Olympe de Gouges

English translations of the original French texts

PLAY OUTLINES

Zamore et Mirza ou l'Heureux naufrage - (written 1784, published 1788, performed 1789 with a new title L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage) is the first French play to put a slave on the stage in the hero's role, to give people of colour voices equal to their white peers, to highlight the barbarity of slavery - emphasising the damage it does to both the enslaved and those who oversee the trade - while simultaneously portraying women and men as equals and addressing the problems of children born out of wedlock. De Gouges's forceful abolitionist essay Réflexions sur les Hommes Nègres was appended to this publication of the play. [Read]

La Nécessité du Divorce, written in the autumn of 1790, addresses the need for divorce and the problems that may, or may not, arise from its implementation. The core arguments are put forward by an elderly bachelor but the actual marital crisis at the heart of the family is resolved by the solidarity, intelligence and courage of the two women who have been deceived by their errant husband/lover. The play highlights both contemporary attitudes regarding divorce (the subject was debated in the National Assembly on 5 August 1790) and de Gouges's own feelings towards marriage and its indissolubility. Divorce was not legalised for a further two years: the attitudes expressed in the play were in advance of their time and, although it is one of her best plays, it found little favour and was never performed. [Read]

Les Démocrates et Les Aristocrates was probably written in the autumn of 1790. Set during the festival celebrating the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille it humorously portrays individuals responding to the political changes that have turned their society upside down. Diverse characters parade through in a perfect unity of time and place offering a delightful, quasi-sociological, view of a brief moment in time in Paris before events became less festive. [Read]

Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées is a one act play written in homage to the politician and performed within a fortnight of his death. Commemorative plays and the cult of great men were fashionable in the 18th century. The revolution needed to anchor its nation building in just such terms. Theoretically this play should have been a success for despite the immoderate cuts made to it by the theatrical troupe, the text splendidly represented de Gouges’s personal views (closely allied to those of Mirabeau) on France becoming a constitutional monarchy while also providing her with the opportunity to showcase great women and give them salient words on the position of women in 1791. The recent freeing up of theatrical censorship created a slew of plays on contemporary subjects, most written in haste and consigned to oblivion. De Gouges was part of that trend, seeing theatre as the perfect medium to put forward her views on current affairs. The play was performed twice in Paris to full houses, with some success, and then in the provinces, most notably in Bordeaux, on June 1st. The royal family’s flight to Varennes towards the end of June changed the mood of the country, audiences were no longer much interested in plays supporting any form of monarchy. [Read]

L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage - (1792) is the revised version of Zamore et Mirza. The play is tighter with fewer characters and and a clearer dramatic intent. The Preface reflects de Gouges's thoughts on the violence that had erupted in the colonies in 1791 and the subsequent laws that offered some freedom to the enslaved while also creating draconian responses to insurrection. [Read]

Molière chez Ninon, (written in 1787 and published in 1788, but never performed) is a five act homage to Ninon de l'Enclos and her playwright friend. De Gouges uses the life story of the famous 17th century courtesan to create her ideal woman, someone strong, free-spirited and generous who is cherished by many friends and admirers despite living according to her own principles and not those of the society that surrounds her. The play is episodic in form and naturalistic in its treatment of its subject, indeed de Gouges prided herself on having presented the famous figures from history in her work as real people irrespective of their rank and status. The play also touches on the plight of natural children, a subject close to the author's heart, and didactically highlights the benefits of love and acceptance over the more usual rejection. [Read]

L'Homme Généreux (1786) is a five act drama closely linked to de Gouges's Memoire de Madame Valmont, placing the eponymous heroine of the Memoire at the heart of the play. The 'generous man' is a nobleman whose moral conundrum and emotional development thematically drive the pedagogic message of the work. Deception, attempted rape, societal power structures, the effects of poverty and debt, love both familial and romantic, these are the situations that have to be confronted before the generous man can see clearly where his heart and duty lie. One evil character comes perilously close to destabilising all. Good triumphs over evil in the end but only after deception, both general and of the self, has been abandoned in favour of honesty and cohesion. Evil loses its power when all right minded people set aside their imposed class and gender strictures and embrace their shared humanity. Bound with other plays, it featured in the 1788 edition of de Gouges's Œuvres but was not performed on the stage. [Read]

Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin. In 1784, after seeing Beaumarchais' La Folle Journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, de Gouges was inspired to write a sequel, Les Amours de Chérubin. In her enthusiasm for the original she viewed her own work as an homage to the great playwright. He did not share her opinion, accused her of plagiarism, and used his considerable fame and influence to end to any hopes of it being played. Realising that the performing life of her play was over de Gouges published it, in 1786, under the title Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin. The storyline is similar to the original in which a young bride is threatened by an aristocratic roué - who thinks he is entitled to a wedding night initiation - but the narrative is subtly altered to offer a different approach, one that will improve family ties, and therefore society. The women in the play are people of integrity, strength and resolution who do not rely on intrigue to achieve their ends: de Gouges was offering the public a view of her sex that was inspirational and aspirational. The old order, as epitomised by the Count and Countess and their dysfunctional union, could (and should) be replaced by marriages founded on mutual trust and affection. Beaumarchais who, despite modern interpretations, had no interest in bringing down the old order — and certainly no interest in female emancipation — may have found this play far too progressive for his taste. [Read]

Le Couvent ou les voeux forcées (March 1792) Written in the spring of 1790 this play was de Gouges's commentary on the political and philosophical movements that led to the de-sacralization of the Catholic Church in France. First performed in October 1790 the play addressed the horror of young people being forced into religious orders to suit their families wishes. It portrays both the patriarchal power of the old order and the more liberated views of a religion inspired by natural feelings. [Read]

La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détrôné (August/September 1792) This unfinished play was found in manuscript form when de Gouges's lodgings were searched by the authorities following her arrest in June 1793. The play is set in the Tuileries palace the night before the events of the 10 August. De Gouges was in fact absent from Paris at the time so she is not offering an eye witness account however the events would have been so well known that major details changed for satirical effect, such as Barnave being in love with Madame Elizabeth and not Marie Antoinette, would have been understood for what they were, critical ironic representations of those in power. The tribunal judging her chose to wilfully misunderstand the play’s tone and use it against her at her trial (along with other material) to prove that she was not a committed republican. Admitting to being the author of this unfinished play, in part, cost her her life. [Read]

L'Entrée de Dumourier à Bruxelles, ou les vivandiers Written in November 1792 and published in early 1793 this five act play celebrates the liberation of the Belgians by Dumouriez from their Austrian oppressors, the playwright seeing in that moment a perfect symbol of republican patriotism, the new French regime spreading its message of liberty and equality beyond its borders for the benefit of mankind. For a play set in the midst of a military campaign if offers robust female characters. Its creation proved difficult and its few performances disastrous. De Gouges elaborates on all of these trials and tribulations in her preface entitled Plots Unveiled. The play, written so soon after the events it portrayed, was supposed to transport an enthusiastic and patriotic audience to the heart of a current campaign, instead it was delayed to such an extent that any topicality had become virtually irrelevant. Unfortunately it is of more interest now to readers of de Gouges's works and those who study that period, than it was to audiences in 1793. Written as a pièce de circonstance it was never meant to shine by its literary merit, once its topicality removed, little could save it from critical mauling.