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Reviewed by:
  • Rousseau on Stage: Playwright, Musician, Spectator eds. by Maria Gullstam and Michael O'dea
  • James Fowler
Rousseau on Stage: Playwright, Musician, Spectator. Edited by Maria Gullstam and Michael O'dea. (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2017:09.) Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2017. xxx + 309 pp., ill.

Rousseau's Lettre à D'Alembert (1758), written to oppose the founding of a Parisian-style theatre in Geneva, is sometimes read as a rejection of theatre as such. This excellent volume emphasizes, by contrast, 'Rousseau's happy relationship with theatre' (p. 4). In the process, it usefully relates Rousseau's statements on music to his thinking on the centrality of voice and speech within human experience; in this respect, the Second Discourse and the Essai sur l'origine des langues emerge as particularly significant. Part One considers Rousseau as a theorist of theatre and opera. Reflecting on his appeal to later thinkers such as Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss, Felicity Baker reads Rousseau's Lettre à D'Alembert through an anthropological lens. She concludes that its author is no reactionary, but rather 'a radical whose thinking looks all the way back to the origins, the better to go forward' (p. 48). Next, Patrick Primavesi forcefully argues that, beginning with its elaborate title, the Lettre à D'Alembert can be read as a (metaphorical) performance that prepares for 'the new performance and spectacle of the people' (p. 55). Jørgen Langdalen presents Rousseau as moving from rejection of the theatre to a new kind of theatre, based on voice; in the process the Essai sur l'origine des langues is interpreted via Derrida's theorization of 'presence/absence'. [End Page 436] Jacqueline Waeber expertly guides the reader through the vicissitudes of eighteenth-century melodrama (in which speech and music alternate), and shows how, in Rousseau's Pygmalion (1770), 'song yields its power to the unaltered truthfulness of language' (p. 115). Part Two concerns Rousseau as playwright. Maria Gullstam perceptively reinterprets Pygmalion in the light of the Querelle des Bouffons and the vicious controversy that opposed Rousseau to Rameau, composer of the opera-ballet Pigmalion (1748). Rousseau's little-known comedies of the 1740s are reassessed by Marie-Emmanuelle Plagnol-Diéval. She shows that these comedies are heavily indebted to a number of existing traditions, but finds that the author shows some originality in his use of 'gaiety' (p. 150). David Marshall returns to Pygmalion, which he reads perceptively alongside Narcisse, ou, L'amant de lui-même. Marshall shows that in both texts, which recall Ovidian themes, narcissism and questions of representation are intertwined; and that both are related to 'the dilemma of autobiography' (p. 169). Part Three is concerned with Rousseau's operatic and theatrical posterity. Here, David Charlton reveals the impact of Le Devin du village (1752) on Parisian composers who were Rousseau's contemporaries; Michael O'Dea revisits the reception of Le Devin du village to show that (in spite of Rousseau's subsequent, pessimistic account) the opera was seen, in the 1770s, as a great achievement; Willmar Sauter offers a strong reassessment of Rousseau's role in theatre history; and Magnus Tessing Schneider shows how Gluck and Calzabigi's Paride ed Elena (1770), which re-imagines La Nouvelle Héloïse, offers a complex response to Rousseau's theories of music and theatre. In brief, this volume succeeds admirably in showing the complexity of Rousseau's lifelong and passionate response to theatre and music, and interprets the polemics of the Lettre à D'Alembert in new ways.

James Fowler
University of Kent
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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
pp. 436-437
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-15
Open Access
No
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