I was introduced to the French Revolution at about 10 years old. I remember well our basement rec room on W. Courtland Avenue in Brookfield, Wisconsin, where our Sears Silvertone portable record player stood ready to aurally entertain. The album cover depicted the head of a funny-looking guy with black framed glasses smiling at me amidst an ocean of nuts. Indeed, the record was called My Son The Nut, featuring song parodies by comedian Allan Sherman. He sang about automation to the tune of “Fascination.” He told his catchy summer camp story, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (here I am at Camp Granada…). And he summarized the monarchy’s part in the French Revolution with his bluesy, Peter Gunn bass line shuffle, “You Went The Wrong Way Ol’ King Louie.” More than 50 years later I can still hear that indelible line, cheerfully anticipating the French monarchy’s impending demise, “We’re gonna take you and the Queen, down to the guillotine, and shorten you a little bit.”
Then, a few years later, I’m sure we touched upon La Révolution at some point in world history. And during Madame Bertazinni’s French II class, I recall attempting to plow through Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables, in the original French! Honestly, once Jean Valjean was arrested with the kindly priest’s silver chandeliers (candlesticks) in his possession, my recollection falls apart. Or was that my French grammar?
OK, so now with Gunderson’s THE REVOLUTIONISTS coming to our stage, it’s time to catch up – it’s the theatre’s way of insuring that I finish my formal education.
As with any significant political and cultural happening, its causes are complex and many; the characters and events numerous and entwined. However, one thing seems common to most revolts of the people: those people have had enough. Or perhaps, in France’s case: had not enough.
Life conditions for the common people – peasants, feudal system farmers, laborers – were pretty tough in the years before the first revolt, July 14, 1789 (the real storming of the Bastille). There was much bad weather and then, poor harvests. Like other European powers, France was draining a lot of treasure to establish and secure colonies in far-flung places like Haiti, for instance. And she had recently helped out a fledgling country with a revolutionary war of its own, starting in 1776. (Any chance to poke the British in the eye was always of interest.) There was a tax system, but ineffective, and a heavier burden fell upon the poor; somehow, the well-off nobility could get around the laws and the clergy were exempt.
On the cultural side, Europe was at the zenith of its Age of Enlightenment, when science, reason and philosophy became more widespread and began to encourage questioning of the status quo, in particular, the power of the Roman Catholic Church and the rights of nobility and monarchy.
From his massive and beautiful country palace at Versailles, King Louis XVI was aware of the tough times. In fact, in 1789 he made attempts to re-tune the tax system to spread the burden more fairly, but was voted down by 2 of the 3 Estates. The nobility(1), the clergy(2) and the common people(3) formed France’s representative body, with one vote per Estate. The common people pushed for one man-one vote, but the other guys were in the numerical minority, and didn’t want to lose their grip on power, so, no go. Well, the commoners – sensing there was strength in numbers – began meeting amongst themselves and the talk was of democracy and fair taxation — certainly threatening to any reigning king. Louis tried to stop the meetings, but as they went on, even some higher ups began to sympathize with the new ideas. Eventually the King sent in the army and the people pushed back to defend themselves. They needed weapons and ammunition, and the Bastille was a great big storehouse of such things. In they went on July 14th.
Now, from here, there are loads of events that I’ve been assured won’t be on the test. We’ll touch on the highlights.
Political representatives set out to write a French constitution – the Declaration of Rights of Men and Citizens – certainly inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s American efforts. Large assemblies of women began to appear, protesting the continued hard economic conditions and bread shortages, and also to remind their ad hoc leaders that women and slaves might just need rights too. In general, the anti-nobility and anti-monarchy feelings kept growing – there were peasant revolts against feudal landlords, and the people even came to Versailles, demanding that the King and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, move to Paris, where they could be better-controlled.
The new French government kicked out the Roman Catholic Church and took all the land, which did not please the Holy Roman Empire to the east. It looked as if the choice was leaning toward constitutional monarchy like they had in Britain, but the King and Queen grew doubtful of their future and beat feet toward Austria, under disguise. But being famous with faces on coins and such, they were recognized near the Austrian border and brought back to Paris.
All this chaos and class-leveling was weakening army discipline and effectiveness, and other countries began to attack on Louis XVI’s behalf (they still believed in monarchies). This exacerbated conditions at home, the army revolted and arrested the King, and the Jacobins party, lead by Maximilen Robespierre, gained power. The King was tried for treason —conspiring with enemies of France — and executed on January 21, 1793. Marie Antoinette was to follow her husband’s fate nine months later, on October 16th.
Jacobins remedies to problems became more reactionary and brutal, carried out under the auspices of the Committee of Public Safety. What followed has become known as The Reign of Terror, during which the paranoia over counterrevolution or support for monarchy resulted in nearly 16,000 trials leading to executions; thousands more perished without such legal formalities. Eventually, in 1794, actual counter-revolutionaries arose, and pushed Robespierre out and into the arms of that same terrorizing guillotine he had used to secure his ideal republic of the people.
The final chapter tells of continuing wars and the rise of a short but brilliant French army general who was successfully fighting off France’s challengers, known as the First Coalition. Europe tried again with its Second Coalition, but our man Napoléan again beat them away with his big, Bonaparte stick. He then overthrew France’s government, The Directorate, and established his own, naming himself First Consul in the bargain. Although the title signifies the highest elected office holder in the land, it seems that Napoléan was thinking more in terms of empire. After all, that was to be the going political trend in the new century.
All that work to kick out the one guy with all the power just to get another guy with all the power. History is pretty crazy sometimes.