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Canvas Walls and Cardboard Fortresses: Representations of Place in the National Historical Dramas of Early Nineteenth-Century France Barbara T. Cooper For centuries, walls have silently communicated messages of protection and exclusion, of hostility and haven, of reverence and revenge. Art historians have long shown us how to decipher the stone texts of castles and cathedrals. More recently, semioticians , seeming to ratify the statement made by Victor Hugo in the “Preface” to Cromwell (1827)—“Characters who act and speak are not the only ones who engrave a faithful impres­ sion of the facts in the spectator’s mind. The place where a catastrophe occurred becomes a visible and inseparable witness to that event; and the absence of this kind of silent character in a play would render the greatest scenes of history incom­ plete”—have called attention to the importance and signification of a play’s decor.1 There is, then, good reason to believe that the painted stones of a stage set, when properly examined, can be as eloquent as their referential counterparts. Taken as a group, the national historical dramas of early nineteenth-century France provide an ideal context in which to study represented walls. Written and produced at a time when several dramatic aesthetics and differing conceptions of stage­ craft flourished and evolved side by side, these plays allow for a synchronic as well as a diachronic analysis of representations of place. The potential for meaningful comparisons across genres and through time is further enhanced by similarities in subject BARBARA T. COOPER, Associate Professor of French at the University of New Hampshire, is the author of numerous articles on early nineteenth-century French drama. 327 328 Comparative Drama matter. Since some form of conflict is reported or represented in each of these pieces, verbal and visual references to walls are understandably more numerous here than they might be in a broadly generalized sample of early nineteenth-century plays. Finally, the contemporary enthusiasm for national historical individuals and events was reflected in the program of nearly every theater in Paris and allows for the juxtaposition of houses as different as the Théâtre-Français and the Théâtre de la Gaîté. I Representations of Place in National Historical Tragedies Despite a growing interest in and attention to the art of set design at the Théâtre-Français and the Odèon—the only two theaters in Paris then authorized to produce tragic drama— walls in the national historical tragedies of the early nineteenth century for the most part had a verbal rather than a physical existence. Walls in such dramas were not expected to be practicable nor even concretely referential since their purpose was simply to define and preserve that unity of place prescribed by the canons of the neo-classical dramatic aesthetic. This was as much the case in the earliest years of the century when walls were rendered by drops and wings as it was after the introduc­ tion of the box set during the Restoration. The stage directions printed at the beginning of Gabriel Legouvé’s La Mort de Henri IV (Théâtre-Français, 1806)2 are typical of the cryptic descriptions of place characteristically found in national historical tragedies: “The action takes place in the Louvre.” The obvious lack of interest in historical detail or local color evidenced by this minimalist definition of the scene most probably had as its visual counterpart a drop painted with stylized architectural features unlike any to be found in the Louvre.3 Thus announced by the dramatist and translated by the decorator, the insignificance of the details of the physical setting is further underscored by the fact that there is only one vague mention of place in the entire piece. That reference is to be found in the monologue in Act II, scene 1, in which the Queen laments the fact that she never sees her husband, Henri IV: Je l’attendois [sic] hier! Je l’attends aujourd’hui! Je le demande en vain à ces lieux pleins de lui; Ces lieux ne l’offrent pas à ma vue inquiète. Barbara T. Cooper 329 I waited for him yesterday! I wait for him today! In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 327-347
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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