Marie-Joseph Chénier

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Marie-Joseph Blaise de Chénier , (born February 11, 1764 in Constantinople , † January 10, 1811 in Paris ), was a French writer. He is considered the most important playwright of the French Revolution , but is now as good as forgotten.

Marie-Joseph Chénier ( Jean-Baptiste Huet , 1788)

Life and work

Marie-Joseph Chénier (as he is usually called in literary histories) was the brother of the now more well-known and more important author André Chénier , who was almost a year and a half younger . He was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as the son of a French nobleman who had become a businessman there and a member of the then still strong Greek minority of the city. In 1765 the family went to France, initially to Paris. While the father took up the post of French consul in the Moroccan port city of Salé a little later , the mother stayed with the two older children in Paris. The two younger ones, Marie-Joseph and André, became an uncle in Carcassonneentrusted. In 1773 they both came to Paris, where they attended the Collège de Navarre and met writers, artists and scholars in the salon of their intellectually interested mother.

In 1781, at the age of fifteen, Chénier began a military career as a cadet in a dragoons regiment in Niort . Two years later, however, he gave up on it, went back to his family in Paris and followed his literary inclinations, just like his brother André, who had abandoned an even shorter attempt at a regiment in Strasbourg that same year.

As early as 1785, thanks to the mediation of the playwright Palissot , a friend of his family , his first play was accepted and performed, the “heroic comedy” Edgar, roi d'Angleterre, ou Le Page supposé . The play fell through, as did his second tragedy Azémire , which imitated Voltaire in 1787 .

In 1788 Chénier completed his next piece: the historical tragedy Charles IX ou La Saint-Barthélemy (printed in 1790 and reworked in 1797 as Charles IX ou L'École des rois ), set on the infamous Bartholomew's Night in 1572 . It was accepted by the Comédie Française , but not approved by the censors. For the figures (a fickle king, a queen who manipulated him, a power-hungry high aristocratic courtier, a cardinal who ruthlessly pursued the interests of the church, a righteous but powerless chancellor of bourgeois origin and a philosopher and reformer who was murdered in the end) embodied political actors all too obviously in France at the time, that is, immediately before the outbreak of the revolution. It was not until the end of 1789, after long public discussions about the freedom of the theater, in which Chénier himself intervened with two pamphlets, and thanks to a strongly changed political situation, the play could be performed. It now experienced a triumphant success, also at provincial theaters, and became the most widely played, albeit strongly hostile, French drama of the early 1790s. In the title role, the actor François Talma established his fame.

Similar to Charles IX , another piece of Chéniers fared in early 1789, Henri VIII ou La Tyrannie , which was also accepted by the Comédie Française, but received no approval. It was only performed in 1791 in the new pro-revolutionary Théâtre de la République , which had been founded shortly before by Talma and some of his Comédie Française colleagues.

It was here that the other historical tragedies that Chénier wrote over the next few years were premiered, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. They were all politically motivated and hardly coded to refer to current events and developments: 1792 Jean Calas , ou L'École des juges and Caius Gracchus , 1793 Fénelon ou Les Religieuses de Cambrai and 1794 Timoléon .

Politically intended, like his pieces, was most of the extensive occasional and / or utility poetry that Chénier wrote for various occasions during these years, especially for the public celebrations and festivals that he helped organize. These include For example, an Ode sur la mort de Mirabeau (1791), the Strophes qui seront chantées au Champ de la Fédération le 14 juillet 1792 , a hymn sur la translation du corps de Voltaire , a hymn à l'Être suprême (1793) Chant des Sections de Paris (1793), a hymn à la liberté, pour l'inauguration de son temple dans la commune de Paris (1793), the Hymne du 10 août (1794) etc.

The best known of these texts, which were set to music by various composers, was the Chant du départ (song of departure / farewell, melody by Étienne Nicolas Méhul), which Chénier wrote in 1793 on the occasion of the deployment of the revolutionary armies against Austria and Prussia.

By 1792 at the latest, Chénier also developed into an active politician. He became a member of the National Convention , where he was a member of the Committee on Popular Education. He belonged to the faction of the mountain party and was a member of the Cordeliers . At his request, the establishment of primary schools was decided in 1792 . In 1793 he was instrumental in the dissolution of the royal academies (including the Académie Française ). Naturally, in 1792 he belonged to the majority of MPs who passed the death sentence for King Louis XVI. confirmed.

During the subsequent radicalization of the revolution in the dictatorial terror regime of 1793/94, Chénier fell into political sideline. His play Timoléon was considered directed against him by the dictator Robespierre and banned. He also no longer had the necessary influence to stand up for his brother André, who was imprisoned in March 1794, and to prevent his beheading (July 25th).

After Robespierre's fall and the establishment of the successor regime, the Directory (1795), Chénier was appointed a member of the Council of Five Hundred , one of the two chambers of a newly created pseudo-parliament. With the establishment of the successor organization of the dissolved former academies, the Institut de France , he managed to get a place in its third "class" (literature and fine arts).

When the Timoléon was resumed in 1795 , opponents of Chénier saw it as the coded admission of guilt for the death of his brother André. Chénier defended himself with the passionate verses of the Épître sur la calomnie ( 1796 ), which many consider to be his masterpiece.

Under the regime of the consulate that followed the Directory in 1799, he was appointed a member of the Tribunate , a chamber of the next new pseudo-parliament. A more important political career was again denied him because he tried to combat the restorative tendencies that had started under the Directory and gained strength in the following years.

In 1801 he made a front against the resurgence of Catholicism and attacked its figureheads Chateaubriand , Jean-François de La Harpe and Madame de Genlis with the satirical writings Le docteur Pancrace and Les nouveaux saints . In 1802, with the Petite épître à Jacques Delille, he attacked this poet, who had also returned from emigration and who seemed to be offering himself all too opportunistically to the new masters.

Despite his growing distance from the new strong man Napoleon Bonaparte , Chénier was appointed Inspector General of the "Université" in 1803, d. H. of the overall system of French education created under this name.

His drama Cyrus, commissioned by Napoleon in 1804 for his coronation as emperor and performed in this context, appealed neither to the audience nor to the new emperor himself, who disliked Chénier's covert plea for a republican constitution. It was only performed once.

After Chénier had shown himself again as a republican in his Elegie La Promenade (1805) in 1805 and in 1806 in an Épître à Voltaire Napoleon had indirectly accused Napoleon of betraying the ideals of the revolution, he was removed from his position as inspector. At least he was granted an adequate pension.

In the following years he wrote other plays that were neither performed nor printed: the tragedies Philippe II , Œdipe roi and Œdipe à Colone (after Sophocles ), the drama Nathan le Sage (after Lessing ) and the comedy Ninon .

In addition, he held a series of lectures (1806/07) at the Athénée in Paris on the literature of his time, the Tableau historique de l'état et du progrès de la littérature française depuis 1789 , in which he championed the ideals of the Enlightenment and the beginning Romanticism as restorative criticized.

In 1811 the historical play Tibère , where he criticized Napoleon in the figure of the Roman emperor Tiberius , was his last work.

His vacant chair in the Institut de France fell to Chateaubriand, who practically left him unmentioned in his laudatory speech.

Since almost all of Chénier's texts were intended in a certain ideological sense, i. H. tried to take contemporary viewers / listeners / readers against the monarchy and for the republic, they became obsolete during the author's lifetime due to the course of political developments. Even later literary historiography, in spite of this or that attempt to save honor, did not grant Chénier the place in literary history that he deserved at a certain point in time due to its great importance.

Works (according to the French wiki)


  • Edgar, ou le Page supposé, drame en 2 actes, Paris, Comédie-Française (1785)
  • Azémire, tragédie représentée à Fontainebleau on November 4, 1786 et à la Comédie-Française on November 6, 1786
  • Charles IX, ou la Saint-Barthélemy, tragédie en 5 actes, Paris, Comédie-Française, 4 November 1789, rebaptisée ultérieurement Charles IX, ou l'école des rois.
  • Brutus et Cassius ou les derniers Romains, tragédie (1790, non représentée): tentative d'adapter le Julius Caesar de Shakespeare aux canons de la dramaturgie classique.
  • Henri VIII, tragédie en 5 actes, Paris, théâtre de la République, 27 avril 1791: c'était la tragédie préférée de son auteur; elle pêche par les mêmes défauts que les autres - intrigue peu intéressante, caractères mal dessinés - mais offre davantage de pathétique, notamment dans le personnage d'Anne Boleyn.
  • Jean Calas, ou l'école des juges, tragédie en 5 actes, Paris, théâtre de la République, 6 juillet 1791: du début à la fin, cette pièce assez ennuyeuse n'offre que le spectacle de la vertu opprimée par un fanatisme tout -puissant. Elle ne fut jouée que trois fois.
  • Caius Gracchus, tragédie en 3 actes, Paris, théâtre de la République, 9 février 1792: le personnage principal est un peu plus fortement tracé qu'à l'accoutumé dans les pièces de Chénier et on relève quelques belles tirades, mais l'action est nonexistent.
  • Le Camp de Grand-Pré, ou le triomphe de la République, divertissement lyrique en 1 acte, Paris, Académie de musique, January 27, 1793, musique de François-Joseph Gossec, chorégraphie de Pierre-Gabriel Gardel: Ce divertissement, composé à l 'automne 1792, est destiné à célébrer la bataille de Valmy. The future représenté à l'Opéra avec un succès limité.
  • Fénelon, ou la Religieuse de Cambrai, tragédie en 5 actes, Paris, théâtre de la République, 9 février 1793: la pièce connut le succès grâce à l'interprétation de Fénelon par Monvel.
  • Timoléon, tragédie en 3 actes avec des chœurs, musique d'Étienne Nicolas Méhul (1794)
  • Cyrus, tragedy (1804)
  • Tibère (1819), tragédie en cinq actes, représentée pour la première fois en 1844: sans doute le chef d'œuvre dramatique de Marie-Joseph Chénier.
  • Philippe II, tragédie en 5 acts.
  • Œdipe roi, tragédie en 5 actes avec chœurs, imitée de Sophocle.
  • Œdipe à Colone
  • Nathan le Sage, drama en 3 actes, imité de Lessing.
  • Les Portraits de famille, comédie.
  • Ninon, comedy.

Poetry and other things

  • Epître à mon père (1787)
  • La Mort du duc de Brunswick, ode (1787)
  • Poème sur l'assemblée des notables (1787)
  • Dialogue du public et de l'anonyme (1788)
  • Le Ministre et l'Homme de lettres, dialogue (1788)
  • Courtes réflexions sur l'état civil des comédiens (1789)
  • Dénonciation des inquisiteurs de la pensée (1789)
  • Idées pour un cahier du tiers-état de la ville de Paris (1789)
  • De la Liberté du Théâtre en France (1789)
  • Dithyrambe sur l'Assemblée nationale (1789)
  • Epître au Roi (1789)
  • Lettre à M. le comte de Mirabeau sur les dispositions naturelles, nécessaires et indubitables des officiers et des soldats français et étrangers (1789)
  • Hymn for the Fete de la Fédération, le 14 juillet 1790
  • Ode sur la mort de Mirabeau (1791)
  • Opinion on le procès du Roi (1792)
  • Strophes qui seront chantées au Champ de la Fédération le 14 juillet 1792, musique de François-Joseph Gossec
  • Hymn sur la translation du corps de Voltaire, musique de François-Joseph Gossec (1793)
  • Hymn à l'Être suprême (1793)
  • Chant des Sections de Paris (1793)
  • Hymn à la liberté, pour l'inauguration de son temple dans la commune de Paris, 20 brumaire at II, musique de Gossec
  • L'hymne du 10 août, musique de Charles Simon Catel
  • Le Triomphe de la République
  • Le Chant du Départ, musique d'Étienne Nicolas Méhul (1794)
  • Ode à la Calomnie, en réponse à la ″ Queue de Robespierre ″ (1794)
  • Hymn à la Raison (1794)
  • Chant des Victoires (1794)
  • Ode sur la situation de la République française durant l'oligarchie de Robespierre (1794)
  • Hymn you 9 thermidor (1795)
  • Le Docteur Pancrace, satire (1796)
  • Epître sur la calomnie (1796)
  • Le Vieillard d'Ancenis, poème sur la mort du général Hoche (1797)
  • Hymn pour la pompe funèbre du général Hoche (1797)
  • Le Chant du Retour (1797)
  • Pie VI et Louis XVIII (1798)
  • Discours sur les progrès des connaissances en Europe et de l'enseignement public en France (1800)
  • Les Nouveaux Saints (1800)
  • Les Miracles, conte dévot (1802)
  • Petite épître à Jacques Delille (1802)
  • Les Deux Missionnaires (1803)
  • Discours en vers sur les poèmes descriptifs (1805)
  • La Promenade (1805)
  • Epître à Voltaire (1806)
  • La Retraite (1806)
  • Homage à une belle action (1809)
  • Tableau historique de l'état et des progrès de la littérature française depuis 1789 (1818)
  • Épître à Eugénie
  • Épître d'un journaliste à l'Empereur

Work editions

  • Théâtre complet , 3 volumes, edited by Pierre Claude François Daunou, Paris 1818
  • Œuvres complètes , 8 volumes, edited by Vincent Arnault with an introduction and studies by Daunou and Népomucène Lemercier, 1823–1826

Web links