Napoleon’s battle for Parisian hearts largely took place on stage

Napoleon’s Return from Elba: dramatic enough.

When Napoleon escaped from exile and returned to Paris on March 20 1815, his return prompted the popular theatre of the Porte Saint-Martin to place a temporary stage outside, complete with busts of Napoleon and his wife. Why? So that one of the actors could sing a cantata celebrating the return of their hero as he passed on his way to the Tuileries palace.

Another theatre, on the other hand, reacted by cancelling the scheduled performances for that evening and the next. The Comédie Française blamed the extreme tiredness of their actors but no-one would have been fooled by that explanation. The company had been deeply politically divided during the Revolutionary decade and Napoleon’s return revealed that those wounds had still not entirely healed.

These two incidents show how political divisions were re-enacted on the Parisian stage at the time and how regime change intimately affected daily life.

Waterloo fever

In the UK, the overwhelming focus of this bicentennial year is on the Battle of Waterloo. But concentrating on the battlefield overemphasises the notion of unified opposing forces of Napoleon and Wellington. In fact, popular opinion shows that France was split in the spring of 1815. Napoleon by no means had the full support of the country. And so stage and song became the focus of a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the French.

The deserted Comédie Française on March 20 would have been in marked contrast to the café Montansier around the corner. Housed in a former theatre, by mid-March it had become the place to gather to sing pro-Napoleonic songs. Those who assembled there tried to outdo each other in inventiveness, devising song after song on the emperor’s return.

For Helen Maria Williams, a British writer living in Paris as the events of the One Hundred Days unfolded, Paris became a city where political differences were played out in song – where, indeed, opposition to Napoleon’s return could only be expressed in that form. The Bonapartists sang about violets, a symbol of the spring and of the returning emperor. The royalists responded by singing about pairs of gloves, a play on words in French: the phrase “pair de gants” sounds the same as “père de Gand”, literally “father of Ghent”, referring to Louis XVIII and his place of exile. Whether for or against Napoleon, the songs that filled Paris in the spring of 1815 relied upon popular tunes: folk songs, Revolutionary music, and hits drawn from successful stage plays.

A dramatic battle

With Napoleon back in power, theatres changed their repertoire to fit. When the Comédie Française reopened after a two-day closure, few attended its rather conservative performances of Molière. But previous hits from the Empire period took over a few days later, including Raynouard’s 1805 tragedy Les Templiers (The Templars), and a 1791 play about a returning hero who had been exiled from his country, Marius à Minturnes by Antoine-Vincent Arnoult. And audiences flocked to these.

The latter was particularly enthusiastically received because of the analogies with current affairs. Popular theatres were awash with plays about returning soldiers too. Such analogies were also staged at the Opera House, which revived its production of Le Triomphe de Trajan (1807), a grand opera of the most spectacular kind (432 costumes and 13 horses on stage) and thinly disguised propaganda. Written by one of the state censors, Esmenard, with music mostly by one of Napoleon’s favourite composers, Lesueur, it included music for the emperor’s coronation in 1804, making the parallel between the emperors yet more explicit.

A Trojan hero

Although Napoleon had little time for theatre during his few weeks back in power, he did attend a performance of Hector, a five-act tragedy by Luce de Lancival based on the Trojan War. Although it was first performed in 1809, those in the audience in April 1815 were well aware of the parallels between the main character and Napoleon.

The convergence was perhaps closer than many in the audience realised. In 1814, in a letter to his brother Joseph, Napoleon had likened his son and heir to Astyanax, Hector’s son, and so by implication, had made explicit the link between himself and Hector. And he chose this of all plays to attend during the One Hundred Days – perhaps Napoleon continued to fear Hector’s fate for himself and went to Waterloo expecting to lose.

After the defeat at Waterloo, the Parisian theatres responded to the allies’ siege of Paris by closing their doors. And when they reopened, their choice of repertoire was unequivocally in support of Louis XVIII. The Opéra-Comique, for instance, chose to reopen with Sedaine and Grétry’s 1784 Richard Cœur de Lion whose aria “O Richard o mon roi” had been a rallying cry for royalists since the Revolution.

And with the emperor now gone for good, playwrights set to work making him a theatrical character in his own right. Martainville’s armchair play Buonaparte ou l’abus de l’abdication (Bonaparte or the abuse of abdication), published in September 1815, delighted in its satirical representation of a callous and bloodthirsty yet cowardly Corsican villain.

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