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  • Changing French Orientalism:Tarare (1790) and the Question of Slavery
  • Daren Hodson


Tarare is orientalist only in the most superficial sense that it is an example of an eighteenth-century alla turca opera especially prevalent throughout Europe during the 1760-80s. Although largely unknown today, Tarare was a phenomenal success at the time of its Paris première in 1787, marking the high-point of Salieri's Parisian career and propelling Beaumarchais to even greater fame.1 Its plot follows in large measure the typical story line of "Abduction" operas, most famously epitomized by Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), in which a young Christian noblewoman is abducted by an oriental potentate and must be rescued by her lover.2 Tarare is not orientalist in the sense made famous by Edward Said as an example of a discourse in which the occident "speaks for and represents" the orient in a "relationship of power, of domination, [and] of varying degrees of complex hegemony" (6; 5); the opera rather speaks for and represents French political, social and philosophical concerns in the final quarter of the eighteenth century. Although plans had been discussed in government circles to attempt to conquer parts of the Ottoman Empire, especially Egypt, in order to facilitate the acquisition, preservation, and development of French colonial posts in the East Indies, the opera has absolutely nothing directly to do with such issues.3 However, I believe that the opera is important in helping to understand the complex discursive genealogy of French orientalism, which underwent a sea change between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As is frequently noted, orientalist opera generally functioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France either as a tool for criticizing French society and institutions, [End Page 19] what Thomas Betzwieser has called a "kritisch-reflexiver Exotismus", or as a form of escapist entertainment (an "exotische Entführungsbzw. Ausstattungsoper").4 In this work, I am interested in trying to determine what factors may have led from this earlier "kritisch-reflexiver Exotismus" to a later "colonialist orientalism" more characteristic of the nineteenth century. This later colonialist orientalism functions more clearly as an instrument of western colonialism, since the "orient" is represented in a manner that makes western colonialism appear natural and thus beyond critical reflection. Specifically, I will argue that signs of this change in orientalism can be perceived in the slave scene from the revised ending, Le couronnement de Tarare, used for the 1790 production.

Defining orientalism is notoriously difficult since there are both narrow and extended senses in Said's work, senses that do not mutually exclude one another. Said's theoretical debt to Nietzsche's etymologies and Foucault's discourse allows for a certain fluidity in which the genealogy of orientalist tropes can be more fully analyzed over broad historical periods in which the "orient" may in fact have held a dominant position. Perhaps the clearest example of what I'm terming a broad (discursive) versus a narrow (colonialist) orientalism is Said's use of Aeschylus' The Persians and Flaubert's "Kuchuk Hanem" [sic] in Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). Although both examples may ultimately enrich what will constitute the discourse of orientalism, important differences exist between them. Aeschylus' work never spoke for or represented Xerxes the Great and the Persia of the Achaemenid Empire in the same way that Flaubert's spoke for and represented "little lady" (küçük hanim) and the Levant. Although, as Said notes in regard to The Persians, "Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia" (56), Persia was the dominant colonial power of its time and would ultimately help to destroy Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars in 404 BCE. However, by the nineteenth century western powers had become the dominant colonial powers and would rule over and represent parts of the Levant. A second important difference concerns the status and function of artistic representation itself. Understanding the social, religious and political functions of ancient Greek drama is a particularly thorny problem; however, what seems abundantly clear is that it was very different from a "naturalistic" or [End Page 20] "realistic" mimetic...


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