Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In my last posting, I had imagined that the shock at his father’s sudden death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle had pushed Hamlet into a moment of temporary insanity. In his disturbed state, he had fantasized a plot by that uncle and he himself then brought on the terrible violence of the play: his gf, her father, her brother, his uncle and mother, and two more-or-less innocent bystanders with the memorable names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all dead, by the end of Act V, with Hamlet himself as a final victim.
That’s just a prince and a few members of the court caught up in madness. What would happen if an entire city went mad?
This is Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)
view of the ordinary people of Paris in the midst of the Revolution of 1789-94 as portrayed in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities:
“A moment afterwards, and a throng of people came pouring round the corner by the prison wall, in the midst of whom was the wood-sawyer hand in hand with The Vengeance. There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons. There was no other music than their own singing. They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together. At first, they were a mere storm of coarse red caps and coarse woollen rags; but, as they filled the place, and stopped to dance about Lucie, some ghastly apparition of a dance-figure gone raving mad arose among them. They advanced, retreated, struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped. While those were down, the rest linked hand in hand, and all spun round together: then the ring broke, and in separate rings of two and four they turned and turned until they all stopped at once, began again, struck, clutched, and tore, and then reversed the spin, and all spun round another way. Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport—a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry—a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child’s head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time.
This was the Carmagnole. “
(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book III, Chapter V, “The Wood-Sawyer”)
Dickens is certainly not unsympathetic to the life of ordinary people before the Revolution, spending a certain amount of his text describing it, but, even with Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881)
ground-breaking and highly-dramatic The French Revolution (1837) under his arm (the story was that he carried it with him everywhere—as it was in three volumes, this must have been a bit of a juggling act),
he still doesn’t seem to understand just how bitter people’s anger was.
The problem began with the fact that France, unlike England, was still almost a feudal society. The population, of about 28,000,000 was divided among three groups, called “Estates”, the First Estate being the clergy, the Second, the nobility, the Third being everyone else.
This is a nice picture of the Third Estate, as a kind of bourgeois—a representative of the slowly-growing middle class. In reality, we should probably imagine this as a more accurate view—
When it came to taxation, the First and Second Estates almost escaped, leaving the bill for the 27,000,000 in the Third Estate to pay, as this chart shows.
Such behavior led to resentment, as this cartoon vividly demonstrates.
(Guess which is the Third Estate?)
It also led France closer and closer to bankruptcy, as the poverty-stricken populace, barely scraping along, was squeezed for every penny which could be gotten out of it—and there were fewer and fewer of those pennies to be had, threatening the country as a whole, as more and more of the state income had to go to pay interest on all of the loans it was forced to take out to keep the state afloat at all. In the 1770s alone, the interest came to about 30% of that income—and 10% more went to the royal court, which, in contrast to the 27,000,000, still seemed to be doing pretty well. This is the king, Louis XVI, who doesn’t appear to have missed a meal recently.
And so, when things finally fell apart, in the summer of 1789,
a different kind of cartoon began to appear—
(“The Third Estate Wakes Up”)
(“Now This Time Justice is on the Side of the Stronger”)
The violence grew and anger was focused not only upon the First and Second Estates,
but gradually became a way of simply expressing the idea of revolution,
leading to the death of the King, in January, 1793,
the Queen, in October,
and culminating in the murder of as many as 40,000 French citizens during what is known in English as the “Reign of Terror”, 1793-94.
As the Revolution progressed, this was the image which crossed the Channel and produced, in turn, English cartoons like this—
And such cartoons and their view of the Revolution as insanely savage then inspired Dickens’ depiction of the dance called “La Carmagnole” as an expression of that insanity—
There is a very interesting 20th-century view of this same idea and, unlike Dickens’ depiction of Parisians running mad, this confines the action to what might then seem the most appropriate place for this behavior: an asylum. This is Peter Weiss’ (1916-1982)
1963 play, Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade, “The Persecution and Murder of Jean Paul Marat Portrayed by the Theatrical Troupe of the Hospital of Charenton Under the Direction of M. de Sade”, usually referred to simply as “Marat/Sade”.
Much of what is placed on stage is based upon historical fact, beginning with Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793),
a complex figure who became an active voice in the most violent stage of the Revolution with his newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple (“The People’s Friend”).
Suffering from a terrible skin condition, he was murdered in his bath by a young French woman, Charlotte Corday.
(The inscription reads, “Not having been able to corrupt me, they have assassinated me”)
The M(onsieur) de Sade of the title is, indeed, the notorious Marquis de Sade (1740-1814),
who was actually kept, at one point, in the Hospital at Charenton, an insane asylum.
The director of the asylum at the time was the Abbe de Coulmiers (1741-1818),
an extremely humane and intelligent man, who encouraged the patients to use drama to help them with their afflictions.
So far, everything is authentic—but then we come to the cast members and we’re back to where we started: unlike my imaginary mad Hamlet in a sane court, everyone in the play, from Marat to the people who act as a kind of Revolutionary chorus, is insane.
As ever, thanks for reading,
Stay well—physically and mentally—
And know that, always, there’s
In case you’re interested to know more about the Carmagnole, here are LINKS to:
a. the words—with a sometimes rather odd English translation
b. the music (warning: it’s catchy!)
c. a very peaceful performance