Théâtre de Guerre: The 1793 Siege of Toulon in the Plays and Political Discourse of the French Revolution

Theater has been consistently used for political purposes, and it can be argued that power, and politics, is intrinsically spectacular in nature. The intersections between theater and politics were especially evident during the French Revolution: the newly-established representative democracy was characterized by its theatricality at the same time that new works of theater reflected political questions and were used to promote the Republic’s ideals. In this context, pièces de circonstance – plays based off of recent events – became widespread. The Revolution’s pièces de circonstance offer a unique source for examining how the spheres of politics and theater interacted at this time. To that effect, I will use as a case study the 1793 siege of Toulon, in which republican forces recaptured the city following a royalist uprising. The siege and ensuing victory were frequently referenced in political discourse, and also served as the subject matter for a profusion of contemporary plays and operas.

In this project, I will read and analyze speeches delivered at the National Convention which reference the siege of Toulon (from the Archives parlementaires) as well as pièces de circonstance from the same period, focusing mainly on Desbarreaux’s play “La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique” (1794) and Dantilly’s opera “La prise de Toulon par les français” (1794). In reading the speeches and plays against one another, I will compare the way the same event was portrayed in each set of documents, taking into consideration the similarities and differences in language used as well as in the spaces in which these narratives were presented. I also plan to supplement my understanding of these primary sources with secondary research on revolutionary theater and politics. Through this analysis, I aim to gain insight into the influence politics and theater exerted on one another in revolutionary France as well as the extent to which revolutionary political discourse can be described as theatrical – and thus the fluidity (or lack thereof) that can exist between these different spheres of representation, especially regarding such ideologically charged themes as war, the military, and ideas of patriotism.