Ambiguous Sexualities on the Eighteenth-Century Stage

Thursday 5th and Friday 6th February 2015

Senate Room, University College, Durham University

The theatre is inherently a space of transformation and disguise. As the curtain rises, the stage becomes a Roman forum, chorus girls turn into nymphs, cardboard cut-outs are now mountain ranges. Just as temporal and geographical boundaries are crossed within this fantasy, so too are those of sex as actors perform as women and actresses inhabit male bodies, and characters (try to) pass themselves off as individuals of the opposite sex. What might that crossing or passing mean? What is the effect and importance of that transgression? Is the boundary destabilised, reinforced or even conjured away?

As well as being a realm of fantasy, the theatre is simultaneously a place within the polis and, crucially, and it offers a collective experience; I am aware of the spectators around me, I sense their reactions to the performance, I hear their conversations in the interval, and I might measure my own responses accordingly. The theatre can embody and portray to the assembled audience its own desires, convictions and anxieties. This re-presentation operates by means of the theatre apparatus, and the spectator’s gaze is consequently subjected to a particular kind of discipline. As Roland Barthes observes, ‘The theatre is precisely that practice which calculates the place of things as they are observed: if I set the spectacle here, the spectator will see this; if I put it elsewhere, he will not and I can avail myself of this masking effect and play on the illusion it provides.’[1] The eighteenth-century writer Louis Sébastien Mercier understood that this organizing of the gaze might have erotic implications: ‘Mais la perspective du théâtre est tout. Ne vous placez pas dans les coulisses si vous voulez jouir’ (‘But perspective in the theatre is everything. Do not sit in the wings if you wish to have pleasure’ – jouir in French also means to orgasm).[2] An analysis of the aesthetic fashioning, the material presentation and, of course, the public reception of the dramatic piece can help us begin to understand how a given society dealt with particular concerns, foremost amongst which are those regarding gender, sexuality and identity.

Generously supported by the MHRA and Durham’s own CVAC, and organized under the aegis of the Phoenix research group (a Durham-Paris Sorbonne joint project established in 2008), this conference brings together ten speakers from the UK, France and Italy. Our aim is to explore how political and social anxieties were examined, contained, and released through the representation of non-normative sexualities on the eighteenth-century stage. Papers will cover a range of topics including cross-dressing and queer identities, and authors such as Marivaux, Voltaire and Beaumarchais. We intend not only to provide historically-grounded analyses of ambiguous sexualities in the Enlightenment, but also to ask more broadly what eighteenth-century theatre can offer to modern theory.

Papers will be given in English or French, and all are most welcome to attend. For further information, please contact Dr Tom Wynn (

[1] Roland Barthes, ‘Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein’, in Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), p.69.

[2] Tableau de Paris, edited by Jean-Claude Bonnet (Paris, 1994), vol.2, p.1486.


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