Performing Virtue: Pamela on the French Revolutionary Stage, 1793

Article excerpt

What must that virtue be which will not stand a trial?

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa

In the tense summer of 1793 in France, a dramatic adaptation of Samuel Richardson's popular sentimental novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), took the stage at the Comedie-Francaise. Despite the play's popular reception, the author, director, and actors of the play were jailed by Maximilien Robespierre's Committee for Public Safety for "lack of civic virtue" and "insulting the patriots of the Republic" following its ninth performance on 2 September 1793. (1) The accusation was raised by a single spectator at the theater that night, a soldier named Jullien de Carentan, during a monologue on the virtues of religious tolerance which Carentan understood as a veiled plea for political moderatism. During the hearing that followed three weeks later, the author of the play, Francois de Neufchateau, had a 55-page apology read to the National Convention. In it, Neufchateau defended himself against the claims of "incivisme" by appealing to his service as a member of the National Convention, the very body of law and justice he now faced as an accused. (2) He also appealed, more remarkably, to the conventions--both moral and narrative--of sentimental fiction: pleading his case to the deputies, Neufchateau exclaimed, "Such is virtue's fate; she suffers, she is outraged. But she triumphs!" (3) Casting himself in the role of "persecuted innocent," Neufchateau identifies himself with his heroine, defending the purity of his heart and the virtue of his play, and at one point claims that it is "a play of which I can say: mothers will recommend its reading to their daughters" (AP 74: 626). (4) Despite the hearing, Neufchateau and the actors languished in prison eleven months without trial, only narrowly escaping the guillotine, and thus an ending more along the lines of Richardson's Clarissa (virtue sacrificed) than Pamela (virtue rewarded). (5)

Accounts of the events surrounding the closing of Pamela generally accept that the Jacobins used the outcry of Carentan as a convenient excuse to bring down their remaining opposition, the Girondins, and their mouthpiece. This interpretation does not account, however, for the fact that the play, following an earlier outcry over its "immoral" ending, had in fact been vetted and approved by the Committee for Public Safety three days before reopening on 2 September 1793. The version of the play Carentan saw that night was a new and republicanly-improved edit of Pamela that had received the nihil obstat of the Committee members. Why then was there such concern over a relatively innocuous sentimental comedy of domestic virtue? There was no open insult or expression of counterrevolutionary sentiments in the play, yet the Jacobin-led government treated its performance as an affair of state.

A closer look at the offending lines, and the whole range of accusations leveled against the play from its first to its last performance, reveals the central concern to be one of virtue. It is continuously to virtue, and the play's distortion or lack thereof, that the attacks in the newspapers and in the various speeches at the National Convention and Jacobin Club return. It is my contention that the larger debate and outrage set in motion by Pamela was over the vexing problem of virtue's performance, not only on the theatrical stage but for citizens of France more generally. The 1789 Revolution had opened the public sphere to all active citizens who were now required not only to invoke virtue, but to perform it and embody it publicly. As a result, virtue's performance came under especially intense regulation, scrutiny, and censorship. As the leading "school of virtue," the theater served an important function in the reproduction of revolutionary ideology by inculcating virtue and promoting public spirit (civisme). After an initial liberty following the decree of 13 January 1791 that ended the monopoly on the classical repertoire, the theater came increasingly under the purview of the state and its controls. …