No one seriously interested in the theater today would be very surprised by a moderen drama anthology that began with Georg Buchner's "Danton's Death" (1835) and concluded with Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade" (1964). These two plays show that the French Revolution, whatever else it has been seemed or signified, remains a splended dramatic subject, dramatic both in the narrow sense of a mortal conflict between individuals or factions and in the general sense of a stirring spectacle. While Buchner and Weiss each chose to use the revolution as a vehicle for a drama of ideas, it can also be presented effectively as a pageant of personalities and events. Thomas Carlyle treated it brilliantly that way, and although scholar Alfred Cobban calls the famous history "that Hollywood scenario," he admits that Carlyle's vision of the French Revolution is the one that prevails in England to this day.
Christopher Hibbert, author of "Charles I," "The Grand Tour," "Agincourt" and other fine books, also writes pageant history here but structures it like a chronicle play. He uses a prologue (the only crudely discordant section) to summarize what preceded -- not the "causes" -- and an epilogue to sketch what came after -- not the "results" -- and 10 dramatic scenes. These chapters have titles beginning "The Day of . . ." (a clever use of the French journee, with its emphasis on occasions rather than hours) and this gives a parallel construction to the book as a whole. Within each chapter the narative centers on a climactic event. Yet the book is not merely a chain of crises; Hibbert contrives to lead up and away from each section's scene a faire. For example, "The Day of the Tennis Court Oath, 20 June 1789" actually begins on May 2 with the king in the Hall of Mirrors; the curtain comes down on July 12 as Camille Desmoulins brandishes his pistols, the moment, according to theorist of revolutionaries James Billington, that the revolution may be said to have begun.
"When you undertake to run a revolution, the difficulty is not to make it go; it is to hold it in check," said Mirabeau in 1789. Within a year the complexity and pace of events was such that the chapter titles here read "Day" instead of "Day," as for Chapter 6: "The Days of the September Massacres and the Execution of the King, 2-7 September 1792 and 21 January 1793." At the precise center of the book, these events are of major importance. The appalling massacres were enacted apparently by ordinary citizens (though some French historians claim by paid thugs) incited by Marat, ignored by Danton. The Septembrists swept through the Paris prisons and slaughtered 1,200 inmates in a theater of cruelty that makes the later official Terror appear judicious. Women danced on corpses, "some with ears pinned to their dresses"; the blond head of the mutilated Princesse de Lamballe was carried on a pike past the window of her dear friend the queen, a tableau that still provides frissons to school-children in the Paris waxworks museum.
The last four chapters, before the epilogue and Napoleon, provide a somber but fascinating denouement, a parade of paranoid antagonisms among unstable leaders and the resultant deaths by violence of virtually every man or woman named on the preceding pages, among them the queen and the Duc d'Orleans, Marat and Charlotte Corday, Danton and Mme. Roland, Camille Desmoulins and St. Just; even finally the "poetaster turned hangman," Robespierre, who "liked declamatory tragedies" but who went to the guillotine speechless -- semi-concious and with a shattered jaw. Perhaps rather than tragedy these scenes might be called Grand Guignol.
While the biliography and acknowledgments confirm that Hibbert has consulted eminent authorities past and present, he offers neither their judgments nor his own, but rather the drama of the revolution, its amazing actions and actors. The obvious danger is that this kind of approach tends to focus on violent deeds and flamboyant personalities, and to neglect oppressive conditions and the sufferings of the obscure. Nevertheless, since this book is explicitly intended for a "general audience unfamiliar with the subject," Hibbert was probably sensible to concentrate on the events and characters and to leave speculation on causes, effects, rights and wrongs to scholars, and to playwrights, some of whom may even have had their interest in the history awakened by popular books that were well-written, lucid and vivid, like this.