Publication Date

December 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


For six weeks, from the middle of March, 1989 to the end of April, the Theatre of the Jeune Lune’s “1789” played to crowded and enthusiastic Twin Cities’ audiences. Of the many (over 600) events taking place in the United States during this Bicentennial year, their triumph, at least in part the result of a happy collusion between the historical and the dramatic arts, deserves some notice.

Whatever one may think about the French Revolution, its causes and outcomes, there can be little doubt that it was, and this deliberately so, spectacularly dramatic. In the last century Romantics like Balzac, Michelet, and Georg Buechner took full advantage of this quality. In this century, from Abel Gance through Peter Weiss and Ariene Mnouchkine to Andrej Wajda the tradition has continued; their works have seized upon the Revolution and its cast of characters and made of them compelling entertainments, as many Americans have discovered this year. Why then write another play about the Revolution? This question had to be answered not only for the benefit of potential sponsors but to create the central core, the action of the play. “What are we celebrating?” This was the question asked by one of the company’s writers in one of our first sessions and became the main focus of our discussions in the early days of our collaboration.

But I am getting ahead of my story. For almost two years before the advent of the Bicentennial, the Theatre of the Jeune Lune, a French-American theater company based in the Twin Cities, had been working intermittently on creating an original script for a play on the French Revolution. When I first talked with the company’s directors in the spring of 1987 they were already wrestling with the question of how to make the Revolution accessible to a popular audience, precisely the problem that I felt had not been sufficiently addressed in many of the bicentennial projects I had heard about which seemed to cater almost exclusively to a public of academic humanists and their social, cultural, and business fellow-travelers.

With a grant from the Minnesota Humanities Commission, I joined forces with the Jeune Lune Company in the spring of 1988 as a historical consultant. For me, the great virtures of our project were, first of all, that I would be working with a theater group whose professionalism, originality, and creativity had impressed Twin Cities’ audiences for a decade (the production of “1789” marked the tenth anniversary of the Jeune Lune’s existence). Secondly, from our initial discussions it became clear to me that the group wanted to work with the historical record. Though they didn’t want to write a dramatized summary of a textbook, they wanted their play to reflect upon and engage with the actual words, thoughts, and actions of the participants in the Revolution. This inevitably led us to that agonized question that began and continued to center our mutual efforts: “What are we celebrating?”

From the first of our meetings, what surprised me (it speaks more to the provincialism of us so-called humanists) was the seriousness with which the company plunged into the sources on the Revolution. They immediately asked me for a bibliography, especially works that provided a sense of the personal experience of the Revolution—diaries, testimony, recollections, letters. In the spring of 1988, I gave them several two-hour lectures on the Revolution, which they listened to with astounding patience. But as I displayed my mastery of the complexity of causes and outcomes that informed the Revolution, embellished with all the drama and color that I could muster, some of them grew restive. At the end of our second session, Dominique Serrand, the director, looked me straight in the eye and gave me my marching orders: “When you come back, sum up what the Revolution was all about in words that a six-year-old could understand!”

Historians “complexify”—it is their daily bread. But actors need a storyline (the Jeune Lune is very much an acting company), a dominant idea that unfolds, that serves as the spine, the main-spring of their engagement with a text and an audience. Historians are trained to avoid the moral of the story, actors embrace it with joy and enthusiasm. This tension between their need to simplify the masses of data and interpretation they possessed in order to create a dramatic compression that would be comprehensible to an audience, and my desire to preserve some fidelity to detail and a certain historicity, enriched our collaboration.

It was the Jeune Lune’s version of the Revolution; they invented a French Revolution. As their historical consultant, it was not my task to censor their ideas but to help them construct their version. As I worked with the company, I was struck with how similar the process was to what I tried to do (and admittedly often failed to do) with my own students. Finally, I congratulated myself on how neatly the whole process accorded with what we finally agreed was the central theme, “the moral” of our story and my response to Serrand’s challenge, albeit not quite on a six-year-old’s level. The Revolution was about political imagination, about people imagining a new society, inventing new words and new ways of dealing with what had been and what should be, struggling with the dangers of putting utopian dreams into practice. The Revolution was about triumph and tragedy, hardly a novel interpretation, and certainly Rousseauist in coloration, but informed (I hoped) by some of the current scholarship on the Revolution. I think we all felt that what the Jeune Lune was doing was part of the moral of the story: as the Revolution has once been invented, so it must be reinvented, reimagined, in order for it to be comprehended.

After a careful decision not to attempt a panorama about the whole Revolution but to limit themselves to the year of 1789, the Jeune Lune’s writers devised a storyline that followed a small group of deputies of the Third Estate from the convocation of the Estates General through the tumultuous summer of 1789. For the purposes of this production, the company acquired a large, rectangular, stripped warehouse, the Guthrie Theater’s Laboratory space. The play was performed on a runway between the audience seated on raised tiers on either side, with stages at either end. The stairway as well as bridges across the width of the rectangle and high platforms attached to the walls were also used as playing spaces. This arrangement allowed the players a freedom from the usual scenic conventions by providing a scenic architecture rather than just a set, thus giving an unusual breadth and scale to the action. A very talented composer, Chan Poling, a member of the former successful rock group The Suburbs was engaged to create a synthesized sound score, which was combined with “live” violin music. With scenes linked by music and an unusually flexible space, the format allowed other subsidiary actions to be established, such as a group of scenes set in the Palais Royal, a country village, or the streets of Paris.

By the end of the autumn the company was developing a script which was to be firmed up in the month of December. Unfortunately I found myself in the hospital with a serious medical problem from mid-November through all of December. When I emerged from my medical difficulties in early January 1989, I found the company in rehearsal shaping a bulky script of loosely connected scenes that they estimated ran for about twelve hours. From my point of view the next few weeks were the most enjoyable and profitable segment of my collaboration with the company. Working with the dramaturge, Paul Walsh, the director, Dominique Serrand, the five actor-writers, Vincent Gracieux, Felicity Jones, Robert Rosen, Barbara Berlovitz Desbois, and Christopher Bayes, and all the rest of the troupe including John Clark Donahue, founder of the noted Children’s Theater Company, I answered questions about the context and motivation of events and actors in the Revolution, edited out evident anachronisms, and helped reshape some bits and pieces. Watching and, as best I could, participating in the collective endeavor of creating an exciting, tightly paced, two-and-a-half hour production taught me something about the way the theater can be used to powerfully communicate complex ideas and connections.

The play that emerged in these last weeks forcefully communicated the spirit animating the commencement of the Revolution. Organized into two acts, the play began with a framing prologue drawn from the Social Contract and then embarked upon a journey following a small group of people (the famous and not-so-famous) from village to Versailles, from the Palais Royal to the taking of the Bastille during the spring and summer of 1789 as the Third Estate’s challenge to the established order matured into open defiance. The second act reemphasized the creativity and originality of the revolutionaries, the nature of their journey from the known to the unknown, by focusing on the two celebrated victories achieved by the end of the summer: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the formal abolition on the night of August 4 of the Ancien Regime’s whole structure of rank and privilege. The play ended in a last utopian scene, recapitulating the Jeune Lune’s “moral” to the story, a revolution of imagination that continues to inspire hope for change and social justice in the world today.

You can argue with the moral of their story; indeed reviewers and members of the general audience, while enthusiastically receptive to the Jeune Lune’s creation, pointed out the rather “sixties” tone of the last scene. What cannot be denied the company is the reality of their achievement. They spoke to an audience unfamiliar with the history of the French Revolution and one which generally had no particular reason to celebrate its Bicentennial. Not only were they familiarized with the issues raised by the Revolution, but the audience gained a compelling sense of the humanity of the men and women involved. The audience left the auditorium in awe of the courage and pride of the Revolutionaries and what they accomplished.

Carl Weiner teaches French history in the department of history at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota.