The theatrical scene of compassion is crucial in the history of sensibility in 18th century France. This scene is built and diffused by way of literature, painting and theater to the public sphere: for example to the courts of justice. The melodramatic frame is used as a representation of suffering, a pattern of pity that is strongly linked to the ethical and political project of the Enlightenment. The public demand and the relative consensus about this pattern did not prevent a debate about the contradictions therein and the ambiguity of compassion at that point in time. The French Revolution was not only a field of experience but also a turning point. The sentimental denunciations of injustice as represented in the speeches to the National Assembly are still based on compassion. The notion of pity is rendered a central symbolic enjeu of revolutionary debates on the fall of monarchy. But after the Revolution another discourse emerges in opposition to the sentimentalism of the Enlightenment: compassion based on theatrically enacted feelings seems now unacceptable or reserved to melodrama and popular novels.
Anne Vincent-Buffault, historian. Ph.D. University Paris 7. Member of the centre of social research ESCP-EAP/ Laboratory of social change University Paris 7.
Selected publications: L’Histoire des larmes, Paris 1986 (engl.: The History of Tears: Sensibility and Sentimentality in France, London 1991); L’exercice de l’amité: Pour une histoire des pratiques amicales aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (La couleur de la vie), Paris 1995.