The Threat of the Imaginary in the French Classical Age

Auteur / Author: 
Alison CALHOUN (Department of French and Italian, Indiana University, États-Unis)
Mardi 23 Août 2011 - 15:15


For both Quintilian (De Oratore, Book 11) and Augustine (Conf., X, VIII) our memory, in which is stored an infinite number of images emerging from the confrontation between the real and our imaginary, remains impossible to explain. For the image we associate with a certain thought is not necessarily based on common sense. On the contrary, images in our memory are quite arbitrary. How then does the good orator incarnate appropriate signals and gestures to help impress his argument upon the memory of his listener? In theater, moreover, how are actors supposed to personify the meaning of the poet’s words, knowing that despite their efforts, their perfection of oration and declamation, the spectator might still have a relationship with images that works outside of their rhetorical persuasion?

In this talk, I will consider the delicate interplay of word and image in the context of the 17th century French stage, focusing on the challenge the imaginary posed to the development of new genres, such as the comédie-ballet and the tragédie lyrique. I will argue that because France’s classical theater was rigorously codified, based on rules meant to insure a proper sense of vraisemblance and decorum, the arbitrary nature of the spectator’s relationship to images, through their faculty of memory, was a threat to the moral demands of the time (see Saint Evremond’s comedy, Les Opéras. Genève, Droz: 1979: 69). The sung drama was especially menacing, because not only were words being transformed by melodies and harmony, the stage settings and décor were ever more fantastical, testing the viewers’ ability to create distance between themselves and these mechanisms; testing their subjectivity. My talk will focus on the initial negative reception of Italian opera in Paris under Mazarin: their stagings, décor, and the critique of these works. I will then analyze the success of the first and last tragédies en musique of Lully and Quinault (Cadmus et Hermione and Armide), demonstrating the ways in which these collaborators offset the threat of the imaginary by perfecting their rhetorical expressions, in the gestures of the actors, the stage décor and costumes.