Theatre sections plates. From Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences. Paris, 1772.
This section of the monumental French Encyclopédie (1751-1780) depicts architectural plans and examples of theatrical machines from the eighteenth century. Each section of the large folio volume begins with detailed descriptions of the plates followed by a set of engravings. The combination of text and illustration reveal the many ways theatres were constructed to enable the creation of specific sets, also pictured in the plates. Chosen because of its historical significance, this set of theater plates reflects the interest Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), the editors of the Encyclopédie, took in describing, systematizing, and disseminating knowledge of the mechanical arts. Diderot was particularly interested in “developing a common language and graphic representation that related words to things through pictorial images” (Pannabecker). The text details the exact construction of various existing theaters and provides precise measurements and locations for trap doors, adjustable frames for scenery, and cat walks; the illustrations show machines for creating wave motion on the stage [Plate XXIII] and for making thunder with a suspended metal sheet [Plate XI]. As was typical of descriptions of scientific experiments in the period, the text-plate combination allows the reader to create the sets and machines depicted, embodying mechanical knowledge as the process of doing and making.
The Encyclopédie was a key text of Enlightenment philosophy in eighteenth-century France; it is often cited as helping foment the French Revolution because of the radical philosophical and political ideas it engendered. Upon its initial publication, the first series was deemed to contain seditious content, leading to the suppression of the first two volumes by the French government in 1752, and suspension of its privilège to print in 1759 by the King’s Counsel (ARTFL). Even though the book was both large and expensive, its popularity continued to grow, and it eventually gained 4000 subscribers. While many of these subscribers were of the educated elite, the project was deemed threatening to the government of France because it placed focus on the common man and advocated for political and social reform. (The descriptions and plates of the mechanical arts were not deemed as controversial as the philosophical sections of the project.) After d’Alembert and his other collaborators quit the project in 1759, Diderot worked tirelessly to complete the remaining volumes of text and plates. He wrote several hundred articles, damaging his eyesight in the process. The last copies of the first volume were issued in 1765. The final volumes of plates were not issued until 1772 and the text underwent a number of revisions and emendations through 1780.
Even as the Diderot resisted the governmental bureaucracy that attempted to stamp out and stop production of the project, the Encyclopédie is itself a bureaucratic form. As a monumental work of systematization, the Encyclopédie participated in the larger eighteenth-century project of cataloguing and synthesizing objects and ideas. As d’Almebert argued in the “Preliminary Discourse,” an encyclopedic arrangement “collects knowledge into the smallest area possible and places the philosopher at a vantage point, so to speak, high above this vast labyrinth, whence he can perceive the principal sciences and the arts simultaneously. From there, he can see at a glance the objects of his speculation and the operations that can be made on these objects; he can discern the general branches of human knowledge, the points that separate or unite them; and sometimes he can even glimpse the secrets that relate them to one another. The encyclopedia is a kind of world map that shows the principal countries, their position, and their mutual dependence, the road that leads directly from one to the other. This road is often cut by a thousand obstacles, which are known in each country only to the inhabitants or to travelers, and which cannot be represented except in individual, highly detailed maps. These individual maps are the different articles of the Encyclopedia and the Tree or Systematic Chart is its world map” (d’Alembert n.p.).
The goal of the encyclopedic project was to provide knowledge seekers with a map to the relationships between different fields of knowledge, but d’Alembert’s metaphor of travelers and obstacles also acknowledges the growing specialization and professionalization that made it difficult for any one individual to grasp the “secrets” that connected all fields of knowledge to all the others. The textual descriptions and detailed plates provided this crucial map in the form of a systematic representation of the tools, methods, and concepts relevant to each field of knowledge. The theatre plates thus enable a person unfamiliar with the inner workings of stage spectacles to understand how theaters worked and to make connections between the theater and other mechanical arts. In broad terms, the plates and descriptions break down each field into its parts and procedures with the ultimate goal of synthesizing all knowledge into a comprehensible whole.
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