Theatre and the Enlightenment

Short blurb to tide you over until I finish the ACTUAL post for this week…. hopefully tomorrow 🙂 (and yes, once again I stole from an essay that was due this week….)

The idea of progress during the Enlightenment depended on whom you spoke with. To Rousseau, the idea of progress was not the use of reason, science and an uninhibited freedom of though, but rather that restrictions and censorship are a requirement to maintain civil order and that all citizens should make themselves part of the discussion on government. Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, on the other hand, believed that progress was the forward movement of society toward less restrictions and more uninhibited freedoms. Both men, however, had very specific ideas on how theatre played into the progress of society.

The theatre in France has a long tradition of political and social commentary. Millin de Grandmaison said, “tragedy should teach great political truths and public virtues. If they want to express a powerful idea, tragic authors are therefore obliged to torment their genius, to cloak their idea with a veil of allegory.”[1]Grandmaison’s point runs contradictory to Rousseau’s ideas of progress and social consciousness, while agreeing with d’Alembert.

Rousseau had some definitive views on theatre, and the idea of ‘frivolous pleasures’ did not appeal to him. Most plays written during the Enlightenment were focused on two things: entertaining, and making a statement. Rousseau argued that the various issues of the day such as religion, government, laws, and society detracted from a persons need for those ‘frivolous pleasures,’ except that most plays at the time commented on religion, government, laws and society, because that is what theatre does. A play is always recognized with in its time period, and the author as well, based on the statements made in the play.

The 18th century was a huge time for theatre; the society of theatre, the political and social commentary, and all of it was instructive in some matter. Even before Rousseau’s time, the history of theatre shows that playwrights used the stage as a political and social platform. Rousseau would have read (at the very least) Moliere, who made some pretty scathing commentary on social issues of 17th century France. Rousseau, however, did not like Moliere, arguing that the playwright often praised a hypocritical character at the expense of the honest character.[2]

Rousseau’s arguments against the theatre were that, most importantly, it was a solitary entertainment. While Rousseau missed the entire point of the existence of theatre, he makes a point about government. He argues that the people should engage in public debate and discussion, particularly on the issue of government and its leaders. Rousseau always wanted a democratic form of government, one much like Greece and Sparta had. He harked back to bygone days because he loved the idea that the people could stand in the village square and debate the ideas of the day, and personally elect those who ran their governments. Rousseau was, in the area of government, a forward thinking man for his time. His ideas on progress were to look back to a more simplistic, free, form of government in which citizen involvement was key. To Rousseau, progress was not science and uninhibited freedom, but rather the belief that the past showed the way to the future.[3]

D’Alembert, however, disagreed with most of Rousseau’s philosophies including his beliefs on the theatre and his ideas on progress. D’Alembert believed that maths, science and reason would pave the road to the future; that the future lied in actual progress, not in reliving the past. D’Alembert was also very much against the idea of censorship, and believed that unihibited freedoms would create the ideal governmental and social situations.[4

D’Alembert’s views on theatre were also contradictory to Rousseau’s. Roussau argued in his Letter to M. D’Alembert on Spectacles that theatre was a solitary activity, and thus theatre could not teach morality, but only reinforce beliefs that already existed. He argued that the theatre was a threat to a natural way of life.[5]D’Alembert, however, believed that theatre allowed for social and political change. D’Alembert argued that theatre was a social tool that promoted various ideas of theatre, including promoting the political ideas of the time. D’Alembert believed that theatre was a strong cultural force that could be used as a tool to promote social ideas. The theatre, to D’Alembert, was a teaching tool. Theatre was, with a few exceptions, available to all citizenry. The accessibility of plays gave to the people a mass lesson on society, politics and cultural ideas all wrapped up in entertainment.

By the time of the Enlightenment, women were allowed on stage, which created a certain type of equality among actors and a progress of sorts for the changing gender roles the Enlightenment saw. The theatre, to D’Alembert was literally a stage from which to preach. Playwrights throughout history have allowed their political and social ideas to seep into their plays, and the very good plays speak to the society and politics of any age. Through theatre, D’Alembert argued, the masses could learn history, politics and social ideas that would then spread from town to town and create change. D’Alembert believed that theatre was a promoter of progress.[6]

Rousseau, however, argued that the theatre was simply a form of amusement. Amusement, Rousseau said, was acceptable in moderation and only when necessary. The theatre, however, had too much influence on society, and had strayed from its purpose as an occasional amusement. Rousseau argued that the theatre, depending on the type of play, either undermined its own point through comedy or exaggerated the heroic ideals of the characters. To Rousseau, there was no morally acceptable theatre.[7]He argued that all theatre was a distraction, and not a platform for progress, and D’Alembert argued. Rousseau believed that theatre took people away from the community discussion on government, politics and society and replaced with those discussions artificial emotions that distracted from the real world. To Rousseau, theatre was an amusement, nothing more, and it was certainly not a tool for the progress of mankind.[8]

To many in the Enlightenment the idea of progress was a topic of heavy debate. For Rousseau, progress was a more controlled, more democratic way of life very similar to that found in Greece or Sparta. To D’Alembert, progress was uninhibited freedom and scientific advancement. The theatre also played its part in determining what was, and was not, progress by the types of plays written and performed. Theatre transcends boundaries and creates connections to man that allows him to understand politics and society that he would not otherwise think of, d’Alembert argued. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that theatre was morally corruptive and a detriment to progress. Regardless of their beliefs, both men had specific ideas on progress that would impact the world for years to come.


Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton, 1969.

Kramnick, Isaac, ed. The Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Maslan, Susan. Revolutionary Acts: Theatre, Democracy, and the French Revolution.Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

[1] Susan Maslan. Revolutionary Acts: Theatre, Democracy, and the French Revolution. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 20.

[2] Peter Gay. The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), 238.

[3] Ibid, 548.

[4] Ibid, 509-510.

[5] Isaac Kramnic, ed. The Enlightenment Reader. (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 334-336.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gay, 238.

[8] Kramnick, 334-336.


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