By Preslee Krout and Carter White, Dramaturgs/Assistant Directors
MARIE But I can’t dispense with the past, with history.
SHEEP That’s why you’ve become its victim. And your own life was lost to you.
MARIE I wish I could sleep.
SHEEP Wake up.
~ David Adjimi, Marie Antoinette
History often muddles the truth of events, but one of the few things we can say based on various accounts is this: Marie Antoinette was known to be a good mother. This much was true, though so too was how her and Louis XVI’s regime squandered national resources and failed to work with revolutionaries. Yet the criticisms Marie faced in her age were so often rooted in sensationalism; certain events left a legendary stain on French consciousness that outlived their contemporaries. Take the Necklace Affair, wherein Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy—the “Comtesse de la Motte,” strapped for cash as a result of her lavish lifestyle, pursued one of the greatest cons of the last millennium. In brief, she duped the Cardinal de Rohan into believing he was exchanging letters with Queen Marie Antoinette. As “the Queen,” la Motte convinced the cardinal to pay for a 2,000,000 livre necklace, one that she instead would receive and sell the diamonds for her own profit. After the cardinal failed to make the payments for the necklace on time, the jewelers complained to the actual Queen, who was of course unaware of the entire ordeal. The drama and gossip of the event, despite Marie’s lack of actual involvement, unavoidably brought down her reputation all the more. Surely Marie’s time was that of systematic excess, one not unlike ours now, but the human soul born on the Day of the Dead in 1755 did not arrive corrupted. She was a good mother, and thus her propaganda portraits did not feature false depictions of moderate spending, but a more honest one of the queen with well-supervised children at her side. But though events like the Necklace Affair were the product of untruths, she did still spend recklessly the money levied from starving taxpayers. There are honest origins to both narratives. In all lives are vast webs of influence that concoct our truths. In our synthesis of history here, we find where those convergences occur. For the mother, for the enemy of the state, for Marie.
A very succinct timeline of events:
1754: Louis is born in August in Versailles, France.
1755: Marie is born in November in Vienna, Austria to Empress Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. She had 15 siblings, 3 of whom died in childhood.
1765: Louis is the Dauphin (a title given to the heir to the throne) when his brother becomes King after the death of his father.
1768: Due to perennial conflicts between Austria and France, it is decided Marie & Louis will be married in an attempt to make peace between the countries.
1770: They marry when Louis is 15 and Marie is 14. Before Marie can go to France to marry Louis, she must undergo a ceremony in which she gives up her Austrian identity and becomes French. This includes quite literally stripping herself of almost all of her Austrian belongings and receiving new French ones.
1774: Louis XVI and Marie ascend to the throne after the death of his brother, Louis XV.
1789 (June 4): Louis Joseph (Marie and Louis’ second child) dies, and Louis Charles (their third child) becomes the Dauphin.
1789 (June 13): The Third Estate, made up of French revolutionaries, forms the revolutionary National Assembly.
-Prior to the Revolution, France was governed by the King and three “Estates.” The First Estate (Clergy) was made up of 0.4% of the population. It was mostly poor parish priests and a very small group of very wealthy and powerful bishops. The Second Estate (Nobility) was made up of between 0.4-1.5% of the population. They were often occupation-less and lived off land taxes. They had many social privileges including tax exemptions, monopolies on certain offices, and pensions. The Third Estate (Peasants & Bourgeoisie) made up the majority of the French population. They were taxed excessively and forced to do corvée (unpaid labor). They suffer from hunger and hardship due to inflation and harvest failure.
1789 (July-October): The French Revolution breaks out:
-Two months of riots culminate in mobs converging on the Bastille (a prison in Paris);
Revolutionaries turn to the Bastille in need of bullets and gunpowder for the 28,000 muskets they stole in a previous raid on the Hôtel des Invalides. This event is remembered as the beginning of The French Revolution.
-The National Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen. It states, “Men are born and remain free in equal rights…Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.”
-Marie and her family are taken from Versailles and put under house-arrest in the Tuileries Palace by the revolutionaries after a mob attacks Versailles. Life in the Tuileries is quite the step down from Versailles, but King Louis and the royal court would continue business as (somewhat) usual. During their time at the Tuileries, Marie takes secret council meetings, learns to read and write in code, and even has secret meetings with Fersen about possible escape plans.
1791: The royal family attempt to escape France to Varennes. In a stroke of bad luck, the carriage carrying the royal family needs repairing along the route. The King is recognized by locals, and rumors of his potential escape spread through the district. The royal family is captured and taken back to the Tuileries.
1792: The Tuileries is attacked and Marie, Louis, and their children are imprisoned at the Temple, a castle in Paris.
-Also known as the Insurrection of August 10th, this day sees thousands of soldiers and peasants storm the Tuileries with guns, pikes, daggers, and pieces of wood in hand. The King flees and takes refuge in the Legislative Assembly while their soldiers are slaughtered. Even Marie’s best friend, Thérèse Lamballe, is brutally murdered as a symbol of the monarchy. Eventually, the Assembly will remove the King, abolish the monarchy, and begin developing a new city government.
1793 (January): Louis is executed by guillotine.
1793 (October): Marie is charged with treason and executed by guillotine in October.
-In the trial leading to her execution, she is baselessly accused of lots of terrible things, such as abusing her son. She is also accused of treason, which she was actually guilty of when she sent Austria information about French troop movements. However, the Revolutionaries did not have any proof of that at the time.
1795: The Dauphin dies in prison at the age of 10.
Emerson Stage’s production of Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi opens to the public on Thursday, November 18 at 8 p.m. EST and runs through November 21 at 2 p.m. EST. More information and limited availability of tickets are available at emersonstage.org/marie-antoinette.