Saturday, October 21, 2017

Theatre in the Age of Reason

During the eighteenth century, Europeans were riding high on a wave of scientific progress. Over the course of the previous hundred years, Galileo Galilei had revolutionized astronomy using a telescope for observations, William Harvey had forever changed anatomy by postulating how the heart circulates blood, and Anton van Leeuwenhoek had opened a whole new world for biology by using a microscope to observe life forms previously invisible. Then, in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton laid the foundations of classical physics with his Latin treatise Principia Mathematica. Newton's work in particular led to a new spirit of optimism. The eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope paid tribute to Newton's achievement when he wrote: "Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night: / God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."

While Newton's work didn't illuminate everything, people in the eighteenth century began to feel that everything in the universe could be known if it were only studied rationally. A few monarchs still ruled with absolute power, claiming authority directly from God. However, in 1715 Louis XIV of France, the greatest of such monarchs, died. He left his five-year-old great-grandson to be king. People not just in France but all across Europe dreamt of how they could remake the world along more rational lines. Individuals who discarded tradition and superstition in favor of reason and science viewed themselves as enlightened, and the era in which they triumphed became known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment influenced the theatre as well. The free-thinking Scandinavian nobleman Ludvig Holberg wrote a series of comedies mocking old ways of doing things and championing reform. In his most famous play, Jeppe of the Hill, the play's protagonist has a long monologue explaining why he drinks so much, arguing that alcoholism is a rational response to the miseries of life. The following year, Holberg premiered a new play in Copenhagen, The Lying-In-Room, in which a pregnant woman going into labor finds her many visitors cause her greater pain than child birth. Another Holberg play, the gender-bending comedy The Beautiful Bridegroom, was recently made into an opera by the American composer Dan Shore.

In France, Enlightenment ideas frequently drew the ire of the government, in part due to the actions of the philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name, Voltaire. Most famous for his witty works of satire, Voltaire attacked foolishness and corruption wherever he saw it, but most especially in the Roman Catholic Church and the French establishment. The Comédie Française agreed to perform Voltaire's first play, an adaptation of Oedipus, in 1717. However, before they could stage it, the author was arrested and thrown into the most notorious prison in Paris, the Bastille. He was released the following year, after which the theatre finally performed the play, earning Voltaire much critical praise.

Voltaire's next two plays were failures, and after a dispute with a nobleman, he was imprisoned in the Bastille a second time. The government later released him, on the condition that he go into exile in Britain. It was there that Voltaire met John Gay and other English playwrights. Eventually allowed to return to France, Voltaire had to avoid Paris, where he was routinely attacked and his writings publicly burned. This was the price of criticizing people in power.

Over his long life, Voltaire continued to produce plays in addition to works of philosophy and history. His tragedy Zaire was largely a success, but his play Mahomet drew criticism, not because it attacked the founder of Islam (though it did), but because people rightly perceived that the true object of the play's scorn was the fanaticism of the Catholic Church. Voltaire frequently disguised his criticism of France by setting stories in far-off lands, as was the case with The Orphan of China, an adaptation of the Yuan-era Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao. Though these plays did not send Voltaire back to the Bastille, they didn't win him many friends in high places, either. Yet by the time he died, Voltaire's literary achievements were grudgingly recognized. In 1778, the 83-year-old author rose from his sickbed to attend his last play, Irene, receiving tremendous applause. A few months later, he died.

By the time of Voltaire's death, criticism of French society and the French government was becoming much more common. The playwright Pierre Beaumarchais scored a huge hit in 1775 with his comedy The Barber of Seville. While the play nominally takes place in Spain, it pokes fun at the French upper classes, showing an aristocrat who is unable to marry his love without the help of a lowly barber. In 1781, Beaumarchais wrote a sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, which went even further, showing the barber outwit the very nobleman he helped in the previous play. After reading the piece, King Louis XVI ordered it banned, in spite of entreaties from his wife, Marie Antoinette, who found it hysterically funny. Three years later, the ban was lifted, and aristocrats flocked to the theatre to see themselves made fun of by a playwright with humble origins.

The Marriage of Figaro is sometimes credited with helping to bring about the French Revolution, but as it so happens, Beaumarchais was involved even more explicitly in revolutionary activity. He helped run guns and supplies to the British colonies during the American Revolution and was intricately involved in a number of spy rings. His sympathies were clearly with the Enlightenment ideals embodied by Voltaire, and he published many of Voltaire's works posthumously, having them printed in Germany to avoid French censors. Beginning in 1787, Beaumarchais became involved in a series of legal battles as his enemies sought to discredit him. Though many in the aristocracy embraced Beaumarchais and his work, others feared the violent disruptions that might be caused by critiques of those in power.

Those fears proved to be well founded. On July 14, 1789, a mob in Paris stormed the Bastille, the prison that had not only once held Voltaire, but had in fact become a symbol of all the oppressive forces opposed by the Enlightenment. The mob's actions sparked a revolution that led to the execution of the king and queen and a Reign of Terror that would take many other lives as well. The social divisions criticized by Voltaire, Beaumarchais, and others had finally brought European civilization to a point where violence seemed the only way to right the wrongs at the heart of society. The age of reason dissolved into an age of violent emotions.