- A Theater of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France by Ellen R. Welch
A Theater of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France.
U of Pennsylvania P, 2017. 302 Pp.
ELLEN R. WELCH’S EXAMINATION OF THE RELATIONSHIP between the arts and the rise of professional diplomacy in France from 1565 to the end of Louis XIV’s reign is a timely, essential guide to understanding the importance of soft power in French and European diplomacy. In the wake of the recent state visits hosted by the new president of France, it is crucial to remember and to assess justly and accurately the role of theatricality in diplomatic affairs.
A Theater of Diplomacy starts with the discussion of a long-standing bone of contention between literary analysts and historians: metaphor. As a way of neutralizing the potential conflict, Welch lists the usual negative and positive associations of diplomacy and drama in metaphorical phrases. She thus stresses the contemporary opprobrium that goes with the phrase “diplomatic theater,” a notion often equated with “political posturing.” Yet she also shows that “these metaphors retain their currency because they concisely evoke the aims and the intricacies of diplomatic negotiations” (1). Hence, she states her method to end the feud: she will focus on the use of theater during diplomatic encounters and will analyze how theater is not only a metaphor to define diplomacy, but also a form of diplomatic strategy. Her point is to analyze the “kind of diplomatic work these entertainments perform” (2), from the Bayonne encounter between Catherine de’ Medici and the Duke of Alba—organized to negotiate two interdynastic marriages between the Valois and Habsburgs (1565)—to the Congresses of Westphalia and of Utrecht (1713). She studies the role of theater as diplomacy and the role of ambassadors both as performers and as an attentive and demanding audience. She draws on early modern commentators and on Joseph Nye, a prominent American political scientist. In particular, Nye’s conception of soft power hinges on efforts to enhance “the attractiveness of a country’s culture and values in foreign eyes” (4). Thus, she considers France in the context of Europe and, more specifically, in the context of Europe’s [End Page 243] crisis during the Thirty Years’ War and its partial resolution. Welch studies the “socially therapeutic dimension of diplomatic entertainments” from the Valois’s Neoplatonic attempt to perform harmony to the shift to a neo-Aristotelian understanding of the arts’ power (9). Her material is court entertainment and, in particular, the genre of the ballet.
Chapter 1 analyzes the “multimedia entertainments,” orchestrated by Catherine de’Medici in Bayonne (1565), considering how they illustrate the power of abstraction as a “space for the coexistence of competing interpretations” (17). Welch stresses the role of mythology, Arthurian themes, courtliness, and stage physicality as means to create a common language of concord. However, she also introduces the interesting concept of a “fragmented reception” (31) of the diplomatic entertainment and shows that the stakes were different from one foreign dignitary to another. Chapter 2 continues this exploration of the reception of entertainment and its increasing importance in the relationship between different European realms, providing an excellent analysis of the French embassy in London between 1608 and 1609. The diplomatic incident of The Masque of Beauty involving Antoine Le Fèvre de la Boderie is a revealing episode that unveils the importance of diplomatic visits and invitations then and now. Chapter 3 takes the issue of reception a step further by stressing the importance of national representation on the stage of a diplomatic entertainment, using the example of Le Ballet des Quatre Monarchies. Welch here balances the ambassador’s reception of an entertainment with the theatrical piece’s construction and characterization. Her discussion of national allegories and recurring narratives of nationhood considers the diverging visions of the nation posited by the Duke of Sully, Émeric Crucé, and Hugo Grotius. This discussion emphasizes the difficulty of bringing European powers together and providing a solution based on the balance of powers.
This analysis of the method of cooperation between opposing powers...