Hearing through the théâtrophone: Sonically constructed spaces and embodied listening in the late nineteenth-century French theatre


  • Melissa Van Drie CNRS, Paris




This article presents a historical and theoretical reflection of the théâtrophone, a late nine- teenth-century telephone broadcast service that allowed users at a distance to listen in live to local theatre performances (spoken theatre, opera and musical concerts). Often cited as the first binaural experience in 1881, the théâtrophone’s much longer history as a subscription service, which operated in Paris from 1889 through the mid-1930s, is relatively unknown. This article considers what hearing through a théâtrophone meant to nineteenth- and twentieth- century users beyond its initial 1881 prototype. To hear through the théâtrophone means adopting a methodology mirroring the artefact itself: moving between social, professional, artistic, sensory registers. In doing so, the ways in which the théâtrophone was attuned to dis- course and practice emerge, as do more subtle processes involved in new nineteenth-century constructs of hearing and listening. Precisely the théâtrophone’s development is examined in relation to its particular social context: its installation on the spectacular Parisian boulevards and its relation to fin de siècle theatre culture. The article first investigates how theatrophonic listening was accorded to existent practices of theatre-going. Second, the article explores the more radical propositions of the théâtrophone in relation to important aesthetic and prac- tical changes occurring simultaneously in theatre culture. The théâtrophone’s virtual sonic experience multiplied the forms of a performance and its modalities of creation and recep- tion. Through accounts of ‘listening in’ the aspects of the new sonically constructed space are described, as are postures of early mediatised listening. The article posits that new modalities of listening are articulated through the théâtrophone, with certain users, including Proust, defining it as a monitoring and creative tool. In this capacity, ‘theatrophonic’ listening contrib- uted to the development of a refined ear, capable of detecting sonic nuance, which was central to artistic sensibilities at the time. 

Author Biography

Melissa Van Drie, CNRS, Paris

Melissa Van Drie

Postdoc researcher

THALIM Research Center (équipe ARIAS)

CNRS, Paris




How to Cite

Van Drie, M. (2016). Hearing through the théâtrophone: Sonically constructed spaces and embodied listening in the late nineteenth-century French theatre. SoundEffects - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience, 5(1), 73–90. https://doi.org/10.7146/se.v5i1.23310