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Political Theatre: Part I

An examination of the language and word dynamics used in plays before and after early modern revolutions.

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This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

All the modern world’s a stage for revolution. But before the Age of Revolutions, the notion of overthrowing a monarch and installing a new form of government altogether was the stuff of antiquity, of fiction, and of minor Italic states. For people in England in the 1600s, or France in the late 1700s, the well of revolutionary references in history was shy, with scant immediate precedent to point to, one possible predecessor for revolutionary mood could be the themes of theater.

In “The rise of prosociality in fiction preceded democratic revolutions in Early Modern Europe,” authors Mauricio de Jesus Dias Martins and Nicolas Baumard examine the language and word dynamics used in plays before and after early modern revolutions.

“We show that prior to both the English Civil War and French Revolution, there was a sharp rise in the frequency of words associated with prosociality, trustworthiness, and sympathy vs. words related to authoritarianism, strength and anger,” the authors write. “Interestingly, in postrevolutionary reactionary periods, characters became stronger and less trustworthy.”

Plays offer a useful corpus of popular media over the eras, in part because the work of staging and incorporating existing actors into productions meant that form and style stayed relatively consistent over time. To test their method of word association, the authors first demonstrated that their tool could sort plays into tragedies and comedies, with tragedies tending towards authoritarian themes and comedies trending towards sympathy.

Before the Age of Revolutions, the notion of overthrowing a monarch and installing a new form of government altogether was the stuff of antiquity, of fiction, and of minor Italic states.

Bound the study of this change in England was the English Civil War (1642-1651), which pitted Parliamentarians against Royalists, the royal Restoration under Charles II (1660 – 1688), and then the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw an adamant catholic Royalist driven out and replaced by a protestant monarch much more amenable to Parliament. The Protectorate, in which Oliver Cromwell ruled not by royal right but as Lord Protector as appointed through the proto-constitutional Instrument of Government, is “in line with our hypothesis, trust, sympathy, and prosociality rose during the period preceding the Civil War,” the authors write. They continue, “Crucially, we found that in comparison with the Restoration, the [slope of trust, sympathy, and prosociality] was significantly higher in the periods before the Civil War and after the Glorious Revolution. For sympathy, the absolute level was higher before the Civil War than during the Restoration.”

In France, the authors looked at these trends from before the French Revolution (prior to 1789), during the Revolution (1789-1799), in Empires and Restorations (1804-1870), and in the Third Republic (after 1870). In plays in France through that time, the authors found “that the trustworthiness-to-strength ratio rose before the political revolutions, and declined afterward.”

The authors also checked these trends against change in GDP for the respective nations, noting “our results are consistent with the hypothesis that rising living standards might contribute to the shift of psychological orientations toward cooperation.”

Looking at further research, the authors suggest these trends can be used to explore other changes in behavior, ones that don’t reach the abrupt breach of trust and violence in revolution and reaction.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Reporter

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.

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