the actor and the hangman

We have been wrestling with a fact we stumbled over a few days ago. We were researching Tom Paine’s years in revolutionary Paris, and his friendships with the group known as the Gironde. And we came across the famous day, in the National Assembly, when the motion was made to grant Jews full civil rights. This moment has been treated as an important symbol, and it is an important symbol. It marked the end of Christendom, for instance – the rotten structure finally collapsing completely. It marked the beginning of modernity – with an appropriate ironic chaser, since the legislation came on the heels of a pogram in Alsace. But we had not realized that the legislation came as a sort of afterthought that day. The topic of extending civil status was brought up by Clermont Tonnerre, but the original objects of that extension were: the hangman and the actor.

Gaston Maugras’ Les comediens hors la lois has the full story:

At the opening of the session, Clermont-Tonnerre climbed to the podium to defend his project: “Professions,” he said, “are obnoxious (nuisibles) or not. If they are, it is a habitual crime that justice must reprimand. If they aren’t, the law must be adapted to justice, which is the source of the law. It must reach out to correct the abuse, and not to chop down the tree it is necessary to prop up or correct.”

Then, speaking of the two professions (of hangman [executioner - bourreau] and actor) “that the law puts on the same level, but that are not uninjured by their rapprochment, “he asks for the simultaneous rehabilitation of the hangman and the actor: “for the hangman,” he says, “ it is simply a matter of combating prejudice… All that the law ordains is god: it ordains the death of a crimina, the executioner does nothing more than obey the law. It is absurd that the law says to a man: “do this, and if you do it, you will be guilty of a crime.”

Passing to actors, he demonstrated that, in their regard, the prejudice is established on what they are under the dependence of public opinion. “This dependence makes our glory and it flays them,” he cries. “Honest citizens can represent on the stage the chef-d’oeuvres of the human spirit, works filled with the healthy philosophy that, thus put in a position where every human can appreciate it, has prepared, successfully, the revolution that is now in operation, and you tell them: you are Comediens du Roi, you occupy the national theater, and you are criminal (infame)! The law must not let this crime subsist.”

This sounds like an old and done story, but the issues, here, continue to provoke us – drug dealers and prostitutes, for instance, bear the burden of the crime law even though it isn’t clear that these professions are anything more than wretchednesses made wretched by the law itself. Using the law as a means of showing moral disabrobation is, again, something that was never resolved in the Revolution, and is stilltje unresolved now. However, the historic question for me is how it happened that the hangman, the actor, and the Jew ended up as figures of a certain boundary – the figures that, given civil status, liquidated the Christian state. The Jew as other is now a bit of a philosophical cliché, but the actor and the executioner…

Interestingly, arguing passionately against the removal of the taint against the actor that day was a priest. And the issue moved into Rousseau’s Letter to D’alambert, and the notion that actors bring corruption. About which, more later.