Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Musset, Alfred, Theatre > Lorenzaccio under a big top

Lorenzaccio under a big top

 Lorenzaccio is a play Alfred de Musset wrote in 1834. The plot takes place in Florence, ruled by the Medicis at the time when Charles Quint was emperor. (Early 16th century). Alexandre de Médicis, Duke of Florence, governs the city and is loathed by his people as he is despotic and libertine. He is manipulated by the Catholic Church and sold to Charles Quint. Three plots are lead at the same time:

  • Lorenzo (nicknamed Lorenzaccio) is a Médicis who wants to murder Alexandre for personal reasons. He swore to kill a tyrant one day and chose Alexandre. He decides to befriend with Alexandre to achieve his goal and becomes Alexandre’s favourite and confident. He follows him in all his partying, makes sure he thinks him harmless in order to approach him unguarded.
  • The Strozzi family intend to fight Alexandre to free the city from its tyrant and increase their power over the city. They want Florence to become a Republic and are thus supported by Republicans.
  • The Cardinal Cibo also wants to get rid of Alexandre, by ambition, as he hopes that serving the Pope and Charles Quint’s interests will be rewarded by being elected Pope one day.

 In a way, the reader doesn’t know who will first succeed in murdering Alexandre. Though the motives are different, the result would be the same, as it would only replace a tyrant by another one.

Musset excels in mixing the intimate quest of Lorenzo with political issues. The scene when Lorenzo explains why there is no coming back for him, why he needs to follow through his idea of murdering Alexandre is moving. He says he was pure and innocent and learnt to live a dissolute life to be faithful to the promise he made to himself. But he also discovered that he no longer needs a mask to live this libertine life. He likes drinking, seeing women and all kinds of pleasures. What was first done as a duty to get closer to Alexandre, has become a pleasure and he resents his corruption. He now needs to assassinate Alexandre to ensure he didn’t lose his innocence, his purity and the respect from his family for nothing.

Moreover, in sharing the dark side of humanity through his partying, he loses faith in men and realizes that murdering Alexandre will not change the political situation or improve the people’s living. He sees men as coward or at best as indifferent. They claim they want a revolution but aren’t brave enough to fight for it. He points out to Philippe Strozzi in Act 3, scene 3 : 

If you’re about to do something for humanity, I advise you to cut your arms right away, because it won’t be long before you realize you alone have arms” (1)

 He wants Philippe to face the cowardice and pettiness of men but disclaims to be a misanthropist. 

If you only see in me someone who despises humanity, you insult me, for I perfectly know there are decent men. But are they useful ? What do they do ? How do they act ? What’s the point of having a living conscience, if the arm is dead?” (1)

 So he is lucid enough not to expect any public gratitude or any popular uprising after his deed is done. He will murder Alexandre for himself, to save what is left from the idealistic boy he once was.

It is strange that Musset was so pessimistic on human nature, as he was only 24 when he wrote this play. The reader is also face to face with their own everyday little defeats and weaknesses.

The questions raised are timeless, about political engagement and tyranny. It reminds us how political power is concentrated in the hands of a few minority who protect their own interests.

Aside to the political issues and identity quest, what also surprised me is the lack of religious feelings. There are no references to god in this play, no people praying as it could be expected in a text written in 1834. Even when people die, their relatives don’t try to find comfort in prayer. No big words as “soul”, “redemption” or “divine intention” are to be heard. The Church is more interested in earthly matters than in heavenly ones. Priests use confessions as an intelligence mean. When the Marquise confesses to the Cardinal Cibo, he sees it more as an opportunity to dig out information than as a moment to comfort and guide a lost soul. That probably gives away Musset’s atheism.  

I saw Lorenzaccio live this week-end. The director chose to have the actors play outside the theatre, under a big top. So, they were on a circular stage, in the middle of spectators. It allowed very cinematographic effects and it was lively. The round stage created the illusion of a piazza for outdoor scenes. When the Florence crowd were involved, the actors sit among the spectators and acted from there. Voices came from different places and the public had the impression to be in Florence too. A sort of 3D effect. The production was very modern and yet appropriate. (Well, to my taste, at least. Not like last year’s naked Hamlet with a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack)

 The text itself is beautiful and incredibly contemporary. Sometimes, 19th century literature has a pompous wording and requires concentration to follow through. Not here. The director wrote in a comment on the play that for the actors, acting with Musset’s language is like playing on a Stradivarius. I think she’s right.

Musset never saw Lorenzaccio played. He meant to write a play that could be read at home in an armchair. He succeeded. Lorenzaccio is worth reading, for the beauty of the text and the interest of the subject.

 (1) My own highly perfectible translation

  1. June 14, 2010 at 11:09 am

    I’ve never heard of this before. A play to be read in an armchair, an interesting idea.

    I’ll look out for a copy in English, if there is one…


  2. June 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

    It has certainly been translated as it is one of his most famous work.
    It’s really good.


  1. July 14, 2010 at 2:50 pm

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