What is society theater?

In France, the face of the generations spanning from 1750 to 1815 was a theatrical mask. These were times of passion for the theater, in public and in private. People became amateur actors with unprecedented eagerness and contributed to the creation of private stages where they could exercise their acting skills. This passion for spectacle and acting was so pronounced that it led to the invention of the term “theatromania” (la “théâtromanie”) to refer to the elites’ predilections for watching theatrical performances in the official state-funded theaters and for their enthusiasm in staging their own spectacles at home, a practice that has come to be known as “society theater.”

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Society theater refers to the practice of dramatic arts initiated by various members of the 18th century French elites within their private residences. Princes, aristocrats, and wealthy bourgeois organized and often acted in theatrical productions before an audience of invited peers. As its name suggests, private theater was an intimate and exclusive phenomenon, which in many ways resembled modern home entertainment, but required more involvement on the part of its participants. Depending on the zeal of the organizers and participants, some of these private troupes could attain a semi-professional level of performance. While some hosts of private shows were motivated by their passion for dramatic literature or acting, others were merely seeking to escape boredom, or to showcase the talents of actresses with whom they maintained intimate relationships.

The most important contributors to the genre were minor playwrights like Charles Collé, Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, Pierre Laujon, François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, or Mme de Genlis, but well-known writers, such as Marivaux, Voltaire or Beaumarchais, also provided content and participated in the vogue of society theater.