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Charles IX ,

or

La Saint Barthélemy

by

Marie-Joseph Chénier

History to serve the Revolution

I conceived, I executed, before the Revolution, a tragedy the Revolution alone could put on stage.
I chose, dare I say, the most tragic subject of modern history: the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
No other, perhaps, could offer as strong a picture of tyranny combined with fanaticism.
I strove to faithfully reproduce the indecisive, fearful, and cruel character of the king…

Marie-Joseph Chénier

1572

For the past ten years, the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants have been tearing France apart. The Protestant prince Henri de Navarre and Marguerite de Valois, sister of the King Charles IX, have just been married. Charles IX, under the control of his mother Catherine de Médicis and influenced by the Cardinal de Lorraine and the duc de Guise, has lost all sense of judgement and has ordered the massacre of the Protestants gathered in Paris for the wedding.

Act II
Scene I, l. 321-325

the Queen Mother
My son, do not think otherwise, this murder is necessary.
the King
But in a time of peace !
the Queen Mother
Do you think that peace is sincere ?
the King
But to murder an entire people !
the Queen Mother
Without a doubt. It’s a matter of ruling.
the King
This terrible blow could at least wait !
the Queen Mother
Let us strike this very night.

1789

Marie-Joseph Chénier writes Charles IX, ou la Saint-Barthélemy. On the eve of the Revolution, he thus sends a warning to King Louis XVI : a power that does not represent the people, that serves religious fanaticism, and that submits itself to the interests of high aristocratic families is nothing but tyranny.

Act V
Scene IV, l. 645-648

le roi de france
The bloodthirsty taught my mouth to feign;
Their voice, in my soul, has stifled nature;
I have betrayed country, and honor, and justice:
Heaven, in striking me, sets an example for other kings.

F For two years, Chénier fights those he calls “inquisitors of thought” to put on his play. His tragedy is finally staged November 4, 1789 at the Theatre de la Nation. It is a great success with the public but sparks strong debate.

In the role of Charles IX, François-Joseph Talma debuts a remarkable career. However, his commitment to the Revolution divides the Troupe of the Théâtre-Français into the Reds, those in favor of the Revolution, and the Blacks, those attached to the old order. Talma and the Reds leave the Théâtre-Français and settle in the theater of the Palais-Royal, which takes the name of “Théâtre-Français de la rue de Richelieu” before becoming Théâtre de la République in September 1792.

When he publishes his play in 1790, Chénier adopts the subtitle that the public has given him : Charles IX, ou la Saint-Barthélemy becomes Charles IX, ou l’École des rois.

[Theatre]
has long been a school of adulation, of blandness, of depravity ;
we must turn it into a school of virtue and of freedom.

Marie-Joseph Chénier, “Épître dédicatoire à la Nation française”, décembre 1789

Visit our website to discover how in Charles IX, Marie-Joseph Chénier uses history to serve the Revolution (in French) :