Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Edmund Eyre's the Maid of Normandy; or, Charlotte Corday in Anglo-Irish Docudrama

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Edmund Eyre's the Maid of Normandy; or, Charlotte Corday in Anglo-Irish Docudrama

Article excerpt

Jacques-Louis David's famous portrait, The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat, 1793), garners Charlotte Corday's assassination of Jean-Paul Marat attention in art history. However, theater critics have not sufficiently explored the wealth of European plays that stage this dramatic event. Scholars know very little about dramas depicting Charlotte Corday and Marat since in the 1790s they were performed outside of London or in unlicensed playhouses. Yet a trail of newspaper accounts and dramatizations of Corday's story in France, England, and Ireland demonstrates a shared set of preoccupations with gender and violence. Dramatists outside of France persisted in drawing parallels between the assassination of Marat and the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Examining the reactions of contemporary Anglophone audiences to this French political event, this paper focuses on Edmund John Eyre's (1767-1816) play The Maid of Normandy; or, the Death of the Queen of France (1794/1804). Eyre's play, first performed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1794, was denied a license by the English censor owing to its open references to God and events in France, the very elements that most appealed to Irish audiences. Irish vicar Matthew West even plagiarized Eyre's play as a closet drama, Female Heroism, a Tragedy in Five Acts Founded on Revolutionary Events that Occurred in France in the Summer and Autumn of 1793 (1803). Anglo-Irish translations of Marat's assassin carry with them a specifically French mode of performance because docudramas that chronicle the French Revolution cannot escape its embedded theatricality and rely on dramatic allegory. In the case of Charlotte Corday, they reproduce the hagiography of Liberty, the woman who sacrifices love and life for her country.

Not surprisingly, Corday's assassination of Marat produced a frenzied and spectacular afterlife. Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont (1768-93) assassinated the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat on 13 July 1793 during the height of the Terror. Corday originally planned a theatrical setting for the murder, on the stage of the National Convention on Bastille Day, but Marat's illness forced her to commit the assassination a day early. Bound to a bathtub owing to a skin condition he caught while living underground, Marat nevertheless continued to write the very incendiary rhetoric that so angered Corday in his journal The Friend of the People (L'Ami du peuple). Corday showed him a list of counterrevolutionary conspirators from her hometown and then stabbed him with a six-inch kitchen knife. When accounts of Corday's trial and execution spread rapidly through France and abroad, contemporaries asked questions about gender and power--about how they could be tied inextricably. (1) How could a twenty-five-year-old from Normandy assassinate one of the leading political figures of Paris? To answer this question, doctors looked for evidence of sex; they examined her body but found it was virginal. In contrast to the Jacobin authorities' suspicions, Corday did not have a male lover to assist her in stabbing Marat.

Fact and fiction became interchangeable in accounts about Corday, and these dramatic elements made her an attractive subject for media across Europe. Corday contributed to her own dramatization by writing an "Address to the French" that evoked Brutus from the third act of Voltaire's tragedy The Death of Caesar (La Mort de Cesar, 1733), and by citing in a letter to her father, published in Parisian and English papers, a verse from her great-great grandfather, the playwright Pierre Corneille (1606-84). (2) After Corday's decapitation on the guillotine, the executioner slapped her severed head, which purportedly blushed. British newspapers relished the opportunity to write about the French in theatrical terms, and docudramas used newspapers, in turn, to reconstruct recent history. Mainstream media reported news from France in dramatic style, as shown in this London Times report on Corday's trial:

   Herault announced that the Minister of the Home Department had
   received information from Calvados, that there was a plot to
   assassinate him. … 
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