In his 1995 biography of Adam Smith, Ian Simpson Ross (p. 209 & p. 213) reports that “Smith enjoyed the Paris opera season” and had “attended many plays and concerts, as well as the operas ….” during his 10-month sojourn in Paris. In fact, the first report in writing of Smith in Paris involves the popular opera Tom Jones.
This first-hand account appears in a private letter authored by Horace Walpole (b. 1717, d. 1797), the 4th Earl of Orford, dated March 2, 1766 (quoted in Ross, p. 209). Walpole, a literary light and a member of Parliament for many years, reports attending an “Italian play” with Smith and his pupil Henry Scott, the future 3d Duke of Buccleuch. Smith’s biographer, Ross (1995, p. 209), identifies this production as “the successful opera Tom Jones, first produced in 1765, revived the following year , and still in the repertoire … at the Comedie Italienne.”
What Ross and Walpole himself both leave out, however, should be of even greater interest to students of Smith’s travels. The Comédie-Italienne–or Théâtre-Italien, as this playhouse was also known–, was not only the celebrated stage where Smith’s soon-to-be lady admirer Madame Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni rose to fame (see my previous post); as historian Nina Kushner has shown, this theater was also an integral part of an elite Parisian sexual marketplace, the famed dames entretenues or “kept women” of French high society!
That this sultry scene overlapped directly with the world of theater — Adam Smith’s world during his sojourn in the French capital — opens up an entirely new vista of Smith’s social world in the City of Light. Although there is no direct evidence to indicate that Smith himself kept a mistress in Paris or partook in any illicit activities, this intersection between Smith’s love of theater and the dames entretenues of the Paris stage is worth exploring, a connection that I shall further explore in my next post …