The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

10
French Theater and Revolution: The Eve and the Aftermath

Mario Hamlet-Metz

Upon his return from England, one century before the battle of Hernani, an enthusiastic Voltaire publicly proclaimed his sincere admiration for most British institutions, including theater, and including, yes, Shakespeare. Voltaire was indeed one of the first writers of his century to realize the urgent need for reform in French tragedy, a genre that was falling into a sad state of stagnation in the post-Racine years; thus, he began to create plays in which the rigorous structure of French classicism was skillfully combined with the onstage action and violence characteristic of the plays of the Bard. In the dedication of his Zaïre ( 1730), inspired directly by Othello, Voltaire openly admitted his debt to Shakespeare and said that by adopting certain aspects of the Shakespearean play he hoped to contribute to the birth of a type of tragedy unknown to the French. He was clearly posing as innovator. But in 1776, when the French appointed Letourneur as official translator of the first edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, the jealous Voltaire vociferously denied his initial enthusiasm for the British poet, denouncing him within the august walls of the French Academy as being nothing but a monster and a clown: "And to think that it was I who, years ago, was the first to speak of Shakespeare; it is I who showed the French a few jewels that could be found in the midst of all his rubbish."1 The fate of Shakespearean theater in France and of French theater itself during the years that preceded 1789 could have been quite different indeed had Voltaire given the British poet an accolade rather than a deadly blow in the assembly of the forty Immortals.

But the revolutionary trumpets were not being heralded by Voltaire alone. As early as 1747, in the preface to his François II, Président Jean- François Hénault introduced a modern French theme and defended his choice by saying that the cardinal of Lorraine and the duc of Guise plotting the murder of the prince of Condé were just as interesting dramatically as the confidants of Ptolemaeus deliberating about the death of Pompeus, and that Catherine de Medici was just as valid a character as Cleopatra and Agrippina. In addition, Hénault vehemently defended, in the name of logic, his breaking the rule of unity of time, because it was practically impossible to observe it when depicting events that took place over a period of seventeen years. "I have not written a tragedy . . . just a new way to present the facts that could

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