Bourbon reform and buen gusto at Mexico City's Royal Theater



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During the late eighteenth century, as part of a broader reform initiative commonly referred to as the “Bourbon reforms,” royal officials attempted to transform theatrical productions at Mexico City’s Real Coliseo (Royal Theater). Influenced by new intellectual trends in Spain, especially the neoclassical movement, reformers hoped that theater could serve as a school of virtue, rationality and good citizenship. This essay analyzes the theatrical reform effort, traces its foundations from sixteenth-century Spain to eighteenth-century Mexico, and seeks to explain why the initiative failed to transform either the Coliseo’s shows or its audience’s artistic predilections. It argues that the initiative was unsuccessful for three primary reasons. First, reformers did not have the power to compel impresarios and actors to obey their new regulations, and economic constraints sometimes forced officials to bend their strict aesthetic standards to appease the audience's largely baroque predilections. Second, Mexico City’s diverse and thriving public sphere made imposing a new popular culture profoundly difficult, especially given that reformers’ one-dimensional vision of neoclassicism failed to account for the variety and debate within this movement. Consequently, the theater added fuel to public debate over the definition of buen gusto (good taste), rather than merely instructing passive citizens as reformers had hoped. Finally, widespread public derision of the performing profession meant that many spectators did not take actors seriously as teachers of morality, taste and rationality. Actors’ reputation as immoral lowlifes, which derived in part from late-sixteenth century debates in Spain over morality and illusion in drama, complicated reformers' already difficult project of transforming the theater into a school of sociability and citizenship.