Background and premiere
in an 1882 caricature from Le Trombinoscope
Victorien Sardou's grandfather had served as a surgeon with Napoleon's army in Italy, and Sardou retained a lifelong interest in the French Revolution and the French Revolutionary Wars. In addition to La Tosca, six of his other plays were set against the events of those times: Monsieur Garat (1860), Les Merveilleuses (1873), Thermidor (1891), Madame Sans-Gêne (1893), Robespierre (1899), and Pamela (1898). He was known for the historical research which he used to inform his plays and had a private research library of over 80,000 books including Piranesi's etchings of late 18th century Rome, where La Tosca is set.
Sardou wrote La Tosca specifically for Sarah Bernhardt. She was in her mid-40s by then and France's leading actress. In 1883, she had also taken over the lease on the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, where La Tosca was to premiere. It was the third play Sardou had written specifically for her. Both their first collaboration, Fédora (1882), and their second, Théodora (1884), had been highly successful. Pierre Berton, who played Baron Scarpia, had been Bernhardt's on and off lover for many years and a frequent stage partner. The elaborate sets for the production were made by a team of designers and painters who had worked with Sardou before: Auguste Alfred Rubé, Philippe Chaperon, Marcel Jambon, Enrico Robecchi, Alfred Lemeunier, and Amable Petit. The costumes were designed by Théophile Thomas, who also designed Sarah Bernhardt's costumes for Hugo's Ruy Blas, Sardou's Cléopâtre and Théodora, and Barbier's Jeanne d'Arc.
The period leading up to the premiere was not without problems. As had happened before, once word got out of a new Sardou play, another author would accuse him of plagiarism. In the 1882 caricature of Sardou (left), one of the signs on the wall states, "Idées des autres" ("Ideas of others") and another, "Bien d'auteur" ("Author's rights"). This time Ernest Daudet (a brother of Alphonse Daudet) made the accusation, claiming that four years earlier, he and Gilbert-Augustin Thierry had written a play, Saint Aubin, which takes place in Paris on the day after the Battle of Marengo (roughly the same time-setting as La Tosca) and whose heroine (like Tosca) is a celebrated opera singer. He also claimed that he had read the play to Sarah Bernhardt and Félix Duquesnel, the director of the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin. Nevertheless, he said he would "graciously permit" Sardou's play to go ahead, and had brought up the issue solely to avoid being accused of plagiarism should Saint-Auban ever be produced. Sardou, in turn, issued a robust denial in the French papers. As the play neared its premiere, Bernhardt discovered to her fury that Sardou had sold the rights for the first American production of the play to the actress Fanny Davenport and threatened to walk out. Bernhardt was eventually pacified and rehearsals continued.
The Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin was packed for the opening night on 24 November 1887, although many in the audience already knew the ending before the curtain went up. While journalists were usually invited to dress-rehearsals, they were expected not to publish details of the play before the premiere. However, the Parisian journal, Gil Blas, had published a complete description of the plot on the morning of 24 November. (Following the premiere, Sardou brought a successful suit for damages against the paper.) At the end of the performance, Pierre Berton (Scarpia) came on stage for the customary presentation of the author to the audience. As he began his introduction, a large part of the audience interrupted him shouting, "Bernhardt, Bernhardt!" After three failed attempts, he went backstage and asked Bernhardt to come out. She refused to do so until Sardou had been introduced. Berton finally succeeded, after which Bernhardt appeared to thunderous applause and cries of "Vive Sarah!"