Would anyone like a sure-fire formula for a Broadway hit? I think this fits the bill: a one-act play in which Edmund Burke and Marie Antoinette are ship wrecked on a desert island. Burke himself set the tone for such a drama in one of his passages so memorable that it is quoted the world over by instinct at the first mention of his name. That venerable Nestor (I see his eyes welling up) writes in Reflections on the Revolution in France:
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision…I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.
My Broadway drama would begin with a simulation of the Lisbon earthquake of November 2, 1755. For on that day, as if Mother Nature had gone into an agonizing labor of unmeasured tremors and incalculable issue, a child was born in Austria and the child’s name was Marie Antoinette Josephe Jeanne. Hilaire Belloc begins his biography of her with mention of the earthquake and writes: “Sudden causes of change are always accompanied by coincidence. Allied forces invariably converge upon the main cause of change and unite for a common effort.”
As the future Queen of France lay in her cradle, the University of Moscow was chartered and a youth named Charles Cornwallis was commissioned in the British army. Readers already will have figured out why I mention Cornwallis. His surrender at Yorktown, for which he would soon atone with a series of brilliant victories in India over Tippoo Sahib, wrought three days later the official end of the American Revolutionary War.
Also on that day of October 22 in 1781, Marie Antoinette gave birth to the first dauphin, Louis Joseph Xavier; her brother Emperor Joseph II issued the Edict of Toleration in Austria; and Count Jean Frederic Phelippeaux Maurepas, who had been Louis XIV’s first prime minister, died. It was a congested day on the highway of history. The French negotiator at Yorktown was Count Axel von Fersen, born the same year as Marie Antoinette and linked romantically with her by many rumors. When Louis XVI and his queen attempted to flee France, only to be caught at Varennes, the coachman was this same Count von Fersen in disguise.
On the centenary of the events at Yorktown, which also saw the start of the Bodawphaya dynasty in Burma, Tunisia became a French protectorate. Mixed are my emotions when I think of Tunisia for it was there, near the site where Aeneas met Queen Dido, that I once nearly died from botulism. The melancholy lament of Aeneas to the queen of Carthage could easily be translated to the lips of Burke addressing the ghost of Marie Antoinette, and I must say that the Virgilian tear-jearker kept coming to me in my feverish hours in Tunis: “Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem.” “You bid, O Queen, the retelling of a grief too deep for words.” Infandum. Probably the finest example of the participle of necessity in all Latin grammar.
The temporary mausoleum of Louis and Marie in Paris, erected by Charles X, is just across the street from the Church of St. Augustin, where the Abbe Huvelin reconciled Charles de Foucauld to the Church, launching him on his heroic career with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on the centenary of the fall of the Bastille. The Tuaregs tribesmen who killed him in North Africa during the Holy War of the Senoussi were as cruel and senseless as the hags knitting at the guillotine of Marie Antoinette.
There are those who have knelt at her vacant tomb on reading the engraved words from her last will and testament, sentiments whose piety corrects any shortsightedness in her pubescent social vision. Buried in the geranium garden outside are the Swiss guards who gave their lives in defense of the king and queen. Chivalry was not dead so long as they lived, though dead upon dead it was in the hearts of those who so obscenely taunted the queen at her trial.
Burke’s fearsome hegemony of sophisters, economists and calculators (i.e., policy wonks) have made our own government a baby-boomer coven of moral deconstruction. But the glory may not be gone forever. Not if children are taught to read once more the likes of Burke. At least on this the great Burke may not have the last word.