Le Roi s’amuse in Court

Censorship and Society

By Marie-Laurence Marco 19 April 2016


© Maisons de Victor Hugo / Roger-Viollet

Le Roi s’amuse in Court

Just like Victor Hugo’s play, on which its libretto is based, Verdi’s Rigoletto was censored when it first appeared. Whereas Hugo decided to abandon the fight with the authorities following the publication of his celebrated text in defence of freedom of speech, Verdi agreed to transpose the action of his opera and modify the plot to ensure that his masterpiece would be performed.    

“The performance of this drama at the theatre gave rise to an unprecedented ministerial response. The morning after the premiere, the author received from Mr Jouslin de Lassalle, stage manager of the Théâtre-Français, the following missive, of which he carefully preserved the original:
“It is half past ten, and I have just this instant received the order to suspend all further performances of Le Roi s’amuse. Mr Taylor communicated this order to me on behalf of the minister.
November 23rd.
The author’s first reaction was one of disbelief. The act was so arbitrary as to be incredible.”

Preface by Victor Hugo to Le Roi s’amuse

Victor Hugo began proceedings against the Théâtre-Française to protest against the banning of his play. People were scandalised as much by the presentation of Triboulet as a tragic hero, as by the writer’s political onslaught against the monarchy. The entire work was judged to be profoundly immoral.

Questions concerning the regulation of the theatres were dealt with by the Ministry for Commerce and Public Works, directed at this time by the Count of Argout. In 1832, the Charter of 1830 was in place and in Article 7 it stipulated that “Censorship shall never be re-established”. If the article, which was highly imprecise in its terms, concerned essentially the freedom of the press, a freedom dearly bought, the freedom of the theatres, although not specified, was implicitly included. On this basis, the writer’s intention was to bring a political case and prove the illegality of the censorship that had struck down his work. Victor Hugo began by explaining his campaign for “his freedom as a poet and a citizen” in the Preface to the first edition of Le Roi s’amuse, which appeared on December 3rd 1832; On the day of the hearing, December 19th 1832, the lawyer Odilon Barrot pleaded on behalf of the writer and then the writer himself read a speech before a large crowd:

“…Today I am banned from the theatre, tomorrow I shall be banned from the country; today I am gagged, tomorrow I shall be deported; today literature is besieged, tomorrow it will be the state.”

With some astuteness, the publisher Renduel gave Victor’s Hugo’s speech to buyers of the book and then added it to the text from the third edition onwards. The speech was to remain famous as a defence of freedom of expression.
On January 2nd 1833, the ministerial Tribunal declared itself incompetent to pass judgement. Victor Hugo did not appeal and refused the pension allotted to him by Louis XVIII.

Première page de la préface de l’édition du « Roi s’amuse » (Ed. J. Hetzel, 1866) : discours de Victor Hugo prononcé devant le tribunal de commerce
Première page de la préface de l’édition du « Roi s’amuse » (Ed. J. Hetzel, 1866) : discours de Victor Hugo prononcé devant le tribunal de commerce © Bnf

After 1830, a period of republican unrest, many theatrical productions took an ironic and mocking stance with regard to society and conveyed a profound sentiment of revolt against all forms of authority. The prevailing spirit of raillery extended to everything and everybody. The duo of humorous bandits, Robert Macaire and his partner Bertrand, characters from L’Auberge des Adrets, first performed in 1823 and revived in 1832, by virtue of their immense success, belong to this seditious vein. At this period, theatre was the main form of entertainment for the general populace and the July Monarchy was wary of the dangers of subversive theatre. As early as 1831, Louis-Philippe had attempted to re-introduce censorship but had failed. In 1835, however, in the wake of Guiseppe Fieschi’s assassination attempt, which killed eighteen people but left the king and the princes unscathed, censorship was re-established.

Later, Victor Hugo added to the first page of the manuscript of his play:

“ Act I written amid the gunfire of the insurrection”, that is, at the moment when the barricade of the Saint-Merri cloister was torn down by government forces during the events of 5th and 6th June 1832.

Moving from theatre to opera, it is important to note that Giuseppe Verdi himself, a passionate admirer of Victor Hugo’s play, was also the victim of censorship by the Austro-Hungarian Empire which occupied part of Italy, notably Venice, when he tried to adapt the play in its original form. He was obliged to transpose the work and thus produced a masterpiece that still delights audiences today.

Marie-Laurence Marco is responsible for the library and documentation of the Maison de Victor Hugo. An historian specialising in 19th century history, she is preparing a theses on Les paysages sonores dans l’oeuvre poétique de Victor Hugo (Soundscapes in Victor Hugo’s poetical works).

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, this new production of Rigoletto marks director Claus Guth’s first collaboration with the Paris Opera.

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