Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Source: William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself; comprising a complete journal of his negotiations to procure the aid of the French for the liberation of Ireland, with selections from his diary whilst agent to the Irish Catholics (London: H. Colburn, 1827), vol. 1, pp. 212-215

Production: François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and Christoph Gluck, Iphigénie en Aulide and François-Joseph Gossec, L’Offrande à la Liberté, Théâtre des Arts, Paris, 13 February 1796

Text: In the evening at the Grand Opera, Theatre des Arts; Iphigénie. The theatre magnificent, and I should judge, about one hundred performers in the orchestra. The dresses most beautiful, and a scrupulous attention to costume, in all the decorations, which I have never seen in London. The performers were completely Grecian statues animated, and I never saw so manifestly the superiority of the taste of the ancients in dress, especially as regards the women. Iphigénie (La citoyenne Cheron) was dressed entirely in white, without the least ornament, and nothing can be imagined more truly elegant and picturesque. The acting admirable, but the singing very inferior to that of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The French cannot sing like the Italians. Agamemnon excellent. Clytemnestra still better. Achilles abominable, yet more applauded than either of them. Sang in the old French style, which is most detestable, shaking and warbling on every note: vile! vile! vile! The others sang in a style sufficiently correct. The ballet, L’Offrande à la Liberté most superb. In the centre of the stage was the statue of Liberty, with an altar blazing before her. She was surrounded by the characters in the opera, in their beautiful Grecian habits. The civic air “Veillons au salut de l’Empire” was sung by a powerful base, and received with transport by the audience. Whenever the word, esclavage was uttered, it operated like an electric shock. The Marseillaise hymn was next sung, and produced still greater enthusiasm. At the words, “Aux armes citoyens!” all the performers drew their swords and the females turned to them as encouraging them. Before the last verse there was a short pause; the time of the music was changed to a very slow movement, and supported only by the flutes and oboes; a beautiful procession entered; first little children like cherubs, with baskets of flowers ; these were followed by boys, a little more advanced, with white javelins (the Hasta pura of the ancients) in their hands. Then came two beautiful female figures, moving like the Graces themselves, with torches blazing; these were followed by four negroes, characteristically dressed, and carrying two tripods between them, which they placed respectfully on each side of the altar; next came as many Americans, in the picturesque dress of Mexico; and these were followed by an immense crowd of other performers, variously habited, who ranged themselves on both sides of the stage. The little children then approached the altar with their baskets of flowers, which they laid before the goddess; the rest in turn succeeded, and hung the altar and the base of the statue with garlands and wreaths of roses; the two females with the torches approached the tripods, and, just touching them with the fire, they kindled into a blaze. The whole then knelt down, and all of this was executed in cadence to the music and with grace beyond description. The
first part of the last verse, “Amour sacré de la patrie” was then sung slowly and solemnly, and the words “Liberté, Liberté cherie” with an emphasis which affected me most powerfully. All this was at once pathetic and sublime, beyond what I had ever seen or could almost imagine; but it was followed by an incident which crowned the whole, and rendered it indeed a spectacle worthy of a free republic. At the repetition of the words, Aux armes, citoyens! the music changed again to a martial style, the performers sprung on their feet, and in an instant the stage was filled with National Guards, who rushed in with bayonets fixed, sabres drawn, and the tri-colour flag flying. It would be impossible to describe the effect of this. I never knew what enthusiasm was before; and what heightened it beyond all conception was, that the men I saw before me were not hirelings acting a part; they were what they seemed, French citizens flying to arms, to rescue their country from slavery. They were the men who had precipitated Cobourg into the Sambre, and driven Clairfait over the Rhine, and were, at this very moment, on the eve of again hurrying to the frontiers, to encounter fresh dangers and gain fresh glory. This was what made the spectacle interesting beyond all description. I would willingly sail again from New York to enjoy again what I felt at that moment. Set the ballets of the Haymarket beside this! This sublime spectacle concluded the ballet: but why must I give it so poor a name? It was followed by another ballet, which one might call so, but even this was totally different from what such things used to be. The National Guards were introduced again, and, instead of dancing, at least three-fourths of the exhibition consisted of military evolutions, which, it should seem, are now more to the French taste than allemandes and minuets and pas de deux. So best! It is curious now to consider at what rate one may see all this. I paid for my seat in the boxes one hundred and fifty livres, in assignats, which, at the present rate, is very nearly sixpence sterling. The highest priced seats were but two hundred livres, which is eightpence. I mention this principally to introduce a conjecture which struck me at Havre, but which seems much more probable here, that the Government supports the theatres privately. And, in France, it is excellent policy, where the people are so much addicted to spectacles, of which there are now about twenty in Paris, and all full every night. What would my dearest love have felt at the “L’Offrande à la Liberté?

Comments: Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was an Irish republican who led the Irish rebellion of 1798. He went to Paris in February 1796 to persuade the revolutionary government to assist in an invasion of Ireland. Chrisoph Gluck composed two operas on the classical legend of Iphigenia, Iphigénie en Tauride and Iphigénie en Aulide. The latter had a libretto by François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and was seen by Tone at the Théâtre des Arts, later the Théâtre National de la rue de la Loi, in Paris. ‘La citoyenne Cheron’ was the actress Anne Cameroy or Anne Chéron (1767-18??). François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was a French composer. His L’Offrande à la Liberté was one of several works he wrote in celebration of the French Revolution.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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