In Paris back in 2011 I saw an insightful theatrical revue about the Second Empire, the eighteen-year period from 1852 to 1870 when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte ruled France as Emperor Napoléon III.
The musical spectacle “Hugoffenbach” combined texts by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), expressing his outrage at Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s seizure of power, with satirical songs by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), whose operettas (better known as “Offenbachiades”) were exceedingly popular in Paris during the Second Empire.
“Hugoffenbach” was complied, written and directed by Patrick Mons, who also played the role of Victor Hugo and spoke his texts with great clarity and dramatic feeling. He was joined on the stage by mezzo-soprano Marie Blanc, baritone Philippe Scagni and guitarist Thierry Garcia — all of whom are also excellent actors.
Although I was aware of Offenbach’s reputation as a satirist of the Second Empire, I had never thought much about what that meant. The juxtaposition with Hugo’s angry texts put Offenbach’s songs (some of which were quite familiar to me) into their historical perspective.
As it happened there was a panel discussion on the stage after the performance. I found the discussion quite interesting, but it did get a bit academic after a while, which was not surprising because the panel members were mainly professors. They argued, for instance, about whether Hugo and Offenbach had ever actually met in person, which seems unlikely because Hugo was in exile during the Second Empire and Offenbach was living in Paris. They agreed, however, that Hugo saw one of Offenbach’s operettas several times in Brussels, Belgium, since he was not allowed to set foot in France.
One of the professors also pointed out that the outraged texts used in “Hugoffenbach” were ones that Hugo wrote immediately after Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s seizure of power in 1851, and that Hugo became less angry as the years went on. This did not sit well with some of the non-academic people in the audience, who were not interested in minor quibbles but mainly wanted to praise the actors and singers and say how impressed they were with the production.
Actually the panel member I found most interesting was the one who said the least. She was a young graduate student who was writing her dissertation on the dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), author of many plays including La Tosca, which later became the basis for Puccini’s opera Tosca.
The venue for “Hugoffenbach” was a short-lived theatre called the Théâtre Musical Marsoulan, which existed from 2008 to 2013 in a nondescript building at 20, rue Marsoulan in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, halfway between Place de la Nation and Porte de Vincennes.
This was a pleasant little theatre with 180 comfortable red plush seats for the spectators.
Currently (as of 2018) there is a different theatre at this address, the Théâtre Elizabeth Czerczuk (T.E.C.), which I haven’t been to yet so I can’t say anything about it.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2018.