The Performance of Politics during the Siege of Paris

During the siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871, competing interpretations of the political meaning behind the fall of Napoléon III revolved around a series of literary readings on the stages of Parisian theaters. The text being read was Victor Hugo’s Les Châtiments, a denunciation of Napoléon III written years before but available for the first time in France during the siege. The spectacular reception of Hugo’s poetry shows how revolution could be understood as something to be seen: a public performance that symbolically enacted regime change. However lofty the goals and however fierce the debate, these potentially revolutionary performances nonetheless reveal themselves as attempts to legitimize theatrical institutions when their future was uncertain. In particular, Édouard Thierry of the Comédie-Française co-opted revolutionary rhetoric to ensure the continued relevance of theaters during a period of national crisis.