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464 Comparative Drama Helen L. Harrison. Pistóles/Paroles: Money and Language in Seventeenth -Century French Comedy. Charlottesville: Rookwood Press, 1996. Pp. xi + 208. $39.95. From the early plays of Corneille to the mature work of Molière, French comedy frequently represents uncertainties and disputes about status. Characters lay claim to a rank they do not possess or behave in ways that seem inappropriate to their station. Other characters attempt to discover these people's true place in the social hierarchy. In Pistoles/Paroles Helen L. Harrison argues that dramatic conflicts such as these reflect tensions in seventeenth-century France. The society of estates (or orders), in which rank was based chiefly on birth, seemed threatened by the development of a class society in which rank depended on wealth. Examining most of Corneille's comedies, two plays by Scarron, one by Thomas Corneille, and several of Molière's comedies, she studies how they serve both to represent the reality of contemporary life and to suggest improvements in the social body. Harrison's main subject is how the theater, which she views as a "political instrument" (175) that may embody, even within a single play, the ideologies of separate groups in the audience, treats the problem of social organization and hierarchy. On what grounds should status be based? In a society that seems to be becoming a class society, disputes center on the weight to be given to riches. Harrison argues, however, that money is not the only system of representation used as an indicator of one's proper station. Language, too, is a sign system revealing merit; "money and speech both serve as indicators of rank, as means of persuasion , and as possible tools for bettering one's social position" (3). The argument is made that from the 1630s through the early 1670s money and language frequently appear as rival grounds for assigning rank. Harrison outlines an evolution in their opposition that corresponds to political and economic changes in seventeenth-century France. In addition to these topics, the author also considers "what ideological function the theater claims for itself (3) and thereby examines how playwrights sought success by pleasing various segments of the audience , including patrons, through their representation either of the reality of seventeenth-century French society or of the way that society might be improved. She links the plays' tendency, over the period studied, to suggest that language is superior to money "as an indicator of rank and as a persuasive force" (6) to the authors' interest in convincing patrons and playgoers that the mere words of the drama might be worth their money and might even "further [their] interests" (175). Pistoles/Paroles thus undertakes many topics whose relationships to each other are complex. In practice, the argument highlights Harrison 's observations about ideology and society while tending to cast a shadow over sections in which she examines the more strictly "economic " subjects that her title seems to promise. That is unfortunate, for the best parts of the book are the passages where she examines topics Reviews465 such as the exchange of brides, the difference between commerce and exchanging gifts or favors, the relationship between bourgeois accumulation and noble expenditure, and the difficulty of maintaining a society in which ostentatious expenditure is considered the ideal form of conduct . These sections rely on careful readings of the text and close argument . Even when one disagrees with the author, her positions are stated clearly and provocatively. These sections encourage one to consider the plays afresh. Harrison's argument about the attitudes towards the value of money and speech as alternative indicators of merit, and the social ideals implicit in these attitudes, rests on accounts of the economic history of seventeenth-century France that are soundly documented. Indeed, the readings of the plays are often accompanied by historical summaries on topics such as dowries, taxation, and Colbert's mercantilist projects that readers may find useful. Her description of the changes in the treatment of money from Corneille through Molière identifies consistent patterns in the plays, though I am not sure these patterns can be causally linked to the contemporary economic and political developments she describes. Corneille's comedies...


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pp. 464-466
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