Theatre and Drama in Paris and London, c.1790 to c.1820: Fascination, Envy and Jealousy


Professor Diego Saglia, Dean of the Department of Humanities, Social Studies and Cultural Industries, University of Parma, Italy 


15 October 2018



This outstanding and well-attended talk was an important feature of the BRLSI ‘Cities’ series, running from autumn 2018 to autumn 2019. It concerned the cultural relations and rivalries between Britain and France, mainly between London and Paris, in the 1790s and again in the later Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic period. Professor Saglia drew attention to the Holburne Museum exhibition, Bath, running for the autumn of 2018 to late January 2019.


He began by quoting the London Theatrical Inquisitorof February 1816, resenting the fact that the two main theatrical centres in London were staging, simultaneously, versions of Rossini’s La GazzaLadra(The Thieving Magpie, after a comedy La Pie Voleuse, 1815) in translation. The reviewer regarded this as ‘French trash’. Why give preference to this over Shakespeare, Fletcher or Massinger, is asked, angrily.  In fact, drama had been coming from France to London uninterruptedly since the 1780s. Thomas Holcroft, a radical, and a Francophile, wrote in The European Magazinein 1792 (at the height of the Revolution in France) and had gone to Paris in 1784 to see a performance of Beaumarchais’ play Le Mariage der Figaro(Figaro’s Wedding) . As copies were not available, Holcroft had memorised it!  He soon produced it at Covent Garden, and it was a runaway success. It reinforced Paris as the centre of theatrical novelty and experimentation. London at this stage was seen as an importer of material from Paris. German theatre, in the lofty form of the plays of Goethe and Schiller, also came to London, but in the form of English versions of French translations, as few specialists were around available to translate directly from German to English. 


The more popular plays of the German playwright August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), such as Das Kind der Liebe(Lovers’ Vows, 1798) translated immediately by Elizabeth Inchbold, reached London in that same year, and ran for 42 performances, a spectacular success. It was given at the theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and also in Bristol, Bath and Newcastle. The theme here was a son born out of wedlock, and thus, like other similar plays, was about moral ambiguity, and the woman as victim. Near the beginning of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen observes that ‘the business of finding a play that would suit everybody, proved to be no trifle.’ (Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vowswould be given later at Sir Thomas Bertram’s home, Mansfield Park.)

In 1802, Thomas Holcroft translated a play by RG de Pixérecourt, Coelina, ou l’enfant du mystère(1800) as A Tale of Mystery. This, a Parisian hit, was a melodrama with a musical accompaniment. It came to London, picked up by Covent Garden, and was a typical example of a genre soon to become very popular in the nineteenth century.  As a term, melodrama (French melo-drame) took some time to establish itself. Many regarded them as foreign ‘dumbing-down’, and superficial, not intellectually demanding, having nothing to do with the great British theatrical tradition. 


Opera in London, however, had great prestige, for example at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The form was ‘foreign’, essentially Italian in origin, and the patronage was aristocratic. It pandered to a privileged elite, and appealed  (some said) to a class that was at least slightly unpatriotic. There was resentment that homegrown opera was not given at the King’s Theatre. The TheatricalInquisitorof September 1812 speaks of ‘ the disgusting appendages of French dancers and Italian singers.’ In Paris, there were four big theatres for great repertoire, and four lower-class theatres, lasting until 1814 (Napoleon’s downfall).


William Hazlitt, writing in Notes on a Journey through France and Italy(1820) admired the fact that ‘the French have a national theatre and a national literature, which we have not’.  Hazlitt said that the stage is ‘the Throne of the French character, where it is mounted on its pedestal, and seen to every advantage.’ He accused the British of not caring enough about this national tradition, pointing to the threatened closure of Covent Garden in 1829. ‘This couldn’t happen in Paris. They order things better in France’, he declared. TheTheatrical Observer(July 1820) noted that ‘there is no half-price taken at any of the Paris theatres.’ The Scourge(February 1816) said that in the last year (1815-16) there had been 137 new pieces in ten theatres, on the Paris stage. 


In the Boulevard du Temple (known in a painting of 1862 by AM Patemont, in the Musée Carnavalet, as the Boulevard du Crime) many theatres produced minor entertainments, involving clowns, acrobats, dogs, and so on, rather then real stage pieces. Madame Saqui (Marguerite Lalanne) was a favourite in Paris. She was a French sensation, who started to perform her acrobatic feats in London. Everyone wanted to see her. London was the ‘city of wonders’, according to the Literary Chronicleof 12 October 1822. Le Vampyre, by Charles Nodier and others, was given at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre, Boulevard Saint-Martin, in 1822, and was so successful that it went back to Britain, where JR Planche’s The Vampirewas given at the English Opera House in London in 1820.Thomas Potter Cooke played Lord Ruthven - the first vampire - a tall, impressive figure on the stage, and ensured the success of this drama. Cooke dressed in blue or green to emphasise his monstrosity, so that these became fashionable colours with the fine ladies. Cooke went to Paris in 1826 as Frankenstein’s Creature: this was a mish-mash, not really based on Mary Shelley’s novel.


Finally, there was Shakespeare. The two leading Shakespearean actors of the day were John Philip Kemble in London and Francois Talam in Paris, the latter the greatest tragic actor of the Napoleonic period. Kemble paved the way for Edmund Kean and JW MacReady. In Paris, Talma played Hamlet, ‘the thing itself’, as Henry Matthews described him in Diary of an Invalid(1820), comparing Talma with Kemble’s Coriolanus, Siddons’ Queen Catherine, and Kean’s Othello. In June 1817, William Hazlitt was in ecstasies over Talma’s acting, calling it ‘greater than we can possibly describe.’  Shakespeare was given in English in Paris by the Penley Troupe in July 1822, at Porte Saint-Martin. It probably was not very well done, as it received a more muted reception from Stendhal (Henri Beyle, 1783-1842, an anglophile) in Racine et Shakespeare (1823). Stendhal accused the audience of booing Shakespeare simply because he was English. He also said that new French tragedy would do well to imitate Shakespeare, showing how the educated French view of Shakespeare had changed since the eighteenth century.

Then in 1830 came Victor Hugo’s Hernani, turned into an opera later by Verdi, and the real arrival of Romantic theatre.  In the period Diego covered in this talk, 1790 to 1820, there was a mutual theatrical fascination, a two-way traffic.  There was jealousy on the British side, and envy, with competition, influence and exchanges - a lively and creative panorama. Victorian London had a French language theatre, and censorship was extremely active in both Britain and France, lasting from 1737 until its final abolition in 1968. The obstacles set up by the automatic theatrical censorship were circumvented when audiences became accustomed to picking up clever allusions, despite specific references to certain subjects being banned, such as the Royal Family. 


© 2018   Robert Blackburn