Thursday, November 11, 2021

Laughter in the Time of Cholera (long form essay)

Laughter in the Time of Cholera

Political instability, popular unrest, and an impending pandemic? Welcome to France in the early 1830s. Vlad Solomon explores what made Parisiens laugh in a moment of crisis through the prism of a vaudeville play.


November 10, 2021

Audience facing viewer applauding

Detail from Honoré Daumier's Croquis pris au théatre series, 1864 — Source.

The year 1832 in France still conjures up images of rebellion and barricades thanks to the enduring pathos of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. For the real-life Parisians, however, who inspired the novel’s iconic characters, it was not only a year of lost causes, bloody street battles, and political disillusionment. It was also, in the parlance of our times, a “pandemic year” during which thousands — more than 18,000 in Paris; 100,000 across France1 — succumbed to a wave of cholera that had been causing havoc throughout Asia, Russia, and parts of East Central Europe since the 1820s. Although germ theory was still in its infancy at the time, people were quick to grasp the contagious nature of the disease and sought to speedily bury their dead as authorities scrambled desperately to meet the demands of an unprecedented public health crisis. A recent transplant to Paris, the German poet Heinrich Heine noted in a letter penned in mid-April 1832 — less than a month after the first recorded case of cholera in the French capital — the “disagreeable” sight of “great furniture wagons used for ‘moving’ now moving about as dead men’s omnibuses . . . going from house to house for fares and carrying them by dozens to the field of rest.”2

Laughter in the Time of Cholera  (long form essay) Laughter in the Time of Cholera By  Vlad Solomon P...