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Postface - The CFRP, from Archaeology to Futurology

Translated by Josh Gray Cohen

Published onOct 07, 2020
Postface - The CFRP, from Archaeology to Futurology
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The present volume arrives at precisely the right moment within the history of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP), which has recently entered into its second phase of exploration. As one scrolls through the collection edited by Sylvaine Guyot and Jeffrey S. Ravel, Databases, Revenues, & Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793, which gathers together a striking diversity of approaches, it becomes clear just how strongly this volume resonates with the driving aims of the project. This collection of essays does not enforce a single, exclusionary vision of the history of theater, a single method of reading grounded in technology, or even a single epistemological approach. Rather, it bears witness to the fact that the CFRP remains a laboratory for new experiences, and one that privileges a plurality of voices and points of departure. Whether from within a reflexive, archaeological perspective, such as the one adopted by Ravel in his contribution, or with the aim of demonstrating that data can be harnessed for writing a new kind of cultural history—one which is relevant (Thomas M. Luckett, François Velde, William Weber), precise (Lauren R. Clay, Pierre Frantz), vivid (Juliette Cherbuliez, Derek Miller), and transformative (Jeffrey Peters). The many methods at work in the present volume therefore exemplify the historical, narrative, and creative possibilities of the Comédie-Française’s archives when they are approached quantitatively.

From the outset, the reader will be struck by the manner in which this volume allows us to properly contextualize the CFRP. On the one hand, as exemplified in Ravel’s article, an historiographical approach situates the project within its larger diachronic context. On the other hand, a number of other contributions, especially the pieces on Voltaire written by Clay, Luckett, Frantz, and Logan J. Connors as well as the encyclopedic entries produced by Velde and Weber, seek to revisit, reevaluate, or even directly counter common historical facts. Such examples testify to the fact that quantitative data and graphs are capable of serving as a means of revising the history of theater. Other articles, such as those of Cherbuliez, Peters, and Miller, point to the profound and unexpected transformations that the CFRP inspires in humanistic methods of research. The tension between continuity and rupture is constitutive of our project, and seems to us to be one of the most productive features of the present volume. The following thoughts aim to contextualize the reflections found here in terms of the CFRP’s current developments, and, at least in part to address some of the questions left unanswered throughout the volume.


I. Previous Explorations of the Registers

In order to best understand the CFRP’s aims and potential uses, it is necessary to begin with the essay written by Jeffrey Ravel, one of its founders. He starts by noting that the digital humanities have provoked heated debate, with detractors claiming that such approaches do not add much of significance to the field despite massive investment and material resources. He then sets out to test the data generated by three major historical studies: the Chevalier de Mouhy’s Tablettes dramatiques, published in the middle of the eighteenth century; the tabular data produced by Alexandre Joannidès between 1901 and 1927; and the partial transcriptions of the Comédie-Française’s archive of registers published by Henry Carrington Lancaster between 1941 and 1951. Ravel underscores an essential point: every act of research, or data compilation, is inscribed within a specific context and episteme. In other words, the critical process is a space of privileged observation, and thus is capable of becoming a space for self-reflection. By focusing on the larger history of interpretations and transcriptions of the Comédie-Française’s registers, Ravel offers a more thorough perspective both on the CFRP, and, more generally, on the state of the digital humanities in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Ravel’s article is not an apology for the latter, but a series of tests based on the results furnished by particular cases.

By comparing Mouhy’s Tablettes with the CFRP’s Discovery Tool, we can readily see the ways in which the project harnesses contemporary technologies in order to offer curious readers access to verified, updated historical data on authors, texts, performances, and dramatic seasons, as well as images that allow that same reader to trace trends in representation across the centuries. In the same way, if we compare Joannidès’ data sets with the project’s Faceted Browser, we can see that the CFRP realizes Joannidès’ exact aims, but online, and with the addition of data concerning ticket sales, whereas Joannidès had to limit himself to attendance numbers. Finally, the reproduction online of the Comédie-Française’s records of daily revenue allows us to consult them in their entirety, and constitutes a digital equivalent of the transcriptions published by Lancaster; the digital nature of the CFRP’s data makes it possible to produce the original registers in high definition.

Although our current technologies offer new editorial possibilities, the point is not to minimize the CFRP’s intellectual predecessors. Rather, we must recognize the enormous usefulness of such efforts within their own historical moments. In the same way, in fact, that the CFRP is inscribed within its own historical context, and attempts to respond to the questions of our time through the tools currently available to researchers. And the project is forever evolving. Even as today’s digital technologies offer unlimited access to the registres to users around the world, our confidence in the durability of those technologies, and our determination to create institutions of conservation for future generations, remains less certain.

Furthermore, by adopting an archaeological perspective Ravel allows us to contextualize the CFRP, and to inscribe the project in a genealogy that puts it in relation both to the history of theater and to institutional memory. The annual mode of compilation practiced by Mouhy and Joannidès was followed by Champion until 1937,1 after which Roselyne Laplace, director of research at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), was enlisted by the Comédie-Française to generate compilations under the name of rapports d’activité;2 indeed, such internal documents appear intended to report on the artistic activity of the Comédie-Française. This annual update is still produced by the troupe, and is now complemented by the yearly reports found in the company’s La Grange database, which have been accessible online since 2003. The revolution of the CFRP consists in having developed an approach to its daily data that is not only synthetic, but analytical. One should also add the reports that Jean Knauf produced in the 2010s for the seasons from 1938 and 1944, which remain unpublished but are preserved in the Library-Museum maintained by the troupe. We might even say that Joannidès’ work itself is institutionalized, as evidenced in the prefaces written by the actors and administrators of the troupe, and in the theater’s continuing need for an annual status report following the Second World War. In this way, Joannidès created a link between the work of the researcher and the work of institutional memory. And, indeed, such a dual approach can be compared with the history of the CFRP as it has unfolded over the past decade under the directorship of the troupe by Muriel Mayette-Holtz (from 2008 to 2014) and Éric Ruf (from 2014 to the present). Originally an academic undertaking pursued by university scholars, the project has evolved into a tool for the dissemination of the heritage and history of the Comédie-Française, and even for launching new productions.3 In both cases, we might argue that the troupe has been able to appropriate scholarly research to overcome the material and institutional difficulties of interpreting its immediate past.

Lastly, Ravel’s article shows us the ways in which the historiographical approaches of our predecessors testify, more or less voluntarily, to the tension between qualitative research and those scholarly choices that emphasize the quantitative dimension of archives. Tellingly, as Ravel points out, Mouhy’s tables do not fully subscribe to the avowed quantitative approach: instead, Mouhy attempts to reconcile data tables with critical commentary. These two ways of reading Mouhy’s methodology bring to the fore an implicit, still present challenge in the CFRP’s own program: to offer a quantitative reading supposes a system of values. The work of the researcher, thus, only begins when this very system is questioned, and when those issues that elude quantitative methods are considered. Ravel invites us to understand the long history of the “datafication” (to use Dan Edelstein’s term) of our archives and to contextualize our project in terms of previous undertakings. Moreover, Ravel makes it clear that such large-scale research into these patrimonial archives inevitably turns on the relationship between quantitative evidence and qualitative methods.


II. What Numerical Data Bring to the History of the Theater Today

Several articles in this volume put forth the idea that the relationship between quantitative results, made possible by the data, and qualitative questions and practices is common to the approaches here deployed. Each contributor utilizes and studies the available data according to his or her particular concerns: some use the data in order to verify, refute, or confirm their own research; others explore the same data in order to observe the ways in which it reacts to their field; still others make certain programs run almost randomly, experimenting. Both Lauren Clay and Pierre Frantz, for example, aided by the CFRP’s research tools, analyze the extent to which the theater of Voltaire was essential to the eighteenth century. By offering access to a historical moment, no doubt difficult to imagine today, in which Voltaire’s works dominated Parisian theater, the data provided by the CFRP enables the history of those works to be conducted on their own terms and in their own context.

Other contributors, such as Thomas Luckett, use the same data to show the ways in which the registers of the Comédie-Française furnish a kind of case study for analyzing a cultural institution in the context of the economic depression of the Seven Years’ War. With the help of the tools made available to researchers, Luckett carefully identifies the fall in revenue and profits that occurred at the height of the war, and traces the measures taken by the Comédie-Française in order to restore solvency. By reducing its expenses, Luckett shows, the institution was able to regain financial stability. Further, because it was determined to generate new revenue, the theater modified its programming, namely by increasing the number of performances per season by ten percent, producing more comedies than tragedies, and seeking out new, often scandalous works likely to attract larger audiences.

Through different approaches, the scholars in this volume remind us that the history of theater is always anchored in cultural, economic, social, political, and institutional contexts. This overlapping of stakes, in turn, furnishes a variety of starting points, and a variety of modes of interpretation, with which to study the relevant numerical data. Indeed, certain studies here utilize the economic data as a kind of springboard for more detailed historical studies. The articles by Luckett and François Velde, for example, testify to the importance of an encyclopedic and factual dimension to any reading of our data: such a perspective makes the data come alive. At the same time, it inscribes the quantitative data within a carefully contextualized narrative, which reconciles administrative and economic questions with those of cultural theater. On a different plane, Clay recontextualizes the Voltaire “case” in a much broader historiography, such that it comes to resemble the very origin of the CFRP. This strategy, grounded in a macro-analysis of the accounting data found in the registers, is to render the literary and dramatic history of an institution, and then situate that same history in a larger economic and cultural history.

Quantitative analysis also makes it possible to rethink prior qualitative theses. The latter are refined, not discarded. The notion of the “canon,” for example, so firmly established in previous studies, is here reconsidered. Velde tests the notion in terms of the “durability” of certain works over time, as measured by frequency of programming and revenue generated; Frantz, on the other hand, reconsiders the Voltairean canon based on a number of performances throughout the eighteenth century. Employing different techniques, both Frantz and Velde give entirely new dimensions to a venerable scholarly category. Other observations put into question the history of stage hits as well as certain, received ideas about the theatrical programming of the Comédie-Française. As Luckett and Clay show, such research can thus serve to reevaluate certain works: seen through the prisms of data and the immediate, material context of production, scholars can correct false realities, some of which have been circulating for several centuries—for example, as Clay notes, the “death” of tragedy that supposedly occurred in the eighteenth century.

Velde’s perspective on the programming of the Comédie-Française sheds light on at least two issues at the heart of the CFRP. First, Velde is not a specialist in theater, and thus approaches the dataset free of certain disciplinary preconceptions. Transdisciplinarity nourishes the digital humanities, and the digital humanities allow increased transdisciplinarity. In Velde’s exemplary case, the mixing and matching of data turns out to be a very effective scientific method. This spirit of inquiry, coupled with knowledge exogenous to the field, produces unprecedented and strikingly fruitful results. For example, Velde analyzes the interaction of variables and price inflation. Above all, he underscores the fact that even if the influence of inflation is clear, the measurement of its influence is questionable due to scant comparable economic data external to the theater; thus, his interest in multiplying price analyses in different fields, with different methodologies. A diverse collection of studies might provide general insight into the historical fact of inflation, allowing us to overcome the silence of our sources. In Velde’s contribution, then, we see that his training in the history of monetary valuation is essential to his approach, and that such a precise analysis could not have been carried out by historians of theater and literature.

Second, Velde’s article teems with encyclopedic details of the utmost importance. By providing them, Velde demonstrates the need for a precise understanding of the troupe’s financial structures in order to interpret correctly our data. Here, Velde takes up a number of elements present in the only existing economic history of the Comédie-Française, that of Claude Alasseur,4 while updating Alasseur’s arguments and adding visualizations to his methodology. Velde reminds us that the CFRP is not meant to revolutionize quantitative approaches, the historiographical merit of which was already evident; we might think of the famous Annales school, for example. The project does, however, embody a transformation in the ways in which we read quantitative results and approach the history of early theatrical life in the context of the digital humanities. Through a host of historical details and evidence, Velde underscores that which distinguishes, or fails to distinguish, the Comédie-Française from a business enterprise. In turn, he helps us to recognize the importance of the economic environment, understood as a market with its own temporality, which overlaps with the aesthetic concerns of the theater, and is potentially affected by a number of economic and political variants such as financial crises or wars. Velde’s article thus anticipates the work of contextualization now underway in the second phase of the CFRP—for example, the creation of an encyclopedic dictionary that provides precise documentation regarding both key and problematic terms found in the archival data.

Velde’s economic approach, in turn, opens up a number of investigative paths into the history of the Comédie-Française. The first is implicit, but no less present: we are pushed to consider the ways in which we might deepen such an economic study through a social history focused on the specific occupations of the troupe’s players and backstage workers. The second phase of the CFRP, focused on creating databases of daily expenditures and casting choices, will certainly make it easier to pursue this type of study. Another path is proposed by Velde himself, and presented as a challenge: “The next step is to investigate empirically the determinants of programming choices and, if possible, model the Comédie-Française’s programming strategy.”5 This challenge to resolve fundamental programming questions is tremendously important. We might begin by observing contemporary programming strategies in order to identify those of the eighteenth century. Since its very inception, the CFRP has been navigating between past and present, between scientific analysis and contemporary practice. Furthermore, the question of programming strategy is inseparable from that of repertory, the basic instability of which is a source of contestation and inspiration in several other articles in this volume.

The term “repertory,” which is at once central and not easily defined, is subjected to several new reflections in this volume. These reflections continue the work begun by a handful of investigations in a special issue of Littératures classiques, but approach the notion of the repertory through the lens of the CFRP.6 Here, for example, Frantz’s contribution navigates between a detailed analysis of a specific play and a global analysis of the career of a certain author in order to rethink the term. For Frantz, the repertory is defined as a series of plays performed according to specific aesthetic and economic criteria. At the same time, he defines the repertory as a polemical act shaped by the Enlightenment, at once spearheaded by actors who determine the programming, and audiences which collectively voice their preferences.

Derek Miller’s comment also concerns the repertory, but approaches the question from a completely different perspective, underscoring the fact that the notion is subject to more than one definition. Responding in a sense to the challenge issued by Velde, Miller rethinks the repertory in terms of programming strategies ultimately subjected to a series of random, unpredictable factors, evidence of which is scarce. In particular, Miller aims to envision historical programming through a reconstruction of the “decision-making process.” As such, he opens up new technological perspectives and orients us towards the future. Beyond the striking differences in their approaches, both Miller and Frantz note the centrality of the relationship between the troupe (committee decisions, the availability of actors and their relative familiarity with the plays chosen to be performed, the economic and human tensions) and the responses of their audiences (as manifested in sales receipts, and in the playhouse responses that one finds recorded in the press, in memoirs, in correspondence, and, above all, in dramatic anecdotes).


III. Visions of the CFRP of Tomorrow

Several articles in this volume project us quite far into the future of the CFRP. Miller’s contribution, for example, falls into this category. We are struck by his argument concerning the emergence of artificial intelligence as a new space for historical exploration. Indeed, artificial intelligence seems to be an essential element for future scholarly research, including experimentation within the CFRP. The possibilities are great. But the limits, too, of artificial intelligence immediately present a major challenge to our undertaking: to teach computers to read and offer interpretations of premodern texts would require the enormous effort of clearly cataloging the meanings of words, expressions, and sentences in their original contexts. Moreover, even given clear definitions, certain expressions would remain unclear, both in their contemporary and historical meanings. Thus, even though the perspectives suggested by Miller strike us as powerful and potentially very productive, we must approach artificial intelligence with methods of investigations based on exacting knowledge, nuance, and modesty.

Juliette Cherbuliez’s contribution, which provides a perfect illustration of the potential of the CFRP archives as a repository of both research questions and creative experiments, also points us toward the future. Cherbuliez adopts a sustained reading of the registers in the old-fashioned manner, and yet in a mode rendered possible by the digital tools at hand. This deeply imaginative method generates questions just as powerful as those generated by the large-scale mixing and matching of data. In other words, a veritable digital humanities project is born from the confrontation of heterogeneous methods, ranging from the most traditional to the most technological. In Cherbuliez’s hands, the CFRP’s archives become more than raw material for theoretically rethinking our relationship to theatrical historiography; they reveal themselves to be key elements of a strikingly original acoustic approach to the Comédie-Française. Such a project gives flesh to the archive, making it into a lasting, graspable, and faithful performance for the present moment. Inevitably, the prospect of a “sensory” archive runs up against the fact of dematerialization inherent in any digital humanities project. But this question has already been at the heart of our project from its inception, as evidenced in the requirement that we provide access to digital reproductions, leafed through virtually, that were as close as possible visually to the original registers.

Cherbuliez’s theory of the registers as the schematization of an event is both clear and daring. The archival page at once conveys information about an audience and hides that audience’s very character. Where other archives (those of the press, for example), might mention the mood or the emotional environment in the theater, the registers are silent. Through reflections that rely equally upon history, theory, and imagination, Cherbuliez sheds light on a central feature of any research project, including that of the CFRP: studies of the past can be particularly fruitful precisely when they leave room for imagination and daring theoretical propositions. In this spirit, Cherbuliez’s essay pushes her speculative auditory reconstruction to its limit. And in so doing, her experiment manifests the power of the digital humanities to solve, or at least to tend towards a resolution of, historical equations with multiple unknowns that normally strike us as impossible even to broach. The knowledge generated by our research only grows when approaches are combined in such a manner.

Looking to the archives for evidence of the immediate reception of historical plays serves here as a means to conceptualizing both the limits and the possibilities of the living, ephemeral material of eighteenth-century theater. Given the fact that our research is based on theatrical archives, the CFRP’s work is inseparable from the history of performance; we stress the importance of theater precisely as a performative art rather than as a textual production. In this vein, the originality of our project resides in the fact that abstract figures can be made to respond to very concrete reflections on theatrical performance in early modernity. Indeed, ours is less an attempt to reconstruct the past than an invitation to experiment with knowledge-making and history through archives. Thus, what Cherbuliez nicely calls “para-performance” constitutes an imaginative act that resituates theatrical events in a contemporary form, one which does not seek to inscribe itself in the past, but in the present. Cherbuliez’s model uses sound, noise, and environment to incarnate the historical event. Far from being a random entry point, sound forcefully interrogates the politicized position of the researcher. What exactly are we looking for, and why and how have we formulated out questions?

Within the CFRP, above all, such an emancipatory approach has conditioned the ways in which we harness our research for the purposes both of teaching and theatrical practices. We are thinking, in particular, of the various IDEFI-CréaTIC seminars that Tiphaine Karsenti has led since 2016 with the collaboration of CFRP team members Sylvaine Guyot from Harvard University and Sara Harvey from the University of Victoria. Such activities focus on the most contemporary performance practices and utilize transmedia tools in a manner at once useful, playful, and experimental, powerfully encouraging students to create modes of academic research. The CFRP offers more than a simple, if new, method for academic readings that would otherwise leave research traditions unchanged. Rather, our work is anchored in the digital humanities, and more generally, in digital culture, and aims to transform our relationship to the mediation of knowledge.

In this regard, the valuable article by Jeffrey Peters sheds welcome light on the theoretical stakes of our research. Peters’ stimulating contribution is based on the conviction that the CFRP points to a new type of knowledge, one very much within our reach, regarding the study of the registers of the Comédie-Française. More broadly, Peters suggests that the very principles of investigation in the humanities are evolving. Knowledge derives not only from archival sources, but from the possible modes of research applied to those sources. In this sense, Peters insists, knowledge concerning the same archives can be renewed ad infinitum depending on the modes of investigation and the technical means available at a given historical moment. Subjects that have already been studied can be researched again. Moreover, knowledge in the human sciences can be increased with the help of new technologies, as is the case in the hard sciences.

Peters focuses at length on our modes of reading the archive; sight is of critical importance in his view. Much like the first spectators of cinema, who could perceive a “movement” separate from the moment of its realization, we can now “see” phenomena that we cannot literally “read” in the sources. This observation is fundamental. It redefines an entire swath of the digital humanities as technological research, which draws on the most useful scientific visualizations in order to generate new conclusions in traditional humanities disciplines. For Peters, we are at the dawn of a Galilean revolution in the humanities and in literary studies.

The question posed by Peters—“Does specifically literary visualization have an aesthetic?”—shows the degree to which reflexivity toward our traditional expertise can become a site of investigation itself. On this point, Peters seems to anticipate questions about the digital design of our technological environment both insofar as it facilitates the reading of experimental results, and as it reflects the choices and positioning of the project’s members. From this point of view, the evolution of the site’s design towards a more “neutral,” and therefore more “enduring” design would seem to constitute a properly “aesthetic” response to eminently political questions. Of course, the issue of web design also concerns interfaces: visualization, however essential it may be, is necessarily “biased,” as it results from choices that are representative of a specific research community. Such choices directly intervene in our understanding the data, and impact our own experience and transmission of our research even more deeply.

In Peters’ essay, as in Ravel’s, the political dimension of the digital humanities nourishes theoretical reflection. Peters invites us to think about the unprecedented contribution of data visualization in the larger context of understanding the very conditions of our hypotheses in the human sciences. The questions that Peters poses remind us that the digital humanities remain a source of polemic. Ravel, too, notes the debate sparked by this particular form of transdisciplinarity, given that the digital humanities are sometimes described as a manifestation of neoliberalism within academia. If the digital humanities were subjected to the kinds of funding that locked us into a logic of mass production and standardized results, then research traditions would not be transformed, but rendered sterile. However, Peters clearly shows that the debate around the digital humanities turns more broadly on the question of the place, the positioning and the possibilities of the human sciences in a charged university context. Ravel’s archaeological approach, along with Peters’ epistemological approach, allows us to better situate the CFRP within political and scientific contexts that are in tension.


IV. What Now?

Peters opens his text with a question that has accompanied the writing of this afterword: “What now?”

Creating databases, digital tools and interfaces linked to the daily programming of the Comédie-Française remains an essential part of our work. Motivated by questions that arose during the first phase of our project (2013-2017), we are currently continuing our excavation of archives linked to the description and immediate reception of plays performed in French in the period between 1680 and 1793. This second phase thus consists in the creation of several data sets: daily casting decisions (1765-1793), daily expenses (1680-1776), criticism of performances in the press (1680-1793), and the records of the troupe’s administrative meetings (1765-1793). The questions that have emerged surrounding the database of daily box office receipts not only touch on our ways of understanding historical archives and data, but question historiographical practices, including the CFRP itself as an example specific to the digital humanities.

It is for these reasons during this second phase of our program, among others, that we will make available an archival corpus complementary to that of the registers: namely, an archive of theatrical criticism dedicated to the programming of the Comédie-Française in Old Regime French periodicals.7 In order to hew as closely as possible to history as a living, plural, albeit ultimately elusive reality, we remain committed to the aim of multiplying points of view and visions of the theatrical past. We are therefore in the process of transcribing a number of periodicals into XML-TEI format. Explorations in this digital archive deploying advances in the field of deep learning will take place in the coming months. Moreover, observations on the notion of repertory articulated in the present volume have incited us to go further in our thinking. The first results from the casting database, as well as research concerning specific actors and actresses, point to the essential role of the popularity of performers in programming decisions. Even more importantly, the actors were at the heart of the aesthetic, social and political issues that characterized the theater of the Enlightenment.

The events that preceded the creation of the volume, Databases, Revenues, & Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 were marked by our determination to place our collective work in a transdisciplinary perspective, and by our hope to decompartmentalize traditional ways of doing research on the history of theatrical life in early modernity.8 The articles in this volume are proof that methods and research trajectories can be revolutionized given enhanced accessibility to archives and the transformation of those archives into data. The encounter between the precarious historicity of manuscripts (methods of classification, but also material fragility), and the most innovative of current technologies clearly serves as an invitation to undertake unusual and unexpected research projects.

This digital-only volume reveals one of the key issues of the CFRP, which is based precisely on the idea that an emancipatory vision of the history of theater must work toward a heterogeneity of approaches. Moreover, we believe that our own positioning requires us to acknowledge the responsibility that we have in the face of ongoing technological shifts, with respect both to the possibilities and the limits of new technologies. Toward this end, we strive to multiply research tools, types of publications, ways of producing information, and ultimately knowledge itself, while continuing to remain critically attentive to the territory that we are exploring and sharing.



The image in the header of this article was created by Laetitia Gendre.

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