The French playwright Victorien Sardou wrote more than 70 plays, almost all of them successful, and none of them performed today. In the early 1880's Sardou began a collaboration with actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom he provided with a series of historical melodramas. His third Bernhardt play, La Tosca, which premiered in Paris on 24 November 1887, and in which she starred throughout Europe, was an outstanding success, with more than 3,000 performances in France alone.
Puccini had seen La Tosca at least twice, in Milan and Turin. On 7 May 1889 he wrote to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, begging him to get Sardou's permission for the work to be made into an opera: "I see in this Tosca the opera I need, with no overblown proportions, no elaborate spectacle, nor will it call for the usual excessive amount of music".