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Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution

How freedom of the theater promised to be a major extension of liberty

By Jonathan Israel Published 2014

Early on in the French Revolution, in his memoir on press freedom submitted to the Estates-General in June 1789, Jean-Pierre Brissot (1754–93), later a prominent revolutionary leader, proclaimed liberty of the press “un droit naturel à l’homme.” Loathed by Maximilien Robespierre, Brissot, together with his political allies, was later guillotined in October 1793 by the Montagne, the political faction that organized the Terror of 1793–94. During 1789 and throughout the period down to the coup that brought the Montagne to power in June 1793, no one publicized the demand for full freedom of expression more vigorously than Brissot. He also raised the issue of liberty from theater censorship, something which at that time existed nowhere in Europe, or indeed anywhere else, and never had. Theater freedom mattered more for renewing “liberty” than people think, he explained, since the theater exerts a great influence  “sur l’esprit public,” a point he would develop further, he adds, were not a writer of talent—the playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier (1762–1811)—already doing so. Among the Revolution’s principal champions of free expression, this literary ally of Brissot’s was the brother of the poet André Chénier who was guillotined by the Montagne in July 1794. 

By July 1789, the month of the storming of the Bastille, the question was no longer whether revolutionary France should possess freedom of expression and of the press—all the revolutionaries then agreed that it should—but rather whether this freedom required limits. Should there be “liberté illimité de la presse” without legal responsibility for calumny or inciting violence? This posed a dilemma for the national legislature, for aside from the principle itself, there was much uncertainty and anxiety about the unpredictable consequences. Many believed the campaign to bring “philosophy” and Enlightenment to the people would fail. Press freedom and the other new rights were justified in the people’s name, and yet, not one-hundredth part of the people actually read, warned the veteran republican writer and future deputy, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814), while only one-thousandth part read with sufficient discernment and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. The “ordinary man, being ignorant,” he admonished, judges politicians’ reputations by popular reputation rather than talent or knowledge—with predictably disastrous results.

The ensuing debate rapidly revealed the complexity of full freedom of expression. It was highly dangerous, insisted some, to permit unlimited freedom. For this enabled ill-wishers to continually denounce the best, most knowledgeable, and virtuous political candidates, journalists, and orators as “scoundrels” and “traitors” allegedly conspiring with aristocratisme and monarchism. Unrestricted press freedom was desirable, admonished Camille Desmoulins (who later with Georges Danton, in 1793–94, tried to curb the Terror), but came at a cost: for it fomented a new species of political deceiver, le calomniateur despot who systematically reviles and defames rivals using the press, forging a new kind of tyranny—le despotisme populacier—built on organized ignorance. The “whole art of the vile rascals” who, according to Brissot, Mercier, and Chénier, later on, in 1792–93, blighted and wrecked the Revolution and eventually imposed the Terror, lay according to them, in discrediting men of principle by systematic vilification in the popular press and by mimicking and mobilizing popular phrases and expressions that the ignorant applauded while actually disseminating views intended to silence dissent, impose their despotism, and cheat the multitude. 

Five days after the storming of the Bastille, the Paris theater world erupted with its own revolutionary drama. Chénier, a democratic republican and fervent champion of free expression (detested by Robespierre), appealed to the Comédie-Française’s actors to stage his newly completed antimonarchical play Charles IX. Designed to inspire hatred of “prejudice, fanaticism, and tyranny,” it represented a new kind of political drama recounting a “national tragedy,” the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. The Revolution demanded a new kind of play, but most actors, more accustomed to aristocratic audiences and censorship than deferring to dissident playwrights, refused to represent a French monarch onstage as a despot, criminal, and perjurer. Chénier countered with a publicity campaign demanding Charles IX be performed for the public good, even loudly interrupting an evening performance of another play at the Paris Théâtre-Français.

As the furor escalated, the actors found themselves severely hemmed in because the republican papers, including Brissot’s Patriote français, unstintingly backed Chénier. Chénier sought the complete liquidation of the ancien régime censorship by eliminating its last effective strand—theater censorship. It was the philosophes who taught him and his generation “to think,” he explained in his best-known pamphlet De la Liberté du théâtre en France (Paris, 1789) (already written but not released until late August 1789), leading them, as if by the hand, toward the truth: “they alone have prepared the Revolution now commencing.’’ In this pamphlet, he lists philosophy’s principal heroes as “Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, d’Alembert, Diderot, Mably, Raynal and Helvétius.” These philosophes had served society during their lives and now “from the tomb” inspired the Revolution, including the upheaval transforming the theater. How did “la philosophie moderne” evolve before 1789 from the writings of the philosophes into a formidable force reordering all of society? Via their writings, their example, and society’s mounting persecution of them. Chénier particularly stressed the unwitting contribution of the bishops who for years fought from the pulpit, issuing pastoral circulars denouncing la philosophie and its “doctrine abominable” as the source of all misfortune. If “philosophy” had pervaded France in recent decades, entered the royal council, and entrenched itself in aristocratic homes, and men had finally become “reasonable” in many respects, revolutionary France owed it all to those enlightened writers and thinkers banned and hounded before 1788, not just by the Crown but by the judiciary and religious authority. 

The 1789–90 Charles IX uproar was a major cultural revolutionary episode with implications extending far beyond freedom of expression. At stake was the social function of culture itself. During the summer of 1789, those resisting the staging of Charles IX often embraced even full freedom of the press. What they disputed was not freedom of expression as such but rather any right to stage material that was not just topical but politically, religiously, and socially divisive. Freedom of the theater existed nowhere, and never had, and promised to be a major extension of liberty, opening up a vast new thought-world to innumerable city-dwellers who were not fully literate. In eighteenth-century England, the press was (partially) free, assuredly, but the theater remained rigidly controlled, and more tightly than ever since Horace Walpole’s time. Theater culture stands apart from the world of print by being experienced collectively in an atmosphere of heightened emotion in which the semiliterate fully participate. The “antitheatricalism” of Chénier’s opponents played on the evidently acute danger of unchaining previously restrained popular emotion. No true freedom of expression can exist, retorted Chénier and Brissot, where theater aligns with conventional thinking. This is why, subsequently, stringent control of the theater was one of the most vital aspects of Robespierre’s dictatorship during the months from June 1793 to July 1794. 

Theater reflects the people’s will only where free from control and the conventions to which, historically, it has been subjected. Potentially, the stage, held Chénier and other republican stalwarts of the 1789 theater controversy, was a more potent agent of change than even books and reading. In July 1789, the newly reformed Paris city government had to intervene. Both sides to the dispute accepted society had entered a new era of freedom, and that the theater represented a potent agent of reeducation. In terms of the much-discussed but not-yet-proclaimed Declaration of the Rights of Man, Chénier and Brissot might appear fully justified. But in fact the anti-republican conservative and moderate opposition arguably held the more logical position. After all, France was a monarchy, they pointed out, that had always proclaimed Catholicism the state church: any play purposely depicting monarchy and Catholicism as odious was therefore contrary to the existing constitution, public order, and the public interest. Charles IX not only dramatized the reprehensibility of “tyranny” and “fanaticism,” but by declaring the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre a monstrous crime committed by king and Church directly equated monarchy with “tyranny” and Catholicism with “fanaticism.” 

The new, enlightened mayor of Paris, the astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly, opposing the staging of Charles IX, sharply distinguished, like British ministers, between liberty of the press and freedom of theater, because in the theater people experience spectacles collectively and, as he put it, “s’électrisent” (mutually electrify each other), becoming all too readily disruptive of public order and good morals. Several commentators agreed that the multitude was unpredictable and easily steered in the wrong direction by “unpatriotic” writers. Backed by the mayor, the actors briefly gained the initiative. But the republicans mobilized support in the Paris sections against Bailly, in part by buying up large quantities of tickets and packing performances with their supporters. On August 19, 1789, demonstrators disrupted a performance at the Comédie-Française, calling out from the pit for Charles IX. There was no official permission for this, retorted the actors, to which the demonstrators replied: “no more permissions!” 

As Brissot, Nicolas de Condorcet, and the democratic republicans gained ground in Paris municipal politics, so did Chénier and the other republican publicists embroiled in the capital’s theater wars. Finally, on November 4, 1789, with the theater’s name officially changed from Comédie-Française to Théâtre de la Nation, the play was staged contrary to the actors’ wishes. On opening night, both Danton, who had attended some rehearsals, and Mirabeau figured among the audience, their presence endorsing the play’s message. As the curtain rose, Danton, despite his huge girth, leaped onto the stage to direct the applause. Staged for several months over the winter of 1789–90, Charles IX was indeed a landmark in theater history, inaugurating an era characterized (until Robespierre’s coup) by an entirely new close alignment of the stage with “philosophy.” 

The “moderates” succeeded in dampening down Paris’s theater wars somewhat during early 1790, but the furor resumed with undiminished intensity as the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille approached. The July 14, 1790, first anniversary precipitated a wave of emotion not only across France but also across the entire pro-Revolution intelligentsia in Britain, Holland, Belgium, the United States, and Germany as well. At Hamburg, Georg Heinrich Sieveking organized a grand all-day festival and banquet for eighty guests on his property at nearby Harvestehude. Those present included numerous noted intellectuals and literary figures, among them the son of the great philologist Reimarus, Johann Albert Heinrich Reimarus (1729–1814); his famous unmarried sister, Elise Reimarus (1735–1805), a friend of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn; the former leader of the Illuminati in Protestant Germany, Adolph Freiherr von Knigge (1752–96), among the foremost supporters of the French Revolution outside France; and the celebrated German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803). The banquet, accompanied by live music, a women’s choir, discharge of ceremonial cannon, and two revolutionary odes by Klopstock, lasted all day, the participants successively toasting the “happiness of France,” the glorious July 14, the French National Assembly, Bailly, Lafayette, Mirabeau, and Klopstock. The men, sporting tricolor cockades, and the women, wearing white dresses with tricolor sashes and hats with tricolor cockades, ate, listened to speeches, and sang, raising their glasses to numerous ideologically charged toasts, including to “prompt consequences” and an end to princely Despotismus in Germany. 

Predictably, the fraught Paris theater world powerfully added to the tide of pro-Revolution emotion of July 1790. As the first anniversary of the Bastille approached, the actors were besieged with demands for performances of Voltaire’s Brutus (1731) and The Death of Caesar (1735); Antoine-Marin Lemierre’s Guillaume Tell (1766), a play revived with success, earlier, in 1786; Barnevelt, also by Lemierre; and, of course, Chénier’s Charles IX. In recent months, all such requests had been routinely rejected by royal ministers and theater directorates owing to the overtly republican slant one could expect Paris’s indoctrinated, expectant, and unruly audiences to place on their content. Boycotting all those plays, the former Comédie-Française, since November 1789 renamed the Théâtre de la Nation, performed what pro-Revolution theater critics called “the most insignificant pieces” they could find, all breathing the spirit of “servitude” and “adulation.” Comédie-Française actors, who despite the change in the name of the theater still styled themselves “comediens français ordinaires du roi,” reportedly mostly backed the parti anti-révolutionnaire. With their blatantly biased choice of plays, ministers, actors, and theater directors were accused of inculcating into the people, or at least into the most unaware and least sophisticated, adulation of kings and nobles “nothing being easier than to mislead ordinary folk and seduce their minds” by manipulating emotions in ways they fail to understand. However, the resistance of the actors and theaters simply collapsed amid the growing furor and commotion in the French theater world during July.

Pressure to stage republican material eventually proved irresistible. The Théâtre de la Nation agreed to stage its first ever performance of Barnevelt, a drama about Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s downfall in 1618. The premiere took place on June 30, 1790, its more obviously republican moments eliciting embarrassingly furious applause from the audience. A spectator, defiantly expressing monarchical indignation by hissing loudly, was hounded from the theater. Predictably, Charles IX, performed thirty-four times in the autumn of 1789, was insistently demanded but was resisted stubbornly. Like the rest of society, the actors were deeply split, most vigorously opposing the pressure to stage the play. A minority, led by the radical François-Joseph Talma (1763–1826), the most renowned tragic actor of the revolutionary era, and his leading lady, Mme. Vestris, did wish to perform it. 

Requests flowed especially from volunteer soldiers (fédérés) from the provinces who had been sent to Paris to participate in the July 14 marches and celebrations. Those from Marseille demanded the play with particular ardor and enlisted Mirabeau to help secure it. A disturbance calling for the play, openly encouraged by Talma, occurred at the theater on July 22. Opposing efforts to enlist Bailly to ban the play and arrest Talma as an incendiaire failed, Chénier mobilizing additional support in the most militantly radical district of Paris, the notorious Cordeliers section. Noting Mirabeau’s intervention, Danton’s interest, and the fédérés’ enthusiasm, Bailly wisely permitted performance to go ahead but took care to post armed guards around the theater. The play was finally staged on July 23, with Danton present. Trouble ensued afterward when Talma, now publicly allied to Brissot, Mirabeau, Danton, and Chénier, so antagonized fellow actors that they ejected him from the theater and permanently boycotted him.

The French theater world was plunged into ferment, one side adhering to a “moderate” course, the other proclaiming the theater “the modern school of liberty.” When Voltaire’s Brutus was repeated on November 17, the audience, relating events onstage to events in the country, immediately split into opposed factions, one side yelling “Vive le roi!,” the other “Vive le roi, vive la Nation!” During a performance of La Liberté conquise at the Théâtre de la Nation, at the moment the Bastille’s assailants proclaim their oath to “conquer or die,” the audience rose to their feet as one, the men lifting their hats on the ends of their canes and shaking them in the air, the women holding aloft their hands and throwing up handkerchiefs, thoroughly stirring all present. During another performance of this same play, “the brave Arné”—the grenadier who overpowered the Bastille’s governor and then clambered up the Bastille’s highest turret to raise his hat high into the air on his bayonet—was spotted. The audience spontaneously demanded he be crowned with a liberty cap. As Arné was “crowned,” enthusiastic market women rousingly sang an uplifting chorus in the hero’s honor. 

The Paris Opera became equally polarized. Iphigénie en Aulide by Christoph Willibald Gluck, first performed at the Paris Opera in 1774, produced an unruly incident in December 1790, with patriotes occupying the parterre in force and monarchists predominating higher up, in the more expensive seats. When the aria “let us celebrate our queen” was sung, aristocrats in the boxes thunderously ap­plauded while the parterre stamped, hissed, and jeered. In response, Antoinettistes hurled down cartons and apples, provoking patriotes to try to climb up to the boxes with little “martinets” for whipping fine ladies sporting the white (royalist) cockade, only to be repelled by the National Guard posted by the mayor to keep order. 

At a meeting on September 27, 1790, Théâtre de la Nation actors expressed resentment at being yelled at by revolutionaries and called “réfractaires” and “authors of counterrevolution” by hostile audiences. Unable either to secure court permission to perform Charles IX or persuade audiences that the play was banned, the actors requested a Paris civic directive requiring performances of Charles IX on specified days as a way of evading blame and recrimination for staging “republican plays.” When the autumn season of Charles IX eventually opened, Mirabeau was spotted among the audience and given a rousing ovation. On December 18, 1790, by which time there was tension in Paris not just between “moderates” and republicans, but now also between the increasingly anticlerical Revolution and the Church, the Théâtre de la Nation premiered Jean Calas, based on Voltaire’s most famous public campaign against bigotry, a piece written by the man who subsequently emerged the most daring democratic, free speech, and anti-Robespierre playwright of the revolutionary years, the Left republican playwright Jean-Louis Laya (1761–1833). His play in which not only the political old regime but also the judges’ “fanaticism,” religious authority, and ecclesiastical intolerance were all unremittingly pilloried, according to the pro-Revolution papers was “applauded universally.” 

Yes, indeed, the noisy Parisian democratic republican element applauding Jean-Louis Laya and Chénier had become a powerful force. For a time they took over the theaters. But not for long. The applause could not hide the fact that most people in France either supported the ultra-royalist Right, or the constitutional monarchists like Bailly, wanting some limitation of freedom of expression, or else, and much worse, followed Marat and Robespierre in their ruthless drive for dictatorship, suppression of press freedom, and the elimination of all dissent. From June 1793, Chénier was silenced, Brissot imprisoned and his paper suppressed, Laya forced into hiding, and the theaters not just of Paris but of all France’s cities were as thoroughly terrorized and subjected to the dictatorship of popular counter-Enlightenment and the “ordinary” as any part of French culture.

Jonathan Israel joined the Institute as Professor in the School of Historical Studies in 2001. His work is concerned with European and European colonial history from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. His recent work focuses on the impact of radical thought (especially Spinoza, Bayle, Diderot, and the eighteenth-century French materialists) on the Enlightenment and on the emergence of modern ideas of democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of the press, and individual freedom. 

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2014