrasting these plays to earlier efforts by Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Michel de Cubières-Palmézeaux, Leon shows...