The Revolution murders its Poets

Since the late 18th century tragedy has been taking the form of a political drama where the revolution, whether it prevails or not, commits hubris, violates its principles, and collapses. The theme is pervasive in both theater and opera.

Act III of the opera Andrea Chénier (1896), a drama istorico by Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), takes place at the Courtroom of the Revolutionary Tribunal a day before the poet’s execution. His name is called and he is charged with writing against the Revolution. In a defiant response [Sì, fui soldato], he defends himself as a patriot and an honorable man:

“Yes, I was a soldier,

who faced a death in glory, which here you reduce to shame.

I was a man of letters,

who used his pen as a ferocious weapon against hypocrites.”

It is all in vain. Gérard, the sans-culotte who accused him, now tells the tribunal that the indictment is false, the name of justice is tyranny, and concludes “here we murder our poets” yet Cheniér is sentenced to death and the crowd jeers.

André Chénier (1762–94), a French poet and translator of Greek and Franco-Levantine descent and a precursor of Romanticism, was a constitutional monarchist and moderate supporter of the French Revolution who was guillotined at 31, just three days before Maximilien Robespierre, on false charges of counter-revolutionary conspiracy and “crimes against the state.” Always caught between patriotism and melancholy, he wrote idyllist, elegiac, didactic, philosophical, and satirical verses while seeking his true destiny in love.

 

February 8, 2015

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