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On the time Balzac ruined his own opening night with a ill-conceived publicity scheme.

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March 19, 2021, 1:29pm

Honoré de Balzac, known for his sweeping portrayals of the individuals that make up a nation, is survived by his famous multi-volume project La Comédie humaine. But you may not know that he was also a playwright—and the reason you may not know is because of Balzac’s own marketing foibles.

Today in 1842 was the opening night of Balzac’s five-act comedy Les Ressources de Quinola, for which Balzac had high hopes—such high hopes that in order to drum up publicity around the show, he started a rumor that the play was so popular already that it had sold out. This ruse was successful; people believed the rumor. But it was too successful: since the public believed the show had sold out, they (reasonably) didn’t bother trying to buy tickets, and the show opened to a mostly empty theater.

Mary Frances Sandars’s 1904 biography, Honore de Balzac, His Life and Writings, describes the events thus:

For the first night of “Les Ressources de Quinola” the audience was to be brilliantly representative of the aristocracy, beauty, and talent of France. The proscenium would, Balzac hoped, be occupied by ambassadors and ministers, the pit by the Chevaliers de St. Louis, and the orchestra stalls by peers; while deputies and state functionaries were to be placed in the second gallery, financiers in the third, and rich bourgeoisie in the fourth. Beautiful women were to be accommodated with particularly prominent places; the price of the seats was to be doubled or trebled; and to avoid the continual interruptions to which “Vautrin” was subjected, tickets were only to be sold to Balzac’s assured friends. Therefore many persons who offered fabulous sums of money were refused admittance, and told that every seat was taken. By these means Balzac ultimately overreached himself, as people believed that all the seats were really sold, and that it was no use to apply for tickets. When, therefore, March 19th, 1842, the night of Balzac’s anticipated triumph arrived, instead of a brilliant assemblage crowding the Odeon, it was three parts empty; and the small audience, who had paid enormously for their seats, and naturally expected a brilliant throng in the theatre, were in a critical and captious mood.

Oh, Balzac! You should have just done what every other theater writer does: promise your friends the show will be good, gripe that you’re not filling seats at the rate you should be, and beg them all to come.

This faux pas may have contributed to his unpopularity as a playwright, but at Les Ressources de Quinola’s first rehearsal he also forced his cast members to sit through him improvising the entire fifth act because he hadn’t written it yet, so . . . perhaps there were other reasons.

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