Thursday, 15 July 2010
The Truth about Bastille Day
"Nor does the Revolution seem any longer to conform to a grand historical design, preordained by inexorable forces of social change. Instead it seems a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences ... [and] the painful problem of revolutionary violence. Anxious lest they give way to sensationalism or be confused with counter-revolutionary prosecutors, historians have erred on the side of squeamishness in dealing with this issue. I have returned it to the center of the story since it seems to me that it was not merely an unfortunate by-product of politics, or the disagreeable instrument by which other more virtuous ends were accomplished or vicious ones were thwarted. In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the Revolution itself."
- Professor Simon Schama, "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution" (1989)
The on-line journal Helium runs an excellent article by Carol H. Morgan, asking us to re-consider Bastille Day. (Via Tea at Trianon.) An extract is below and the full article here: -
"Senseless violence against innocent people waving a flag of surrender: That is perhaps the best way to describe the actual events that transpired on July 14, 1789, more commonly known as Bastille day or 'La Fete Nationalle'... Poor Louis XVI was not actually any more a cruel despotic tyrant any more than his wife had ACTUALLY said "Let them eat cake," but as they say that history is written by the winners.... What befell the French monarchy in the eighteenth century and then the successive regimes to replace it during the Reign of Terror - one of the bloodiest periods in European history - was not the romantic success story that one might think it was considering it is celebrated with unabashed French national pride... The importance of Bastille Day and the events that it commemorates should be the testimony it leaves to the world that there is no limit to the amount of horror that can result if we justify violence and don't check our baser instincts to commit atrocities toward one another."
My play, The Audacity of Ideas, finished on the evening the Bastille fell and although it is a dramatised form, with certain liberties (not everyone was in the same place at the same time), I hope it does capture the momentary panic at hearing the news that the Bastille fortress had fallen. Like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the real psychological damage exceeded the physical impact. The very idea that the Bastille could have fallen was something few French royalists had ever even contemplated before July 14th, 1789. (The play's actual final scene is an epilogue which takes place in London in 1800, between the Duchesse de Guiche and Father Bombelles.)
From The Audacity of Ideas by Gareth Russell, Act II, Scene IX. All rights reserved.
THE AUDIENCE CHAMBER OF THE PRINCESSE DE LAMBALLE,
Music can be heard floating from the princesse’s gorgeous apartments.
The BARON DE BRETEUIL (the conservative prime minister) and the MARQUIS DE BOMBELLES stand waiting for her impatiently. Shimmering in her sartorial splendour and clutching a coupé, the PRINCESSE DE LAMBALLE(the queen's chief lady-in-waiting) appears in the doorway.
LAMBALLE. Hello! Ah, Prime Minister, M. de Bombelles! I’m so sorry you weren’t invited. I completely forgot. Please, come in! It’s such a lovely party and now that mourning has ended and everything is going so well again, I thought I should have a little soirée and I know it was awful of me not to invite you both, but really it was forgetfulness, not spite. Come in, come in!
BRETEUIL. No, Your Grace. Can you please fetch Their Majesties, immediately? There has been a very serious uprising in Paris.
LAMBALLE. Oh, no! Can’t it wait until the morning?
LAMBALLE. I see. Well, this is the first time Her Majesty has been allowed to relax in months and …
BRETEUIL. Fetch them now! And don’t create a …
GABRIELLE DE POLIGNAC (the queen's favourite and a very beautiful socialite) emerges, beautiful but almost translucently pale. She carries a champagne-filled coupé in her hand. Her face is superbly impassive.
GABRIELLE. Is something the matter? I thought I heard raised voices. I'm sure I was mistaken.
LAMBALLE. The Prime Minister wants to see Their Majesties.
GABRIELLE. Then you had best fetch them.
THE PRINCESSE DE LAMBALLE returns inside the apartments
GABRIELLE. Would you mind if I asked what has happened, Prime Minister?
BRETEUIL. The Bastille has been stormed.
BRETEUIL. And taken.
There is a long pause. Gabrielle's face does not alter.
GABRIELLE. Might I ask how?
BRETEUIL. When news reached the city that I had been appointed, rumours began that large troop movements had been spotted in the east.
GABRIELLE. Well, by now, they should have been.
BRETEUIL. That is what we had hoped, Excellency.
GABRIELLE. No, Prime Minister, it is what we agreed.
THE COMTE D'ARTOIS (the king's younger brother) enters
ARTOIS. Gabrielle … oh. Good evening, Prime Minister. M. de Bombelles.
GABRIELLE. Charles, the Bastille has been stormed. Successfully.
ARTOIS. Who by?
GABRIELLE. The lower-classes.
ARTOIS. That is impossible.
BRETEUIL. It has happened, Your Highness.
ARTOIS. Sweet Jesus. (He crosses himself) When do the troops arrive?
BRETEUIL. They don’t.
BOMBELLES. His Majesty rescinded the order authorising them, twenty-four hours ago.
BOMBELLES. Rescinded the order for troops, Your Highness. They are not to enter Paris. He does not want a repeat of the violence in the Rue Montreuil.
The shock settles on the room as the King and Queen enter, followed by Clémence (the queen's lady's-maid.)
LOUIS. Has something happened?
BRETEUIL. Sire, it is our solemn duty to inform Your Majesties that Your Most Christian Majesty’s fortress of La Bastille has been stormed and breeched by a disloyal mob. Your Most Christian Majesty’s Governor of La Bastille, His Excellency M. le marquis de Launay, was taken by the crowd and dismembered at the Hôtel de Ville. (Everyone except Breteuil crosses themselves) Your Majesty’s Mayor of Paris and several Superintendents met similar fates. The crowd was incited to action by one M. Camille Desmoulins, a known Freemason of the Nine Sisters’ Lodge.
LOUIS. So, what… this is some kind of revolt?
BRETEUIL. No, Your Majesty, it is a Revolution.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. When the troops arrive, they must re-take the Bastille as their first priority.
BOMBELLES. The fortress no longer exists, Ma’am. As we speak, the crowd are tearing it to the ground.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. How many of them are there?
BOMBELLES. Tens of thousands, according to our informants.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Good God.
ARTOIS. Did they seize everything that was in the Bastille?
BOMBELLES. I believe so, my lord.
LOUIS. The prisoners are liberated then?
ARTOIS. Paedophiles, perverts and the insane.
ARTOIS. What else was in the Bastille?
BRETEUIL. I do not understand.
ARTOIS. What else was in it?
BOMBELLES. The military supplies.
ARTOIS. Yes. The military supplies. Louis, you have fantasies of being a military man. Tell me, how many military tools were housed in the Bastille?
LOUIS. I can’t remember.
ARTOIS. I am sure you can, if you would only break the habit of a lifetime and try. You have such an astonishing head for figures, all our tutors said so. Well?
LOUIS. I think, when last I heard, thirty thousand muskets, or so.
ARTOIS. Yes. A hostile, deranged mob is roaming the streets of Paris armed like a small army with thirty thousand muskets, or so, and you prohibited any of your own troops from coming to our rescue. In fact, you forbade them from entering the city. They are nowhere nearby!
ARTOIS. Yesterday, he cancelled the order he signed in front of us. He dismissed Necker and put Breteuil in his place, but thought to compromise by rescinding the order on the troops. Quite a brilliant move, Louis. You enraged our opponents, but removed any means of protecting us from that rage.
LOUIS. I could not have lived with myself if my people had suffered.
ARTOIS. Your people include the men killed today and the many thousand more who will die because they were so mistakenly loyal to you! Had they betrayed you, rebelled against you, or committed treason a hundred times over, you would have been clement, but to those who held fast to their fealty, you are utterly indifferent!
LOUIS. We will see.
ARTOIS. We have already seen! Paris is in anarchy, the greatest fortress in the country destroyed, your servants attacked and killed – what more do you want!
GABRIELLE. What are we going to do?
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. You must leave, tonight.
GABRIELLE. Your Majesty?
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. You must leave, Gabrielle. And your family. As quickly as possible. Saying goodbye will be the most ghastly thing, but if you stay, you will be attacked and I couldn’t live with myself if you suffered for my sake. Take your children with you, please, and go.
GABRIELLE. If Your Majesty commands.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. I do. And quickly. In case, I lose my resolve.
Gabrielle sinks into a curtsey and rises
GABRIELLE. I will assemble my household and then take leave of Your Majesty within the hour.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. If you would, please.
GABRIELLE. Your Majesty.
There is a moment between the two women; the ambiguities of their friendship – the Queen’s emotional volatility against Gabrielle’s studied, cool calm. It is one of those moments in a friendship when you hope it will all be resolved, that the questions of so many years will be answered, but of course they can’t be.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Go, Gabrielle, please. This is already hard enough.
Gabrielle de Polignac exits
LOUIS. Charles, I think you should go as well.
LOUIS. If anything is to happen to us, then, you must continue the line and it was your policy which caused the riot, so you are bound to be a target. Aren't you?
ARTOIS. Where are you going?
LOUIS. Nowhere. I have faith in my people.
Artois opens his mouth to speak, but for a moment no sounds comes out. He is almost speechless with incredulity and rage.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Charles, he will not leave. I know that. And I must stay with him. (She takes him to one side) I must stay and make sure Louis does not fall entirely into their hands. He is too trusting, Charles. He is far too good for this world. And they will seek to exploit that, just like they exploit everything else. In any case, my place is beside my husband. God wills it.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. God wills it and I want it. The women of my House have never run away from anything, Charles. Least of all duty and least of all family. I will stay, Charles.
ARTOIS. And I? Should I stay or go?
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Go. You must go; to my family and to Teresa's. We may have need of their help.
ARTOIS. Well we certainly can’t rely on him.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. He is your Sovereign, Charles. Have a little more respect. If he has made mistakes they have been made with the best possible of intentions. He means well.
ARTOIS. And executes disastrously.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. I think that is enough for this evening. You forget yourself. He is your brother. Do not say anything which you might regret. You do not know when you will see him again.
ARTOIS. Or you.
ARTOIS. Take care of yourself.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. You too.
ARTOIS. I shall miss the Trianon. (Crossing over to the King, who is conference with the Prime Minister) Louis, I should prepare my family and servants.
LOUIS. Where will you go?
ARTOIS. Coblenz, perhaps, or Turin.
LOUIS. Will you write?
ARTOIS. Do you want me to?
LOUIS. Yes. You’re my brother. I love you... Maybe some time apart will do us both the world of good.
ARTOIS. Yes. Well. I shall return to call on Your Majesty before my journey.
LOUIS. Thank you. I love you.
ARTOIS. Goodbye, Your Majesty.
Artois bids farewell to his brother with the customary greeting within the Royal Family - he bows, kisses his brother's hand, kisses him once once on each cheek, and bows again over the King's hand. He bows to the Queen, then exits.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Gentlemen, would you excuse us, please?
BRETEUIL, BOMBELLES. Majesty.
Breteuil and Bombelles bow and exit. The Queen remains stoically brave throughout, but tears are building.
LOUIS. Will you leave too?
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Where would I go?
LOUIS. Anywhere. Austria, Brussels, England, Rome. I would not blame you.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. I am your wife and your queen. My place is here.
LOUIS. Thank you.
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Somebody should go back and tell our guests that the party is over.
LOUIS. Will you come back to me?
MARIE-ANTOINETTE. Of course. Always.
The Queen exits. The lights dim.
All rights reserved.