The Politics of the Bagatelle: Opera and Smallpox Inoculation in Enlightenment France

Author / Artist: 
Publication Date: 
July, 2022

This article examines the production and reception history of C. S. Favart's La fête du château, commissioned by a French noblewoman, the Marquise of Monconseil, to mark her granddaughter's inoculation against smallpox in 1766. The first half of the article situates the vaudeville comedy at the Bagatelle (Monconseil's private theatre), underscoring the gendered tropes that had accrued to the disease in the late eighteenth century and the function of elite sociability in promoting its prevention. The second half of the article reconstructs the public trajectory of the work, which was presented at Versailles after the controversial inoculation of Louis XVI in 1774. Notably, the agent behind this theatrical public-health campaign was the queen, Marie Antoinette. A consideration of La fête du château's popularity and influence broadens our understanding of the conditions under which ancien-régime opera took on political meaning, as well as the role of women patrons and consumers in this process.