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  • Théâtre et charlatans dans l'Europe moderne ed. by Beya Dhraïef, Eric Négrel, and Jennifer Ruimi
  • Servanne Woodward
Beya Dhraïef, Eric Négrel, and Jennifer Ruimi, eds., Théâtre et charlatans dans l'Europe moderne, with an afterword by Jean-Paul Sermain (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2018). Pp. 386. $35.00 paper.

The collection Théâtre et charlatans is practically disturbing in its modernity. Its attention to the ways that good faith could, and couldn't—should, and shouldn't—be demarcated from cynical self-interest in the modernizing France of early modernity and thereafter steadily, if indirectly, evokes realities of our own era. In a sense, Voltaire's skepticism about the efficacy of medical practice of his day, particularly evident in his 1768 remark, "Tout le monde est charlatan. Les écoles, les académies, les compagnies les plus graves ressemblent à l'apothicaire Arnoud" [Everyone is a charlatan. The most serious schools, academies, and companies resemble the Arnoud apothecary], serves well as an access point to the volume's focus on perceptions, practices, and politics of charlatanism in a range of professions and everyday contexts. Voltaire lambasted a highly visible merchant of ineffective talismans in order to convey both scorn for such mendacity and greed, and skepticism about the freedom from mendacity and greed of any other sphere of life. This skepticism is often associated with Molière, whose plays of the 1670s staged difficult questions about incompetent doctors whose malpractice was both sincere and dogmatic, juxtaposing the inefficacy of this good faith to both the open cynicism of vendors of poison and to more pedestrian medical operators who were sometimes harmless, sometimes effective. Patrick Dandrey's chapter in the collection insightfully analyzes Molière's 1673 Le Malade imaginaire [The Imaginary Invalid] and L'Amour médecin [Dr. Cupid]. Two chapters of particular note focus on F.C. Dancourt's play L'Amour charlatan (1710): Christelle Bahier-Porte analyzes the significance of the theft of the protagonist and plot from fairground plays, and Bertrand Porot argues for the parodic implications of the juxtaposition of opera pieces with participatory song in the same play. Other especially insightful and interdisciplinary arguments for the significance of plays' focus on charlatanism include Martine de Rougemont's presentation of "le paradoxe sur le charlatan" in the late eighteenth-century plays of Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Sabine Chaouche's argument for the political implications of the "charlatan du salon" in plays by J.-F. Regnard including La Sérénade (1694) and Les Folies amoureuses (1701). [End Page 508]

Several sections of the collection focus on medical quackery and practices and on the state of medical knowledge. As Agnès Curel shows in her fine chapter, there were many reasons that the boundary demarcating medicine from deception was shifting and unstable. A truthful and legitimately skillful practitioner with a track record of successful cures, the eighteenth-century "Grand Thomas" was classified by nineteenth-century memorialists as a charlatan because of his exceptional verbal talents (90). Pierre Baron concludes his chapter on eighteenth-century sales tactics for cure-all herbs with the observation that the distance between the official state-sponsored practice of medicine and charlatans' activities was prone to collapse (50). Jean-François Lattarico describes the proliferation of medical quackery in the period, in which doctors, as men of science, valued rationality, truth, and knowledge from books, even as charlatans passed their lives honing skills of persuasion or theatrical illusion with no specific goal but to mesmerize the crowds that gathered for entertainment, in order to sell their wares (69). As Curel's chapter and that of Jean-Paul Sermain show with particular vividness, charlatans' tricks of pulling teeth with two fingers and their seeming cures of bloody knife wounds and viper bites, offered the boon of distraction and laughter in the face of the fearsome aspects of our human condition. As several chapters suggest, the promises and limitations of legitimate medical practice were experienced differently after the council of Trent, when the hope of good health met the scarcity of miracles, forcing confrontation with human frailty and finitude—less appealing, in many ways, than charlatans' magic...


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