Battle for Hernani

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The battle for Hernani (also: Theaterschlacht , French: bataille d'Hernani ) was a theater scandal on February 25, 1830 in Paris , which shaped the history of literature and theater. The world premiere of Victor Hugo's play Hernani degenerated into loud and tangible arguments among the audience. On the stage of the famous Comédie-Française a kind of melodrama was performed that was reminiscent of the proletarian theaters on the Boulevard du Temple . Supporters of classical theater fought a real theatrical battle with supporters of a more modern form, later known as the Romantics . The romantic theater ultimately won a brilliant victory in France in the early 19th century .


Comédie-Française, interior view
at the end of the 18th century

The setting was the venerable Théâtre-Français , today's Comédie-Française . The theater was a haven of the classical tradition. But already in 1829 something new emerged with the performance of the historical drama Henry the Third and His Court ( Henri III et sa cour ) by Alexandre Dumas . Victor Hugo was therefore able to perform his play on this most prestigious stage in France.

Paris, on the other hand, was a suitable place for a conflict of opinion. Unlike in Germany, for example, France's writers have concentrated in the capital for centuries and formed a kind of critical mass there for all kinds of intellectual chain reactions. One could recruit his auxiliary troops ("Claque") from the circle of artistic acquaintances for a directional competition. - Revolts of a lower theater genre against a higher one also had a tradition, as in the Buffonist dispute of the 18th century.


In 1827 Hugo wrote his first verse drama, Cromwell , whose foreword, the famous Préface de Cromwell , became the manifesto of the new romantic theater and the romantic school in general. The man of letters thus became the leading figure among the romantics who gathered in the Le Cénacle circle , a literary salon initiated by Charles Nodier .

Hugo's novel Le dernier jour d'un condamné à mort , put on paper in 1829, was a plea against the death penalty and a hidden criticism of the regime. He could be sure of increased attention from the censors . In 1829 he wrote the melodramatic historical pieces Marion Delorme , which was banned as critical of the regime before performance, and Hernani . In the latter, Victor Hugo, as a forerunner of French Romanticism, broke with the stylistic laws of the classics by incorporating virtuoso puns and irregular meter measures into the text.


Hernani was conceived by its author as a prototype of romantic drama. This work by a young author who had already made a name for himself ignored the classic rules of the three units and used a vocabulary that was completely unfamiliar in the theater and mixed lyric , trivial and platitudes .

Hugo chose the Spanish royal court at the time of Charles V as the subject . The plot revolves around the love of the young Hernani for a young woman who is also desired by her uncle and the king. The actors stir up feelings in the audience, supported by all sorts of loud noise effects, which are abruptly followed by quiet moments. In this drama, only Charles V, who has now become emperor, survives the final act of the formative stage characters.


Albert Besnard : The premiere of Hernani , painting from 1903, Maison Victor-Hugo, Paris

Hugo was often present during the rehearsal of the play , made changes to the text and influenced the actors. Before the premiere, parodies and alleged text excerpts were already in circulation. The press reported about the play. The members of the literary circle, on the other hand, were familiar with the material through readings.

For the premiere on February 25th, fans of the classic regular theater as well as the entire mobilized circle of friends of the Cénacle came together for the prototypically romantic piece. Soon, bourgeois theatergoers and bohemian people emerged as two currents with opposing views on what was going on on the stage.

Participants in the “battle” of applause and boos during the performance included Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier . Gautier appeared that day with a provocative vermilion doublet, the legendary gilet rouge , which is unseemly in the theater . He acted as one of the loudest claqueurs in the audience.

On stage, the actress Mademoiselle Mars and her partners tried to continue the performance despite the surging “battle” in the audience, which did not dampen the anger in the hall. After Hugo's break with the classic rules, the actress had stipulated some freedom in worrying about her reputation. In the auditorium, people insulted each other profusely during the wildly fought opinion battle and there were some clashes in the illustrious crowd.

At the end of the performance, despite all the calamities, French romanticism was born. As elsewhere, it was a countercurrent to the rationality of the Enlightenment . The romantic literature established with the performance continued to deal with elements of the irrational, the infinite or even metaphysical material.

Follow-up time

With the turmoil at the premiere, however, the “Battle for Hernani” was not over for good. The following performances were always sold out, and opinions were mostly divided. The theater war cast a spell over visitors for many weeks. Followers of the classical theater appeared again and again as noisy provocateurs in the Théâtre Français .

After over a decade of success for his romantic plays, Hugo's series ended with the diarrhea of Les Burgraves ( The Burgraves ) among the theater audience in 1843.

Victor Hugos Hernani formed the basis for Giuseppe Verdi's opera Ernani , which was written in 1844.


With his play Hernani , Hugo followed his conviction that the bourgeois era of the post-Napoleonic era needed its own artistic expression. At the festivities he rattled the classical rules, which had been regarded as sacrosanct in French theater. For him, nature and truth belonged in the foreground - the theater should offer not only the sublime, but also the grotesque. The focus of the content should be the conflicts of the present, illustrated in exemplary situations from past epochs. Hugo threw the conventional dramaturgy with its unity of place, time and action overboard and only accepted the principle of unity of action. For costumes and decorations it is enough if they meet the local color .


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