Sugden on Hollinshead-Strick (2019)

Hollinshead-Strick, Cary. The Fourth Estate at the Fourth Wall: Newspapers on Stage in July Monarchy France. Northwestern UP, 2019, pp. x + 189, ISBN 978-0-8101-4036-3

On 28 April 1848, the audience of the newly re-opened Théâtre du Vaudeville were treated to a rabble-rousing version of “La Marseillaise.” In a reminder of its republican heritage, a personification of the theater stepped forward with a rallying cry directed not against the bloody standard of tyranny, but at the hostile critic wielding a feuilleton: “Allons enfants du Vaudeville. / Le jour d’épreuve est arrivé; / Contre nous du critique hostile / Le feuilleton s’est soulevé, / Le feuilleton…” (Eléonore Tenaille de Vaulabelle et al., Ah ! enfin ! [1848]). In framing the feuilleton itself as the tyrant against which citizens should arm themselves, this creative pastiche of the reinstated national anthem sits at the extreme end of the phenomenon explored in Cary Hollinshead-Strick’s engaging study: the theatrical critique of a nascent mass press in July Monarchy France. 

With its very origins in the reaction against Charles X’s press-censoring Ordonnances de juillet, it is perhaps unsurprising that the question of journalistic freedom was fundamental to the political ideology of the July regime. The Fourth Estate centers on the period spanning the birth of the advertisement-financed, forty-franc press in 1836 to the changes wrought on the media landscape following the February Revolution of 1848. These chronological parameters are as productive as they are well motivated, allowing Hollinshead-Strick to excavate a series of carefully historicized debates bearing on questions of civic and commercial publicity, transparency and opacity, and the “social and political effects of elicited desire” (110). Theatrical productions, she persuasively demonstrates, became a key forum for reflective engagement with the uses and abuses of the so-called “Fourth Estate.” Situated within a broader drive to fully incorporate work on the theater into the world of presse et littérature, the book foregrounds the “understudied genre” (17) of vaudeville in its analysis of the fraught relationship between stage and page. Where much critical ink has been spilled over questions of canonicity and literary “value,” Hollinshead-Strick resists the temptation to argue for the aesthetic dignity of her object of study. Instead, she makes a virtue of the reliance on topicality, formula and “joyful … breaches [of] the fourth wall” (17) of an irreverent genre dependent on “identification of (rather than with) characters” (13, original emphasis). With ticket prices significantly more affordable than even the new, forty-franc newspaper subscriptions, the reach and “digestibility” (28) of vaudeville, she argues, made of it a privileged medium for examining the liberal Enlightenment claims of an increasingly commercialized press. Thanks to the concept of the “vaudeville mode” (which takes its cue from Peter Brooks’s “melodramatic mode” [The Melodramatic Imagination, 1995]), the analysis is not, in fact, restricted to what was shown “on stage.” Rather, its approach to literary history emphasizes the reciprocity and self-conscious positioning of intermedial “cross-pollination” (18) or “cross-referentiality” (83), encompassing plays, novels, and journalistic articles. As such, the subtitle somewhat undersells the range of this rich and innovative book.

The methodological challenges posed by neglected ephemera could easily have outweighed the attractions of the virtually untapped resource. Having “skimmed” (10) around 1000 plays and studied 144 in depth (listed in one of the book’s appendices), Hollinshead-Strick’s impressive archival sleuthing allows her to make the “conservative estimate” (11) that four to five percent of all dramatic productions performed between July 1836 and December 1848 were concerned with the press and its practices of publicity. Chapter one is organized around close readings of the “categorically ambiguous” yet “historically precise” (25) personifications of newspaper characters in a number of year-end vaudeville revues. In unpacking the “antagonism” between feuilletonistes and the performances they dismissed as “entry-level art,” Hollinshead-Strick reads against this “voluntary disavowal of the popular” (28) to posit a relationship of symbiosis rather than separation. Chapter two uses a series of calumny plays to explore the whys and hows of press scandalmongering, while chapter three turns to the best-known anti-press novel of the century, Balzac’s Illusions perdues, to make a subtle yet highly convincing argument for a “reality effect informed by the conventions of stage pastiche” (52). The concern with paper underpinning this most materialist of novels is picked up in chapter four, which examines how vaudeville ironized the effects of newspaper enlargement, literalizing ideas of press coverage” in making “the stuff of the fourth estate” (74) physically stand in for the theater’s fourth wall. Glossing puns without evacuating the humor is no mean feat, yet Hollinshead-Strick provides a masterclass in her unpacking of the risqué jokes in Dumanoir and Clairville’s 1845 Les Pommes de terres malades. Building to the study’s concise conclusion, which points towards the fate of cynicism about press behaviour in post-1848 cultural production, the final chapter interrogates writers’ return to the bound volume format in the face of the “damage done by the ephemeral press and its theatrical manifestations” (108).

As meticulously researched as it is readable, The Fourth Estate is a valuable contribution that will be of interest to researchers in literary and theater history, reception and performance studies, and the cultural history of nineteenth-century France. Hollinshead-Strick handles her eclectic range of material with enviable deftness, showing herself to be as at ease discussing the forgotten as she is the canonical. The most obvious criticism that might be levelled at the study—namely its brevity at 112 pages for the body of the analysis—is, in a sense, less a reproach than a compliment: the reader is left wishing the author had been granted more space to fully develop and exemplify the undeniable critical potential of the “vaudeville mode.” This, then, is a sophisticated yet highly accessible account of the contentious history of new media practices. If it happily avoids grasping at the low-hanging fruit of discourses of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that would have seduced a lesser critic (myself included), Hollinshead-Strick’s excellent book clearly has much to say that remains resonant today.