Rousseau and the “general taste” of Geneva

October 18, 2007 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized)

                Rousseau’s statement “I allow that man is everywhere the same; but when he is variously modified by religion, government, laws, customs, prejudices, and climates, he becomes so different from himself that the question no longer is what is proper for mankind in general, but what is proper for him in such a particular age and country,” (205) is embedded in his essay to D’Alembert in 1758. In his quest to establish public theatre in Geneva, Rousseau claimed that this theatre, like all theatre should appeal to the “general taste” of Geneva. If this necessary guideline was not met, he concludes that the author then fails, and that it is ignorance on his part because he would be neglecting theatre’s primary goal: which is to please. Unlike previous theorists we have discussed, such as Aristotle and Plato, who told us that we should learn from theatre and become better citizens after experiencing it, Rousseau believed that “the primary purpose of theatre is to amuse,” (206). In order to keep it as such, Rousseau insists that “a really good piece is never disgusting to the manners of the times,” (206). He illustrates his perspective by listing examples that when appropriately performed in the theatre in a specific geographical location, would surely be okay with the audience. The production would be favouring the sentiments of the general taste and thus fulfilling his idea of the role of theatre- to amuse the audience, evoking positive, non-controversial sentiments, thoughts and opinions. (Example: “At London, a play interests the audience if calculated to make them hate the French,” (208).  Rousseau further explains that in order to please the audience, public entertainments- mainly the theatre, “should favour their several dispositions, whereas they ought in reason to moderate them,” (206).

Rousseau does not believe that theatre has any power to change human passions (sentiments and manners). Unlike Schiller, who argues that theatre had the same power and influence over the masses as a moral institution like the law or the Church, Rousseau did not see this possible benefit to theatre. (How everything portrayed on the stage could instil values and ultimately change/attribute to one’s character and instil a passionate desire to contribute to society). Rousseau also disagreed with Aristotle’s notion of theatre evoking pity and fear in the audience. In modern day theatre, issues of controversy are encouraged and attract many people because the topics are outside of their comfort zone and non-conventional- making productions that much more interesting and attractive. Theatre can be used to address issues and topics in an indirect way- a manner of exposing these themes to the masses. A perfect example: “Avenue Q”. A musical on Broadway which includes puppetry addresses subjects of racism, pornography and violence on stage. The views conveyed on stage do not necessarily appeal to the general taste- however; it is still allowed to run. Theatre is important in contemporary society because it  is an outlet for these themes that perhaps do not cater to the general taste, however this ‘general taste’ seems nowadays to either not exist or it has become so liberal that many more issues are depicted on stage for whoever wishes to participate and see them. Theatre is now a place to address such issues, bringing light to these ideas but it also still serves to entertain- Rousseau would approve of the entertainment value that is put upon many productions today, however he would be amazed at the evolution of the “general taste” which has become increasingly liberal.

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