- Fortuna Goes to the TheaterLottery Comedies in Seventeenth-Century France
In his 1637 poem “Excuse à Ariste,” Pierre Corneille describes the contrasting historical fortunes of authorship by alluding to a game of chance, stating that in the “âge doré” of the French Renaissance, literature had been “une Blanque à de bons bénéfices,” that is, a lottery full of enticing monetary rewards (780). At present, Corneille laments, “[la Blanque] est épuisée,” conveying his opinion that writing had become an unstructured, desperate competition among would-be authors. Corneille’s choice of metaphor not only expresses the movement away from friendly and aleatory authorial success toward a contemporary agon but does so in terms that were historically specific: the blanque had been a prominent royal institution in the reign of François I but was banned in the period in which Corneille was writing. However, the decades that followed would see the French revival of both the actual lottery and Corneille’s metaphorical money machine as gambling and theater (in their myriad forms) became the entertainment options of choice for all classes of Parisian society. In fact, several comedies collapsed the two, staging the lottery and the variety of individuals who participated in it; notable examples include Donneau de Visé’s Les Intrigues de la Loterie (1670), Montfleury’s Le Gentilhomme de Beauce (1670), Bordelon’s La Loterie de Scapin (1694),1 and Dancourt’s La Loterie (1697). These comedies reflect the era’s increasing fascination with games of chance as well as the concepts and strategies developed by individuals grappling with shifting notions of the random. More importantly, they illustrate the problematic nature of representing chance on the seventeenth-century stage, obliquely fulfilling Lisette’s promise in Dancourt’s comedy that exposure to Monsieur Sbrigani’s lottery will prove revealing: “On y connoîtra le fonds & le très-fonds de la bonne foi des Loteries” (310). The theatrical lottery in these plays effectively [End Page 1] becomes a touchstone for early modern efforts to understand and represent chance—or more accurately, the double failure to do so.
The seventeenth-century origins (or rather the reappearance) of the lottery in France were well documented by Henri Sauval in his Histoires et recherches des antiquités de la ville de Paris (manuscript 1676, published 1724). Despite the popularity of the practice in surrounding countries, the sixteenth-century blanques had a lingering poor reputation in French public memory—of the term blanque, Sauval notes that it was “si connu & si decrié en ce Royaume” (60). In 1644, a certain De Chuyes nevertheless received royal permission for a proposed revival of the Blanque Royale. While the project initially attracted some prominent advocates, including the writer and grammarian Vaugelas, significant legal opposition arose from the merchants’ guilds, anxious to protect their economic prerogatives. Vaugelas’s death and De Chuyes’s departure to the colonies placed the lottery on unstable footing until the successful intervention of the Scudéry family led to the appointment of two new directors, Carton and Boulanger. Having changed the name from blanque to loterie (Sauval notes that Carton and Boulanger were “plus entreprenans & moins scrupuleux en notre langue que Monsieur de Vaugelas” ), the two were again prevented from carrying out their plans by the merchants’ guilds and had to reapply for royal permission in 1658. A further legal prohibition ensued, dramatized in the 1658 Ballet de la Loterie, which stages the vision of wealth and riches promised by the lottery and ends with the abrupt ban that upsets the fantasy.2 Despite these setbacks, Carton and Boulanger’s misadventures piqued the public’s interest and led to the widespread organization of smaller private lotteries. The year 1658 constituted a veritable lottery mania—according to the gazetteer Jean Loret, more than four hundred lotteries were held in the aftermath of the ban placed on the royal lottery, including prominent events held at court by Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin (Fournel 477). Boulanger’s perseverance, along with the broad social acceptance of the practice, would result in the successful establishment of a royal lottery in 1659.
That lotteries would reemerge as a French institution at this historical moment is...