Translating French History, 1500-1850

Theatre and Politics (University of Illinois at Chicago)

For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, royal censorship and classical dogma worked together to prevent theater from commenting directly on, or even worse, reenacting current affairs. Everything changed with the Revolution, which saw the rise of a highly popular topical theater, reproducing recent events on stage (the storming of the Bastille, military victories, the king’s flight and trial…), denouncing public figures (Robespierre, Marat, Marie-Antoinette…), and engaging in contemporary debates (the dechristianization of France, the use of the formal “vous,” the legalization of divorce…). Whether intended as a forum or as propaganda, as a site of direct democracy or as one of indoctrination, Revolutionary theater was often overtly implicated in the present.

There are few better illustrations of this militant theater of the Revolution than Sylvain Maréchal’s Le Jugement dernier des rois. Performed immediately after Marie-Antoinette’s beheading, it stages the trial and punishment of the remaining kings and queens of Europe. With the support of the government, which provided the actors with cannon powder, despite significant shortages in a time of war, and which requested performances be held throughout France, the play was seen by more than 100,000 spectators and remains to this day one of the most famous dramatic texts of the Revolutionary period. In spite of this popularity, Maréchal’s work is more often cited than truly read (or performed). It is our hope that the translation below -- the first one available online or in print -- will inspire a wider audience to read this important play.

The unprecedented topicality of many Revolutionary plays is relatively well-known, thanks to the significant scholarly interest in the theater of the Revolution in recent decades. Almost no attention has been paid, however, to the disappearance of this militant, political theater in the years of the Directory and Consulate. Such a lacuna makes the second collection of pamphlets and their translations particularly significant (see below, starting at #2). The pamphlets are transcriptions of speeches delivered by deputies at the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred (the two legislative houses of the Directory) in response to a motion by the famed playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier. Spanning seven months and responding directly to one another, these pamphlets constitute a long-forgotten debate on the moral, aesthetic, and political value of the theater, as it was practiced under the Revolution. They raise vital issues related to the theater (censorship or free speech? social activism or abstract moral lessons? privileges or free market?) and propose solutions that would be implemented, ten years later, by Napoleon Bonaparte.

These translations have been the work of dozens of students (for a list, see the Acknowledgments page below). Special thanks must go to Carmen Morales, an undergraduate major in French and Francophone Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who translated a majority of the pamphlets from the 1797 debate, with the generous, year-long support of a Dorothy Thelander Memorial Scholarship. Several others have kindly volunteered their time and expertise, notably graduate students Julianne Brooks and Diane Escobar, and French and Linguistics major Citlaly Herrera. My sincere gratitude to them as well! The other students listed on the Acknowledgments page did not exactly volunteer -- their translations were graded assignments in different graduate-level seminars at UIC -- but they deserve recognition for their enthusiasm and dedication. In addition to translating several pamphlets and Le Jugement dernier des rois, they conducted background research on forgotten authors, allusions to Revolutionary events, the history of French drama, the practice of censorship, the rise of the Terror, the political institutions of the Directory, and countless other subjects, and presented on these topics so as to contextualize and improve their translations.

 

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  1. View of the Comédie-Française Theatre in 1790, after an original by Gaudet and Prudent (colour engraving)
  2. Le Congrès des rois coalisés, ou les Tyrans (découronnés), estampe de Barnabé-Augustin de Mailly, 1794
  3. A French Theatre
  4. Interior of the Comédie-Française on the rue de Richelieu as originally designed by Victor Louis in 1790.