Adam Smith, opera-dancers, and Le Demimonde

In my previous post I described Adam Smith’s first visit to the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, which took place on a Sunday (March 2, 1766). As it happens, Smith has quite a few things to say about the theater–and about actors, singers, and dancers as well–in The Wealth of Nations. For example, in Chapter 3 of Book II of his magnum opus, in the subsection titled “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labour,” Smith writes:

The labour of some of the most respectable orders in the society is, like that of menial servants, unproductive of any value, and does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject; or vendible commodity, which endures after that labour is past, and for which an equal quantity of labour could afterwards be procured. The sovereign, for example, with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him, the whole army and navy, are unproductive labourers. They are the servants of the public, and are maintained by a part of the annual produce of the industry of other people. Their service, how honourable, how useful, or how necessary soever, produces nothing for which an equal quantity of service can afterwards be procured. The protection, security, and defence of the commonwealth, the effect of their labour this year will not purchase its protection, security, and defence for the year to come. In the same class must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc. The labour of the meanest of these has a certain value, regulated by the very same principles which regulate that of every other sort of labour; and that of the noblest and most useful, produces nothing which could afterwards purchase or procure an equal quantity of labour. Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician, the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.[1]

This passage may sound quaint or even outdated today, when performances are routinely recorded on film and music artists record their songs on vinyl or digitally. (As an aside, it is intriguing to ask, if Smith were alive today, what would he say about Hollywood or about contemporary music stars like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or about the decline of opera relative to popular music and movies?) But this passage also provides a clue about Smith’s transformation from a moral philosopher into a political economist, a transformation that most likely occurred during his sojourn in Paris, for at the time Smith was writing this passage, he was reacting not just to statist or mercantilist theories; he was also reacting to one of the most influential and innovative economic works of his time, the Tableau économique, the first modern “macro” model of the economy.[2]

Among other things, the Tableau économique classified economic activity into productive and “sterile” classes of labor, i.e. between positive-sum activities that generate create new value and zero-sum activities that merely rearrange existing wealth. This fundamental distinction between productive/positive-sum activities and sterile/zero-sum ones can thus be traced to the work of François Quesnay (1694–1774), who is considered the father of the so-called “Physiocrats,” the leading alternative theory to mercantilism at the time.[3] So, when Smith is writing about “unproductive labour” and comparing the “most frivolous professions” (like musicians, opera-singers, and opera-dancers) with “the gravest and most important” ones (like lawyers, physicians, and men of letters), he is attempting to explain one of the leading economic theories of his day.

But Smith does not just explain why the opera-singers and opera-dancers are “unproductive” or engaged in zero-sum activities (a view that is clearly wrong, by the way), in Part 1 of Chapter 10 of Book I of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith also compares their profession to the world’s oldest:           

There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompense, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour, and expense of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence. The exorbitant rewards of players [actors and actresses], opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc., are founded upon those two principles; the rarity and beauty of the talents, and the discredit of employing them in this manner. It seems absurd at first sight that we should despise their persons and yet reward their talents with the most profuse liberality. While we do the one, however, we must of necessity do the other. Should the public opinion or prejudice ever alter with regard to such occupations, their pecuniary recompense would quickly diminish. More people would apply to them, and the competition would quickly reduce the price of their labour. Such talents, though far from being common, are by no means so rare as is imagined. Many people possess them in great perfection, who disdain to make this use of them; and many more are capable of acquiring them, if anything could be made honourably by them.[4]

This crude comparison might appear shocking to us today, but Smith may have ample reason for making it. As we shall see, Smith’s night at the opera with Walpole on Sunday, March 2 was most likely the first of many visits Smith made to the theater houses of Paris during his nine-month sojourn there, and as it happens, the French theater scene was the center of an elite Parisian sexual marketplace, the famed dames entretenues or “kept women” of French high society.[5] The theater district of the French capital was not only teeming with high-end brothels and places of ill-repute,[6] the actresses and dancers on the stage were among the most highly-sought after women of pleasure in all Europe.

Famous for their talent, glamour, and beauty, these femmes galantes earned their living by engaging in long-term sexual and often companionate relationships with men from the financial, political, and social elites, known as le monde (high society),[7] and this sultry sexual scene overlapped directly with the world of the theater.[8] According to historian Nina Kushner, the world of theater was the center of this high-end sex market because “being on the stage greatly increased … ‘sexual capital,’ the desirability of a mistress and hence the prices she could command for her services.”[9] Moreover, although not all theater women were kept mistresses or femmes galantes, “It was widely understood that any woman in the Opéra, and to a lesser degree the other theater companies, was a dame entretenue, or at least wanted to be.”[10] Although there is no evidence to indicate that Smith himself partook of any such transactions, how could he not have noticed what was really going on?

Either way, what Smith would not have failed to notice was Louis XV’s dramatic and unexpected visit to the French capital the next day, Monday, March 3. (I will resume my “Smith in the City” on Monday, May, 16.)

Demimonde | LoveToKnow
Source: Michele Majer

[1] The Wealth of Nations, Glasgow edition, p. 331.

[2] The Tableau économique was authored by François Quesnay, but it is important to note that during his lifetime Quesnay did not attach his name to his publications. [SOURCE] Be that as it may, Smith apparently met Quesnay as well as many of the other leading economistes of his day during his sojourn in Paris. I will have much more to say about these meetings later in this paper.

[3] In truth, the term “Physiocracy” was first coined in 1767–the year after Smith’s sojourn in Paris–by Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours in his treatise On the Origin and Progress of a New Science, while the term “mercantilism” was initially coined in 1763 treatise Philosophie Rurale, which was authored by one of the leading critics of this economic system, Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau (1715–1789). For historical accuracy, then, I will avoid the terms “Physiocracy” and “Physiocrats.”

[4] The Wealth of Nations, Glasgow edition, p. 124.

[5] See generally Kushner 2013.

[6] In the words of Nina Kushner (2013, p. 110), “Many brothels were in the center of town, on the rue St. Honoré or nearby, making them convenient for men leaving the Opéra.”

[7] Kushner 2013, p. 3.

[8] See Kushner 2013, pp. 4-5: “The demimonde overlapped with the world of the opera and theater: “About a fifth of the kept women under police surveillance at midcentury worked in the theater. Most were in the Opéra or its school, as dancers and singers.”

[9] Kushner 2013, p. 5.

[10] Kushner 2013, p. 31.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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