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.Footnote 1 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.”Footnote 2 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.”Footnote 3
The Orateur du peuple, one of the many Parisian newspapers that had popped up after the start of the Revolution, reported in early 1791 that Arné was again called onstage, this time at the premiere of Harny de Guerville's La Liberté conquise—a play featuring a Bastille-like siege—because “le public a demandé qu'il fût couronné” [the public demanded that he be crowned].Footnote 4 Arné the soldier, Arné the character, and Arné the spectator were all part of a particular type of patriotic, military theatrical experience that flourished in France during the 1790s. The Revolution's national–military phenomenon in theatre—a fascinating yet understudied amalgamation of military-themed plays, festivals, events, propaganda, and war reporting—was a context for theatre professionals, army leaders, and government administrators to share characters, slogans, images, and strategies. Dynamic moments of theatricalized battles and war concerns furnished common vocabularies and experiences among spectators, which in turn boosted the complexity and energy of the phenomenon from event to event. This was a totalizing experience for a new era, founded on community building, identity formation, and novel aesthetic approaches to depicting armed conflict. Authors of war plays deployed images of the very recent past, identificatory plotlines involving characters of modest origins, and strategies of reenactment, liveness, and connectivity to daily life. The national–military phenomenon was a widespread movement that altered norms of dramatic literature and performance, catalyzed new types of theatrical programming throughout the French-speaking world, and provided live-action simulations of the nation's military goals and policies.
Critics at the time condemned many theatrical depictions of war for not following classical dramatic norms or for using what they viewed as inappropriate language or settings. However, the ubiquity of war plays in France during the 1790s, as we shall see, reveals a popular movement with particular aesthetic devices and strategic objectives. The national–military phenomenon incorporated strategies from sentimental (or “bourgeois”) drama, journalism, military spectacles, and battlefield reenactments to “encourage[ ] . . . spectators to become active participants” in both the theatrical and military event.Footnote 5 Spectators of war plays, especially works depicting France's most recent battles and sieges, were compelled to intervene in the new nation's military efforts almost as they were occurring and through particular performance strategies that sought to bend time and space to the here and now. The Revolution's new forms of writing, performance, and spectatorship urge us to consider the scope and contours of a specific relationship between the performing arts and France's increasingly martial culture at the time.
“Theatre,” according to Victor Emeljanow, “has responded to the climacteric periods of war as they have affected both states and individuals—particularly when social structures and personal relationships are destabilized and inevitably changed as the result of geopolitical conflicts.”Footnote 6 France in its Revolutionary decade (1789–99) presents a rich cultural milieu for investigating theatre's response to destabilized “social structures and personal relationships.” It was a period of unprecedented warfare and witness to a remarkable proliferation in the size of armies as well as a complete transformation of the nature of military service. As David A. Bell argues in his study of the emergence of modern warfare, “more than a fifth of all the major battles fought in Europe between 1490 and 1815 took place just in the twenty-five years after 1790.”Footnote 7 The frequency of battles with armies of more than several hundred thousand soldiers was both novel and horrific. The world had never seen a citizen army as colossal as the French force that was created after the Convention declared a levée en masse and readied almost three-quarters of a million men by autumn 1793 for the famous armée de l'an II.Footnote 8
France's citizen army was significantly larger as well as philosophically distinct from its military forces of the Old Regime.Footnote 9 Contrary to previous armies, the armée de l'an II expressly fought “for the security of the nation and for ideological principles” rather than “on behalf of kings” and their dynastic squabbles.Footnote 10 Never had Europe suffered such a devastating fighting force after the entire raison d’être of warfare transformed from a display of “aristocratic values” and “virtually permanent but restrained warfare”Footnote 11 to an almost messianic program of total war—and what the twentieth century would call “wars to end all wars”—that characterized conflicts of the French Revolution and First Empire.
The proliferation of war during the Revolution was simultaneous to a boom in theatrical creation. From 1789 to 1799, and in Paris alone, French citizens saw 855 new productions, attended more than forty thousand performances, and enjoyed 1,600 new published plays.Footnote 12 On 13 January 1791, the Convention deregulated its relatively repressive system of theatre privileges, which had been used to facilitate censorship and prioritize venues such as the Comédie-Française and the Opéra.Footnote 13 Almost overnight, the number of playhouses in the capital swelled from twelve to thirty-five. Although recent scholarship has demonstrated that the vast majority of plays performed during the Revolution were penned before it even began,Footnote 14 several dramatic genres emerged or came into fruition after 14 July 1789, the most popular and innovative of which depicted recent and current events of national and military importance. From Arné and his compatriots’ attack on the Bastille, to the liberation of Toulon from anti-Republican forces, to the stream of successful citizen-army victories during the War of the First Coalition (1792–7), cataclysmic battles, sieges, and prises were big business for France's theatres. What is more, spectacles depicting the Revolution's grande Histoire were complemented by a long list of more intimate plays about conscription, barracks life, and the agonies of desertion.
The Revolution's military-themed plays have fallen mostly into oblivion. To date, there is still no systematic scholarly analysis of the phenomenon, despite a remarkable corpus of at least 130 plays and a widespread performance history into all corners of the French-speaking world. In what follows, I provide a targeted, critical description of military-themed theatre of the French Revolution and of its place in the period's evolving political, martial, and theatrical cultures. Drawing from scholarship in theatre and performance studies on historical reenactment and the theatre's role in group identity formation, I portray the national–military phenomenon as a knowledge- and community-building experience that tied French subjects to each other for the goal of waging war. French men and women were more active in the Revolution's military endeavors and in their theatricalized celebrations than during the previous regime. Revolutionaries were encouraged to step into a sometimes dizzying, circular narrative of personal sacrifice and armed commitment—a chain of events that led to more plays about soldiers and, administrators hoped, more soldiers for the Revolution's expanding military efforts. This essay thus seeks a modest answer to the question: How was France's rising thirst for war articulated as a dramaturgical and programmatic mission of the period's theatre?
Theatre historians have only started recently to unearth the complexity and diversity of the Revolution's pièces militaires, faits historiques, divertissements militaires, traits historiques, and anecdotes historiques et militaires. For almost two centuries and until a resurgence of scholarship on the Revolution's artistic merits around the 1989 bicentennial, the period's war drama suffered a similar fate to the rest of its cultural productions: it was (at best) ignored and (at worst) propped up as evidence that extreme political moments were allergic to complex and compelling art. As Matthew S. Buckley writes, “traditional literary history has tended . . . to view the decade of the Revolution as a yawning gulf in the drama's development,”Footnote 15 and as Susan Maslan argues,
the presumption that the Revolution siphoned energies into politics that might otherwise have expressed themselves in literature remains strong if unspoken. Or, put another way, it appears that in times of great political turmoil we must choose between art and society and that during the French Revolution literature entered a period of dormancy.Footnote 16
The idea that French drama went to sleep after Beaumarchais and woke up with Victor Hugo's renovations to the stage has been all but debunked over the past three decades. More recently, scholars have taken the Revolution's theatre head-on with a host of book-length studies that detail the period's drama and performance practices during an extraordinary moment of political upheaval and social transformation. Since Maslan's 2005 study, scholarship has expanded to query the theatre's engagement with specific genres and themes at the time, such as melodrama, opera, and tragedy, romantic and familial comedies, as well as plays about religious orders, trials, famous historical figures, and more.Footnote 17
The period's war theatre, however, has not attracted the same attention as a distinct category for research. War drama lacks formal and thematic consistency; it appears in every dramatic genre imaginable and depicts diverse themes and settings, from international battlefields to the domestic hearth spaces of rural cottages. Scholars have thus favored a more anecdotal approach to the phenomenon, with articles about theatrical representations of specific battles or studies on how particular wartime anxieties made their way to the stage.Footnote 18 The content of plays about the Toulon siege, the Battle of Jemappes, the bravery of female soldiers, or the importance of denouncing deserters nonetheless shared a coherent mission. War theatre attempted to invigorate new citizen-spectators, transpose into voices and action the content of newspaper reports and the geopolitical concerns of the nation, and furnish examples of how citizens were supposed to behave during periods of intense conflict. The phenomenon's formal elements, which parallel the period's broader “proliferation of ephemeral subgenres, eccentric mixed modes, and a general destabilization of genre itself,” included documentary-based dramaturgy, technological innovation, intertextual borrowing, onstage military formations, and the use of festival practices in drama.Footnote 19 The totalizing theatrical experiences dedicated to war evince an innovative and attractive (at the time) theatrical practice and, ultimately, a revolutionary effort “to change not just the future action of their audiences, but also the structure of the audience's community and the nature of the audience's culture.”Footnote 20
Prises, Sièges, and Batailles: The Evolution of Military-Event Plays
The rise of “event plays” during the Revolution is indisputable, as Mark Darlow shows in his study of at least fifty-four plays from the period, each of which was termed a fait historique, trait historique, or pièce historique (there were only four plays with those genre designations before 1789).Footnote 21 These plays, while not all focused on military events, were complemented by dozens of tragedies, comedies, pantomimes, and vaudevilles about sieges and battles that appeared onstage but that adopted genres from the Old Regime. From grand military spectacles at the Paris Opéra to a theatricalized attack against a cardboard Bastille “par des paysans armés de vieux fusils et habillés en soldat” [by peasants armed with old rifles and dressed as soldiers] on the municipal stage in Saint-Maur (Indre),Footnote 22 the Revolutionary military-event play includes any theatricalized depiction of a post-July 1789 armed conflict of national concern that was printed and/or staged in France, its conquered territories, and its colonial empire during the last decade of the eighteenth century.
The Revolution's event plays expanded upon but ultimately differed from the Old Regime's dramas on war and soldiering. Theatre patrons in the 1770s and 1780s, for example, became increasingly interested in plays depicting war and soldiers, with an uptick in performances following France's devastating loss to British and Continental forces in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63).Footnote 23 Two popular works were Pierre-Laurent de Belloy's Le Siège de Calais (1765) and Louis-Sébastien Mercier's Le Déserteur (1770), both of which were performed hundreds of times in Paris, the French provinces, and, with particular vigor, throughout the French-speaking Caribbean, which had recently seen firsthand the war's brutal effects.Footnote 24 Although they were notable precursors to the Revolution's war drama, de Belloy's tragedy and Mercier's drame use dramaturgical strategies that were more typical of the ancien régime. Certain features of these plays illustrate just how radical war theatre would become after 1789. For example, de Belloy displaces a depiction of French bravery in the face of English attack (an important theme two years after the Seven Years’ War had concluded) to the late-medieval siege of Calais by Edward III and the heroic sacrifice by the city's municipal leaders. Mercier, by staging his play “dans une petite ville d'Allemagne, frontière de France” [in a small German city on the French border],Footnote 25 makes no explicit references to any particular battle, place, or date. He instead chooses a more nebulous space, shared by French and German characters, for his sentimental tale. In both cases, spectators were expected to project the specificity of recent international conflicts with British or German-speaking forces onto historically distant or geographically vague settings.
Historical dramas portraying French wars of the Middle Ages through the early seventeenth century persisted with vigor into the Revolutionary decade. For example, plays that celebrated the military achievements of Henri IV, the least offensive king to the Revolution's moderates, were particularly popular from 1789 through the first half of 1792, when there was still vocal support for a constitutional monarchy.Footnote 26 The most striking difference between the new nation's artists and their Old Regime counterparts, however, was that revolutionaries were less compelled, especially as the 1790s unfolded, to look back in time or toward distant places in their plays about battles, soldiers, and the effects of war on society. During the Revolution, military-event playwrights participated in a broader shift in cultural representations of time and space by relying increasingly on French contexts—villages, hamlets, cities, and towns with recognizable names and features. Moreover, instead of reaching back into antiquity or gazing toward distant lands and periods, they favored depictions of “the immediate past,” which “acquired a new relevance, both as an indication of the accomplishments and direction of progress and as a lingering near present that needed to be worked through.”Footnote 27
Also essential to the Revolution's war drama was the use of onstage military realia, strategies, and slogans. In many Old Regime plays, battles and sieges provide a backdrop for more important, intimate, and fictional stories. Authors after 1789, however, “réaffirment leur volonté de sacrifier tout élément fictionnel et dramatique sur l'autel de la véracité historique” [reaffirm their intention to sacrifice all fictional and dramatic elements on the altar of historical accuracy], often relying on newspapers and military dispatches for specific scenes in their plays.Footnote 28 For example, in his 1794 opera La Prise de Toulon par les Français, Bertin d'Antilly stages a discussion of battle strategies by the French officers and administrators Paul Barras, Jean-François de La Poype, and Louis-Marie Fréron.Footnote 29 In the final act, the character Fréron picks up a French flag and exclaims, “Soldats de la Patrie, ralliez-vous à ce signe!” [Soldiers of the Fatherland, unite behind this sign!], which the actual Fréron supposedly yelled on the evening of 17 December 1793, shortly before the Republican army stormed the city. It is difficult to know what Fréron said in Toulon, but this attempt at historical precision in theatre, according to Hervé Guénot, shows that d'Antilly used newspaper articles and military dispatches from the last week of December 1793 to construct his playtext just several days after the events.Footnote 30 Performed a month after the siege, La Prise de Toulon par les Français provided fresh battle news to spectators who possibly had not read or could not read the daily war reporting. Current, national events were presented through an engaging audiovisual medium and with an eye to re-creating “real” places, personalities, and moments. The information reported in La Prise de Toulon and in other patriotic war plays was not objective or politically neutral, but a lively and compelling retelling of military achievements and feats from the perspective of the victor, in this case, the increasingly hard-line Republican political regime.Footnote 31
National–military plays were published and performed quickly after a military event and with keen attention to detail. They also show technological and spectacular innovations. Several critics wrote that cannon and musket shots, pyrotechnics, explosions, and fires sometimes drowned out sentimental scenes and dramatic dialogues. In February 1794, for example, five plays appeared on Parisian stages that concentrated on the devastating fire that English, Spanish, and French aristocratic forces had left behind before escaping through the port of Toulon.Footnote 32 Several plays represented entire half-battalions, pushing the number of people on indoor stages to levels that spectators would have expected to see at outdoor fêtes and military parades. Later in the decade, one critic noted more than thirty soldiers onstage (in addition to the civilian characters) in a 1797 production of La Victoire de Pont de Lodi—a vertiginous dramaturgical feature that, combined with “douze fusées, . . . les marches rapides, l'appareil bruyant d'artillerie, [et] les chocs multiples” [twelve rifles, rapid marches, loud artillery fire, and multiple flashes] supposedly overwhelmed and confused the public.Footnote 33
Another feature of the military-event play was its actual and suspected associations with the propagandistic goals of the political establishment. The explicit and implicit liaisons between governmental or army officials and military plays were numerous. As president of the National Convention, Robespierre famously paid a hundred thousand livres in early 1794 to the “vingt théâtres de Paris qui ont donné des représentations gratuites” [twenty Parisian theatres that staged free performances] of plays about the Toulon siege.Footnote 34 In the provincial capital of Rouen, the theatre was required to show “pièces patriotiques” [patriotic plays] at least once every two weeks and free of charge—popular events that, according to Serge Bianchi's research, garnered crowds of nearly two thousand spectators at each performance.Footnote 35 Harny de Guerville's La Liberté conquise was regularly staged gratis in Paris and in the provinces, which helped attract more than a hundred thousand spectators to see the play in just over two years.Footnote 36 In the Orateur du peuple, Parisian theatres were called upon to offer free performances of La Liberté conquise and to increase the energy inside the auditorium at those performances by creating special seating sections for members of the military and, more specifically, for members of the Gardes who had participated in the storming of the Bastille.Footnote 37
Many plays were written by soldiers, soldier–playwright coauthors, and veterans who had risen the ranks of the Revolution's political machine. Soldier authors added firsthand knowledge and supposed accuracy to the military events depicted onstage. A flagrant example was La Guerre de Vendée, a “bon ouvrage du citoyen Thiébaut” [good work by the citizen Thiébaut] who was also an “ancien militaire” [veteran] and the Chief of Administration of the regional government of La Meurthe. It is of little surprise that Thiébaut's patriotic play was performed for the first time in his own administrative district, appearing on the main stage of Nancy in 1793.Footnote 38 Within a few months of Thiébaut's efforts, Antoine Vieillard Boismartin, the mayor of Saint-Lô (Manche), wrote, published, and staged Le Siège de Rouen at his own city's theatre.Footnote 39 In these provincial examples, spectators were urged to view plays about recent military endeavors, penned by soldiers who had often participated in those events and who were now themselves in control of instilling and maintaining the Revolutionary spirit across the land.
Plays penned by soldiers or with the help of “standard” dramatic authors and composers were particularly popular in militarized border towns. In Colmar (Haut-Rhin), spectators enjoyed several plays by “Antoine (artiste lyrique)” and “P. Broulard, militaire en retraite” [retired soldier], throughout the First Empire.Footnote 40 In 1795, and shortly after Revolutionary forces took the city from Coalition forces, Liège's main theatre staged Les Dragons français et les Hussards prussiens, a “petite pièce . . . par le citoyen Villiers, officier au 3e régiment de dragons” [short play by the citizen Villiers, officer of the 3rd cavalry regiment].Footnote 41 In 1805, La Vie du soldat français by L'Eveillé, “conscrit du département de l'Ardèche” [recruit from the Ardèche province], was published and performed in Munich, which had recently been conquered by Napoléon's Grande Armée.Footnote 42 And in Perpignan, along the southwestern front, spectators in 1799 enjoyed Demonville, ou les Vendéens soumis, a drame by “le citoyen Privat, aide-de-camp de feu Lazare Hoche, général en chef de l'armée des côtes de l'océan, et du général Augereau” [the citizen Privat, aide de camp of the recently deceased Lazare Hoche, General of the Coastal Army, and of General Augereau].Footnote 43 Military-event plays were without a doubt of national concern but also of local importance and influence. The phenomenon opened new channels for aspiring dramatic authors and reached an unprecedented number of spectator-citizens, with professional performances on commercialized Parisian stages as well as more homegrown productions at municipal and ephemeral theatres throughout the nation and its war-ravaged empire.
Critical Confusion, Reenactment, and National–Military Community Building
Theatrical examples of collaborative or amateur authorship, journalism-inspired dramaturgy, obsessive attention to historical detail, and concern for previously underrepresented groups were not without their detractors. Critics, from the Revolution's early years through the rise and fall of Napoléon, often noted a gap between the importance of the actual military event and what they viewed as the event's lackluster copy onstage.
In the Affiches, annonces et avis divers, for example, one reviewer screens a critique of La Liberté conquise behind praise of the author's patriotism and his incorporation of newspaper articles into his play:
L'Auteur, en compulsant le Journal des Débats sans doute, & tout ce qui a été écrit sur la Révolution, a inséré dans sa Pièce des fragments de discours & des principes que l'impression nous reproduit tous les jours sous mille formes, ce qui donne souvent de l’élévation à son style [. . .] La Liberté conquise [. . .] doit son intérêt à la véracité & au rapprochement des faits: si l'on n'y reconnoît pas un grand mérite littéraire, on y trouve au moins un très grand Patriotisme, & l'un est maintenant plus sûr du succès que l'autre. Cet Ouvrage a été reçu avec l'enthousiasme d'un Peuple qui est dévoré de la soif de la Liberté.Footnote 44
The author, by consulting, without a doubt, the Journal des Débats, as well as everything that has been written on the Revolution, inserted into his play the fragments of discourses and principles that are printed each day and in a thousand different forms, which raised the quality of his style [. . .] La Liberté conquise [. . .] owes its interest to its historical veracity and to the exactitude of its facts: if it is difficult to find great literary merit in the play, its great Patriotism is nonetheless clear, and nowadays, one is more successful than the other. This work was welcomed enthusiastically by the People, who are consumed by a thirst for Liberty.
Lauding the play's patriotism, historical accuracy, and public success, this journalist shows the “normative” critical response to military-event drama. The critic recognizes the novelty of the dramatic subject, praises the dramatist's ability to represent historical facts onstage with precision and patriotism, and concludes that the play must have value because the national events onstage are vital to the country and because the public, now composed of new citizen-spectators, responded favorably to it. The critic draws a line between “great literary merit” and “great Patriotism,” arguing that patriotic zeal has replaced literary talent because spectators, post-1789, have different tastes and even a different notion of the theatre's function in society, compared to their predecessors. The Revolution's new theatre, focused on French current affairs, refuses the universalism and timelessness of classical tragedy and comedy, perhaps to the dismay of the critical establishment.
A few years later, in a review of Picard's La Prise de Toulon (1794), a critic from the Journal de Paris national provides a similar description of how to judge Revolutionary war theatre:
C'est un de ces sujets de comédie qui sont presqu'entièrement du ressort du machiniste. Des coups de canons, des évolutions militaires sont le fonds de ce genre de pièces, et, quoique faiblement exécutés, ces détails plaisent, parce qu'ils retracent des événements glorieux de la nation française.Footnote 45
It's one of those dramatic subjects that is almost entirely directed by the stagehands. Cannon shots and military movements are the foundation of this type of play and, despite their feeble execution, these elements are pleasing because they represent glorious events of the French nation.
Several weeks later, a journalist from the Feuille de salut public sums up the entire relationship between criticism and military-event plays, arguing that critics should not judge works such as La Prise de Toulon “d'après les règles de l'art” [according the rules of art] because their only goal is to celebrate “un événement heureux pour la patrie” [an uplifting event for the fatherland].Footnote 46
Reviews from the period reveal a hesitation among critics when they assess the value of military-event plays as well as an anxiety about the role of spectator response in a hierarchy of evaluative criteria. While political expediency or fear of reprisals certainly explains some critics’ reluctance to condemn military drama, especially during the Terror's most fervent months, the inherent aesthetic differences between event drama and most plays at the time could help provide a more complete justification for this critical ambiguity. Most important, a standard or “normative” critical take on the period's military-event plays, at that moment or more recently, fails to capture the most innovative and distinct features of the phenomenon.
In order to obtain an (albeit incomplete) idea of how France's new citizens experienced military-event plays at the time, it is necessary to take a closer look at the holistic programming of military-theatrical performances after cataclysmic national events. These were periods of intense emotion that could last days or weeks, where festivals bled into theatre performances, soldiers appeared onstage as themselves or as other soldiers, and spectators often performed their own military zeal through songs and organized chanting, before, during, and after the play performances.Footnote 47 Spectators moved from one military-inspired moment to another, rendering it difficult to distinguish when one event had stopped and another had commenced. When taken as a whole, the entire “military-theatrical experience” expands upon Richard Schechner's inclusive take on performance, defined as “the whole constellation of events, most of them passing unnoticed, that take place in/among both performers and audience from the time the first spectator enters the field of the performance—the precinct where the theater takes place—to the time the last spectator leaves.”Footnote 48 Military-event plays push the scope of Schechner's performance to before the arrival of the first spectator and to after the departure of the last. Military performances, as the next example illustrates, were total experiences with difficult-to-determine starting points, circular rhythms of recurrence and repetition, and seemingly never-ending conclusions.
Twelve days after the French reconquest of Toulon, on 10 nivôse an II (30 December 1793), Marie-Joseph Chénier, by this time one of the Revolution's most celebrated dramatists, and Jacques-Louis David, the period's greatest painter and event planner, staged the most military fête of the Republic's young history. In addition to scores of dancers, musicians, children, and other performers, David chose to include “un détachement de cavalerie, trente sapeurs, cinquante tambours” [a cavalry detachment, thirty engineers, fifty drummers] and “deux détachements de la force armée parisienne” [two detachments of the Parisian Guard].Footnote 49 This particular festival was so successful that the Convention issued a decree, claiming that they would turn Chénier and David's effort into a veritable military road show, with performances planned in the provincial cities of “Brest, Bordeaux, Tours, Angers, Montpellier, [and] Perpignan.”Footnote 50
On the same evening as Chénier and David's Parisian festival, in Lille, a city on the northern front that was no stranger to war, municipal officials built a model city of Toulon “sur toute l’étendue de la place publique” [on a stretch of land covering the entire public square]. As soon as a crowd had gathered, the National Guard reenacted the attacks made by the soldiers of the Republic against the “vile slaves of the King,” followed by a military parade and patriotic dance.Footnote 51 In her seminal study of Revolutionary festival culture, Mona Ozouf describes similar festivals dedicated to the Toulon events in Grenoble, Charmes-sur-Moselle, and other cities and small towns.Footnote 52 The layering of military signification at these events was impressive: in Lille, for example, local soldiers on 30 December portrayed soldiers in Toulon who, twelve days earlier, had attacked enemy soldiers (played by actors in Lille) against whom governmental officials hoped to enlist France's new citizens as soldiers. Many of the military dramas about the Toulon siege appeared on the heels of or simultaneous to these fêtes. Theatrical premieres of L'Heureuse nouvelle ou la reprise de Toulon (9 January), Le Cachot de Beauvais (14 January), La Prise de Toulon par les Français (20 January), and others contributed to and drew energy from an atmosphere that was rife with war-themed reenactment, festival, and theatrical performance.Footnote 53
The “bleed” of the battle into the festival, of the festival into the military play, and of the play into more festivallike experiences as well as more plays is the phenomenon's most radical feature. The energy and totality created by numerous different but related military performances rendered these moments attractive to spectators yet confusing to critics, who attempted to treat war dramas as “normal” plays by teasing out the aesthetic merits or faults of each discrete work. Moving forward in time, it is understandable that the Revolution's war plays remain absent from French literary canons and dramatic repertoires. Most critics and theatre professionals today would find thoroughly unappealing a state-sponsored thirst for war and its artistic representations, especially when examined through the lens of the cultural policies and practices of twentieth-century totalitarian and fascist regimes.Footnote 54
At the time, however, the national–military phenomenon was, at its core, a community-building machine. When they witnessed soldier-actors burn a cardboard Bastille or cheered the actor playing the grenadier Arné while standing in the audience next to the real Arné himself, participants in the Revolution's military dramas engaged with both “the thing itself (the past)” as well as “not not the thing (the past), as it passes across their bodies in again-time.”Footnote 55 The liminality of the performance object—its authenticity and its artistic fabrication—was a source of audience energy, but it was confusing or unappealing to critics, who continued to frame the Revolution's war plays inside classical models of poetic excellence. While reliving France's recent military past at the theatre, spectators of event plays stepped out of linear timelines, subscribing to the notion that “the past is a future direction in which one can travel—that it can stretch out before us like an unfamiliar landscape waiting to be (re)discovered.”Footnote 56 By blending together and repeating over and over the military's recent achievements, war plays departed from the incrementalism and cosmopolitanism of many eighteenth-century lumières. Rather than clarity and moderate progress, Revolutionary war drama subscribes to the idea that “[r]ecurrence . . . contests tightly stitched Enlightenment claims to the forward-driven linearity of temporality, the continuity of time, and challenges, as well, an attitude toward death as necessarily irrecoverable loss.”Footnote 57 The past thus fails to predict a clear endpoint, gesturing instead to different directions and unknown possibilities.
Many plays depicted death not as the conclusion of life but as the beginning of a regenerated society.Footnote 58 Military dramas represent the deaths of foreign armies and populations, aristocratic traitors, religious deviants, and sacrificed soldiers of the young nation. Loss of life is not a stopping point but a launchpad for the revitalized Republic, cleansed of its monarchical past through its military feats and aesthetic devotions to those endeavors. The throngs of spectators at military plays had more than an artistic interest in war: conflict and sacrifice onstage were increasingly “played out” in real time across the battlefields of Europe and beyond, and with devastating consequences. The men who came of fighting age during the 1790s died on the battlefield more than any previous generation in French history, as well as any subsequent one until the First World War.Footnote 59
Wars of the Revolution and, then, the First Empire were numerous, but the deaths were not always as majestic as they appeared onstage. Joseph Arné, the Bastille-storming hero and protagonist of early Revolutionary plays was, along with most young French men, sent to the front in 1792. After successful campaigns across the Rhine, against Vendée rebels and then in Italy, he was captured while serving in Napoléon's short-lived occupation of Egypt. After his release, he joined Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc's failed expeditionary force to quell the (Haitian) Revolution in Saint Domingue where, like Leclerc and countless others, Arné died not in glory on the battlefield, but in a sick tent, riddled with Yellow Fever.Footnote 60 In an ironic twist, Arné's most illustrious military achievement had ended on the evening of 14 July 1789, before he was catapulted onstage to help garner support for the proliferating French war machine.
From antiquity to the present, theatre and war have shared lexicons, strategies, and objectives.Footnote 61 Military leaders discuss “theatres of war” and “theatres of operation”; theatre professionals have deployed conflict themes in their plays to provide therapeutic support to civilian and soldier audiences,Footnote 62 bolster patriotism, and critique the status quo. From ballets at Louis XIV's court to parades in North Korea, displays of military strength require performance, or what Baz Kershaw calls the “ideological transaction between a company of performers and the community of their audience.”Footnote 63 War has served as a potent commonplace and an immediate subject of community concern that theatre professionals, military officers, and government officials have mobilized to push political agendas as well as tickets to the playhouse.
It is almost too obvious to point out that today's relationship between war and the performing arts is at odds with the French Revolution's national–military phenomenon in theatre. Instead of boosting a war effort or instilling bloodthirst in citizens, most contemporary theatre artists, according to Jeanne Colleran, have been integral to “developing a critical disposition toward image and narrative” in a world where war reporting, “total television,” and visual representations of conflict are increasingly unavoidable.Footnote 64 Theatre, according to Colleran, is a particularly valuable medium for understanding the complexity of conflicts that are often “flattened out through hype and spin” in what she calls the “cyberblitz”—a “state of permanently agitated desire” caused by proliferating online platforms.Footnote 65 As a “live, embodied, communal art form,” theatre “can eschew the false objectivity and speculations of minutia-driven reportage in favor of a presentation that acknowledges its own biases.”Footnote 66 Theatre, for Colleran and for many contemporary practitioners, can embody an antiwar effort and form a response to the implicitly prowar, uncritical images in contemporary media outlets.Footnote 67
The Revolution's national–military phenomenon was not the first nor the latest example of how theatre and performance render war more palpable to a community. It is also important to note that the phenomenon's efficacy as a means to raise actual armies and boost troop morale is difficult to measure, especially in light of research proving that the Revolution's famous levées were not as “voluntary” as they were depicted in political speeches, military reports, and plays.Footnote 68 Yet if it holds true that “the ideological transaction of performance must deal with the fundamental constitution of the audience's community identity in order to approach efficacy,”Footnote 69 then it is hard to imagine a more efficient community-based artistic intervention than the Revolution's military drama. The blitz approach to military festivals, plays, and other types of performance presented a harmony of voices singing different pitches of what was ultimately the same ideological tune.
The national–military phenomenon was a landmark event because theatre became truly national in its goals and total in its strategies. Military dramas insist on the cohesion of French, Republican values and depict the most far-flung points in the Hexagone and beyond in an effort to better integrate them into the national, patriotic core.Footnote 70 When they pumped money into free performances and traveling military festivals, French administrators and theatre artists were intensely focused on towns and villages that the Old Regime had ignored.Footnote 71 The national–military phenomenon helped create, perhaps for the first time in France, a veritable “‘culture’ . . . unit[ing] a range of different groups and communities in a common project in order to make them into an ideological force.”Footnote 72 Military drama of the Revolution added depth and power to the war reporting in newspapers and the published campaign reports of political institutions. Military plays were bold in their departure from dramaturgical norms, and most, if not all, were inclusive of new voices, characters, and situations. However, plays about soldiers and war were highly uncritical of the new nation's deadly forces. The enemies were at the gates, and the values of the Revolution were in jeopardy. This was extreme theatre for a national and nationalizing emergency with no end in sight; it was total theatre for total war.
Logan J. Connors is Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Miami. He is the author of Dramatic Battles in Eighteenth-Century France: Philosophes, Anti-Philosophes and the Polemical Theatre (2012), The Emergence of a Theatrical Science of Man in France, 1660–1740 (2020), and a critical edition of Pierre-Laurent de Belloy's tragedy, Le Siège de Calais (2014). His next book concentrates on the diverse connections between theatre and the military in France and its colonial empire from 1715 to 1815.