Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Audacity of Ideas

High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is

No less in pity than his glory which

Brought them to be lamented.
~William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene II
My friend Irish playwright and actor Gareth Russell wrote an article some years ago about his creation of the drama All Those Who Suffered, first performed in Belfast in January 2004 when the author was seventeen. It is a play which delves into many of the same themes which I tried to develop in the novel Madame Royale. What is it like to go on living when one's world has been destroyed, and one's family killed? Where is meaning found, the meaning to go on? While the Gareth's play focuses on the tragedy of the French Royal family, such human emotions in the face of loss are universal, especially in the violent world in which we live. It impresses me that Gareth tackled such controversial historical episodes with authenticity and insight at such a young age. To quote from Gareth's article:

On 3 July 1793, Louis XVII, the imprisoned boy-king of France, was brutally seized from his mother’s care and virtually immured alive until his tragic death two years later. The child’s mysterious death spawned a cult of pretenders that plagued the surviving French royals for decades to come. Having already acted in a production exploring the deaths of a family of Russian aristocrats at the height of the Red Terror in 1918, exploring the Bourbon tragedy became my next priority. Upon reading of the boy-king’s heartbreaking story in Deborah Cadbury’s wonderful The Lost King of France, I was determined to write a play which would not only tell the Royal Family’s story but also transmit royalist experiences to the audience. Cadbury’s book cannot be recommended too highly, and I would also urge interested parties to read Dr. Munro Price’s splendid book The Fall of the French Monarchy (sometimes titled The Road from Versailles.)

The play was entitled All Those Who Suffered and the script was completed in October 2003, when I was seventeen. I gathered together a group of fellow students who were interested in performing the story. We took some historical liberties – namely by having the Dauphin surviving prison and returning to see his family after the Restoration – but we put disclaimers in the programme and went to work. From the beginning, as playwright, director and actor, I was determined that “All Those Who Suffered” should present as realistic a presentation as possible of life in post-revolutionary France. I also wanted it to transmit royalist values and a Christian message, something I feel has been neglected by drama, since so many popular productions today are left-wing....

The plot began with the news that the French Monarchy had been restored, and Charles X’s reflections on how the country has fared under Bonaparte’s rule. We then moved to Paris where there is a heated discussion between Madam Simon and Rosalie, provoked by Simon’s callous delight in describing Marie-Antoinette’s execution. (Simon’s remarks were based upon the perfectly disgusting comments I have heard from several supposedly educated people, delighting in joking about the murder of various royal families.)

We then move forward several years, when the three Parisian women discuss the scandal over the Dauphin’s disappearance and the various pretenders. The next scene is between the two female aristocrats, who discuss the current political situation and the psychological damage caused by the Revolution. Whilst the two ladies continue to talk, Rosalie (who is now working for Tourzel) is approached by a sincere young gentleman, claiming to have vital news about the Royal Family. The Marquise reluctantly agrees to see him, but is outraged at his claim to be Louis XVII. The gentleman then describes his love for his mother and several intimate anecdotes from life at Versailles, which eventually convince the Marquise that this is “her beloved ward.”

She then interviews Madam Simon, who confirms Louis’s story, albeit reluctantly and only in return for an exorbitant fee. King Charles then meets the young man, determined to put a stop to sensationalist scandal-mongering (as he sees it.) However, he is eventually convinced by Louis’s demeanour and mannerisms but the two men quarrel and Charles orders Louis to be detained, fearing that his emotions have overcome his reason.

In Act II, the three women discuss the mysterious gentleman’s detention, whilst the King persuades his niece, the Princess, that this scandal is potentially harmful to The Monarchy. However, after meeting with the Marquise de Tourzel, the Princess Royal visits Louis, whereupon she is convinced of his identity. Finally, there is a touching farewell scene between Charles and his nephew – when they agree to part company.

In 2006 Gareth's second play The Audacity of Ideas debuted in Belfast and will soon be performed on BBC radio. It deals with the French royal family on the verge of the Revolution. As Gareth writes in the introduction to the script of The Audacity of Ideas (which he kindly forwarded to me):
The Audacity of Ideas is not... a comedy of manners. It is, purposefully, a political play. One about a period in European history when something fundamentally important happened – ideology burst successfully onto the stage for the first time. The costs, of course, were tragic a thousand times over. They were not uniformly tragic, but certainly the sheer Terror of those ideas stalked, brutalised and defined what one historian has called “the generation of 1789.”

I make no secret of my antipathy towards the French Revolution and if I do not quite take the same stance as the Baroness Orczy, it does seem to me that the Revolution was essentially driven by a lethally naïve and unbending idealism in partnership with frequent, hysterical mob violence. It began with lynching, evolved to street violence, prison massacres, genocide, civil war and Terror. Its glib catchphrases of Liberty and Equality had already entered the common political vocabulary, thanks to the events in England in 1688 and America in 1776, so they did not need nor warrant the hundreds of thousands of lives lost (and millions ruined) in France and beyond between 1789 and 1804. Whilst hopefully not too polemical which, looking back on it, its sequel All Those Who Suffered undoubtedly was, The Audacity of Ideas’ tone does take much from the memoirs of those who survived the Revolution. A passage which particularly moves me comes from the writings of a lady called the Vicomtesse de Fars-Fausselandry, who lost several members of her family to the Revolution and much of her psychological well-being: -
Those who have seen only from a distance the bloody scenes of the revolutionary regime … will not understand why the voice of revenge makes itself heard so imperiously in my heart; but those who grieve for their lost father, mother, their dearest relatives, for those who were sacrificed on the scaffold, shot down at Lyons, drowned at Nantes; who during months longer than years, have seen death hover over their heads, those people will understand the exultation of a soul … In memory of my uncle and my mother, my heart cries out once more.
In any production of The Audacity of Ideas, the tragedy and the politics must sit side-by-side with the intrigue of the Court. Marie-Antoinette’s charm, the Comte d’Artois’ charisma and the beauty of Gabrielle de Polignac are not mere appendages – they are fundamentally important parts of the story. Before 1789, an entire way of life had evolved in which glamour was politics. Thus I don’t envisage that it will ever be a particularly cheap production to pull off, unless it is re-imagined in a particularly unusual way. Appropriate costumes and props must sit alongside good casting and an attention to detail if the play is to work.

Any production must also avoid pandering to the staid and inaccurate stereotype which holds that pre-Revolutionary France was just that – a society destined for destruction. Professor Jones writes of it:
In many senses, the eighteenth century was France’s century… Socially and economically, the century witnessed one of France’s most buoyant and prosperous periods: though the benefits of economic growth were far from evenly distributed, the quality of life as measured by life-chances, income levels and material possessions marked a considerable improvement. Culturally, France was the storm-centre of the movement of intellectual and artistic renewal known as the Enlightenment… Many historians have chosen to write as though the years prior to 1789 are only interesting insofar as they illuminate and help explain 1789. Digging for Revolutionary origins, they have tended not to look up and see the sources of strength as well as the problems and tensions within French pre-revolutionary society…. The neglect of high politics which resulted from the hegemony of social history meant that pre-Revolutionary political history did not attract young scholars and consequentially lacked sparkle or dynamicism…. However, there have been signs of growing interest in politics…. It has been characterised by the renewal of old approaches to high politics and also by the exploration of new ways of thinking about the political…. The Bourbon monarchy looks very different now…. This new, more dispassionate perspective on the eighteenth century involves us rejecting the French Revolutionaries’ version of what preceded them….
There were ‘problems and tensions’, all of which came to a violent and surprising head in 1789, but nothing about it was predestined or even, when the year began, particularly likely. As de Tocqueville reminds us – there is no such thing as historical inevitability.
(Photo: Gareth Russell as the Comte d'Artois in the dress rehearsal for The Audacity of Ideas.) Share


Julygirl said...

The concept of both plays are challenging and intriguing. Good Luck, Gareth!

Gabriel Girl said...

Compelling stuff. What a fascinating time in history.

Unknown said...

I am just so inspired by Gareth! He is able to take past history and make it alive today!

Lord Best said...

I hope you do not mind me posting this here, but recently acquired the following medal of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, commemorating the birth of the dauphin in 1781:
And I was wondering whether you could possibly shed any light on the meaning of the scene depicted on the reverse. Or, direct me to someone who may know.

P.S. I enjoy your blog very much, having found it through The Monarchist.

lara77 said...

Thank you Elena Maria; I was not aware of this play; it is so intriguing. Again, my deepest thanks to you; I have learned and been made so much more aware of history and the people of this time period. How absolutely wonderful to know that you are not alone in your beliefs and opinions. The history books only write the victors tales. Life is so much more complicated than that.

May said...

I'd love to see these plays performed. I have rather a soft spot for Charles X, despite his being less than a raving success.

barrowboy said...

Was the play ever performed on BBC?

elena maria vidal said...

I don't know.