French play Thermidor, an early example of cancel culture

French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) in 1880

The cancel culture that the Left has been fostering for a decade now and which gained momentum since the death of Black criminal George Floyd on May 25th, 2020 with the removal by HBO from its roster of Gone with the Wind, the most successful movie of all time, does have a very little-known historical precedent.

Thermidor, a drama by French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) was first staged in Paris on January 24th, 1891 at the oldest active theater company in the world, the Comédie-Française founded in 1680.

It was named for the 11th month, or the 2nd of the summer quarter starting July 19th or 20th and ending August 17th or 18th, of the French Republican (or Revolutionary) calendar, used in France from 1793 to 1805 and created to remove all religious and royalist influences. The word thermal, derived from the Greek term thermos, means “heat”.

The play was set in the midst of the French Revolution (1789-99), just before the fall and death of Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), which marked the end of the Reign of Terror (September 5th, 1793-July 28th, 1794), a conflict between two rival factions, the Girondins (Moderate Republicans) and the Jacobins (Radical Republicans).

Robespierre headed the Committee of Public Safety (Comité de salut public), a provisional government created after the execution of King Louis XVI (1754–1793) which had broad supervisory and administrative powers over the armed forces, judiciary and legislature to protect the new republic against its foreign and domestic enemies.

The period between his ousting on Thermidor II, or July 27th, 1794 and the inauguration of the Directory, the five-member committee which governed from November 2nd, 1795 until November 9th, 1799, when it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), received the name Thermidorian Reaction.

It represented a restoration attempt, a turn from the most radical populist policy goals like Dechristianization to more conservative positions, which temporarily brought a certain degree of political stability after a long killing spree in the name of progress.

The plot, based on a historical person, follows former actor Labussière, who has been appointed registering clerk to the Committee and saves its potential victims by destroying their files.

During the performance on January 26th, radical Republican members of the audience took great offense at Sardou’s criticism of Robespierre, which they considered a betrayal of the country’s revolutionary ideals.

They started making noise and creating confusion. When the situation escalated to the point of riot and infuriated spectators shouted threats to Sardou’s life, finally police had to be called to clear the crowd away.

The protesters were led by the socialist newspaper editor Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray (1838-1901) and included the parliamentarian Eugène Baudin (1853-1918), a leftist porcelain worker who previously had been forced into exile.

The incident occasioned a parliamentary debate in which the member of the Chamber of Deputies and future Prime Minister, Independent Radical Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), launched the phrase: «La Revolution est un bloc.»

Although it created only a short-lived controversy, as a result President Marie François Sadi Carnot (1837-1894), a Moderate Republican, decided to prohibit the production from all state-funded venues.

The furor was part of a broader campaign to save Radicalism from the Ralliement, the policy of adhering to the directives given by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) to French Catholics in 1892, most of which were eager for the return of the monarchy.

Thermidor would reopen on March 3rd, 1896 at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, again starring Benoît-Constant Coquelin (1841-1909) as Labussière. The play might be long forgotten, but the intolerance of those who oppose the freedom of art is a growing problem.

P.D.: In general terms, Thermidor has come to connote a retreat from more radical strategies during a revolution, especially when caused by a replacement of leading personalities.


  1. When you think of theater plays that are threatened and banned by the authorities in the face of violent protests, you inevitably think of plays that mock religious or moral beliefs, are attacked by conservative mobs, and are defended by the left in the name of the freedoms of speech and artistic creation. And as you showed here, long before something like that ever happened, it was the left that attacked those freedoms, and they did defending their own «saints» … someone like Robespierre. It’s easy to understand why this incident (extremely famous in his own time) has been almost totally forgotten.


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