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Chapter Three Napoleon Takes the Stage 0 n August 3r, r83o, the Cirque-Olympique theater raised the curtain on a new play, La prise de Ia Bastille et le passage du Mont Saint-Bernard, in which the figure of Napoleon made a silent entrance late in the second act to inspire his troops across an icy Alpine pass. Banished from the French stage throughout the Restoration by government censors afraid of reviving popular support for the Empire, Napoleon aroused enthusiasm that night not only in the soldiers on stage, but also in the audience. "La prise de Ia Bastille et le passage du Mont Saint-Bernard garnered the applause of an astonished and amazed public," gushed Le Corsaire in its review of the spectacle. "The periods crowd together. We see everything. We witness everything. This is history in action."' Thrilled by this brief glimpse of the "man of destiny," just a month after the July Revolution had toppled the Bourbon monarchy once again, and this time for good, spectators in August of r83o could little have imagined the number of Napoleons waiting in the wings, ready to reenact the Empire's rise and fall on a nightly basis in theaters all across France. Taking advantage of the relaxation of governmental control over theatrical subject matter following the Revolution of r83o, nearly every theater in Paris put Napoleon on stage in the course of the next year (see Appendix ).2 As Le Corsaire accurately predicted on October ro, r83o, "It's going to rain [ ... ] Napoleon Bonapartes." Indeed, that paper's daily listr . "Butin," Le Corsaire, September 2, 1830, 3· 2. A notable exception is the Comedie Fran\aise, which resisted Napoleon, but not, as I will show, the spectacular mode of historical representation. ro8 The Spectacular Past ing of spectacles for January r, r83r, reads like a biography of the emperor : josephine, ou le retour de Wagram at the Opera-Comique, Napoleon , ou Schoenbrunn et Sainte-Helime at the Porte Saint-Martin, L'empereur at the Cirque-Olympique, Napoleon aBerlin at the Montparnasse, Napoleon at the Theatre d'Eleves, Quatorze ans de Ia vie de Napoleon at the Luxembourg, and Le fils de l'homme (a play about Napoleon's son) at the Nouveautes. By the end of r83r, no fewer than twenty-nine new plays about Napoleon and the Empire had opened in France. By r848, that number rose to over one hundred and twenty.3 This chapter shows how yet another genre of historical representationand the most prominent and public one in the nineteenth century, the theater -turned the past into a spectacle. As in the panorama, or the illustrated histories of the r83os and r84os, the plays about Napoleon offered a radically heightened form of visual realism in their historical representation . Like the panorama-and indeed, variations on the panorama were used in certain productions by innovative set designers-these plays simulated the appearance of the past with a remarkable attention to detail.4 Like the wax display, they re-created the materiality of the past, the textures of costume and prop, with a fidelity that stunned observers at the time. In the Napoleon plays, both the visual and commercial aspects of the historical spectacle reached a frenzied height, provoking the delight of viewers but also the wrath of critics, whose analyses of the dangers of these productions provide a vital framework for elaborating a nineteenthcentury critique of the spectacular past. Along with tracing the ways in which the Napoleon plays marked a significant change in the way the French theater represented the past, this chapter analyzes the phenomenon to explore certain general features of 3· In Napoleon et /'Empire racontes par le theatre, 1797-r899 (Paris: Jules Raux, r9oo), Louis-Henry Lecomte provides a short description of every play about Napoleon produced during the nineteenth century in France, including many that were never published. Martin Meisel describes nineteenth-century English plays about Napoleon and relates them to their French counterparts in Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in NineteenthCentury England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 2or-28. More recently, Angela C. Pao, in The Orient of the Boulevards: Exoticism, Empire, and Nineteenth-Century French Theater (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), discusses plays about Napoleon set in Egypt (u7-23). 4· One of several plays to celebrate the return of Napoleon's remains to France in r84o, Le dernier voeu de l'empereur, by Ferdinand Laloue and Fabrice Labrousse, incorporated a moving panorama into the stage decor...


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