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Matthew S. Buckley, Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama

Monday, January 19, 2009 - 04:23
Matthew S. Buckley, Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. x + 191pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 0-8018-8434-9).

Reviewed by
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.

Chapter three crosses the Channel, taking the theatrical tone of English politics and political writings as its main subject. Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft figure prominently for the theatrical rhetoric that informs their depictions of the Revolution, its foundational principles, and the violent acts committed in its name. Paine's famous attack on Burke for his supposed inability to "recollect that he is writing History, and not Plays" is contextualized by a convincing analysis of the overall theatrical tone of British politics during the early 1790s. Buckley is at his best here, demonstrating that Burke's sentimentalized critique of the Revolution was in line with the general theatrical tone that characterized almost all reports of the Revolution, regardless of the political sympathies of their writers. Paine and Wollstonecraft may have scoffed at the theatrical language of Burke's Reflections, but Buckley shows that while Burke was describing the Revolution according to the generic conventions of tragedy, Paine and Wollstonecraft were in many ways equally guilty of theatrical rhetoric, the major difference being that their responses to Burke eschewed tragedy for a new, emerging popular genre—the melodrama.

Additionally, the third chapter continues the book's argument that the theater of the 1790s cannot be disengaged from the theatricality of politics. Buckley finds a productive example of the connection between the theater and politics in Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the famous dramatist, theater owner, and politician known for his dramatic speeches in Parliament. The chapter ends with a look at a series of English plays by Sheridan and others staged between 1789 and 1799, in particular how their representations of the Revolution evolved over the course of the decade as British opinion shifted between the fall of the Bastille and the aftermath of The Terror. As a whole, the chapter draws on various examples to demonstrate how "The Revolution . . . forced British culture to confront new ways of performing politics, and it was through the negotiation of that confrontation . . . that the Revolution changed British drama" (71).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey's collaboration The Fall of Robespierre: A Historic Drama (1794) is the central creative work discussed in the fourth chapter, although the focus of the chapter is actually the "drama" of Robespierre's last days as it unfolded in the London periodicals. The chapter's strength lies in its discussion of the dramatic tone of news reporting and the play's dramatization of the news from France as it was reported in The Times. Buckley's work in this chapter is complemented nicely by a recent Romantic Circles Electronic Edition of the The Fall of Robespierre edited by Daniel E. White (2007), which places excerpts of the play alongside published news items in order to demonstrate the similarities between the play and the reports. Together these two works of scholarship demonstrate a clear discursive link between the popular press and literary production during the 1790s in England, specifically with regard to representations of the French Revolution.

The fifth chapter moves four decades into the future and into a third country. Buckley chooses Georg Büchner's Dantons Tod (1835) as the focus of the final chapter of his book because "Büchner's plays are widely understood to mark the origins of modern drama, and it is to modernism that critics have tended to turn for an interpretive framework in which to situate his work" (120). Instead of simply seeing Büchner as a playwright anticipating the theatrical trends of the early twentieth century, Buckley's task here is to demonstrate Dantons Tod's indebtedness to the past, and does so by focusing on its subject. It is an interesting choice because Büchner's play is an historical curiosity, having been written in 1835, set in 1794, but not performed until 1902. In this sense, Dantons Tod is somewhat of an historical orphan for whom Buckley attempts to provide a home in the cultural history of the French Revolution and its inspirational impact on the modern drama.

Literary scholars and historians of the period will find the first, third, and fourth chapters of the book most helpful for their vivid illustration of the performative nature of the French Revolution as historic event, the relationship between politics and theater during the Revolutionary period, and their overall impact on both print culture and dramatic production. However, although the book sustains an interest in the Revolution as performance and dramatic production in relation to the French Revolution, the study often drifts away from providing a history of theatrical performance during the same period. The early chapters emphasize the performance of politics and how the tone of the Revolution affected the genres staged in Paris theaters, but the later chapters focus more on dramas written but not produced. The Fall of Robespierre and Dantons Tod were not staged in the nineteenth century, and the fact that these are the two plays given the most attention in Tragedy Walks the Streets may surprise some scholars expecting to find a sustained, historical materialist critique like the one provided in the book's first chapter.

The study has many strengths, primarily the breadth of materials brought together in order to illustrate the Revolution's lasting impact on the history of print culture and dramatic production. The dialectical argument laid out in the book is supported by the collection of examples provided including political speeches, political pamphlets, newspapers, and both staged and unstaged dramas from France, England, and Germany. Buckley's book is an important contribution to British literary and cultural studies of the Romantic period, especially as scholarship in the field has become increasingly transnational in scope.