Friday, July 25, 2014

Playwriting in Post-Revolutionary France

What was it like for playwrights during the French Revolution? Though he wasn't born until 1801, the critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve gave this account of Revolutionary writers:

When the Revolution came and disturbed these minor literary lives, instead of readings in the salons, one had "Sunday luncheons." For at least fifteen years, at these luncheons, the literary guests exchanged confidences... one told one's friends the subject and plan of one's work before a single line of it was written. No sooner had the first acts been scribbled down than a reading was given.

This rosy depiction of the Revolutionary era appears to be more or less accurate. The Chapelier Law of 1791 had struck down the censorship practices of the old regime, and over the next year the number of theatres in Paris more than doubled. Working-class people flocked to the theatre, and there was a tremendous demand for new work. Sainte-Beuve claimed that the old forms simply did not speak to a public that was living in a new world:

...if we were still living under a monarchy like that of Louis XIV or Louis XV, what more would we require, I ask you, than the admirable emotional analyses of Racine, or the philosophic dramas of Voltaire? Even after the Revolution, during the ten years of the Empire, wasn't the absence of freedom enough to revive, in the context of Austerlitz and Jena, the classical tragedy of the monarchy which, excepting Corneille, was so foreign and incongruous?

Writing in 1828, after France had embraced a constitutional monarchy, Sainte-Beuve saw the present as being closer politically and socially to those heady Revolutionary days. Still, he lamented the fact that the theatre was not as vibrant as it once had been. Politics, he said, had curbed art, since now audiences went to the theatre to escape rather than to debate important political questions. Still, he was optimistic about the future:

Free from the vortex, art, still youthful, yet ripe with experience, will pursue her peaceful work in solitude. This work will be animated with all life's colors and all mankind's passions. This product of leisure and meditation will doubtless encompass and intermingle in thousands of charming and sublime effects the true and the ideal, reason and fantasy, the observation of men and the poet's dreams.

Victor Hugo's breakthrough Romantic drama Hernani was still two years off, but Eugene Scribe had begun writing plays. Sainte-Beuve believed that Scribe's vogue was a good reason for optimism.