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French Prisoner-of-War theatricals at Portchester Castle

For the last 4 years, a team of researchers at the University of Warwick, led by Dr Katherine Astbury, have been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to explore the complex interplay of aesthetics and politics in French theatre from 1799-1815. One member of the team, PhD student Devon Cox, has been studying the theatrical endeavours of a group of French prisoners of war who were captured in Spain in 1807 during the Peninsular War. At first housed in prison hulks off Cadiz, the prisoners were then transferred to the desert island of Cabrera before being transported to Portchester Castle in 1810.

The prisoners had performed classic French comedies in a cave on Cabrera but on arrival at Portchester, they found that the man in charge of the prison, Captain Charles William Paterson, was happy to support their theatrical endeavours and provided the wood they needed to build a full working theatre in the keep of the castle. The theatre was constructed under the direction of Jean-François Carré, who had been a professional stage technician in Paris before his conscription into the army.

In January 1811, the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle reported:
“The French Prisoners at Portchester have fitted up a Theatre in the Castle, which they have decorated in a style far surpassing anything of the kind that could possibly be expected […] It is no exaggeration of their merit to say, that the Pantomimes which they have brought forward, are not excelled by those performed in London.”

On Wednesday 19th July 2017, Past Pleasures Heritage Theatre in conjunction with the University of Warwick performed a 3-act melodrama, Roseliska, a play written and performed by the prisoners in November 1810. The manuscript of the play text has survived and is in the V & A. Project postdoc Dr Diane Tisdall has arranged a score to accompany the play, using music from Paris manuscript scores and printed music published by the prisoners' musical director, Marc-Antoine Corret on his return to France at the end of the war.

Parisian theatre of the Napoleonic Era was dominated by melodrama which aimed for maximum emotional effect – there was a sense that as a result of the French Revolution people needed something strong to move them after all they’d experienced in real life. It was a theatrical form of grand spectacle with elaborate scenery and stage effects, extended dance and fight scenes.
The prisoners at Portchester were performing some of the hit plays by the leading exponent of melodrama, Guilbert de Pixerécourt but they were also writing their own plays. Roseliska was written by two of the acting troop and they also starred in the performance as Stanislas and Metusko. They took their inspiration from the play text of a Paris melodrama Metusko which had been sent to them from France. But after the opening scenes, the plays diverge and Roseliska gives us unique insight into the hopes and fears of those held at Portchester. Roseliska is a play about escaping imprisonment, where the gaoler Caski is a projection of the ideal, humane prison guard and where the heroine has remained faithful to her husband despite their long separation.

In 2016, the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded Dr Katherine Astbury follow-on funding to stage the manuscript melodrama from the V&A in situ in the Portchester keep. Although the play text has survived, the original score has not. Music was used to reinforce emotions and structure stage action and so essential to melodrama performance. Dr Diane Tisdall, Musical director for the performance, has created an authentic score based on manuscript music that has survived for Paris melodramas of the period and on music from Marc-Antoine Corret who was a trained horn player and musical director for the prisoners’ theatre troop. He had a professional music career on his return to France in 1814 and published a number of pieces of music which Diane has been able to arrange for Roseliska. Meticulous research into the moments where melodramas had music inserted and into Corret’s own compositions has allowed Diane to produce a score that reproduces the practice at the time and which includes music the prisoners would have been familiar with. The melodies for the two songs have been drawn from a contemporary source of airs, the Clé du Caveau.

Video courtesy of BBC South Today