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Introduction – Digital Technology and Theater History

Published onOct 07, 2020
Introduction – Digital Technology and Theater History
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In early June 2018, we received disturbing news from the MIT Press editorial team. Our online essays had inadvertently been erased and, astonishingly, the private vendor providing the platform to the Press had not backed them up. Our work, and that of our collaborators, was gone! Frantic e-mails and hastily convened meetings ensued, apologies were extended, and alternative plans were put in place. Thanks to the responsiveness of the Press’s team, and the prudence of our contributors who had saved digital copies of their essays, we were able to recreate the essays and shift our online editorial efforts to a more reliable platform created at the MIT Media Lab and adopted by the Press. The crisis averted, we continued the work that has led to the digital volume you are now reading. But the experience was deeply disconcerting. Overnight hundreds of hours of work supported by a major university press affiliated with the world’s leading institute of technology had disappeared. If this could happen at MIT, how confident could we be about any of the digital technologies that are currently transforming the nature of scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences? And even when we bring that work to completion, how can we be sure it will survive until next year, much less ten years or two centuries from now?

This general sense of anxiety about access and long-term digital preservation, one that is particularly familiar to academics, archivists, and librarians today dealing with issues of online open access and conservation of digitally-born objects, resonates as well with those of us who study theater history. In our case the very object of study, the moment of past performance, is an ephemeral, ever-retreating event that is dauntingly difficult to study. As historians of the theater of the Old Regime, we rely on surviving manuscript and printed traces of these spectacles, as well as static images. There is no sound archive from the period that concerns us here, as the imaginative essay by Juliette Cherbuliez in this volume reminds us. The historical record we wish to study is already fragmentary, incomplete, and often frustratingly unreliable. In other words, even before we can address the question of access to the historical record via current technologies, we must acknowledge the lacunae in the historical record itself. While such gaps exist in every sub-field of history, it is particularly acute for research in theater and performance history, in which meaning derives initially and profoundly from the largely unrecorded nightly encounters—the séance—between performers and spectators.

The uncertainties characteristic of digital scholarship, therefore, are not alien to the contributors to this volume, which has as its focus both a particular theatrical past, that of the Comédie-Française theater troupe from 1680 to 1793, and also a Digital Humanities initiative, the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP). The latter, available freely online, is an ongoing international project that explores how digital modalities might facilitate, enrich, and affect the study of the theatrical past. It is based on the unique, remarkably complete manuscript and print records of the Comédie-Française that are preserved in the Bibliothèque-Musée of the troupe at the far end of the Palais-Royal in central Paris. Specifically, the CFRP team has digitized a set of 112 folio registers that record in great detail nightly box office receipts from over 34,000 performances from 1680 to 1793. The research team has also extracted that sales data, made it available online via three different search and visualization tools, and provided access to the dataset through an application program interface (API). The initial phases of the project came online in 2014, followed by a series of CFRP events held in France and the United States in 2015 and 2016, including two international conferences, Métamorphoses du corpus des registres de la Comédie-Française, 16801793/20132016 (Paris, December 2015) and Early Modern Theater Practices and the Digital Archive. The Comédie-Française Registers Project, 16801793 (Cambridge, MA, May 2016); a symposium devoted to an economic approach to the registers (MIT, September 2016); and a series of transatlantic workshops convening French and American students at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels at the University of Paris Nanterre and at Harvard University (within the framework of the IDEFI-CréaTIC program and the Partner University Fund of the FACE Foundation). These events featured scholarly presentations of research made possible by the online database. They also included working sessions where computer developers, scholars, and young researchers conceived of new types of access to the data, and new tools to enable such explorations. Some of the gatherings saw student or professional performances of scenes from plays in the Comédie-Française repertory that had not been staged for centuries. The scholarship, computational collaboration, and performance that took place at these events encouraged participants to imagine new ways to pursue theater history, and new ways that this research might shape classroom learning and stage practice.

Some of these outcomes, appropriately enough, can be consulted on the CFRP web site itself. But the project team and the conference organizers have also published several print collections of essays that memorialize some of the outcomes to date of the project. Le Sacre de l’acteur, published in 2017 as the proceedings of a CFRP conference that took place at the University of Poitiers in 2014, explores the issues of stage celebrity and media from 1650 to 1850.1 A second volume, published in Littératures classiques in 2018 and containing eleven scholarly essays that were first presented at one of our CFRP conferences, concerns the historical construction and institutionalization of the dramatic repertory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.2 Along the same line, a third set of reflections, featuring interviews with contemporary French- and English-speaking theater artists that explore the meaning and practice of the repertory concept in today’s theater world, appeared in the review Théâtre/Public in 2017.3

The current volume certainly aligns with and adds to these studies. The contributions here were initially presented at our December 2015 Paris conference (Lauren R. Clay, Pierre Frantz); our May 2016 Cambridge MA conference (Jeffrey S. Ravel, Jeffrey Peters, Juliette Cherbuliez, William Weber); and our September 2016 Cambridge MA symposium (François Velde, Thomas M. Luckett). They were thus shaped and elaborated in dialogue with some of the essays that appear in the 2018 Littératures classiques volume, and the contributions in Sections Two and Three of this volume also address questions of repertory considered in the 2017 issue of Théâtre/Public.

Yet this collection of essays also differs from previous CFRP publications in significant ways. Its novelty, we believe, consists in its direct engagement with online research into theater history. In the first place, we decided early on to make it available freely online, as a complement to the open access policy that the CFRP has always followed. Fortunately, the MIT Press agreed to partner with us on this project. In addition, we advised the Press that we did not want a print version of the book, because we wished to encourage readers to consider the online continuities between the experience of querying the CFRP database and analyzing the outcome of those queries. Second, we wanted to take advantage of the enhanced data visualization options afforded by digital publication; many of our essays feature graphics that are more visually compelling and more easily legible than they would be in a print venue. Furthermore, in some of our essays we have embedded within the text the search and visualization tools and the digital versions of the registers themselves from the CFRP web site. This online affordance allows readers to test our authors’ interpretations for themselves or explore new questions that occur during reading. Finally, the essays in the first section explicitly assess the outcomes of online scholarship, and the remaining essays and comments throughout the volume implicitly invoke these issues as well. Our hope is that readers encountering our work in this online format will reflect simultaneously on eighteenth-century French cultural and theatrical history, and on the possibilities created by digital methodologies in humanities scholarship.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first, “Interpreting Data, Visualizations, and Sound,” examines the heuristic merits and epistemological issues surrounding digital approaches to the theatrical past. In “The Comédie-Française by the Numbers, 1752-2020,” Jeffrey S. Ravel studies three earlier print explorations of the Comédie-Française registers data, each of which was shaped by the ideological and sociocultural needs of the particular historical moment. Revisiting them now reminds us that innovative quantitative scholarship existed before our current computational methods, and also helps us better understand and assess the benefits, possibilities, and limitations of our current digital approaches. In “Looking at the Literary: Data-Driven Visualizations and the Comédie-Française Registers Project,” Jeffrey Peters considers the way that data visualization in print and online, far from being a neutral vessel for transmitting fixed knowledge, is a dynamic form, which reopens and reframes questions that critics usually ask about the literary corpus. By relating CFRP data visualizations to those advanced by Franco Moretti and others, he reminds us to think carefully about the methodological presuppositions, the research procedures, and the nature of the conclusions reached by scholars who privilege quantitative approaches to the literary past. When confronted with the online version of the daily receipt registers of the Comédie-Française, Juliette Cherbuliez found herself wondering about the range of sensations experienced by spectators in the playhouse, yet not recorded in the nightly register entries. Starting with the perceptual observation of this silence of the archives, her essay, “The Sound of Theater: Crowds, Acoustics, Oration,” is a provocative meditation on past soundscapes, and digital efforts to recreate and analyze those aural experiences.

By considering the critiques addressed to the digital modes of analysis, as well as by endorsing the new approaches they enable, the three essays in this section confirm that the humanities have much to gain by the careful application of digital methodologies. At the same time, they underscore the limitations of computational resources, which by themselves are not sufficient to comprehend fully either the aesthetics or the cultural politics of the stage. Neither the eighteenth-century registers with their tabular structure, nor the tools of the digital humanities with their techno-cognitive approaches, are simple mechanisms of data entry or total reconstructions. They circumscribe the cultural phenomena on which they are based in a taxonomy of relevant traits, framing them and mapping them in a way that is both authoritative and intended to provoke further interpretation.

The second section, “Eighteenth-Century Repertory and Revenues,” offers two essays that consider repertory choices and business strategies at the Comédie-Française over the entire expanse of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries covered in the CFRP dataset. In “The Parallel Canons at the Opéra and the Comédie-Française at the End of the Ancien Régime,” William Weber, a leading historian of musical and theatrical repertories in eighteenth and nineteenth-century British and European public theaters, compares the proportion of new and old works in the repertories of both the Comédie-Française and the Royal Academy of Music (or the Opéra). He finds that both royal institutions were undergoing a “crisis” in the final decades of the Old Regime, as public opinion demanded an increasingly steady diet of new works in the repertories of both institutions. The debates over canon at the Opéra led that company to greater involvement with Europe-wide operatic trends and sufficient repertory stability to ride out the revolutionary decade, while the ferment over new authors and genres at the Comédie-Française led to crisis and temporary closure at that theater in the 1790s. In his wide-ranging contribution, “An Analysis of Revenues at the Comédie-Française, 1680-1793,” economic historian François Velde treats the daily receipt registers of the Comédie-Française as an unparalleled series of eighteenth-century business records. He provides analysis of long-term revenues, and relates fluctuations in the troupe’s income to royal monetary policy, and the troupe’s ticket pricing strategies and programming decisions. His central finding is that even adjusted for inflation, revenues consistently rose after 1748. Anyone interested in questions of genre and repertory at this theater before the Revolution will need to take into account this fundamental proof of the troupe’s commercial success.

Taken together, the two papers provide outstanding new insights into the programming and pricing choices made by the King’s Players between the golden age of Molière, Racine and Pierre Corneille under Louis XIV and the rise of theatrical romanticism after the Revolution. Neither set of arguments would be feasible without the computational advances that underpin the CFRP. Both essays nevertheless reveal the extent to which the cultural practices under consideration stem from multiple causal factors. Not only does the data prove resistant to interpretation in isolation from external factors; it is incomprehensible without recourse to multiple contexts that are seemingly endless and not easily ranked in importance. This section therefore demonstrates that digital methodologies, far from being immediately transparent, complicate the study of cultural practices to the extent that they require a multi-dimensional analysis attuned to causal connections and hierarchies among variables.

Section three, “Circa 1760,” takes us from macro analysis of repertory and business strategy to the micro level, focusing on the key years just after mid-century. In his contribution, “Financial Difficulties and Business Strategies at the Comédie-Française During the Seven Years War,” Thomas M. Luckett sets the daily expenses of the Comédie-Française in the late 1750s and early 1760s against its income to assert that profitability for the troupe as a whole, and for the individual sociétaires, was in short-term decline. This period, one that coincided with the global military conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years War, saw the Comédie-Française forced to develop new repertory strategies and seek administrative reform from the crown in order to avoid financial ruin. Luckett’s analysis provides an important short-term counterpoint to Velde’s evocation of the company’s steadily increasing box office revenues over the long term. Pierre Frantz also senses a turning point in the years around 1760. Looking carefully at the troupe’s programming at this juncture, he identifies a series of repertory choices that he labels “The Voltaire Moment.” The Patriarch of Ferney, whose first play premiered at the Comédie-Française in 1718, had established a predominant role in the repertory by 1760; by then, all sixteen of the philosophe’s plays performed more than one hundred times in the eighteenth century were in the repertory. While the great seventeenth-century trio of Molière, Racine, and Pierre Corneille had become the patrimonial property of the troupe, Frantz argues that plays by Voltaire were popular because of the author’s contemporary literary celebrity and political notoriety. The troupe profited at the box office from the many causes célèbres in which Voltaire engaged in the final two decades of his life. In the final contribution in this section, “The Strange Career of Voltaire, Bestselling Playwright of Eighteenth-Century France,” Lauren R. Clay also emphasizes the centrality of the Voltairean canon to the repertory and financial success of the Comédie-Française during the playwright’s lifetime. Following the lead of Velde and Luckett, she pays attention to the revenues generated by Voltairean spectacle, in addition to the frequency with which his plays were staged by the troupe. Her analysis shows that by the 1760s his corpus had become far more profitable on the Paris stage than that of the other most frequently performed author in the repertory, Molière. Confirming the post-1750 predominance suggested by Frantz, Clay then looks forward chronologically to ask why Voltaire’s plays fell out of the Comédie-Française’s repertory entirely by the mid nineteenth century, and why today we never think of Voltaire as a major theatrical writer, ignoring his dominance of the eighteenth-century stage.

These three final essays, therefore, richly situate an analysis of internal factors driving the company’s repertory decisions in a particular moment within the context of events churning outside the playhouse walls a generation before the Revolution. Attentive both to long-term trends and short-term discontinuities, the authors writing in this section acknowledge the different modalities of time, action, and sociocultural reality by which one might interpret the data.

The publication of this volume brings to a close the cycle of interpretation begun when the CFRP first appeared online in 2014. It does not, however, bring to an end our investigations into the digital archive that we have constituted. In the next phases of the project, already underway, we are currently extracting the troupe’s daily expense data from the registers and placing it alongside the revenue data. This new information will allow scholars, following Luckett’s lead, to pursue questions of profitability for long periods of the eighteenth century. (A generous grant from the Agence nationale de la recherche, a French government funding agency, will support this work.) In addition, we are mining data from the feux, the registers that recorded the daily distribution of roles among the players. This addition to our dataset will permit historians to think more granularly about the impact that popular actors and actresses had on box office revenue and programming choices. (The initiative is generously funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.) Finally, colleagues who study the nineteenth-century history of the Comédie-Française have begun to work with Agathe Sanjuan, the Director of the Bibliothèque-Musée of the Comédie-Française, to digitize the troupe’s business records from its reconstitution in 1799 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. This data, once added to the project, will afford unprecedented insight into one of the major cultural institutions in the West over more than two centuries.

While the future of the project is therefore bright in one sense, it still falls under the shadow of the digital uncertainties invoked above. When the project began, we had imagined that our digital register facsimiles, databases, and search and visualization tools would find a long-term home on servers maintained by MIT. But during this time, MIT’s data storage infrastructure has been in constant flux, leading us to install our digital project on commercial servers in the United States. Our French partners, particularly the Comédie-Française, expressed unease about handing over French digital patrimony to private American business concerns. In the second half of 2018, we began the process of moving our data and associated files to Compute Canada, the free hosting service maintained by the government of Canada to support the research of scholars affiliated with that nation’s public universities. Once that transition is complete, we will constitute a mirror site on Huma-Num, a similar server farm established by the government of France to store data generated by humanists there. Those of us on the CFRP team who hold positions in universities in the United States admire the affordability and longevity promised by these state-funded infrastructures.

We would like to close with the following, addressed hopefully to the readers of these words in 2150: if you are finishing this introduction to our volume, we are delighted to be in dialogue with you. Your ability to access this introduction means that the preservation community has figured out an information technology that may prove to be as durable as the codex book for the digital archives of the twenty-first, and the eighteenth, centuries.

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