Hugo and Le roi s'amuse

[The librettist to Verdi's Rigoletto was Francesco Maria Piave, who was also the librettist for Verdi's La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra among other works. He was directed by the composer to base his text on Victor Hugo's successful stage play, itself a fictional account of the courtly life of Francis I of France. - NMR]

Victor Hugo based his play Le roi s'amuse on the life of the French King Francis I. He researched the period carefully, even consulting original documents. But eventually his own political beliefs took over, and Francis became a thinly disguised Louis-Philippe. The resulting play just begged to be banned, and it was. To compound his troubles, minutes before the opening, on November 22, 1832, news ran through the theatre that Louis Philippe had been assassinated. (In fact, an attempt had been made but the king was not hurt.) The next day the order was received to close the play, ostensibly because it "contained passages constituting an outrage on public manners". The real reason was that a monarch was held up to public ridicule.

The letter Hugo received from the stage manager of the Comédie-Française read: "It is half-past ten, and I have just received the order to suspend the performance of Le roi s'amuse. It is M. Taylor who communicates this command from the Minister". Hugo was furious. Only two years before, the Charter of Abolition of Censorship had been proclaimed. He pointed out that the Charter said that: "The French have the right to publish....Censorship must never be re-established", and that the theatre was only one form of publication; censorship applied not only to print. By banning the play, the Minister, "on his own authority" had deprived the author of his rights and his property.

The management of the Comédie Française tried to get the order reversed. Instead, the council of Ministers ordered the play definitely prohibited. The theatre managers were forbidden to complain, and afraid their licences would be revoked, they obeyed. This could not silence Hugo. In his Preface to the printed version, he wrote a blistering defense of his work:

The play is immoral? Do you think so? Is it the subject? Triboulet is deformed, Triboulet is unhealthy, Triboulet is a court buffoon — a three-fold misery which makes him evil. Triboulet hates the King because he is King, the nobles because they are nobles, and he hates ordinary men because they do not have humps on their backs. His only pastime is to set the nobles unceasingly against the King, crushing the weaker by the stronger. He depraves the King, corrupts and stultifies him; he encourages him in tyranny, in ignorance and in vice. He lures him to the families of gentlemen, pointing out the wife to seduce, the sister to carry off, the daughter to dishonor. The King in the hands of Triboulet is but an all-powerful puppet which ruins the lives of those in the midst of a festival. At the moment Triboulet is urging the King to carry off the wife of M. de Cossé, M., de Saint-Vallier reaches the presence chamber, and in a loud voice reproaches the King for the dishonor of Diana de Poitiers. This father, from whom the King has taken his daughter, is jeered at and insulted by Triboulet. Then the father puts out his hand and curses Triboulet. It is from this scene that the whole play develops. The real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier....On whom has this curse fallen? On Triboulet as the King's fool? No. On Triboulet as a man, a father who has a heart and has a daughter....Triboulet has but his daughter in the world. He hides her away in a deserted part of the city. The more he spreads the contagion and vice in the town, the more he seeks to isolate and immure his daughter. His greatest fear is that she may fall into evil, since being evil himself he knows the suffering it causes. The same king whom Triboulet is urging to rape, will ravish his daughter. He wishes to kill the King, and so avenge his child, it is his Daughter whom he slays. The curse of Diane's father will be fulfilled on the father of Blanche. It is not for us to decide if this is a dramatic idea, but certainly it is a moral one....If the piece is moral in its invention, is it that it was immoral in its execution? Probably there is nothing immoral in the first and second acts. Is it the situation in the third [in the play the one in the Duke's chamber} which shocks? Is it the fourth act which is objectionable? But when is it not permitted for a king on the stage to make love to the servant at an inn? The Greek theatre...has done it. Shakespeare...has done it. [Authority] wished that the public should stifle this play from a distorted imagination, without hearing or understanding it, even as Othello stifles Desdemona.

In the end, the ban backfired. The printed version became required reading for all who wished to remain au courant. Verdi's version became famous, and Rigoletto was performed over 100 times in Paris while the play was banned. Hugo was irritated, but when he finally heard the opera, agreed it was better than the play. He particularly admired the Quartet./p>

Nothing stopped the play from being produced elsewhere. It was very popular in American under the title The Fool's Revenge", with the actor Edwin Booth in one of his best rôles. Finally, on November 22, 1882, fifty years to the day after its one and only other Paris performance, and with an audience of dignitaries, Hugo could once again see his play.

With a few exceptions, Rigoletto follows Le roi s'amuse closely. The characters are as follows:

Le roi s'amuse Rigoletto
Francis the First* The Duke of Mantua
Triboulet* Rigoletto
M. de Saint-Vallier* The Count Monterone
M. De Cossé The Count Ceprano
M. de Latour-Landry Borsa
M. de Pienne and Clémont Marot* Marullo
Mme. De Cossé Countess Ceprano
Saltabadil Sparafucile
Blanche Gilda
Dame Berade Giovanna
Maguelonne Maddelena

* Historic characters. See Francis I and his Court. M. de Saint-Vallier was the father of Diane de Poiters, later the mistress of Francis's son, Henry II. While there are stories she had also been associated with Francis, there is no historic basis for this, and it is highly unlikely. One story is that she gave herself to Francis to save her father's life. In truth, it was probably her husband, to whom she was faithful while he lived, who used his influence with Francis to obtain her father's release and pardon.

There is no equivalent of the Quartet in Hugo. At the end of the play, Blanche dies very quickly. People try to drag Triboulet away but, until a doctor comes, he refuses to believe she is dead. Then he screams, "I have killed my child". The ending of the opera is much stronger.