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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 421-439
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Susannah at her Bath: Surveillance and Revolutionary Drama
In January 1793, a scant seven days after the execution of Louis XVI, the fédérés--the volunteer soldiers brought to the capital from all corners of France to protect the National Convention in the event of a counterrevolutionary attack--rebelled. They menaced citizens, destroyed property, presented petitions, and swore solemn oaths. Was this fédéré violence the product of some rekindled monarchism? Far from it. The events that stirred the soldiers were theatrical, not political: their wrath was aroused by what would seem the unlikeliest of objects--a Vaudeville production of the biblical story of Susannah and the elders called La Chaste Suzanne. 1 This is not the only case in which the fédérés, who had been active in and around Paris since the Fête de la Fédération in the summer of 1790, took the lead in the tumultuous events that occurred regularly in Parisian theaters from the very beginning of the Revolution. It is, however, to my knowledge, the only case in which a riot was provoked by a sacred drama--or, what we should perhaps call a play based on a biblical theme, since we are considering a Vaudeville production. 2 One of the Vaudeville actors, Delpeche, brought this complaint to the Commune: "For several days some people had been threatening to interrupt the performance of La Chaste Suzanne. . . . They began by forcing their way in without paying . . . some of them came down to the orchestra from the loges and vehemently insulted the public, the authors, the actors, and the play. The police commissaire from the Tuileries section explained to them that they must observe the proprieties. . . . One of them responded that they hadn't come to obstruct the performance but to oppose indecent allusions." 3 Delpeche came to plead for the Commune's protection, explaining that the fédérés' hostility to La Chaste Suzanne and to the theater company that performed it seemed implacable: [End Page 421] "After the play some of these people climbed up on the stage looking for those with whom they were angry. They left vowing to turn the theater into a hospital. Are we about to see the bloody scenes of the second and third of September all over again?" 4 But Delpeche, apparently no astute politician, had miscalculated. The histrionic references to the gruesome prison massacres of the previous September struck no responsive chord. Moreover, a newspaper reporting the event denounced Delpeche, claiming that having failed to satisfy his need for applause on the stage, the actor sought it at the Commune. 5 Rather than finding a sympathetic audience for his tale, Delpeche faced Jacques-René Hébert, the deputy procureur of the Commune and ally of the fédérés, who joined the soldiers in demanding the suppression of the play on the vague but, I will argue, crucial grounds that "it corrupt [ed] republican morals." 6
When the Vaudeville Theater directors capitulated and withdrew the play, the troubles came to an end in a manner less spectacular than that Delpeche had foreseen. The triumphant fédérés sent word to the newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris of their renewed oath to be faithful to their post, to defend liberty, equality, and the Republic, and to die rather than allow the rebirth of tyranny. And to that oath they added: "The actors and directors of the Théâtre du Vaudeville have acquiesced upon being invited to suspend the performance of La Chaste Suzanne because of the troubles it might provoke. We beg you, Citizen journalist, likewise, to insert this notice." 7 Why should La Chaste Suzanne have occasioned a crisis? Why should such a trivial object have aroused such deep and violent fury, especially at a time when events of the gravest nature were taking place? Marvin Carlson has argued that the Vaudeville play provoked anger because a line in the play seemed to allude critically to the...