Yale in 1786.

I just found out that I’ve been awarded a John O’Neill bursary to cover (some of) the costs of attending the Northeastern American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference in Yale next month. I’ll be speaking as part of a panel marking the tricentenary of Diderot’s birth, with my chosen topic as Diderot and Shakespeare, offering an improved version of some work already done in my first year.

Whilst in New Haven, I’m also going to try and meet Professor Joseph Roach, whose Player’s Passion book has been a big influence on me. By staying a few days after the end of the conference, I’ll be able to have a snoop in the Beinecke too, which holds a pamphlet of particular interest to me, given recent work on the Pope’s attitudes to actors:

A screengrab of the Beinecke's library catologue.
A screengrab of the Beinecke’s library catologue.

For the curious, here is a copy of my paper proposal. I’ll post responses to it after the event.

Diderot and the Unperformable Shakespeare

Between 1770 and 1820, the perceived relationship between stage and page changed radically. Throughout the career of David Garrick, his performances were praised as a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s playtext; however, thirty years after the actor’s retirement, romantic critics such as Hazlitt and Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”. This paper will use Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien and a series of articles written by James Boswell for the London Magazine in 1770 as exemplars of new currents in eighteenth-century thought that seem to offer an explanation for this reversal.

Beginning with a brief overview of both French and English writing about performance in the period, I will then focus on Diderot’s Paradoxe to show its roots in a particularly cosmopolitan mix of ideas that grew up around and in spite of the Seven Years’ War. Not only did Garrick’s virtuoso displays provoke new thinking on both sides of the Channel, the work by Sticotti whose errors first prompted Diderot to write the Paradoxe was a re-translation of John Hill’s English reworking of Sainte-Albine’s Le comédien.

Although Lamb and Hazlitt are unlikely to have known Diderot’s Paradoxe, this paper studies the Frenchman’s work as a particularly vivid articulation of larger shifts in the way performance was theorised, shifts also found, albeit less clearly, in Boswell’s writing about actors. By arguing for the actor’s mental preparation for and control over his performance, these two writers, I suggest, open a path for the actor to become a model for thinking about all human activities. The price to pay for such appreciation of the actor’s pre-performance preparation is, however, the denigration of the status of performance itself. In this way, the thought of Diderot helps to bridge the gap between eighteenth-century and romantic attitudes to performance of Shakespeare

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