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Picture of Victor Hugo, author of Hernani, Les Miserables, and Hunchback of Notre Dame; dramatist / playwright; nineteenth century French Literature

February 25, 1830
Victor Hugo   (1802 - 1885)
Hugo, Hernani, Hero
by Steve King

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On this day in 1830 Victor Hugo's Hernani premiered in Paris. Though the play is rarely read or staged now, the opening night is regarded as one of the most momentous in French theater history, part of a larger and most theatrical conflict between the new-wave bohemians in Hugo's "Romantic Army" and the old-guard Classicists. Hugo had recently published what amounted to a Manifesto of Romanticism, calling for an end to the old rules and proprieties; the artists and bohemians saw the premiere of Hernani as an opportunity to rally behind this call, to provoke the bourgeoisie, and to have a grand time. Anticipating a battle, Hugo had enlisted their support, and refused to employ the customary claquers, or hired clappers -- largely because he doubted their loyalty and enthusiasm. The young Romanticists were not as organized as the professionals -- a chef de claque to direct things, commissaries to chat up the play at intermissions, rieurs to laugh, pleurers to cry, etc. -- but they had divided themselves up into "tribes," and all had received from Hugo red flashcards with "Hierro" (roughly, "Combat"). All had arrived dressed to provoke, the long hair and beards set off by whatever eye-catching, anti-bourgeois costume could be mustered.

The first skirmish came long before curtain. Hugo's supporters numbered in the hundreds, and arrangements had been made to admit them to the theater early, but when they assembled in mid-afternoon they found the doors locked. This gave passersby the opportunity to hurl catcalls and cabbages -- one of these hitting Balzac (the Army also included Dumas, Berlioz and Theophile Gautier). Once in, the group picnicked for three hours; when the other playgoers arrived it was to rolling bottles, leftover baguettes and the smell of garlic sausage -- some reported worse, the theater's washrooms apparently being overchallenged or underused. Whether for artistic or other reasons, the Romantics and the Classicists clashed verbally and sometimes physically throughout the evening, and on every night throughout the play's entire run of forty-five performances -- though after the third night the Army found itself reduced to 100 seats and a side-entrance.

Hugo had asked his friends "to help me in pulling out this last tooth from the old Classic pegasus"; viewing opening night as their triumph, he and the Army carried the celebration on well into the morning -- now February 26th, and Hugo's 28th birthday. His journal entry two weeks later is not so confident:
    The public every night hisses all the verses. It is a rare uproar. The parterre hoots, the boxes burst with laughter. The actors are abashed and hostile; most of them ridicule what they have to say. The press has been practically unanimous every morning in making fun of the piece and the author. If I enter a reading room I cannot pick up a paper without seeing: "Absurd as "Hernani"; silly, false, bombastic, pretentious, extravagant and nonsensical as "Hernani"." If I venture into the corridors of the theater while the performance is in progress I see spectators issue from their boxes and slam the doors indignantly.... There is not a scene shifter, not a super, not a lamp lighter but points his finger at me.
Revolutions would come and go in France over the next decades, as would Hugo, but the age would belong to him and to Romanticism: Dumas's The Three Musketeers had been published two years earlier; Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be published the following year, and Les Miserables in 1862; in between, his Hernani remained popular and the opera based on it, Ernani, was Verdi's biggest hit for almost two decades (more performed than Rigoletto, based on another Hugo play). Hugo's return to Paris from exile in 1870 was celebrated by the nation; on his eightieth birthday in 1881 it took six hours for 700,000 to parade past his house; more than that turned out for his state funeral in 1885, among which would have been a few from the first Romantic Army.

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Related authors:  Alexandre Dumas Sr., Edmund Burke, Emile Zola, Honore de Balzac
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