About the play The Red and the Black

Stendhal (1783-1842; the name is one of Marie-Henri Beyle's many pseudonyms) thought about women all the time. This may have something to do with the fact that his mother died when he was seven and he hated his father. He hated the Jesuit priest who was in charge of his education and was apparently the cause of his anti-clericalism. He hated the bourgeoisie into which he was born; he loathed conservatives; he had sympathy for the mass of the French people, but nothing in common with them. He admired Napoleon, but cooled toward him when Napoleon got himself elected Emperor and brought back the Catholic Church (just as Beethoven changed the dedication on the Eroica Symphony), but Stendhal continued to serve Napoleon faithfully, both in the army (he was with the French army as an officer and in the disastrous retreat from Russia) and the administration (Stendhal governed Brunswick after Napoleon conquered it). When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Stendhal could not abide the oppressive atmosphere of the Bourbon Restoration, and moved to Milan. He divided the rest of his life between Italy and France, with occasional trips to England. He probably wrote most of The Red and the Black in Marseilles in 1829. (Beyle-Stendhal, in a preface written by an imaginary editor, piling mask upon mask, says that the book was written in 1827.)

Stendhal gave Julien Sorel, our protagonist, many of his own traits. The play is set in the imaginary town of Verrières in Franche-Comté, at the base of the French Alps (close to Grenoble, where Stendhal was born). The play is set 13 years after Napoleon's abdication, six years after his death in 1821, but Napoleon is Julien's hero, and he dreams of the career he, a peasant, might have had in Napoleon's army. Instead, because his Latin is perfect, he has the good fortune to get hired as a tutor for the children of the mayor and foremost citizen of Verrières, Monsieur de Rênal. Louise de Rênal takes a liking to him, but Julien despises the nobility, too, including Louise. Like Stendhal, Julien regards his attempts to conquer women as if they were Napoleonic battles.

Stendhal's portrayal of the conservatives of his time may seem extreme to us--or maybe it won't--but he had lived through the Bourbon Restoration, so we might as well take his word about what it was like. The stifling regime of Charles X is too democratic for Stendhal's Conservatives, and they want the Duke of Wellington to re-occupy France with his military dictatorship of 1815. (This plan may remind the reader of the Nazi occupation of France, and the reader should know that the certain right-wing elements of French society want to bring back the Nazi-sponsored Vichy government.) They (Stendhal's Conservatives, not ours, of course) plot to destroy freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to vote, oh, and incidentally, all of Paris. They even plan the formation of their own little Freikorps, anticipating by about 90 years the German ones which helped overthrow the Weimar Republic. The play got written because it has (I hope!) contemporary relevance: spectators may recognize in Stendhal's Conservatives some of the antics of our own, though, as Stendhal advised, we keep the politics to a minimum (and the Latin, too). Stendhal died in Paris in 1842, probably not from his syphilis, but from the effects of the potassium iodide and mercury he was taking in a useless attempt to cure it.

Julien's final monologue
Photo by Vito Catalano

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