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Comment – Money, Prices, and Accounting for Taste: Theater Economics as Revealed by the Comédie-Française Registers Project

Published onOct 07, 2020
Comment – Money, Prices, and Accounting for Taste: Theater Economics as Revealed by the Comédie-Française Registers Project

Theater performance is among the most historically important manifestations of human cultural production. That plays, both in their performance and in their textual legacies, serve to produce and concomitantly capture the spirit of an age will not generate much argument among historians. We do not often consider, however, that the theater arts might also be an economic concern, except of course for those whose livelihood depends upon it. Even for that group, our expectation is that as ‘artists’ they are in it for something more ‘pure’ than mere lucre. A venue for aesthetic expression and a site of collective cultural experience are the fully legitimate roles for the theater itself to play. Surely the world of commerce should not be allowed to intrude everywhere. And yet, it proves hard to hold at bay as the two essays here by William Weber and François Velde so nicely demonstrate for that most venerable of cultural institutions, the Comédie-Française (hereafter CF). The points of intrusion are many, as the following list of questions suggested by the work of Weber and Velde illustrates:

  • How should we price the opportunity to participate in an aesthetic experience? Even if for reasons of social or some other commitment we believe such experiences should not be priced, a price of zero is still a price.

  • How do we know how to value one work of art over another, especially if the art form consists of variable serial performances? This is clearly the case for live theater performance, reliant as it so often is on a written (and thus plausibly stable) text, but nonetheless subject to the vagaries of improvisation within every individual performance.

  • What constitutes the most important part of the pricing/valuing calculations made by authors, performers, and managers in response to public demand, especially when one considers that paying spectators can choose to bypass any given performance?

  • What relationship is there between price and quality however measured; or price and the frequency of a particular offering; or price and competition, from other providers of theater performances or more broadly from altogether different forms of aesthetic experience?

  • And in an environment of unstable currency regimes, as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France surely was, is the price that matters the nominal one (based on coins of varying denominations themselves linked to the shifting weights and fineness of different metals for which there was yet another market of its own), or the real one (indexed by some measure of the hypothetical alternative uses for those coins)?

  • Were people who bought theater tickets in a position to measure the difference with enough accuracy for the distinction to matter? It is not a stretch to say that economic historians armed with hindsight, reams of data, and high-powered computing capabilities remain divided over how best to calculate such an index.

I open this comment with this daunting list of questions precisely because they reflect what had to have been the even more daunting reality faced by the sociétaires of the CF as they made performance decisions and set ticket prices over the years of their existence between founding in 1680 and temporary dissolution in 1793. A standard, but unsatisfyingly facile answer from economics is simply that the price should be (or for the true believers will be) whatever the market will bear. Let supply and demand, they say, sort out the thorny complexities of an equilibrium price, which must include among its other determinants: the costs of production, whether fixed as in the provision of the theater space itself, mid-range as in the cost of acquiring access to authorial content or keeping actors on retainer, or highly variable as are the expenditures necessary to mount a production on any given night; the allure of the stardom of one or more of the performers; the perceived quality of the play in question, as determined by its authorship, its status as a classic, its novelty or possibly its very familiarity, and surely most damnably by what some influential person had to say about it; the sequence of plays that have been performed most recently; and of course, the hard to discern preferences of a fickle public living in an unpredictable world. Maybe people won’t want to go to the theater on a night when the weather is bad, or maybe that is precisely when they do want to go? Maybe it depends on the particular way in which the weather is bad? Furthermore, the pronouncements of an unpredictable king and his court must always be kept in mind, as too the activities of the local police, or the more distant agitations of war and peace.

How did the performers and managers—not to mention the behind-the-scenes playwrights and numerous other even less visible subcontractors whose mutual success depended in no small measure on that of the CF—make sense of their world? How did they navigate the treacherous waters of repertory, performance practice, logistical snafus, royal interference, critical commentary, and the selling of seats, at varying prices no less? It is worth pausing for a moment to let sink in how far all of this takes us from an outdated view of artistic production as an affair of a strictly aesthetic nature: beauty in the eye of the beholder, no accounting for taste, and all that. What the registers of the CF make obvious, especially in the capable hands of the two contributors to this section, “Eighteenth-Century Repertory and Revenues,” is that there must indeed be a serious accounting for taste if the theater is to survive, let alone thrive, or better still, live on in historical memory as the author in its own right of a cultural high-water mark worthy of investigation by scholars and reprise by artists. The CF can lay claim to both of these achievements.

Fortunately, we have the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP) with its now globally accessible treasure trove of archival materials, and the truly impressive collective insight of the project’s many participants, to guide us in understanding just how the CF accomplished these singular achievements. The authors of this section take two very different approaches to the material. Weber excavates the cultural territory of the Ancien Régime Parisian theater world through a comparison of the strategies employed by the Opéra (founded in 1669, a scant eleven years prior to the CF) and those of the theater in their respective efforts to establish and maintain credibility as arbiters of public taste—and at the same time keep their finances solvent.1 In particular, Weber explores how, in their different ways, both companies developed what he calls a “high canon” over the course of the seventeenth century. He then documents how the CF renewed faith in its canon while the Opéra moved beyond its traditional repertory. Each troupe made these decisions to address the cultural, but also economic, challenges that were especially characteristic of the latter part of the eighteenth century. The Opéra found a way to be more open to change. Indeed, it even developed an explicit language to distinguish between old versus new material with the designation of the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century repertory headlined by Lully and Rameau as la musique ancienne. Although the mid eighteenth-century transition from a previously dominant seventeenth-century (and strictly French) style to ever more productions featuring new composers amenable to (slightly) greater international influence was not without conflict—it was called a querelle after all—the transition nevertheless proved successful. And it was critical, Weber tells us, in helping the Opéra weather the storms of the revolutionary period and survive into the nineteenth century. The CF on the other hand was ultimately not so savvy, or fortunate perhaps. As Weber notes of the increasingly frequent condemnation of public theatrical taste that erupted in the press of the 1780s, “the attacks on the public show that a serious breakdown was occurring in the social framework of the theater world” (Section VII).

Velde, on the other hand, dives directly into the business history of the CF, tracking the complex trajectory of ticket prices and sales along all of the lines already hinted at above.2 From the untangling of that knot of complexity he seeks to understand repertory choices, not only as reflections of artist preference or broader cultural expression, but as hardheaded business decisions necessary to keep the enterprise afloat. In his essay we see yet another side of the fascinating interaction between changing public taste—or even the shaping of it, such that we must think of taste as simultaneously an endogenous product of the theater scene and an exogenous input into it—and the socio-economic events going on in the wider world over which the members of the public and the CF had little or no control. The financial dance that brought the two together was an intricate one indeed.

It all begins with the setting of the ticket price, or rather the price schedule, as there was far more than just one price of admittance to the theater. Seats were distributed across the stage, the pit, and the various elevations of boxes, all with coordinating prices. There were slow days of the week with repertory decisions planned accordingly, especially after the midpoint of the eighteenth century, and premium pricing for performances such as anniversaries of classics or premiers/first runs of new productions, or even in a desperate effort in 1720 to keep up with the inflation associated with John Law’s monetary ‘reforms’ and the resulting Mississippi Bubble. From time to time there were taxes levied, to support the poor no less, but only on some types of tickets and not on others, and as Velde notes, only sometimes passed along to the public in ticket prices. There were also box seats sold as a package, usually at a different per-unit price than for single seats of comparable quality. And all these variables precede the need to factor in the distinction between nominal and real prices. Thankfully, Velde does a heroic job of laying out the myriad possibilities; and if one pays close enough attention, he renders it mostly sensible. Once the considerable noise is accounted for, Velde tells us that the cost of attending the theater jumped noticeably, and irrevocably, after 1753, by something like 25% overall. Yet despite the price shock, attendance did not suffer appreciably, and revenues enjoyed a commensurate increase. Indeed, the parallel growing strength over these same years of the CF’s direct competitors, whether formal establishments or fringe outfits, strongly suggests that the later eighteenth-century public must have manifested either an increased desire for this kind of entertainment, an increased disposable income, or possibly both. The CF worked hard to meet the increased demand, but at the cost perhaps of the late century artistic disputes that Weber’s chapter lays out so carefully.

A word should also be said about the long-run revenue history of the theater, which is itself a fascinating tale. Total receipts were highly volatile over multiple different units of time (weekly, seasonally, and even annually), and yet nevertheless managed to display a remarkable persistence once smoothed. Tuesdays and Fridays were slow, at least after the turn of the eighteenth century, as was the height of summer always. Some individual shows, or authors, proved to be a bust while others came up with hits, and some years were just difficult overall; but the long-term trend of total revenues, short of the slump of the early 1740s, was generally upward for over a century. One can easily imagine the response of an actor/assembly member to the question of how things could possibly work out for the company. Mirroring Philip Henslowe (in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love) who so memorably addressed every hiccup with bravado, our actor might assert that “it all turns out well.” And why should that be, even in the face of so much risk, you might ask? “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Remarkably enough, that seems to have been pretty much the case for the CF for more than a hundred years, at least until the theater succumbed to the cultural politics and/or the economic fallout of the French Revolution. As Velde himself notes in a self-professed moment of surprise, even war (against others it should be emphasized) had but only a trivial systematic impact on ticket sales and revenues. But then, should we really be too surprised at the enduring allure of the theater during moments of crisis?

In closing, I cannot help but comment (with tremendous admiration I should add) on the sophisticated math skills that must have been required to navigate the ever-shifting currency regime that characterized early modern France. To function economically in even the most rudimentary of ways demanded of every member of the public, down to those with the meanest of formal educations, a level of functional numeracy that would leave many modern secondary students entirely bewildered. Metal type, weight, and fineness of coins, as well as governmental decrees about nominal values were all subject to repeated revision. This state of affairs represented business as usual, even without the added complications of the spectacularly fraught moments of extreme uncertainty such as that generated by the rise, and rapid collapse, of John Law’s so-called ‘system’ between 1719-20. (I digress, but cannot help but note that the folly of putting chronic gamblers in charge of the national money supply seems to be a lesson humans insist on learning, and forgetting, repeatedly.) Ordinary people may not have lost ‘millions’ to Law’s system as they never had millions to lose in the first place. But as Velde’s dissection of the pricing schemes of the CF in those troubled years shows, the misdeeds of the powerful very much impact the lives of the people below them.

This observation about widespread functional numeracy suggests that one exercise that the CFRP might facilitate for classroom use in particular, is to let students explore just how it was that people managed a complex and shifting financial system in their daily decision-making about how much to spend on which goods; or vice versa, how much a business should charge for a good as ephemeral as a night at the theater? Obviously, coins themselves sometimes served as a shortcut for mental arithmetic as Velde reveals so nicely when he documents that even during periods of more-chaotic-than-usual currency fluctuation, the theater tried to keep the differing seat prices pegged to particular coins if they reasonably could. This meant that the actual contribution of those sales to their own bottom line shifted, sometimes in their favor and sometimes not. But keeping the coinage transaction as straightforward as possible must have been a priority in its own right. Still, it was not always possible to accommodate every price to an existing coin. There had to have been other mental mechanisms that people could call on for assistance, presumably now lost to us from disuse. Unless of course we pry them out of the traces they have left in records such as these.

The CFRP should be a goldmine for scholarly and pedagogical exploration of this sort for a long time to come. That the record is now so easily accessible is a credit to the efforts of the team that brought the archive online. If the essays gathered here are any guide to what lies ahead, the future of the Comédie-Française as a site of historical inquiry promises to be most illuminating indeed.

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