Rousseau and the Theatre: Political-Aesthetic Ideals and Practices

A conference organised by Performing Premodernity, 24 -26 August 2015.

The starting point for this three-day conference was that Performing Premodernity wanted to emphasize that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ever since his own lifetime, has wrongly been regarded by many as belonging to a long tradition of anti-theatrical thinkers. Numerous theatre scholars have refrained from exploring Rousseau’s theatrical aesthetics, convinced that the Lettre à d’Alembert sur les Spectacles (1762) was intended as a general rejection of theatre due to its negative effects on the virtue and morals of the people. The long tradition of seeing Rousseau as anti-theatrical – which has dominated within performance studies – has not taken account of the fact that he wrote several theatre plays and operas of his own. We wanted to challenge the traditional view of Rousseau within theatre research and performance studies.

A number of prominent researchers from different disciplines and countries were therefore invited to offer their views on Rousseau as a theorist and practitioner of theatre. The discussions focused on such questions as: How did Rousseau’s thinking influence the theatrical aesthetics and practices of the (long) eighteenth century? How are Rousseau’s activities as a philosopher, as a theatre and opera critic, and as a playwright related to each other? How are his theories on language, music and bodily movement connected to his ideas on theatrical practice? How were Rousseau’s plays and operas (meant to be) performed originally, in regard to acting, scenery, music and theatrical space? The following papers were presented:

Felicity Baker, “The anthropological foresight of the Letter on Theatre”
Patrick Primavesi, “Rousseau’s Lettre and its Double Bind Importance for (Pre-)Modern Theatre”
David Wiles, “In quest of Rousseau’s theory of the actor”
Jennie Nell, presentation of the research project ”Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Sweden ca 1760-1830. A network for the study of the reception of Rousseau in Sweden from the late Age of Liberty to early Romanticism”
Michael O’Dea, “Rousseau’s Ghost. Le Devin du village at the Paris Opera, 1770-1784.”
David Charlton, “Rousseau as a musical influence”
Jørgen Langdalen, “The voice of nature in the opera – Rousseau and Gluck”
Marie-Emmanuelle Plagnol-Diéval, “Rousseau and his early comedies”
David Marshall, “Rousseau and the Theater of Autobiography”
Jacqueline Waeber, “Rousseau’s Pygmalion and the limits of (operatic) expression”
Maria Gullstam, “Clashing harmonies – Rousseau, Rameau and Pygmalion”

We are happy to announce that this conference will result in a book under the (working) title Rousseau Centre Stage: Spectator, Playwright, Theorist, co-edited by Maria Gullstam and Michael O’Dea.


1st September 2015 in Books, Conferences, People, Research

Performing Premodernity at the 2015 IFTR Conference in Hyderabad, India

In July 2015, members of the research group “Performing Premodernity” presented a curated panel entitled “Theatre for the People? Accessibility, Sensibility and Democracy in Late 18th-Century Theatre” at the annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research in Hyderabad, India.

The second half of the 18th century saw some major changes in theatrical culture. The panel explored the concept of ‘accessibility’ both in terms of the access of new audiences to the theatres and repertoires of the period (then and now), in terms of the audiences’ access to the emotional life of dramatic characters, and in terms of theatre-makers’ access to the emotional life of audiences as a way of generating social and political change. The latter two are closely related to the Enlightenment concept of ‘sensibility’ (or aesthetic/sensitive cognition) and a new mode of theatricality that put emphasis on the ‘naturalness’ of the theatrical illusion, and on spectators’ empathy with the characters. The concepts of sensibility and aesthetic education were, in turn, central to the democratic aspirations of the period. The panel explored questions of if and how the theatres, aesthetic theories, dramatic works and theatrical events of the period may be regarded as ‘democratic’ or as being characterised by a democratic sensibility.

Petra Dotlačilová: “Accessing the Role: J.-G. Noverre and Mlle Clairon as Pre-reformers of Theatre Costume in the Age of Enlightenment”
Maria Gullstam: “Rousseau’s Quest: Performing Humanity and Curing Inequality”
Willmar Sauter: “Democratic Seating in 18th Century Theatres: The Example of Drottningholm”
Magnus Tessing Schneider: “Enlightenment Dramas of Political Encounters: The Case of Calzabigi’s Elvira (1794)”
Mark Tatlow: “Touching and Dissolving”: Haydn’s Arianna and the Question of Emotional Accessibility”
Meike Wagner: “Open Access: Bourgeois Audiences enter the Theatre around 1800”

Abstracts available here


13th July 2015 in Conferences, Research

Performing Premodernity at TOSC@Bologna

Petra Dotlačilová, Magnus Tessing Schneider and Mark Tatlow presented papers at the 1st Transnational Opera Studies Conference held in Bologna 30 June – 2 July 2015.


3rd July 2015 in Conferences

New doctoral student

1 January 2015
We are delighted to report that Petra Dotlačilová has recently been accepted as a doctoral student at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University and will be joining the Performing Premodernity research group.


1st January 2015 in People

Visit to the Royal Library in Stockholm

Participants in the international symposium “Acting in the Late Enlightenment (1740-1800)” visited the Royal Library in Stockholm to see three older manuscripts containing costume sketches by Johan Tobias Sergel, for a tournament planned by King Gustav III at Gripsholm Castle in 1782.

They also looked at three volumes containing theatre costume sketches from the late 1600’s that were part of the Paris Opera archives and purchased at an auction in Paris in 1742 by Carl Gustaf Tessin. They were deposited at the Royal Library in 1867 as part of a library collection from Drottningholm.

Lastly the visitors were able to see “Programmes des Grands Ballets historiques” by Jean George Noverre, ballet master at the Opéra Comique in Paris. These are two volumes from 1791, which contain both Noverre’s application to King Gustav III for employment at the opera in Stockholm, as well as documents and costume sketches relevant to his nineteen ballets.

The symposium was organised by the Department of Performance Studies at Stockholm University as part of the research project Performing Premodernity.

Examples of Noverre’s costume sketches can be admired here (in Swedish).


18th December 2014 in Symposia

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