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  • Dramatic Justice: Trial By Theatre In The Age Of The French Revolution by Yann Robert
  • Annelle Curulla
DRAMATIC JUSTICE: TRIAL BY THEATRE IN THE AGE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. By Yann Robert. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018; pp. 344.

In the fateful winter of 1793, the National Convention paused their unprecedented trial of Louis XVI in order to halt performances of a popular play, L’Ami des lois. As Yann Robert argues in his fascinating new book, this is no mere irony of history but rather the culminating moment of a much longer process. Dramatic Justice charts “the growing (con)fusion between theater and justice” from the mid-eighteenth century through to the early days of the Directory (3). The past decade of work on eighteenth-century theatre and drama has amply accounted for a range of innovations and reforms of its material and economic practices, as well as in the literary, philosophical, and cultural dimensions of theatre. Robert fruitfully extends this interdisciplinary inquiry into the legal realm, which witnessed a “parallel evolution” to that of theatre (19). Robert argues that the courtroom, like the stage, offered a prime site for reform and experimentation, but it also triggered antitheatrical anxieties as new forms of legal representation emerged. By carefully positioning itself between theatre studies, legal studies, and French Revolutionary historical studies, Robert’s study raises important questions about who makes and enforces law, how disputes are exposed and adjudicated, and how offenses can be punished or redressed.

Part 1 introduces the concept of “judicial theatre,” which Robert defines as “public spectacles that re-enact contemporary events on stage so as to expose, judge, and punish a transgression” (3). Chapter 1 focuses on reenactment as a central characteristic of judicial theatre. Through a brilliant analysis of Denis Diderot’s drama Le Fils naturel, and its accompanying treatise Entretiens sur le Fils naturel, Robert exposes two competing theories of reenactment in Diderot’s texts. In the first, represented by the paternal character Lysimond, reenactment functions as a historical reconstruction that enshrines one authoritative perspective—the Father’s—ad infinitum. In the second theory, represented by the “natural son” Dorval, reenactment is a collective effort of equals who debate and revise the narrative of events. Robert suggests these two theories of reenactment are also reflected in judicial theatre after 1750. Chapter 2 considers satire as a variety of judicial theatre, since it uses the stage as an alternate site for justice. According to Robert, the eighteenth-century debate over satire reveals that there was little consensus over the legitimacy of its denunciations, judgments, and punishments. Writers from Palissot to Rousseau interpretated satire’s civic powers with enthusiasm or dread, revealing, as [End Page 581] Robert suggests, the ways in which judicial theatre raised crucial questions over who may judge and whether communities may participate in judgment.

Part 2 pivots from stage to courtroom to examine how and why theatrical thinking shaped efforts to reform the ancien régime’s justice system. Chapter 3 examines jurisprudence, pamphlets, and other sources to show how new modes of legal practice amounted to a theatricalization of justice. In the push to incorporate new procedures for criminal trials, reformers moved away from inquisitional modes in which judges wrote a single, reconstructive narrative and towards accusatorial modes of procedure, which required lawyers to present two dueling narratives before a judge. According to Robert, this practice gave rise to a growing ambivalence towards the legal profession, even as reformers encouraged lawyers speaking “as” clients to take cues from professional actors.

Chapter 4 continues to explore antitheatrical concerns with respect to judges. No longer embodiments of royal authority, judges resembled spectators who weighed lawyers’ contrasting arguments using reason and emotion. Robert connects fears of judges’ diminished authority to an even deeper fear of “theatrocracy,” Plato’s term for a state ruled by the whims of the crowd-as-audience. According to Robert, the influence of those who expressed such antitheatrical anxieties explains in part why the French system still includes a mix of accusatory and inquisitional modes, with the latter acting as prophylactic against the former.

Chapter 5 connects antitheatrical thinking to patriarchy. Robert shows how the legal...


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pp. 581-582
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