Siege of Toulon Update 2: Toulon In Theater

Continuing my project on theater and politics in revolutionary France (abstract) (update 1) I read and analyzed two works written in 1794 shortly after the republican victory over royalist forces in Toulon: La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique by Pellet Desbarreaux (you can read the script here), and La prise de Toulon par les français, by B. D’Antilly (here on Gallica). Whereas Desbarreaux’s work is a 3-act play in prose and comparatively short, D’Antilly’s is a 3-act opera composed of prose, verse, and songs. Although I’ve spent the past couple days on secondary sources and plan to do more research on the context of the plays, I’ll focus on the text itself in this post!

The most interesting – and surprising – aspect of reading these pieces turned out to be the more direct connections they had to the National Convention’s records I discussed in my last post. To begin with, D’Antilly cites the widely-distributed Bulletins de la Convention nationale (which would have contained most of the documents I read) as his principal source. (By contrast, Desbarreaux mentions interviews with politicians in Toulouse and with a division general who had fought at Toulon.) Even more intriguingly, however, both of the plays include – in full – Barère’s address of «La Convention nationale à l’armée de la République sous les murs de Toulon.» In fact, Desbarreaux writes specifically that he preserved the full address in his play because it stirred up great enthusiasm in the audience. Although the speech is wonderfully impassioned to read, my impression is that the address was preserved in full not because of its merit, but rather due to how familiar it would have been to audiences, having been widely distributed in print form. This is especially interesting for the purposes of my project, since the Convention’s address to the troops (a text placed directly in the political sphere) is being performed onstage as part of a theatrical representation.

The influence the Convention’s published records (eg. the Bulletins) may or may not have had on the plays as a whole (see below) is also fascinating. The way the siege of Toulon was portrayed in these works contains a great deal of overlap with the way the same event was presented in those documents, while also presenting intriguing points of divergence and emphasis:

Soldiers impatient to fight (/refusing food, money, or munitions because of this) 6, 8

(+ 16, 19)


Desbarreaux’s play especially contains some (embroidered?) accounts of soldiers refusing munitions (because they “only need their bayonettes”), and food (“We’ll eat in the walls of Toulon”)

62, 65 Mentioned in letters from different districts to the Convention: “toute notre jeunesse brûle de laver dans le sang des coupables une trahison qu’elle abhorre…”

Secondhand accounts from those at Toulon of the soldiers’ impatience and enthusiasm

Liberty trees 6, 14, 19 (in the camp, the center of a solemn procession & oath regarding Beauvais’ assumed martyrdom; enemy described as having dared profane the liberty tree) X Mentioned in letters to the Convention – one account of the traitors in Toulon having profaned the liberty tree by killing Beauvais near it?
The “true patriots” within Toulon’s walls suffering horribly 6, 14 46-47, 48, 68

This is shown visually in D’Antilly’s opera, with tableaux of royalist soldiers throwing children at their parents’ feet and chained patriots onstage

Mentioned in letters eg. from the Society of the Sans-culottes of Digne – “the patriots’ blood waters the public squares (there)…”
Citoyenne mother, wife, or daughter in danger 6, 7, 25, 37, 40

The wife and daughter of General Lapoype, and the rigorously republican mother of Varigny, a character who is an officer in one of the battalions at Toulon. All the women mentioned were within the walls of Toulon, but save themselves and escape. Their perils serve narratively to emphasize that the male characters must set aside their personal ties and pain to fight for the country.

X There are a few episodes involving women in distress in the Convention’s December records, mostly in letters to the Convention. The daughter of Beauvais makes appeals to the Convention, and one letter recounts an episode where the tears of an imprisoned republican’s wife motivate his compatriots to take action. (Perhaps although political theater attempted to teach citizens to sacrifice individual suffering for the nation, the image of women/relatives as victims was also still politically useful?)
Emphasis on putting aside familial bonds/affection (when the country is in crisis) – “étouffer les cris de la nature”/”to stifle the cries of nature” 7, 20, 25, 26 (esp. Varigny resolved to do his best fighting despite knowing his mother is within Toulon) 33-34 (brief episode where a spy for the republicans sings about how his children are no longer his as soon as the nation must be saved – harsh imagery eg. “La mort peut les frapper jusques dans leur berceau; on ne craint plus les rois quand on est au tombeau”) Recurring theme, exact phrasing of “étouffer les cris de la nature” used in letter from the département of Tarn
France/the nation personified or treated as an active force or spirit 7, “le Génie de la France” 71 “la voix de la patrie”, 81, “de la Nation, à laquelle tu dois jusqu’à la dernière goutte de ton sang” Throughout, letters to the Convention eg.  “Le génie de la France l’emporte. Il plane sur la République entière, et son repos sur la Montagne est marqué par les plus brillants succès.”
Harsh weather and rain as obstacles 8, 15 79 In letters from offers and representatives in Toulon
Volunteerism of inhabitants of the surrounding countryside, providing aid 8 – Desbarreaux’s play was written and performed in Toulouse (in the south of France, like Toulon) which could be a possible reason his work mentions this? X Many letters from southern districts to the Convention detailing their donations and sacrifices towards the war effort
“slaves” or “slavery” as a descriptor for subjects of monarchical countries/the threat to the free French people 8, 13, 39, 44 103 Mentioned throughout especially in the deputies’ discourse and speeches – the famous address of the Convention to the troops at Toulon also employs this
Enemies referred to as “sycophants of kings”/”les satellites des rois” & associated epithets 9, 14, 41, 43 Throughout, especially in the deputies’ speeches
Comedic/pejorative English and/or Spanish stereotypes 9, 12 (lustful Spanish priests, a comic episode where captured enemy officers promptly fall to fighting each other over religious differences) 52-53, 65

A “personage ridicule” in D’Antilly’s opera is the English “Millord Pudding” (!)

However, he also includes “Jhon-Bull”, the honest English everyman (John Bull) who supports the republican side

Briefly in phrases such as “de la corruption anglaise et de la lâcheté espagnole”
Positively portrayed Americans 10

The character Williams, an American pressed into service by the British, crosses lines to fight with his French “brothers” instead, where he is warmly greeted

X X (in the December records I read, at least concerning Toulon!)
Information on the enemy’s situation 11-12, 20 & 27

In Desbarreaux’s play, the republican army gets information from Williams (a deserter from the British side) and Citoyenne Varigny,  a patriot who escapes Toulon’s walls. There are no spies mentioned.

33, 67-69

The chief of the port workers spies for the republicans and meets their command daily through the guise of being a spy for the royalist camp, whose trust he has obtained.

(+ 37 with possible misinformation spread to the enemy, where the “Bulletins” the aristos are reading and the news they receive from their contact is drastically inaccurate.)

X Nothing mentioned about information on the enemy’s condition etc aside from what was apparent in battle
Comparisons to Rome and Carthage 11 103 Also apparent in the Convention records
Mentions of the National Convention in the work itself 14, 18, 29, 38, 39 99 (also “Vive nos députés, vive la Montagne!”) Mentioned very often and enthusiastically esp. in the letters, some of which is to be expected since they were addressed to the Convention
Emphasis placed on the command not rushing, but only deciding a course of action after careful reflection 14 62, 64


Both works have episodes in which immediate action versus deferral and how is debated by high command, D’Antilly’s to a larger extent

Beauvais (and Bayle) crying out for vengeance; the insult of having presumably killed the people’s representatives 14, 17 X (surprisingly!) Often throughout, in both letters and speeches
Oaths promising victory (or death) 14-15, 17 76-77


Both works have episodes in which the soldiers take one such oath

Especially in letters from various districts, where it is mentioned that all their young people are at Toulon and have sworn an oath not to rest until it has fallen/other
Image of the people’s representatives at the front (eg. Salicetti, Robespierre jeune), bravely engaging in combat as if they were soldiers, sabres in hand 14, 34 78 (discussed by the vivandières), 83 Letters from the front to the Convention, speeches by deputies ie. address by Barère: “Salicetti, Ricord, Fréron, Barras et Robespierre jeune, le sabre nu, ont indiqué les premiers aux troupes de la République le chemin de la victoire, et ont monté à l’assaut.”
Rescue of Beauvais 35, 42-45

Highly dramatized in Desbarreaux’s play, where they discover the cell Beauvais is held in only for that tower to explode onstage, revealing the prisoner; Beauvais repeats what the playwright has indicated as his actual words, “Suis-je avec des Français? Etes-vous des Républicains?” The last scene of the play is a procession in which Beauvais is lifted on a shield, surrounded by his comrades.


D’Antilly’s opera does not focus greatly on the Beauvais episode – he simply appears, weak and exhausted, after having been rescued offstage, and faints almost immediately after. However, Beauvais’ appearance as he slowly, painfully walks towards them, supported by others, is marked by a solemn silence. Unlike in Desbarreaux’s version, though, the climax of the opera occurs with the mine episode directly after, rather than ending with Beauvais’ rescue.

Elaborated in the letters to the Convention from the warfront and ensuing discourse
Heroic convict episode (saving the remnants of the fleet from burning, etc) 38-40 (event described after happens onstage, Varigny declares what happened and presents a convict with burnt hands) 96-97 (event happens onstage, with the convicts singing their intent to stop the ships being burnt, breaking their chains, etc)

+ 101-103: D’Antilly chooses to have a convict inform the officers of the mines underground, and save the army from destruction by removing the smoking fuse.

Event mentioned in deputies’ addresses, convicts mentioned in representatives’ letters from the front. Carnot describes the convicts having cut the cables which would have allowed fire to spread to four frigates. The representatives’ letter mentions two frigates already alight but saved by their action
Stereotypes of aristocrats 39 (in the convict’s story of his past) 34-45, 48 and 49 (during the opera, the finance superintendent Bursal makes a fuss about how Toulon will accommodate the impending visit of the Regent and his retinue, ignoring the war effort entirely), 50-51, 55, 87, 88-90 (a great deal more of this in D’Antilly’s work since it portrays the royalists and the situation inside Toulon onstage) Some, eg. Robespierre’s address to the coalition of kings:  “Illustres défenseurs de la cause des rois, princes, ministres, généraux, courtisans, citez-nous vos vertus civiques; racontez-nous les importants services que vous avez rendus à l’humanité : parlez-nous des forteresses conquises par la force de vos guinées…”
The image/symbol of lightning for national vengeance/action X 61 Very often throughout the Convention records
Soldiers fleeing and rallied by representatives (Barras, Ricord, Fréron) X 80-82 (The representatives try to rally the fleeing soldiers, placing their own lives in danger, and are accused of being imposters, with Fréron being threatened with a pistol, but they are saved by a commander. Fréron then raises a flag and the soldiers rally to him.) Described in a letter to the Convention from Fréron and Ricord, who mention that over 300 would-be deserters had thrown down their arms. Fréron mentions being threatened with a pistol to the chest (as was the case in D’Antilly’s play.) The appearance of the commander saves them and rallies the troops when he declares the representatives’ identities.
Mine episode (threat of explosives set in Toulon by the enemy before they left in an attempt to destroy the port and the republican army) 35

General Dugommier goes himself to check if the rumor is true (though declaring it does not seem to have much truth to it), proclaiming that “A man like me can be replaced” and not wanting to risk his soldiers’ lives.


When the enemy flees Toulon, it is clear their plans are to blow up the city behind them and thus destroy the French army. Later, the convict appears again amidst smoke to warn the officers to flee, because explosives have been set underneath them. Dugommier assembles six volunteers plus the convict to descend beneath the city and cut the fuses, from which the convict returns successful. However, Dugommier does not accompany them. This is the last scene before the final song of victory that ends the piece.

A letter from the representatives mentions that two explosions caused fear of such a trap, and that the entrance of the bulk of the army was deferred until the enemy’s powder magazines had been looked over. (This is a contrast to D’Antilly’s work, which shows Dugommier insisting that the soldiers remain in the city while the threat is assessed.)

The playwrights also make nods to the possible journalistic purposes of theater, another line of inquiry for my research, in the prefaces to their works. Desbarreaux, for example, writes that he invites all the theaters in France which do not yet have a piece relating to Toulon to put on his play without payment, since «je ne vends pas ce qui peut servir à propager les bons principes» (“I don’t sell that which could serve to spread good principles.”) Although it certainly reads as a (performatively) noble gesture, this could also point to pièces de circonstance functioning not only as purely entertaining or political works but also as a means of spreading the news of recent events among the public.


  1. klsheridan says:

    I have really enjoyed reading your updates so far; this project is absolutely fascinating.

    Your last paragraph in particular made me wonder about the motivations of the playwrights in this context. Since you indicate that Desbarreaux may have been being merely performatively noble, do you have ideas about what his other motivations might have been? It sounds like he wasn’t necessarily in it for the money, at least not directly, but have you found anything about possible political/social perks to writing these pièces de circonstance?

    Good luck with the rest of your research – I look forward to reading the conclusion!

  2. cmaufderheide says:

    Thank you so much for your comment! I’m so glad you’re enjoying this.

    Desbarreaux’s declaration that he would allow any theater “without a work on Toulon” to put on his play free of charge could certainly have been made out of genuine patriotic/revolutionary fervor – either a belief in theater’s capacity to teach citizens the “good principles” he mentions, or maybe also considering that his work could serve to spread the news of events at Toulon across the country. In fact, I would guess these beliefs were the main reason for his grand statement.

    That said, during this time the Republic is at war and (mainly because of this) the Terror is underway – and the political mood I’m pretty sure could be described as very paranoid where any real or imagined threat is concerned. So the political/social perks for any overtly visible act of patriotism – such as Desbarreaux’s play – could, in my opinion, definitely include the public affirmation of one’s loyalties (to the current government/republican ideals/the patrie) in an unstable political climate where any denunciation for the opposite could have deadly consequences. Aside from generally putting one in the government’s good graces… which I imagine could be very useful for a playwright like Desbarreaux, with the focus that was placed by politicians at this time on the theaters and their content.

    (Which reminds me, I need to see if I can find anything on these specific playwrights (and the others who wrote about Toulon) and their printers/publishers which might indicate political affiliation or any direct patronage!)

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