Satire, prints and theatricality in the French Revolution

Satire, prints and theatricality in the French Revolution Claire Trévien offers in her book an impressively wide-reaching and accessible analysis of cheaply produced prints, which were circulating in Paris between 1789 and 1794. Trévien quite rightly draws attention to this under-appreciated medium of Revolutionary culture, which provides a new insight into the consumption of politics during the early years of the French Revolution. Satirical prints were part of a network of artistic media, which frequently contained references to the revolutionary songs, plays and street spectacles such as public executions or scientific demonstrations, which were also available at the time. These references point to an ephemeral language of symbols built up from theatrical or street performances and reinforced by repetition through prints. The prints, which could be produced by print makers who were little wealthier than the paying public or be commissioned by the government at the time or political figures hoping to influence public opinion, show how print makers communicated with their audiences to establish political rapports through culture. The book is set out with a short introduction and literature review followed by four longer chapters each of which covers a particular subject matter in the prints discussed. Trévien restricts her subject material to the years 1789–1794 but concludes each of the longer chapters with an epilogue, which explains how the subject touched in that chapter developed after the Terror. Chapter 2, the first of the thematic chapters, studies the illustrations, which were printed on Revolutionary song sheets. Trévien makes a case study out of the work by one print maker, Bonvalet, to show how his tastes and the tastes of his audience were reflected in the prints on offer. This reader particularly liked the analysis of the experiments made by print makers to innovate new ways of making the song lyrics and the prints interact with each other, sometimes only including brief references to the full lyrics of a song. Chapter 3 focuses on depictions of carnival characters appearing in prints, an important outlet considering that masks and spontaneous street celebrations were banned during the Terror. Throughout this chapter, which looks primarily at the symbolic use of Commedia dell’arte characters, Trévien weaves the themes of role reversal and the rapid changes of fortune of various political factions. Chapter 4 looks at the spectacle of scientific discoveries as a symbol of cultural change and class differences. Trévien points out that science was received ambivalently by the poorer echelons of the Third Estate. Using the theme of vision as an example, on one hand, the sans-culottes in particular were wary of telescopes and microscopes as products of aristocratic education and suspected the instruments used to improve natural vision actually distorted the truth. Magic, which was more familiar to them, was seen as a friend against the science of the enemy. On the other hand, telescopes and similar tools were used symbolically by heroes from Revolutionary theatre to help the progress of the Revolution. Chapter 5 examines the representations of death and the afterlife with running themes of ephemerality and the use of lighting effects, translated from the stage, to add drama to the prints. Trévien’s discussion of political figures who could haunt the Revolution beyond the grave offers insight into the superstitions of Parisian culture in the late eighteenth century and she demonstrates in a convincing manner that ghosts could be specific symbols of fears and regrets. Trévien’s conclusion, though short, admirably summarizes the aims of the book and explains how her research took her beyond her initial project to study the relationships between political and satirical plays and prints. The result is a much broader appreciation of how symbols echoed between different popular media to build up an ever changing street culture which fed and fed from Revolutionary events. This reader especially appreciated Trévien’s assessment of the production of popular culture from both sides of the political spectrum. Her research helps the reader to appreciate how symbols could be re-appropriated in a counter attack or as public opinion changes and used to subvert their original meanings. If one criticism could be made, it is the amount of assumed knowledge about the political figures and Revolutionary events appearing in the prints in the first two thematic chapters. As the book progresses, the background context is more fully explained and this reader wishes that the same level of detail could be extended to the earlier chapters. Overall, Trévien’s interpretations of popular prints are sensitive and thought provoking whilst at the same time being a very easy and engaging read. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png French History Oxford University Press

Satire, prints and theatricality in the French Revolution

French History , Volume Advance Article (2) – May 3, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
0269-1191
eISSN
1477-4542
D.O.I.
10.1093/fh/cry011
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Claire Trévien offers in her book an impressively wide-reaching and accessible analysis of cheaply produced prints, which were circulating in Paris between 1789 and 1794. Trévien quite rightly draws attention to this under-appreciated medium of Revolutionary culture, which provides a new insight into the consumption of politics during the early years of the French Revolution. Satirical prints were part of a network of artistic media, which frequently contained references to the revolutionary songs, plays and street spectacles such as public executions or scientific demonstrations, which were also available at the time. These references point to an ephemeral language of symbols built up from theatrical or street performances and reinforced by repetition through prints. The prints, which could be produced by print makers who were little wealthier than the paying public or be commissioned by the government at the time or political figures hoping to influence public opinion, show how print makers communicated with their audiences to establish political rapports through culture. The book is set out with a short introduction and literature review followed by four longer chapters each of which covers a particular subject matter in the prints discussed. Trévien restricts her subject material to the years 1789–1794 but concludes each of the longer chapters with an epilogue, which explains how the subject touched in that chapter developed after the Terror. Chapter 2, the first of the thematic chapters, studies the illustrations, which were printed on Revolutionary song sheets. Trévien makes a case study out of the work by one print maker, Bonvalet, to show how his tastes and the tastes of his audience were reflected in the prints on offer. This reader particularly liked the analysis of the experiments made by print makers to innovate new ways of making the song lyrics and the prints interact with each other, sometimes only including brief references to the full lyrics of a song. Chapter 3 focuses on depictions of carnival characters appearing in prints, an important outlet considering that masks and spontaneous street celebrations were banned during the Terror. Throughout this chapter, which looks primarily at the symbolic use of Commedia dell’arte characters, Trévien weaves the themes of role reversal and the rapid changes of fortune of various political factions. Chapter 4 looks at the spectacle of scientific discoveries as a symbol of cultural change and class differences. Trévien points out that science was received ambivalently by the poorer echelons of the Third Estate. Using the theme of vision as an example, on one hand, the sans-culottes in particular were wary of telescopes and microscopes as products of aristocratic education and suspected the instruments used to improve natural vision actually distorted the truth. Magic, which was more familiar to them, was seen as a friend against the science of the enemy. On the other hand, telescopes and similar tools were used symbolically by heroes from Revolutionary theatre to help the progress of the Revolution. Chapter 5 examines the representations of death and the afterlife with running themes of ephemerality and the use of lighting effects, translated from the stage, to add drama to the prints. Trévien’s discussion of political figures who could haunt the Revolution beyond the grave offers insight into the superstitions of Parisian culture in the late eighteenth century and she demonstrates in a convincing manner that ghosts could be specific symbols of fears and regrets. Trévien’s conclusion, though short, admirably summarizes the aims of the book and explains how her research took her beyond her initial project to study the relationships between political and satirical plays and prints. The result is a much broader appreciation of how symbols echoed between different popular media to build up an ever changing street culture which fed and fed from Revolutionary events. This reader especially appreciated Trévien’s assessment of the production of popular culture from both sides of the political spectrum. Her research helps the reader to appreciate how symbols could be re-appropriated in a counter attack or as public opinion changes and used to subvert their original meanings. If one criticism could be made, it is the amount of assumed knowledge about the political figures and Revolutionary events appearing in the prints in the first two thematic chapters. As the book progresses, the background context is more fully explained and this reader wishes that the same level of detail could be extended to the earlier chapters. Overall, Trévien’s interpretations of popular prints are sensitive and thought provoking whilst at the same time being a very easy and engaging read. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

French HistoryOxford University Press

Published: May 3, 2018

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