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The Comedians of the King

"Opéra Comique" and the Bourbon Monarchy on the Eve of Revolution

Lyric theater in ancien régime France was an eminently political art, tied to the demands of court spectacle. This was true not only of tragic opera (tragédie lyrique) but also its comic counterpart, opéra comique, a form tracing its roots to the seasonal trade fairs of Paris. While historians have long privileged the genre’s popular origins, opéra comique was brought under the protection of the French crown in 1762, thus consolidating a new venue where national music might be debated and defined. 

In The Comedians of the King, Julia Doe traces the impact of Bourbon patronage on the development of opéra comique in the turbulent prerevolutionary years. Drawing on both musical and archival evidence, the book presents the history of this understudied genre and unpacks the material structures that supported its rapid evolution at the royally sponsored Comédie-Italienne. Doe demonstrates how comic theater was exploited in, and worked against, the monarchy’s carefully cultivated public image—a negotiation that became especially fraught after the accession of the music-loving queen, Marie Antoinette. The Comedians of the King examines the aesthetic and political tensions that arose when a genre with popular foundations was folded into the Bourbon propaganda machine, and when a group of actors trained at the Parisian fairs became official representatives of the sovereign, or comédiens ordinaires du roi

296 pages | 4 color plates, 16 halftones, 28 line drawings, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: European History

Music: General Music


The Comedians of the King has the potential to be recognized as a central work on eighteenth-century musical culture. Doe approaches the subject through a mingling of social and political perspectives, keying into the major questions that have arisen about the last decades of the Old Regime in France. This book offers an intriguing discussion about how we might interpret the evolution of public life by looking at it in interdisciplinary perspective.”

William Weber, California State University, Long Beach

“The richness of the book’s vision is remarkable: its elegant syntheses offer a multiple picture of a key operatic genre from its modern formation to mature survival in the age of Wagner. Musical theater studies have needed something like this for a generation now, and Doe has written a persuasive and pleasurable account of the underlying tensions between a ‘national genre’ and the ebb and flow of national politics.”

David Charlton, Royal Holloway, University of London

“Skillfully combining detailed study of a wide range of works with institutional history and royal patronage, The Comedians of the King will transform our understanding of a key chapter in the history of lyric theater. A noteworthy feature of Doe’s work is her ability to weave the political dimension of her narrative with institutional and stylistic developments in opéra comique. Meticulously researched and persuasively argued, this major study is essential reading.”

Mark Darlow, University of Cambridge

The Comedians of the King provides a fascinating and nuanced account of the process by which the opéra comique, with its humble origins in the Parisian fairgrounds, became the cosmopolitan emblem of l’Europe française and an important vehicle for courtly propaganda. Clearly and compellingly, Doe tells the story of the opéra comique alongside the story of a queen, Marie Antoinette, whose tastes and efforts lay behind its transformation. The result is a book that amplifies our understanding of not only the genre but also the social ambivalences and contradictions it reflected on the eve of the French Revolution.”

Georgia Cowart, Case Western Reserve University

"One of the most valuable contributions of The Comedians of the King is to have integrated a deep dive into the business side of opéra-comique and the administrative machinery of culture, which made it possible for the genre to flourish, with an exploration of the artistic innovations and successes that it accomplished during the final decades of the eighteenth century. As a result of this capacious approach, Julia Doe captures in exemplary fashion the full complexity and paradoxes of the genre’s expansion in late eighteenth-century France. . . . The Comedians of the King will have a lasting impact on the study of eighteenth-century French musical culture and on scholars who, following Doe, hope to ground their work in a robust interdisciplinary methodology."

Journal of the American Musicological Society

Table of Contents

Editorial Principles
Institutional History
Dialogue Opera and the Cosmopolitan “Revolution”
The Politics of Genre

1. Opéra Comique and the Legacy of Colbert
Comic Theater and the Querelle des Bouffons
Theater and the Nation
La Nouvelle Troupe
New Rivalries

2. Character, Class, and Style in the Lyric Drame
Bienséance in Ancien Régime Opera
Opéra Comique and the Drame
Romance and Refinement 
Recitative for the Peuple
Lyric Drame at the Opéra

3. The Musical Revolutions of Marie Antoinette
The Musical Patronage of a Habsburg Queen
Tragédie Lyrique and Its Parodies//
Italian Opera at the French Court
Despotism and Privilège

4. The Decadence of the Pastoral
Pastoral Living at the Petit Trianon
“Private” Pastorals: The Troupe des Seigneurs
Ceremonial Pastorals for Court and Capital
The Pastoral as Adaptation: C. S. Favart’s Ninette à la cour

5. “Heroic” Comedy on the Eve of 1789
Opera and Revolution at the Salle Favart
The Development of “Heroic” Comedy
The “Heroic” Sargines
Continuity and Rupture

6. Epilogue: The Foundation of a “People’s” Art
Richard Coeur de Lion: The First Fifty Years
Richard Coeur de Lion: The First Hundred Years
Conclusions: Richard Coeur de Lion and the Revolutionary Centennial 

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