Napoleon’s theatre legislation of 1806 in the provinces

In March 2014, the Napoleonic theatre team held a workshop with Cyril Triolaire (Theatre Studies, University of Clermont-Ferrand). Cyril offered us an overview of the work of the Therepsicore project (led by Professor Philippe Bourdin – see http://chec.univ-bpclermont.fr/article143.html ), which for the last 3 years has been gathering details of archival material held on theatre in the archives in France outside Paris. He gave us a preview of the database which will contain the research team’s findings and presented some additions to the findings of his thesis, published in 2012 as Le Théâtre en province pendant le Consulat et l’Empire, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2012.

The main thrust of Cyril’s arguments about Napoleonic theatre is the extent to which the Napoleonic regime based its development of theatre organisation on Revolutionary practices. The decision to create privileged troupes in the provinces represented an egalitarian desire to diffuse Parisian repertoire throughout the Empire. So while Napoleon is re-establishing an ancien régime tradition of theatrical privilege, it is based on a belief in the usefulness of theatre for creating a new social order which had developed during the Revolution.
Discussion after the presentation was wide ranging. We discussed how few performance posters have been found in the provincial archives and how coverage of performances in the provincial press was also less regular than might be expected. This means that only registers and receipt books can provide an accurate account of which plays were performed and when. One of the intriguing details that analysis of these throws up is that the rhythm of performance in the provinces changed as a result of the Napoleonic decrees on the organisation of theatre in 1806/07. Some provincial towns lost their permanent theatres for instance. When touring, the privileged troupes tended to perform more frequently than before (every couple of days, with more plays per evening), leading to short but intense bursts of theatrical activity in a town before the troupe moved on. However, Cyril also called into question the extent to which the decrees on theatre reorganisation affected the provinces. The effect of the degrees was certainly not felt overnight and although in theory the reforms led to a professionalization of troupes, they didn’t eradicate amateur troupes, especially in more remote areas where the privileged troupes rarely toured.
Cyril reminded us of the importance of seeing the decrees on theatre of 1806 and 1807 in the context of the other decrees of 1806, notably the decrees on festivals (February) and on imperial catechism (April).
We also discussed the definition of mélodrame – if a play in Paris is given the label it is largely because of the size of cast, special effects, etc – performed on a large stage with expensive set and costumes, and with a full orchestra. The Parisian mélodrames were “à grand spectacle”. But what were performances in the provinces like? It seems that each theatre used its own music and the cast, stage, orchestra and budget would have been much smaller – what remains of the elements one would identify as making up a mélodrame? The question is open for discussion!
Katherine Astbury

 


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