Cropper on Ville (2022)

Ville, Sylvain. Le Théâtre de la boxe: Naissance d’un spectacle sportif (Paris-Londres, 1880–1930). PU de Rennes, 2022, pp. 344, ISBN 978-2-7535-8329-0

Sylvain Ville’s compelling history of boxing examines how the sport developed in London and Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and demonstrates how boxing, particularly in Paris, took advantage of theatrical models and infrastructure to promote and stage bouts.

Ville’s study proceeds chronologically, from boxing’s beginnings in England to its introduction and then establishment in Paris. Ville outlines the early obstacles faced by the sport in France: most notably accusations that bouts were staged and criticisms from defenders of so-called French boxing, or savate, that boxing was too violent and too English. Ville then traces the “sportification” of boxing: efforts to legitimize and standardize the sport, attempts at forming a federation, and professionalization. The book’s last two chapters examine the heyday of the sport between 1911 and 1914 and finally the reinvention and restructuring of boxing in the wake of World War I.

The entire book is well documented, entertaining, and reasoned in its conclusions. The throughline that is most likely to interest readers of Nineteenth-Century French Studies is spelled out in the title with the words “théâtre” and “spectacle.” Ville consistently reminds readers of the connections between boxing and theater, provocatively beginning his study with this sentence: “Il s’en est fallu de peu que la boxe ne soit pas un sport” (17). Ville means that boxing—instead of being viewed as a sport—could just as easily have been categorized and perceived as a spectacle in the same vein as operettas or acrobatics. “Elle [la boxe] emprunte au cirque et au music-hall leurs lieux et une partie de leurs spectateurs, notamment les plus connus; des boxeurs participent à des ‘revues’” (17). Ville continues to stress the connection between boxing and theater, writing, “la boxe est codifiée par le spectacle au sens où elle est structurée par lui en vue de rendre l’événement attractif et de le soumettre au regard extérieur” (17).

Ville goes on to describe the tug-of-war between promoters seeking to maximize the visibility and profits of boxing and federation leaders seeking to legitimate boxing as a sport. While governing bodies would gradually gain influence and contractually obligate boxers to meet sporting expectations, promoters needed to stage a spectacle and meet what Ville calls a “double réalité,” namely, “une réalité objective (qui réside dans sa production matérielle) et une réalité subjective (qui réside dans sa construction et sa présence dans les imaginaires sociaux)” (20).

The “réalité objective,” or the very real task of organizing a boxing match, required advertisements, venues, ticket sales, and even taxes. Ville shows how early programs for boxing matches relied on established theatrical conventions with bouts frequently sandwiched between more traditional forms of entertainment. One tournament, organized by the sporting newspaper L’Auto on 29 Jan. 1907, publicized the Franco-British operetta “Little Poucette” in larger font than the “Criterium international de boxe anglaise.” The program for that evening also included a contortionist and an “équilibriste comique,” all with orchestral accompaniment (94). Even programs that only featured boxing were still organized like plays with a “première partie,” a “deuxième partie,” with an “entr’acte” in between (77). Unsurprisingly, boxing matches were held in established theaters. In 1909, for example, Ville concludes that of the 102 boxing events organized in Paris, ninety-two of them took place in a “salle de spectacle ‘traditionnel’ (cirque, théâtre, music-hall, bal ou café concert)” (116). Ticketing, too, followed the model of theater and operetta; though prices for boxing events progressively became relatively more expensive, the different tiering of prices based on proximity mirrored what was done in the theater world (178). Finally, Ville points out that “les rencontres de boxe sont soumises à la fiscalité des spectacles. En tant que divertissement payant, le ‘droit des pauvres’ est exigé à hauteur de 10% supplémentaires du prix du billet” (126). Again, boxing was considered in the same category as theater.

As for the “réalité subjective,” Ville details the role played by the press in creating a narrative of boxing—what he calls the “mise en récit des événements”—that resonated in the French social imaginary (20). L’Auto, the same newspaper that organized the Tour de France, along with La Vie au grand air, L’Éducation physique, and many others told the story of boxing and created a public for the fledgling sport. When French champions competed, they were heralded, of course. But in a sport dominated by British and American athletes, French journalists just as frequently made Paris their protagonist: the city became the world’s greatest stage, welcoming and promoting the world’s best boxers. Newspapers educated the public about boxing, explaining its rules, history, and utility. Journalists also published profiles of boxers, teasing out scandals that would sell more papers and sell more tickets (newspapers sponsored many bouts and tickets were sold at their offices).

Ville’s book offers a detailed dive into boxing, replete with charts, maps, numbers, and photographs. But by outlining the overlap between spectacle and sport, Ville’s book opens the door to more research on the connection between theater and the way other sports were (and continue to be) promoted, staged, and embraced in France. In fact, sports began to be promoted as a stand-alone field in 1854 by Eugène Chapus when he published Le Sport à Paris and launched the newspaper Le Sport: Journal des gens du monde. Significantly, Chapus’s first work, published in 1827, was titled Essai critique sur le théâtre français. Boxing, it would seem, fits into a broader and older pattern linking sport and the world of French theater.