Napoleon and the theatre

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Napoleon and the theatre
François-Joseph Talma (1763-1826) © DR

A passionate theatre-goer

Theatre and spectacle were close to Napoleon’s heart. In the fifteen years of Consulate and Empire he saw 374 plays. But since he saw certain works more than once – in fact the record was Cinna which he saw twelve times – he actually made a total of 682 visits to the theatre, in other words nearly once a week religiously for 15 years. [1] He revered Corneille and was known as an intelligent critic of the theatre. Much of the time on Saint Helena was spent in critiques of plays and the reading of plays. Napoleon even took time to give the internationally famous actor, Talma, advice on how he should play Nero in Racine’s Britannicus (3 December, 1799). ‘Emperors aren’t like that’, Napoleon is said to have told the star. And Napoleon’s passion for the theatre even led to him have theatres built in his various palaces. The theatre at Malmaison, built in 1802 in a single month, was inaugurated with Beaumarchais’s Barbier de Séville performed by a dilettante group of actors including Napoleon’s step-daughter Hortense as Rosina and the painter Isabey as Svegliato. Exactly a year later, a theatre at Saint-Cloud was handselled with a production of Racine’s Esther. For the first time, the actors of the Comédie Française, previously in effect the Bourbons’ private troupe, performed at the Napoleonic court. Furthermore, Napoleon also commissioned plays, for example Marie-Joseph de Chénier’s Cyrus, a flop performed a week after Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, was ordered as part of the coronation celebrations. In this large chunks of the coronation service and the serment or oath were transported from France rather unconvincingly to the Near East. Napoleon would also have new plays read to him in private audience, as was the case with La Mort de Henri IV. Here Talma recited to Napoleon and Legouvé, the play’s author. When Talma read the king’s line in Act V ‘Je tremble, je ne sais quel noir pressentiment’ (I tremble, I have a black forboding), Napoleon turned to the author to say ‘I hope, sir, that you will change that expression. A king may tremble, he is man just like any other, but he should never say it’. [2]

A Revolutionary enthusiasm

But theatre was not an exclusively Napoleonic preserve. After the elite theatres of the Ancien Régime, the Revolution flung open the door to the populace in general. In 1791, a bill was passed making it legal for any citizen to erect a theatre upon a simple declaration at the nearest administrative centre. And perhaps even more importantly, work by authors who had been dead more than five years could be put on absolutely anywhere – gone were the days where the King’s theatre had sole rights and privileges over the production of particular authors. Indeed decrees of 1790 and 1791 abolished the Comédie Française’s monopoly which it had once had on the French classical repertoire. The period from 1792 to 1806 was a golden age for theatre. One contemporary (1799) noted: ‘if this [the proliferation of theatres] continues there will be a theatre in every street in Paris. Lanzac de Laborie in his Paris sous Napoléon [3] cited the following remark from the period ‘It’s a complete epidemic. There’s not one dilapidated church or largish hall that has not been seized for the staging of plays’.

The Comédie Française

However, it was not so easy for some of the more established theatres. The Comédie Française, for example, one the principal Parisian theatres, had a chequered experience during the early Revolutionary period. It was not until during the Consulate that stability arrived in the shape of the First Consul. Bonaparte turned out to be a committed supporter of the erstwhile royal theatre. On 28 Pluviôse, An XI (17 February, 1803), a bill was passed re-establishing the theatre, now called the Théâtre-Français, to its full rights. As for the quality of the works being performed, despite the increasing popularity of the theatre in general, nevertheless contemporary plays were mediocre and far outclassed by the traditional repertoire. The greatest tragedian the period could offer was Luce de Lancival, whose Hector, as Napoleon remarked to Las Cases on Saint Helena, was nothing more than an ‘officer’s mess tragedy’ (tragédie de quartier général), i.e., good for setting you up to attack the enemy, but nothing more. [4] What was however remarkable were the actors of the period, such as Talma, Mademoiselle George and Mademoiselle Mars.


Though born in Paris, François Talma, 1763-1826, discovered his taste for theatre in London in 1778. There he was taken by his father’s patron, Sir Oliver Clinton, to all the literary taverns in the English capital. Talma devoured all the Shakespeare, Milton and Pope he could lay his hands on. When back in Paris in 1784 he became friends with the Duc de Chartres who became Talma’s patron. The young man thus became one of the first pupils at the Ecole Royale. Becoming known during the early years of the Revolution, Talma found himself on the wrong side of the political divide during the Terreur. Through the last-minute intervention of the painter Jacques-Louis David, he just escaped being guillotined for his Girondin sympathies. Talma and Bonaparte became friends gradually during the early years of the Consulate, primarily because Talma gave the impression of being the theatrical embodiement of the First Consul, something which clearly appealed to Bonaparte. And their friendship was to last until they were permanently separated by the exile to Saint Helena. They both shared a preference for Corneille over Racine and an enthusiasm for Classical antiquity. Talma taught the young Bonaparte much about the theatre and Bonaparte brought Talma into his entourage, the latter being frequently present at Malmaison, Saint-Cloud or the Tuileries meeting Talleyrand, Murat, Berthollet, Laplace and Monge. All through Talma’s career of many ups and downs, Napoleon was to support the actor – indeed, they saw each other so often during the Consulate period that the rumour began to spread that Talma was giving Napoleon lessons in deportment. In 1804, Napoleon gave the actor a supplementary stipend of 1200 francs, and in the period 1806 to 1813 a series of sporadic emoluments amounting to a significant 195,200 francs. And in addition to money, Napoleon also gave Talma his opinion: the day after Talma had played Caesar in La Mort de Pompée, the First Consul said ‘you use your arms too much: men in power are more restrained in their movements; they know that a gesture is an order, a look is death. So limit your gestures and looks… In your first scene with Ptolemy, there’s a line whose meaning escapes you…You say it with too much sincerity… At that moment, Caesar is not saying which he thinks. Caesar is not a Jacobin.’ [5] Talma was regularly called upon to perform at the imperial palaces, and he was a feature of foreign state visits from as early as 1803. In thirty-eight years of career, he performed in more than seventy first performances. Manlius Capitolinus by A. de Lafosse d’Aubigny was particularly successful, with Napoleon ordering thirty-one private performances at Saint-Cloud. Whenever Napoleon was between campaigns, the two men would dine and spend time together, Napoleon comparing Talma’s performance with his own experience. With Napoleon, Talma would choose his roles. Talma also had a brief affair with the Emperor’s sister, Pauline, circa 1810. At the end of the First Restoration, Napoleon was faithfully in his box the day after the ‘vol de l’aigle’ to see Talma in Hector. And the actor dutifully came to bid the Emperor farewell at Malmaison after Waterloo. Talma was similarly feted by Louis XVIII, performing in several great first performances (including a triumphal tour in London), until his last and greatest performance in Delaville’s Charles VI. He died on 19 October, 1826.

Mademoiselle George

Marguerite-Joseph Weimer, known as Mademoiselle George (1787-1867), was along with Mademoiselle Mars, one of the great female leads of the Napoleonic period. Supported by Talma, her career began when she was only sixteen when she played Clytemnestra in Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide. She was subsequently Emilie in Corneille’s Cinna (28 December, 1802), held the title role in Racine’s Phèdre (16 February, 1803), and was Hermione in Andromaque (1 July, 1803). The critics were unanimous. Not only was she a beautiful woman (tall, shapely, brown hair, black penetrating eyes, small, straight nose, powerful mouth, in short, as Lucien Bonaparte put it, “Superbe femme”), she was a remarkable actress. On 4 August, she was already earning 4,000 Francs a year.

Then came her affair with the Bonaparte. And if we are to believe Napoleon on Saint Helena, she was the only actress he ever ‘had’. [6] Via his valet, Constant, Napoleon invited Mademoiselle George to Saint-Cloud. She came on 8 June, 1803. In her (somewhat fanciful) Memoirs (written in 1857), she described her meetings with the First Consul. According to her, she had never had a lover before Napoleon, and that she only gave in to him on the third evening. However, as Marc Allegret has noted, this seems unlikely, since the Emperor was a man in a hurry, in all matters! Also according to the Memoirs, Napoleon apparently nicknamed her Georgina and was loving and playful with her. At the Tuileries, the First Consul received her in what had been Bourrienne’s apartment, which communicated directly with Napoleon study. According to Stendhal (but how could he have known?), Bonaparte only saw Mademoiselle Georges sixteen times. She claimed many more. Josephine was, it was said, tremendously jealous of her.

However, rumour and Mademoiselle George’s penchant for gossip caused the break. [7] At their parting, Napoleon slipped her a wad (40,000 francs according to George’s Memoirs) and the abandoned actress proudly declared ‘the First Consul left me to become Emperor’.

But her career at the Comédie Française carried on with plays by Corneille (Cinna, La mort de Pompée, Polyeucte, Nicomède, Rodogune) and by Racine (Andromaque, Iphigénie, Phèdre, Bajazet). In serious debt in 1808, she left the Comédie Française to move to Russia where she hoped for a wealthy husband. But she returned to Paris in 1813, to be reinstated at the Comédie Française, where she paraded her Bonapartist sentiments. This political engagement was recognized by Napoleon when he returned during the Hundred Days. However, on Louis XVIII’s return, she was excluded from the Comédie Française, so she went on tour abroad, only returning to France in 1821. She lived to the great age of eighty.

Mademoiselle Mars

Mademoiselle Mars aged twenty © Fondation NapoléonMademoiselle Mars (Anne-François-Hippolyte Boutet, 1779-1847), one of Mademoiselle George’s rivals on the Parisian stage, was renowned for her beauty. Daughter of acting parents, she began her career in ingénue parts at the age of fourteen at the Théâtre Feydeau.. Her first great success was L’Abbé de l’Epée in 1803 (seen by Napoleon twice). Subsequently she was Céline in Molière’s Misanthrope and Elmire in Tartuffe. Although purported to have once been a mistress of the Napoleon’s, the emperor’s remark concerning the actresses he had ‘had’ would seem to contradict this. Nevertheless she would appear to have been a supporter of the Empire. When asked during the Restoration to cry ‘Vive le Roi’, she replied, ‘Did you ask me to say ‘Vive le Roi’. Well, there you go, I just said it’. She is best remembered for being the first to play Doña Sol in Hernani. She died in 1847.

Theatre and the State

But although Napoleon loved the theatre (especially tragedy), he also considered it a political tool. Las Cases cited Napoleon as saying on Saint Helena ‘Were [Corneille] alive, I would make him a prince… Tragedy warms the soul and elevates the heart, can and should create heroes. In this respect, perhaps, France owes to Corneille some of her greatest deeds.’ [8] And as a political tool, it had to be wielded by the right hands. So after the flourishing of theatre at the end of the Revolutionary period and during the Consulate, Napoleon took it upon himself to limit the number of theatres in Paris. On 8 June, 1806, a decree was passed limiting Parisian theatres to twelve, distributed evenly throughout all the neighbourhoods. And yet again in 1807 the number of licensed theatres was reduced still further to eight – four grand theatres (the Théâtre-Français, the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique and the Opéra-Buffa), and four secondary theatres (Vaudeville, founded 1792, the Variétés, founded 1777, the Ambigu-Comique, founded 1769, and the Gaîté, founded in 1760). Each theatre was not allowed to perform anything other than its specific repertoire. And no other theatres could be opened without permission. The censor made sure that theatre repertoire was kept under tight surveillance. Furthermore, since the suppression of the Police générale, all new plays had to be sent to the Minister of Justice. In 1808, the Comte de Rémusat, close associate of Napoleon’s and Premier Chambellan, became Surintendant des Théâtres. Whereas earlier, Napoleon had exercised control over theatrical productions ‘backstage’, as it were, by conversing with Talma and other theatre entrepreneurs, getting them (as we have seen) to modify their texts so that the result was ‘decorous’, from 1807 on, the theatres were limited and repertoire scrutinised carefully. The police intervened at the Hospice de Charenton where the Marquis de Sade was putting on his plays. And so, by a combination of overt and covert control, but not so much through the commissioning of plays or the sponsoring of free performances (at which the Grande Armée Bulletins would also be read out) the Napoleonic theatre was kept on the rails of what was appropriate.

In the end, Napoleon’s theatres laws were not rescinded in the Second Restoration. And they remained in place to provide the foundations for the relationship of the theatre and state throughout the whole of the nineteenth-century. [9]


1) Lecomte, L.-Henri, Napoléon et le monde dramatique, Paris: Daragon, 1912.
2) Ibid., p. 411.
3) Lanzac de Laborie, L. de, Paris sous Napoléon: Spectacles et Musées, Paris: Plon/Nourrit, 1913, p. 126.
4) Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, 25-28 février, 1816.
5) Bibliothèque-Musée de la Comédie-Française, Dossier Talma, (boxes 1-5), box  4 Dossier relié, Notes rélatives à Napoléon, quoted in Fazio, Mara, François Joseph Talma, Primo Divo, Milan: Electa, 1999, pp.167-8.
6) Gourgaud, Journal de Sainte-Hélène, Paris 1899, lundi 5 mai, 1817.
7) Gourgaud, ibid.
8) Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, loc. cit.
9) Hillmer, Rüdiger, Die napoleonische Theaterpolitik: Geschäftstheater in Paris, 1799-1815, Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1999, pp. 406-420.

Many thanks to Arie Ribon for the idea.

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