Rewriting the Revolutionary Past in Les Prussiens en Lorraine
Barbara T. Cooper
Moments of civil strife seem to have held a particular fascination for nineteenth-century French dramatists eager to portray their nation's past. In the early decades of the century, at a time when direct reference to the Revolution of 1789 was frequently cause for censorship, dramatists chose the "safer"--because more distant--Hundred Years War and the religious wars of the sixteenth century as the setting for their representations of the internal dissensions that were inevitably linked to questions of national identity. Gradually, however, within the ideological limits defined by successive nineteenth-century political regimes, the Revolution made its appearance on Parisian stages. 1
When it premiered at the Théâtre de la Gaïté in Paris in March 1840, Gustave Lemoine and Prosper-Parfait Goubaux Les Prussiens en Lorraine, ou l'Honneur d'une mère was by no means the first work whose historical and geographical backdrop unequivocally recalled the French Revolution. 2 On the contrary, if the representation of "la patrie en danger" (the fatherland in danger) was not already a topos almost as familiar as the Vendean Wars, it would soon become so.
The act-long prologue to the play is set in an isolated castle at the edge of the Ardennes forest. It is early September 1792 and the city of Verdun has just fallen into the hands of Prussian soldiers allied with royalist forces seeking to put an end to the Revolution. The remaining three acts of the piece take place in 1813, in Prussia, where a regiment of French troops, advancing ahead of the Grande Arméde, has temporarily set up headquarters in an isolated castle. The deliberate opposition of these temporally and physically defined landscapes suggests that they constitute what Pierre Nora has called "des lieux de mémoire," that is, the sites around which collective memories crystallize or at which they are stored (xvii). Memories, however, like dramas, are notorious for their distortion of the past, and thus we need to examine Les Prussiens en Lorraine to discover how it represents the Revolution and its meaning to the audience.
We can perhaps be helped in this endeavor if we consider Claude- Joseph Rouget de Lisle's "La Marseillaise" as an intertext. 3 Composed in April 1792 as a "War Song for the Army of the Rhine," the "Marseillaise" was