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A Genre for Early Mass Culture: French Vaudeville and the City, 1830-1848

Author(s): Jennifer Terni


Source: Theatre Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2 (May, 2006), pp. 221-248
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25069821
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A Genre for Early Mass Culture:
French Vaudeville and the City, 1830-1848
Jennifer Terni

A comment made .neto me by one of the head librarians at the Biblioth?que de


l'Arsenal, France's national theatre library, captures the scholarly consensus on French
vaudeville. "Don't you find them boring?" she asked. "They're all the same. I can't
imagine why you'd want to study those." To her, French vaudevilles were devoid of
depth and originality, their scholarly neglect a consequence of their reliance on formula
and stereotype. Th?ophile Gautier would have agreed with this assessment despite
his own adventures as a vaudevillist. He complained that vaudevilles so resembled
one another that the entire nineteenth century had not produced a single new play1
Neither Gautier nor the librarian, however, could imagine evaluating vaudeville in
terms other than those of literary or aesthetic value.

Their judgment is reiterated by French vaudeville scholarship to this day. Despite


vaudeville's position as the single most popular theatrical genre of July Monarchy France
(1830-1848), it is the subject of only a handful of articles (many from a special issue on
vaudeville published in Europe in 1994), two book chapters, a slim volume published
in the Que sais-je? series by Henri Gidel, and two thematically related books.2 As this
paper pieces together a framework for understanding the ways in which vaudeville
fit into the culture of July Monarchy Paris, it will also explore some of the critical as
sumptions that have contributed to its neglect.

Jennifer Terni received her Ph.D. in the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University and is cur
rently a lecturer at Emory University.

I would like to thank Philippe Rosenberg, Duncan Chesney, Valerie Kennedy, Jean Graham-Jones,
and Harry Elam for their assistance in revising this paper.
Th?ophile Gautier, paraphrased from Gautier 's "Feuilletons dramatiques," La Presse (1836-1843),
in Claude-Marie Book, "R?alit? et Fantaisie dans 'Un voyage en Espagne/" Revue d'histoire du th??tre
24 (1972): 38.
2 The Que Sais-je? volume by Henri Gidel is adapted from a dissertation (with only 28 pages devoted
to the nineteenth century). See Henri Gidel, Le Vaudeville (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France,
1986). For articles, see Jeanine Charue-Ferrucci, "Le vaudeville de Paris ? Vienne," ?tudes Danubien
nes (France) 13, no. 1 (1997): 77-87; Odile Krakovitch, "Labiche et la censure ou un vaudeville de
plus," Revue Historique 284, no. 2 (1990): 341-57; and Barbara Cooper, "Playing It Again: A Study of
Vaudeville and the Aesthetics of Incorporation in Restoration France," Nineteenth-Century Contexts
13, no. 2 (1989): 197-210. See also the special vaudeville issue of Europe, "Le Vaudeville," Europe 72,
no. 786 (1994); and Jean-Jacques Roubine, "La grande magie," in De la R?volution ? nos jours, vol. 2 of
Le th??tre en France, ?d. Jacqueline de Jomaron (Paris: Armand Collin, 1988). For ancillary works see
Henri Rossi, Le diable dans le vaudeville au XIXe si?cle: avec une chronologie des pi?ces, un index des auteurs
et un r?pertoire des revues et journaux (Paris: Lettres modernes Minard, 2003); and Henri Gidel, Georges
Feydeau (Paris: Flammarion, 1991).

Theatre Journal 58 (2006) 221-248 ? 2006 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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222 / Jennifer Terni

By the end of the 1840s, two-and-a-half to three million spectators per year were
seeing vaudevilles in Paris alone.3 Vaudeville grossed fifty-six percent of total box-of
fice gross receipts for the period, overtaking both melodrama and romantic theatre
as the most watched form of entertainment.4 Already in 1839, an American tourist,
John Sanderson, commented that "Parisians require to be fed continually upon new
pieces.... This has given vogue to ... vaudevilles and produces several hundred new
ones each season."5 Of the four hundred new plays being staged annually during the
July Monarchy, between two hundred fifty and three hundred were vaudevilles.6

Vaudeville, which is a native French genre, evolved very differently from its Ameri
can and British counterparts.7 Most people associate vaudeville with burlesque pieces
and variety shows. But French vaudeville is better compared to the twentieth-century
television situation comedy (for which it should also be recognized as a model). Like
situation comedies, vaudevilles were formulaic and mass produced, and, like their
twentieth-century analogues, their popularity depended, at least in part, on their
formulaic predictability. Although vaudevilles were not based on a fixed cast of char
acters (as situation comedies are now), each play was infused with the same kinds of
ingredients: stereotypes, situation-based plots, reversals of fortune, mistaken identities,
and, of course, happy endings. Even the laugh track, which has become a symbol of
modern corporate entertainment, had its precursor in the claque, a group of profes

3 Estimates are based on 15,000 people visiting the theatre on a daily basis, which totals 5,475,000
spectators annually. Dominique Leroy thinks this may be a little high, but if we calculate that at least
40 percent of these people saw vaudevilles, then the figure of 2 million is conservative. The annual
figures for spectatorship during the July Monarchy per se would almost certainly be higher, as the years
between 1847 and 1850 were hard times for the theatre industry, with many closings due to economic
and political unrest. Leroy, Histoire des Arts du Spectacle en France (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1990), 202.
4 This figure does not include the circus, f?erie, the royal theatres, the Com?die Fran?aise, and opera.
In 1847, box-office profits receipts reached 2.5 million francs for the licensed playhouses alone. Although
this was probably low compared to profits in 1844-1845 (which had been the economic peak of the
Monarchy and the period of maximum expansion in the theatrical market), the 1847 figures represent
triple the profits in real terms compared with the pre-Monarchy period. Ibid., 143.
5 John Sanderson, The American in Paris (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1839), 142.
6 Between 1815 and 1830, 1,300 new vaudevilles were produced, compared with 369 comedies, 280
melodramas, and 200 comic operas (the high production ratio of vaudevilles may be explained in part
by the fact that vaudevilles were usually only one-act plays). Vaudeville production was one-and-a
half times greater than all other forms of production combined. The rate of production of other kinds
of plays, excepting perhaps opera and Romantic drama, remained stable or decreased. The fare at the
Com?die Fran?aise was dominated by its emphasis on classics, which limited the number of new works
staged there. Opera and Romantic drama only account for a modest fraction of the increase in new
plays, as they involved very large and expensive productions. Charles Beaumont Wicks, The Parisian
Stage, vols. 2 & 3 (Mobile: University of Alabama Press, 1961); Leroy, Histoire des Arts, 242.
7 The genre's beginnings are attributed to Olivier Bassan, a Norman poet-songwriter, who founded a
group, "the companions of the Vau de Vire," circa 1400-1450. During the seventeenth century, "vaude
ville" referred to drinking songs, written to well-known tunes. The use of comic songs or operatic
parodies within plays occurred only at the end of the seventeenth century, thanks to a company of
Italian comedians, or the Com?diens Italiens. When the Com?diens Italiens were expelled from France
in 1697, the genre that they had inspired, plays interwoven with song and operatic parody, moved to
the Parisian fairgrounds. Vaudevilles remained rudimentary one-act plays, either social parodies or
romantic comedies. Throughout the eighteenth century, vaudevilles were basically song cycles held
together by minimal plots and remained essentially unchanged until the 1820s. Thanks to Eugene
Scribe's determination to reinvent the genre, songs were moved to the back burner, giving pride of
place to plots, dialogue, and action. See Henri Gidel, Le Vaudeville, 1-55.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 223

sional cheerleaders paid to elicit desired audience responses by laughing, clapping,


or booing at the right moment.8

The parallels between vaudeville and the modern situation comedy also extend to
their modes of production. The steep acceleration in the demand for new plays be
tween 1820 and 1848 encouraged joint authorship. As Sanderson observed, "a prime
vaudevillist does not pretend to furnish his pieces single-handed. He has his partners,
his clerks, his understrappers ... circumferaneous wits who frequent public places
and run all over town in search of plots and ideas."9 Typically, one writer specialized
in developing plot structures, called the carcasse, or skeleton, of the play, while others
concentrated on the dialogue, the raw material of dramatic comedy. Even a writer as
celebrated and experienced as Th?ophile Gautier was paired with a carcassier when
he decided to try his hand at vaudeville in 1844.10

Joint authorship had become a standard in the production of melodramas earlier


in the century. At that time joint authorship became synonymous in the public mind
with commercial production, literary prostitution, and shoddy fare.11 These associations
would persist. A famous July Monarchy caricature of Eug?ne Scribe from Le Charivari
(fig. 1) portrays the renowned vaudevillist as a money-grubbing literary hack. In the
caricature we see Scribe posed at his desk much like an office clerk, surrounded by
bags of money In the background there is a drawer-studded cabinet, each drawer la
beled with a different vaudeville device: situation gag, word plays, couplets, etc. The
pejorative implications of lucre and industrial writing clearly overshadow the success
also celebrated by the illustration.

Despite this stigma, the skyrocketing demand for new plays and the potential for
serious money attracted a broad pool of writing talent, thanks to a royalty system that
rewarded writers with a percentage of box office receipts.12 Writing vaudevilles was
a complex proposition requiring exceptional verbal dexterity as well as dramatic and
comic flare.13 For each successful dramatist, many tried and failed. Despite this, the
cupidity that purportedly motivated so many to try their hand at vaudeville continued
to make them popular targets for caricature and other forms of satire.14

Although the taint surrounding vaudeville has been longstanding, it does not tell
the whole story about the disjuncture between vaudeville's vast popularity on the one

8 See F. J. W. Hemmings, "La Claque: une institution contest?e," Revue d'Histoire du th??tre 34, no. 3
(1987): 297-305.
9 John Sanderson, American, 142^4.
10 Anne Ubersfeld, "Gautier ou l'anti-vaudeville," in "Le Vaudeville," special issue, Europe 72, no.
786 (1994): 61.
11 Indeed, Charles Nodier never signed his melodramas for fear of the stigma attached to such ghost
writing. See Julia Przybos, L'Entreprise m?lodramatique (Paris: Corti, 1987), 15-16.
12 See L?on M?tayer, "Le vaudeville de l'Empire et de la Restauration," in "Le Vaudeville," special
issue, Europe 72, no. 786: 40-42; Ubersfeld, ?Gautier ou l'anti-vaudeville,? 41; and F. J. W Hemmings,
The Theater Industry in Nineteenth-Century Prance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
241-56, esp. 247-52.
13 According to Henri Gidel, Scribe's influence led to a period of more carefully crafted vaudevilles
that lasted from between 1825 and 1850. Gidel, Le Vaudeville, 50.
14 One vaudeville about vaudevillists actually integrates the drive for money as one of its main
themes. Thomas Sauvage and Maurice Saint-Aguet, Un Vaudevilliste, Th??tre de la Renaissance, 1839,
Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris.

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224 / Jennifer Terni

Figure 1. "M. Scribe fait ses comptes d'auteur." Caricature of Eug?ne Scribe by Benjamin Roubaud
1841; reproduced from Charles Simond, Paris de 1800 ? 1900, vol. 2 (Paris: Pion, 1900).

hand and scholarly indifference on the other. When examining the issue more closely,
we find that the critical silence surrounding vaudeville is predictable to the extent
that the procedures used by (especially French) literary scholars to define their objects
disqualify vaudeville in advance. Scholars of nineteenth-century France on both sides
of the Atlantic have tended to privilege formal innovation within a genre or institu
tion in assessing cultural significance and measuring change.15 Based on this criterion,
vaudeville has failed to impress since it presents relatively few formal changes when
compared to innovations like the serial or detective novel, which have become icons
of cultural transformation. Melodrama, vaudeville's popular-theatre cousin, was early
identified as a major trope of the nineteenth-century realist novel. It was therefore
legitimized by association with a canonical genre.16 Vaudeville was never redeemed
in this way. As we shall see, however, what these views obscure is the impact of shift
ing contexts in remaking the cultural status of forms and genres which might at first
glance seem to have remained unchanged. We shall also see that the relevant contexts
in this case are not aesthetic ones. Rather, they tend to be historical and social. This
suggests that to interpret popular genres like vaudeville we need an approach that is
almost by definition interdisciplinary.

This brings me to the principal explanation for vaudeville's neglect: its standing as
a genre of popular culture. Over thirty years ago, Jacques Ranci?re pointed out that
popular genres have consistently challenged intellectuals (especially in France), since
they confound the political and social assumptions instrumental in shaping critical
understanding.17 Yet traditional literary categories, whether aesthetic or political in

15 The fact that the one notable innovation in early nineteenth-century theatre, Romanticism, has
been studied in depth confirms the bias for novelty.
16 Peter Brooks first established this connection in 1975 with his now classic The Melodramatic Imagina
tion: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
17 Jacques Ranci?re notes: "The modern 'reversal' of truth, you see, is really a matter of dividing it in
two. It has not done away with the old scholarly discourse that excludes the artisan locked in material
needs and labors. It has simply doubled it with a discourse of truth, incarnating the latter in the very
same subject who can know neither it, nor himself_Thus mastery ensures replacement for itself.
Sometimes it affirms the inability of the worker to recognize and transform his state without scholarly

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 225

nature, have proven inadequate for explaining vaudeville because they are precisely
the categories that secure the kinds of evaluations that typically underwrite canon
formation.18

The increasing intersection between commercial and popular culture that began to
solidify in the first half of the nineteenth century?especially in urban centers?has
only served to justify the rationale that excludes genres like vaudeville from serious
critical attention. Because it was commercial, vaudeville could not readily be equated
with folkways, that is, with an authentic culture du peuple (which, in French, carries
distinct class connotations, linking "the people" with the working class). Vaudeville's
association with commercial?and especially bourgeois?culture has only legitimated
the assumptions that led to its dismissal on aesthetic grounds in the first place. This is
because, as Sarah Maza's recent study has demonstrated, the category "bourgeois" has
almost never been used as a positive term of self-identification in France. Rather, for the
past three hundred years it has been variously recast to project all that French political
culture should not be.19 In other words, the bourgeoisie turns out to be the phantasmic
Other against which the values of French politics and culture have consistently been
articulated. Vaudeville's marginalization can be seen, then, as a logical consequence of
its association with bourgeois culture. Add the sheer intensity of vaudeville produc
tion, the variations in its quality, sophistication, and self-reflexivity, and we begin to
measure the difficulty of finding ground stable enough to accommodate a coherent
reading of its aesthetic and ideological significance.20

science. Sometimes it pays homage to the suffering truth of the popular body and pours shame on the
false science that adulterates it." Jacques Ranci?re, Nights of Labor: the Workers' Dream in Nineteenth
century France, trans. John Drury (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 12.
18 Cultural studies, deconstruction, and the emergence of identity politics have only heightened the
stakes in this debate. Although the idea of a universal Western canon has been under constant attack,
canon?what belongs to the canon and the production of new canons?has nonetheless remained
a constant pole organizing literary questions because, as Gayatri Spivak observes (quoting Jacques
Derrida), it is almost impossible to step outside of it, leading to the "persistent critique of what one
cannot not want." Although our relationship to canons and the processes through which canons have
been formed has been problematized in many different ways (especially by postcolonial scholars and
scholars of deconstruction), canonical texts continue to command the lion's share of scholarly literary
attention. See Spivak, "More on Power / Knowledge," in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York:
Routledge, 1993), 42. See also Antoine Compagnon^ illuminating discussion, "La Litt?rature," in Le
D?mon de la Th?orie: litt?rature et sens commun (Paris: ?ditions du Seuil, 1998), 29-46.
19 Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imagination 1750-1850 (Cam
bridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). Early examples of scholarship on consumption in France
came, notably, out of the United States: Rosalind H. Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late
Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Michael B. Miller, The Bon
March?: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store 1869-1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1981). French scholars only turned to issues surrounding consumption relatively recently, in the late
1980s and early 1990s; see Daniel Roche's landmark study, Histoire des choses banales: naissance de la
consommation dans les soci?t?s traditionnelles (XVII-XIXe si?cle) (Paris: Fayard, 1997).
20 Although marked signs of change have begun to appear, French scholarship has been slow to
embrace the kinds of cultural and performance studies approaches largely developed and adopted
by American and British scholars. In this vein, see Patrice Pavis's discussion of the history of theatre
studies. In his survey, Pavis draws an important distinction between interdisciplinarity and cultural
studies, arguing that the importance of cultural studies stems from the fact that "literary theater and
elitist art are no longer at the center of observation." Patrice Pavis, "Theatre Studies and Interdiscipli
narity," Theatre Research International 26, no. 2 (2001): 154.

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226 / Jennifer Terni

Perhaps asking questions about the ideological valence of genres is not the best place
to begin, as too often these questions answer themselves in advance?leading precisely
to the kind of marginalization that has haunted vaudeville.21 Making sense of popular
genres may require that we shift the interpretive focus from what the genres say to
what they do. In other words, we must attempt to piece together some understanding
of why vaudeville so resonated with the public and why its moment was so rooted
in July Monarchy Paris.

In what follows, then, I will be arguing that vaudeville played two different but
complementary roles in the culture of the July Monarchy. First, vaudeville was an
integral element in the rise of a modern spectacular culture that began to take shape
in Paris by the 1840s. Though vaudeville was not in itself a particularly spectacular
form of theatre, it was nonetheless the theatrical genre that was most closely linked to a
nexus of media and commercial developments that were combining to transform many
of the city's newest consumer, technological, and cultural trends into mass spectacle.
Second, vaudeville representations provided a vivid mirror of the social dynamics of
consumption then coming into play. As consumer culture began to take root in Paris, the
performative dimensions of social exchange, status competition, and identity creation
were increasingly foregrounded. Vaudeville consistently reflected this new emphasis
and promoted the values underwriting this development even as it satirized them.
Vaudeville was thus part of the machinery that was producing Parisian spectacular
culture even as it reflected the dynamics of this culture in its plays. Vaudeville, then,
stood at the crossroads of an emergent mass society just taking root in Paris during
the July Monarchy.

Attempting to understand some of the ways vaudeville fit into broader territories
of social, cultural, and economic practice requires that it be reinserted into its distinc
tive historic and urban context. This has also meant redefining vaudeville as an object,
conceptualizing it not only as a theatrical genre, or even as a kind of theatre, but also
as a heterogeneous site accommodating a multiplicity of functions. This has led me
to borrow from a variety of disciplinary approaches, including history, literature, an
thropology, and performance theory.22

21 Pierre Bourdieu's articulation of practice theory has had tremendous consequences, irrevocably
complicating attempts to separate ideology from culture. I am especially persuaded by his description
of how practice / cultural performances are ideologically marked. With practice theory, Bourdieu ef
fectively negated a conceptual split that had put ideology on the side of representation and opposed
it to society and the practices these representations presumably acted upon. Bourdieu's analysis makes
us question how it is we decide how much representations reflect or purvey ideology and how much
culture is always-already marked by ideological interests. See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice,
trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990). For the performance dimensions in
social practice and in theatre see Richard Schechner, Performance Theory, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge
Classics, 2003); Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications,
1982); Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (New York: Pantheon Books,
1967).
22 Here again I refer to Pavis's distinction between cultural studies and interdisciplinarity. He defines
interdisciplinary as "a critical confrontation of different methods and theories from the social sciences."
Both are clearly at work in this paper. Pavis, "Theater Studies," 154. See also Maria Shevtsova's discus
sion on the question of interdisciplinarity, particularly in terms of Sue-Ellen Case's feminist-inspired
contribution of the term "post-disciplinary." Case uses this term to resist conveying the "sense of a
unified field [that is] suggested by interdisciplinarity." I think, in contrast to Case, that interdisciplin
arity is always a kind of contingently arranged interdisciplinary bricolage. Maria Shevtsova, "Social

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 227

I have divided the article into three sections. The first part describes the salient
features that made vaudeville part of a nascent consumer culture in July Monarchy
Paris. The second part explores vaudeville's dramatic conventions, and the last points
to the strong correspondences between vaudeville and an emerging social logic of
consumption during the 1830s and 1840s.

The Parisian Context, or the Spectacle of Spectacles


Between 1830 and 1848, Paris witnessed an ensemble of developments that contrib
uted to the rise of a vibrant consumer culture that reshaped the cultural landscape of
Paris; it also marked a transformation in the practices and circuits of exchange that
defined this landscape and vaudeville's role within it.

Although, on the face of it, a transformation in consumer habits would seem to imply
important changes in economic practice, a sea-change in the social logic of consumer
behavior was just as crucial. Steep population growth in Paris, the dissolution of tra
ditionally organized communities, and anxiety caused by social mobility combined
to set the stage for a crisis in traditional forms of identity.23 This identity crisis was
definitively signaled by the political collapse of the Ancien R?gime in 1830, along with
the hereditary class system it had supported.24 Birth and birthplace, which had been the
primary signifiers of identity, were gradually abandoned as paramount social values.
In their wake new forms of self-representation were needed that corresponded to the
emerging urban context. Consumer practices proved ideal vehicles for this purpose.25
As social exchange was increasingly filtered through consumer practices (such as going
to the theatre), the status system based on the social coding of these practices grew in
importance and visibility. Smoking, dancing at particular venues, and reading particular
books and newspapers conveyed a host of social messages. It was no accident that
these identity markers were adapted to the urban environment in which they evolved:
they were flexible, transitory, and could be taken in at a glance.

This shift in the social logic of consumption was supported by the emergence of
a series of networks that developed between the 1820s and 1840s. These networks

Practice, Interdisciplinary Perspective," Theatre Research International 26, no. 2 (2001): 132. See, finally,
Marvin Carlson's discussion of Joseph Roach and Dwight Conquergood's description of the concept
of antidisciplinarity in Performance: a Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2004), 205-06.
23 Between 1800 and 1850, the population of Paris roughly doubled, from 547,000 in 1801 to over a
million in 1850. From one end of the century to the other, population in the capital more than quin
tupled, reaching 2.7 million in 1901. Figures for the second half of the century also include newly an
nexed suburbs; see Nicholas Papayanis, Horse-drawn Cabs and Omnibuses in Paris: The Idea of Circulation
and the Business of Public Transit (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 37, 91. David
Garrioch's work on the neighborhood and the bourgeoisie in Paris shows just how tightly structured
quartier life was throughout much of the eighteenth century. See Garrioch, The Neighbourhood and the
Community in Paris, 1740-1790 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), and The Formation of the
Parisian Bourgeoisie, 1690-1830 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
24 Eric Hobsbawm also identifies the definitive collapse of the Ancien R?gime with the series of
revolutions that occurred between 1830 and 1832. See Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (New York:
Vintage Books, 1996), 111.
25Erving Goffman's frame analysis has been instrumental in providing a context from which to
articulate how urban forms of identity were being generated. Frames refer to the situations and con
texts which give meaning to new forms of identity display (like the context of dressing for specific
occasions, going to the theatre, or sitting in caf?s). See Goffman, Interaction Ritual, and Frame Analysis
(Garden City: Doubleday, 1974).

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228 / Jennifer Terni

included an early media system, the concentration of commercial and entertainment


spaces into certain sectors of the city, and the implementation of new technologies for
the transportation of goods and people. Each of these networks massively expanded
in size and reach during this period, but the real impetus for change lay in the way
these networks rapidly meshed together.

Of the three networks that concern us here, transportation was the most basic. By
the 1840s, public transportation had transformed the cultural and economic landscape
of Paris, facilitating an unprecedented expansion in the circulation of people, informa
tion, and goods.26 Although the railroad is the iconic example of this transformation
on a national scale, Paris experienced its own urban transportation revolution with
the institution of the city's first large-scale mass transit system, the omnibus.27 First
introduced in 1828, it made the fashionable areas in the center of the city widely ac
cessible. By the 1840s, it was ferrying roughly 30 million passengers each year along
the thirty-six different routes that crisscrossed the city center.28 Although quartier life
remained important, the omnibus contributed to a trend that effectively decentered
the quartier as the dominant sphere of activity. The bustle and attractions of the city
center became the dominant space of urban life.29

From the 1820s onward a second important network began to coalesce as commercial
venues, public entertainments, and leisure activities were increasingly concentrated onto
the commercial islands redefining the city's Right Bank. Walter Benjamin has reminded
us that consumer spaces were likely to be organized in proximate areas: theatres were
clustered near shops; shops drew restaurants and caf?s; and these, in turn, were almost
always in, or adjacent to, commercial passages and transportation hubs.30 During the
years of the July Monarchy, Paris added twenty-four new theatres, a diorama, scores of
new commercial passages, four hundred novelty stores, and prototypes of the modern
department store to its roster of urban attractions.31 Sources from the 1820s boast 2,000

26 Although social historians have tended to emphasize the shallowness in the increase of the standard
of living in the first half of the century, it must be measured against the fact that the Parisian economy
absorbed almost a half-million workers between 1800 and 1850?which effectively doubled the number
of workers in Paris?with no drop in the standard of living. See Andr? Jardin and Andr?-Jean Tudesq,
Restoration and Reaction 1815-1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 378-81.
27 The improvement and extension of canals and roads was at least as important as the introduction
of the railroad, since this substantially accelerated the flow of goods through Paris by the end of the
Restoration and through the Monarchy. See Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires, 1814-1852 (London:
Murray, 2001), 320; H. A. C. Collingham, The July Monarchy: A Political History of France 1830-1848
(London: Longman, 1988), 358-60; and Jardin and Tudesq, Restoration and Reaction, 347-48.
28 Nicholas Papayanis points out that in their inaugural year, 1828, omnibus companies served 22
million passengers in Paris. By 1854 that figure had risen to 34 million, so it is safe to assume that
in the mid-1840s close to 30 million people a year were using the omnibus. Papayanis, Horse-drawn
Cabs, 68, 78.
29 See David Garrioch, Neighbourhood and the Community; and Papayanis, Horse-drawn Cabs, 36-86.
30 Walter Benjamin, Paris, capitale du XIXe si?cle: le livre des passages, trans. Jean Lacoste (Paris: Cerf,
1989), 68-73, 80-84.
31 La Ville de Paris and A la Chauss?e d'Antin opened their doors in 1843 and 1844, respectively.
These stores can be considered prototypes of the modern department store. By the mid-1840s, some
of the fancy-goods stores offered high-quality ready-to-wear clothing for both men and women.
Cost-effectiveness was now based on volume, not cost-cutting. As a result, aesthetic appeal became a
serious consideration. The most modern of the novelty stores featured open floor plans and artfully
displayed goods neatly spread out on tables, or in carefully ordered shelves. Thanks to the addition
of vast windows and gaslight, these new stores were also well lit, in contrast to their dingy traditional

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 229

restaurants and approximately 1,500 new caf?s, alongside 2,000 new wine shops in
Paris alone.32 The trend toward development also encompassed public gardens and
museums and included dancing venues, amusement parks, and hotels.33

Not only did the number of public venues increase dramatically during this period,
but so did their beauty and comfort: mirrors, gilt, plate glass, ironwork, gaslight,
marble, and fancy accessories became standard features even in establishments located
in poorer neighborhoods.34 The accent in these spaces was on light, decor, surfaces,
and crowds. They highlighted the yen for seeing and being seen and drew their energy
and glamour from the crowds that flocked to their light.

The appeal of these stores, restaurants, and dance gardens was routinely touted
in the various media products available to July Monarchy consumers. This brings
us to our third network, which was perhaps also the most decisive. Historians of
nineteenth-century France have paid close attention to many of the separate branches
of July Monarchy media. What they have tended to overlook, however, is how these
branches had begun to work together during the late 1830s and 1840s. This, however,
is precisely how most Parisians must have experienced the media in their everyday
lives: as a layering of mutually reinforcing images, announcements, commentaries,
and representations. To contemporaries, media would have extended beyond the
press to include less obvious sectors like theatre, caricature, posters, advertising, and
daguerreotype. As each of these branches expanded during the Monarchy years, they
were also increasingly linked culturally and economically.35 In addition to support

counterparts. See Philippe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Cen
tury, trans. Richard Bienvenu (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 54-55. An advertisement
for the opening of the Maison Chambellan promised "Tout sera marqu? en chiffres connus et vendu
? prix fixe." Le Charivari, 15 April 1844.
32 Rebecca Spang notes that Paris maintained the monopoly on restaurants in France for the first half
of the century; Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2000), 2, 172. The number of caf?s, bars, and dance halls would increase
even more dramatically at the end of the century, but the number, capacity, and use of these were
consistently on the rise throughout the July Monarchy See W. Scott Haine, The World of the Parisian
Caf?: Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789-1914 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1996), 3, 92. Henry-Melchior de Langle reports that the number of wine shops increased from 2,333
in 1815 to 4,408 in 1854; de Langle, Le Petit Monde des caf?s et d?bits parisiens: ?volution de la sociabilit?
citadine (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1990), 15; and Francois Gasnault, Guinguettes et Lorettes:
Bals publics et danses sociales ? Paris au XIXe si?cle (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1986).
33 The number of theatres would fall to twenty-seven in 1847-1848 due to economic and political
unrest, but in the early 1840s the city supported about forty theatrical houses, twice as many as during
the Restoration. See Leroy, Histoire, 91, 139-41.
34 For caf?s, see Haine, Parisian Caf?, 2-10; for dance halls see Gasnault, Guinguettes et Lorettes, 145-66;
for amusement parks, see Giles-Antoine Langlois, Folies, Tivolis et Attractions: Les premiers parcs de loisirs
Parisiens (Paris: Aavp-Action Artistique, 1991), 202-03; and for shops see Bernard Marrey, Les Grands
magasins des origines ? 1939 (Paris: Picard, 1979), 25-26; and Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie, 54-56.
35 First there is the well-documented explosion of the press, from thirteen publications in 1824 to
twenty-six dailies and over 230 newspapers and periodicals by 1845. Subscribed readership quadrupled,
from 50,000 readers in 1830, to 180,000, then to 200,000 in the 1840s, mostly as a result of Emile de
Girardin's introduction of the mechanized press in 1836. (This figure does not encompass the thou
sands who frequented reading rooms or read in caf?s and bars.) Theatrical production jumped 157
percent during the Monarchy, the largest increase of the century. Images also witness unparalleled
levels of dissemination. Thanks to a revolution in printing technology in the 1820s, Paris was liter
ally inundated with posters, advertisements, logos, lithographs, and caricatures, not to mention the
illustrations that began to inhabit the press as part of the routine layout for features and as dressing
for advertisements. The daguerreotype, first introduced in 1839, was being produced at the rate of 21

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230 / Jennifer Terni

ing one another?the press promoted and reviewed plays, theatres paid journalists
for reviews, playwrights wrote about events reported in the press, while caricaturists
mocked them all?press, image, and stage all referred to the same trends, the same
obvious consumer attractions.

Vaudeville's tendency to quote and recycle snippets from Parisian life led to its
rapid integration into this nascent media system. The constant push for new material
prompted vaudevillists to use the latest Parisian trend or innovation as fodder for
the vaudeville mill. This tendency is dramatized in a self-satirizing play entitled Un
Vaudevilliste written by Thomas Sauvage and Maurice Saint-Aguet, presented at the
Th??tre de la Renaissance in 1839 (see n. 16). In the opening scene, an established and
successful vaudevillist, Beaumanoir, is being pestered to collaborate with his ambitious
and unscrupulous young apprentice, Athanase. Beaumanoir, attempting to put him off,
objects that he has no new ideas, but to this obstacle Athanase responds:

I always have ideas. Here. Four new novels have come out recently and here are five old
plays; the devil we won't find something! There is a mass of subjects in circulation, which
are quite sufficient for today's consumption. They are reworked, adjusted, cut and pasted,
and become just like new. (1.2)36

The Biblioth?que de 1'Arsenal's inventory of titles only confirms the prevalence of


this phenomenon. The master list of titles for the July Monarchy includes references
to the Bal Mabille (a faddish dance garden), most of the major Parisian theatres, and
the racetrack at Chantilly, as well as to tobacco shops, vacation spots, novelty stores,
and restaurants. There are plays on the introduction of gaslight, the popularity of
cashmeres, and the use of magnetism, hashish, and ether. One play even proposes
champagne as a civilizing antidote to the Opium Wars.37 The Arsenal also lists plays
based on the hit crime newspaper, La Gazette des Tribunaux, and France's first illustrated
newspaper, Le Magasin Pittoresque. Eug?ne Sue's pulp serial novel Les Myst?res de Paris
followed what had become the pattern by the 1840s, with no less than thirteen plays
appearing with the word "myst?res" prominently displayed in their titles after the se
rial had become a success. Finally, vaudeville was an obvious vehicle for end-of-year
reviews, a pageant staged on New Year's Eve that highlighted the previous year's
fashions and innovations.38

million images annually in Paris alone by 1851. See J. Lucas-Dubreton, La Restauration et la monarchie
de juillet (Paris: Hachette 1926), 287; James Cuno, "Violence, Satire and Social Types in the Graphie Art
of the July Monarchy," in The Popularization of Images, ed. Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu and Gabriel P.
Weisberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 10-36, 237; and Dean de la Motte and Jeanne
Przyblyski, eds., Making the News: Modernity and the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Amherst:
Amherst University Press, 1999).
36 (Translations are mine, unless otherwise stated.) It should be noted that Beaumanoir was prob
ably a send-up of the well-regarded playwright known as Dumanoir, or Du Manoir, Philippe-Fran?ois
Pinel. He produced his first vaudeville hit in 1827, which ran an extraordinary two hundred nights
(the average vaudeville run was twenty). He went on to write hundreds of vaudevilles, sometimes in
collaboration with Scribe and M?lesville. See C Lacour, ed., Le Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XlX?
si?cle (N?me: ?ditions Pierre Larousse, 1910); and Gidel, Le Vaudville, 67.
37 L?on and Th?olon, Le Magasin de lumi?re, Th??tre du Gymnase Dramatique, 1832; Jules Cordier
and Clairville, La Femme ?lectrique, Th??tre du Palais-Royal, 1846; Jules Cordier and Claireville, Ether,
Magn?tisme et Hatchis, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1847; Claireville (the elder), L'Opium et le Champagne: La guerre
de Chine, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1842, Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris.
38 For instance, one of the least interesting, Dumanoir and Claireville's Un Banc d'hu?tres, a year-end
review for 1847, mentions newspapers like La Gazette des Tribunaux, balloon travel, a new circus, l'Hy
podrome, commercial passages, Parisian dance gardens, and famous monuments, and even describes

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 231

The growing interconnection between media products, consumer spaces, and popular
trends had already become transparent to contemporaries by the 1840s. Reporting on
the mass craze for polka dancing, the 23 March 1844 issue of Le Charivari describes the
itinerary adopted by the trend as it took hold of the public imagination:

After the dance-halls had inaugurated this step, after the romans-feuilleton had taken stock
of their own dependence on it, and even caricature had treated this important innovation,
now the theatre has also set its sights on this prey! God only knows what route the polka
will end up taking given the conveyance of this great popularizer!
The day before yesterday, the Th??tre du Palais-Royal invited Paris to its doors?and
apparently it came, as the theatre took 3000 francs at the box-office. Then last night, the
Porte Saint-Martin also opened its doors to host the bohemian dance.... Tonight, it is the
Th??tre des Vari?t?s.

Besides the deluge of caricatures, news features, and pulp serials, no less than six polka
plays appeared within weeks of the polka craze, one for each of the major vaudeville
theatres in Paris.

The new intensity of this media dissemination effectively multiplied the layers of
consumption. One was now likely to consume both things in themselves and their
representations. This produced two important consequences. First, by multiplying the
representations of consumption, the media helped to enhance the scope of consumer
trends. The more popular a trend became, the more likely it was to become the ob
ject of media representation, and the more it was represented in the media, the more
momentum it then gained. Second, the layering of spaces, consumer practices, and
mediations produced an effect, which I am describing here as "spectacle/'39

Spectacle is often used generically to describe spaces designed to attract consumers


through sensational visual appeal. The term is also used by cultural historians of the
nineteenth century to describe a qualitative shift in the semiotics of urban space. This
latter use of the term usually gestures toward developments assumed to belong to
the end of the nineteenth century, most often in connection with the rise of consumer
culture. Vaudeville suggests some of the ways that many of the features associated
with late nineteenth-century spectacle were already being anticipated in the 1830s and
1840s. My own particularized use of the term underscores both its historic specificity
and its intersections with consumer culture.

Spectacle, as I understand it, describes the saturation of commercial and leisure spaces
with an increasingly dense network of associations. Some of these associations were
derived from the proximity of one type of spectacular space (like a theatre) to similar

Paris as a tourist mecca (Dumanoir and Claireville, Un Banc d'hu?tres, Th??tre du Palais-Royal, 31
December 1847). For more examples along this line see also Dennery and Claireville, Via ce qui vient
d'appara?tre, Th??tre du Vaudeville, 30 December 1845; Jouhaud and Gui?es, L'H?tel Bullion, Th??tre
des D?lassements Comiques, 31 December 1842; and Th?olon and Dartoi, Je m'en moque comme de l'an
quarante, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 31 December 1839, Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie
Rf, Paris.
39Darvin and Paul Siraudin, Le Bal Mabille, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1844; Sauvage and Maurice Saint
Aguet, Un Vaudevilliste; M?lesville, Antier, and Camberousse, La Carotte D'Or, Th??tre des Vari?t?s,
1846; Gustave Albitte and Louis Dugard, Mon Voisin d'omnibus, Th??tre du Palais-Royal, 1846; J. Ga
briel and Paul Vermond, J'attends un omnibus, Th??tre du Vaudeville, 1849; Claireville and Cordier, Le
Palais de Crystal, Th??tre de la Porte Saint-Martin, 1851. Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel,
s?rie Rf, Paris.

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232 / Jennifer Terni

kinds of spaces, such as the constellations of consumer spaces that crystallized around
the Champs Elys?es or the Grands Boulevards and included fancy shops, commercial
passages, dancing venues, theatres, bars, and so on. Other associations were derived
from the conflation between a space and a particular trend that media exposure served
to intensify (for instance, the vogue for the Mabille dance garden was linked to the
polka craze). Even more importantly, the practices that defined how people inhabited
these spaces (i.e., the practices connected to window-shopping, going to the theatre,
sitting in caf?s) were carried between spaces, generating associations, comparisons, and
expectations that migrated from one site to another.40 Not surprisingly, these spaces
increasingly stressed performance. As spaces became more theatrical, more fantastic,
and more mediated, the practices they fostered were likewise spectacularized. The
rise of spectacle thus helped to blur the boundaries between different orders of urban
space, as theatres, shops, dance halls, and restaurants began to seem more like each
other?thereby overshadowing any local and historical associations they may once
have carried.41 All told, then, spectacle comprises a set of expectations infused with
sensation and excitement: not only the attitudes and practices people developed for
inhabiting certain kinds of urban space, but also the way that these spaces solicited
consumers by exploiting these expectations in a dialectical turn.

Vaudeville's popularity during the July Monarchy cannot be separated from the
privileged position it occupied within the spectacular framework I have outlined
above. Vaudeville was a commercial space, a leisure practice, a consumer practice as
well as a media venue and theatrical genre all rolled into one. Theatres were typically
located in entertainment hubs on the Right Bank. A night at the theatre made one more
than a simple purchaser of leisure; one also became a participant in one of the major
social showgrounds of the period. The audience for a play thus also participated in
a spectacle of leisure consumption, in the sense that vaudeville representations were
self-consciously infused with a host of associations drawn from a broad spectrum of
familiar consumer practices. It was in the interfaces that it created between practice and
performance, between consumer space and representation, that vaudeville was at the
vanguard of spectacle. Self-conscious of its role as both leisure product and mediator
of leisure consumption, vaudeville routinely mirrored the trends and practices that
audiences themselves were in the process of reproducing by the very act of going to
the theatre. A vaudeville song from 1847 captures the sentiment: "In Paris you find at
any hour / Any pleasure, all kinds of treasures!"42

It should be noted that the rise of spectacle as an integral part of urban culture was
not really possible prior to the 1830s. The media and transportation systems so impor
tant to this transformation were too fragmentary until then, and the concentration of

40 This was one of Walter Benjamin's key observations; see Paris, Capitale, 68-73. Another way of
thinking about this is to consider Yuri Lotman's idea of the "semiosphere." Lotman claims that when
incompatible semiotic regimes?like words and images, or spaces and texts?are forced into contact,
the inability to translate from one to the other requires the production of new frames to create unified
fields of reference so that they can become intelligible. An example in kind would be using the term
"spectacle" to describe new constellations of basically heterogeneous urban space. See Yuri Lotman,
Universe of the Mind, trans. Ann Shukman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 36-53.
41 Vanessa Schwartz describes spectacle in terms close to the sense I am driving at here, showing how
space and consumer practices become laden with media associations. See Schwartz, Spectacular Realities:
Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Si?cle Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 45-88.
42 Dumanoir and Claireville, Un Banc d'hu?tres, act 1, scene 7.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 233

consumer spaces that helped propel spectacle was just beginning to coalesce in the late
1820s. Seeing vaudeville in the 1820s was simply to see a play. By the 1840s, however,
to see vaudeville was to consume a media product that was itself enmeshed in a web
of ancillary social-consumer transactions.43

Formula and the Performance of Free-fall

Because vaudeville relies so much on formula, critics have tended to trivialize its
comic dimensions?which include many features of classic comedy?as mere signs
of entertainment.44 But vaudeville's blend of formula and novelty was the recipe for
a trenchant brand of social commentary. Although its happy endings sometimes at
tenuated its satirical edge, it is not clear that they completely overcame the social or
categorical fragmentation generated by the play's performance.

As a genre vaudeville is hyperperformative, a blend of physical comedy and word


play cast into a structure designed to mobilize high-risk confrontations. The dramatic
tension it produces stems from the obligation the characters assume in managing risks
as they scramble to put out a string of fires that inevitably culminates in a series of
compact, situation-based explosions. Fueling these explosions is an amazing pastiche
of comic formulas, word games, props, gestures, and impersonations that might, taken
as a whole, be described as phantasmagoric. Pastiche dominates as a kind of aesthetic
logic, amalgamating disparate elements and styles to form a comic mirror of a hetero
geneously composed world.

In hovering between chaos and formula, vaudevilles are suspended at the mid
point between what playwright Michel Vinaver describes as the landscape play, an
ensemble of sketches not logically related to each other, and the mechanical play,
which is organized around the resolution of an intrigue.45 Philosopher Henri Bergson,
writing on laughter in 1900, described this configuration differently, placing the accent
instead on the mechanisms of comedy. He suggested that the basic law of comedy
requires the mise-en-sc?ne of a tension between predictability and surprise, between
reproduction and innovation: "Any arrangement of acts and events is comic which
gives us, in a single combination, the illusion of life and the distinct impression of a
mechanical arrangement."46
Vaudeville formulas take the place of conventional plotting. In so doing, they cue the
audience into how it should interpret the situations unfolding before it. While formula

43 For a detailed, diachronic comparison of the features leading to the transformation of theatre into
media, see Jennifer Terni, "Le Paris Imaginaire: Le vaudeville et le spectacle de la ville moderne,"
in La Modernit? avant Haussmann: formes de l'espace urbain ? Paris 1801-1853, ?d. Karen Bowie (Paris:
?ditions Recherches, 2001), 177-90.
44 When Scribe was reinventing vaudeville, his method was to study the history of classic comic
forms so that he could borrow from them. He paid especially close attention to the quid pro quo,
which, as we shall see, was pivotal to July Monarchy vaudeville. Having inventoried a broad range
of comic devices, patterns, and plot designs from Moli?re and others, Scribe went on to write well
developed plays with careful plot lines which became the standard during the July Monarchy. See
Gidel, Le Vaudeville, 50.
45 See Daniel Lemahieu's excellent article on vaudeville, "Vers une po?tique du vaudeville?7' in "Le
Vaudeville," special issue, Europe 72, no. 786 (1994): 111.
46 In his book on laughter, which explores the meaning of the comic, Bergson actually chooses a great
many of his examples from vaudevilles. See Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the
Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 69.

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234 / Jennifer Terni

may well distinguish entertainment from art, Bergson reminds us that it nonetheless
plays a vital role in comedy. Understanding the role of formula may shed some light
on situation comedy's extraordinary endurance as a form. It may also explain why,
though theoretically almost anything might happen in a vaudeville play, formula
ensures that it almost always happens to the same cast of characters (a schemer, a
rival, a pair of lovers, and a father or guardian), involving the same plot elements (a
marriage, a financial crisis, or an affair). Predictably, the intrigues always resolve into
happy outcomes for almost everyone involved.
Formula also functions to loosen the ties that bind cause and effect. One could even
say that formula substitutes for the role played by cause and effect in other genres.
This substitution is related to what Daniel Lemahieu describes as "free-fall writing."
Cause is dislocated from effect because language works at a maximum degree of per
formativity?to say something is to make something happen. The open-endedness of
what may be said next keeps the characters poised at a maximum degree of instabil
ity47 Free-fall writing thus creates the ideal conditions for comedy The improvisational
ethos it engenders allows for the constant interruption of jokes and gags, which either
blithely punctuate the momentum of the action, or take it in an altogether unforeseen
direction.

One way to describe vaudeville?and much situation comedy?might be as a pro


tracted foray into disaster control. Disasters occur in many forms, but they often ar
rive in the shape of an impromptu meeting: for instance, the importunate appearance
of creditors or old lovers, or in the untimely unmasking of an impersonator. Any of
these eventualities carries the risk of undoing carefully, often desperately, laid plans.
The contained panic of the intrigue multiplies possible disasters and thus possible
outcomes, deepening the momentousness of each comment, each situation. This helps
to suspend the audience's disbelief, making the genre's most improbable turnarounds,
shifts in alliance, and illogical sequences seem almost natural.

Into this surreal disarray vaudeville insinuates one stabilizer, who appears on
the scene as a character who masters the arts of plotting, verbal manipulation, and
imposture. Another thing that sets this character apart is that he or she tends to be
interested in outcomes only obliquely and is therefore the one who maintains the
necessary distance to help produce happy endings. Protagonists of this kind face risks
like the other characters, but, unlike them, often sidestep the traps that they have been
instrumental in engineering. There is a fairly obvious parallel between the disinterested
protagonists and vaudeville playwrights themselves. This connection is laid bare in
Un Vaudevilliste. Beaumanoir, the master playwright, is naturally cast in the double
role. The play follows Beaumanoir as he self-consciously creates a vaudeville script
using his friends and neighbors as his characters.48 By the second half of the play, in a
vaudevillian tour de force, Beaumanoir's vaudeville and the action of Un Vaudevilliste
unfold simultaneously.
Of the many formulas in the vaudeville repertoire, the reversal of fortune is perhaps
the most indispensable. This trope makes possible the sudden turnarounds, shifts in

47Lemahieu, "Vers une po?tique," 105.


48 This corresponds to what G?rard Genette would describe as the diegetic level of the narrative.
G?rard Genette, Narrative Discourse: an Essay on Method (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 235

alliance, and new situations generated by another character's actions or words. A


reversal of fortune might be engineered by one of the play's characters, or occur as a
matter of chance. One of the most popular catalysts of the reversal of fortune is the
explosive and unforeseen face-to-face encounter between two or more characters. In
some cases, the encounter exposes impostors: in others, mistaken identity (m?prise).
In still other situations it functions negatively, as the threat of what might happen,
but which absolutely must not?the thing to be avoided at all costs. In order to avoid
this thing, the quid pro quo is often used. This involves substituting one place or
person for another: the mother is substituted for her daughter in a meeting with the
daughter's lover; the family parlor is substituted for an office in order to hoodwink
some interloper.49

Good examples of both the m?prise and the quid pro quo can be found in La Polka au
Palais Royal, produced at the Palais-Royal Theatre by Paul Vermond and Fr?d?ric B?rat
in 1844. Here, Robinet, a retired milliner, attempts to seduce a young Englishwoman,
Pamela?who, it turns out, is really Robinet's nephew, Oscar. Oscar impersonates Pa
mela to gain access to Robinet's home so that he can recover the inheritance unjustly
being withheld by his uncle. He is also intent on wooing his cousin, Caroline. Robinet,
falling for the trap, proposes Pamela / Oscar as a governess for Caroline, a pretext he
uses to introduce Pamela into his home. Robinet finally succeeds in cornering Pamela
alone, but in this scene, it is Oscar who retains the upper hand:

ROBINET: OK. It's agreed upon, then. You're staying. Please allow me to go and dress
properly.... I am ashamed of appearing in this dressing gown, which might
have diminished me in your eyes.... Allowing myself to be seen in a simple
pet-en-l'air^
OSCAR: Pardon me?
ROBINET: Sorry, the word escaped me!
OSCAR: Please say it again.
ROBINET: No.
OSCAR (taking hold of an edge of Robinet's robe): You call this?
ROBINET: In colloquial terms, the proper word is pet-en-l'air.
OSCAR: Oh it definitely was ... a pet-en-l'air.
ROBINET: The fabric is very light.
OSCAR (feeling it): The fabric will be even lighter after a ... lavement.51
ROBINET: I would never have said that word. I know all about the modesty of English
ladies.
OSCAR: English modesty dictates above all that things should never be called by their
names.52

Robinet's original lapse, his reference to his dressing gown as a pet-en-l'air (a fart),
is reinforced by his comment "it escaped me." This is exploited by Oscar, who forces
the repetition of the embarrassing double-entendre. The word game only compounds

49 There is another type of face-to-face encounter, the unexpected meeting between enemies. This is
often provoked with a view to engineering a reconciliation based on either exploiting or unraveling
the fiction created by the quid pro quo. These encounters occur, almost by definition, between pairs of
characters who are already linked by conflict, whether as romantic rivals, debtors and debt collectors,
suitors and spurned lovers, wives and mistresses, outlaws and police, or fathers and their daughters'
unwelcome suitors.
50Pet-en-l'air is the name of a kind of light dressing gown; it means "fart-in-the-air."
51 Here lavement, "enema," is substituted for lavage, "washing."
52 Paul Vermond and Fr?d?ric B?rat, La Polka au Palais Royal. Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection
Rondel, s?rie Rf 22, Paris, 177.

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236 / Jennifer Terni

Robinet's discomfort, which is brought to a head by Oscar's deliberate confusion be


tween lavement (enema) and lavage (washing). Here Oscar creates confusion in order
to punish his uncle's bad behavior. The climax of Polka au Palais Royal?and most
vaudevilles?is reached when an unavoidable face-to-face encounter between all the
characters blows apart the carefully constructed house of cards, each character hav
ing been tricked by, or mistaken about, another character, the deceptions snowballing
toward the inevitable moment of discovery.

The vividness of this scene also gives us a taste of how important physical comedy
must have been to vaudeville performance. Oscar would have been in drag. Gestures
would have been used to undermine, qualify, contradict, emphasize, or simply dislocate
expectations about the relationship between saying and doing. Because this part of the
play was performed, not scripted, all that remains are hints left over from a meager
didascalia and the esteem earned by certain comedians during the July Monarchy, es
pecially the troupe at the Th??tre des Vari?t?s.53 Modern television sitcom classics (e.g.,
J Love Lucy, Fawlty Towers, or Seinfeld) bear witness, however, to just how performative
the best situation comedy has always been.54

The structural features that kept the characters off balance were strongly accentuated
by vaudeville's discursive fragmentation. Dialogue was hewn from a heterogeneous
mix of styles and discourses, and sometimes interspersed with scraps of song. Bits
of argot, regionally accented and idiosyncratic language, class-based turns of phrase,
joking asides, overlapping conversations, and malapropisms all combined to create
a series of disjunctions that maximized comic effect. With its vertiginous rhythm of
high-speed hiccups, vaudeville dialogue was meant to leave audiences breathless, while
the constant potential for verbal mistakes left the characters in disarray. Vaudevilles
deliberately interfered with the process of calling things by their names by system
atically creating misunderstandings and lapses, thus leveraging the maximum space
between ?nonc? and interpretation.

Although the genre had been exclusively musical at its inception in the fifteenth
century, songs were progressively being written out of vaudevilles during the July
Monarchy, until by the Second Empire they had often disappeared altogether.55 Dur

53 Charles de Forster, Quinze ans ? Paris ou Paris et les Parisiens (Paris: Firmin Didot Fr?res, 1848),
231-34.
54 The traces of physical comedy can be deduced from plots and didascalia. For instance, in Trot
tin le modiste, the baby of a milliner's assistant is concealed in a hatbox to keep it safe from its cruel
grandfather. As the grandfather pursues the baby, the hatbox is passed from one hat-girl to the next.
Meanwhile, the hat-girl's messenger, the trottin, is finally given the box (that he too had been chasing
all morning), only to be promptly robbed of it. In a secondary plot, the hat-girl's ex-boss is invited over
to the shop that night for a lobster dinner. The play culminates when the hat, the baby, and the lobster
are substituted for each other in quick succession. One minute the grandfather reaches into the box
and pricks his finger on a hat pin; cursing, he turns around only to find a baby; he turns around again
to pick up the baby, but in its place grabs a lobster. Claireville, Trottin le modiste, Th??tre Palais-Royal,
1847. Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris, act 1, scene 5.
55 Songs, which had originally been the meat of vaudeville, were gradually phased out following
Scribe's example during the 1830s and 1840s, often appearing only at the very end of play (vaudeville
final). Songs did, however, remain a mainstay of the genre into the second decade of the nineteenth
century. These songs, always set to well-known and even well-worn tunes, usually reiterated a theme
of the play (for instance, there is a song about the merits of gaslight in a play based on the theme of
modernization), or worked as part of the play's dialogue. Their gradual elimination distinguishes
com?die de boulevard from vaudeville proper. See L?on and Th?olon, Le Magasin de Lumi?re; and
Gidel, Le Vaudeville, 49-52.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 237

ing the 1840s, many a vaudeville retained only one song, the vaudeville final.56 Songs
comprised snippets of lyrics tacked onto well-known tunes. When songs were woven
into the play itself, they were used to recap, explain, or set up a joke?as was the
case with this song taken from ?ther, Magn?tisme et Hatchis produced in 1847. Here
Guimauve [Marshmallow] uses the song to describe the effects of hashish to his niece,
Pauline, and especially to the audience. The song simultaneously works as the foil in
the build-up to a punch line:57

GUIMAUVE (singing): It's a mixture, it's a drug


That's coming into style,
Herbs that make one see a saint,
And even angels and seraphim ...
As for my wife ...
What will she think
After seeing these amazing beings
Judge, I beg you, what sheTl do
When she then catches a glimpse of me\
PAULINE: Oh, I remember! Hashish! An oriental dish! (1.1)

A good deal of social information was often packed into these songs, jokes, and
word games. In the song above, for instance, we see that drug use in the 1840s was
not yet as stigmatized, or as well understood, as it would be even by the end of the
nineteenth century. While vaudeville did not offer coherent psychological profiles, or
bother much with motivations, it did routinely play on the outward manifestations of
class attitudes, gender roles, and social hierarchies, thus offering keen portraits of the
stakes involved in face-to-face encounters. It is interesting to note that Bergson was
interested in comedy, and in vaudeville in particular, as a "game that imitates life."58

The situational nature of this kind of comedy sidestepped internal or existential di


lemmas in favor of outward appearances, including the projection of public personas.
By dramatizing its characters' contradictory desires, vaudeville exposed the complex
maneuvers involved in our self-presentation to others. Its episodic structure helped
to anchor the often painful dilemmas caused by social pressure, pretension, embar
rassment, and hypocrisy and converted them into comedy. It capitalized, above all, on
the things people try to hide in the social games they play. Because of this, vaudeville
could not help but reflect social mores even as it satirized them. This explains why
vaudeville was so drawn to settings that privileged impromptu social interactions, like
those fostered in restaurants, waiting rooms, drawing rooms, and offices. The genre's
formulas and structures, and the mechanisms of comedy themselves, all conspired to
facilitate depictions of the public face of social dealings.

Vaudeville and the Social Portraiture of Consumption


What in vaudeville representations so resonated with audiences that they kept
flooding into the city's theatres year after year? We have already seen how vaudevilles
appropriated real-life consumer practices and fashionable trends. But how do we in
terpret this play between representation and the real? Richard Schechner's concept of

56 A vaudeville final was a finale that summed up the play and allowed the actors to join onstage to
take their final bows. See Gidel, Le Vaudeville, 34.
57Cordier and Claireville, ?ther, Magn?tisme et Hatchis, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1847, Biblioth?que des
Arts et Spectacles, Collection GD, Paris.
58 Bergson, On Laughter, 68-69.

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238 / Jennifer Terni

social drama provides an opening through which we might navigate this problem. He
describes social drama as a "scripted performance 'in life.'" According to Schechner
these scripted performances also possess some of the attributes of games and sports:
they take place within a delimited field of time and / or space, they can be competi
tive, and their outcomes are usually uncertain.59 Social dramas thus involve real social
stakes and the deployment of strategy: in other words, they are not merely ritualistic.
At this level, Schechner's thinking about the role of performance has strong parallels
with Erving Goffman's notion of interaction ritual, Anthony Giddens's principles of
structuration, and Pierre Bourdieu's account of symbolic capital, all of which highlight
the scripted and performative qualities of social interaction.60 Unlike these sociolo
gists, however, Schechner's account tends to focus on collective interactions in formal
settings like intertribal rituals in New Guinea, medieval religious ceremonies, and
bourgeois theatre. He therefore overlooks more informal kinds of social drama that are
performed in the mundane contexts of everyday life.61 These are precisely the forms of
social dramas that interest me here, especially in the context of their growing connec
tion to consumer practice. This form of social drama and this connection also happen
to be the special preoccupation of vaudeville comedy. For our purposes, then, social
drama will be understood as a kind of rule-governed performance (often involving
consumption), which is embarked upon to gain status or signal social belonging in
everyday settings.

J. C. G. Marin noted in his guidebook 15 jours ? Paris (1845) that "vaudeville is the
necessary satirist of everyday life."62 Vaudevilles fostered this quality by depicting

59 Richard Schechner distinguishes between drama, theatre, performance and script. He describes
drama as "a written script, score, etc., that can be taken from place to place independent from the
people who carry it." Scripts describe "the basic code and sequence of a [performative] event. The
transmitter of the script must know the script and be able to teach it to others." Theatre is "what the
performers actually do during a production ... usually a manifestation of the drama and / or script."
And performance describes "the whole constellation of events, most of them passing unnoticed, that
take place in / among both performers and audience." Richard Schechner, "Drama, Script, Theater
and Performance," in Performance Theory (New York: Routledge Classics, 2003), 71.
60 Pierre Bourdieu insists that the main drive of all social interaction?indeed, the deep meaning of
culture itself?is the creation of fields upon which the competition for social differentiation, or domi
nance takes place. Pierre Bourdieu, Le Sens pratique (Paris: Minuit, 1980), 88-109, and La Distinction
(Paris: Minuit, 1984). Anthony Giddens has argued that one of the most important functions in the
reproduction of social structures is the creation of what he calls ?ontological security.? Borrowing from
Erving Goffman's face-work analyses of tact and Harold Garfinkel's trust experiments, Giddens has
argued that much social interaction is structured to preserve emotional security and avoid unneces
sary anxiety. Emotional security stems from predictability and the repetition of the codes governing
behavior in a context-specific way, which we deploy not so much unconsciously, but unselfconsciously.
Giddens, Constitution of Society, 83-92; Goffman, Interaction Rituals, 23, 50, 75, 86.
61 Schechner's concrete examples of social drama portray the history of obligations, inter-dependencies,
and conflicts among traditional enemies of the Tsembaga people in Papua New Guinea. Performance
here works as the displacement of, and compensation for, real conflicts. See Schechner, Performance
Theory, particularly 123-24. For reference to medieval masses and the role of congregants, see 136-38;
for bourgeois theatre, see 129-34.
62 J. C. G Marin, 15 jours ? Paris ou guide ? l'?tranger dans la capitale et ses environs, tableau synoptique
et pittoresque, avec 15 Vues et plans, 2nd ?d. (Paris: Chaumerot, 1845). See also Dumersan and Dartois,
Les Boutiquiers, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1834; Dumanoir and Clairville, L?onard le Perruquier, Th??tre des
Vari?t?s, 1847; Albitte, Lefranc, and Labiche, L'Avocat P?dicure, Th??tre du Palais-Royal, 1847, Le Magasin
de lumi?re, 1832; Paul de Kock & Valoy, Boutiqui?re des Champs-Elys?es, Th??tre des Folies-Dramatiques,
1838, Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 239

ordinary people doing ordinary things as a backdrop to the plot's action. Plays were
almost invariably set in interior spaces that emphasized worldly activity. They usually
featured ordinary characters: workers, servants, grisettes, poor students, wives, sons,
nieces, and shopkeepers, as well as professionals of every stripe.63

Against this backdrop, vaudevillists added the latest fads and fashions to spice
up otherwise formulaic material. Besides operating as attractions, trendy practices
were also likely vectors of identification between play and audience. Audiences were
frequently asked to laugh at their own world and at themselves, and we should not
forget what a powerful tool laughter can be for encouraging identification. The regu
larity with which this device was employed, as is evidenced by the routine inclusion
of novelties in the titles of new plays, provides a sense of the commercial importance
and popular appeal of this strategy.

By weaving new consumer practices into its everyday settings, vaudeville reiter
ated the ways in which the social dynamics of consumption were themselves being
routinized in Paris during the first half of the century. Plays like Le Bal Mabille (1844),
Mon voisin d'omnibus (1846), J'attends un omnibus (1849), or Les Brioches ? la mode (1830)
were typical in the way that they wove new consumer and cultural trends into stan
dard romantic comedies as a matter of course.M In Le Bal Mabille, the Mabille dance
garden that had very recently become famous provides the setting for a standard
face-off between a philandering husband and his polka-dancing wife. In Mon voisin
d'omnibus and J'attends un omnibus we discover the practices associated with taking
the omnibus worked into otherwise conventional plots. Each of these dramatizes the
attempts by two prospective grooms to hide past indiscretions so that they can realize
their plans to marry the (wealthy) women of their dreams. Les Brioches ? la mode, for
its part, manages to intertwine Romantic theatre and innovative pastry making into

63 Aristocratie figures in July Monarchy vaudevilles made rare appearances and were very often fig
ures of fun. This is in contrast to eighteenth-century plays, in which they were the typical characters.
In this sense, Scribe and his tendency to write about the upper class is atypical of the general trend
in vaudevilles (his audiences tended to be from this class). This fact is not well known, as scholarship
on vaudeville tends to focus on Scribe, Feydeau, and Labiche, producing a distorted understanding of
the genre. While vaudeville played to audiences in all classes, vaudeville production was tailored to
meet the demands of specific theatres and their predominant constituencies. After a period that was
characterized by class mixing in the first decade of the century, the Restoration introduced increasing
social stratification in theatre, a trend that continued during the July Monarchy. Some mixing still oc
curred: for instance, the Vari?t?, which housed what was considered to be the best vaudeville troupe
of the period, had a wide range of seat prices. Nonetheless, productions at the major vaudeville
playhouses (the Palais-Royal, the Vari?t?s, and the Vaudeville) tended to feature professionals and
middling sorts, while the D?lassements-Comiques and some of the minor theatres (the Saint-Antoine,
Folies-Dramatiques, and the Petit Lazari) favored more popular characters and themes. Charles de
Forster, Quinze ans ? Paris, 231-34.
64 See Siraudin and Danvin, Le Bal Mabille; Albite and Dugard, Mon voisin d'omnibus; Gabriel and
Vermond, l'attends un omnibus; and Dummersan and Danville, Les Brioches ? la mode, Th??tre des
Vari?t?s, 1830. Other examples are Valoy and Cogniards fr?res, La R?volte des modistes, Th??tre des
Folies-Dramatiques, 1834; M?lesville & Varner, L'Art de payer ses dettes, Th??tre du Vaudeville, 1831;
Bayard and Dumanoir, Les Avou?s en vacances, Th??tre du Palais-Royal, 1839; Marc-Michel, Les Deux
pommades, Th??tre des Folies-Dramatiques, 1848; Duvert & Lauzanne, Les ?garements d'une canne et d'un
parapluie, Th??tre du Palais-Royal, 1843; Claireville (the elder), L'Opium et le champagne, Biblioth?que
de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris.

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240 / Jennifer Terni

its marriage plot, taking potshots at the lack of dramatic innovation at the Com?die
Fran?aise along the way.65

Allusions to novelties or faddish consumer practices were often so casual that, at


first, they appear almost banal. For example, in J'attends un omnibus, we find the fol
lowing exchange between a woman and her niece:

CONDUCTOR: Passengers for les Batignolles!


MME BAREGE: Do you have your ticket, Ath?na?s?
ATH?NA?S: Yes, Aunty.
MME BAREGE: There. Put those packages beside you and be careful that you don't crush
anything.... Let's go over all the shops we still have left to visit....
There's the milliners, the dressmaker, the lingerie shop.... Putting
together a trousseau is no small thing! But after all, this is for your hap
piness! (2.4)

This passage illustrates the ambivalence that often colors vaudeville portrayals of
consumption. On the one hand, the omnibus's setting is being used as the pretext for
the play and is clearly meant as an attraction. On the other, the omnibus is portrayed
in a fairly matter-of-fact manner, as bus tickets, seating, and packages are managed.
This choice of staging seems to undercut the spectacular dimensions of the omnibus
as a dramatic hook, as if to make the transactions surrounding the bus-taking seem
natural and everyday. This ambivalence reflects a doubleness that in fact haunts many
consumer practices. The play represents something about consumption that members
of the audience must have encountered on a regular basis?and not just in the process
of watching these vaudevilles. Consumer practices are experienced (and exploited by
playwrights) as fetish-commodities, recognized in advance for their ability to attract
and entice. But they also operate as the mundane frames against which the rituals and
exchanges?or social dramas?of urban life are to be enacted.
By harnessing this doubleness, vaudeville drew explicit links between consumption
and identity, fashion and belonging, display and status. At the same time, it also stressed
how tenuous these links could be. This tenuousness is exposed in Eug?ne Scribe and
Bayard's Le Budget d'un jeune m?nage, presented at the Gymnase-Dramatique in 1831.
In this play, the socially scripted dimensions of consumption come transparently to
the fore. The plot centers on a young couple facing imminent ruin due to mounting
debts. Shocked into action, they recognize that they will have to cut back on expenses.
We see the pain of this readjustment as they enumerate the possible sacrifices they
could make:

LUDOVIC: Let's see where we can cut.... Away with everything superfluous! Let's
start with grooming: away with dressmakers and milliners!
ST?PHANIE: Oh no! ... Not those! You said superfluities. You can't begin with necessi
ties!
LUDOVIC: You're right_But I don't see what we'll be able to cut then.
ST?PHANIE: Housekeeping expenses ... food ... especially dinner parties.
LUDOVIC: Dinner parties! There's something! ... But I forgot to mention that today
we are expecting a dozen for lunch, your brother, our landlord, etc.... We
should try to make it nice.

65 "Si le Th??tre Fran?ais s'obstine ? jouer des pi?ces bancroches; sur son front bient?t on mettra
magasin de brioches." Dumersan and Danville, Les Brioches ? la mode, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1830, act
2, scene 4.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 241

ST?PHANIE: Of course! Consider it as good as done.


LUDOVIC: You know ... we really can't get around dinner parties.... We are invited
to other people's parties and obviously we have to return the favor....
Courtesy obliges, you know.
ST?PHANIE: You're right. . . .We won't be able to cut back there....
LUDOVIC: I've been thinking.... I could probably do without my manservant.
ST?PHANIE: No, but that's impossible ... why not my maid?
LUDOVIC: Oh! But who would dress you? A maid is indispensable.
ST?PHANIE: I've got it! A real luxury item.... What about our carriage?66

In the end, they decide that they cannot do without the carriage because St?phanie
might get cold coming home from balls in wintertime. They also find themselves in
capable of sacrificing their country home because that is where they got married. At
this point Stephanie adds to their burdens by announcing that she is with child. Those
extra rooms that they had resolved to pass up (for Stephanie's new boudoir) would be
just the thing for a nursery. "At last! A saving!" they both exclaim ecstatically.

As the dialogue suggests, Ludovic and Stephanie's understanding of what is neces


sary is programmed by their social milieu?a milieu that is constructed through the
performance of a specific set of social rituals, all of which involve consumption. The
tension involved in having to give up things that they are unable to relinquish stems
from the contradiction between the obvious superfluity of their lifestyle and the fact
that this lifestyle actually does impose implacable social demands. They cannot give
up dinner parties because nonreciprocation would constitute a social gaffe. They can
not give up clothing, because this constitutes the outward signs of their social set.67
Nor can they dispense with servants, since servants are, quite literally, necessary for
keeping up appearances. Thus servants, clothes, carriages, and dinners are in fact
necessities to the young couple. Or, to put it another way, they can live without their
lifestyle, but they cannot live their lifestyle without respecting the codes that structure
it, including an impressive list of consumer habits.

As Le Budget makes plain, habits are hard to change not only because of the people
who watch us, but because we watch ourselves through other people. Stephanie's
brother, Victor, commenting on Ludovic's spending, reflects:

I told myself you would set up in a manner that you could not sustain because the worst
thing in Paris ... is to be tarnished before those for whom you have always shone.... We
never ruin ourselves for our own sakes ... it is for the sake of the neighbors ... for those
who look at us. (1.8)

The choices faced by St?phanie and Ludovic bring home the way in which desires,
though often mediated through others, create the very frames through which identities
are constituted. It turns out that the choices faced by the couple are fundamentally
choices about their identities; consuming is merely the medium for their expression.
Their plan to escape impending social doom is foiled when Victor refuses the couple's
request for money. In fact, Victor turns the tables on them by claiming he has come to
Paris to borrow a large sum from Ludovic to escape his own ruin. Confronted by this
threat to Victor's life and honor, Ludovic and Stephanie agree to sell off their luxuries.

66 Eug?ne Scribe and Bayard, Le Budget d'un jeune m?nage, Th??tre des D?lassements Comiques, 1831,
Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris, act 1, scene 5.
67 See chapter 6 onward of Philippe Perrot's painstaking account of bearing and distinction, Fashion
ing the Bourgeoisie.

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242 / Jennifer Terni

Although St?phanie and Ludovic know they will survive this transformation, the di
lemma posed by the play makes it clear that the alteration in their habits, milieu, and
patterns of consumption involves a fundamental shift in their public personas.

Whether we are encountering upscale married couples, single men, workers, or


servants, overspending is a chronic problem in vaudeville plays. The spending is al
ways on luxury goods or leisure products, and creditors make frequent appearances
in these plays in the role of clothiers, glove makers, boot makers, confisseurs, bakers,
milliners, and caf?, bar, and restaurant owners. Mon Voisin d'omnibus, for instance,
takes this standard plot feature to a comic extreme. Charles de Varennes, the main
character, has so dissipated his inheritance that he does not even have the coin to pay
his bus fare. He is saved from humiliation when Cl?risseau, the omnibus neighbor
of the title, lends him money for his fare. To Charles's consternation, this seemingly
casual benefactor transforms himself into a veritable guardian angel. Cl?risseau helps
Charles pay his debts and secure a good marriage. He does so by resorting to the
most unscrupulous means: lying, cheating, even framing Charles's rival, Hector, for
Charles's own misdemeanors. The reason he has gone to so much trouble? It turns
out that Cl?risseau is Charles's creditor. By securing an advantageous marriage for his
destitute debtor, he has engineered a way to reclaim the entirety of what he's owed,
including the original bus fare. Mon Voisin d'omnibus is typical of vaudeville in that
impending financial catastrophes are always averted. But how are we to construe this
outcome? As a warning against financial recklessness? Or as an acknowledgment that
Paris lives up to its reputation as a city where temptation will not be denied? The
ambiguity arising from vaudeville's combination of satire and formula suggests that
the answer is probably neither and both at the same time.

If one saw enough vaudeville plays, one might come away with the impression that
desire was the surest passport to eventual fulfillment. Not only did vaudeville portray
desire in a positive light, it represented over consumption, both sexual and material,
as its common themes. Besides coping with debt, vaudeville characters often struggle
to conceal illicit affairs that might compromise vital financial and romantic projects.
Sexual lapses, however, are inevitably suppressed or forgiven, with reconciliation pav
ing the way to the eventual fulfillment of the most coveted object of vaudeville desire,
an advantageous marriage: good fortune in both love and money.

In Mon Voisin d'omnibus, for example, Cl?risseau successfully heads off a disastrous
showdown with Charles's ex-mistress by offering to bribe her when she demands ad
mission to his house during his engagement party (she takes the money). In the 1846
production Sport et Turf, Les Courses ? Chantilly, a young dandy, Arthur de Saint-L?ger,
wins back the lady of his dreams by convincing her to forgive him his recent indiscre
tion with the pretty grisette, Go?te D'or.68 Likewise, Le jardin Mabille is resolved when
Ernestine forgives her husband Durondin, though he has been caught red-handed
proposing to his wife's best friend under the cover of an assumed identity. As with
the problem of profligate spending, a solution to past sexual indiscretions is inexora
bly contrived. And although the plays invariably gesture to the conventional wisdom

68 Paul Siraudin and Claireville, Sport et Turf, Les Courses ? Chantilly, Th??tre des Vari?t?s, 1846,
Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel, s?rie Rf, Paris.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 243

that would counsel moderation before the finale, vaudeville's happy endings almost
always represent the victory of (usually masculine) excess.69

Desire is not only celebrated by vaudeville, it is also depicted as a powerful social


mechanism keyed to modern sensibilities and even subjectivities. As we saw in Le
Budget d'un jeune m?nage, desire and identity are portrayed as parallel tracks that fold
back onto each other: what to want is at least partially dictated by who one wishes
to be, and vice versa. Because vaudeville's special province was the public face of the
social world, identity was often portrayed in terms of self-regarding performances, that
is to say, performances in which the self was almost invariably constructed in terms
of the (imaginary) gaze of the other. Vaudeville implicitly recognized that desire itself
was also animated by the same logic: that we are inclined to desire what has already
been recognized as being desirable by others.70

The configuration of desire through the other is structurally embodied in vaudeville


in the figure of the rival. Un Vaudevilliste provides an example of the connection be
tween desire and rivalry and vaudeville representation. In this instance, Beaumanoir is
trying to help his cousin Albert find a wife. Having promised to engineer a match for
Albert?the only problem remaining to be solved is to whom?Beaumanoir confronts
this riddle even as he is devising his own vaudeville production. He has almost finished
putting together the elements of this play-within-a-play, when a small setback?Albert
is denied a job in favor of Athanase (Beaumanoir's ornery apprentice)?finally allows
him to see how all the pieces must fall into place. Beaumanoir seizes upon the parallels
between Albert's and Athanase's situations to reverse the two men's positions. Atha
nase is already Albert's professional rival; by making him a romantic rival as well, the
question of who Albert should marry is answered by the structure of rivalry itself.

Hello! ... There's my rival! Now my play is complete. I have all my characters: the lovers
[Albert and Valentine], the turkey of a father [Mirancourt], the idiotic rival [Athanase],
and the schemer and side-kick [Beaumanoir and his wife].... Let the curtain rise! Let the
play begin. (1.7)

Albert, of course, does fall in love with Valentine; imagining that she is loved and is
in love with someone else serves to intensify his own sense of her desirability, which
makes her irresistible. By making such elegant use of this device, Sauvage and Saint
Aguet are able to show not only the connection between rivalry and desire, but also
how integral this connection is to the structure of vaudeville itself.

69 Gender dynamics in vaudeville are complex and would demand an article of their own. Here I
will say that desire and its fulfillment are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, the privilege of male
characters. For other examples of this basic plot structure and adultery in vaudeville, see Claireville,
L'Opium et le Champagne; Duvert and Lauzanne, Les ?garements d'une canne et d'un parapluie; Cordier,
Jules, and Claireville, Ether, Magn?tisme et Hatchis; M?lesville and Varner, L'Art de payer ses dettes;
Bayard J.-F.-A. and Dumanoir, Les avou?s en vacances, Biblioth?que de l'Arsenal, Collection Rondel,
s?rie Rf, Paris.
70 Although Ren? Girard's triangular model of desire can be rigid in its structuralism, it remains a
useful model for thinking about desire. Girard argues that desire is rarely a spontaneous event. Rather,
most often it is constructed through recognizing the desire of someone or something else, which
Girard calls "the mediator of desire." What we desire, then, we desire through another person or an
ideal. Girard's triangle, however, does not leave much room for thinking about how desire feeds on
itself, or originates in drives other than sheer imitation. See Ren? Girard, Mensonge Romantique, V?rit?
Romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961).

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244 / Jennifer Terni

This classic topos of rivalry was easily adapted to a context in which consumption
was becoming an increasingly important factor in defining identity, status, and desire.
After all, the drive to impress or emulate others happens in context, and increas
ingly, consumption provided that context. By the 1840s consumer practices appeared
in vaudevilles not only as cultural seasoning, or attractions, but as arenas in which
romantic and social rivalries could be played out. In other words, they became new
forums for social drama. Displaying one's mastery of the latest trend or fashion trans
formed these consumer practices into vehicles through which social desires?like a
good marriages?could be concretized (along with the more straightforwardly erotic
desires they accompanied).

The symmetry between consumer practices and social dramas is vividly portrayed
in Claireville and Paul Siraudin's Sport et Turf (1846). The scenario involves a standard
romantic rivalry between the French playboy Saint-L?ger and an absurdly obnoxious
British aristocrat. At one level, this juxtaposition serves as the pretext for a lavish display
of French, as well as bourgeois, one-upmanship against the foppish British foe. The
play's main character, its hairdresser-hero Macassar, manages to best the boorish prig
at every turn. As the play opens, Macassar and his friends have gone to the racetrack
at Chantilly to inaugurate the Gentilhomme-club, a poor man's version of the famous
Jockey Club, home to some of Paris's most notorious dandies.

The action begins in a crowded hotel room. Macassar and his friends do their best to
emulate the fashion-conscious dandies of the Jockey Club despite their limited means.
Macassar, who wishes to rival the original club, admonishes his friends to make sure
that their gloves are very white and, in imitation of dandy anglophilia, to do every
thing they can to speak as little French as possible. His admonition is composed of a
small lexicon of terms associated with both the races and dandyism's romance with
all things English:

The English language is de rigueur for all dandies, lovers of the turf, which you find at the
Derby or at the Steeple Chase. Imagine you are at an actual raout of sportsmen and of gentle
men-riders, the flower o? fashion. Dream of your most elegant tweed, grab a stick for good
measure, and regret that your budget does not permit you a groom ... You are free to eat
a beef-steak, or drink a glass of grog, brandy, bishop or gin, but if you meet a lady in a square
followed by her King-Charles, give her a little speech, and she's sure to take you for a real
gentleman just getting off the rail-way, or disembarking from a steamboat. This is how we
get our puff\n

The imitation of an aristocratic gentlemen's club, whose raison d'?tre was social
exclusion, is translated here into specific practices that signaled a detailed knowledge
of the styles, accessories, and demeanors associated with dandyism. Despite the accent
placed on consumer practice in the Gentilhomme-club's imitation of Jockey Club practices,
the reason for this consumption is nonetheless exclusively social in nature. Macassar's
self-conscious quotation of these rituals, including the conspicuous consumption of the
dandy, demonstrates that he is aware of these practices as the marks of a certain socia
bility. Considered from a Schechnerian perspective, this set of procedures corresponds
exactly with my definition of social drama above, as a rule-governed performance

71 Act 1, scene 3. The French dandies' founding of the Jockey Club is itself an imitation of what its
founders conceived of as the habits and practices of the British landed aristocracy. Italicized terms
appeared as English words in the original.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 245

embarked upon to gain status and / or signal social belonging. In this case, however,
the procedures (dandy imitation) and the context (the races at Chantilly) make social
drama and consumer display virtually interchangeable. In other words, status competi
tion, identity-display, and social connection are now performed in a field defined by
consumer practice. If these practices also figure as objects of desire, they are objects of
displaced desire, standing in as they do for an array of social ambitions.

The incorporation of spectacular forms of consumption adds yet another facet to


vaudeville's mise-en-sc?ne of the dynamics between consumption, desire, and identity.
By spectacular forms of consumption, I mean those which belonged to the media /
space / consumer matrix described above. At the most obvious level, by including
spectacular practices and spaces within its scenarios, vaudeville took advantage of the
ways in which spectacle is always-already the representation of desire. Vaudevilles
thus routinely capitalized on the fervor of current consumer fads, adding fuel to these
crazes by publicizing and sensationalizing them yet again. The circumstances of the
production of Le Bal Mabille in the summer 1844 are exemplary in this respect. The play
was produced in August, normally a fallow time for Parisian theatre. The management
of the Th??tre des Vari?t?s embarked on this venture as the first to capitalize on the
massive success of the Jardin Mabille (this was the eighth polka vaudeville since the
beginning of the polka craze which had begun that year).72 The Vari?t?s also created
what, by vaudeville standards, was a very elaborate set, copying the orientalist decor,
gas lighting, trees, caf?-bar, and even the "no smoking" sign from the original garden.
The exceptional lavishness of Le Bal Mabille's set and its highly irregular opening date
perfectly reflect the level of vaudeville's integration into the grid of networks and
practices that produced spectacle. At the same time, it evokes the extent and the speed
with which certain practices and places (like the polka and the Mabille garden) were
becoming spectacularized by the 1840s.73

On another level, vaudeville depictions were drawing an explicit rapprochement


between the logic of spectacle and the way social scripts were increasingly being
channeled through consumer practices. This was facilitated by the promotion of a
form of desire that had itself become virtually spectacular. The explicit subjects of Le
Bal Mabille were desire and its manipulation played out in the skirmishes occasioned
by a series of interlocking romantic rivalries. More significantly, the play highlights
the way people perform identity and consumer rituals in their attempts to bring their
desires to fruition.

Guau, an office clerk, is heartbroken to discover that his girlfriend Girofl?e has de
serted him in favor of the rich merchant Durondin, who also happens to be the best
polka dancer at the Jardin Mabille. Informally, he is known as the "polka king" of the
Mabille. Guau realizes that he cannot compete with Durondin according to the objec
tive status criteria of wealth or dance ability. Instead, he adopts an alternative strategy:
trying to make Girofl?e jealous. The plot thickens when we realize that Durondin is

72 To maximize its chances of success, the Vari?t?s's management commissioned two of its top
vaudevillists, Darvin and Paul Siraudin, to write the play I consider Le Bal Mabille to be one of the
best written vaudevilles of the period.
73 By the 1840s trends like the polka or Les Myst?res de Paris spread quickly beyond Paris to reach
as far as New York, London, Berlin, and even Moscow. See Libby Smigel, "Minds Mad for Dancing:
Polkamania on the London Stage," Journal of Popular Culture 30, no. 3 (Winter 1996): 197; and Jean-Louis
Bory, Eug?ne Sue: Dandy mais socialiste (Paris: Hachette Litt?rature, 1962), 286-87.

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246 / Jennifer Terni

married and that his wife Ernestine is an old friend of Girofl?e's. Ernestine has come
to the Mabille to meet her friend's new fianc? who, of course, turns out to be her own
husband. Dancing with the first woman available, Guau grabs Ernestine and tries
(unsuccessfully) to seduce her. But when Guau and Ernestine dance the polka, they
make a splash thanks to Ernestine's uncommon talent. The fact that Guau dances with
Ernestine?and does it so well?immediately increases his social capital with Girofl?e.
Ernestine's success as the belle of the Mabille ball also enhances her romantic capital
with her husband Durondin, who until that point had only had eyes for his so-called
fianc?e, Girofl?e. It turns out that Ernestine is the "polka queen" of another famous
dance garden, Le Chateau Rouge, on the outskirts of Paris. Equilibrium is reestablished
and the happy ending ensured when the polka king and queen are reunited and Guau
is restored to Girofl?e's affections.

The polka functions here as another arena for the staging of a social drama, while the
spectacular context of the real Jardin Mabille is enlisted to inject an extra charge into
the play's erotic contests. Here, the structure of consumer desire?wanting something
because it is wanted by someone else, or, in this case, wanting to participate in a con
sumer fad because it represents the (temporary) essence of social desirability, a status
always conferred by others?is mirrored by the portrayal of romantic desire. Ernestine
only becomes truly desirable to her husband when he discovers that she is wanted
by another man and is otherwise celebrated by virtue of her abilities with the polka.
We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that the polka was a very real popular
craze. In spring 1844 it actually was being danced in salons, dance halls, and dance
gardens all over Paris. So while vaudeville belonged to the apparatus of spectacle, its
depictions of consumption do not allow us to imagine trends as simply the result of a
media mirage. Rather, plays like Le Bal Mabille suggest the ways in which new invest
ments in status competition and identity performance fit into a much broader process
of cultural transformation. In this sense, what Le Bal Mabille and other vaudevilles seem
to be gesturing towards is a plausible anatomy of the social and commercial logics that
were converging in the 1840s in the form of mass consumer trends.

This leaves us with the question of identity, which is neither neatly nor fully contained
within the dynamic of desire, leisure, or consumption outlined above. An alternative
way to describe vaudeville's portrayal of identity might be as the dramatization of a
kind of performance anxiety?the anxiety felt when one is asked to perform a new
social script or try on a new persona in unfamiliar social settings. Pushing this line of
thought a little further, we might even venture to say that vaudeville's obsession with
display, substitutions, and appearances can be read as the expression of a deep-seated
apprehension about the essential contingency, and thus falseness, of identity as such.
Vaudevilles implied that identity was not grounded by stable categories, that it was
always to some extent strategically deployed or performed. Fears about identity were
especially sharp during this period as a result of the increasing levels of anonymity in
urban life.74 This said, what ultimately seems so modern about vaudeville is that this
set of fears is never allayed by nostalgia for a truer (i.e., traditional) identity that has
been lost and therefore might be recovered. Rather, one of the conventions of vaudeville

74 The heyday of vaudeville coincided with an upsurge in the production and consumption of
physiognomy pamphlets that promised to help Parisians decode the physical traits of strangers. See
Ainslie A. McLees, Beaudelaire's Argot Plastique: Poetic Caricature and Modernism (Athens: University of
Georgia Press, 1989), 33.

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EARLY MASS CULTURE AND FRENCH VAUDEVILLE / 247

representation during the July Monarchy was the negative depiction of figures repre
senting tradition who were almost invariably cast as the play's antagonists. Figures
like the lecherous father Robinet from La Polka au Palais Royal, the obnoxious English
lord in Sport et Turf, or the paradigmatic "turkey of a father" from Un Vaudevilliste are
portrayed as foils to be upstaged and unmasked. This unmasking reveals them to be,
if anything, more false than the other characters, since they use the authority granted
to them by tradition to rationalize their abuses of power.

A play from 1846 by M?lesville, Antier, and de Camberousse called Im Carotte d'Or,
produced at the Th??tre du Palais-Royal, represents a radical, if counter-intuitive,
extension of the themes we have been exploring thus far. Here, Fromont, a husband
descended from pre-Revolutionary aristocracy, sidesteps his wife's machinations to
have his title reactivated. Fromont opts instead for the cozy embrace of his tobacco
shop and, when his wife ends up leaving him, the company of a pretty maid. The tra
ditional object of social desire, acceptance in society's upper strata, is rejected in favor
of happiness, comfort, and sexual satisfaction?an alternative (and anti-ambitious)
twist in the portrait of self-fasmoning. Fromont is the rare vaudeville character who
seems to have grasped that the self-definition that modern consumer culture seems
to promise resides not in the slavery of making oneself over in the eyes of the other,
but rather in the ability to turn away, to exercise the choice of seeking the satisfaction
of one's own desires.

Conclusion, or "How Bourgeois"


Seeing vaudevilles not only represented an excursion into the world of leisure con
sumption, it was also a way to experience that world at a remove, as a reflection?one
that reiterated and reinforced the very logic of consumption. Quotations of real consumer
practices within the fantastic, if strangely banal, context of vaudeville plays, made
them in some sense hyper-real. Presented under the sign of the new and bracketed off
from the rest of the play by this difference, consumer practices were made even more
spectacular and thus fetishized that much more effectively?not so much because of
their commodity status, as Marx would have it, but rather because these practices had
been absorbed into new symbolic frameworks and effectively transformed into axes
around which a new form of social drama could be enacted.75

Fictional representations use reality as a point of interest and identification, but we


must not forget Vanessa Schwartz's admonition that the process is reversible, that
representations also script our understanding of reality.76 In vaudeville the process
was more elaborate still: the relationship between fantasy (the story) and reality (con
sumer practices) ended up being turned inside out. Reality became the privileged

75 A close reading of Marx's famous chapter about commodity fetishism suggests that he may not
have had a real investment in the fetish concept itself so much as an interest in the "religious" effects
of abstraction. Marx strongly suggests that the abstraction of social relations caused by money concerns
the abstraction of labor power. That is, the share of production power that individuals command is only
concretized by the things they can purchase. Thus commodities are turned on their heads, abstract
ing and mystifying the concrete social relationships that define people's relationships to the means of
production, and through this, to each other. Anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to ascribe the
power of fetish to the symbolic values that organize a community. This latter meaning is closer to what
I mean by fetishism. See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 77.
76 Schwartz, Spectacular Realities. See also Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1981).

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248 / Jennifer Terni

site of fantasy, folded as it was into a system that promoted desire, while vaudeville's
fantastical plotlines were relegated to the status of banal amusement?the thing one
expected from such a play.77 Vaudeville thus rescripted reality, or at least that part of
it connected with consumer practices, as the space of fantasy par excellence.

This, though, is exactly why vaudeville has always seemed so suspect. The analysis
I have presented of its aesthetic and ideological effects might seem to justify evalu
ations that would dismiss vaudeville as nothing but a trite and formulaic genre of
entertainment. But this judgment would misrecognize what vaudeville accomplishes
culturally. What the defenders of this perspective overlook is that their own ideologi
cal investments generate confusion: the culture that crystallized around consumption
is conflated with capitalist or bourgeois ideology as such. And here we hit against the
category that grounds the articulation of most ideological critiques in modern French
thought: the bourgeoisie.

The issue at stake here is how we read the term "bourgeois culture": as the catch
phrase that shuts down any further examination, or as the opening for further analysis?
Why is it that the court masques of the seventeenth century are considered to have
been of a piece with their royalist cultural moment (or worse yet, authentic), while
vaudeville is treated as an unmoored, commercial diversion? No doubt, vaudeville's
homological relationship with consumer culture points to the ways in which capital
was penetrating an ever-growing number of social fields. But if we follow an an
thropological line of reasoning, looking to what these performances accomplish in
cultural terms, then we see that modern subjects were also appropriating consumer
practices to define new terms for social exchange. These same subjects also comprised
the audiences for a form of comedy that commented on, attended to, critiqued, and
sometimes derided this very social logic. One reason Parisians may have continued
to flock to vaudeville theatres was that, in the end, vaudeville represented one of the
period's most sustained attempts to come to terms with a key transition on the road
from tradition to modernity.

77 This observation echoes the conclusion of a well-established body of work exploring the construc
tion of the real in nineteenth-century culture. That corpus, however, links the construction of the real
with realist genres. In light of our observations with respect to the vaudeville, this area of inquiry obvi
ously needs to be expanded. See Schwartz, Spectacular Realities; and Margaret Cohen and Christopher
Prendergast, eds., Spectacles of Realism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

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