The Melodramatic Thread: Spectacle and Political Culture in Modern France

The Melodramatic Thread: Spectacle and Political Culture in Modern France

The Melodramatic Thread: Spectacle and Political Culture in Modern France

The Melodramatic Thread: Spectacle and Political Culture in Modern France


In France, both political culture and theatrical performances have drawn upon melodrama. This "melodramatic thread" helped weave the country's political life as it moved from monarchy to democracy. By examining the relationship between public ceremonies and theatrical performance, James R. Lehning sheds light on democratization in modern France. He explores the extent to which the dramatic forms were present in the public performance of political power. By concentrating on the Republic and the Revolution and on theatrical performance, Lehning affirms the importance of examining the performative aspects of French political culture for understanding the political differences that have marked France in the years since 1789.


On June 8, 1794, at the height of the Terror, the leaders of France and the people of Paris celebrated a Festival of the Supreme Being in central Paris. With Jacques-Louis David as impresario, the houses of Paris were decorated with tree branches, flowers, and tricolored flags to demonstrate the productivity of the soil of France and the glory of the Republic. the Tuileries Gardens, which would be the site of the first part of the festival, featured a statue representing atheism, with the inscription “only hope of the foreigner” on it. Across the Seine, the Champs de Mars, the site of previous revolutionary festivals, had been renamed the Champs de la Réunion. in the immense field rose a high mountain that would be the focal point for the second half of the celebration.

The Festival of the Supreme Being began with a cannon salvo summoning men and women from each section of the city to the Tuileries. Mothers carrying roses symbolizing mercy, young girls with baskets filled with flowers to symbolize youth, and men and boys with tree branches to represent the masculine virtues of strength and liberty all converged on the Tuileries Gardens. They were met by members of the Convention, with Maximilien Robespierre, in his role as president of the Convention, at their head. the Conventionnels also participated in the symbolism of the festival, holding shocks of wheat, flowers, and fruits.

Robespierre welcomed the processions from around the city with a speech celebrating France’s devotion to the Supreme Being, the source of all that was good, including the Republic and the liberty written in men’s hearts. in spite of the ongoing war, the Terror, and the need for revolutionary vigilance, he urged his fellow citizens to give themselves over to joy on this day of festivities. This speech was followed by a performance by the Opera of Theodore Désorgues’s song “Father of the Universe, Supreme Intelligence,” set to music by François-Joseph Gossec. Robespierre then set fire to the statue of Atheism, which disappeared in flames to be replaced by a statue of Wisdom. Interpreting the pageant in a second speech, Robespierre described the disappearance of atheism and with it “all the crimes and unhappiness of the world.” Only wisdom, he told his audience, could lead to the prosperity of empires.

After the ceremony at the Tuileries the members of the Convention marched in procession across the river to the Champs, surrounded by tricolored banners and children with flowers. a coach in the middle of this procession carried tools and goods made around the country, a plow covered with wheat and oak branches, and a printing press. These were placed next to a statue of Liberty . . .

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