- The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle
The English term "spectacle," even though referring to large-scale theatrical events, has often been equated with "superficiality and emptiness of meaning" (xvi), perhaps because the events themselves were often ephemeral and once produced did not always leave behind a substantial body of documentation for later analysis by historians. Georgia Cowart argues, however, that to project this negative view of spectacle back onto past cultures would be to miss much of importance, since in the seventeenth century "leisured society of the French court being entertained was one of the highest signifiers of power" (xvi). In The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle Cowart persuasively demonstrates how what we now may categorize as "entertainment" also functioned as a place where competing ideologies were acted out, debated, and refined over a period of seventy years.
In The Triumph of Pleasure the reader is plunged into a complex world of theatrical and musical genres that overlapped, built upon, referenced, and parodied previous works, and to which musical, choreographic, literary, and visual artists all contributed. The journey starts in the world of the court in Louis XIV's early ballets de cour of the 1650s and finishes in the Parisian theaters of the early eighteenth century. Cowart's examination of spectacle in seventeenth-century France includes not only the ballet de cour but also the comédie-ballets of Molière and Lully, the operas (or tragédies-en-musique) of Lully and Quinault, the opéra-ballets of André Campra, the paintings of Antoine Watteau, and the theatrical works performed by the Comédie-Italienne and the theatre de la foire. Her aims in examining seventeenth-century French spectacle are first to analyze the politics of power and pleasure as they were played out in these theatrical genres; second, to determine "the strategies of artists as they created and at times deliberately undermined a propaganda of kingship" (xv); and third, to trace the changes that occurred in artistic performances that would turn spectacles from a celebration of the monarch into a celebration of a form of public entertainment that delivered a vision of a new, more egalitarian society that was itself "shaped by the festive arts" (xxii).
Each of the seven chapters is organized in a similar manner. Cowart begins with an explanation of the social and political background and main artistic movements in the period in question, as well as definitions of the various theatrical genres being discussed. Once she has established a framework for understanding the diverse ideologies that influenced the creation of the theatrical works, and how these works related to the wider social and intellectual sphere, she then moves to a more detailed analysis of the music, plot, and themes of individual works and then to a consideration of how the music, choreographic elements, and text all contributed to the political message of the work.
Cowart covers a diversity of artistic practices—dance, music, and painting. Her overarching thesis is straightforward—encapsulated by the title The Triumph of Pleasure—but it is supported by complex, multilayered arguments based on detailed analyses of individual works. For readers to be able to follow her arguments and to easily comprehend where the journey is taking them, organization is crucial, especially in a book that covers several different academic disciplines. Cowart succeeds admirably in presenting her complex arguments in a clear and logical manner, and the readers' comprehension is aided by her engaging and well-written prose; her pithy musicological analysis, which does not overwhelm the nonspecialist reader; the uncluttered and sensible layout and design of the text along with the musical examples, tables, and illustrations; and the reader-friendly use of footnotes rather than endnotes in the text. One shortcoming is Cowart's lack of a definition of terms such as "dancelike" and [End Page 112] "characteristic dance rhythms." A...