January 18 - March 6, 2005

Modernism Previewed in Lorenzaccio

(Asides magazine article)

Alfred de Musset is one of those literary artists who clearly injected his interior life into his works. In this regard he calls to mind Tennessee Williams. We recognize Musset shouting out his avowed ambition “to be a Shakespeare or a Schiller” when the title character in Lorenzaccio delivers his impassioned speech about his visionary, epiphanal moment in the Coliseum in Rome. What young, idealistic person does not burst with these vainglorious fantasies of greatness? Yet, the Romantics, like Musset, seemed to possess this monomaniacal sensibility in abundance. To fulfill that irrepressible drive, they turned to the theatre to fulfill their quest for superstardom, for in early 19th-century Paris, as Philip Mansel explains in his Paris Between the Empires, that was the medium of expression that could propel an artist to stratospheric fame. Victor Hugo offered living proof of this with his 1830 success, Hernani. Perhaps hoping to achieve a similar triumph, Musset worked the mother-lode of Hugo's romantic-historical-melodramatic-action/adventure epic to create Lorenzaccio.

Imitating Hugo and so many other dramatists of the day, Musset opens the drama with a conventionally clear-cut melodramatic conflict. The evil Duke Alessandro de Medici faces off against the noble republicans, led by old Philip Strozzi. Audiences quickly grasp that in Alessandro de Medici they have a villain whom they can love to hate. Musset, in his devilish glee, provides this very satisfying and ever so deliciously uncomplicated relationship. Audiences delight in gasping indignantly when outrageous crimes are committed and cheering lustily when the monster breathes his last. Americans, in particular, find this a very appealing experience. We all are very much attached to our Simon Legree, Darth Vader, Iago and our Santa Ana. We enthrone these demons in our hearts, so that we can unload all of our emotional energy on them. While the citizens of ancient Athens found emotional purgation in watching tragic protagonists fall, modern Americans turn to melodrama's destruction of villainous antagonists for that kind of communal release. Lorenzo, double-agent extraordinaire, carefully unfolds his plan to destroy the villain and restore republican rule to Florence. Audiences quickly and easily comprehend the trajectory of the plot. The play, however, veers off track from the predictable.

Lorenzaccio's fragmented, twisted and unstable tragic action has led scholars, critics and celebrated performers to compare it to Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece Hamlet. Certainly, few characters in dramatic literature present us with such troubling complexity, ambivalence and uncertainty as Lorenzo or Hamlet. Musset, along with his iconoclastic Romantic compatriots, admired Shakespeare's expansive style and gory political struggles at a time when such an opinion was provocative in France. Sarah Bernhardt and Jean-Louis Barrault stand as the two most notable French stars who triumphed in both title roles, reveling in the contradictions, vacillations and inconsistencies of these two characters. Even so, similarities in characterization and structure are less remarkable than the parallel in the dramatic progression of these two pieces.

Hamlet, much like Lorenzaccio, starts out as a simple revenge drama that places the title character in the center of a political and moral struggle. We anticipate a conflict that will bring a clear resolution where vengeance—like a terrible, swift sword—will win the day. Hamlet takes unexpected turns through plot convolutions such as double-deceptions, accidental killings, suicides and even pirate raids. The plan for revenge spirals out of Hamlet's control, plunging him into tragic self-destruction and forcing Denmark under the yoke of Norway's tyranny.

Lorenzaccio presents an equally tortuous, misleading plot that concludes in political chaos. Lorenzo completes his mission—but there's no follow-through by the citizenry to re-establish a republican form of government. The plan, in fact, backfires. Instead of a glorious revolution, we watch the republican faction fail to exploit the power vacuum, and Lorenzo, himself, is reviled. Another tyrannical government is quickly installed, and—like HamletLorenzaccio ultimately deprives the audience of a satisfying or definitive conclusion. Surely, the drama whips up our revulsion for Alessandro, and we anticipate with grim pleasure his demise. But when Alessandro goes down ignominiously by the hand of Lorenzo, Musset has already undermined our satisfaction with exasperating frustration. These two dramas can leave audiences feeling very uneasy, for they both take us where we didn't expect or want to go. In the case of Lorenzaccio, there is a particular kind of uneasiness generated by the spirit of the Romantic movement in which Musset lived and wrote.

While it's rather sad to see this kind of pessimistic, bitter dramatic story come from the pen of such a young writer as Musset in 1833–34, this was a reflection of a dominant current moving through the nation. Many in France felt demoralized by the 1830 revolution that simply replaced one monarch with another. They yearned for the past glory under Napoleon and labored ponderously in an economy that had mostly sputtered. For us to grasp the sense of the age, we must recall our country's experience in the 1970s. We stood in the shadow of the heroic, noble, even glorious achievements of the “greatest generation” in World War II. We felt the humiliation of our failure to turn back communism's spread in Vietnam. The gas crises prolonged a miserable period of mind-boggling inflation and usurious interest rates. The SALT treaties hardly defused Cold War tensions. These circumstances engendered a sense of bewilderment in people that evoked the ennui felt by Musset and his contemporaries a century and a half earlier.

In his handling of dramatic action and his manipulation of audience expectations, Musset was anticipating the uncertainty of our modern era. Our modern perspective that cynically challenges absolutes, undermines heretofore unquestioned assumptions and considers the possibility of multiple, alternative explications of human behavior bears an uncanny resemblance to the Paris of Musset's youth. Perhaps because of the historic parallels, scholars today are alert to the unsettling malaise within the Romantic movement. Recent titles such as Romanticism and Its Discontents and l'École du Désenchantement suggest this trend. These texts look past the traditional understanding of the Romantic era as a heroic period in which the riotous, exotic interplay of the sublime and grotesque defined the broad range of human sensibility. Instead, they explore the brooding underworld of despair beneath. While earlier generations of scholars viewed Émile Zola, for example, as the leader of a new wave that reviled the triumphant Romantic aesthetics, critics today see Zola's brutally pessimistic, late 19th-century naturalism as the logical and obvious succession to the anguished cries of Musset, Charles Baudelaire and Jules de Goncourt. It's easy for any critic today to draw evidence for this interpretation from Lorenzaccio. Almost nowhere in its despairing story—as bleak as Zola's Thérèse Raquin—do we find any genuine human communion. Yes, there are moments of familial affection between Lorenzo and his mother, between the Strozzi father and children, between the Count and Countess Cibo, but of romantic expression or fulfillment there are none. The shattered, fragmented world that Musset created in this drama understandably resonates with scholars like Eric Bentley, Bernard Masson and David Sices, who see it as an antecedent to modern drama.

We must remember that when Alfred de Musset wrote Lorenzaccio he was in the worst kind of emotional tailspin, following the humiliations he had suffered as a dramatist and as the rejected lover of George Sand. Like young lovers everywhere, Musset's heart could feel only the blackest despair after his cataclysmic break-up with one of the most notorious, intoxicating women of his day. But the emotional wound did eventually heal, and he was able to love again. Similarly, Musset's faith in the dramatic form did wilt after the failure of La Nuit Vénitienne at the Odéon in 1830. But did it evaporate completely? No. Fortunately, he did recover some of his equanimity—at least enough to continue writing in a tone that was not so self-loathing. The lure of the theatre's glory was strong. Observe his behavior over the rest of his career. First, he continued to write drama, even though he self-deprecatingly called it “armchair theatre” meant to be read, not performed. Also, when a few of his plays enjoyed fairly successful productions in the late 1840s, he took to revising some of his scripts so that they might translate to the stage with greater ease. In this unquenchable thirst for recognition as a dramatist, Musset resembled his great predecessor, Jean Racine. Both suffered many humiliations as playwrights, and both renounced the theatre on several occasions. Nevertheless, both regularly took famous actresses for lovers and wrote superb dramatic vehicles for them. Ultimately, they both found themselves uncontrollably drawn back to the glow of the footlights where they would try to woo their fickle audiences. Neither man could absolutely abandon drama as his favorite mode of literary expression (though both excelled in other genres besides drama). Interestingly, with his maturation (and some scholars assert his decline) as an artist after 1834, Musset used the comedic dramas he wrote to articulate his newly evolving satirical and lachrymose feelings. With witty little pieces such as A Caprice and A Door Must Either Be Open or Shut, Musset found his range with audiences and became the most-often-performed dramatist after Molière at the Comedie-Française, France's oldest and most prestigious national theatre.

In the English-speaking world, Musset's works remain largely unknown. Rarely do Musset's early dramas of torment and despair or his charming, late-career comedies appear in the American repertory. The Shakespeare Theatre's production of Lorenzaccio, first of all, offers an opportunity for audiences to appreciate Musset as a worthy literary heir to Shakespeare's genius, recognition that he surely would have appreciated. Moreover, this production can bring to the fore for audiences the intellectual parallels between the Romantics' cynical sensibilities and our modern insecurities.

Andrew Vorder Bruegge, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Theatre, Film Studies and Dance
St. Cloud State University, Minnesota


Affron, Charles. A Stage for Poets. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Bénichou, Paul. L'École du Désenchantement. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

Brookner, Anita. Romanticism and Its Discontents. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Mansel, Philip. Paris Between Empires. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.

Sices, David. Theater of Solitude. Hanover, NH: University Presses of New England, 1974.

Return to the Lorenzaccio main page