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  • The First Frame: Theatre Space in Enlightenment France by Pannill Camp
  • Arnold Aronson (bio)
The First Frame: Theatre Space in Enlightenment France. By Pannill Camp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014; 288 pp.; illustrations. $99.00 cloth, e-book available.

This ambitious book examines two areas that are sadly under-represented in English-language theatre scholarship: theatre architecture (and scenography more broadly) and 18th-century French theatre. But Pannill Camp’s impressive study goes well beyond the confines of either discipline, situating its subject in a wide-ranging examination of Enlightenment philosophy, architectural theory, and natural sciences. It is not, states the author, a “descriptive history of French theatre architecture,” but rather “an interpretation of the evolving spatial ideology beneath a profound mutation in theatrical aesthetics” (6).

The theatres of 18th-century France were, by and large, poorly designed and equipped, many of them housed, as they had been since the days of Pierre Corneille, in converted tennis courts. A movement arose in the 1740s, however, to reform the physical theatre, and over the next half-century more than 100 new theatres were constructed throughout the country. This unprecedented development was distinguished not merely by the magnitude of the undertaking—probably unmatched anywhere in Europe—but by the theoretical underpinnings that accompanied the project. Theatre was understood as having the potential to intersect with the moral, social, and intellectual life of the nation and it was believed that the theatrical space, both stage and auditorium, were inextricably bound up in the creation and reception of the theatrical event and thus its role in society. Camp begins with the famous etching of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s 1784 theatre at Besançon as seen through a human eye. This allows Camp to establish the connection between architectural framing and optics. The title of the book comes from Ledoux’s contention that “the first frame was without a doubt that which you see; it receives the divine influences that inflame our senses and reflects the worlds that surround us” (2). It also allows Camp to establish his major themes of reflection and transparency as well as organic modes of perception as a basis for the acquisition of human knowledge.

In the first chapter Camp sets up the challenges and contradictions that architects and theoreticians faced in the process of reform. He proceeds from the proposition that “all theatre space in some fashion fuses space that is a symbolic referent with another kind of space that is somatic and not restricted by a representation boundary” (28). Such a statement is based on certain debatable assumptions, but is probably a fair assessment of the situation confronting theatre architects and theoreticians of the 18th century. He traces the abandonment of perspective scenery as a visual organizing principle that allowed architects to explore stage configurations that did not necessarily require great depth. And in one of the more surprising theses of his book Camp offers the ubiquitous tennis court theatre, which he acknowledges had come to be a metonymic referent for poorly designed playhouses — condemned even by the chemist Antoine Lavoisier as barbaric — as a synthesizing environment for the development of a new visual vocabulary. The association of these problematic theatres with “disorder and violence” (51) even provided a moral basis for the theatre reform movement. Stepping back to the 17th century, Camp points out that René Descartes used the tennis court structures as a graphic means to explain the mechanics of optics. This latter example, however, also reveals Camp’s occasional tendency to go beyond what the material may support. After declaring that “the space of Cartesian optics is imbued with qualities that correspond with seventeenth-century playhouse architectonics” (56), he then admits that Descartes’s references to the tennis courts were not intended as a reference to theatre space, though Camp nonetheless maintains that given Descartes’s influence, “it is not unreasonable to surmise that his optical theory informed Enlightenment theatre architecture reformers” (57). [End Page 156]

Starting in the second chapter Camp delves into the heart of his thesis by examining the divide between the imaginary world of the stage and the experiential world of the spectators, and the need to come to...


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pp. 156-157
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