Was a memorial  for a playwright the seed of the French Revolution over 100 years later?

Sandra Gulland on 17th-century French theater, and a moving people's protest against authority.

Five years ago I went to Paris to research the life of Mademoiselle Claude des Oeillets. It was going to be a challenge, I knew. Claude--or Claudette, as I think of her--was a two-bit-player-turned-lady's maid, and she had lived over 250 years ago. As it is, there is often little in the historical records about the serving classes.

My husband and I rented an apartment in the Marais, not far from where Claude and her family lived, and close to the theater where her drama-queen mother performed ... or so I thought, for I could not find the location of the former theater.

I wrote about my frustration on my blog, and soon after I got an email from someone I didn't know in Australia. He asked, simply, "May I help?"

Yes, indeed he could! Dr. John Golder is a scholar of 17th century French theater. He directed me to the exact location of the former theater (now a playground) and through email correspondence, answered my many picky questions. Here are two examples:

  • In 1662, Lent began on Feb. 22, yet several sources say that Corneille's Sertorius opened at the Marais on Feb. 24. I thought theatres closed during Lent.
  • A quick question re. the Prompter ("Book-Holder"?): did he sit on the stage? If not, where?

The poor man!

What ensued, for me, was what amounted to a master class on this fascinating subject. I spent the following year immersed in the long list of excellent books and articles John recommended.

French theatre was in a renaissance in the 17th century--a rebirth largely brought about by the work of the playwright Pierre Corneille, a timid young lawyer from Rouen. The plays Corneille wrote were full of action, the characters he created super-heroic. He offered Hollywood-scale entertainment, expressed in sentences (forgive me) "to swoon for."

Theater in Paris became hugely popular--think Oscar night! Even respectable women went, even men of the Church ... which was surprising, because the Catholic Church at that time was opposed to anything to do with theater--automatically excommunicating actors who were only allowed a church burial if they signed a document vowing that they had forsaken life on the stage and would never, ever return.

The most serious offence to Church sensibilities, it turned out, was humor, especially the work of the playwright Molière, declared "a demon in human flesh." The Archbishop of Paris threatened to excommunicate anyone associated with his play Tartuffe, even those in the audience. The play was banned, in spite of the open support of King Louis XIV, the "Sun King", for Molière and his work (which gives you some idea of who had the most power).

On February 17, 1673, Molière, second only to Shakespeare in theatrical history, died shortly after a performance. (Ironically, he had been playing the part of a hypochondriac who was convinced he was dying.) The Church, of course, refused to bury him. The King intervened, and finally the Church reluctantly consented to allow the great playwright to be buried, but at night with no ceremony, in a cemetery reserved for felons.

People were furious! They were crazy about Molière and his plays. That night, they lined the streets holding candles, paying silent respect as his coffin went by. They were expressing devotion, but they were also there in protest. Molière, they felt, deserved better.

These scores of silent men and women stood in disobedient protest against the authority of the Church. Might this have been one of the first protests against authority that led to the French Revolution over one hundred years later? I have a hunch that it might be so.

How interesting, too, that a descendant of the gentle playwright Corneille, a young woman named Charlotte Corday, was to murder one of the leaders of the Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat.

In researching history, one finds threads of connections everywhere, spanning centuries.

For the books I most highly recommend on 17th century French theater and the endlessly fascinating era of the Sun King, see these pages on my website: The Court of the Sun King and Baroque Theater Resources.

Sandra Gulland is the author of the Josephine B. Trilogy, internationally best-selling novels about Josephine Bonaparte which have been published in over seventeen countries. Her fourth novel, Mistress of the Sun (also published internationally) and her new novel, The Shadow Queen, are set in the 17th-century French Court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

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