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Total Theatre for Total War: Experiences of the Military Play in Revolutionary France

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2020

Logan J. Connors*
Modern Languages and Literatures, University of Miami, Miami, FL, USA


After storming the Bastille on 14 July 1789, Joseph Arné had little time to take in the significance of his actions. Earlier that day, the twenty-something soldier from Franche-Comté had led a daring assault, neutralized several Swiss Guards with his bare hands, and supposedly disabled a cannon that was pointed at his charging comrades. As the sun set, Arné was greeted by throngs of cheering Parisians, who joined the young grenadier in patriotic songs, chants, and dancing. What Arné perhaps did not understand when he finally went to sleep that night was that he was about to become a theatrical star and a public figure. The next morning, Arné was back in the streets, this time “drawn through Paris in a triumphal chariot.” Several weeks later, he was portrayed as the protagonist in La Fête du grenadier, the first play dedicated to the July events, which premiered at the Théâtre de l'Ambigu on 3 September. That evening, the real-life Arné, and not the actor who was playing him, was “enthusiastically celebrated by the spectators and at the end of the piece went onstage to standing ovations.”

Copyright © The authors, 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The American Society for Theatre Research, Inc.

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Research for this essay was completed thanks to a fellowship at the Collegium de Lyon / Lyon Institute for Advanced Study and with the financial support of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami.


1 For more on Arné's role in the storming of the Bastille, see Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Rolf Reichardt, trans. Schürer, Norbert, The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1997), 8793Google Scholar.

2 Ibid., 92.

4 L'Orateur du peuple, no. 18 (1791), 171. Translations in this essay are my own unless otherwise indicated. For analysis, see also Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, “Événement dramatique et dramatisation théâtrale: La Prise de la Bastille sur les tréteaux français et étrangers,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 278 (1989): 337–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Robert, Yann, Dramatic Justice: Trial by Theater in the Age of the French Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Emeljanow, Victor, “Theatrical Engagements in Times of War: An Introduction,” in War and Theatrical Innovation, ed. Emeljanow (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), xiii–xxvii, at xiiiCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Bell, David A., The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 7Google Scholar.

8 Forrest, Alan, Conscripts and Deserters: The Army and French Society during the Revolution and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 8Google Scholar.

9 For a recent study of the transition of the French military from the Old Regime to the Revolution, Consulate, and Empire, see Pichichero, Christy, The Military Enlightenment: War and Culture in the French Empire from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Russell, Gillian, The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793–1815 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Bell, 5. Bell defines “total war” as “a war involving the complete mobilization of a society's resources to achieve the absolute destruction of an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and noncombatants” (7). Roger Chickering argues that it was precisely the French Revolution that “laid the moral and ideological foundations of total war, as it blurred the distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. The nation's defense claimed the participation of everyone, whether as soldiers in the field or as providers of material and moral support at home. This principle henceforth established the basic patterns of military history for the next two centuries, as warfare intensified and expanded radically in scope.” Chickering, Roger, “Introduction: A Tale of Two Tales: Grand Narratives of War in the Age of Revolution,” in War in an Age of Revolution, 1775–1815, ed. Chickering, Roger and Förster, Stig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Washington, DC.: German Historical Institute, 2010), 1–17, at 3Google Scholar.

12 Kennedy, Emmet et al. , Theatre, Opera, and Audiences in Revolutionary Paris: Analysis and Repertory (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996), 39Google Scholar.

13 For more information on theatre censorship in eighteenth-century France, see, among others, Hemmings, F. W. J., Theatre and the State in France, 1760–1905 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an interpretation that calls into question the efficacy of Old Regime censorship, see Brown, Gregory S., “Reconsidering the Censorship of Writers in Eighteenth-Century France: Civility, State Power, and the Public Theater in the Enlightenment,” Journal of Modern History 75.2 (2003): 235–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 See Kennedy et al.; see also Kennedy, Emmet, “Taste and Revolution,” Canadian Journal of History 32.3 (1997), 375–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a similar analysis of the Paris Opéra's repertory, see Darlow, Mark, Staging the French Revolution: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra, 1789–1794 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)Google Scholar.

15 Buckley, Matthew S., Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 3Google Scholar.

16 Maslan, Susan, Revolutionary Acts: Theater, Democracy, and the French Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 10Google Scholar.

17 On melodrama and opera, see Buckley as well as Mark Darlow, Staging the French Revolution; on tragedy, see Santis, Vincenzo De, Le Théâtre de Louis Lemercier, entre Lumières et romantisme (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2015)Google Scholar and Mélai, Maurizio, Les Derniers Feux de la tragédie classique au temps du romantisme (Paris: Presses de l'Université Paris–Sorbonne, 2015)Google Scholar; on sentiment and theatre, see Feilla, Cecilia, The Sentimental Theater of the French Revolution (Farnham, Surrey, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013)Google Scholar; on religion, see Curulla, Annelle, Gender and Religious Life in French Revolutionary Drama (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, and Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018)Google Scholar; on justice and the law in theatre, see Robert; on famous historical figures in drama of the period, see Leon, Mechele, Molière, the French Revolution, and the Theatrical Afterlife (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Bourdin, Philippe, Aux origines du théâtre patriotique (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2017)Google Scholar, and Thibault Julian, L'Histoire de France en jeu dans le théâtre des Lumières et de la Révolution (1765–1806) (Ph.D. diss., Université Paris–Sorbonne, 2016).

18 On specific military events in Revolutionary theatre, see, among others, Bérard, Suzanne Jean, “Une Curiosité du théâtre à l’époque de la Révolution, les ‘Faits historiques et patriotiques,’Romanistische Zeitschrift für Literaturgeschichte 3 (1979): 250–77Google Scholar; Hervé Guénot, “Le Théâtre et l’événement: La Représentation dramatique du siège de Toulon (août 1793),” in L'Inscription de l'histoire dans les œuvres directement ou indirectement inspirées par la Révolution française, Annales littéraires de l'Université de Besançon, no. 354 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1987), 261–302; Lüsebrink; Erica Joy Mannucci, “Le Militaire dans le théâtre de la Révolution française,” in Les Arts de la scène et la Révolution française, ed. Philippe Bourdin and Gérard Loubinoux (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise-Pascal and Vizille: Musée de la Révolution française, 2004), 381–94; Ian Germani, “Staging Battles: Representations of War in the Theatre and Festivals of the French Revolution,” European Review of History 13.2 (2006): 203–27; Rüdiger Schmidt, “‘Le Théâtre se militarise’: Le Soldat-citoyen dans le théâtre de la Révolution française,” in Représentation et pouvoir: La Politique symbolique en France (1789–1830), ed. Natalie Scholz and Christina Schröer (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2007), 63–82, repr.,, accessed 15 July 2020, n.p. [1–35]; Paola Perazzolo, “La Dramatisation de la prise de la Bastille pendant la Révolution: Représentations et révisions,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 367 (2012): 49–68; Pierre Frantz, “Entre journal et épopée: Le Théâtre d'actualité de la Révolution,” Studi Francesi 57.169 (2013): 18–26; and Chela M. Aufderheide, “Theater and the Truth: Political and Theatrical Representations of the 1793 Siege of Toulon,” James Blair Historical Review 9.1 (2019): 31–42.

19 Buckley, 1. On dramatic genre and the Revolution, also see Pierre Frantz, “Les Tréteaux de la Révolution (1789–1815),” in Le Théâtre en France, vol. 2: De la Révolution à nos jours, 2d ed., ed. Jacqueline de Jomaron (Paris: Armand Colin, 1992): 9–36.

20 Baz Kershaw, The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 1.

21 Mark Darlow, “Staging the Revolution: The Fait historique,Nottingham French Studies, 45.1 (2006): 78.

22 In Lüsebrink, 344.

23 For example, plays about desertion were rare (and possibly inexistent) before the 1760s, but starting with the anonymous L’École du soldat; ou, Les Remords du déserteurs français in 1768, at least twelve desertion-themed plays were created in France before 1789.

24 Le Siège de Calais was the first play published in France's colonial empire (Cap-Français [Cap-Haïtien], 1765); also, it was performed numerous times in Cap-Français, Port-au-Prince, and Saint-Pierre (Martinique). For more information, see Pierre Laurent de Belloy, Le Siège de Calais, ed. Logan J. Connors (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2014). Mercier's Déserteur, along with Sedaine and Monsigny's popular opéra-comique of the same name, were performed more than fifty times in the theatres at Cap-Français and Port-au-Prince, according to a new database dedicated to the colonial theatres of Saint-Domingue, developed by Julia Prest and a research team at the University of St. Andrews. For more information, see “Theatre in Saint-Domingue, 1764–1791: Plays, Ballets and Operas,”, accessed 15 March 2020.

25 Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Le Déserteur, ed. Sophie Marchand, in Mercier, Théâtre complèt, 4 vols., ed. Jean-Claude Bonnet (Paris: Champion, 2014), 1: 203–68, at 205.

26 For example, plays that referenced Henri IV's victory at Amiens in 1597, such as Boutillier and Desprez de Walmont's Le Souper d'Henri IV (1789) and d'Abancourt's Une Journée de Henri IV (1791), were particularly popular during the early years of the Revolution. For more information see André Tissier, Les Spectacles à Paris pendant la Révolution: Répertoire analytique, chronologie et bibliographie, 2 vols. (Geneva: Droz, 1991, 2002), esp. vol. 1. See also Clarence D. Brenner, “Henri IV on the French Stage in the Eighteenth Century,” PMLA 46.2 (1931): 540–53.

27 Robert, 25.

28 Perazzolo, “Dramatisation de la prise,” 54.

29 Bertin d'Antilly, La Prise de Toulon par les Français, opéra en trois actes, mêlés de prose, de vers et de chants (Paris: Huet, an II [1794]).

30 Guénot, 269.

31 Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety in the summer of 1793, and then supported a campaign of armed incursions throughout France in order to quell anti-Jacobin sentiments. On 4 December 1793, he pushed the Committee to adopt the Law of 14 Frimaire, which consolidated its powers and enabled the Committee to conduct war and make international treaties. The French army's victory at Toulon on 18 December was his government's first major military achievement against a foreign power. For more information, see Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 207–10.

32 Guénot, 270.

33 La Décade philosophique, 30 frimaire an VI (20 December 1797), quoted in Philippe Bourdin, “La Voix et le geste révolutionnaires dans le théâtre patriotique (1789–1799), ou la transcription scénique de l'histoire immédiate,” in La Voix et le Geste: Une Approche culturelle de la violence socio-politique, ed. Philippe Bourdin, Jean-Claude Caron, and Mathias Bernard (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise-Pascal, 2005), 305–20, at 310.

34 Guénot, 263.

35 Serge Bianchi, “Le Théâtre de l'an II (culture et société sous la Révolution),” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 278 (1989): 417–32, at 422.

36 Paola Perazzolo, “Autocensure et ré(écriture) pendant l’époque révolutionnaire: La Liberté conquise ou le Despotisme renversé,Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature 36.71 (2009): 493–503, at 498.

37 See L'Orateur du peuple, no. 18 (1791), 143–4.

38 In Bérard, 271.

39 See the catalog of Alexandre Martineau de Soleinne's extensive collection of plays (with many that were performed and printed outside of Paris) in Bibliothèque dramatique de Monsieur de Soleinne, vol. 2: Théâtre français depuis Racine jusqu’à Victor Hugo.—Théâtre des provinces.—Théâtre français à l’étranger, ed. P. L. Jacob (Paris: Administration de l'Alliance des arts, 1844). The reference to Saint-Lô is on 383, no. 3028.

40 Ibid., 348, no. 2915.

41 Ibid., 354, no. 2959.

42 Ibid., 375, no. 2994.

43 Ibid., 378, no. 3009.

44 Affiches, annonces et avis divers, 6 January 1791, quoted in Paola Perazzolo, “Dramatisation de la prise,” 54.

45 Journal de Paris national, no. 401, 17 pluviôse an II (5 February 1794), 1624.

46 Feuille du Salut public, no. 242, 12 ventôse an II (12 March 1794), 194.

47 For more information on military songs in Revolutionary-era theatres, see Katherine Hambridge, “Staging Singing in the Theater of War (Berlin, 1805),” Journal of the American Musicological Society 68.1 (2015): 39–98. For a comprehensive history on singing and political action during the Revolution, see Mason, Laura, Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787–1799 (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Schechner, Richard, Performance Theory (New York: Routledge, 1988), 72Google Scholar.

49 Guénot, 264.

51 Description de la Fête donnée à Lille . . . à l'occasion de la prise de Toulon par les troupes de la République (Lille: 10 nivôse an II [30 December 1793]), in Victor Derode, Histoire de Lille, 3 vols. (Paris: Hébrard, 1848), 3: 290.

52 Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, trans. Alan Sheridan (1988; repr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). Ozouf describes the Toulon celebrations in French cities of Charmes (209), Grenoble (209–10), and several other places in late December and early January, 1793–4.

53 See Kimberly Jannarone's keen analysis of military components in several Revolutionary festivals: “Choreographing Freedom: Mass Performance in the Festivals of the French Revolution,” TDR 61.2 (2017), 117–39. See also Bianchi.

54 The bibliography on the possible intersections among Revolution, fascism, and totalitarianism is vast and varied. George L. Mosse provides a concise account of these debates and tensions in “Fascism and the French Revolution,” Journal of Contemporary History 24.1 (1989): 5–26.

55 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 8.

56 Ibid., 22.

57 Ibid., 29.

58 For more information on conceptions of time during the Revolution, see Perovic, Sanja, The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Hunt's, LynnRevolutionary Time and Regeneration,” Diciottesimo Secolo 1 (2016): 6276Google Scholar.

59 Following Jacques Houdaille's groundbreaking work in the 1970s and 1980s, Ian Germani estimates that approximately 23 percent of French men born between 1770 and 1774 died during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars—a figure that was not surpassed until 24.5 percent of the generation born between 1891 and 1894 perished in the Great War. Germani, Ian, “Dying for Liberty in the French Revolutionary Wars,” in French History and Civilization 9 (2020): 97108, at 98Google Scholar.

60 Arné's story appears in several sources, most notably in G. Lenotre's (Théodore Gosselin) collection of his essays from the early twentieth century. See Lenotre, G., La Révolution française (Paris: Grasset, 2010), 440Google Scholar. A more recent article confirms this trajectory; see Daniel Bienmiller, “Arney, le dolois de la Bastille,” in Dole sous la Révolution, ed. Jacky Theurot, Cahiers dolois, no. 8 (Dole: Bibliothèque municipale, 1989), 11–12.

61 Will Schüler reminds us that twenty-three out of the thirty-one extant tragedies from ancient Greece were specifically about war and that, in Athens, soldiers-in-training “were required to demonstrate their skills in a theatre . . . before receiving a shield and spear” because democratic leaders believed that “choreographed manoeuvring” was “beneficial to combat skills.” Schüler, “The Greek Tragic Chorus and Its Training for War: Movement, Music and Harmony in Theatrical and Military Performance,” in Victor Emeljanow, War and Theatrical Innovation, 3–21, at 5–6, 7.

62 A recent example of drama's therapeutic objective is the Theater of War Productions company, which stages dramatic readings of classical Greek tragedies (among other plays) in front of specific audiences, such as veterans. TWP has worked with the US Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Services, and other organizations to use theatre to discuss the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and gun violence in veteran and civilian communities. For more information, see

63 Kershaw, 16; italics his.

64 Colleran, Jeanne, Theatre and War: Theatrical Responses since 1991 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 5, 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Ibid., 5–6.

66 Ibid., 6, 10.

67 The vast majority of today's plays about war portray armed conflict in a negative light—which is not to say that contemporary Western theatre is immune to perpetuating colonialism, racism, and other negative values that are fully imbricated into war and violence across the globe. The point here is that, contrary to playwrights in Revolutionary France, the explicit goal of most Western playwrights today is to not foment militarization or violence.

68 Forrest points out that the term volontaire was still used “long after inscription into the armies had ceased to be in any sense voluntary,” a transition that occurred at different times in different regions during the Revolution; Forrest, 25. He also points out that Napoléon's Grande armée—in no sense a voluntary force—was much bigger than any Revolutionary army of the 1790s. For more information, see ibid., 20–2.

69 Kershaw, 32.

70 A writer from the Journal des spectacles noted in 1794 that military plays set in border towns (the play in question is Au plus brave, la plus belle by the citizen Philipon) had become a theatrical vogue: “La scène se passe dans une ville frontière; nos auteurs paraissent beaucoup aimer cette position, car pour la plupart ils n'en choisissent plus d'autres.” [The scene takes place in a town along the border. Our authors appear to very much enjoy this setting because the majority never choose any other one.] Journal des spectacles, 10 October 1794, 83.

71 In her work on provincial theatres in eighteenth-century France, Lauren Clay argues that the Old Regime rarely funded theatres and performances outside of Paris and Versailles. For example, only two theatres—“the Spectacle de la Marine in Brest . . . and the theater in Besançon, another midsize city with a sizable garrison, received significant direct financial assistance from the Crown.” Clay, Lauren R., “Patronage, Profits, and Public Theaters: Rethinking Cultural Unification in Ancien Régime France,” Journal of Modern History 79.4 (2007): 729–71, at 742CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Clay, The Business of Theater in Eighteenth-Century France and Its Colonies (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2013).

72 Kershaw, 36.

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