Monthly Archives: April 2016

Napoleonic theatre and the body

Society of Dix-neuviémistes annual conference, Paris April 2016

Three members of the French Theatre of the Napoleonic era ran a panel on Napoleonic theatre and the body at the SDN annual conference last week.

The panel aimed to strip away some of the assumptions about aesthetic production of the age and reassert the significance of theatre and the theatrical for contemporaries by exploring a body of theatrical works from the Napoleonic era. The three papers focused on the physical body of the playwright, the actor and Napoleon respectively and in so doing reassessed Napoleonic theatre from three distinct but related angles: politics, performance and prints of the period.

Vincenzo DE SANTIS : Dramaturgie et médecine chez Lemercier. Le cas de la Démence de Charles VI

Composée autour de 1806, La Démence de Charles VI fait partie des pièces que Lemercier écrit pendant l’Empire. La représentation de la tragédie – qui a fait l’objet de deux éditions tardives – a été systématiquement empêchée par la censure sous plusieurs formes de gouvernement.
Grâce à une lecture croisée du texte de Lemercier et du Traité sur les démences de Philippe Pinel, médecin que l’auteur connaissait, nous essayerons d’illustrer les raisons de ce refus qui reposent essentiellement sur la caractérisation du roi et sur la manière dont son corps est mis en scène dans la tragédie.

Clare SIVITER: Performing tragic bodies: a review of the evolution from theatrical Classicism to Romanticism

By taking the tragic actors’ body during the Napoleonic period as a point of departure, this paper will show how declamation, gesture and costume altered contemporaries’ understanding of the classical canon – the body of plays which form the basis of contemporary French theatrical thought. For example, contemporary critics record a progression from gesture as an externalised expression accompanying the line, to an action which conveyed the inner emotion of the character, epitomised by the Talma’s incarnation of Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride, where his body conveyed such violence that his wig fell off. The aim of this paper is therefore to show the importance of the actor’s body through the performance of tragedy in the development of Romanticism. In so doing, it will re-evaluate the narratives which have dominated thus far and expand the focus beyond Talma to the Comédie-Française troupe as a whole, shedding light in particular on the little studied revolutionary actresses Mesdemoiselles Raucourt, Duchesnois, and George.

Katherine ASSTBURY: Napoleon’s theatrical body


Napoleon ensured that the publication of caricatures was carefully controlled during the Empire but during the First Restoration, French print makers portray the former Emperor first as an object of fairground entertainment, then a commedia dell’ arte figure, or a character from melodrama. The association of the Emperor with popular, low theatrical culture by his opponents aims to emphasise his illegitimacy but it is simultaneously used by those who remain sympathetic to him as a way of stressing his popularity. Thus theatre becomes the dominant metaphor of prints from 1814-1815 and Napoleon moves from being a pot-bellied, scheming Harlequin in pro-Restoration prints, to a slim, acrobatic Pierrot post-Waterloo. This paper will explore the tensions between high and low theatrical culture and the relationship between theatre and political legitimacy through the body of Napoleon as a way of untangling some of the contradictions of the Hundred Days.

SDN panel