B.A., Rutgers University; M.A., Ph.D., University of California (Berkeley)
Hélène BilisAssociate Professor of French
Specializes in early modern literature and culture, with a focus on theatrical works and institutions, and their connection to 17th- and 18th -century developments in political power.
My research engages with the theatrical milieus of the ancien régime, in particular theater’s relationship to the monarchy which took a keen interest in developing the French stage in this period. I am interested in how the reception of theater and the expectations of spectators and critics changed so markedly over the course of roughly 150 years. Questions of form and structure guide my research and publications. Specifically, I am most interested in the reasons (political, cultural, aesthetic) for the rise and fall of literary genres and conventions.
In my first book, Passing Judgment: The Politics and Poetics of Sovereignty in French Tragedy from Hardy to Racine (Forthcoming, University of Toronto Press, 2016) I examined how an overlooked character-type—the royal judge—remained a constant of the tragic genre, although the specifics of his role and position fluctuated as playwrights experimented with changing models of sovereignty onstage. My readings show how this royal decision-maker stood at the intersection of political and theatrical debates, and evolved through a process of trial and error in which certain figurations of kingship were deemed obsolete and were discarded, while others were promoted as culturally allowable and resonant. In tracing the royal judge’s persistent presence and transformation, I argue that we can better grasp the weighty political stakes of theatrical representations under the ancien régime.
In keeping with my fondness for collaborative projects, I have co-edited (with (Jennifer Tamas, Rutgers University) a collection of twelve articles, L’Eloquence du Silence: Dramaturgie du non-dit sur la scène théâtrale des 17e et 18e siècles (Classiques Garnier, 2014). This volume investigates the paradoxical question of how silence makes itself heard on the theatrical stage. Other publications have focused on feeble and aging kings and the crises of dynastic succession they provoke on the tragic stage. I am currently working on another co-edited volume on new approaches to teaching neoclassical tragedy in the twenty-first century classroom.
My second-book project, “The Anxiety of Competition: Rival Playwrights and Troupes in Seventeenth-Century Paris—A Digital Humanities Perspective,” seeks to provide a fresh understanding of “les doublons” (doubled plays), through a blend of computational criticism, literary sociology, and qualitative readings. The study examines how direct competition and imitation fueled formal innovations in tragic form as playwrights openly squared off against each other in writing plays on the same source and topic, as in the most famous of numerous examples— Corneille’s Tite et Bérénice and Racine’s Bérénice, which appeared simultaneously on Parisian stages in 1671. This research has received a grant from the Wellesley College Blended Learning Initiative and the Knapp Instructional Technology Internship Program.
I enjoy teaching a variety of courses in the French Department, including introductory language, advanced conversation, and intensive writing courses. I offer a survey of French literature from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, as well as seminars on representations of women in power under the ancien régime, on the comedy of Molière and Marivaux, and a course on the concept of tragedy in France. In the multimedia course on “Versailles and the Age of Louis XIV,” students and I examine the literature and culture of this period and we evaluate the Sun King’s legacy for contemporary French culture and politics. My favorite aspect of teaching is seeing how surprised students are when they find themselves debating, passionately, in French, the merits of Corneille versus Racine.
I am proud to serve as an elected officer of the MLA French Seventeenth-Century Division Executive Committee (2012-2017). In 2012, I was designated as the president and organizer of the 31st Annual Conference of The Society for Interdisciplinary French Seventeenth-Century Studies, which was hosted by Wellesley College. In Spring, 2015, I served as Assistant Visiting Professor of French, Harvard University. Four colleagues and I received a joint grant from the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC) Mellon Grant to organize a workshop, “Blended Learning Approaches to Teaching Early Modern France in a Liberal Arts Context,” which I will host at Wellesley in October, 2015. I am currently the editor for the H-France Forum of medieval-17th-century literary studies.
In my spare time you’ll find my husband, our toddler, and me on the soccer sidelines cheering on the older siblings, Flora and Anthony. I like to travel, especially by train and to the Atlantic coast of France. I love swimming in Wellesley’s Morses Pond on a warm summer day.