Napoleon’s Hot Date

Napoleon’s birthday fell on 15 August. How better to celebrate than by creating a new saint – one ‘Neopolus’ – and using the theatre to emphasise his links to historical kings and emperors?

Clare Siviter | Published 15 Aug 2019

The Coronation of Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David, 1805-1807. 

On 15 August 1769, Maria Letizia Ramolino gave birth to her third son, Napoleone di Buonaparte, in Corsica, an island that came under French rule just one year before. As a Catholic family, this was not just a birthday for the Buonapartes, but also a holiday, marking the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. The timing appeared miraculous.

After a meteoric rise in the French Revolutionary army, Napoleon Bonaparte (as he had become, making his name more French), came to power as First Consul of France after a coup on 18 Brumaire Year 8 (9 November 1799). By 1804, he was Emperor of the French. France had endured the Revolution for over 10 years in 1799, leaving scars and divisions across French society. Napoleon had his work cut out; several of the measures he introduced continue to influence French life today, from the Code Napoléon, France’s civil code, to the baccalauréat, the French equivalent of A-Levels. However, the new Emperor faced major questions about the legitimacy of his power: he was not born to rule, as kings had been, and he had not been elected. To his enemies, he was an Italianate Corsican upstart who had no right to rule France.

To overcome this, Napoleon crafted a carefully managed image during his reign, at times playing on his Italian heritage which linked him to Roman emperors, at others, likening himself to past French kings like Louis XIV, all with the purpose of legitimising his power. This image was so influential, it outlived his fall in 1814 and 1815, and outlived the man himself in 1821.

Napoléon Ier en costume du Sacre, François Gérard, 1805.

But back to 15 August: the date is important. The Revolutionaries had abolished the Gregorian calendar in 1793, replacing the seven-day Christian week with a secular ten-day decade. Months were renamed according to the weather or agricultural year. Year 1 started on 22 September 1792, when the Republic was proclaimed. In this re-conception of time, the Revolutionaries also removed the Christian festivals that had broken up the traditional year. In combination with the reduction of days of rest (from one in seven to one in ten), there were now only six public holidays. In 1806, Napoleon founded a new one: Saint Napoleon’s Day, to be celebrated on 15 August. This saint was not actually Napoleon himself, but a martyr named Neopolus, whom, scholars largely agree, was invented. The date of 15 August, therefore, worked on multiple levels: it was the traditional Christian holiday of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary; it was Saint Napoleon’s day; and, of course, it was Napoleon’s birthday.

The decision to introduce the new national holiday in 1806 did not come out of the blue. Napoleon had used theatres as a testing ground for the idea during the early years of his reign. In 1801, at the Comédie-Française, France’s premier theatre for spoken drama, Napoleon ordered two rounds of performances on 15 August. The first was in Paris at the normal theatre. Andromaque was the main play that evening, a tragedy by the 17th-century tragic playwright Racine which recounted the aftermath of the Trojan War, followed by Le Confident par hasard as the concluding light comedy. The second was at Versailles – formerly the place of residence of the French kings – where the suitably paternal Le Père de famille and another play by Racine, Les Plaideurs was performed. The next year, the Comédie-Française did not perform on 15 August – days without performances were in many ways more significant than those with them, because leaving the theatre ‘dark’ was a sign of respect. In 1803, there was yet another plan: this year the Comédie-Française offered a free performance in Paris of the crowd-pleasing comedies L’Intrigue épistolaire and Les Héritiers to mark Napoleon’s birthday. The Comédie-Française was expensive and free entry allowed for a much more diverse audience who could come and watch the celebration of Napoleon.

The Comédie-Française, 18th century.

Having tried these three techniques and trying the double performances in Paris and Versailles once more in 1804, Napoleon decided that the state theatres should mark his birthday by a free performance the day before, thus extending the celebrations, followed by a respectful break from performances by going dark on 15 August. For example, in 1808, the Comédie-Française gave a free performance of Corneille’s 17th-century tragic masterpiece, Le Cid, on 14 August and then closed the following day. It is striking that for every year between 1806 and 1813 (the last time this celebration took place during Napoleon’s rule), the free performance was always a tragedy bar one exception in 1811. Tragedy was central to Napoleon’s image, allowing him to draw parallels between himself and Louis XIV, the patron for many of these tragedies when they were first performed, and the empires of antiquity.

Theatre was an important propaganda tool for Napoleon, but it could lead to hiccups. The first issue that arose after Napoleon came to power was that the theatres wanted to celebrate this astonishing general, man of the people, and France’s new ruler – but how to portray him on stage? It was impossible in tragedy, which had to be set in distant times according to the French model. Comedy ran the risk of ridiculing Napoleon, even if it was well meant. In Bordeaux, two weeks after the 18 Brumaire coup, the actor performing Napoleon forgot his lines in Les Prétendus, ou la Journée de Saint Cloud, leading the audience to burst out with laughter. As theatres across France tried to put Napoleon and the 18 Brumaire onstage, the government went about stopping the performance of any play representing France’s new First Consul.

Direct portrayal was not possible, but there was always the possibility of association. Napoleon tried to link himself with the heroes of French tragedies, as we can see by the programming of the free performances to mark his birthday. Some playwrights attempted to use the realm of allusion to link Napoleon with great past rulers when they composed new works – pleasing Napoleon could lead to a generous pension and public reward. However, quite a few of these plays actually failed as ‘propaganda’ and could be subverted by the audience.

Le Triomphe de Trajan, 1807. Courtesy BnF, Paris.

One play that was promising in terms of its potential propaganda was Le Triomphe de Trajan at the Opera in 1807. The plot of this lyric tragedy centred around an uprising against Trajan, which he mercifully forgives as a benevolent emperor. The performance was magnificent, using a cast of hundreds, including 13 horses – theatre on a gigantic scale. The Parisian police who attended the performance reported that the audience easily grasped the allusions in the play. However, Napoleon was not happy with this performance. The propaganda was too blatant, and to make his displeasure known, he refused to attend the first run as he normally would.

Another notable case is a tragedy called Cyrus by Marie-Joseph Chénier. This play showcased the coronation of Cyrus, emperor of the First Persian Empire, and was commissioned by the government to coincide with Napoleon’s own coronation in 1804. However, the allusion was too overt for some in the audience, especially as Chénier had once been a Revolutionary and was now seen to be praising the return to autocratic power. For others, Cyrus resembled Napoleon’s political enemies such as the Duke d’Angoulême who was banished from France. The idea of such a man coming to power was far from the intended message.

After the return of the monarchy in 1814, the Restoration – a monarchical government which considered Napoleon a usurper – went about ‘de-Napoleonising’ 15 August. It stopped the theatre going dark on the date. However, the theatres could strike back: the Comédie-Française often programmed tragedies associated with Napoleon for the performances on 15 August and the Bonapartist opposition would gather in the theatres to cheer on the roles of emperors from classical antiquity. 

François-Joseph Talma as Napoleon, 1821. Courtesy BnF, France.

In these theatrical characters, they saw the image of Napoleon instead – as the print of the star actor Talma and Napoleon shows. On top of the actor dressed in his toga with his cropped black hair, they imposed the image of France’s lost emperor. Even after Napoleon’s death in 1821, when Talma was on stage performing the roles of antiquity, what the Bonapartist spectators saw was Napoleon. Although he was no more, his presence could still haunt the stage.

Clare Siviter is the author of Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon (Oxford, 2020).