McCready on Best (2023)

Best, Janice. Power and Propaganda in French Second Empire Theatre: Playing Napoleon. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023, pp. 335, ISBN 978-1-5275-0090-7 

In the nineteenth century, the drama was an important vehicle for propaganda and the theater was an essential meeting place where public opinion was formed. When, in 1791, the Revolutionary government passed a law that permitted any citizen to “raise a public theater and stage there plays of every genre,” they abolished the privilèges that had concentrated the power of the theaters in the hands of a few and established as public policy a theater free from state control, in accordance with the values of the Revolution. Successive regimes, with different politics in mind, would reorganize the theaters for their own purposes, limiting or expanding the number of theaters, reinstating or re-abolishing censorship. What they all understood was the state’s interest in shaping the theatrical landscape to burnish the image they wished to project and to buttress the power they wished to wield.  

Janice Best’s new book, Power and Propaganda in the French Second Empire, explores this dynamic with a well-chosen focus on plays featuring Napoleon produced between 1850 and 1870, although many had been written and performed earlier, under the July Monarchy. Her corpus includes plays of various genres, including the massive mimodrames that featured the reenactment of battles, comedies, and dramas. Best considers not only the text of the play, but its reception, as well as the intertext between the plays and other representations of Napoleon, especially in painting.  

Best organizes the main chapters of the book chronologically according to Napoleon’s life, plays treating his childhood, followed by the exploits of the Grande Armée, and finally those that address the exile. Within each chapter, the plays are again treated chronologically in order of their performance. Best gives a thorough summary of each play’s plot, then of its initial reception, followed by the analysis of the reports of the censors and the changes they demanded. In the case of many of the plays that were performed both under Louis-Philippe and later under Napoleon III, she is able to make compelling arguments for the ways in which the latter attempted to craft an image of Napoleon for his own political purposes.  

In her analysis of the 1839 melodrama Les chevaux du Carrousel, for example, Best shows how the changing political context around the play's performance led to very different treatment from the censors when the play was reprised in 1861. The play is set during Napoleon's 1797 invasion of the Republic of Venice, and although censors at the time of the reprise approved the Bonapartist enthusiasm of the original, they were concerned that following the second war for Italian independence (the 1859 conflict in which the French had fought with the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Austrian Empire), the audience might misconstrue the negative representation of Venice’s leaders in 1797 as criticism of contemporary Venice. To allay the censors' concerns, the revised 1861 version added a final tableau in which Napoleon’s 1797 victory was conflated with the campaign of 1859, depicting the French as the heroic liberators of Venice from the tyranny of the corrupt leaders of 1797 on the one hand and the would-be liberators of Italy from the ongoing Austrian occupation on the other.    

According to Best, Second Empire censors redacted scenes that showed internecine conflict or suggested that Napoleon’s rise was only one possible outcome of the factional turmoil of the Revolution. They favored a view of Napoleon as a man of the people, destined from childhood for martial greatness, who would become, through the force of his will, the legitimate ruler of France. Napoleon III hoped to profit from this image by his connection to the great man. Perhaps surprisingly, censors under the Second Empire did not curtail representations of the broken Napoleon of Saint Helena. Best concludes that Napoleon III wanted to encourage the idea of Napoleon as martyr to a cause, which is perhaps the most noble end he could be accorded given the facts of history.  

In the final chapter, Best turns away from the plays to focus on the various actors who played Napoleon from the 1830s (when representations of Napoleon on stage were first permitted) through the end of the Second Empire. She explores the delicate balance the actors had to strike between the desire to represent Napoleon as he lived in memory and the temptation of parody or impersonation that would undermine a more nuanced performance. 

Best concludes that “passages that the censors suppressed [reveal] counter discourses that tell a different story [from that in the plays as performed] about France's past, one which highlights revolutionary violence, assassination attempts, military setbacks, regime change, internal political tensions and rivalries, betrayal, and revenge” (303). The version of Napoleon that emerges from the plays as the censors permitted them to be performed, on the other hand, was that of a man of integrity and destiny, whose glory might have favorably reflected on Napoleon III, who as Best notes, often attended such plays seated just beyond the footlights.  

Best’s book is meticulously researched, and her clear, effective prose is a pleasure to read. Scholars of the theater of the period will be grateful to Best and her editor for including in an appendix the list of the plays treated and an index to the volume. The book’s twenty-two illustrations add to the volume’s visual appeal while underscoring the Napoleonic iconography that endures even today in collective memory.