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The Comédie-Française by the Numbers, 1752–2020

Published onOct 07, 2020
The Comédie-Française by the Numbers, 1752–2020


The Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP) belongs to the current moment when humanists have joined forces with information technologists. This collaboration, often referred to as the Digital Humanities (DH), has generated heated debates. Critics allege that this work constitutes a neo-liberal assault on the academy designed to maximize profitability at the expense of humanistic values and educational diversity.1 Resources, they claim, are being diverted from traditional academic departments and tenure-track lines towards anti-humanist technologists whose work facilitates a bottom-line assessment. A Fall 2017 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education went so far as to argue that, ten years on, the Digital Humanities has proven to be a “bust.” The author claims that in spite of millions of dollars of investments from universities and foundations in the public and private spheres, Digital Humanities projects have done little to change basic paradigms of knowledge in humanistic fields.2

Digital humanists and their defenders have been quick to respond to such changes. DH critics, they contend, are traditionalists unwilling to acquire new technical skills or consider new interpretations enabled by computational methods. They allege that these naysayers may also be using the smokescreen of DH polemics to settle long-standing disciplinary or personal grudges. In addition, while it may be true that the academy has become more corporate in recent years, the rise of the digital humanities is not to blame for strapped state and federal budgets and reduced foundational support for education. The growth in student debt and the deceptive promises of “for-profit” universities would be with us even if humanists had not begun to ally with programmers. And the outcomes of DH initiatives in areas such as text-mining, data visualization, geo-spatial mapping, and network analysis have only enriched the already robust disciplinary and interdisciplinary conversations occurring in many humanities fields. 

This is a debate that will no doubt continue for some time, given the financial constraints on higher education in the United States and elsewhere, as well as the role that we expect twenty-first century education to play in our politics, economics, and culture. The quarrel focuses more on current and future hopes for the Academy than on a rigorous assessment of the actual merits of humanities scholarship undertaken using digital methods. In this essay, I would like to offer a way of evaluating the Comédie-Française Registers Project, and implicitly other DH work, which relies more on chronological comparison than the heat of the current political moment. Specifically, I would like to look at three earlier efforts to quantify the daily receipt registers of the Comédie-Française theater troupe that are at the core of the CFRP. Each one was shaped by the historical juncture in which it was undertaken, just as the CFRP and DH projects more generally are subject to the needs and passions of the present day.

In the first instance Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy (1701-1784), published the Tablettes dramatiques and a series of supplements between 1752 and 1758 that relied in part on material he found in the registers of the troupe. His goal was to formulate a usable theater history for eighteenth-century French theatergoers. Over a century later, Alexandre Joannidès (1879-1926), an assiduous researcher who spent a quarter of a century studying the daily receipt registers at the Comédie-Française, published an initial tabulation of register data in 1901. He then authored annual updates on the troupe’s activities for two decades, revised his initial work in 1920, and continued his yearly updates for another six years until his death. These works helped the troupe to articulate its continuing commercial and cultural role in the theatrical landscape of early twentieth-century France. Finally, Henry Carrington Lancaster (1882-1954), a Professor of Romance Languages at the Johns Hopkins University, published partial transcriptions of the 1680-1774 register data in 1941 and 1951 as part of a larger project to write the history of “French dramatic literature” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A prominent member of the American professoriate, Lancaster’s interest in the registers and the Old Regime French stage fell in line with the efforts of other leading academicians to situate American democracy and culture within a European heritage they credited with generating universal values. Each of these men turned to the receipt registers of the Comédie-Française for reasons specific to their time and their interests. By paying attention to this lengthy history of transcribing and interpreting the registers themselves, we might develop a better critical perspective on the CFRP, and the work of the Digital Humanities more generally, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

I. Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy: “Grub Street” Theater Historian

When the Chevalier de Mouhy published his Tablettes dramatiques in 1752, the Comédie-Française had been in existence for almost three-quarters of a century.3 Upon the troupe’s establishment in 1680, King Louis XIV had given its actors a monopoly on the performance of all French-language spoken drama before paying audiences in Paris. No other troupe was permitted to perform the works of Molière, Racine, Pierre Corneille, or any other French-language playwright in the capital. The performers received an annual pension from the Crown, for which they were required to perform at Court whenever the sovereign requested their presence. This potent combination of public commercial monopoly and royal patronage attracted court figures, visiting dignitaries, and authors and intellectuals to the troupe’s Paris performances. Contested issues staged before the socially heterogeneous audiences that attended nightly performances resonated far beyond the playhouse walls. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Comédie-Française had become a key cultural and political institution in Enlightenment France.

By that point, several authors and publishers had produced experimental histories of the French theater, and of spectacles in Paris more generally. As early as the 1730s, two multi-volume histories of the French stage appeared that sought to provide a more rigorously chronological underpinning to the rise of the theatrical arts in France.4 The first, entitled Recherches sur les théâtres de France, depuis l’année onze cens soixante-un, jusques à présent by the Comédie-Italienne playwright turned historian Pierre-François Godard de Beauchamps, divides the history of the French stage by the lives of its most noteworthy authors.5 The year before Godard’s Recherches appeared, the brothers Claude and François Parfaict published the first of fifteen small format volumes that would constitute their Histoire du théâtre français depuis son origine jusqu’à present. Unlike the Recherches, however, the vast expanse of the Parfaicts’ fifteen volumes allowed the brothers to offer much greater historical and critical detail on each author and play considered.6 The 1749 preface to the last volume of the Parfaict brothers’ Histoire promised that three more volumes would soon appear, bringing the work up to the present. But these final volumes of the Histoire never materialized, opening the door to other authors who wished to write the contemporary history of the Comédie-Française.


Figure 1. Martinet, Portrait of Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy, published as the frontispiece to the Abrégé de l’histoire du théâtre françois, vol. 1 (Paris: Jorry, 1780).

Courtesy of the Rare Book Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Between 1752 and 1758 Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy, took advantage of this opportunity to produce the Tablettes dramatiques, a new format that he and his publishers wagered would appeal to theatergoers in search of a convenient compendium of the kingdom’s theatrical past. Mouhy was born into a minor military family in Metz in 1701; he was the nephew of Hilaire-Bernard de Longepierre, a playwright whose 1694 tragedy Médée, ou Médée et Jason stayed in the Comédie-Française repertory throughout the eighteenth century.7 [Fig. 1] Mouhy and his wife, also from a modest background, had taken up residence with their five children in Paris by the mid-1730s. From that point until his death in 1784, the Chevalier relied on his literary talents and professional and social connections for his livelihood. He published La Paysanne parvenue, Les Mille et une faveurs, Le Masque de fer and dozens of other novels, some of which are still read by critics today.8 In the 1730s and 1740s, he corresponded with Voltaire, even offering his name as a cover for one of the philosophe’s polemical pamphlets published in the late 1740s. He edited manuscript gazettes based on news and rumors he gathered in the salons and cafés of the capitol, eventually converting his networks into a position as an informant serving the Paris police in the 1740s. In spite of these connections, he found himself incarcerated in the Bastille twice, the first time in 1741 for publishing a novel without governmental permission, and the second time in 1745 for circulating news bulletins without official authorization. He worked closely with publishers to produce and sell topical fiction and non-fiction works geared toward success in the marketplace; information in the prefaces and title pages of some of these works indicate that he at times sold these printed texts out of his own home. In short, Mouhy leveraged every aspect of his military training, his undistinguished but prolific literary output, his relations with Parisian printers, and his social and cultural networks to make ends meet for over half a century. He was what some cultural historians of eighteenth-century France have called a “grub street writer,” but this term does not do justice to the complexity of Mouhy’s activities and networks.9

At the start of the 1750s, taking note of the growing enthusiasm for theater history generated by writers like Godard and the Parfaicts and the absence of fresh works addressing the topic, Mouhy began a new venture. Capitalizing on his connections with Voltaire and others in the world of the theater, and perhaps on the continuing presence of his uncle Longepierre’s Medea tragedy in the Comédie-Française repertory, Mouhy began to draft a work he would entitle Tablettes dramatiques.10 In the preface to this book, published in 1752, Mouhy explained that he had set out to provide a “dictionary” of plays that would serve as a useful reference work alongside the chronologically organized histories of Godard and the Parfaict brothers. In order to provide the most complete, accurate dictionary of French-language plays possible, he turned to several types of confidantes: the most distinguished playwrights of his day, the actors of the Comédie-Française, and social elites (les gens du monde) who knew the stage well. After listing these multiple sources, he hastened to add that many of the observations in the pages that followed were not his, but necessarily remained unattributed out of respect for his interlocutors. 

None of these approaches were particularly surprising or unconventional. Tucked in among these acknowledgements and disclaimers, however, was the information that Mouhy also consulted the daily receipt registers of the Comédie-Française troupe to determine how many times each play in its repertory was performed during its initial run. Mouhy was aware of the controversial nature of this metric. He acknowledged that the Parfaicts were criticized for including first-run numbers in their history of the French stage. The public and knowledgeable critics (“connoisseurs”) did not always judge the merit of a play by its initial popularity in the public theater, he observed, and “cabals” often conspired to ruin a play’s reception. Furthermore, followers of the French stage could readily name plays that had successful first runs but were never revived, or works that failed when first performed but subsequently enjoyed commercial and critical success when restaged. In short, quantification was not a fail-safe guide to the quality of a dramatic work, but the length to which Mouhy goes to address its perceived shortcomings suggests that it was a criterion he valued. 

This impression is confirmed when one turns to the “Dictionary” of plays that forms the bulk of this 400-page work. In the preface, Mouhy noted the unusual typographical format he had adopted. It was difficult to summarize the entire history of the French stage in a single, affordable, portable volume, as readers of the bulky works by Godard and Parfaict knew, but he and his publishers had hit upon a solution after several typographical experiments. They would summarize the key information about a play in a single line at the head of every play entry. This quasi-tabular approach would permit readers to grasp the essential facts about any play in one quick glance. For dramatic works that merited further discussion a few sentences or a short paragraph would also follow the tabular format of the first line. 


Figure 2. Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy, Tablettes dramatiques (Paris: Jorry, 1752), 1.

TS 375 13.5, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

We can see how this typographical arrangement worked in practice by examining two pages from the “dictionary” of plays at the heart of Mouhy’s Tablettes. The first example, also the first page of Mouhy’s alphabetical list of plays, relied on dark lines to frame the entire page and to emphasize the tabular organization of the data. [Fig. 2] Underneath the title that occupies the top half of the leaf, the printer inserted the alphabetical range ABE-ABS to indicate the ordering of the information on the page. Below the alpha range, the printer inserted labels for the five main categories of data to be reproduced for each entry: title, author, date of premiere, number of first-run performances, and date of first publication. These five categories, and the typographical marks aligning them below each category label, are then repeated for each of the five plays listed on the page. Overall, these formatting decisions encouraged the reader to browse the columns of information for performance and publication details about each play. Brief one or two-line summaries containing further information about each work only disrupted the eye’s movement as it scanned the column, thereby de-emphasizing the narrative description of each play that had been a central feature of the works by Godard and the Parfaicts. 


Figure 3. Charles de Fieux, Chevalier de Mouhy, Tablettes dramatiques (Paris: Jorry, 1752), 146.

TS 375 13.5, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

A second example, the listing of some of the plays in the MAR alpha range, reinforces the tabular effect while also indicating the heterogeneity of the data being presented. [Fig. 3] This page contains information about nine plays. The only column containing complete information for each work is the first one, which records the play title (Noms des Piéces.). A reader scanning down the second column, the name of the playwright (Noms des Auteurs.) would quickly note that the authors of four of the plays were unknown. The third column, the year in which the play first premiered onstage (An. Des Repr.), yielded the information that two of the nine plays on the page were never performed in public. A glance at the next column to the right, the number of performances in the play’s first run (Le Nomb), indicated that no data on first-run success was available for five more of the plays that had been performed. In each case, the premiere had occurred before Parisian troupes began recording performance information. And the final column, recording the date of publication and print format for each play (An. Des Editions.), revealed that four of the nine plays either remained unpublished or that their existence in print was uncertain. In today’s terms, one would conclude that Mouhy’s dataset for these nine plays was incomplete.

A less hurried reader, or one looking for other details, might also move beyond a vertical scan of this page to peruse the summaries below the single-line tabular summaries for each work. Here these narratives range from briefly dismissive (Gilbert’s 1640 tragedy Marguerite de France was “foible, & mal conduite”) to the extensive discussion of the best-known play on the page, Dancourt’s Mari retrouvé, which enjoyed a first run of 23 performances in 1698. In the latter example, one learns from Mouhy that the play was inspired by a notorious contemporary trial, and that the play’s most recent revival in March 1747 featured a new ballet that had pleased audiences.11 In short, a reader turning to this page for information about a play in the MAR alpha range would quickly learn what there was to know about a play’s authorship and its initial performance and publication history, and might discover other details about the play’s reception or its aesthetic qualities, such as its genre, number of acts, or literary style (verse or prose). Mouhy and his publishers had designed a print reference work that relied on a tabular presentation to provide a snapshot of each play’s history on stage and in print. But because readers were also familiar with narrative summaries that emphasized more formal qualities of dramatic literature, the production team chose not to rely exclusively on a tabular presentation. This hybrid formatting suggests a tension between quantitative and qualitative interpretive strategies utilized by theatergoers in the mid-eighteenth century.

While it is difficult to know how readers actually processed the information laid out on the pages of the Tablettes dramatiques, Mouhy himself indicated in a later publication that he imagined this work would be most useful as a reference tool for theatergoers who wanted to review information about plays being performed before heading to the playhouse:

. . . le premier besoin des personnes qui vont habituellement au Spectacle est, avant de s’y rendre, d’être instruites de ce qui a rapport aux Pieces qui doivent y être représentées: en jettant les yeux sur [ce livre], ils apprendront, au coup-d’oeil, le temps de leurs representations, combien elles en ont eues [sic], les noms de leurs auteurs. . .12

In other words, he sought to create a usable, easily consulted theater history for spectators who wanted to situate an evening at the theater in the broader context of France’s theatrical past. A review of the Tablettes in 1752 by the literary critic Élie-Catherine Fréron offered evidence that contemporaries thought the work’s typographical format supported that mission. Fréron noted that Mouhy had managed to capture in a single tome everything that “l’histoire de notre Théâtre peut offrir d’intéressant.” The critic then explained in detail the single-line summary of play data that characterized the Chevalier’s dictionary of plays, and concluded by praising Mouhy and his publishers for condensing the relevant information into a single volume.13

Fréron’s enthusiasm for the format of Mouhy’s Tablettes appears to have been shared by readers, if one can judge by the commercial success of the work. The initial 1752 publication cost six livres. In contrast, a duodecimo print edition of a single new play, or a ticket to stand in the parterre of the Comédie-Française to see a play, generally cost a single livre for most of the eighteenth century. Purchasers of the initial 1752 text were entitled to a free annual printed update that Mouhy and his publishers brought out every year during the three-week Easter hiatus between theater seasons. Readers could pick up these supplements at Mouhy’s residence, or at the shops maintained by his publishers. For those who had not purchased the original 1752 compendium, the annual additions cost twelve sous, or three-fifths of a livre. By the Easter 1755 recess, Mouhy was urging his readers to pick up their supplements as soon as they appeared, because the publishers were running out of copies. In succeeding years, they promised to publish twice the number of supplements.

Mouhy and his publishers, Pissot, Jorry, Duchesne, and Lambert (the latter located on the same street as the Comédie-Française playhouse) churned out their supplements for six years, through 1758. In that year, however, Louis XV appointed the Maréchal Duc de Belle-Isle, already a patron of Mouhy, to be head of the Ministry of War. Belle-Isle, in need of a set of eyes and ears reporting on news from the capital, offered Mouhy a pension in exchange for a promise to stop publishing his works on theater history and other topics. In addition, it is likely that the annual supplements, confined to reporting news from the most recent season of the Comédie-Française, could no longer compete with an annual theater almanac that also began to appear at the start of the 1750s.14 By the end of the decade, the latter offered updates and anecdotes concerning all the capital’s spectacles in a smaller, more portable format that did not need to be collated with the previous year’s publication. The almanacs, however, did not summarize information drawn from the registers of the Comédie-Française troupe, nor did they adopt the tabular typographical format that characterized Mouhy’s Tablettes and its supplements. 

Mouhy and his publishers appeared to hedge their bets on the tabular format even before the annual almanacs became an expected publishing event in the late 1750s. In 1752, the Comédie-Française printed a list of the plays in its repertory for internal use, the Calendrier pour l’année MDCC LII à l’usage des comédiens François ordinaires du roi.15 This work was not for sale to the public, but when Mouhy obtained a copy he began to fret that his Tablettes did not contain an accurate listing of all the plays in the troupe’s repertory. In consequence, he and the three publishers behind the Tablettes came out with a new work in 1753, Le Répertoire de toutes les pièces restées au Théâtre François, avec la date, le nombre des représentations, et les noms des Auteurs et des Acteurs vivans, published in a smaller, cheaper format than the Tablettes.16 This new work dispensed with the tabular format that increased publication costs, incorporating information on performance runs and publications into the textual summary of the play. Already in the early 1750s, therefore, Mouhy and his publishers aimed to satisfy multiple niches in the market for theater history in print. And when Mouhy returned to writing theater history towards the end of his life in 1780, the expanded compendium he published, the three-volume large format Abrégé de l’histoire du théâtre françois, no longer featured the tabular format. The new publication did incorporate first edition publication information into the body of a standard text. But the number of first-run performances was omitted. By 1780, one gathers, eighteenth-century readers in search of information about the French theatrical past no longer required all the data or the tabular formatting with which Mouhy and his publishers had earlier experimented.

II. Alexandre Joannidès: Historiographe of the Comédie-Française, 1901-1926

A century and a half later, the Parisian theatrical landscape in which the Comédie-Française troupe competed looked quite different. The commercial monopoly on spoken French drama enjoyed by the Comédie-Française since its founding disappeared during the revolutionary 1790s and part of the first decade of the new century, but Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated it in a series of regulations in 1807 and 1808. Subsequent regimes, monarchical and republican, kept these restrictions in place until 1864, when the Emperor Napoleon III lifted them definitively as part of a general liberalization of French commercial practice. From that point onward, the troupe had to compete with other theater companies that now had the right to perform their repertory. The state still censored the troupe’s scripts and performances, however, and in the late 1840s the government had also insisted on appointing a general administrator of the company’s artistic and fiscal affairs, in exchange for continued material support. By the late nineteenth century, the troupe was competing financially with other theater companies that had the resources to hire away talented performers and stage works by popular new playwrights. The rise of the avant-garde theater in the 1880s, often associated with the Théâtre libre of André Antoine, posed new challenges, as that group’s free admission policy allowed it to avoid state censorship while staging controversial stage topics that appealed to fin-de-siècle audiences and critics. And new forms of entertainment, such as the café-concert, wax museums, dioramas, print journalism, still photography and, by the 1890s, the early cinema, also upended the entertainment marketplace. It was not obvious how an institution whose origins stretched back to the time of the Sun King would adapt to the new media and commercial scene at the start of the twentieth century.17

In response, the venerable theater company doubled down on its historical heritage. Since 1799 it had performed in a theater on the rue de Richelieu in the southwest corner of the immense Palais Royal at the heart of Paris, a space it still occupies today. Within that ornate building, it housed not only performance and rehearsal spaces and administrative offices, but also the accumulated archives of generations of performances, along with a growing collection of sculptures, paintings, and other museum-quality artifacts, and a rich library of printed and manuscript play texts. In 1879, the armchair in which Molière had sat while giving his last performance before he abruptly died in 1673 was retired from use on the stage, taking its place in the foyer of the playhouse alongside sculptures of the great playwrights and portraits of past performers. If the troupe had a marketing appeal at the turn of the twentieth century, it lay in its claims to embody an enduring French cultural nationalism, alongside such well-established institutions as the Louvre or the Académie française. Other theater companies might offer productions that tapped into romantic or nihilist veins of contemporary culture, such as Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac or Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi, but none could match the weight of history on display on the rue de Richelieu. By 1900 the Comédie-Française was not only the sum of its 220 year-old repertory, but also a kind of living theater museum where the current performers and playwrights were in constant dialogue with past artists. As one critic put it two years later, it was “une illustre maison qui, seul entre nos théâtres, avec ses toiles et ses bustes, ses livres et ses archives, son auréole de gloire solennelle et souriante, les noms pompeux et galants qui forment la chaîne de son histoire, a le privilège de satisfaire les goûts de l’érudit et ceux du dilettante.”18


Figure 4. Albert Braïtou-Sala, Portrait of Alexandre Joannidès at age 40, 1919.

Courtesy of the Bibliothèque-Musée de la Comédie-Française.

This history-drenched environment proved attractive to a young immigrant to Paris named Alexandre Joannidès. [Fig. 4] Born in 1879 in Manchester, England, his father was Greek and his mother English. When he was seven, his father died and his mother moved the family to Paris.19 In 1892 he began to study painting. An uncle in Paris, like that of Mouhy, was a playwright. By the mid 1890s, the young Alexandre and his painterly ambitions came to the attention of Henri Cain, a well-known artist who also wrote librettos, plays, and poems. Joannidès studied painting with Cain, and also developed a passion for the theater under his tutelage. He began to attend matinees at the Comédie-Française and other theaters, and collect theater posters, programs, and photos of the leading actors of the Comédie-Française. Eventually Cain introduced his young protégé to his friend Jules Clarétie, the Administrator-General of the Comédie-Française. Clarétie in turn presented Joannidès to the troupe’s archivist, Georges Monval, who gave the young theater aficionado access to the company’s library and archives. Joannidès, immersed in the troupe’s dusty records, soon conceived the idea of filling a gap in the company’s history by producing a systematic compilation of the theater’s two-century long performance history based on the information contained in the annual receipt registers that dated back to 1680, the same source that Mouhy had consulted in a more haphazard manner a century and a half earlier.20

Joannidès’ first and most important publication based on his intensive tabulation of the Comédie-Française registers data, entitled La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1900: Dictionnaire général des pièces et des auteurs, appeared in 1901. It was published in a limited edition of 250 copies by the literary publishing house, Plon-Nourrit, as were all subsequent volumes of Joannidès’s work on the troupe’s historical repertory. Clarétie, writing in the preface, makes note of the difficult circumstances under which the young historian completed his task. A fire had gutted the troupe’s palatial playhouse on the rue de Richelieu in March 1900. While most of the company’s collections of paintings and sculptures, as well as its voluminous archives and its library, were saved, the troupe was displaced for over a year while the theater was rebuilt. Contemporaries did not fail to note the irony of the theater going up in flames at that juncture, as though the troupe’s contributions to French national identity could not be sustained in the new century. Joannidès, however, who had begun his tabulations several years before the blaze, finished his research in the temporary consultation rooms set up in the Louvre, a few blocks from the theater. The resulting work in some sense consecrated that past, yet it also promised yearly updates to the tables and statistics it contained on the plays and authors whose work constituted the troupe’s most important legacy. By 1901, both the playhouse itself, and the legendary repertory, were being re-conceived as a foundation for the company’s continued relevance in the new century. As Clarétie himself noted in the preface to the 1901 publication,

Que de gloire accumulée de 1680 à 1900! . . . Elle est immortelle, elle est indestructible, la Maison de Molière, de Corneille, de Racine, de Victor Hugo, qui, sur sa façade offre désormais les profils de ces poètes à l’admiration des foules. Et c’est une pierre de plus ajoutée à sa gloire que le livre excellent et utile de M. Joannidès, historiographe de la Comédie-Française.21

La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1900 harkened back to the work of Mouhy and the other eighteenth-century historians of the French stage, as Jules Truffier, one of the troupe’s actors, noted in a preface he penned for Joannidès 1903 Comédie-Française yearbook: “J’ai vu un jour…un Agenda ou Almanach du Théâtre François, publié probablement en 1757, dans lequel un amateur avait, autrefois, esquissé le plan de votre entreprise.”22 Truffier confessed his ignorance about the author of the eighteenth-century work, but he noted approvingly that “vous aussi, cher Monsieur Joannidès, vous doteriez un jour, au commencement du vingtième siècle, les amis de l’Art dramatique de votre superbe agenda.” The 450 pages of La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1900 are divided into three parts, which would have been recognizable to Mouhy and his readers. These included an 88-page alphabetical list of all play titles performed since 1680, with the dates of premiers, a 47-page alphabetical list of all the authors who had written for the troupe since 1680, including the names of the plays written by each author, and a 246-page breakdown of plays performed each year from 1680 to 1900, including the number of times each play was performed in each season. The main section of the book, therefore, offered the same sorts of information that Mouhy and the almanac editors had compiled a century and a half earlier—an index of authors and plays in the troupe’s repertory that allowed easy access to information about specific writers and works, and a yearly breakdown of the troupe’s repertory. Joannidès’ compilation, of course, had the added merit of another century and a half of data.

Before these three comprehensive lists that Joannidès labored so intensively to create, however, he added a tabular innovation for his early twentieth-century readers that gestured towards the temporal permanence of the Comédie-Française as an institution. While the Chevalier de Mouhy’s mid eighteenth-century experiments blended text and data, Joannidès led off his volume with eleven tables that provided information on the number of times plays by some of the most frequently performed authors in the troupe’s history were played by decade, from the 1680s to the 1890s. The table for Molière (1622-1673), for example, shows the distribution of the 20,290 performances of his 32 plays in the repertory across 22 decades. Even in the second half of the nineteenth century, a substantial number of the seventeenth-century comic playwright’s works continued to be featured in the troupe’s repertory. [Fig. 5]


Figure 5. Alexandre Joannidès, La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1900 (Paris: Plon, 1901), xiv-xv.

Courtesy of the Harvard College Library.

One might contrast this table with that Joannidès prepared for Voltaire (1694-1788), whose 31 plays in the repertory were performed about a fifth as frequently as those of Molière. The decline of interest in Voltaire clearly begins with the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, then tails off precipitously after 1850.23 [Fig. 6]


Figure 6. Alexandre Joannidès, La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1900 (Paris: Plon, 1901), xviii-xix.

Courtesy of the Harvard College Library.

Finally, the last four tables published by Joannidès summarized the popularity of four nineteenth-century playwrights, Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), Emile Augier (1820-1899), and Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895). The tables present eight decades of data for the former authors, and six decades of statistics for their slightly younger counterparts. [Fig. 7]


Figure 7. Alexandre Joannidès, La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1900 (Paris: Plon, 1901), xxii-xxiii.

Courtesy of the Harvard College Library.

Joannidès prepared similar tables for the seventeenth-century authors Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, and the eighteenth-century authors Regnard, Marivaux, and Beaumarchais. The six tables reproduced here, however, give an indication of how Joannidès’ labors and their graphic format shaped a history of the Comédie-Française at the turn of the twentieth century. If Molière provides a baseline, giving the repertory a foundation across more than two centuries of performances, the rise and fall of the troupe’s most important eighteenth-century playwright, Voltaire, can be clearly conceived in contrast, and the “modernization” of the repertory in the nineteenth century is suggested by the popularity of the four post-1800 playwrights.

Joannidès’s tables present a clearer commitment to a quantitative description of the Comédie-Française than Mouhy’s Tablettes, or as the actor Truffier noted in his 1902 preface, Joannidès had prepared an “œuvre mathématiquement historique.”24 The textual assessments of plays that Mouhy incorporated after each one-line summary of a work have been stripped away, leaving rows and columns to be added and interpreted without the aid of textual explanation. The greater reliance on statistical summary by Joannidès reflects in part the durability of the institution. When Mouhy published his Tablettes and yearly updates in the 1750s, the Comédie-Française was only three generations old, and its place in the Parisian theatrical landscape was in constant evolution, in spite of the royal privilege the troupe enjoyed. Audiences thought in terms of the literary canon, and wanted information about plays and authors so they could debate an author’s standing in the literary field. The Comédie-Française played a complementary role in determining that hierarchy. By the start of the twentieth century, the troupe had an unmatched record of durability on which to draw. It was true that many of the great authors of the nineteenth century sought status through performance of their works by the venerable troupe, but it was the troupe itself, and its storied history as displayed nightly in its luxurious, rebuilt playhouse-museum across the rue de Rivoli from the Louvre, which bestowed that status. In this context, and in a time more given to the quantitative analysis of public culture and public policy, the tables Joannidès published at the outset of his 450-page magnum opus summarizing the results of his painstaking research offered new insights into the storied cultural institution.25

Clarétie commented on these issues in his preface to Joannidès 1901 work, noting that “[v]oilà de la statistique littéraire intéressante.”26 Clarétie observed that the tables of Joannidès demonstrated how much “en ce pays de France, le rire, la comédie est l’art représentatif du tempérament national.” The long-running popularity of Molière, the nation’s greatest comic playwright, of course supported this argument. But the tables also allowed Clarétie to observe that even Racine, at 6270 performances the second most frequently played writer in the troupe’s 220-year history, owed one-sixth of his performances to his only comedy, Les Plaideurs, which had in fact been played more often than any of his tragedies. Jean-François Regnard, a comic writer who died in 1709, had enjoyed more total performances at the Comédie-Française than the great Pierre Corneille; six of Regnard’s works were still in the repertory in the 1890s. And while Corneille’s most popular play for more than two centuries had been the 1636 tragedy Le Cid, it was followed by his 1644 farcical comedy Le Menteur. In short, Clarétie relied on the work of Joannidès to indulge in a bit of tabular reasoning that linked the deep history of the troupe to a much-loved stereotype about French gaiety. While the troupe had developed a reputation for gravity over the decades, its repertory also reflected a love of laughter that contemporaries claimed was deeply rooted in the national character.

For twenty years after the appearance of his initial, monumental labor in print, Joannidès published a yearly update on the troupe’s activities that included information about new plays, new members of the company, noteworthy events and administrative developments, and critical assessments of productions that had taken place during the previous season. By 1920, however, enough new performance data had accumulated since the initial 1901 work that Joannidès decided to update his statistical summation of the troupe’s history. In the preface to the new work, La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1920: Tableau des représentations, Joannidès explained that he had decided to take a new approach to the tabular presentation of the data derived from the registers. The tables at the head of the 1901 version of his work provided performance totals for each of the plays penned by the eleven authors who were their subjects. But readers in the interim had noted that they would like the same tallies for every play in the repertory, not just those by Molière, Racine, and other canonical playwrights. Joannidès decided to oblige them, at the same time that he added performance statistics from the intervening twenty years. The new work suppressed the eleven tables found at the start of the 1901 volume, but the new preface did include two updated lists. One presented the thirty authors whose works had been performed one thousand times or more over the previous 240 years, in descending order of number of performances. The second listed the fifty-five plays that had been performed five hundred times or more since 1680, also in descending order. [Fig. 8]


Figure 8. Alexandre Joannidès, La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1920 (Paris: Plon, 1921), ii-iii.

Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University.


Figure 9. Alexandre Joannidès, La Comédie-Française de 1680 à 1920 (Paris: Plon, 1921), 28.

Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University.

The preface was followed by the work’s longest section, the alphabetical list of authors, in which Joannidès noted every play by each author under their names. If we look at one of the pages devoted to the work of Dancourt, we find an example of the new formatting utilized in the 1921 work. [Fig. 9] We see, for example, at the bottom of the first column a listing for Le Mari retrouvé, the 1698 one-act play based on a contemporary cause célèbre also mentioned by Mouhy in the Tablettes. Joannidès demonstrated that the play stayed in the troupe’s repertory until 1835, logging 373 total performances, more than any other work by the author on this page and more than all but two other Dancourt plays in the repertory. Joannidès repeated these calculations for all 2336 works in the troupe’s repertory in 1920, an effort that occupied 106 pages of the 137-page work. These tallies represented a significant advance on the 1901 volume, which had listed the number of times a play had been performed in an individual season, but left it to the reader to thumb through more than two centuries to arrive at the total number of performances for each play. The 1921 volume more clearly served the needs of readers interested in a more complete quantitative history of the troupe’s 240 years.

This new “user interface,” which provided much easier access to the performance histories of the more than two thousand plays that the company had staged since its founding in 1680, prompted new reflections on the part of those interested in the French theatrical past. Writing in the Journal des débats in 1921, the journalist and man of letters Henri Bidou noted that the decade-by-decade accounting for each play allowed Joannidès to present the history of each work graphically, as a “courbe devant les yeux.”27 The resulting tables, Bidou argued, were not only an indispensable aid to those who would write the history of the theater, but also “une lecture attachante et féconde en surprises.” What particularly drew Bidou’s attention were patterns he perceived in the extinction of plays from the repertory. He had expected to find an even distribution of disappearances from the repertory across the decades; instead, he discovered that the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century had proved to be particularly fatal for many works, and that the 1790s and the fin-de-siècle one hundred years later had actually witnessed relatively few repertory purges. Bidou paused at some length over the years around 1830 and 1850, which saw the loss of all of Voltaire’s plays save his tragedy Zaïre, as well as many other staples of the eighteenth-century repertory. The period around 1750 had also led to the disappearance of many of the seventeenth-century landmarks of the troupe’s repertory not authored by Molière, Corneille, or Racine. Bidou did not offer any sweeping historical generalizations to explain these mid-century repertory extinctions, but the fact that he was easily able to pinpoint these trends suggests the new uses this presentation prompted. In 1901, Clarétie had looked at the performance histories of eleven of the troupe’s most frequently performed authors in 1901 and derived a story that reinforced national stereotypes about French laughter and gaiety. In 1921, writing in the wake of the catastrophic losses, demographic and cultural, that the French suffered in World War I, Bidou took a much harder look at repertory trends across twenty-four decades. New data, and new statistical approaches, were prompting new questions that would resonate beyond French borders. Unfortunately, Alexandre Joannidès, who succumbed to a heart condition in 1927 at the young age of 47, did not live to see how others would continue his work.28

III. Henry Carrington Lancaster: American Academic Mandarin, 1941-1951

A direct engagement with the ongoing history of the Comédie-Française drove the work of both Mouhy in the mid-eighteenth century and Joannidès at the start of the twentieth. The American literary scholar Henry Carrington Lancaster, however, had altogether different motivations for his partial transcriptions of the receipt registers. His two-part compilation, The Comédie-Française 1680-1700: Plays, Actors, Spectators, Finances (1941); and The Comédie-Française 1701-1774: Plays, Actors, Spectators, Finances (1951), appeared as a companion to his monumental, nine-volume History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century (1929-1942), which is still a basic reference work for the study of French Old Regime theater.29 These studies, and the majority of Lancaster’s professional career, were profoundly shaped by the scholar’s experience of the two World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as by his pre-eminent place in the American academy of his time. Lancaster emphatically dedicated the final tome of his great, multi-volume study of the seventeenth-century stage, published in 1942 at the height of World War II, to “Victory.” And in the final paragraph of that work, summing up his 3700 pages on the French stage from 1610 to 1700, he wrote:

To limit one’s knowledge to three leading writers [Corneille, Racine, and Molière] is comparable to the old method of studying history only in its wars, its political negotiations, and the private lives of its kings and queens. The approaching triumph of democracy in war and government should coincide with the willingness on the part of scholars to hear the claims of minor authors, who complement the work of greater men and with them reflect the aspirations in art and in life of a century when the French government refused to yield to foreign encroachment and enabled French authors to dramatize what is stimulating or pathetic, admirable or laughable in the behavior of mankind.30

In other words, his engagement with the registers, and with theatrical and literary history more generally, took on an egalitarian sensibility influenced by his time and place. He aspired to write a history of seventeenth-century “dramatic literature” that would move beyond the standard biographies and aesthetic assessments of the canonical trio. He argued that a complete history of the period’s stage would shed light on the kingdom as a whole, and that in turn the works of its most famous playwrights would acquire new critical dimensions. Given these scholarly ambitions, it is not surprising that he would produce the most complete reproduction of the registers among the three authors considered here.


Figure 10. Stanislav Rembski, Portrait of Henry Carrington Lancaster at age 59, 1941.

Courtesy of The Johns Hopkins University.

Lancaster was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1882, three years after Joannidès was born in Manchester, England. [Fig. 10] He attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate, then received his Ph. D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1907. His first teaching post was at Amherst College in western Massachusetts, where he remained for twelve years. During the first world war, although ineligible for military service, he volunteered in France as the American Educational Director for the foyers du soldat in the country. In 1919 he returned to Johns Hopkins to take up a faculty appointment, where he remained until his death in 1954. He was chair of the Hopkins Romance Languages and Literatures Department for almost thirty years, and he edited Modern Language Notes, a key publication of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the primary learned society for literary and philological scholarship in the United States, for 26 years. He served as President of the MLA in 1939. He was a correspondent for the Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France; Gustave Lanson and Daniel Mornet knew and reviewed his work. In 1932 the French government named him a Chevalier de la légion d’honneur, and in 1946 he received an honorary degree from the Sorbonne.31 In short, unlike Mouhy who was an industrious but untalented author operating on the fringes of the establishment of his day, or Joannidès, whose career was entirely circumscribed by the refined world of Parisian artists and intellectuals from the 1890s to the 1920s, Lancaster was a pillar of the American academy who had major international connections. He was one of the foremost figures in the field of Romance Languages in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, at a time when the American academy was acquiring a global reputation.

The institutional authority Lancaster acquired over the course of his distinguished career was enhanced by his many scholarly publications. While his most enduring work is the History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century, he also authored a monograph on French tragi-comedy from 1552 to 1628 based on his doctoral thesis, and a book-length study of the seventeenth-century dramatist Pierre du Ryer. His bibliography includes critical editions of half a dozen plays by well-known and obscure seventeenth-century authors as well as dozens of articles and reviews. After World War II, he followed his nine volumes on the seventeenth-century stage with three more on the eighteenth century, focusing primarily on tragedy. 

In the latter stages of his career, he also parlayed his academic successes into a role as a public intellectual. At the beginning of World War II, the institutional and intellectual capital he had accumulated began to manifest itself in a series of public proclamations that linked the work of the literary scholar to the survival of liberal democracy. In his Presidential address to the Modern Language Association in 1940, he characterized the task ahead for its members as one of generational inheritance from the European scholarly tradition:

We are like a son whose father has left him his business. The young man has been trained to take his place, but there are many questions he would like to have put, many responsibilities he now for the first time realizes he must face alone. The hope is that the young man may have qualities that will be developed by necessity and will give him greater success than he would have achieved had he remained under paternal guidance.32

And in a series of public radio addresses in Baltimore in 1940 and 1941, Lancaster addressed his “Fellow Americans” on topics such as the death struggle between the Allies and the fascist powers, the Greek resistance to Mussolini, and the wartime duties of the United States and its citizens.33 He began a June 1940 broadcast with the following anecdote:

On June 6, the second day of the great battle, I received from a French friend I had not seen for fifteen years the following five-word cablegram: “Civilization in danger of death.” He turned to me because I was the only American he knew, a native of the only country that could save the civilization that he and we know and cherish.34

In essence, he drew on the success he had achieved in his career as a university humanist to address the ideological needs of a nation at war. Nor did he shirk the duties of the public intellectual in the post-war period. In 1949, as McCarthyite anti-communist sentiment began to grip the academy and the country at large, he lent his name as the lead plaintiff to a legal brief seeking to overturn an “emergency sedition” bill against alleged communist infiltrators passed by the Maryland state legislature. He was joined in the brief by several other professors in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, a salesman, a medical doctor, and a sculptor. The American Legion, a local lawyers guild, and two trade unions filed amici curiae briefs in support of the Lancaster pleading.35 A volunteer veteran of the First World War, a staunch supporter of the war effort during the Second World War, and a voice for sanity in an early Cold War moment of hysteria, Lancaster’s interests reached beyond the Ivy Tower to engage the major events of his lifetime.

The turbulence of the Second World War also helps to explain how this major American academic figure came to publish a partial transcription of the Comédie-Française receipt registers in two volumes over ten years. Thanks to his graduate students working in Paris in the 1930s, Lancaster knew that the Comédie-Française conserved detailed nightly attendance records at the Paris theaters for the final quarter of the seventeenth century and the entire eighteenth century. As he prepared to write the final two volumes of his great study in the late 1930s, on the period from Molière’s death in 1673 until the turn of the century, he sought a way to consult these archival materials. By 1938, he knew that it would not be feasible to travel to Paris to examine the registers, so he sent a request to the Parisian authorities asking to commission microfilms of the registers. Eventually, he had to engage the United States Library of Congress in the negotiations. By May 1939 the microfilms began to arrive in Washington D.C., just as Lancaster was ramping up work on the final two volumes of his magnum opus. A second shipment arrived in September 1939, but as the war began in earnest with the German invasion of Poland that month, Lancaster was still missing the microfilms for the key years of 1681-1688. Worried, he had a stateside friend inquire about the final microfilms with his Paris publisher. The latter was able to learn that the French censors had unaccountably been holding the microfilms since September. They were released in November, and made their way to Washington by December, where Lancaster was able to retrieve them for consultation as he continued to research and write his final volumes.36

As he was finishing his history of the seventeenth-century French stage, Lancaster also conceived the idea of publishing a partial transcription of the valuable data that the register microfilms contained. Driven by the concerns for completeness that marked his multi-volume scholarly epic, he decided to publish far more information that Mouhy or Joannidès had. He was familiar with their work (and extremely critical of Mouhy’s accuracy), but he realized that his predecessors, concerned primarily with the institutional history of the Comédie-Française, had only tabulated numbers of performances. Lancaster’s version of theatrical history also involved the economics of stage performances, and required less textual integration because he had already written so extensively on the stage history of the period. Accordingly, he decided to publish an extract of the registers that would provide six categories of data about each evening’s performance: date, the titles of the plays performed, the number of spectators in attendance, the total box office take, the share for each actor, and the share for the playwright if the play was in its first run. He determined, however, that full publication of the registers “would be extremely expensive, and would not give most readers the information they desire.”37 The 1941 volume, covering the first twenty years of the troupe’s history, corresponded to the final volumes of his work on the seventeenth century. The 1951 volume, addressing the period from 1700 to the death of Louis XV in 1774, provided a basis for the first two of his volumes on eighteenth-century tragedy, the latter of which also ended in 1774. Although the registers continue until the split of the troupe into royalist and republican factions in 1793, and although Lancaster’s final theater history volume covered tragedy from the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI in 1774 into the early years of the Revolution, he died before he could publish a transcription of the post-1774 registers.


Figure 11. Henry Carrington Lancaster, The Comédie-Française, 1701-1774. Plays, Actors, Spectators, Finances (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951), 598.

So what did Lancaster produce? The first thing we might note by examining a page from the 1951 volume is that his formatting is more rigorously tabular than that of Mouhy. [Fig. 11] Lancaster eschews all data extraneous to the registers, unlike the summaries Mouhy includes beneath his single line summary. Second, Lancaster’s work is a “calendar,” rather than a “dictionary.” The information is presented chronologically, over 94 seasons and two volumes. The only hint of alphabetical order comes in the indices, where one can look up plays and people, including both authors and actors. His is a far more faithful effort to reproduce the registers for readers’ inspection than that produced by Mouhy or Joannidès. It takes advantage of the printed page to present a healthy summary of the data contained in the registers themselves, but, unlike Joannidès, leaves the computational work to the reader.

The data categories that Lancaster derived from the registers indicate that he wished to offer information about the Comédie-Française as an economic institution, and to provide data for reflection on the popularity of plays in the repertory, and the playwrights who wrote them. Lancaster himself had speculated on both these themes, the economic feasibility of the troupe and the popularity of its plays, in his narrative history of the French stage. His partial transcription of the registers allowed scholars access to selected aspects of the data on which he had drawn. His audience was clearly academic, and anglophone in addition to francophone; the preface, introduction, and notes were all in English. Literature specialists and historians who did not speak French could draw on his transcription in their own work. Unlike Mouhy, who published commercially, or Joannidès, whose works were published in limited editions intended for turn-of-the-century Parisian cultural elites, Lancaster’s two volumes of register data were published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the American Philosophical Society in its Transactions

By the mid-twentieth century, the cultural capital of eighteenth-century Paris had become a global commodity that was of interest to scholars like Lancaster who sought to construct a cultural heritage for post-war America. A partial version of the data from the Comédie-Française registers, smuggled out of Paris on the eve of World War II by means of a new imaging technology, was now available via print to anyone with access to a reasonably well-stocked academic library. The extent to which this data now reached beyond the borders of the hexagon was noted in a review of The Comédie-Française 1701-1774 by the French literary historian Jacques Scherer, published in the Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France in 1954:

On ne peut que se féliciter de cette initiative américaine. On ne peut s’empêcher de regretter en même temps que l’état des études d’histoire du théâtre en France soit tel qu’un ouvrage de fond de cette importance, traitant de ce qu’on est convenu d’appeler une de nos gloires nationales, n’ait pu être réalisé par des Français.38

Scherer’s comments underline changes that had taken place in the half century since Joannidès had published his first summary of the registers data. When the latter’s work was published, his contemporaries celebrated the way in which it linked the history of the theater troupe to French cultural nationalism. Fifty years later, the scholarly importance of the data had transcended nationalist purposes. Scherer’s lament about the state of theater history in post-war France is also an affirmation that the eighteenth-century history of France’s leading theater troupe belonged to interested scholars everywhere.

Conclusion: The Registers Online in the Twenty-First Century

This survey of three earlier moments in which a grub street writer, an érudit, and an American literary historian had recourse to the data contained in the Comédie-Française receipt registers helps us better situate the current registers project, and the work of the authors in this volume who explore the uses of the CFRP. The eighteenth-century compilation produced by Mouhy appeared at a moment when the theater-going public had begun to view itself as part of the history of the French stage, and therefore wanted more information about that past. The volumes by Joannidès continued to serve the needs of a historically-minded audience a century and a half later that wanted to situate itself in over two centuries of the national theatrical tradition, as embodied in the troupe that performed at the theater-museum known as the Comédie-Française. Finally, the work of Lancaster was more clearly academic and less nationalistic, in that it confined itself to data that was two centuries old and served the needs of scholars, rather than those of the troupe, French nationalism, or contemporary theater audiences. At the same time, it sought to marshal the troupe’s data and history for a political and cultural project that was reaching its height in the post-1945 period, that of a “Western Civilization” conceived as a partner to the economic and political claims of the United States and its global allies after World War II.

In this context, how might we interpret the twenty-first century presentation of data drawn from the registers that has inspired the current volume? The most obvious novelty of the CFRP when compared to these earlier projects is technology. Print was the key technology enabling the work of Mouhy, Joannidès, and Lancaster. Over the intervening three generations since the appearance of Lancaster’s partial transcription of the 1701-1774 data, new digital media and technologies have created new possibilities for an even broader range of scholars and their audiences. We might best understand these changes by comparing some of the search and visualization tools designed by the CFRP team to the formats employed by Mouhy, Joannidès, and Lancaster. The tables found in Mouhy’s Tablettes, for example, might be contrasted with the Discovery Tool designed by Adrien di Mascio of the CFRP team. The organizing principle of the tables in the 1752 work by Mouhy is the play title, listed alphabetically. [See Figures 2 and 3] Once the reader has found the play title in which she is interested, she can easily access information about the author and the performance and publication of the work. The Discovery Tool allows online users the same access to information via play title, and in addition permits users to explore the database by author name, genre or season. Readers of this essay can explore the possibilities of the tool embedded below. [Fig. 12]


Figure 12. CFRP Discovery Tool.

Click on “Pièces” to explore the performance frequency and nightly receipts for plays in the database.

Once they do so, they will see that the CFRP takes advantage of current technology to offer interested readers an updated, more robust access to historical data about specific authors, plays, genres, and seasons, along with visualizations that make performance trends over time more evident.

In the same vein, one might compare Joannidès’ 1901 and 1921 print data compilations with the Faceted Browser designed by Christopher York, and revised by a team at Laval University in Canada. In his two works, Joannidès managed to reformulate the raw data in the registers into a series of tables that summarized performance frequency for playwrights and plays across 240 theatrical seasons, offering data for individual seasons, for the entire career of an author, and for the life of each play in the troupe’s active repertory. [See Figures 5-9] The Faceted Browser, available below, also allows users to study the frequency of performance for both authors and titles in an individual year, or across the entire 113 seasons in the CFRP database. [Fig. 13]


Figure 13. CFRP Faceted Browser.

Drag the term “Auteurs” into one of the gray boxes below it to explore the performance of plays by various Comédie-Française authors in the database.

In addition, the Faceted Browser tabulates total box office receipts and parterre income across the careers of authors and plays in the Comédie-Française repertory through 1793. It also reproduces a summary of receipts for each evening’s performances, and allows users to access a fiche with more data drawn from the registers. The CFRP thus replicates the work of Joannidès online, and adds access to box office sales data that he did not include in his summaries of performance frequency in the 1901 and 1921 volumes.

Finally, the “flipbooks” that reproduce the Comédie-Française daily receipt registers in their entirety are a digital analogue to the partial register transcriptions that Lancaster published in 1941 and 1951. Lancaster deemed that the detailed daily breakdowns of ticket sales by price would not have sufficient interest for his readers to reproduce them. In contrast, the digital environment of the CFRP allows us to reproduce high resolution images of the original registers, without requiring us to leave out data categories. Compare the full-text reproduction of the 1701-1702 register below [Fig. 14], with the limited amount of financial data available in Figure 11 above from the 1951 publication by Lancaster.


Fig 14. Register R46, 1701-02 Season. CFRP Flipbook.

Click on either sheet or move the slider at the bottom of the frame to “turn” the pages and see receipt information for other performances in this season.

While Lancaster was correct that the amount of time and money necessary to reproduce the entire contents of each register page was beyond the means of print in the mid-twentieth century, today’s digital technologies give us more editorial options. Furthermore, our final search and visualization tool, the Cross-Tab Browser (also designed by Christopher York and modified by the Laval University team), offers users the opportunity to breakdown performance frequency and daily receipts by author or play in time periods that range from months, to years, to decades. This tool generates line charts and bar graphs that quickly permit users to identify trends in the data that can then be explored in greater detail, and it also plots frequency and revenue information on a calendar that suggests weekly and seasonal variations across the 113 years of data available. [Fig. 15]


Figure 15. CFRP Cross-Tab Browser.

Use the drop down menus on the left to change the display criteria for the table and line graph on the right.

The point of these comparisons is not, of course, to denigrate the imaginative work done by those who published versions of the data in the Comédie-Française registers before the CFRP team. Mouhy, Joannidès, and Lancaster each operated in a different moment, with media, technologies, and reader expectations that differ from those we encounter today. Each one learned from those who had come before, just as our vision for the CFRP has been articulated in dialogue with the successes and limitations of our predecessors. And it is important to point out that their work endures in the format of the codex book, and in the brick-and-mortar libraries that exist to conserve the rich bibliographical heritage of the past. Today’s digital technologies offer previously unimaginable worldwide access to the registers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But our confidence in the long-term sustainability of these technologies, and in our resolve to create institutions of conservation that will preserve them for future generations, is shaky at best. We cannot guarantee that these words will be available online in this format for future readers.

While these preservation difficulties rightly give us pause, the CFRP also benefits from the current technological, political, and cultural moment in at least two ways. First, the relation between the scholarly community and the interested public at large may be more mutual than scholars imagine, since the design of the CFRP has necessarily been influenced by evolving standards of internet legibility. Anyone with a networked device can browse the data and form their own research hypotheses. That unlimited global access in turn connects the potentially arcane concerns of the academy to a broader public with varied uses for this data.39 Second, data analysis facilitated by the CFRP does not render the rich scholarly traditions of the humanities obsolete. Few humanists will decide to substitute online scrolling and clicking for close reading or aesthetic judgement; most will be interested in the perspectives that visual analysis of mass quantities of data might bring to the already rich debates in our disciplines. In the case of the CFRP, the nightly box office data contributes to a general widening of perspectives in theater and performance studies in the past generation. Attention to the material and economic conditions of past performance now complements inquiry into the literary qualities of play texts. The result is a more complete view of the theatrical past, one that takes into account the political, social, and cultural uses of the stage as well as the aesthetics of the text and its performance.40 As one explores the CFRP online, one can imagine Mouhy, Joannidès, and Lancaster manipulating register data on their tablets today. What conversations might they have among themselves, and with us, about the early repertory of the Comédie-Française?

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