Monday, 11 January 2016

French Revolutions and Censorship

Quick quiz: in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, during the various upheavals that revolve around the French Revolution, was censorship by the state more common before or after the declaration in 1791 against censorship?

The clue's probably in the question. After 1791, banning of plays was more common. Under the absolute monarchy, there was a complicated process of censorship, that could involve a nervous police referring to the state or the church. By the time of Napoleon, the Emperor himself was programming plays so that theatre reflected well on his regime. 

My ill-defined understanding of The French Revolution features the defeat of France's absolute monarchy by a popular uprising - led and determined by the influence of the enlightenment intellects - which rapidly degenerated into a murderous free-for-all and concluded in the arrival of Napoleon, who became emperor and turned the revolution into an expansive imperialism. Theatre was not included in my secondary school-level study, although the writing of Voltaire and Diderot implied that performance was a vital public forum for the promotion of new ideas.

In this simplistic version, the ancient regime was totalitarian. Yet its control of theatre was less immediate than the activities of the revolutionary governments. Discuss.

The best part of the ancient regime, as far as theatre goes, was the pit. This was the cheap seats, although it had no seats, just a standing audience that had a habit of shouting at the performers. Apparently, they'd whistle if the acting was bad. They also made applications: applauding, or booing, or launching a zinger at lines that could reflect on current political issues.

This was not about recognising an allusion in the script: it was the audience interpreting. It could even embarrass a writer: when Colle was given props for an application of his Partie de chasse de Henri IV, he ran off at the finale, worried that the state might think he had deliberately alluded to the recent sacking of a popular director-general of finances. 

The pit kept its actions up during the early stages of the revolution. Even the royalists would make applications, giving it laldy during Pompignan's Didon. Voltaire's Brutus was appreciated by republicans and royalists (set in Rome, it had regicides and aristocrats in the dramatis personae). The pit was ideal for anonymous shouting about politics, either subverting or supporting the current state.

By the time Napoleon was acting the big man, the pit had to simmer down. In 1810, Brittanicus was performed. The plot included Nero's treatment of his first wife - just as Napoleon was marrying his second. The relevant scenes provoked only an uncomfortable silence. 

Source: Hemmings, Theatre and State in France, 1760 - 1905

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