Kevin's Week One, if this oddly buggy software will permit

Ironically given this is a history class, this software appears to come from 1999, when we're not sure if this new "web log" thing will take off and nobody's taken the time to write the proper tools for it, so hopefully you can read this post.

This process began with two words that sprouted into a lot of dead ends and confusion. "Bourgeois Drama 1700-1770" appeared indigestible to the library's academic indexes and like ipecac to Google, given the rich history of meaning applied to the term "bourgeois". Mostly searching with those words spewed forth a rich volume of references to Bertolt Brecht, missing the mark by 200 years and a couple of manifestos. I resorted to the simplest analysis I could: the dates and whatever was implied by the use of a French word, and found the crustiest theater history textbook available to see what it had to say about French drama in the early 18th century. In this class we always seem to be missing the mark, and based on my experience with Cultural Studies that's probably structural, but for me I had the first glimmer that something might be going on in 18th century Europe.

My first reading was about finding a few cracks in the armor of these hidebound neoclassical forms, from Voltaire's attempts to expand the tools at the disposal of an artist, and this may have led to the metaphor that colored all my other research and my perspective in our discussions of all our research material. What any trip to 18th century France will always bring to mind is "Let them eat cake", and the collapse of an unsustainable medieval social order that defines the end of the century, so Voltaire starting to thaw the rules seemed like the beginning of an inevitable trajectory towards a more open artistic and social scene. There is always an attempt to place a teleological spin on the past, with our own aesthetics and sense of mythology as the end goal of this positive trajectory, so I invented a pretty simple story that I think was slowly undermined by further research and by hearing what other things people were digging up about Bourgeois Drama. Not necessarily wrong, things may have opened up and Voltaire was onto something by getting permission to present drama with supernatural elements. But I think I would later find that the mind-blowing stuff really all took place along other trajectories.

I was interested that in a way we all found the origins of Bourgeois Drama, not its pinnacle, if it has one. We had George Lillo and The London Merchant which may have inspired Denis Diderot to write France's first Bourgeois drama, and I maybe found the earlier roots in Voltaire. Is this art form such a banal product of its time that it never reached soaring enough heights artistically to give us a truly memorable play to stand the test of time, define the era and its aesthetics the way Shakespeare does the Elizabethans, and well, England in general? No Tristram Shandy two hundred years ahead of its time? I'm not sure if the French Neoclassicists would define that as comedy or tragedy.

1 Comment

| Leave a comment

Kevin,

Great, thorough entry here. Ditto on the crappy web platform.

You give both strong analysis of the information you've discovered and how it applies to your subject and also document your process as an historian. Interesting that you invented a story that was undermined in future research - I'm wondering what this story was and what were the sources that helped you nuance it (if not prove it completely wrong)?

One thing to think about is instead of thinking of Diderot's plays as lacking something because they did not stand the test of time like Shakespeare, think of why we might regard one as better than another. Why was SHakespeare elevated and bourgeois drama thrown aside? Maybe this has less to do with the quality of the plays than the desires of those who create the literary canon to privilege certain stories and styles.

Great work!

Leave a comment

About this Archive

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.