Lissette Lopez Szwydky
Penn State University
Matthew S. Buckley’s Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama is “an effort to render explicit, and thus pull into the active present, modern drama’s connection—it’s ‘secret link’—not only to the drama of the French Revolution but also, and through it, to the dramas of the pre-Revolutionary past” (152). The author uncovers the modern drama’s “secret link” to the past through an interdisciplinary analysis of the politics of the French Revolution as played out both in the streets and on the stages of Paris, as well as London. Although the title of the book suggests an historical approach to developments in the drama from the late-eighteenth century to the early-twentieth century, Buckley instead offers a history of the dramatic character of the French Revolution, its relationship to the dramas staged in the decades immediately before and after, its influence on English political and literary authors, and finally “the Revolution’s relationship to the formal development of modern drama between 1780 and 1840″ (1). The aims of the book are many, but in its multi-national (France, England, and Germany) coverage of the theatricality of politics during this period, its focus is fixed on the permanent effects of the French Revolution on European cultural production.
Buckley begins on the streets of Paris, giving us a tour of the city in the two decades leading up to the storming of the Bastille. He explains that unlike London, whose urban development was determined primarily by commerce, Paris “was a royal city, governed directly by the monarchy’s centralized administration” (11). What follows is Foucauldian analysis of the city’s landscape, one that was organized in order to maximize the surveillance of citizens through lighting, police, and informants. The reading is central to Buckley’s understanding of the Revolution (and other acts of mass rebellion) as performance. In several incidents of pre-Revolutionary public disobedience and crimes committed in plain view, Buckley sees the beginnings of what he calls “Revolutionary theatricality.” He elaborates:
Rather than simply imagining the monarchy’s loss of power, these acts staged that loss, asserting in the most visceral manner both the hollowness of absolutism’s monumental vision of society and the local, contestatory failure of its authority over public action, demonstrating—in a highly theatrical performance—the manner in which its symbolic and political regime could be blinded, stripped of its sight and thus of its rule. (23)
Mob violence and public demonstrations in Paris before the Revolution proved that the crowd was an effective way to overturn sovereign surveillance. The theatricality of these events was, according to the author, fundamental in determining the tone of revolutionary performances both on and off the stage in the years that followed.
The second chapter moves us from the streets of Paris into the city’s theaters and back to the streets again. The main argument here is that the genres staged during the Revolutionary period coincided with the general tone of the Revolution, while at the same time politics became more theatrical. Buckley provides interesting insight into the theatricality of politics in Paris during the Revolution, specifically the way speeches made by representatives of the National Assembly “began consciously to adopt the ways of the theater” by playing to the galleries. Speakers made transcripts of their speeches available, and even took lessons with professional actors in order to hone the effectiveness of their oral delivery and physical gestures (50). This portion of the argument is fascinating, and could be developed on its own. However, the chapter focuses more on the dramatic tone of the Revolution, linking it to traditional dramatic genres. For example, Buckley argues that during the “reconciliation” period between October 1789 and the summer of 1791, the dominant genre (both on stage and in public discourse) was comedy, as “reconciliation was the overwhelming impulse of the day” (52). The rise and fall of Robespierre, on the other hand, is characterized by tragedy. After the dust settles, melodrama is born in order to suppress a Revolutionary history that had run its course after the Terror. Buckley goes back and forth between the unfolding of history as drama and the plays staged in the Paris theaters, arguing for a dialectical understanding of the theatricality of the Revolution itself and the theater of the Revolutionary period. The argument is conceptually interesting, but the materialist analysis articulated in the previous chapter is missing here. It returns to some degree in the next two chapters, as non-fiction prose and periodicals are read for their theatrical representations of the French Revolution.