3 Questions: Jeffrey Ravel on bringing data to cultural history


A couple of centuries from now, will anyone remember the hit Broadway show “Hamilton?” Will they know how popular it was? As it happens, historians do know a great deal about Enlightenment-era French theater, and they continue to learn more — thanks in part to the Comédie Française Registers Project (CFRP), an ongoing effort led by Jeffrey Ravel, head of the MIT History faculty. Ravel and his colleagues have digitized over 100 years of theater records to learn more about the intersection of popular culture, politics, and social life during the 17th and 18th centuries. Now MIT is co-hosting (along with Harvard University’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures) a global conference on the subject, being held May 19-21. Ravel sat down to talk with MIT News.

Q. What is the Comédie Française Registers Project?

A. The Comédie Française Registers Project is based on archival documents from the late 17th and 18th centuries. The Comédie Française was and still is the primary state-funded theater troupe in France. It was founded by Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” in 1680; took a brief hiatus [from 1793-1799] during the French Revolution; was reconstituted by Napoleon; and continues to exist today. Our project covers the troupe’s nightly box-office receipt records from 1680 until 1793 — over 34,000 performances. We have created high-resolution digital images of each page, extracted the box office data from the registers, compiled it in a searchable database, and created search and visualization tools to interrogate the data. These tools allow us to see what kinds of trends emerge about the popularity of plays, playwrights, contemporary political themes, and various aspects of the repertory.

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