- Esclaves et valets vedettes dans les comédies de la Rome antique et de la France d'Ancien Régime by Céline Candiard
Céline Candiard breaks new ground in this comparative study of servant characters in Roman and French classical comedy. Focusing on the theatrical and meta-theatrical aspects of these figures, she shows how their ludic function tends to take priority over aesthetic, realistic, or didactic concerns. Roman playwrights, who did not share later notions of plot and character, conceived the personages as functional units: actors wearing standard masks and costumes and executing conventional routines. For servants, the most common sequences involve actions intended to amuse audiences but deemed undignified for free citizens, such as entering while running, donning disguises, devising and performing ruses, or parodying serious actions (celebrating triumphs; banqueting). This aspect of Roman comedy developed largely because the manifold meanings of the word ludus and its derivatives, frequently used in the plays, became interconnected: playing, scheme, manipulation, deception, school; and, in the plural, games featured in Roman religious festivals. In the section devoted to valets in French comedy, Candiard argues that the influence of Roman comedy was less textual (although the works of Plautus and Terence were known) than practical. It was only when French troupes became more professionalized, leading to the practice of having performers specialize in specific roles, that it became profitable to place greater emphasis on the more obviously crowd-pleasing elements of a comic play. The key development was the emergence of stars who maintained, from one play to the next, standard methods for provoking laughter, such as costume, physical appearance, or verbal grotesqueness. Playwrights would build entire comedies around them, sometimes putting their name in the title. However, by the middle of the seventeenth century the valet became less of a buffoon, often with inconsistent traits derived from multiple comic traditions, and more of a coherent character whose role, focused on schemes and disguises, was more carefully integrated into the main plot. Knavish servants no longer aroused laughter through silliness and agility, although they still needed skill in disguise, mimicry, and direction of the internal plays. In the Italian troupes, however, clowning, acrobatics, and pantomime were crucial when [End Page 603] actors had imperfect mastery of the French language. The rise of the soubrette as a dominant character in the late seventeenth century similarly stems from the appearance of performers with exceptional talents. These roles overlap with those of the valets in the mastery of scheming and disguise, but without the physicality; soubrettes also tended to function as confidantes, giving them an affective dimension. Candiard's presentation calls into question several standard narratives about the evolution of early modern French drama. The classical doctrine, especially its principles of bienséances, vraisemblance, and moral purpose, exercised less of an impact on comedy, where audience tastes and the skills of leading performers led to the privileging of virtuosity and effect, especially in the valet roles. Candiard also challenges the theory that Figaro was the end product of a tradition of smart and rebellious servants; for her, the satire did not extend to a critique of the social and political order, nor did it anticipate the French Revolution. Candiard's book provides an extraordinary amount of useful historical information, plus careful and insightful analyses. It is also enjoyable to read.