Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 19 a: Some Observations on the Theater of Democratic Peoples b - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3
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chapter 19 a: Some Observations on the Theater of Democratic Peoples b - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 3 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 3.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Some Observations on the Theater of Democratic Peoplesb
When the revolution that changed the social and political state of an aristocratic people begins to make itself felt in literature, it is generally in the theater that it is first produced, and it is there that it always remains visible.
The spectator of a dramatic work is in a way taken unprepared by the impression that is suggested to him. He does not have time to search his memory or to consult experts; he does not think about fighting the new literary instincts that are beginning to emerge in him; he yields to them before knowing them.
Authors do not take long to discover which way public taste is thus secretly leaning. They turn their works in that direction; and plays, after serving to make visible the literary revolution that is being prepared, soon end by carrying it out. If you want to judge in advance the literature of a people that is turning toward democracy, study its theater.
Among aristocratic nations themselves, moreover, plays form the most democratic portions of literature. There is no literary enjoyment more accessible to the crowd than those that you experience seeing the stage. Neither preparation nor study is needed to feel them. They grip you amid your preoccupations and your ignorance. When the love, still half crude, for the pleasures of the mind begins to penetrate a class of citizens, it immediately drives them to the theater. The theaters of aristocratic nations have always been full of spectators who do not belong to the aristocracy. It is only in the theater that the upper classes have mingled with the middle and lower classes, and that they have agreed if not to accept the advice of the latter, at least to allow them to give it. It is in the theater that the learned and the lettered have always had the most difficulty making their taste prevail over that of the people, and keeping themselves from being carried away by the taste of the people. There the pit has often laid down the law for the boxes.
[So democracy not only introduces the lower classes into the theater, it makes them dominate there.]
If it is difficult for an aristocracy not to allow the theater to be invaded by the people, you will easily understand that the people must rule there as a master once democratic principles have penetrated laws and mores, when ranks merge and minds like fortunes become more similar, and when the upper class loses its power, its traditions and its leisure, along with its hereditary wealth.
So the tastes and instincts natural to democratic peoples as regards literature, will show themselves first in the theater, and you can predict that they will be introduced there with violence. In written works, the literary laws of the aristocracy will become modified little by little in a general and so to speak legal manner. In the theater, they will be overthrown by riots.
[All that I have said in a general way about the literature of democracies is particularly applicable to the works of the theater.]
The theater puts into relief most of the qualities and nearly all the vices inherent in democratic literatures.
Democratic peoples have only very mediocre esteem for learning, and they scarcely care about what happened in Rome and in Athens; they mean for you to talk about themselves, and they ask for the present to be portrayed.
Consequently, when the heroes and mores of antiquity are often reproduced on stage, and care is taken to remain very faithful to ancient traditions, that is enough to conclude that the democratic classes do not yet dominate the theater.
Racine excuses himself very humbly, in the preface of Britannicus, for having made Junie enter among the vestal virgins, where, according to Aulu-Gelle, he says, “no one younger than six or older than nine years of age was received.” It may be believed that he would not have thought to accuse himself or to defend himself from such a crime, if he had written today.c
Such a fact enlightens me not only about the state of literature in the times in which it took place, but also about that of the society itself. A democratic theater does not prove that the nation is democratic; for, as we have just seen, even in aristocracies it can happen that democratic tastes influence the stage. But when the spirit of aristocracy alone rules the theater, that demonstrates invincibly that the whole society is aristocratic, and you can boldly conclude that this same learned and lettered class that directs authors commands citizens and leads public affairs.
It is very rare that the refined tastes and haughty tendencies of the aristocracy, when it governs the theater, do not lead it to make a choice, so the speak, in human nature. Certain social conditions interest it principally, and it is pleased to find them portrayed on the stage; certain virtues, and even certain vices, seem to the aristocracy to merit more particularly being reproduced on stage: it accepts the portrayal of these while it removes all the others from its sight. In the theater, as elsewhere, it only wants to find great lords, and it is moved only by kings. It is the same for styles. An aristocracy willingly imposes certain ways of speaking on authors; it wants all to be said with this tone.
The theater therefore often happens to portray only one of the dimensions of man, or even sometimes to represent what is not found in human nature; it rises above human nature and leaves it behind.
In democratic societies spectators do not have such preferences, and they rarely exhibit similar antipathies; they love to find on stage the confused mixture of conditions, of sentiments and ideas that they find before their eyes. The theater becomes more striking, more popular and more true.
Sometimes, however, those who write for the theater in democracies also go beyond human nature, but in another way than their precursors. By dint of wanting to reproduce minutely the small singularities of the present moment and the particular physiognomy of certain men, they forget to relate the general features of the species.
When the democratic classes rule the theater, they introduce as much liberty in the manner of treating the subject as in the very choice of this subject.
The love of the theater being, of all literary tastes, the one most natural to democratic peoples, the number of authors and that of spectators, like that of the performances, increases constantly among these peoples. Such a multitude, composed of such diverse elements and spread over so many different places, cannot accept the same rules and be subject to the same laws. No agreement is possible among very numerous judges who do not know where to meet; each separately makes his judgment. If the effect of democracy is in general to make literary rules and conventions doubtful, in the theater it abolishes them entirely, in order to substitute only the caprice of each author and each public.
It is equally in the theater above all that what I have already said elsewhere in a general way concerning style and art in democratic literatures is revealed. When you read the criticism brought forth by the dramatic works of the century of Louis XIV, you are surprised to see the great esteem of the public for verisimilitude, and the importance that it placed on the fact that a man, remaining always true to himself, did nothing that could not be easily explained and understood. It is equally surprising how much value was then attached to the forms of language and what small quarrels over words were made with dramatic authors.
It seems that the men of the century of Louis XIV attached a very exaggerated value to these details, which are noticed in the study but that elude the stage.d For, after all, the principal object of a play is to be presented, and its first merit is to stir emotion. That came from the fact that the spectators of this period were at the same time the readers. Leaving the performance, they waited at home for the writer, in order to complete their judgment of him.
In democracies, you listen to plays, but you do not read them. Most of those who attend stage plays are not seeking the pleasures of the mind, but the intense emotions of the heart. They are not waiting to find a work of literature, but a spectacle, and provided that the author speaks the language of the country correctly enough to make himself understood and that the characters excite curiosity and awaken sympathy, they are content; without asking anything more of the fiction, they immediately reenter the real world. So style there is less necessary; for on the stage observation of these rules escapes more and more.
As for verisimilitudes, it is impossible to be often new, unexpected, rapid, while remaining faithful to them. So they are neglected, and the public pardons it. You can count on the fact that they will not worry about the roads you have led them along, if you lead them finally to an object that touches them. They will never reproach you for having moved them in spite of the rules.
[Two things must be clearly distinguished.
Complicated intrigues, forced effects, improbability are often due to scorn for art and sometimes to ignorance of it. These faults are found in all theaters that are beginning, and for this reason aristocratic theaters have often provided an example of them, because it is ordinarily aristocracy that leads the youthful period of peoples. The oddities, coarseness and extravagance that are sometimes found in Lope de Vega and in Shakespearee do not prove that these great men followed the natural taste of the aristocracy, but only that they were the first to write for it.f Their genius subsequently perpetuated their errors.g When a great dramatic author does not purge the stage of the vices that he finds there, he fixes them there, and all those who follow imitate those courtiers of Alexander who found it easier to tilt their heads to the side like their master than to conquer Asia.
Democratic writers know in general the conventions of the stage, and the rules of dramatic art, but often they willingly neglect them in order to go faster or to strike more forcefully.]
The Americans bring to full light the different instincts that I have just depicted, when they go to the theater.h But it must be recognized that there is still only a small number of them who go. Although spectators and spectacles have prodigiously increased since forty years ago in the United States, the population still goes to this type of amusement only with extreme reticence.
That is due to particular causes that the reader already knows and that it is sufficient to recall to him in two words.
The Puritans, who founded the American republics, were not only enemies of pleasure; they professed in addition an entirely special horror of the theater. They considered it as an abominable diversion, and as long as their spirit reigned unrivaled, dramatic presentations were absolutely unknown among them. These opinions of the first fathers of the colony left profound traces in the mind of their descendants.
The extreme regularity of habits and the great rigidity of mores that are seen in the United States, moreover, have not been very favorable to the development of theatrical art until now.
There are no subjects for drama in a country that has not witnessed great political catastrophesj and where love always leads by a direct and easy road to marriage. Men who use every day of the week for making their fortune and Sunday for praying to God do not lend themselves to the comic muse.
A single fact suffices to show that the theater is not very popular in the United States.
The Americans, whose laws authorize freedom and even license of speech in everything, have nonetheless subjected dramatic authors to a kind of censorship.k Theatrical presentations can only take place when the administrators of the town allow them. This demonstrates clearly that peoples are like individuals. They give themselves without caution to their principal passions, and then they are very careful not to yield to the impetus of tastes that they do not have.
There is no portion of literature that is tied by tighter and more numerous bonds to the current state of society than the theater.
The theater of one period can never suit the following period if, between the two, an important revolution has changed mores and laws.
The great writers of another century are still studied. But plays written for another public are no longer attended. Dramatic authors of past time live only in books.
The traditional taste of a few men, vanity, fashion, the genius of an actor can for a time sustain or bring back an aristocratic theater within a democracy; but soon it collapses by itself. It is not overthrown; it is abandoned.
[b. ] On the jacket of the manuscript:
CH. [perhaps M (ed.)] to whom I have just read this chapter (22 December 1838) immediately found 1. that it greatly resembled literary physiognomy. 2. that it was a bit serious given the subject. 3. that it would be desirable to introduce more citations and less argumentation./
Doesn’t interest begin to tire and isn’t this chapter, which is only the development of literary physiognomy, too much?
Examine the impression of those who hear it./
I believe, taking everything into account, that this chapter should be deleted.
CH could indicate Charles Stoffels or Ernest de Chabrol. Tocqueville read part of his manuscript to Chateaubriand, but a letter to Beaumont obliges us to place this reading in January 1839. If it concerns M, Tocqueville’s wife, Mary Mottley, must be considered.
On a loose sheet with the manuscript of the chapter:
Perhaps this chapter should be reduced to only the new ideas that it contains, only recalling all the others in passing.
The new ideas are:
[c. ] In the margin of a first version that is found in the rubish of the chapter:
“Shakespeare, Addison: There where authority does not deign to interfere in the theater” (Rubish, 1).
[d. ] “<What made the men of the century of Louis XIV want to find only princes and kings on the tragic stage was a sentiment analogous to that which made Alexander say, when requested to appear at the Olympic games: I would willingly go if only kings raced there>” (Rubish, 1). Tocqueville here takes up a known episode, drawn from the Life of Alexander of Plutarch.
[e. ] The rubish also names Calderón.
[f. ] “Memoir of Grimm. Deep discussion of what there is of the improbable” (Rubish, 1). It perhaps concerns Friedrich M. Grimm, Nouveaux mémoires secrets et inédits historiques, politiques, anecdotiques et littéraires ..., (Paris: Lerouge-Wolf, 1834), 2 vols.
[g. ] Variant in the rubish: “This is seen in the renaissance of letters among all peoples even aristocracies. See Lope de Vega, Shakespeare and the French before Corneille. When a great genius . . .” (Rubish, 1).
[h. ] I am moreover obliged to admit, and perhaps it is proper to do so, that in this matter America cannot serve as an example. By what is happening in the United States, it is difficult to judge the direction that the American democracy would give to theatrical art, since the American democracy has so to speak no theaters. Forty years ago I do not think that you would ever have attended a dramatic presentation in this part of the New World. Since then halls for spectacles [v: theaters] have been built in two or three great cities of the Union, but these places of pleasure are closed part of the year and during the rest of the time the native population frequents them little (Rubish, 1). Cf. Beaumont, Marie, I, pp. 394–96.
[j. ] The manuscript reads: “public catastrophes.”
[k. ] With a note in the rubish: “Ask new clarifications from Niles” (Rubish, 1).