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McClellen, Michael Edward

Battling Over the Lyric Muse: Expressions of Revolution and Counterrevolution at the Théâtre Feydeau, 1789-1801

Ph.D. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1994

The French Revolution is inseparable from the rhetoric that surrounds it, and the theater of the revolutionary era is particularly rich in source material for the study of revolutionary rhetoric. Drama, opera, vaudeville, melodrama, as well as the place and manner of performance, all reflected the contemporary political discourse. The theatrical world and the political sphere drew upon each other in such a way that theaters became political forums while, in turn, public figures adopted self-conscious, theatrical mannerisms in order to create and project a suitable public image. Indeed, as revolutionaries opened up politics to popular scrutiny, the French government appropriated theatrical models and deliberately "staged" their proceedings as a means to generate favorable public opinion and legitimate their position.

Music proved to be well suited to its rhetorical role in advancing the cause of the Revolution. Throughout the 1790s music frequently served as a means of intensifying the emotional content of political as well as poetic texts. France had a long tradition of employing music to support a text rhetorically, and this tradition informed revolutionary musical practice. For example, composers of opera consciously adapted the musical conventions that they had inherited to new political contexts and created a revolutionary music of the theater.

This study examines the rhetorical uses of music, specifically music for the theater, during the French Revolution. The mixture of music and drama at theaters such as the Opéra, Opéra Comique, and the Théâtre Feydeau possessed a special persuasive force that made them especially valuable as well as potentially dangerous. The focus of my study is one of these theaters, the Théâtre Feydeau. At that theatre, music assumed an enormous rhetorical significance that attracted both revolutionary and conterrevolutionary audiences. These groups appropriated the Théâtre Feydeau as a public forum in which to express their social and political views. As a result, the history of this theater reflects the politicization of French culture during the 1790s and the aesthetic consequences of this process.