Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hernani: The Play Where the Audience is SUPPOSED to Be More Interesting Than the Actors

The Romantic movement came to France much later than it did to England in Germany, and the backlash was correspondingly more severe. The elements of French culture that proved resistant to Romanticism, i.e. the Academie Francaise, and the wide-spread use and popularity of classical form, also proved extremely reactionary, as could be seen on Feb. 25, 1830, when a young Victor Hugo decided to stage a play.

Victor Hugo, who is pretty much The Romantic of the French Romantic movement, broke with tradition when he wrote Hernani, a play that can be summed up as, "Oops, I am in love with someone who is in love with/engaged to someone else and now I have killed myself for no easily discernable reason." Though the main cast was dead in the end, as happens with most French tragedy, Hugo made the great mistake of using forbidden words such as "handkerchief" and forcing the actors to express grand sweeps of Romantic passion while in period costume. One actress was so appalled by her period costume she refused to go onstage without wearing her contemporary but hideous 1830s hat. Since the Comedie Francaise, i.e. the Maison de Moliere, i.e. the oldest theatre company in Europe, i.e. The Be All and End All of French Drama, was deigning to stage a (gasp) Romantic piece, Hugo was understandably nervous about its reception. He therefore passed out red tickets (normally given to the author of any staged drama, like a courtesy copy of a book) to his friends, who formed a Romantic Army and invaded the Comedie Francaise on the opening night.

To make sure the production would begin on time and sans interference from the classicists, the Romantic Army got to the building at three-o-clock and locked themselves in for the next four hours with provisions and their cosplay get-up (Seriously, Hugo himself describes the Romantic Army as full of "wild whimsical characters, bearded, long-haired, dressed in every fashion except the reigning one, in pea-jackets, Spanish cloaks, in waistcoats a la Robespierre, in Henry III bonnets...and this in the middle of Paris in broad daylight"). Sometime before seven-o-clock, they realized that they had no bathrooms, as they had locked themselves into the auditorium, and just did their business in the boxes of the classicists.

The classicists were understandably pissy (in all senses of the word, thanks to the lack of bathrooms) and began having fistfights in the pit. The actors, already unhappy with having to go Romantic and forsake their 1830s habberdashery, were made further unhappy by the fact that they could not get through a single performance without someone in the audience :
a. challenging someone else to a duel,
b. starting a fistfight,
c. hissing at the stage loud enough to drown out the actors,
d. arguing over classical vs. Romantic forms and politics very, very loudly, or
e. getting up onstage in a red waistcoat and lime green pants before the curtain to sing praises of the Romantic, bohemian lifestyle. (Not like that, though. More the songs of angry men.)

Hernani ran for a hundred full-house performances. The Amateur Historian is willing to bet that the actors of the Comedie Francaise hated every one of them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Congratulations, citizens, today is Day One on the French Republican calendar, one of the most interesting developments to come out of the desire to make order out of a previously arbitrary system of measurement. This desire also created the metric system, which is much more exact than any other system of measurement and which is still in use today.

During the French Revolution, the traditional system of patronage was overthrown and a number of artists (the most famous of which is David) and poets began to take an active role in participating in and shaping their government. One poet, Fabre d'Eglantine, was given the task of renaming French notions of time, or, in particular, days, weeks and the calendar year. Agronomist Charles Gilbert Romme and his team of astronomers, politicians, and mathematicians came up with the Republican calendar (i.e. a ten week day (based off the metric ten), with a ten-hour day, with a 100 decimal minute hour, with a 100 decimal second minute. An hour then becomes twice as long as a conventional hour, a minute becomes slightly longer than a conventional minute, and a second becomes slightly shorter than a conventional second. The More You Know!).

There were twelve months, comprised of three ten-day weeks (décades), with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest and festivity. The five or six extra days left over when one approximates the solar year ended up at the very end of the year as holidays. Leap years became "Franciade" to commemorate how it had taken four years for the French Revolution to establish a republic. The leap year itself was called Sextile, because it contained a sixth complimentary day.

The names of the days of the week are pretty basic (Primidi, Duodi, etc.) but the names of the month are suitably Romantic and poetic, as the months, split up into four groups, rhyme three and three, to demonstrate the sonority of the seasons. The names of the months themselves are taken from nature (i.e. Brumaire is taken from the French 'brume', which means fog; ergo, Brumaire is the month of fog).

The months were:
1 Vendémiaire 7 Germinal
2 Brumaire 8 Floréal
3 Frimaire 9 Prairial
4 Nivôse 10 Messidor
5 Pluviôse 11 Thermidor
6 Ventôse 12 Fructidor

British detractors translated the months as Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wow, that's a doozy of a charge....

In 1793, Mlle Montansier finished building a theatre, the Theatre Nationale on the Rue de Richelieu, facing the Bibliotheque Nationale, dedicated to new plays. Unfortunately for Mlle Montansier, construction finished just as the Terror started and someone accused her of deliberately building her theatre facing the Bibliotheque Nationale so that she could better blow up the Bibliotheque Nationale.

She was released from prison two years later.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Les Egots de Paris

The Parisian sewers are, in their way, one of the enduring legacies of Napoleon III, who is Josephine's direct descendant and not Napoleon Bonaparte's. (Bref, Josephine's daughter, Hortense, married one of Napoleon's numerous brothers. Hortense's son became Napoleon III when Napoleon's son with his second wife, Marie Louise, the niece of Marie-Antoinette, died very young.)

Still, like his uncle, Napoleon III loved Paris and saw its glory as a reflection of his own. Therefore, there came Haussmann, widening the streets so that no one could pry the paving stones loose and build barricades again, the gilded Baroque-Era-ate-a-bit-of-romanticism-and-then-vomited-forth-a-building Opera Garnier and the sewer septic system that so fascinated Victor Hugo. It is, in fact, extremely important to have seperate pipes for drinking water and waste products. This became extremely clear after the 1832 influx of cholera, the (hated) government's powerlessness against it, and the resultant revolts. Ergo, Napoleon III decided that, though Napoleon I had introduced covered sewers (then a very innovative idea), it was probably a pretty bad idea for said covered sewers to dump everything in the Seine, and the complex warren of today's Parisian sewers had its birth.

It was such a technological marvel that visitors to Paris would flock below the newly enlarged streets to take a boat ride through the sewers.

Though one can no longer catch a very Romantic skin disease while making the Grand Tour, one can now visit the Paris Sewer Museum and discover that the Parisian sewer rats have only one natural predator, the pet turtles regular Parisians flush down their toilets. Apparently, there used to be an alligator in the sewers to eat the rats as well, but the alligator has since been captured and put into an aquarium in England. The Amateur Historian is not entirely sure why, but supposes it was because the turtles simply couldn't keep up with the competition.

However, the Musée des égouts de Paris has a sign nearby that reads, "Je bois de l'eau de Paris!", which is "I drink the waters of Paris!"

The Amateur Historian now knows that the drinking water of Paris is piped in directly from a mountain stream to the north, albeit in pipes first laid down in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but is still tempted to rip of Descartes: "Je bois de l'eau de Paris, donc, j'ai de choléra!", or, "I drink the waters of Paris, therefore, I have cholera."