Modern history


The Cultural Construction of a Citizen


On September 19, 1783, at around one in the afternoon, to the sound of a drum roll, an enormous taffeta spheroid wobbled its way unsteadily into the sky over the royal palace at Versailles. Sixty feet high, it was painted azure blue and decorated with golden fleurs-de-lis. In a basket-cage suspended from its neck were a sheep named Montauciel (Climb-to-the-sky), a duck and a rooster. When a violent gust of wind made a tear near the top of the balloon, there were some fears for the safety of the barnyard aeronauts. All, however, survived the eight-minute flight reasonably well. Once it landed in the woods of Vaucresson a few miles beyond the château, the sheep was discovered nibbling imperturbably on straw while the cock and the duck cowered in a corner. But the story was too much like a La Fontaine fable to suppress speculation. Some reports insisted that the rooster’s neck had been broken in the descent; others that its right wing had merely been grazed by a kick from the sheep. Later consensus was benign. “It was judged that they had not suffered,” ran one press comment, “but they were, to say the least, much astonished.”

Astonishment was not confined to the passengers. As many as 130,000 spectators were said by one account to have witnessed the event, and most reports put the number at 100,000. These estimates are numerically meaningless but it is certain that an immense crowd congregated on, and in front of, the palace courtyard where a special octagonal platform had been erected for the occasion. Most of the throng had traveled from Paris, where Etienne Montgolfier had already become a celebrity. The previous August he had sent aloft a small balloon, powered by inflammable gas (rather than the hot air with which he had pioneered the experiments). Six thousand had braved a steady downpour and had paid for special viewing seats on the Champ de Mars while a far bigger crowd observed standing. Expectations of a more spectacular flight that would receive the official royal blessing ran high.

Thus by ten in the morning all the avenues and highways leading to Versailles were choked with carriage traffic. Armies of pedestrians and sedan chairs then struggled to make their way by foot towards the cour des ministres. Like pilgrims drawn to a hearsay miracle they were determined not to miss what was generally agreed to be an epochal event. “One might say with Ovid,” caroled one account, invoking the prophet of the Golden Age, “that many things will now be done that hitherto have been regarded as absolutely impossible.” “At last,” wrote Rivarol, another enthusiast, “we have discovered the secret for which the centuries have sighed: man will now fly and so appropriate for himself all the power of the animal kingdom; master of the earth, the waters and the air.” There were other, more sardonic remarks on this balloonomania. The author of the Correspondance Secrète (probably Louis Petit deBachaumont) commented drily that “the invention of M. de Montgolfier has given such a shock to the French that it has restored vigor to the aged, imagination to the peasants and constancy to our women.”

The globes airostatiques were epochal in other ways too, for they helped reorder the nature of public spectacle in France. In doing so they generated an audience that was hard to contain within the old regime’s sense of decorum.

The ascent at Versailles was itself a major breach of court protocol. The palace had been built around the ceremonial control of spectacle through which the mystique of absolutism was preserved and managed. At its center, both symbolically and architecturally, was the closeted monarch. Access to his person was minutely prescribed by court etiquette, and proximity or distance, audience or dismissal, defined the pecking order of the nobility permitted to attend him. The palace exterior facing the town expressed this calculated measurement of space and time by confronting the approaching visitor with a succession of progressively narrowing enclosures. From the stables and the Grand Commun housing the kitchens, where space was at a premium, to the “marble court” at the center of which the King’s bedroom was housed, the visiting ambassador would negotiate a series of pierced barriers or grilles, each one admitting a further measure of access.

All this graduated etiquette had been swept unceremoniously aside by rioting crowds in the first year of Louis XVI’s reign when they had marched on the palace to demand the restoration of fixed prices for flour and bread. In October 1789 the palace would again become engulfed by the hunger and anger of a revolutionary march from Paris. But six years earlier, the apparently innocent spectacle of Montgolfier’s balloon disposed of the elaborate protection of court procedure with almost as much brusqueness. The event, after all, was staged not behind the palace in the park, where it could have been more carefully patrolled by the household corps of Swiss guards, but in the unconfined space of the ministers’ courtyard. While cordons of soldiers were placed so as to protect the balloon itself and Montgolfier, no serious attempt was made to restrain numbers or to order them in the neat, ordained spaces generally required by old-regime regulations. Nor was it possible, beyond giving special places to the immediate royal family, to preserve the hierarchies of court seniority in the huge pell-mell throng. Instead of being an object of privileged vision – the speciality of Versailles – the balloon was necessarily the visual property of everyone in the crowd. On the ground it was still, to some extent, an aristocratic spectacle; in the air it became democratic.

The official and enclosed science of the Royal Academy made way for the theatrical science of public experiment. And although the balloons generally bore some form of the royal crest, this formal deference could not hide the fact that the King was no longer the cynosure of all eyes. He had been displaced by a more potent magus: the inventor. The Montgolfier brothers were paper manufacturers from the Vivarais in southeast France. But like tens of thousands of literate Frenchmen they were also amateur scientists. Thunderously applauded by the crowd, congratulated by the King and Queen, lionized by the Academy, compared incessantly with Christopher Columbus, they approximated more to a new type of citizen-hero: Franklins of the stratosphere. A typical contemporary description of Etienne Montgolfier paints him as the epitome of sober virtues – at once classical-Roman and French-modern: in clothes and manner, the antithesis of the foppish, ornamental courtier.

He was dressed in black and throughout the course of the experiment gave his orders with the greatest sang-froid. The severity of his countenance and its tranquillity seemed to announce the certainty that this able physician had of the success of the experiment. There is no one more modest than M. Montgolfier.

And along with this reputation for Virtue and Usefulness went a certain streak of independence, even insubordination. Montgolfier’s principal scientific collaborator was M. Charles, a professor of physics who had been the first to propose the gas produced by vitriol instead of the burning, dampened straw and wood that he had used in earlier flights. Charles himself was also eager to ascend but had run into a firm veto from the King, who from the earliest reports had been observing the progress of the flights with keen attentiveness. Anxious about the perils of a maiden flight, the King had then proposed that two criminals be sent up in a basket, at which Charles and his colleagues became indignant.

“The King might be sovereign master of my life but he is not keeper of my honor” was one reported response. And it was quickly appreciated by both critics and enthusiasts that manned flight had serious implications for the preservation of the status quo. Smuggling was an immediate concern since contraband carried by balloon would make customs posts and excise walls redundant. Perhaps there might even be war in the skies. Rivarol mocked the more hysterical of these fears when he claimed that religion had just lost its grip since, to future generations, the Assumption of the Virgin would no longer seem miraculous. Furthermore:

Everything seemed turned upside down – the civil, political and moral world. They saw already armies slaughtering each other in the air and blood raining down on the earth. Lovers and thieves might descend by chimney and carry away to distant places both our treasures and our daughters.

The most self-consciously independent of the aviators was, characteristically, also the youngest: Pilâtre de Rozier, a twenty-six-year-old physician. Together with an army officer, the Marquis d’Arlandes, he succeeded in launching the first manned ascent on the twenty-first of November 1783. The combination of scientist and military man – technical knowledge and physical audacity – that was to be the standard format of aviation and space exploration was already established. But Pilâtre de Rozier, more than many other scientists, had always had an eye for the public. A native of Metz in Lorraine, he had been one of the most conspicuous of the many who gave afternoon lectures on scientific topics in Paris for a public eager for novelty. In 1781 he had opened a Musée des Sciences on the rue Sainte-Avoie specifically designed to cater to constituencies excluded by the Royal Academy. It housed a collection of instruments, books and experimental equipment, and amateurs could rub shoulders with the learned and engage in public and private discussion. Women might be admitted – though only if recommended by three members of the Musée. Over seven hundred subscribers signed on from all ranks and conditions and heard Pilâtre himself lecture on the art of swimming as well as demonstrate a watertight robe by emerging dry from a bath filled to a depth of six feet. Among other inventions on display at the Musée was a hat with a built-in light for nocturnal rescues, and Pilâtre offered readings of his book Electricity and Magnetism.

Pilâtre de Rozier completed his credentials as citizen-balloonist by becoming a “martyr to science” at the age of twenty-eight. As he attempted to cross the English Channel from Boulogne in June 1785, his balloon exploded, “enveloped by a violet flame.” Watched by another enormous crowd at the coast, Pilâtre and his companion fell fifteen hundred feet onto rocks opposite Croy, just outside the port. Horrified reports were grimly detailed. Pilâtre’s body was shattered, a foot separated from the leg; the young hero “swam in his own blood.” The country treated him like a dead warrior: “It is said that perhaps he loved glory too much,” wrote one eulogist. “Ah! how could one be French and not love it.” From England, Jean-Paul Marat mourned that “all hearts are stricken with grief.” Joint funerals of great pomp were held in Boulogne and in his native town of Metz; the King ordered a medal struck, busts commissioned and a special pension provided for his family. To complete a scenario that might have been written by Rousseau or one of the dramatists of the sentimental stage, Pilâtre’s fiancée herself died just eight days later, possibly by her own hand.

The sentiment that ballooning was an aspect of the Sublime and that its practitioners were Romantic demigods was infectious. One of the most tireless of the aeronauts was François Blanchard, who four months before Pilâtre’s accident had been the first to cross the Channel from Dover, with a British colleague, Dr. Jeffries. On his third voyage from Rouen he came down in a field, where the dumbfounded peasants greeted him as if he were extraterrestrial. Only when he undressed and allowed them to poke him in several decisive zones of his body were they satisfied. But the local elite was as curious in its way as the peasantry. Blanchard descended into a storm of excitement and competition as to who would have the honor of entertaining him overnight while the balloon was being inflated. Women were especially excited by the prospect and often more courageous than the men in following up their well-informed scientific curiosity. On this same flight, for example, the Marquise de Brossard, the Comtesse de Bouban and Mme Déjean all insisted that they be allowed some sort of test flight. Blanchard sent them up eighty feet – while attaching the balloon with light cords as they took careful measurements of their speed and altitude. “They showed,” he wrote admiringly in the press account, “not the slightest sign of anxiety even at the greatest elevation.”

Similar spectacles were enacted throughout the country from Lyon to Picardy, from Besançon to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Patrons of rival cafés in the Palais-Royal, the Caveau and the National, adopted competing balloon teams almost as if they were favorite racehorses. Miniature portraits and ballads celebrating their exploits went on sale in Paris. Books were published that gave detailed advice on how to construct one’s own balloon or a miniature replica. The most expensive of these could be made up for six livres, the cheapest for forty sous (the price of five large loaves of bread). A bladder membrance from ox innards was advised for the thirty-inch model, held together with the best fish glue. Amateurs were warned about the perils of using methane andconnoisseurs inspired to build little balloons in the shape and color of fruit so that at whimsical moments in an evening’s entertainments they might rise into the air suspended over the claret decanter.

But ballooning was much more than a fashionable amusement. Its public was enormous, elated and unconstrained, and spoke not with accents of polite society but with the emotional vocabulary of Rousseau’s sublimity. In this poetic mode, terror and joy were invariably yoked together and feelings were often eloquently expressed in body language. When the balloon of MM. Charles and Robert went up over Saint-Cloud in July 1784, “men and women,” a spectator wrote, “great and humble, fell to their knees, completing the most extraordinary tableau ever seen.” More dramatically, an enormous, and suddenly horrified crowd on the plaine des Broteaux beside the Rhone near Lyon saw the soon-to-be-doomed Pilâtre de Rozier, Montgolfier and six passengers, including the son of the Prince de Ligne, descend vertically amidst smoke and flames. Their response en masse was to “hold up their arms and hands by an involuntary movement as if to support the balloon in its fall.” When it was seen that they had survived the wreckage of the enormous three-hundred-foot globe, their carriages were unharnessed and they were borne aloft on the shoulders of a surging tide of celebrants. “Covered in sweat and smoke [they were] constantly stopped on their progress by those who wanted to see them up close and to embrace them.” At a performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide at the Opéra that same night they were showered with more wild huzzahs. The singer playing Agamemnon produced a crown of laurels which, characteristically, Montgolfier placed on his wife’s head, while Pilâtre (competing in modesty) placed his on Montgolfier’s.

In other words, Montgolfier, Pilâtre de Rozier and Blanchard succeeded in establishing a direct and unmediated relationship of comradeship with enormous multitudes of people. The crowds of spectators who ran the gamut of unconfined emotions while watching them behaved exactly as crowds were not supposed to in the old regime. In Lyon, for example, as in other provincial towns – and especially those with Parlements – crowd events were regulated through religious or civic processions. The coherence and structure of these occasions was prescribed by the order of participants, the costume they wore or the attributes they carried. Preceded by priests or dignitaries, their ceremonies expressed the corporate and hierarchical world in which they had been brought up.

Charismatic physics altered all that. As a spectacle it was unpredictable; its crowds were incoherent, spontaneous and viscerally roused. Yet they were neither a mob (un attroupement) nor a random aggregate. The sense that they were witnessing a liberating event – an augury of a free-floating future – gave them a kind of temporary fellowship in the open air, under the Parisian summer drizzle or the snowflakes of a Lyonnais January. Though it was less grimly calisthenic than the neo-Spartan gymnastics recommended by Rousseau (and later ordained by the Jacobins), it exemplified the philosopher’s vision of a festival of freedom: uplifting glimpses of the Sublime in which the experience, not the audience, was noble.

Balloons were not the only spectacle to attract the kind of crowds in which the formal distinctions of rank were swallowed up by shared enthusiasms. The closing decades of the old regime were remarkable for the number of cultural phenomena in which popular and elite tastes converged. The size and diversity of the public for boulevard theater, popular song and even the biennial Salon exhibition was such that it engulfed the traditional distinctions of social and legal order preserved in official forms of art licensed by the monarchy. The vivid description given by the popular journalist Pidanzat de Mairobert of the Salon public at the end of the 1770s emphasizes this uninhibited mixing of social types within a confined space. Bodies, voices and aromas were so pressed and jostled that together they made up, in the august surroundings of the Salon Carré of the Louvre, a huge boiling so up of humanity. Forced up a staircase always packed with people, the visitor was plunged into a “chasm of heat and a whirlwind of dust and noise.” There “in a poisonous atmosphere, impregnated with the breath of unhealthy persons… deafened by a din like the crashing of waves at sea,” one nonetheless beheld a “mixture of all orders of the State, all ranks of society, every age and sex”…

the disdainful fop or the [vaporeuse] woman; the Savoyard odd-job man rubs shoulders with the “cordon bleu” [grandee]; the market woman trades scents with the woman of quality, making the latter pinch her nose to escape the powerful smell of brandy sent her way; the rough artisan, guided by instinct alone, throws out a just comment which, because of his comical accent, prompts the foolish bel esprit to mirth while the Artist hidden in the crowd disentangles meaning from it all and turns it to his profit. There too, school-boys give instruction to their teachers… for it is these young pupils spread amidst this immense gathering who almost always provide the most telling judgments.

In its origins the Salon had been the temple of academic and institutional hierarchy. The Academy, under whose auspices the show was organized, was itself divided into three rigidly structured classes. And on the walls of the exhibition, the formal hierarchy of genres – with history painting at the top and genre and still life at the bottom – was carefully preserved. But these formalities became superfluous in the chaotic ebb and flow of public excitement. In the 1760s and 1770s the paintings which attracted crowds and excited comment in the press were not pompous histories by official artists like Brenet and Lagrenée but the sentimental genre dramas of Greuze.

A similar process of breaking boundaries was occurring in the theater. This is all the more surprising since, on the face of it, Paris theater was divided into two sharply contrasting worlds. The drama of high taste and official respectability was housed in licensed companies like the Comédie-Française and the Opéra. Fronted by colonnaded porticos, the grand theaters offered a steady diet of classical tragedies and acceptably literary comedies by Molière. Actors declaimed their Alexandrine couplets according to time-honored conventions of elocution and cadence. Nothing could be further from the raucous and earthy world of the boulevard theaters in which bawdy farces rich in slang and gutter humor competed for attention with freak shows, high-wire acts and balladeers.

Historians have often portrayed the eighteenth century as the period when popular culture was finally subdued by dour guardians of official moral taste. From occupying a central place in the life of the people, they argue, it became marginal, yielding to campaigns of Improvement and Edification. Something of this sort would indeed be attempted by the revolutionary Jacobins. But thanks to the research of Michele Root-Bernstein and Robert Isherwood we now know that during the last decades of the old regime, something like the opposite process was at work. It was the official theater that was losing its vitality, and to some extent, its audience. And it was the popular theater that was becoming the main attraction. Even more striking was the phenomenon, widely noticed by contemporaries, that the two worlds were not so much pulling apart as coming together. A single public was in the process of forming, hungry for entertainment and stretching from the royal family and the court all the way down to the artisans, shopkeepers, tradesmen and soldiers. They flocked to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Comédie-Française, where they could stand in the rowdy parterre in front of the stage. Or they might, for a mere twelve or twenty-four sous, patronize Nicolet’s Grands Danseurs on the boulevard du Temple, with its winning mixture of acrobatics, burlesque, pantomime, mime acts, song and sentimental drama. (For a while its star attraction was a monkey named Turcot who mimicked the great “serious” actor Molé.)

There are countless examples of this cultural fusion at work. The Journal de Paris gave daily information on the “high” theater of the Opéra, the Comédie-Française and the Comédie Italienne, but it also listed current attractions at the Variétés and the Ambigu Comique. Crossovers from one world to the other abounded. The founder of the Ambigu Comique, Audinot, had himself been a singer (and the son of a singer) at the Opéra Comique and had staged spectacles at Versailles before founding his thriving theater on the boulevard. The great hit of the 1770s, Dorvigny’s Les Battus (The Beaten) featured a hapless servant, Janot, who, having had a chamber pot emptied on him, attempts to find legal redress and instead finds himself in jail. By 1780 Les Battus had been performed a thousand times, had made its principal actor, Volange, a Parisian celebrity and had been performed in private before the King and Queen at Versailles.

Indeed, the royal family was as much engaged in this stage culture as anyone else. Artois, for example, is known to have composed verses for the unsparingly satirical and often obscene popular songs that ballad-mongers hawked on the Pont Neuf. And though the King frowned on Marie-Antoinette frequenting the Paris theater as a breach of decorum, she often did so and created, through audience reaction to her presence, a barometer of public popularity. This was obviously enjoyable so long as the plaudits lasted, but by the mid-1780s the frosty silences or worse reinforced her own sense of alienation from public favor. But the Queen remained interested enough in the earthy patois of the markets – poissard (named for “pitch”) – to have members of the Montansier troupe come to the Trianon to instruct her own group of court actors (including Artois) in its gritty slang. Among that troupe was the Grammont family, who in their own persons exemplified the inclusiveness of the dramatic world. At home on the boulevards, where they had started out with Nicolet’s troupe of tightrope artists and clowns, but accustomed to performances at Versailles, the Grammonts would go on to become officers in the armées révolutionnaires, the Parisian shock troops commissioned to enforce revolutionary laws and weed out traitors for the guillotine.

It was the Duc de Chartres, though, who did most to institutionalize this cultural melting pot by turning the Palais-Royal into the most spectacular habitat for pleasure and politics in Europe. In 1776 he was given this prime site, once the gardens of Cardinal Richelieu and bordering on the Louvre and the Tuileries, by his father the Duc d’Orléans. And the combination of his prodigal life-style and entrepreneurial initiative led him to dream up an extravagant plan to turn the gardens into an arcaded resort that would combine cafés, theaters, shops and places of more doubtful recreation. The architect Victor Louis, who had created the magnificent theater at Bordeaux, was hired to create the interior space, but needless to say ambition ran ahead of funds and not until 1784 was anything resembling the full plan beginning to be realized. In the meantime a wooden gallery had been erected running along the Palais; known as the camp des tartares, it rapidly became notorious as a haunt of prostitutes and pickpockets. Inside, for a few sous one could marvel at the girth of the four-hundred-pound German Paul Butterbrodt or (for a few sous more) inspect the credentials of a naked (wax) “belle Zulima” allegedly dead for two hundred years and in a marvelous state of preservation.

By 1785, when the old Duc d’Orléans died, leaving his son with funds to complete the work, the Palais-Royal had nonetheless succeeded in bringing the raw and Rabelaisian popular culture right into the heart of royal and aristocratic Paris. A decade earlier it had still been possible to see central Paris as the exclusive preserve of official art, with “lower” forms relegated to the boulevards and the fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent. The enclosure of these unofficial forms within these great paddocks of pleasure even gave the police a sense that mischief was at least confined to predictable zones and if respectable citizens chose to frequent them it was at their own risk. The elite theaters might look askance at the growing popularity and enviable prosperity of their rivals, but at least they had the satisfaction of seeing them housed in poky back rooms well outside the fashionable quarters.

The arrival of the Palais-Royal as a quotidian carnival of the appetites drastically altered all that. As the private domain of Orléans it was virtually safe from patrol by the police and it exploited this freedom to the utmost. “This enchanted place,” wrote Mercier, “is a small luxurious city enclosed in a large one.” Eagerly welcomed by Chartres/Orléans, the Théâtre Beaujolais (named for Chartres’ brother) opened with three-foot-tall marionettes and continued with child actors, and at the Variétés Amusantes, the farces and melodramas of the boulevards moved in alongside, both playing to packed houses. Cafés of every kind flourished, from the more staid Foy to the risqué Grotte Flamande. One could visit wig makers and lace makers; sip lemonade from the stalls; play chess or checkers at the Café de Chartres (now the Grand Vefour); listen to a strolling guitar-playing abbé (presumably defrocked) who specialized in bawdy songs; peruse the political satires (often vicious) written and distributed by a team of hacks working for the Duc; ogle the magic-lantern or shadow-light shows; play billiards or gather around the miniature cannon that went off precisely at noon when struck by the rays of the sun.

Inside the confined spaces of the boulevard theater it had been difficult if not impossible to maintain any kind of formal distinctions of rank. Nicolet’s theater held four hundred people crammed into a space not much more than forty feet by thirty-six. The tallow candles barely gave enough light to allow for much in the way of social display and Nicolet’s dirt-cheap prices meant that people of drastically different social worlds were pressed together like sardines. But even in the avenues and arcades of the Palais-Royal, where promenading (not to say soliciting), gazing and inspecting were a major pastime, conditions and classes were indiscriminately jumbled together. In the melee it was easy to mistake a flashily dressed courtesan sporting imitation brilliants for a countess decorated with the real thing. Young soldiers dressed to impress girls with their uniforms (a relatively recent innovation in the army), on which insignia of rank were either unmarked or indeterminate. In their black robes noble magistrates from the Parlement were dressed in much the same fashion as humble barristers and clerks. And it is evident that contemporaries relished this social potpourri. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who had railed against the boulevards for encouraging feeble-minded dissipation among “honest citizens,” adored the Palais-Royal, where he witnessed “the confusion of estates, the mixture, the throng.” And Mayeur de Saint-Paul, who wrote even more lyrically, insisted that “all the orders of citizens are joined together, from the lady of rank to the dissolute, from the soldier of distinction to the humblest official in the Farms.”

Within the dignified halls of the Comédie-Française or the Opéra, of course, the social order was far more pronounced. But the governing condition of conspicuousness (as throughout the old regime) was not birth or estate but money. Moreover, even in the “serious” theater, there is some evidence of an increasing infusion of middle-class and even lower-middle-class audiences: shopkeepers and master artisans from the “honest” trades like cabinetmaking and watchmaking. On special occasions, like the birthday of the Dauphin in 1781, free performances would be given and the theater would be packed with this more modest kind of spectator. But even during the regular season, the relatively modest price of the parterre made it accessible to habitués like students and law clerks. Very often the eager theatergoer could pay for his place by signing on with one of the organized claques, paid to cheer or jeer at actors and plays, depending on the commission. And because of the license expected in the parterre, it was here that the tone could be set on first night for the success or failure of the play. The playwright Marmon-tel, who was no friend of the parterre, when much cheered by the success of his Belisarius was forced to concede that ‘amidst the mass of uncultivated men there are certainly some who are very enlightened.”

Were les enfants du paradis closely related, then, to les enfants de la patrie? It is hard to know whether the social commingling apparent in theater audiences and amidst the strollers in the pleasure gardens may be taken as an accurate indicator of the collapse of rank in old-regime France. We are, after all, dealing here with metropolitan Paris at its most relaxed. But against the teeming backdrop of a great melee of citizens it did turn isolated incidents of hostility between great and small, privileged and citizen, into an exemplary type of social and political drama: that of anachronism. So in this sense there were indeed rehearsals for the great theater of the Estates-General at work in the Paris audiences.

A case in point was the famous war of the theater seat that reached the courts of the Paris Parlement itself. The dispute came to symbolize the transfer to the auditorium of one of the stock dramas performed on stage: that of virtuous citizenship bullied by aristocratic arrogance. On April 9, 1782, an argument broke out in the balcony of the Comédie-Française. The disputants were one Pernot-Duplessis, a proctor of the Parlement, and the Comte de Moreton-Chabrillant, captain of the guard of the Comte de Provence – the King’s younger brother. In the court case that ensued, it was stressed that the plaintiff was “an honest man in all respects, known by the mildness of his manner and the graciousness of his disposition”; that he was dressed in sober black and wore no wig that evening. The officer, on the other hand, arrived late in a rose-colored coat and was wearing a sword and plumed hat – in other words, the essence of a military courtier. According to the court record this is what followed:

CHABRILLANT: What are you doing here?

DUPLESSIS: I am at my seat.

CHABRILLANT: Withdraw, I say.

DUPLESSIS: I have a right to be here for my money… I have paid for my seat and I am not going to withdraw. I shall remain.

CHABRILLANT: A f— robin dares insult me [at which point he shoved the plaintiff]. I am M. le comte de Chabrillant, captain of the guard of Monsieur the King’s brother. I have right of command here. It is by order of the King. Into prison scamp, into prison…

DUPLESSIS: No matter who you are a man like you cannot make a man like me spend the night in prison without cause.

The battle of the balcony was won by the abusive aristocrat, but the war by the righteous advocate. Chabrillant did indeed summon the guard, who forced Duplessis downstairs by the hair and locked him up for four and a half hours – until well after the performance was over. But it was, to say the least, imprudent to humiliate a member of the sovereign court, even if, as the defense claimed, the Comte did not believe anyone so “rude” could possibly be a magistrate. Duplessis’ attorney, Blondel, made a meal of the contrast between the haughty officer-courtier, contemptuous of basic legal rights and quick to use arbitrary force, and the quietly determined, modestly dressed man of the law. It was, he stated in court, “in the general interest of the Public to defend the individualwhose simple status as Citizen should have warded off any kind of insult in a place where money alone put commoners and nobles on the same footing” (emphasis added). Needless to say, the court found for Duplessis and ordered the Comte to pay six thousand livres in damages – a considerable sum – as well as to avow in court that the man he had insulted was “a man of honor and probity.”

There were other, similar cases where the theater was turned into a battlefield of contested rights. In Bordeaux in 1784, for example, the mayor and his municipal councillors were denied entrance to the theater on orders of the military governor and were even imprisoned when they persisted in attempting to enter. The governor then tried to have the mayor (a noble) tried by military tribunal. In so doing, he pitted his military force against the civic claims of the mayor to exercise authority in the theater in the name of his co-citizens.

Politics, then, could affect the theater, but equally the theater was itself capable of creating political drama. The most spectacular of all these cases was of course that of Beaumarchais and The Marriage of Figaro. Invariably the trying circumstances in which this play was performed are taken to represent a way station on the road to the collapse of the old regime. Beaumarchais is duly cast as a warrior for freedom of expression and the King as a frightened and petulant martinet. But this simple scenario is considerably complicated by the fact that, by the time Figaro came to be written and performed, Beaumarchais was himself no oppressed Figaro but an ennobled magistrate of considerable wealth and formidable influence. The significance of the diatribe against the settled order that he put into the mouth of Figaro in Act 5 was not that it came from one of the literary underclass but from one of the favored sons of the establishment.

With these reservations it would be equally mistaken to deromanticize Beaumarchais so completely as to mistake him for merely another aristocrat playing at radical chic. His remarkable life was stained with the social ambiguities of late eighteenth-century France. He had been magistrate and prisoner, courtier and rebel, diplomat and spy, businessman and bankrupt, publisher and publicist, insider and outsider. Nor had the trajectory of his career been one of uninterrupted upward progression from modest artisan to swaggering nobleman. At many stages it had been marked by spectacular leaps in fame and fortune crushed by equally spectacular rejections and disappointments. If he cultivated paradox assiduously, it came to him naturally. In one of his many court appearances as defendant against libel, he donned the apparel of the “honest man” – black coat and breeches (and made his face up to look especially pale) – but could not resist sporting at the same time the huge diamond ring given to him by the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa. In 1787 he would hire the fashionable architect Lemoyne to build him a spectacular mansion boasting two hundred windows and costing nearly a million livres. But he would site it in the very unfashionable faubourg Saint-Antoine: the heart of artisan Paris, and the fulcrum of sans-culotte radicalism in the Revolution.

To understand the unprecedented appeal of The Marriage of Figaro and why it became used as a stick to beat over the head of the more obdurate elements of the old regime, it is necessary to see just how its author cast himself in the part of injured honnête homme and citizen. Like Rousseau, Beaumarchais was the son of a Protestant watchmaker, but unlike the philosopher he extended his knowledge of that craft to become a brilliant and prodigious inventor in his own right. Robbed by his master of the credit for inventing the double-action escarpment, Beaumarchais unmasked the usurper and became, in very short order, famous and well off. Presented to Louis XV at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed watchmaker to the court. Association with the richfinancierParis-Duverney opened up the path to nobility and he duly bought his way in, in 1761. At the age of twenty-nine, then, he ceased to be Pierre-Augustin Caron and was entitled to use the name of his estate, Beaumarchais. And since nobility, new-style, presupposed service, he also became a presiding judge in the court that dealt with offenses against the game laws – a particularly harrowing tribunal in which he showed no special tenderness to the multitudes of pathetic poachers, professional and amateur, dragged before his bench.

It was of course The Barber of Seville that made his name as a play-wright, though he followed it with a succession of rather feeble dramas featuring all the correct expressions of elevated sensibility: friendship, thwarted love, honored posterity and the like. And as he became a celebrated figure so he also became a target for jealous husbands and opportunistic hack writers. His own taste for pleasures of all sorts only attracted further attacks. But for all his notoriety (some richly deserved), the Chevalier Beaumarchais co-existed with Citizen Beaumarchais. The rake and the boaster was also the startlingly aggressive and enterprising propagandist for the Americans, who fitted out an entire private navy with armaments for the rebels and whose own pocket made up the difference between the escalating cost of French assistance and secret royal disbursements. Another project of almost comparable significance brought him even greater ruin. For he decided to take on the publication of the complete works and manuscripts of Voltaire when the great Paris publisher and bookseller Panckoucke had despaired of the enterprise. Beaumarchais edited the colossal work, tangled with affronted parties on all sides (including Frederick the Great of Prussia) who did not care to have their correspondence made public, established his own printing press in Lorraine, bought type in England and attempted to break even by finding thirty thousand advance subscribers. Predictably, all he got was a paltry two thousand. Starved of pay, printers vandalized his machinery, and a cashier absconded with some receipts. Running to seventy-two volumes in quarto, the entire business was a commercial fiasco of titanic proportions. But it was also a cultural glory, perhaps the finest thing Beaumarchais ever did.

It was Beaumarchais’ unquestionable ability to play Everyman that lent The Marriage of Figaro its universal voice. It broke rank and it mixed genres. It brought the mordant satire of the popular theater into the august hall of the Comédie-Française. And it gave instant renown to skilled actors like Louise Contat (Suzanne) and d’Azincourt (Figaro) who were capable of playing their parts with spontaneity and freshness. While there had been plenty of boulevard comedies assailing the pretensions of seigneurial power, none had done so with such stinging hilarity. It was closer to the kind of “people’s drama” that Mercier had called for in 1773 than anything yet seen in the century. Those who know only the operatic version by Mozart and da Ponte know only a Figaro from which much of the raw mischief has been edited out. As the author of the Correspondance Secrète commented, Beaumarchais’ predecessors

had always had the intention of making the great laugh at the expense of the small; here, the lowly could laugh at the expense of the great and the number of those ordinary people being so considerable one should not be astonished at the huge throng of spectators from every walk of life summoned by Figaro.

There can be no doubt that Beaumarchais would have liked the play to be produced without any official interventions. But once they were clumsily offered he seized the opportunity to publicize them as a battle between overbearing despotism and citizens’ liberties. Typically, he was able to pose in this guise because among the citizens eager to see the play were Marie-Antoinette and most of the court. Beaumarchais had given the manuscript to Chamfort (Talleyrand’s friend) and he in turn had placed it in the hands of the Queen’s favorite Vaudreuil. A private reading had been organized and the more outrageous the denunciations of the established order, the better the Queen liked it. The King was less amused. In the middle of Figaro’s notorious monologue in Act 5 he rose from his chair and, in a rare fit of eloquence and prescience, declared that it was “detestable. It will never be played; the Bastille would have to be destroyed if the performance of the play is not to have dangerous consequences.”

Though the project was officially proscribed, Beaumarchais used every means to keep it alive. He had astutely incorporated into the play a popular song, “Marlborouck S’en Va-t-en Guerre.” “Va-t-en guerre” was an ironic slight, meaning war by fanfare (rather than deed), and the song had been composed during Louis XIV’s campaigns, when a false rumor had circulated that his nemesis, the Duke of Marlborough, had been killed in battle. Revived in the 1780s it was sung to jeer at British humiliation in America and in the Indian Ocean, where Admiral Suffren was embarrassing the Royal Navy. Beaumarchais adopted the song as if his own battle were the dramatic equivalent of a military campaign, and the joking banter of the song as if his enemy were soon to be laid low. In a street and salon culture where the double-entendre was virtually an official language, the innuendo did not go unnoticed.

As usual, though, it was the eagerness of a section of the fashionable nobility to humiliate the court that undermined the latter’s authority. Manuscripts of the play were copied and privately circulated among all the great houses of the liberal (and not so liberal) nobility. Some of these had their own private theaters where the writ of the police could not run. It was the threat that these private performances might go ahead and, what was even more embarrassing, the threat of a premiere sponsored by the Grand Duke Paul in St. Petersburg that produced an informal agreement whereby the play might be performed in Paris on the Queen’s property of the Salle des Menus Plaisirs, used for rehearsals by the Opéra. On June 13, 1783, thousands packed the streets outside the theater defiantly singing “Marlbrouck.” Half an hour before the curtain was due to rise the King sent his chamberlain armed with lettres de cachet to order that the production be abandoned “on pain of His Majesty’s indignation,” which clearly meant a spell in prison. Beaumarchais’ response was Figaro-like in its menace. “Eh bien Messieurs, there may be no performance here, very well, I swear to you that it shall be performed, perhaps in the very choir of Notre-Dame.”

This showdown between citizen and sovereign was, for the moment, inconclusive. Beaumarchais consented to make some emendations – all of which turned out to be wholly inconsequential – and the King relented, making no secret that he expected the play to be a great flop. He was bitterly disappointed. On April 21, 1784, it opened at the new neoclassical Théâtre-Français (now the Odéon). The perceptive young aristocrat Baronne-d’Oberkirch witnessed the fistfights that broke out in the gigantic crowd that had gathered in front of the theater to try to grab the few remaining seats. No radical, she was swept off her feet by the performance, specifically taking to task the critics who thought it succeeded only by playing to the gallery in the crudest way. She wrote in her memoirs in 1789 that, on the contrary,

The Marriage of Figaro is perhaps the cleverest thing that has ever been written excepting perhaps the works of M. Voltaire. It is dazzling, a true piece of fireworks. The rules of art are overturned from one end to the other and this is why in four hours of performance there is not one moment of boredom.

But she also had the acumen to notice a peculiar obtuseness on the part of aristocrats in the audience who guffawed when Figaro turned his wrath on Count Almaviva:

Because you are a grand seigneur you think yourself a great genius… nobility, wealth, rank, offices! all this makes you so high and mighty! What have you done to have so much? You’ve hardly given yourself the trouble to be born and that’s about it: for the rest you’re an ordinary person while I, damn it, lost in the anonymous crowd, have had to use all my science and craft just to survive.

Joining the bursts of applause that invariably greeted the speech, Baronne-d’Oberkirch observed, the grands seigneurs in the audience “smacked themselves across their own cheeks [ils se sont donnés un soufflet sur leur propre joue]; they laughed at their own expense and what is even worse they made others laugh too… strange blindness!”

There are signs, though, that the “bravos” and “bis” died on the lips of the nobility as they began to grasp the significance of a polemic that was directed not at the monarchy or ministers but at themselves. Once Figaro had been taken out of the Théâtre-Français run in January 1785, they began to orchestrate a campaign of counterattack. First the Arch-bishop of Paris denounced the atrocity from the pulpit; then the writer Suard, posing as a priest, followed him with a stinging and sarcastic criticism. Responding in theJournal de Paris, Beaumarchais used withering scorn. After fighting off the onslaught of “lions and tigers,” he said, he was not going to demean himself by continuing to reply to little parasites, for that would put him in the position of “Dutch housemaids who have to beat the mattress each morning to shake out the filthy little bed-bugs.”

On March 6 the article was brought to the King’s attention and, presumably still smarting from his wishes being thwarted, he took the reference to wild (rather than verminous) creatures as a personal attack. It was enough to put Beaumarchais in prison. And Louis, full of silly pique, decided that the most crushing reproof he could give to an ironist would be comic humiliation. That evening, while at the card table, he scribbled on the back of the seven of spades that Beaumarchais should be confined not in the Bastille (the usual detention for insubordinate writers) but in Saint-Lazare, the correction center for delinquent boys. In the short term, this facetious humiliation took the wind out of Beau-marchais’ sails. Refusing to emerge from the prison, knowing he was the butt of jokes, he never quite regained the breezy confidence which had sustained him through many misfortunes. In the very last years of the old regime he himself became the whipping boy of radicals and reactionaries alike.

His stay in Saint-Lazare may have turned Beaumarchais permanently from the offensive to the defensive, but it did not do the same for Figaro. The play continued to be overwhelmingly the most popular and durable success of the Paris “legitimate” theater. Beaumarchais had many enemies who rejoiced at his comeuppance and who believed that his self-appointment as the champion of liberty was hypocritical posturing. But he also had many friends in the “anonymous crowd” listening attentively to Figaro’s self-description as an “honest man” obliged to cringe and grovel at the feet of a disdainful aristocracy and whose talent and wit chafed at the arbitrary barriers of rank. For if it is a myth that among the revolutionary clubs and crowds there were legions of Figaros impatient to inflict revenge on their Almavivas, it is a reality that former playwrights, pamphleteers, actors and theater managers were among the most enthusiastic devotees of the guillotine.

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