A Theater of Diplomacy

In A Theater of Diplomacy, Ellen R. Welch argues that theater served not merely as a decorative accompaniment to negotiations, but rather underpinned the practices of embodied representation, performance, and spectatorship that constituted the culture of diplomacy in the early modern period.

A Theater of Diplomacy
International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France

Ellen R. Welch

2017 | 312 pages | Cloth $75.00
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Orchestrating Dissonant Concord in the Bayonne Entertainments (1565)
Chapter 2. The Ambassador's Point of View, from London to Paris (1608-9)
Chapter 3. National Actors on the Ballet Stage (1620s-30s)
Chapter 4. Richelieu's Allegories of War (1639-42)
Chapter 5. Ballet Diplomacy at the Congress of Westphalia (1645-49)
Chapter 6. Entertaining Personalities at Louis XIV's Court (1653-69)
Chapter 7. Exotic Audiences (1668-1715)
Chapter 8. Diplomacy on the Public Stage (1697-1714)


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Metaphors of the performing arts abound in talk about diplomacy. Journalists condemn the emptiness of "diplomatic theater" when negotiations seem to serve no purpose other than political posturing. At other times, skillful negotiators receive praise for carefully "choreographing" a "diplomatic dance" and avoiding any "misstep." The eighteenth-century notion of a "concert of nations" survives in today's discourse if only as an ideal of global concord. However trite, these metaphors retain their currency because they concisely evoke the aims and intricacies of diplomatic negotiation. Like a play, ballet, or symphony, diplomacy requires a coordinated effort by multiple players. It demands a degree of responsiveness, perhaps the ability to improvise. Diplomats need a sense of theatricality and an eye for symbolism—an awareness of how actions will be interpreted by negotiating partners and the broader public. Finally, when it works, diplomacy should produce—at least temporarily—order and harmony in the world.

A similar lexicon pervaded discourses on international negotiation in early modern Europe. From the advent of those practices that we would recognize as features of modern diplomacy (such as ambassador exchange), commentators characterized diplomats as performers. Writers about diplomacy relied heavily on a theatrical vocabulary to describe the ambassador's work. In the 1580s, for example, Italian theorist Alberico Gentili recommended that diplomats attempt to act like and even to "assume" the personality of the princes they represent, as if playing his character on a stage. In his influential tome L'ambassadeur et ses fonctions (first published 1680), Dutch legalist Abraham de Wicquefort wrote: "In all the world's commerce, there is no personage more actor-like than the ambassador." In a 1716 work, French diplomat François de Callières echoed: "An ambassador resembles in some way an actor exposed on the stage to the eyes of the public in order to play great roles." Although framed as comparisons, it would be unfair to characterize these references to theatrical performance as mere metaphors. As countless manuals stressed, a good ambassador needed a strong repertoire of performance skills. To succeed in his mission, he had to deliver good speeches and carry himself with grace in the elaborate ceremonies of diplomacy. He had to be able to dissimulate as well as any actor—to tell lies or at least conceal knowledge—in order to gather intelligence for his master. In addition, early modern diplomats were sometimes called on to perform in artistic contexts as well as in negotiations. As a resident in a foreign court, an ambassador had to be able to participate in the routine festivities of aristocratic society. This meant riding in equestrian pageants, dancing at balls, dressing up for masquerades, perhaps singing on occasion. It is not surprising, in this context, that ambassadorship was considered an "art."

In fact, throughout early modern Europe, the performing arts infused the day-to-day lives of ambassadors. In addition to their own quotidian uses of performance techniques, diplomats took part in the entertainments of music, dance, poetry, and pageantry that celebrated peace treaties and punctuated the annual rhythms of court life. Foreign diplomats constituted an important sector of the audience for masques in Stuart and Jacobin England, court ballets in Valois and Bourbon France, royal processions in Spain, and noble families' theatrical celebrations of Catholic holidays throughout Italy. Ambassadors sometimes hosted parties with music, dancing, and fireworks to congratulate their host regime on a royal birth or to diffuse their own sovereigns' good news abroad. Such "diplomatic entertainments" were frequent and common throughout the early modern era. Their ubiquity raises the question: Exactly what kind of diplomatic work did these entertainments perform?

This book investigates the multiple, evolving diplomatic functions of theatrical entertainments from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century—the period in which "modern" diplomacy emerged and took hold in Europe. The culture of diplomatic entertainment developed in tandem with broad shifts in the theory and practice of diplomacy: the custom of exchanging resident ambassadors, pioneered in Renaissance Italy, was adopted throughout Europe by the second half of the sixteenth century. It became codified over the course of the following century, giving rise to internationally accepted rules and conventions regarding diplomatic immunity and extraterritoriality. By the Congress of Utrecht in 1713, a coherent diplomatic system—which some commentators consider the modern one—had been established throughout the continent. This set of shared diplomatic practices facilitated a major renegotiation of European powers' relationship to one another in the long post-Reformation era, gradually replacing the authority of the pope as the primary agent of mediation among princes. Throughout this extended period of transition, theatrical entertainments performed in diplomatic contexts—whether at court for an audience of resident ambassadors or at summits and congresses—both paralleled and played an active role in these shifts.

In fact, the emergent diplomatic culture depended on a set of theatrical practices that translated seamlessly from the scene of diplomacy (the court, the summit, the negotiating room) to the stage. These practices could be grouped into three broad categories: embodied representation, performance, and spectatorship. As seen in the diplomatic manuals cited above, the language of theatrical representation pervaded discourses on diplomacy to describe the ambassador's role. Ambassadors not only had to speak for their princes in addresses and negotiations but also were charged with continually embodying the "dignity" of their sovereigns, particularly in relation to other diplomatic representatives. The imperative to maintain dignity derived from the primary way the European diplomatic community was imagined and represented in the early modern period. From the early sixteenth century, the "rule of precedence" organized European states into a theoretical hierarchy of prestige, an international-scale mirror image of the system of rank that governed interactions among barons, dukes, and marquises within individual court societies. The conventional "rule" by which kingdoms outranked duchies and other lesser principalities took concrete form whenever delegates from several states assembled—whether at a diplomatic congress, royal wedding, or funeral—and was reflected in the order of procession. Such ceremonies constituted dramatic representations in microcosm of the imaginary order that structured the European community of princes.

Not only ambassadors but entire courts worked to represent the international dignity of the monarch through sumptuous, highly stage-managed diplomatic ceremonies such as royal audiences as well as through formal entertainments. The representation of monarchal power is a familiar theme in scholarship on court spectacle. Roy Strong's foundational Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals, 1450-1650 examines how entertainments became "a natural part of the apparatus of the Baroque monarch" and "a central instrument of government" by making manifest the ruler's magnificence. A diverse array of scholars working in post-structuralist or New Historicist traditions have also shown how court entertainments functioned as strategic or ideologically driven displays of power. But while most of these analyses have focused on representations' power to "impress" domestic spectators with the prince's overwhelming authority, early modern commentators more often described court entertainments as a means to dazzle foreign observers. During Louis XIV's reign, for example, French theorist and playwright Samuel Chappuzeau wrote that spectacular performances should "make foreigners see what a king of France can do in his kingdom." Monarchs competed with each other to design ever more impressive forms of entertainment at their courts. Christian IV of Denmark, for example, enchanted diplomatic visitors at his pleasure house in Rosenborg with "invisible concerts" performed by musicians concealed in an antechamber and piped in through architectural conduits, provoking wonder through a masterful display of "sonic control." In mid-seventeenth-century France, ministers and diplomats worked to import Italy's premier artists and engineers to enrich French court theater practices and make them the best in Europe. Performed before a captive audience of ambassadors, court entertainments exhibited the wealth and artistic talent amassed by the monarch for international appreciation. This understanding of entertainments' function might be considered an early modern equivalent to what Joseph Nye calls "soft power": the power that "arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture" and values in foreign eyes. The importance of such "attractiveness" in an early modern context resulted from the way European society as a whole was represented in the diplomatic imagination as monarchs jockeyed to maintain or achieve a favorable place in the fictive hierarchy of international society.

Beyond their role as ostentatious displays of prestige, diplomatic entertainments also engaged explicitly in the task of imagining or reimagining international relations in their content, through allegorical iconography. Many ballets and pageants performed for a diplomatic audience reflected on international themes by personifying "nations" and even "Europe" itself as dramatic characters interacting with each other onstage. Iconographies for international relations offered a stylized language for thinking about the nature of political community. This was particularly true through the last decade of the Thirty Years' War and during the Congress of Westphalia when French "ballets of nations" reenacted that country's relations with Spain and the Italian and German states in allegorical form.

These mise-en-scènes of European diplomatic society highlight the artificiality of the idea of Europe in the early modern period. Far from a static concept, it could be manipulated by artists and patrons to respond to shifting political conditions. The malleability of "Europe" comes into focus when viewed in the context of diplomatic entertainments and through the lens of performance studies. "Europe" appears here as a performative category, reinvented with each reiteration on the stage. In this sense, the practice of performance worked to mediate, or to enact, the broader legal and political reorganization of European diplomatic society.

Anthropological theories of performance furnish one way to conceptualize this function of early modern diplomatic entertainments. Spectacles staged during times of international crisis lend themselves particularly well to analysis as examples of what Victor Turner terms "social dramas": performances that function as quasi-rituals to resolve fractures in a community. Such events move the community through four "phases of public action": from a "breach of regular norm-governed social relations," to "crisis" and side-taking, to "redress" through self-reflexive contemplation and remediation, and finally to reintegration. Commenting on the "liminal" character of ritual performances, Turner remarks: "We are presented, in such rites, with a 'moment in and out of time,' . . . which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond." Turner calls that "generalized social bond" communitas, a "community, or communion" brought together by feeling and symbolism rather than by social, political, or legal structures.

Seventeenth-century theorists certainly noted the socially therapeutic dimension of diplomatic entertainments, attributing to them the power to heal rifts after international wars, for example. The Jesuit commentator Claude-François Ménestrier recommended ballets for precisely this purpose, noting that a people "must rejoice . . . after such inquietudes." There is a case to be made that routine performances, even those that took place during peacetime, also did important work to reimagine the political community represented by the statesmen and delegates who participated in them. Up until the early sixteenth century, the legacy of the Roman Empire and the idea of Christendom provided a strong basis for a discourse of European unity. As Anthony Pagden has shown, even though "Europe" was always an "uncertain and imprecise" concept, the cultural glue of Latinity and the political force of the Holy Roman Empire facilitated rhetorical formulations of unity, such as Charlemagne's self-proclamation as "Father of Europe" (pater europae) or Charles Quint's title as "lord of all Europe" (totius europae dominus). That language lost its power in the sixteenth century, as the Reformation weakened the political authority of the Catholic Church and as European powers began competing over New World resources. The widespread adoption of modern diplomatic practices including the exchange of resident ambassadors could be seen as one response to the fracturing of the European political community. In Robert Jackson's terminology, the "universitas" model for conceptualizing the community of Christian states shifted toward a "societas" model in which sovereign states adhering to different political and theological regimes came together to negotiate their relationships to each other through legal and diplomatic tools. In this sense, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent a prolonged transitional—or perhaps liminal—period in which Europe as an idea and as a community of states underwent a crisis and (partial, temporary) resolution of its identity.

Theatrical entertainments had an important role to play in Europe's conceptual reintegration. Often, they brought members of the diplomatic community together in the activity of performance. Foreign dignitaries played roles alongside local courtiers, as when the Spanish minister the Duke of Alba rode in a masquerade equestrian game in France in 1565, or when the English exiles the Duke of York and Duke of Buckingham danced in the Ballet royal de la nuit in Paris in 1653. Even when diplomats simply attended masques or ballets, they would be expected to "perform" alongside other courtiers in the social dancing that followed the show. These inclusionary gestures allowed court performances to celebrate values and behaviors that European statesmen held in common. At a time when ambassadors were drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the aristocracy, ballets and equestrian spectacles functioned as an aesthetic meeting ground for a transnational patrician community and as quasi-ritualistic reenactments of bodily practices associated with nobility, namely dance and horsemanship. The importance of a social and civilizational foundation for diplomatic interactions has been stressed by thinkers associated with the "English school" of international relations, particularly Hedley Bull. He coined the phrase "society of states" or "international society" to designate "a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values" that "form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions." The history of international relations, in this view, entails attending to the construction of norms—cultural and social as well as legal and institutional—that governed the interaction of states over time. Bull and his followers did not elaborate on the role of artistic endeavors in forming international societies. It is clear, though, that the performing arts played an important role in early modern international norms of sociability. Ballets and other court entertainments functioned as community events or quasi-rituals that brought the diplomatic corps together. They offered themselves as a stylized celebration of social practices common to European aristocrats, a spectacular reification of shared values. Yet, as performances, they also called attention to the fact that these shared values and the relationships they structured could be revised each time they were rehearsed anew.

The overlapping yet conceptually distinct categories of dramatic representation and performance attend to how the production of theatrical entertainments influenced international relations. What about questions of reception? Diplomatic entertainments addressed themselves to particular publics, including both eyewitnesses of live performances (courtiers, ambassadors, sometimes paying spectators) and vicarious audiences who consumed secondhand accounts in correspondence or published relations. Strategies of address illuminate the kinds of effects diplomatic entertainments were thought to have. The language of harmony in early entertainments implied an almost mystical belief in poetry, music, and dance to instill concord among spectators. As one court artist wrote, experiencing a dance performance helped achieve "a conformity of the body to the soul, and the soul to music," and "harmony perfectly unites all things." Later, theatrical entertainments on topics such as war and peace rhetorically addressed their diplomatic audiences to persuade negotiators toward a particular course of action. Sometimes they used dramatic techniques to play on audiences' emotions. Yet individual accounts of diplomatic spectatorship, preserved in diplomatic correspondence and memoirs, provide a corrective to theories of entertainments' power as an effective force for unity and harmony. Confusion, misunderstanding, and conflicts about the quality of hospitality extended to diplomatic audience members all bring to concrete life the strife entailed in international relations.

In these various ways, diplomatic entertainments lend themselves to an approach that Timothy Hampton has called a "diplomatic poetics." In Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe, he proposes "a way of reading literature that would be attuned to the shadow of the Other at the edge of the national community, and a way of reading diplomacy that would take into account its fictional and linguistic dimensions." Such a chiasmic reading produces an understanding of literature itself as "a space and tool of compromise." A Theater of Diplomacy draws inspiration from Hampton's diplomatic model of reading but shifts the focus from linguistic procedures to performance practices. To paraphrase Hampton, this book adopts a way of interpreting theatrical court entertainments that is attuned to the presence and participation of members of the international community, and a way of analyzing diplomatic encounters that takes into account the theatricality of international affairs. It examines how practices of dramatic representation, performance, and spectatorship transferred between the literal stage and the "theater of diplomacy" writ large.

The intertwined histories of early modern international relations and the performing arts involve Europe as a whole but come into particular focus when viewed through the case of France. During the long period in which a modern image of the European community emerged, France excelled at using spectacular entertainment for diplomatic advantage. The strategic use of the performing arts in French diplomacy began under the queenship of Catherine de' Medici, who imported Florentine traditions of court spectacle to France following her marriage to Henri II. The French quickly earned an international reputation as masters of the form. In particular, the French forged a style of court ballet that proved especially compelling for diplomatic uses. These perennial events on the court calendar were well adapted to commenting on matters of international import. With help from lavish costumes and explanatory poetic texts distributed in printed libretti, dancers incarnated allegorical or mythological figures to play out spectacular reflections on themes such as pleasure, love, the arts, war, and peace. For early modern audiences, moreover, ballet represented an ideal fusion of music, dance, poetry, and visual art in theatrical form. The hybrid genre modeled diplomatic negotiation at the level of art by containing multiple, often conflicting aesthetics within one performance. The fractured, polysemous nature of ballet might even be considered an advantage for diplomatic communication when obfuscation was more appropriate than clarity. Ambassadors in the audience could draw their own conclusions about the French position on an ongoing treaty negotiation or proposed alliance, all the while being impressed by the display of wealth and talent on the dance floor.

Ballet was also instrumental in augmenting France's cultural clout in Europe. The French form of ballet de cour influenced how other European courts practiced the art—sometimes exported with French princesses who married into foreign royal families (as when Henrietta-Maria became Charles I of England's queen and oversaw a renovation of the masque), sometimes imitated in an act of cultural rivalry (as when Christina of Sweden ordered the construction of a salle de ballet that mimicked the dimensions of French ballet stages). By Louis XIV's era, the French court had established itself as the epitome of pomp, a European capital of theatrical splendor. This distinction bolstered France's claim to precedence in international society in the late seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, laying the groundwork for the emergence of the trope of "French Europe" in the age of the Republic of Letters. Diplomacy itself became French in this era as French thinkers such as François de Callières established normative practices for negotiation and as French replaced Latin as the predominant lingua franca of diplomatic congresses. This cultural hegemony derived, at least in part, from France's investment in spectacular entertainments whose reputation echoed throughout Europe.

The chapters that follow investigate several of the most richly documented examples of diplomatic entertainment either organized or witnessed by French statesmen from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. Arranged chronologically, the chapters trace major evolutions in the theory and practice of diplomacy and court spectacle, particularly from the French perspective. The book begins in the mid-sixteenth century when Valois patrons attempted—and largely failed—to heal international conflicts by commissioning entertainments from artists steeped in idealistic, neo-Platonic theories of the performing arts' ability to bring about earthly harmony. A more productive period for diplomatic entertainments was ushered in by a shift from neo-Platonic to neo-Aristotelian understandings of the arts' power in the early and mid-seventeenth century. As the custom of including the diplomatic corps in court entertainments became routine, a conventional repertoire of iconography and choreography emerged to reflect upon matters of war, peace, and international alliance. Ballets and other spectacles constituted a kind of rhetoric capable of engaging with diplomatic questions for an exclusive audience in possession of the cultural knowledge to understand and appreciate its rarefied languages. Across different European stages, sovereigns, via diplomatic spectators, engaged in a conversation about diplomacy through the performing arts. Under Louis XIV, the flourishing of court entertainment paradoxically led to a diminishment of its diplomatic efficacy, as the mise-en-scène of absolute monarchy was increasingly inhospitable to the idea of a "conversation" among European powers. At the same time, entertainments aimed to construct a more global diplomatic society by expanding the audience for Louis's glory beyond Europe into Asia and Africa.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, French political and cultural dominance led to the emergence of a well-codified, French-inflected style of diplomacy that influenced diplomatic practice across Europe. This modern form of diplomacy emphasized legal and cultural training for diplomats and relied less on the aristocratic arts. By the end of Louis XIV's reign, the form of expert diplomatic performance that transferred seamlessly between the ballet stage and the courtly one had lost its relevance. The persuasive theatricality of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century diplomatic practice was gradually transformed from an integral part of statecraft into an empty show. Throughout this period of transition, however, theatrical entertainments continued to play a role in diplomatic interactions. In particular, media coverage of internationally attended court fêtes or performances at the Opera or Palais Royal transformed diplomacy into a virtual spectacle directed at a broader audience of domestic subjects. The "theater of diplomacy" shifted from the exclusive space of the court to a more public sphere. This evolution set the stage for the emergence of modern "public diplomacy" or "cultural diplomacy" as we know it today.

Attending to the artistic and theatrical dimension of early modern diplomacy, A Theater of Diplomacy answers John Watkins's recent call for "a New Diplomatic History" of early modern Europe: a "cross-disciplinary study of international relations" that would demonstrate diplomacy's profound entanglements with all facets of culture. Complementing recent studies on literary representations of diplomacy, poets' work as ambassadors, art objects in diplomatic gift exchange, and diplomats as collectors and connoisseurs, this book shows how the arts of spectacle informed diplomatic culture and practice. Although the form and uses of diplomatic entertainment evolved significantly over the long period considered here, spectacles consistently highlighted the centrality of theater to diplomatic interactions. Even more than clichéd metaphors likening the ambassador's role to that of an actor, diplomatic entertainments reveal the performativity of international relations that only become visible through representations (such as allegorical ballets) or in the theatricalized context of a congress or treaty signing. Concrete examples of the uses of dramatic spectacle in international relations demonstrate that the theater served not only as a metaphor for diplomacy but as a site for imagining and theorizing the nature of diplomatic relations.