Monthly Archives: September 2014

Napoleonic Neglect: The Case for Excavating French Theatre of the First Empire

The team all gave papers at a curated panel of the International Federation for theatre research world congress which was held at Warwick, July 2014. Professor Jan Clarke chaired the session which was entitled: Napoleonic Neglect: The Case for Excavating French Theatre of the First Empire.

Here are the paper abstracts:

Katherine Astbury, Case study: melodrama

Theatre was an important tool for Napoleon Bonaparte but it has been almost entirely ignored by recent criticism, which has focused instead on French Revolutionary theatre. The few modern studies that have been undertaken on the immediate post-Revolutionary era continue to conclude that theatre of the Napoleonic period is aesthetically inferior. Horne (2004) for instance concludes that “not a single French play of any value dates from the Napoleonic period”. And yet, the First Empire is a period when theatre flourished and when its foremost dramatic form, melodrama, was exported around the world. It is time to strip away assumptions about aesthetic production of the age and explore instead how some of the methodological advances in approaches to Revolutionary theatre might be applied to the Napoleonic era. This paper will offer Pixerécourt’s melodrama as a case study for how we might reassess Napoleonic theatre. Pixerécourt was one of the most successful playwrights of the period and his plays regularly ran to hundreds of performances. Using a manuscript of the Forteresse du Danube as a case study, it will discuss some of the difficulties involved in excavating a forgotten period in theatre history (no calendar of performances), a forgotten play (no modern editions), and a genre typically dismissed as staged morality for the people. The manuscript lends itself to reflections on sources, the influence of German and British theatre, the importance of music in the development of melodrama, the role of politics, as well as the layers that make up performance. It will also touch on issues of audience, class and hierarchy. This paper will be of interest to specialists of French and British theatre specialists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Katherine Hambridge, The Status of the Score in First Empire Melodrama

Melodrama, the most popular form of theatre under Napoleon, has long been characterised as a theatrical genre notable for the importance of music – without the extant musical scores being subject to substantial scholarly attention. Dealing with such scores, however, immediately raises a number of questions about their ontological status. To what extent was music considered by theatres and audiences a part of the ‘work’? Unlike English melodrama, scores were rarely printed for home consumption, and when melodramas left Paris for the provincial theatres, local composers would often write new music. Would there have been a hierarchy between the ‘original’ music at the premiere, and subsequent scores? What might we conclude from the relatively scarce critical commentary on melodramatic music in newspaper reviews?

This paper is an attempt to historicise the ontological status of the musical score in First Empire melodrama. The relation between ‘score’ and ‘work’ has long been problematized and theorised within musicology, and a comparison with opera can be productively applied here, particularly given Pixérécourt’s claim that he invented melodrama by taking the songs out of opéra comique. Considering what might have been distinctive about the theoretical and practical role of music in melodrama, as opposed to other musico-theatrical genres, reveals the interrelation of questions of high and low art and publishing and performing practices in determining the status of music in theatre. Combining source studies and close-readings of musical scores with historical approaches to production and reception, I explore how music functioned and was received as a stratum of melodrama: in performance, in discourse, and in its textual residues. Specific attention will be given to the scores for some of the most popular melodramas of this period, including Pixérécourt’s La Forteresse, La femme à deux maris, La Citerne and Robinson Crusoe, and Caigniez’s Le Jugement de Salomone.

Clare Siviter, Case study: tragedy

What happened between the death of French Classical tragedy and the birth of Romantic drama? This question has been frequently posed, yet never properly answered. Indeed, to believe some scholars, nothing of theatrical importance occurred between 1799 and 1815, despite the famous acting advances of Talma, the legendary reviews of Geoffroy, the development of scenography, melodrama and the drame. Therefore, as the bicentenary of the fall of Napoleon approaches, and after the successful revival of interest in French Revolutionary theatre, there is an urgent need to reassess Napoleonic theatre. This paper will address the initial methodological problems posed by the study of tragedy as a genre 1799-1815. Digging down through the accrued layers of two-hundred years of interpretation, it will use tragedy as a case study to show how Napoleonic theatre, text and performance, was received during this era and how, in contrast to the current literature on the Napoleonic era, a period’s theatre can never be limited to its own new dramatic productions, reinforcing the very dynamic nature of theatre produced throughout the ages on a specific audience. Moving from reception to perception, this paper will also explore how memoires, theatre documents, contemporary theorisations to name but a few can lead to a more accurate understanding of how Napoleonic society conceived of their theatre in terms of a dramatic heritage or departure after the caesura of the Revolution before the advent of Romanticism and in turn establish the dramatic education of the Romantic generation, essential to understanding their own movement. Consequently, this paper will be of interest to specialists of French and British theatre specialists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Devon Cox, Horrible Histories: History, Nationalism and the Napoleonic Stage

1804—the same year that Napoleon was planning an invasion of Britain—the Parisian stage hosted three separate productions of Guillaume le Conquérant (William the Conqueror), first as a drame historique by Alexandre Duval at the Théâtre Français, as a melodrama by André-Jacques Coffin-Rony and Leblanc Clement at the Théâtre de la Gaîté and finally as a five-act fait historique at the Théâtre de la Cite. Similar anti-English propaganda plays were becoming a feature of the Parisian stage including Jeanne d’Arc, ou la Pucelle d’Orléans by Cuvelier de Trie at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in late-1803.

This paper will closely examine a series of anti-English propaganda plays in their historical context as manifestations of an early nineteenth-century nationalistic (Bonapartist) agenda on the French stage. As historian David Bell points out, in the first decade of the nineteenth century French nationalism took a “strongly historic turn.”  The French envisaged “a new structure…lovingly put together out of hallowed, ancient material.” In doing so they “engaged in a massive effort of recuperating, preserving, and displaying what now came to be called the nation’s heritage, including folklore, art works, music, monuments, costumes, and historical personalities.” (Bell, Cult of the Nation in France, 201-202)


In this paper I will explore these efforts of “recuperating, preserving, and displaying” French history and attempt to illustrate how these manipulated historical portrayals influenced and impacted upon the theatre of the early-nineteenth century. In doing so I will also be drawing connections and questioning disjunctions between the French historical narratives and similar works produced on the English stage, particularly John Cartwright’s highly propagandist pantomime/ballet Joan of Arc; or the Maid of Orleans at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1798.