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Review: The Comédie-Française Registers Project

A review of The Comédie-Française Registers Project, a digital project featuring register receipts from the French Comédie-Française (1680-1791), directed by Jeff Ravel

Published onMar 21, 2022
Review: The Comédie-Française Registers Project

The Comédie-Française Registers Project

Project Director
Jeff Ravel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Miguel Escobar Varela, National University of Singapore

Project Overview

Jeff Ravel

The Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP) is a collaborative project between the Comédie-Française theater troupe in Paris, the Sorbonne and Nanterre campuses of the University of Paris, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Victoria. It was funded by government agencies and private foundations in France, the United States, and Canada. An international team of historians and theater studies scholars, their students, the archivists of the Comédie-Française, and IT developers worked together to digitize the troupe’s daily receipt registers from 1680 to 1793. These 113 folio volumes contain a detailed breakdown of nightly ticket sales at France’s leading playhouse for over 33,000 performances.  

Once the CFRP website went live in 2015, a series of international conferences in France and the United States brought together scholars, theater artists, computer scientists, and students to explore the many uses of the project. The project website, which continues to evolve, records the results of these gatherings, including scholarly papers, recordings of performances from the 18th-century repertory, and lesson plans for using the CFRP in the classroom. In the next phase of the project, we intend to digitize data generated by the troupe’s daily expenses and casting decisions in the 18th century and the daily receipt data for the troupe from 1799 to 1914.1

The main web application for the receipt data is built using Ruby on Rails, PostgreSQL, and JavaScript. The key features of this application are: a custom data entry interface to facilitate capture of data from facsimiles of receipt registers; an administrative interface, allowing bulk management of all data by authorized researchers; and a bespoke, faceted search tool, available on the front end of the application to all users, to allow them to search the data without signing in. The data are captured in a normalized relational database, so that common data like plays and authors can be managed efficiently, and denormalized in materialized views to facilitate research and analysis. The receipt data are also available in JSON format via HTTP through a separate web API, and for download in CSV format, both linked to on the project website, to make them accessible to as many researchers and developers as possible. Where appropriate, the relevant data have been reconciled against publicly available Linked Open Data authorities, like the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and references to relevant data stored directly in the receipt database.

In October 2020, MIT Press published Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793, an innovative collection of original essays exploring the CFRP. The volume features papers from some of the international gatherings described above. This work, available in open access English and French editions, offers a dozen essays and comments on the register data—and on the nature of digital humanities scholarship more generally. Several of the essays feature search and visualization tools from the CFRP website embedded in the text, thereby allowing users to explore the data as they read the papers. The authors take advantage of the unique online CFRP archive to explore programming decisions made by the royal troupe in Paris during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Thus, CFRP points towards key humanistic questions about their work: How did politics, economics, and social conflict shape the troupe’s repertory and impact its finances? Was the theater a space for critical discussion of public issues, or a place to seek escape from the uncertainties of the world outside the playhouse walls?  In an introductory set of essays, other contributors explore the uses of digital humanities methodologies in the study of French theater history and in the humanities more generally: How new are the methodologies and conclusions of digital humanists? How do these applications reshape the questions we ask of literature and cultural history? And how do they expand our sensory understanding of the past?

Project Review

Miguel Escobar Varela

The Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP) is a comprehensive database of 18th-century performance records for France’s leading playhouse. It was developed as a collaboration between the Comédie-Française theater troupe in Paris and several universities (University of Paris, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Victoria). The resulting data on performers, plays, and ticket sales was systematically entered into a relational database. In many cases, the names of plays and people were also harmonized and reconciled against publicly available Linked Open Data authorities. 

Visitors to the website can freely access this impressive database through a usable faceted search tool. But the real impact of this project comes from their commitment to open and reusable data scholarship. The entire database can be queried through a well-documented API and a full PostgreSQL dump. To the best of my knowledge, it is the most comprehensive openly available database of playbill information in existence. The website showcases several visualizations that have used this data. A particularly interesting example is an interactive heatmap by Christophe Schuwey and Christopher Morse, which displays the number of ticket sales as shaded regions in the seating plans for specific theatre buildings over time. This visualization, along with many others, have been created through a series of academic conferences, hackathons, and workshops since the website first went live in 2015. 

While many of these visualizations are still under development, they demonstrate use cases for the CFRP data. But the most compelling evidence for this project’s impact comes from the essays in the bilingual (French and English) collection Databases, Revenues, and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1791 (MIT Press, 2020), which show how this data can be wedded to conventional historical analysis to provide new perspectives on a well-studied topic. For example, “An Analysis of Revenues at the Comédie-Française, 1680–1793” by François Velde shows how the Comédie-Française learned about the demand for its products. Using data on ticket sales and programming choices, Velde demonstrates how the Comédie-Française “operated a selection mechanism, relying on a repertory of proven classics and adding novelties that did at least as well.” 

The CFRP has changed the ways scholars think and write about French theatre history. But its greatest contribution extends beyond this narrow realm. By making carefully created records fully available as data, the creators of this project have paved the way for a new type of data-driven theatre history. This project exemplifies how digital humanities projects can encourage “computational use of digitized digital collections,” one of the core principles of The Santa Barbara Statement on Collections as Data. The CFRP is an excellent example of openly accessible, carefully curated data scholarship that should also inspire researchers working in other areas of digital humanities. While the examples of current usage of the database are excellent, it would be useful to develop a user interface that better describes the different side projects, who made them, and how to use them. This area of growth aside, the CFRP will doubtlessly continue to be used and extended by teachers, theatre researchers, and digital humanists in new ways. 

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