The play ‘en cinq actes et en vers’ was first published in London in 1795, and provides a dramatic interpretation of the life of Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford (1593–1641), a major figure in the period leading up to the English Civil War. From 1632–39 he was Lord Deputy of Ireland, where he established a strong authoritarian rule, and upon recall to England became a key adviser to Charles I, attempting to strengthen the royal position against Parliament. After failing in this, and making various advisements not to Charles’s liking, Wentworth was impeached and condemned to death for his ‘high misdemeanours’.
Although more than a century after his death, the French Revolution saw an increasing vogue for Wentworth in royalist circles on both sides of the Channel and an ‘extraordinary Strafford cult seems to have developed among French conservatives both before and in the wake of the revolution’ (Merritt, The Political World of Thomas Wentworth). Indeed, the first biography of Strafford was published by a group of French exiles.
The play’s author, Lally-Tolendal (1751–1830), was the legitimised son of a French landowner and military general of Irish Jacobite ancestry who was executed for failing to capture Madras, losing the Battle of Wandiwash and ultimately ceding French control of Pondicherry. Lally-Tolendal only discovered the secret of his birth on the day of his father’s execution, and thereafter devoted himself to clearing his name. With support from luminaries such as Voltaire he succeeded in persuading Louis XVI to annul the decree which had sentenced his father, but the parlement of Rouen ultimately decided in favour of Lally’s guilt, and his innocence was never fully admitted by French judges. In the play he draws explicit parallels between Strafford’s story and the destruction of his own father.
Whilst the pupil here does not transcribe Lally-Tollendal’s dedicatory epistle or the list of subscribers, the text is clearly taken from, and is a faithful reproduction of, the printed play.