Siege of Toulon Update 3: Conclusions and draft paper!

Reading secondary sources on pièces de circonstance – most notably Pierre Frantz’s article “Entre journal et épopée: la théâtre d’actualité de la Revolution” and “Du théâtre historique au théâtre politique: la régéneration en débat (1748-1791)” by Philippe Bourdin – proved immensely useful for better understanding the context of the plays which I had read. More interesting still, however, were broader debates in academia regarding politics and theater during the revolutionary period and the relationship between the two.

Paul Friedland in his book Political Actors makes a strong argument for vast overlap between the “political” and the “theatrical” spheres during the Revolution such that they might be considered one and the same, a view I had become somewhat familiar with when doing preliminary readings to design this project last year. In my research, however, I also ended up reading Revolutionary Acts by Susan Maslan (yes, both of these titles certainly put some thought into combining politics and theater!) which takes a distinctly different position: Maslan argues that the theatrical sphere and the political sphere, both similar spaces that were highly politicized during the Revolution, presented two different, contesting forms of representation. At the time of a struggle between direct and representative democracy, where political representatives sought to assert that it was they who embodied the popular will, theater presented a space where direct and representative democracy coexisted in the sense that the representations onstage were controlled by the audience. Whereas Friedland juxtaposes the theories of real “embodiment” in the Ancien Régime’s absolute monarchy with the comparatively unreal “representation” of the Convention’s deputies, Maslan chooses to contrast that representation (and the anxieties associated with it) with the direct democracy of mass political engagement in the Revolution, showing that in fact the revolutionaries sought to eliminate theatricality – key to the spectacle and hierarchy of the Ancien Régime – from their new Republic.

Although my essay isn’t structured specifically around those debates, it was immensely satisfying to be able to consider my analysis of the material relating to Toulon within this larger context, so I thought it might be worth mentioning in this final blog post!

Political and Theatrical Representations of the 1793 Siege of Toulon

In December 1793, the republican army in the south of France recaptured the port city of Toulon after nearly four months of siege. In the country-wide unrest following the fall of the Girondin party earlier that year, the royalists of Toulon had taken control of this city and its key naval resources, soon calling on their English and Spanish allies for aid. The ongoing war effort, compounded by Toulon’s strategic importance, made the siege a constant topic of discussion in the National Convention over the period of its duration. Mentions of Toulon in political discourse were at a height in December, as the fighting continued and letters from the officers and representatives “sous les murs de Toulon” reported progress and then victory.[1]

The surrender and flight of the allied monarchic forces and the port’s recapture were greeted with effusions of joy on the part of republicans across France. Only a few days after the victory was announced in the National Convention, literature commemorating the event began to be published in the form of verses and songs.[2] However, that was hardly the end of such topical works. On January 3rd, 1794 (14 nivôse, an II) Bertrand Barère called upon French theaters to “repeat for the French what was achieved on the banks of the Mediterranean.”[3] Given the predominance of plays showcasing current events (pièces de circonstance or théâtre d’actualité) during the Revolution, one assumes playwrights hardly needed such urging. At least seven plays recounting the fall of Toulon were produced that month.[4] The database César records ten separate plays on Toulon in the year 1794, while archivist Alfred Parès recorded thirteen in Paris and the provinces. The vast majority of these pièces de circonstance were written and performed in the months immediately following the victory, with interest tapering off as the year went on.[5] None of the plays recounting the fall of Toulon went on to become classics of French theater: in fact, it would be safe to say that after 1794, they were never performed again. Only two later plays addressed the capture of Toulon: one in 1798 and one in 1893.[6] As M. Parès wrote, “Telle fut cette littérature lyrico-dramatique de circonstance, née spontanément sous l’impulsion des événements ; œuvres hâtives, inspirées par la fièvre et l’exaltation du moment, et qui n’eurent pour la plupart, qu’une durée éphémère…” (“Such was this lyric-dramatic topical literature, spontaneously born by the impulse of events; hasty works, inspired by the fever and exultation of the moment, which, for the most part, had only an ephemeral duration…”) [7]

Yet théâtre d’actualité of this kind was a relatively recent phenomenon at the time: it could not have existed before the Revolution. Under the Ancien Régime, modern, French history and politics were banned from the theaters, which fell under strict government control.[8] Any reference to contemporary politics in the text had to be veiled in allegory so as to escape censorship.[9] The “historical” tragedies of the Ancien Régime were predominantly set in classical times. In his article “Du théâtre historique au théâtre politique: la régénération en débat,” Philippe Bourdin traces the debates on history’s place in theater over the latter half of the eighteenth century. Since Voltaire’s 1748 “Dissertation sur la tragédie ancienne et moderne,” which Bourdin sets as the starting point of this discourse, writers had expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of relevant history in Ancien Régime theater, criticizing contemporary works of theater as trivial and purely spectacular.[10] Susan Maslan points out that on the eve of the Revolution, the belief that theater was the crowning jewel of French cultural achievement coexisted with a widespread fear that this theater was in a state of degeneracy. French theater, it was believed, was in decline because of the constraints government control had placed on content, preventing theater from being fully relevant to the social and political concerns of the time.[11] In many ways, the Revolution freed theater from these constraints: in 1789 Chénier’s play “Charles IX, ou l’école des rois,” labelled a “national tragedy,” set the tone for new theatrical representations of French history.[12] Soon enough, however, references to the monarchic past were rendered “null and void,” leaving only the immediate and the classical past: at the same time, revolutionaries’ acute consciousness of their place in what was now conceived as national history, and of the historicity of current events, also contributed to the preponderance of the new pièces de circonstance on the Revolution’s stages.[13]

The plays on Toulon can certainly be described as typical of the Revolution’s théâtre d’actualité – specifically the way revolutionary military victories were portrayed onstage in their immediate aftermath. In a period in which grand upheavals took place in politics, theater, and political culture, I would argue that the genre of théâtre d’actualité which appeared during the Revolution provides perhaps the most direct example of interactions between the political and theatrical spheres. In this sense, the case study of Toulon serves as a microcosm of broader trends in revolutionary theater and politics.

To this effect, I read and analyzed the National Convention’s records of December 1793 along with plays recounting the fall of Toulon, focusing on d’Antilly’s opera “La prise de Toulon par les français” and Desbarreaux’s play “La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique.” These primary sources were complemented by secondary research focused on theater and politics in the Revolution and pièces de circonstance as a genre, which allowed me to place the materials I read in their wider historical context as well as within the framework of current debates in academia on the nature of the relationship between theater and politics during the Revolution.

The text of the Toulon plays reveals a striking degree of similarity to the political discourse in the National Convention regarding the same event. To begin with, the basic account of the events associated with the fall of Toulon as presented in the National Convention (through letters from the deputies at the front, as well as from General Dugommier) is essentially the same in both Desbarreaux and d’Antilly’s works. Certain episodes stand out in both the plays and the National Convention’s records: although details are often changed in the plays, or rather embroidered to tell a more compelling narrative, the essentials of the story are the same. For example, d’Antilly’s opera (which, unlike Desbarreaux’s shorter play, shows the fighting onstage) shows soldiers fleeing and rallied by the people’s representatives, Fréron and Ricord, and the capture of “Fort Pharon” (“Pharaon” in the reports). Although d’Antilly adds in the image of Fréron holding aloft the tricolor flag and the soldiers rallying to him, the rest of the episode is exactly as detailed in Fréron and Ricord’s report to the Convention: the fleeing soldiers, the representatives being accused of imposture when they try to rally the men, Fréron being threatened with a pistol to the chest, the representatives saved by the appearance of a commander.[14] As in the National Convention’s records, both plays contain an episode to do with the threat of explosives having been set in Toulon by the enemy before their flight; both plays also contain an episode in which the heroic convicts of Toulon save a remnant of the French fleet from burning, if on a greater scale than the four frigates mentioned by Carnot in the National Convention; moreover, like the reports, both plays include (in different ways) a solemn, touching rendition of the people’s representative Charles Beauvais’ rescue from captivity.[15] It is clear that, despite variations in each version of the story and the addition of a few fictional characters and subplots, the plays would have imparted to their audiences a narrative which was essentially similar to that presented in the National Convention. Since the latter was composed of firsthand reports and letters from the front, it could be said that, to an extent, the plays presented an accurate account of the fall of Toulon.

Not only the events, but also the language of the plays overlaps heavily with that of the Convention’s records. Emphasis is placed on the duty of setting aside personal, familial bonds when the country is in crisis: the exact phrasing of “étouffer les cris de la nature” is used in Desbarreaux’s works and the Convention’s records.[16] One also notes similar imagery (lightning as national vengeance, liberty trees, the “satellites des rois” (sycophants of kings) and the treason of the “infâmes Toulonnais”, etcetera), as well as similar motifs such as Beauvais’ assumed martyrdom, soldiers impatient to fight, or swearing oaths of victory.[17] The text of the Toulon plays speaks on a whole in the same tone as the political discourse of the National Convention. Most strikingly, 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.”[18] This is especially interesting 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. Thus, the Revolution’s théâtre d’actualité was intensely politicized, to the extent that even the same text might be used onstage as in the National Convention. These plays’ audiences would have seen and engaged with political representations in the theater that highly resembled the discourse of the representatives in the Convention.

How to account for these similarities? In the preface to “La prise de Toulon par les français,” d’Antilly lists only one source for his opera: the Bulletins de la Convention.[19] At the time, the Bulletins de la Convention nationale, which recounted nearly the entirety of the day’s proceedings in the Convention, were widely distributed across France “to administrators, schools, and sociétés populaires”.[20] The Convention expended significant effort to print and distribute such documents, with the government printing shops overshadowing even the largest newspapers at the time: whereas the proprietor of Moniteur universel and Mercure ran an establishment with 27 presses and 91 workers, the government employed at least 40 printing presses and several hundred workers in 1794.[21] This print medium would have facilitated the ready transmission of the Convention’s political discourse to the theatrical sphere.

Moreover, the revolutionary government, aware of the political and ideological expediency of théâtre d’actualité – especially given theater’s vast cultural significance at the time, and the power plays were believed to exert over public morality – sought to promote and influence such works. In August 1793, the Convention decreed that works which “relate the glorious events of the Revolution and the virtues of the defenders of liberty” should be regularly performed.[22] As mentioned earlier, shortly after the republican forces’ success in Toulon, Barère called for French theaters to produce works which would recount the victory. Representations of military victories in particular were especially useful as propaganda for the levée en masse. The government clearly considered pièces de circonstance showcasing these victories to play an important role in the war effort, since saltpeter was donated to theaters for the staging of military spectacles, despite its scarcity.[23]

However, in practice, the extent to which the theatrical sphere was dominated by politicians’ decisions is highly debatable. The victory over Toulon’s royalists and their foreign allies likely would have met with public approval, if not outright enthusiasm: the spectators at the National Convention, for one, as well as the highly democratized section assemblies of Paris, individual citizens and political societies across the country, expressed every sign of exuberance at the news.[24] Thus, pièces de circonstance relating to military victories, where audience response would have generally aligned with political aims, hardly present the best example with which to examine the contesting powers at work in revolutionary theater. That being said, the case study of the Toulon plays presents strong evidence for audience control over theatrical representations. In the preface to “La Prise de Toulon, drame heroïque et historique,” Desbarreaux explains that he kept or cut scenes and dialogue from his play based on audience response. Even when it ran counter to his own wishes, Desbarreaux was forced to cut pieces from the script because of the “impatience” of the audience: “J’ai été obligé de supprimer au 3e. acte tout ce qui se trouve également marqué par des guillemets, pour accéler la marche de l’action théâtrale; si le public était un peu moins impatient de voir la catastrophe, je désirerais vivement que l’on rétablit ce qui est dans le rôle de Salicetty… L’action héroïque du forçat de Toulon doit être conservée dans son entier.” (“I was obliged to take out everything seen in quotation marks in the 3rd act, to speed up the plot; if the audience was a little less impatient to see the catastrophe, I would deeply wish Salicetti’s dialogue to be re-established… The heroic action of the convict of Toulon should be kept in its entirety.”) [25] By including it in his notes for future productions of the play, Desbarreaux implies that whether or not Salicetti’s dialogue in the third act is performed or not should depend on the mood of the audience. Positive response from the audience also had direct influence on the script: “J’ai conservé l’Adresse même de la Convention Nationale à ses frères d’armes sous les murs de Toulon: il est difficile de rien voir du plus énergique, et l’enthousiasme qu’elle produit au théâtre m’a prouvé combine cette manière de parler à des hommes libres est puissante.” (“I even kept the Address of the National Convention to their brothers in arms at the walls of Toulon: it is difficult to find anything more energetic, and the enthusiasm it produces at the theater has proved to me how powerful an effect that manner of speaking has on free men.”)[26] Within the space of the theater, the audience could to an extent impose their will on the representations before them.

Théâtre d’actualité and its mutual public and governmental support can also be understood as an experiment with publicity. As many authors have pointed out, revolutionary politics was often criticized by its contemporaries for being too theatrical.[27] At the time, this would have been a deeply troubling concern: theatricality and spectacle were intrinsically associated with falseness, as well as the politics and political culture of the Ancien Régime.[28] Moreover, with war still raging, in the paranoid atmosphere of the Terror, falseness of any kind was understood as not only morally reprehensible but also potentially dangerous.[29] Publicity – the act of making events and actions public – and popular surveillance of representatives and society were understood as the solution to the threat posed by theatricality.[30] Both sans-culottes and Jacobins believed that it was essential citizens know what went on in the political sphere, specifically the actions of their representatives. If each citizen could see everything – if everything were publicized – there would be no place for a lie to hide, and through supervising the people could ensure that they were being truly represented by their deputies.[31] The high degree of performativity associated with donations to the Convention and other patriotic acts, as seen in the National Convention’s records – most of which associated with Toulon were in fact letters reporting such – is also better understood in this context. Letters to the Convention detailing contributions to the war effort, such as that of the société populaire of Saint Martin de Brômes, were recorded and most often decreed a “mention honorable” and insertion into the Bulletins de la Convention, thus effectively publicized to a wide section of the population.[32]

In 1790, the anonymous writer of “l’Influence de la Révolution sur le théâtre français” declared “Que désormais la philosophie des theaters soit libre, pure, sublime comme la vérité… Que nos auteurs tragiques… mettent en scène les obscures manoeuvres de nos oppresseurs. Qu’ils portent dans ce dédale ténébreux le flambeau terrible de la vérité.” (“From now on may the philosophy of the theaters be free, pure, sublime as the truth… May our tragic authors… put onstage the obscure maneuvers of our oppressors. May they carry into this gloomy labyrinth the terrible torch of truth.”) [33] Even before the Revolution, allowing playwrights to use modern history in their works had been theorized as equivalent to revealing the secrets “of the courts and secret cabinets… leaving us, the audience, judges of the masters of the world.”[34] Mercier in fact argued that historical theater would be useful in order to gain a true picture of the power or weakness of a kingdom.[35] However far-fetched the assumption that theatrical representations of events would be true to life, it is certainly worth noting that theater, especially théâtre d’actualité, was perceived as playing an important role in publicizing the truth. When Barère decreed that theaters “repeat for the French what was achieved on the banks of the Mediterranean,” he may have been referring to exactly such a journalistic function: the theaters were to recount the victory such that each citizen could see and experience it. Along similar lines, Desbarreaux writes in his preface that he invites all the theaters in France which do not yet have a piece relating to Toulon to perform his play without compensation.[36] Theater, the major cultural institution during the Revolution, could certainly have been useful in spreading the news of events among the public. Given the general accuracy of the plays’ accounts of the fall of Toulon when cross-referenced with the reports from the front to the National Convention, it would be fair to say that, in this case at least, the experiment of using theater for purposes of publicity was a successful one.

The irony of theater playing a role in publicity when the latter was then conceived of as the opposite of theatricality would be hard to miss. In fact, however, the Revolution’s culture of intense performativity and publicity combined with anti-theatricality was also reflected in the theaters themselves, including the content and themes of the plays.[37] In Desbarreaux’s play, characters who dissembled before their monarchic oppressors proudly declare that there can be no lies between free men.[38] D’Antilly’s opera overtly attacks the theatricality of the Ancien Régime through the characters of the stereotypical aristocrats. In the opera, the aristocrats’ exaggerated theatricality and hierarchical custom is mocked and unmasked: audience sympathy is meant to fall with their foil, the blunt, honest Republican sympathizer John Bull, an allegorical character of the English everyman, who, his nephew (the “personnage ridicule” Milord Pudding) explains apologetically, “n’est ni galante, ni poli, mais il a le coeur excessivement bonne, et seroit un homme accompli s’il avoit le complaisance de mentir quelquefois pour les Dames.” (“he isn’t gallant/courteous, nor polite, but he has an excessively good heart, and would be an accomplished man if he had the deference/nicety to lie sometimes for the ladies.”)[39] Thus, pièces de circonstance could be considered simultaneously one of the most overtly political genres of theater as well as one of the most anti-theatrical in the way that theatricality was conceived of during the revolutionary period.

However, as Maslan points out, it would be overly simplistic to assume that the Revolution’s théâtre d’actualité was simply a reflexive reaction to recent events and politics. Rather, pièces de circonstance expressed their own complex relationship with “the historical situation in which they were produced” when they ‘translated’ revolutionary events into the framework of theater.[40] These works did not just recount an event to their audiences: rather, in a similar way to press journalism, théâtre d’actualité staged in the immediate aftermath of a revolutionary event was itself responsible for the way that event became defined in the minds of the public.[41] Theater effectively ‘created’ an event by immediately giving it importance, as well as writing its narrative. As Bourdin writes, “La prise de la Bastille, la fuite du roi, les victoires militaires passent aussi à l’histoire entre scène et foyer.” (“The fall of the Bastille, the flight of the king, the military victories thus passed into history between the stage and the home.”) (emphasis mine).[42] The revolutionaries of the time were possessed of a strong sense of their own place in history and the historicity of the contemporary events which they orchestrated and in which they took part.[43] We can see this concept of historicity in the historical and classical references and comparisons which shared the Revolution’s stages with the immediate past.[44] D’Antilly evokes the concept of a continuous national past in his preface when he discusses the failed attack of the Duke of Savoy and the Dutch and English fleet on Toulon in 1707 and the French literary productions commemorating that event.[45] Most strikingly, however, both plays and political discourse drew comparisons between the republican recapture of Toulon and Rome’s destruction of Carthage.[46] Both the theatrical and political spheres, if they could be so neatly separated, clearly imagined the events of the time to be located in and intrinsically linked to the wider history of the nation, as well as the culturally-enshrined classical Greco-Roman past. Théâtre d’actualité in particular, lacking the distance of time required of ‘historical’ theater, itself rendered contemporary events historic.

[1] Archives parlementaires database, December (Tomes 80-82)

[2] Eg. ibid., letter of citoyen Gassaud le jeune, Tome 82, p. 380

[3] Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, eds J. Mavido and E. Laurent (Paris: Librairie Administrative de P. Dupont, 1862–1913). Rapport sur la marine, 14 nivôse an II ( 3 January 1794 ), ser. 1, 82:613. (Quoted in McClellan’s lecture – must find original)

[4] “The Revolution on Stage: Opera and Politics in France 1789-1800,” 2004 lecture by Michael E. McClellan

[5] “La Prise de Toulon” in database Le Théâtre français de la Révolution à l’Empire

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alfred Parès, La Reprise de Toulon au Théâtre, in Société archéologique, scientifique et littéraire de Béziers (Bulletin de 1927, pp. 137-146)  (Quoted in “La Prise de Toulon” in theater database – en ligne sur Gallica)

[8] Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, pp. 41

[9] Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, pp. 20-21

[10] Bourdin, “Du theatre historique au theatre politique: la regeneration en debat (1748-1791),” Parlement[s], Revue d’histoire politique 2012/3 (n° HS 8), pp. 54, also 56-69

[11] Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, pp. 19-21

[12] Bourdin, “Du theatre historique au theatre politique: la regeneration en debat (1748-1791),” pp. 59-63.

[13] Ibid., pp. 64-65

[14] d’Antilly, La prise de Toulon par les français, pp. 80-82; compare with Archives parlementaires, Tome 82, pp. 262-263, letter to the Convention from Fréron

[15] Desbarreaux, La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique, pp. 35 (mine), 38-40 (convicts), 35, 42-45 (Beauvais); d’Antilly, La prise de Toulon par les français, pp. 101-103 (mine), 96-97 (convicts), 100 (Beauvais). See also Archives parlementaires, Tome 82, p. 261, letter of Fréron, Robespierre, Ricord, and Saliceti to the Convention; p. 401, letter of the representatives at the front to the Convention; pp. 400-401, address of Carnot to the Convention, p. 402 (different version of Carnot and Bourdon’s addresses).

[16] See Desbarreaux, La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique, p. 7, also 20, 25, 26; Archives parlementaires, Tome 81, p. 519, letter to the Convention from the département of Tarn.

[17] For example, d’Antilly pp. 76-77, Desbarreaux pp. 14-15, 17; Archives parlementaires, Tome 80, p. 424, letter of the société populaire de Saint-Martin-de-Bromès to the Convention, among others.

[18] Archives parlementaires, Tome 82, pp. 580-581. address presented by Barère and adopted. See also Desbarreaux pp. 29-30, d’Antilly pp. 75-76.

[19] d’Antilly, La prise de Toulon par les français, p. xxix

[20] Hugh Gough, The Newspaper Press in the French Revolution, p. 104.

[21] Jeremy D. Popkin, Revolutionary News, p. 68.

[22]  Décret de la Convention nationale du à la représentation du 2 août 1793, l’an second de la république française relatif à la représentation des pièces de théâtre (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1793), pp. 1–2 (Quoted in McClellan’s lecture – must find original)

[23] Pierre Frantz, Entre journal et épopée: la théâtre d’actualité de la Revolution, Studi Francesi,

169 (LVII | I) | 2013, p. 25

[24] Archives parlementaires, Tome 82, pp. 255-256, 265, and others, as well as the outpouring of individuals’ and societies’ donations, following the victory, intended as rewards for the victors or compensation for soldiers’ families; also Tome 82, pp. 320-321, in which the section de Brutus addresses the Convention. See Revolutionary Acts pp. 154-155 re: districts and section assemblies.

[25] Desbarreaux, La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique, p. iv.

[26] Ibid., p. iii.

[27] For example, Friedland, Political Actors, 180-181; Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, p. 4

[28] Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, pp. 78-79, 130

[29] Ibid., pp. 78, 124

[30] Ibid., p. 78

[31] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[32] For example, Archives parlementaires, Tome 80, p. 424

[33] Quoted in Bourdin, “Du théâtre historique au théâtre politique: la régéneration en débat,” pp. 63-64

[34] Beaumarchais quoted in Bourdin, p. 57.

[35] Ibid., p. 58.

[36] Desbarreaux, La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique, p. iv.

[37] Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, p. 77-79

[38] Desbarreaux, La prise de Toulon, drame héroïque et historique, p. 11. (“Penses-tu qu’un homme libre puisse mentir? Il ne dissimule qu’avec les tyrans.”)

[39] d’Antilly, La prise de Toulon par les français, p. 43

[40] Maslan, Revolutionary Acts, p. 7

[41] Frantz, “Entre journal et épopée,” p. 23

[42] Bourdin, “Du théâtre historique au théâtre politique,” p. 64

[43] Ibid., p. 53

[44] Ibid., p. 60, 64

[45] d’Antilly, La prise de Toulon par les français, pp. A2, viii-xxviii

[46] Ibid., p. 103; Desbarreaux, p. 11; see also Archives parlementaires, Tome 82, p. 255, adresse des citoyens de Rochefort.


  1. Artemis Fang says:

    I’m glad to see that I am no longer alone in having posted an entire paper onto this blog
    It’s so interesting that theater was able to act as a media source in revolutionary France, and that it was encouraged by democratic developments. You pointed out that theatrical portrayals of politics were often endorsed by the revolutionary government and that theater can sometimes “create” news. The comparison to press journalism is just remarkably fitting. What you describe here reminds me of the articles I found for my own research that described a covariant relationship between public opinion and government actions.
    Would you say that there was such thing as “partisan theater”?
    Also, I suppose théâtre d’actualité has been replaced by modern media, but do you think it would be a good idea to bring it back, just because?

  2. cmaufderheide says:


    “Partisan theater” is a tricky one. To an extent, one could likely call a great deal of these current events pieces “partisan,” especially those glorifying military victories like the one in Toulon. When the plays draw reference to “la sainte Montagne” or the Jacobin ‘faction’ now in power, there’s some clear bias. On the other hand, other theater – though not to my knowledge théâtre d’actualité – did present different ideas, whether they attacked Jacobin politicians or their ‘platform’ by endorsing different ideas. Although a lot of the references and allegories in these plays would from the sound of it have flown straight over my head (if I recall right, Caius Gracchus was eventually censored because of one line “with laws and not with blood” which was perceived as anti-direct-action??) it’s clear that the Convention’s deputies and, more strikingly, the theater-going public at large, were VERY WELL-TUNED to the politics different plays promoted or degraded, however subtly, and interacted with them as such.

    Your comment about bringing back théâtre d’actualité is quite interesting. It’s very true to say that revolutionary theater’s journalistic purpose has been replaced by modern media – in the case of providing audiences with an experience of the event, most news stations now have video from “on the ground” which does more or less just that. However, I’m thinking that, given the way they theorized the powers (or dangers) of theater – the experience of physically being present at the theater while this event was presented, the overwhelming effects theater was believed to have on the emotional sensibility of the audience, and the significance of experiencing theater and its heightened emotion as part of a group – the revolutionaries of 1789 would hardly consider the (simultaneously more disconnected and more present) medium of video to be the same!

    Movies and the cinema would probably be roughly the modern equivalent of theater in terms of being a central cultural institution, but again, you could hardly say they serve the same purpose or act in the same way. Both our cinema and our modern theater are both accustomed to and designed for passive spectators – one feels rude even talking during a performance, which is altogether different from these 1790s audiences who sometimes went so far as to loudly proclaim that because they represented the majority opinion (I am not kidding! :D) the actors should perform a different play than the one that had been listed. Although some aspects of the emotional and group experience remain similar, the theater is sadly no longer a place where audiences directly engage with the ideas and representations before them, however politicized. Modern cinema, which is far more of a mass institution, does not even allow the opportunity to do so due to the lack of the physical presence of the performers (however I might fantasize about standing up in the movie theater and DEMANDING that Avengers Infinity War STOP PLAYING and change the plot so as not to condone abusive narratives, etcetera.) However, even at the cinema, spectators are generally passive and isolated from one another. I would say that this is because, among other things, the system of representative democracy is now firmly entrenched as opposed to direct action/direct democracy, which was not the case during the Revolution. Public opinion can still be expressed strongly regarding such representations (consider the discourse regarding American Sniper, for only one example! Even the casting and production choices of our movies come under close scrutiny before the movie premieres) but the power of that public opinion is generally exerted through boycotting, bad publicity, or petitions. The direct democracy of revolutionary-era theater, with soldiers rioting because a play was perceived as counter-surveillance (La Chaste Suzanne), and audiences actively taking it upon themselves to either censor or remove censorship from plays (eg. L’Ami des Lois), has disappeared.

    Whew, that got long!

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