The power of tragedy: An eighteenth-century debate on theater and its relevance to literature pedagogy today

Logan J. Connors

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In his Lettre À. M. d'Alembert, Jean-Jacques Rousseau responded to France's Encyclopédistes, who had called for the establishment of a theater in Geneva, Rousseaus hometown. At almost two hundred pages, Rousseau's response covers a considerable amount of intellectual ground: The disgruntled former friend of Diderot and Voltaire takes on everything from the economic pitfalls of theater to the lowly moral state of actors to the political disadvantages associated with "theatrical life." Since its publication in 1758, Rousseau's Lettre has elicited a variety of responses, in which writers lament or justify the citoyen de Gen&ve's anti-theatrical bent and harsh criticism of actors and playwrights. More recent criticism has targeted Rousseau's calls for the establishment (or the preservation) of a society based on heteronormative and even mi Sogynistic behavior, community surveillance, and government repression. Differing from critics of the Lettre s overt political aspects,41 contend that Rousseau's response to France's philosophes was also a treatise against tragic dramatic affect-tragedy's power to engage the emotions of a spectator or reader. More precisely, Rousseau writes against a popular aesthetic and pedagogical principle from the eighteenth century, which remains pertinent today: The idea that tragedy, and even fiction in general, can fundamentally alter an individual's identity by emotionally and intellectually engaging that individual, thus improving his or her ability to confront the difficulties associated with "real life.".

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-93
Number of pages15
JournalFrench Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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