Hugo as Hero

February 25: On this day in 1830, on the eve of his twenty-eighth birthday, Victor Hugo's Hernani premiered in Paris. The opening night is regarded as one of the most momentous in French theater history, part of a larger conflict between the new-wave bohemians in Hugo's "Romantic Army" and the old-guard Classicists. Hugo had recently published what amounted to a Manifesto of Romanticism, calling for an end to the old rules and proprieties. The like-minded artists and bohemians of Paris—a group which included Dumas, Berlioz, Gérard de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier—saw the premiere of Hernani as an opportunity to rally behind this call, to provoke the bourgeoisie, and to have a grand time.

 

Anticipating a battle, Hugo had rallied his troops, and deployed them as replacements for the customary claquers, or hired clappers. The young Romanticists were not as organized as the professionals—a chef de claque to direct things, commissaries to chat up the play at intermissions, rieurs to laugh, pleurers to cry, etc.—but they were loud, and dressed in whatever eye-catching, anti-bourgeois costume could be mustered (Gautier, for example, in his signature red waistcoat with lime green pants).

 

The first skirmish came long before the curtain. Hugo's supporters numbered in the hundreds, and arrangements had been made to admit them to the theater early, but when they assembled in mid-afternoon they found the doors locked. This gave passersby the opportunity to hurl catcalls and cabbages. But once in, the group still had time to picnic for three hours; when the other playgoers arrived it was to rolling bottles, leftover baguettes and the smell of garlic sausage—some reported worse, the theater's washrooms apparently being over-challenged or underused. The Romantics and the Classicists clashed verbally and sometimes physically throughout the evening, and on every night throughout the play's entire run of forty-five performances.

 

Hugo had asked his friends "to help me in pulling out this last tooth from the old Classic Pegasus." Viewing opening night as their triumph, he and the Army carried the celebration on well into the morning, turning the occasion into a birthday celebration for both Romanticism and its most famous champion.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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