Divide and Conquer: an attempt to find the answer to three questions amidst a sea of proto-modern and proto-postmodern French history and art

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One unmistakable thread of 18th century France is the possibility of change, particularly in one's own identity, as a rising middle class redefines a centuries old strict relationship between upper and lower classes, changing the meaning of social roles, of titles, and even of physical space as a new social and architectural reality takes root. (This claim is no doubt much more meaningful for white males of that era.) Given that the century is building to a tumultuous change and the introduction of the modern era of world history, our study of art does have to be grounded in this history, meaning the rise of a middle class and the setting of the stage for the violent end of a rigid social order.

While the previous era's neoclassical theatrical art is didactic, formulaic, and focused on grandiose, unmistakable spectacle, beginning with Voltaire's agitation for laxer rules there is an increasing freedom to move in new directions. The work of Denis Diderot illustrates a shift into a new space, the family living room, even though he will continue in the footsteps of the Neoclassicists by using theater as a vehicle to present absolute truths to audiences in a didactic way.

This freedom of identity is a conundrum for essentialists, and its most obvious expression is in the theater where an actor takes multiple roles on a nightly basis. Diderot again explores this problem in his analysis of what it means to be an effective actor, simultaneously expounding a belief in platonic ideals while insisting that an actor can through their body, their external frame, adopt and present any of these idealized forms, in this way presenting Truth with a capital V (for Verité). Despite reflecting the spirit of the age, this is an anxiety inducing claim to some: to quote Ankersmit, "Rousseau argues that the theatre may threaten our moral integrity since we may forget who we really are when confronted with a pseudo-reality consisting of representation only." (324)

As for what we will leave out: since Diderot has his fingers in so many rich pies we have to leave out anything he didn't touch. Most of Europe falls under this list, as we narrow our study to Diderot's La Père de Famille and to the changing social and political reality of pre-revolutionary France.

Ankersmit, Frank R. "Pygmalion: Rousseau and Diderot on the theatre and on representation." Rethinking History. 7.3 (2003): 315-339. Web.

Diderot, Denis. The Paradox of Acting. Trans. Walter Herries Pollock. London: Chatto & Windus, 1883. Web.

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Hi all,

Good start to this. You've written this in the format of your group's argument, which shows that you've already done a lot of the work of considering what is necessary to leave in the assignment and what it is ok to leave out. I think that overall, your major argument seems pretty sound, and that you clearly understand the info that needs to be communicated for the audience to understand it. Now, you might consider a little more how you are going to frame that argument. I think it's a good idea to confine your analysis to France, but is there information about the country that it might be important to know in terms of capturing the feeling of the age, which may not necessarily directly link to Diderot. You might also consider describing a little bit about Diderot's contemporaries in order to discuss how his works differed from them.

The important thing is that nonpertinent information should not be discussed at length; if, however, you bring it up and find a way to efficiently tie it in to your presentation, it could be very helpful in explaining Diderot's work.


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This page contains a single entry by drew0025 published on November 18, 2012 2:44 PM.

Our Presentation on Bourgeois Theatre, or how to start an argument in a theatre (and win it) was the previous entry in this blog.

Annotated Bibliography is the next entry in this blog.

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