Whilst Louis XIV’s cultural policy was based on centralization and monopoly (only the Académie royale de la musique could put on operas and musical performances, only the Comédie-Française could perform tragedies and comedies in French), two other theatres managed to exist and survive for more than a century outside this system of privilège. These were the Comédie-Italienne and the Foire (fairground) theatres, the latter of which were open only for certain periods of the year, during the vast markets of the Saint-Germain Fair (winter) and the Saint-Laurent Fair (summer).
Under the watchful jealousy of the two privileged theatres, the Comédie-Italienne and the Foire would suffer major crises, constant legal suits, expulsions, and destructions. Traditionally, very little space has been made for these theatres in literary history, which has instead preferred to celebrate Comédie-Française classics such as Voltaire and Beaumarchais, and minimise all that Marivaux owed to the Comédie-Italienne (forgetting too that Molière performed in alternation with the Italians at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, frequently taking inspiration from them). As for the fairground theatres, they have yet to be accorded their own chapter in a school textbook. However, they are an integral part of French dramatic patrimony, and demonstrate an extraordinary inventiveness in the face of constraints, generating new dramatic forms (plays in which the lines appear on placards, monologues split between several actors, pantomimes, comic opera, etc) that will survive across the centuries, in forms ranging from operetta to karaoke. These fairground theatres, as well as many elements of the Comédie-Italienne, have been under-studied in comparison to the two more prestigious stages of the Comédie-Française and the Operaboth for political and ideological reasons (they were often accused of subversion) and for material reasons (archival manuscript sourcesthat are often widely dispersed, lost music, hundreds of unedited plays etc.).Our project will be based in the first instance on a mass of untapped and unpublished resources: 30,000 pages of registers, notarized agreements, minutes and unpublished operas-comiques and comedies.
By studying together for the first time two theatres that were excluded from the system of privileges, we will analyse on the one hand questions of acculturation and institutionalisation (including the fusion of the Opera-Comique with the Comédie-Italienne in 1762, and the moment in 1779 when the Académie royale de musique ceded the Opéra-Comique privilege to the Italian theatre for 30 years), and on the other hand the artistic innovations developed by these theatres in order to survive under a range of constraints.
Faced with this vast archive, CIRESFI will take up a technological challenge, bringing together theatre specialists with renowned computing researchers, and creating a tool for handwriting recognition in order to facilitate the input of thousands of pages of information to create an interactive database. The aim is to be able to bring together all the elements of any one performance at the fairground theatres or the Comédie-Italienne: from the cost of production (recorded in the registers) via the accessories used, the actors who performed, the social composition of the audience, the melodies sung (finding musical scores and instruments used by the orchestra), the dances performed (finding the styles of dance), to the play’s text (deciphering and studying manuscripts, analysing the censors’ markings).
This ambitious program will take a decidedly fresh look at emerging forms of creation and contemporary changes in the entertainment economy, and thus involves questions ranging from the aesthetic to the social. It is a material and hermeneutical challenge, which aims to show the alternative cultural face of the Age of Enlightenment, other than that which is consecrated by the academy.