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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Dr Julia Prest

IAS Fellow at the College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham University (October - December 2016)

Dr Julia Prest is Reader in Early-Modern French at the University of St Andrews. Her research is on the theory, practice and history of all types of theatre, including ballet and opera. Dr Prest is a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and sits on a number of editorial boards in the UK and USA.

Prior to moving to St Andrews, Dr Prest was Assistant Professor in the Department of French at Yale University. A graduate in French and Music, Dr Prest wrote her PhD on Molière’s comédies-ballets at the University of Cambridge, where she put on a production of Molière Le Mariage forcé complete with Lully’s original music and a reconstruction of the danced portions of the work. Following her PhD, Dr Prest spent three years as a Junior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, where she worked on cross-casting in a wide range of theatrical traditions including court ballet, school drama, comedy and opera. This culminated in the publication of her first monograph: Theatre under Louis XIV: Cross-Casting and the Performance of Gender in Drama, Ballet and Opera (New York: Palgrave, 2006; paperback 2013).

In her second monograph, Controversy in French Theatre: Molière’s Tartuffe and the Struggle for Influence (New York: Palgrave, 2014; paperback 2016), Dr Prest offers the first comprehensive account of the most significant controversy in the history of French theatre. She changes the terms of the debate, arguing that Tartuffe was a key locus for the struggle for influence among competing political and religious factions during the early reign of Louis XIV. Dr Prest’s articles include pieces on the castrato singer, a sado-masochistic re-reading of Tartuffe and an exploration of the politics of violence in court ballet during the Wars of Religion.

Dr Prest is working on an impact project on Translating Opera, using the eighteenth-century’s most international composer, Gluck, as a case study. She sings in the chorus of the Byre Opera Company (formerly St Andrews Opera), which performed her new English translation of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in June 2015. The translation will also be used by Red Earth Opera, Devon in their production of the work in March 2016.

Dr Prest’s current book project is on theatre in eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue (the French Caribbean colony that became Haiti in 1804), which boasted the most vibrant theatrical tradition of the colonial Caribbean. Dr Prest examines performance practices in the context of local conditions, paying particular attention to the question of exclusion and integration with regard to race and, to a lesser extent, gender. At the Institute of Advanced Study, Dr Prest will explore the racial scale at work in Saint-Domingue, focusing on two women of mixed race who, exceptionally, made their name as solo performers. Dr Prest also plans to develop a broader project on Race and Theatre in which she will explore modern casting practices alongside audience response. While numerous theatre companies now claim to practice colour-blind casting, the same cannot be said of audience response.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Performing the Racial Scale in the Theatre: From Colonial Saint-Domingue to Today

The casting of the “black” actor, Zoe Saldana, as the “black” singer, Nina Simone, in a recent film caused something of an uproar: Saldana, it was claimed, was not black enough and so wore skin-darkening make-up (“blackface”) and a prosthetic nose. These are not new issues. In order to open up the question of the racial scale at work in the theatre, Dr Julia Prest proposes to compare the experiences of two female singer-actors who participated in the vibrant theatrical tradition in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the 1780s. The first is the white European star, Mme Marsan, who was best-known for her performance of French comic opera but who also participated in local productions and is known to have performed in blackface on at least one occasion (something that actresses in France refused to do at this time); the second is a local woman of mixed racial ancestry, known as “Minette” who is famous for having been the first non-white soloist to perform publically in Saint-Domingue, but who refused to perform repertoire that was not strictly “French”. She will suggest that, in order to hold on to a position further up the racial scale than her ancestry would strictly permit, Minette had to be careful not to do anything that would push her back down that scale, while Mme Marsan, whose position at the top of the racial scale was almost untouchable, had more freedom to explore new theatrical possibilities. However, the fact that Marsan did not make a habit of performing blackface may have reflected a fear of degeneration. Although upward mobility was a common phenomenon on the island, the possibility of downward mobility (or degeneration) was not absolutely excluded. It will be seen that the issues faced by actors today have without doubt evolved but have yet to be fully resolved.

Listen to the lecture in full

Dr Julia Prest Publications

Prest, J. (2017) Les Veuves créoles, comédie. Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association.

IAS Insights Paper


This piece explores the notion of the racial scale in two performance contexts: first, in the theatres of the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century, and second, in twenty-first-century Hollywood. The racial scale as conceived by the colonials in Saint-Domingue was a means of establishing and upholding a social hierarchy that was built on the dominance of white European master over the black African slave, but which had also to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of free people of colour. One free woman of colour named Minette challenged the whiteness of the colonial stage by appearing in solo roles in a number of productions in Port-au-Prince throughout the 1780s. Her ability to move up the racial scale onstage is significant, though ultimately limited. Moving into the modern era, contemporary casting practices in Hollywood are examined in relation to a modern perception of the racial scale, often known as colourism. The controversy caused by the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in a recent biopic reveals the complex politics of casting even ‘black’ actors in ‘black’ roles as perceptions of different shades of colour persist across different social groups.

Insights Volume 10 Article 7