Hugo’s Incites Rioting Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The opening run of Victor Hugo’s play Hernani was accompanied by rioting and by a major quarrel known as the “battle of Hernani” between adherents of Romanticism and supporters of classicism. Hernani called for the liberation of theater from the constraints of neoclassical drama. The dispute also had political implications, as the two groups represented opponents and supporters, respectively, of the conservative Restoration Monarchy in France.

Summary of Event

The so-called “battle of Hernani” was probably the most visible manifestation of a generational struggle between proponents of the established norms of classicism and advocates of the fresh and dynamic Romanticism. In many ways, this conflict constituted a nineteenth century version of the late seventeenth century literary quarrel (querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) between the ancients and the moderns. To show what was at stake in this newest quarrel, one has to take a brief look at what led to the quarrels and the rioting at the Comédie Française in 1830. Hernani (Hugo) Theater;Hernani Theater;French Hugo, Victor Paris;opera [kw]Hugo’s Hernani Incites Rioting (Mar. 3, 1830) [kw]Hernani Incites Rioting, Hugo’s (Mar. 3, 1830) [kw]Incites Rioting, Hugo’s Hernani (Mar. 3, 1830) [kw]Rioting, Hugo’s Hernani Incites (Mar. 3, 1830) Hernani (Hugo) Theater;Hernani Theater;French Hugo, Victor Paris;opera [g]France;Mar. 3, 1830: Hugo’s Hernani Incites Rioting[1550] [c]Theater;Mar. 3, 1830: Hugo’s Hernani Incites Rioting[1550] [c]Literature;Mar. 3, 1830: Hugo’s Hernani Incites Rioting[1550] Stendhal Gautier, Théophile Staël, Madame de Chateaubriand, François-René de

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, in an unstable social, cultural, and political context that was still attempting to cope with the loss of a century-old order known as the ancien régime France;ancien régime , the works of two major writers, both opposed to the current imperial system of government, proved groundbreaking for the birth of French Romanticism: Romanticism;French François-René de Chateaubriand’s Chateaubriand, François-René de Le Génie du Christianisme (1799, 1800, 1802; The Genius of Christianity, 1802) and René (1802; English translation, 1813), as well as Madame de Staël’s Staël, Madame de De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature, 1803) and D’Allemagne (1813; Germany, 1813).

Chateaubriand had insisted on conservative religious values paired with the introduction of a new sensibility into literature through themes such as melancholy, or the central role of dreams and passions. Staël had been strongly influenced by a pan-European Romanticist movement that was reflected in authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von , Friedrich Schiller Schiller, Friedrich , and Lord Byron Byron, Lord ; hence the attempt to liberate art and literature from the restrictive catalog of the famous neoclassical rules, a catalog that still dominated the cultural landscape in France, particularly in the field of the drama, the noblest of all genres.

Victor Hugo.

(Library of Congress)

The young generation of French writers (the Jeunes-France) happily embraced a concept that proclaimed the collapse of the old literary order as a direct and inevitable consequence of the collapse of the old political order: “A new kind of art for a new nation,” as Hugo put it so eloquently in his preface to Hernani on March 9, 1830.

An essential premise for the battle of Hernani was the consolidation of two opposing tendencies among the young Romantics Romanticism;French . Initially, Hugo belonged to a rather conservative group known as the Cénacle that had met at the Arsénal library around 1824 and published the monthly magazine La Muse française Muse française, La (magazine) . Other prominent members included Alfred de Musset Musset, Alfred de , Alfred de Vigny Vigny, Alfred de , Alphonse de Lamartine Lamartine, Alphonse de , Gérard de Nerval Nerval, Gérard de , Alexandre Dumas Dumas, Alexandre, père , père, and Honoré de Balzac Balzac, Honoré de . More liberal ideas were defended by the likes of Stendhal Stendhal , Prosper Mérimée Mérimée, Prosper , and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin in their journal Le Globe. Globe, Le

Inspired by the first Romantic manifesto, Stendhal’s Stendhal Racine et Shakespeare (part 1, 1823; part 2, 1825; Racine and Shakespeare, 1962), Hugo’s stance, as well as that of Chateaubriand Chateaubriand, François-René de , shifted more and more toward the liberal position of Le Globe and thus helped reconcile the two movements. One famous line in the preface to Hernani illustrated this new attitude: “Romanticism . . . is nothing else but liberalism in literature.” This shift was completed in 1827, as Hugo wrote the prototype of the Romantic drama, the virtually “unstageable” Cromwell: Some 6,400 stanzas, 62 characters, and various stage settings made it impossible to produce. Its preface, however, actually written after the play, was to become the major theory of Romanticism, a theory that Hernani was to illustrate three years later.

Hugo’s major claim was basically to value aesthetics and realism, as well as complete artistic and creative freedom over the restrictive rules of neoclassicism. In concrete terms, he called for an abandonment of the three unities (time, place, and action) as well as the bienséance, a mixture of linguistic registers (in particular of lyrical and everyday language) as well as of styles, especially of the sublime and the grotesque, and a loosening of the rules of versification. Such changes were meant to create a theater that appealed to a broader segment of the population; the modern theater adapted to its age what the preface to Hernani called for explicitly.

The composition of Hernani was directly related to Hugo’s fury about the banning of his previous play, Marion De Lorme, on August 13, 1829. The playwright would follow this with a completed Hernani, finished in less than one month. On October 5 the play was enthusiastically received by the Comédie Française actors, who even renounced on their customary vote and accepted the play by acclamation. As was to be expected, censors objected to certain lines but refrained from banning Hernani. The censors did, however, play a crucial role in the upcoming “battle,” as one of them leaked passages from the play to Hugo’s anti-Romanticist opponents.

Hugo seemed not only aware of this plot but also seemed deliberately to provoke the proponents of the old order by turning the play into a showcase for his Romantic doctrine. The enjambment that breaks the Alexandrine in the two opening verses, a clear breach of neoclassical rules, set the tone from the very beginning. The bienséance was also disregarded in the opening scene as the king of Spain was ridiculed by being obliged to hide in a closet to escape detection on his visit to Dona Sol, the play’s love interest. In general, the action, including violence and death, was actually put on stage and not merely reported by eyewitnesses, as had been the classical norm. This innovation infringed on the supremacy of language; the latter had to share the spotlight with the visual spectacle. Moreover, the unities of time and place were utterly disregarded.

The playwright was well prepared for the expected negative reaction at the opening performance: He bought a significant number of tickets for the first three performances to ensure that his supporters outnumbered his opponents. Led by Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile , who had been clad in his revolutionary red vest, the Jeunes-France carried the day in the shouting matches staged during each of those three performances. Rioting did not erupt until the fourth of the initial thirty-nine shows on March 3, the run being interrupted by the July Revolution, as the actors deemed it more prudent to not stage the play.


From a commercial point of view, Hernani was a big success and regularly sold out a Comédie Française that usually played to empty seats during that time period in its history. The sellouts continued even after the performances of Hernani resumed in 1836, although the rioting had ended. Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi made the play into an opera called Ernani (1844).

Hernani’s literary impact was more complex, however. The Romantic drama did not replace its neoclassical predecessor as the dominant genre, as was underlined by the failure of Hugo’s last play, Les Burgraves (1843). Hugo’s program, which could be summarized as “tolerance and liberty” in art as well as in politics, a slogan from the preface to Hernani, was more easily fulfilled in a former minor genre that, thanks to its creative energy and artistic freedom, asserted itself as the dominant genre during the nineteenth century: the novel, which was best suited to French society after the ancien régime France;ancien régime . So Hugo’s vision had come true and his attack of neoclassical drama had indeed resulted in neoclassicism’s replacement, albeit by a more “prosaic” genre in which Hugo distinguished himself much more than in the field of Romantic theater.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. “Percept and Concept: From Hugo’s Hernani to Verdi’s Ernani.” In Le Rayonnement international de Victor Hugo, edited by Francis Claudon. Vol. 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. A study of the relationship between Hugo’s play and Verdi’s opera.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carlson, Marvin. “Hernani’s Revolt from the Tradition of French Stage Composition.” Theater Survey: The American Journal of Theater History 13, no. 1 (1972): 1-27. Paints a general picture of Hernani’s impact, with particular emphasis on the technical aspects involved in staging a play at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halsall, Albert. Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. The author puts Hugo’s play in the larger context of his theatrical production and focuses on the aesthetic revolt conveyed through Hernani.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porter, Laurence. Victor Hugo. New York: Twayne, 1999. Concise, general study of Hugo. Devotes a chapter to his work in theater. Conclusion explores Hugo’s work in music and his reception in popular culture.

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