Power and the People: Theater in France, 1789–1815

By Clare Siviter

Theatrical metaphors, most notably Marx’s comparison of the First French Empire with a tragedy, dominate our perceptions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. In fact, from 1789 to 1815, theater – as a combination of text, performance, and place – represented a mass cultural medium that attracted a vast cross-section of society across France, from Emperor to invalid. And yet, theater, as a spatial category of historical analysis, in this period has been largely overlooked.

Engraving of a a crowd at the theater.
Foyer du Montasier, 1798-99.

Theater and nation were closely entwined: the physical building could act as a microcosm of France and the government remained convinced of theater’s didacticism and ability to bring the nation together. Municipalities received huge subsidies to build new theaters and local civil servants rallied the population to attend. Ticket prices varied, and free (gratis) performances to mark festivals allowed a significant portion of the French population to attend the theater, whilst other “spectacles” were performed in public squares, former churches, private residences, and schools. Officials worried when there were not enough theater performances in certain towns, and “invited” or ordered the performance of set plays. Pre-existing dramas were employed to serve the present state: Voltaire’s Brutus (1730), in a modified form, was one of the three tragedies that the National Convention decreed should be performed three times a week during the summer of 1793.[1] Just as the portrayal of ancient republicanism offered the Revolution a sense of founding, Napoleon capitalized upon this theatrical past using Old Regime tragedies set in Ancient Greece or the Roman Empire to align himself within a European heritage dating back to antiquity. At the same time, local theaters adapted Parisian works, or provincial authors composed their own plays to glorify their regions. Theater was a key medium in how people conceived of their place within France as its borders expanded and its government changed.

Engraving of a theater stage with actors.
L’ouverture du Club de la révolution, 1789–90

These orders from Paris to the provinces show how theater was utilized and conceived on a national scale, and although theater certainly provided a vehicle for national policy, instruction, and propaganda, it was not simply a forum for the government to impress its ideas upon the public. Given the performative nature of theater, ambiguity was omnipresent, allowing the public a space to ridicule and reject ideas it found intolerable. Although this was not a daily occurrence, the archives expose that theater was frequently used as a space of subversion and opposition.

Despite the “freedom of the theaters” in 1791, itself a revolution after centuries of monarchical control, dramatic censorship continued. The government and the police, at both national and local levels, attempted to control the dramatic text and its allusions. Some plays were banned, others rewritten. Yet, as much as the government attempted to regulate the public sphere, its efficacy could not be guaranteed. Once on the stage, it was the actor who controlled the text: they could change couplets, adding references that had not passed through the police, or they could poignantly and purportedly “forget” their lines.[2] Songs ordered by the government to support France’s current regime could be transposed to support the monarchy. Likewise, irony and sarcasm transformed legitimate play texts into political weapons, much to the police’s despair, so that even lines which were designed to allude to France’s current ruler could be taken out of context and applied to his opponents, praising the latter instead.

Two caricatures of actors in costumes.
Left: Portraits de l’acteur en costumes de ville, 1790; Right: Talma donnant une leçon de grâce et de dignité impériale, 1814.

The actors’ bodies and their costumes constituted another site of subversion. Actors released from prison appearing for the first time onstage since their liberation occasioned a different reading of the play to that intended. In addition, other artists donned French military uniforms for their performances, lending an unauthorized message to a drama set far away; an actress portraying the ancient Phaedra donned a cockade;[3] and messages such as the English monarchical maxim “honi soit qui mal y pense” adorned players’ costumes.[4]

The representation of monarchy was a particular sticking point and open to many interpretations, even though numerous tragedies were based upon ancient kingdoms, and Old Regime dramas lauded French monarchical heroes. The presence of the crown on stage was difficult for post-revolutionary France, so sometimes plays were adapted to remove the appearance of the crown or king, even when Napoleon was King of Italy.

Beyond the stage, the physicality of the theater as a setting allowed allusion to reign supreme. Audience members and the police read the design of an ancient temple and tragic heroine with a dagger on a ticket as Marie-Antoinette at Versailles.[5] Over the years, theaters removed royal insignia, added revolutionary emblems, which were replaced with imperial symbols. These objects were particular foci during regime change: whilst the Restoration administration in Nantes claimed eagles were a symbol of tragedy in 1815, the audience attempted to smother them with cooked pears to show their distaste of Napoleon.[6] This amusing anecdote encapsulates how the audience was far from a body of passive observers. Cabals formed against certain actors or playwrights because of their political allegiances; pamphlets were distributed in the theater, and notes thrown onto the stage for actors to read out without the police’s prior approval; the audience could cause such a tumult that the theater was forced to close; and this mayhem could spill out of the theater’s walls and lead to days of discontent, and serious challenges to the power of governmental officials.

Just as we, for centuries, have watched theater in order to observe other worlds, the study of revolutionary and Napoleonic theater lifts the curtain, allowing us to peer onto the dynamic world of politics and society in France as it dramatically shifted from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century.

Clare Siviter is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre d’Histoire Espasces et Cultures and the Centre des Recherches sur les Littératures et la Sociopoétique at the Université Clermont Auvergne, France. She is interested in cultural history, theater, archives, censorship, and propaganda. You can find her on Twitter @ClareSiviter

Title image‘La Couronne théâtrale disputée par les demoiselles Duchesnois et George Weimer’ – c. 1802-03


[1] National Convention Decree, 2 August 1793, see Henri Welschinger, Le Théâtre de la Révolution, 1789–1799 avec des documents inédits (Paris: Charavay Frères, 1881), 503, available on Gallica: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k205988b

[2] Journal de l’Empire, 12 January 1812, cited in Léon de Lanzac de Laborie, Paris sous Napoléon: Le Théâtre-Français, Paris, Plon, 1911, 146.

[3] Charles-Guillaume Etienne and Alphone Martainville, Histoire du théâtre français depuis le commencement de la révolution jusqu’à la réunion générale (Paris: Barba, 1802), III, 143.

[4] Journal de l’Aisne, 20 June 1812.

[5] Letter, Les amateurs de la société dramatique de Dijon to the administration municipale, 4 March 1796, Archives départementales, Côte d’Or, L449.

[6] Letter to the Prefect, 5 December 1815, and letter from the Mayor of Nantes to the Vicomte de Condillac, 5 December 1815, Archives municipals, Nantes, 177T1.

Suggested reading in English:

Marvin Carlson, The Theater of the French Revolution, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Mark Darlow, Staging the French Revolution. Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra 1798–1794, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Paul Friedland, Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2002.

Marie-Hélène Huet, Rehearsing the Revolution: The Staging of Marat’s Death, 1793–1797, Berkley, University of California Press, 1982.

Susan Maslan, Revolutionary Acts: Theater, Democracy and the French Revolution, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Suggested reading in French:

Patrick Berthier, Le Théâtre en France de 1791 à 1828, le sourd et la muette, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014.

Philippe Bourdin, Aux Origines du théâtre patriotique, Paris: CNRS, 2017

Cyril Triolaire, Le Théâtre en province pendant le Consulat et l’Empire, Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universiatres Blaise-Pascal, 2012.

Suggested Reading in German:

Rüdiger Hilmer, Die Napoleonische Theaterpolitik Geschäftstheater in Paris, 1799–1815, Cologne, Böhlu, 1999.

One thought on “Power and the People: Theater in France, 1789–1815

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s