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The arrest of Olympe de Gouges, author of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman, on July 20, 1793, at the onset of one of the most tumultuous periods of the French Revolution, should not have come as a surprise. For nearly a decade, de Gouges had been courting public controversy as a playwright fighting the theatrical establishment to have her plays produced and to democratize its archaic and patriarchal management practices. Since the outbreak of political turmoil in 1788, she had fearlessly published her opinions in a steady stream of political pamphlets that she distributed widely and often affixed to public walls throughout Paris. At a time when very few women acknowledged writing novels, let alone political tracts, when even fewer women succeeded in having their plays produced, de Gouges’s willingness to engage so publicly in two of the arenas traditionally reserved for men flouted convention and risked reprisal.

The immediate cause of her arrest was her attempt to post hundreds of copies of a pamphlet, Toxicodindronn, Combat à mort des trois gouvernements (Three governments’ battle to the death), calling for a plebiscite to choose once and for all among three types of government—monarchy, federalism or republicanism. 1 Did de Gouges ignore that this pamphlet and a second version of it, Les Trois Urnes, ou le salut de la patrie (The salvation of the fatherland), defied the March 29 decree prohibiting the writing or publishing of any texts attempting to reestablish a monarchy? 2 Did she likewise [End Page 47] disregard the Convention’s recent vote to adopt a constitution that officially founded a republican form of government? 3 Or had the lack of response to her earlier, equally risky, political interventions—her offer to defend Louis XVI at his trial, her passionate defense of the recently arrested Girondins, her sharp attacks on Robespierre—inured her to danger and encouraged her to continue voicing her opinion and suggesting solutions to the increasing factionalism? 4 Records from the initial police interrogation show that de Gouges was indeed genuinely surprised to have been arrested and defended herself vigorously by recalling her numerous “patriotic” writings and her avid support of the Revolution and the Republic. Eager to defend her claims with the concrete proof of her texts, she herself led the commissioners voluntarily to her office and storehouse, when they could find none of her papers in her private apartment. Among the hundreds of copies of her pamphlets, plays, posters and correspondence that the authorities inventoried, was the manuscript of an unfinished play, La France sauvée ou le tyran détroné (France preserved, or the tyrant dethroned), that would later become a focus of the prosecutor’s case against her at her trial in November.

From the one and a half acts that remain of the projected five-act play, it is clear that de Gouges planned a sweeping historical drama, centered on the desperate machinations of Queen Marie-Antoinette on the eve of August 10, 1792, and on the impending demise of the monarchy. Set in the queen’s chambers in the inner sanctum of the royal palace, the first act sketches out the drama’s driving conflict between the queen plotting defense strategies to uphold a crumbling monarchy and the revolutionary forces ushering in a democratic era represented unwittingly by the dauphin, the bumbling king, the hesitant soldiers of the national guard, Jérôme Pétion, the mayor of Paris, and, most forcefully, by a character named Olympe de Gouges. The act culminates in a confrontation between the queen and Olympe de Gouges, who harangues the queen for her seditious intentions, lectures her on how to lead her people, and finally predicts the imminent destruction of the monarchy. [End Page 48]

Although the politically incendiary wall poster that provoked her arrest would serve as primary evidence at her trial, the other text that the prosecutor, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, cites extensively in the official Acte d’accusation is this unfinished, unproduced, unpublished play. 5 Why should this fragment of a play celebrating the fall of the monarchy have been singled out among all her political pamphlets and other plays as the strongest evidence of sedition? Why should a fictive text, whose lack of public circulation foreclosed any possible political impact, serve to condemn de Gouges on political grounds? Of all the women prosecuted in the Revolution, Olympe de Gouges was the only one condemned specifically for her political writings and publications. The records of her inquisition and trial show that she argued with the authorities about the interpretation of her political texts, her pamphlets as well as this particular play, and not about the significance of any of her actions.

Certainly, the timing of de Gouges’s arrest in late July 1793 was not auspicious. The Girondins had just been arrested en masse, leaving the way open to the mounting influence of the more radical “Montagne,” led by Maximilien Robespierre. On September 5, 1793, the Convention officially ratified the Terror, the systematized repression of traitors to the Revolution within the Republic. The queen would be brought to trial in early October, accused of profligate spending, treason, counterrevolutionary conspiracies, influence peddling, and incest. The frenzy of charged emotions fueled by the sensationalist accusations fostered an ambiance inimical to rendering justice calmly and dispassionately. 6 Finally, in late October, the trial of the Girondins would open, leading to their swift condemnation. By November 1793, when, after repeated appeals to be judged, de Gouges was finally tried, the Terror was in full swing.

Still, the question remains: why was de Gouges’s unfinished play perceived to be as seditious as her other widely read provocative pamphlets? And why did de Gouges and the Tribunal interpret the play so differently? Records of the interrogation leading up to de Gouges’s trial show that both she and the Revolutionary Tribunal interpreted the play as compelling evidence to prove their opposing cases. For the Tribunal, it would prove her guilty of treason. For de Gouges, on the contrary, it would ratify her patriotism. I would argue that the disagreement stemmed from conflicting understandings about the vexing problem of representation in both the theatrical and political sense, and more precisely from a confusion of theatrical representation with political representation. The Tribunal focused explicitly on the play’s representation of the queen, condemning de Gouges for deigning to represent this “monster whose crimes exceeded those of Messalina and Medea,” terms that echo those used at the queen’s trial. 7 According to the prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, the play’s patriotic title and its subject of the monarchy’s fall masked a hidden monarchist bias: “We can only interpret the work in question as an incitement to reestablish the royalty.” For him and [End Page 49] the Tribunal, representing the queen, even fictively, threatened to resurrect her politically while at the same time it denied the political reality of the radical act of her condemnation and execution. At this moment of the Revolution, the queen was unrepresentable politically; she was equally unrepresentable theatrically. The Tribunal was less explicit in its condemnation of Olympe de Gouges’s self-representation. I would like to suggest, however, that her unusual self-representation in the play in question reminded the judges of de Gouges’s practice of representing herself in her political pamphlets and influenced their conduct of the trial. Although she was legally entitled to a defense lawyer, the presiding judge at her trial denied her this right, countering her protest with an argument based on her infamous talent for representing herself: “You have enough wits to defend yourself on your own.” 8 It would seem that the Tribunal interpreted her fictional self-dramatization in her pamphlets and in this play as literal and legal acts of self-representation. Thus, Olympe de Gouges fell victim not only to the changing political views of those leading the Revolution, but also, I will argue, to the rapidly evolving understanding of theatre’s relation to politics.

From Revolutionizing Theatre to Theatricalizing the Revolution

Although the confusion or conflation between theatrical and political representation culminated with the beginning of the Terror in September 1793, it had been a long time in the making. Critics have traced how the Revolution affected the development of rhetorical strategies and discursive practices in three overlapping public sectors—theatre, democratic politics, and judicial practice—until each of these areas of public discourse fused with the others so that theatre became politicized and, conversely, political and judicial practice, theatricalized. Let me briefly review here the findings most pertinent to my argument. Mona Ozouf’s detailed analysis of the many different types of fêtes révolutionnaires (revolutionary festivals), from the spontaneous street manifestation and the carefully orchestrated participatory spectacles that identified and marked special moments of the Revolution, to the full-blown re-staging of significant events on the stage of theatres, demonstrates that the events of the Revolution could not be fully comprehended until represented as spectacle or repeated symbolically. 9

The political forum was also increasingly theatricalized. 10 In contrast to the closed chambers from which a small group of royal councilors had governed in seclusion under the monarchy, the vast locales necessary to accommodate the various assemblies of delegates of a government claiming to represent the people resembled the public space of theatres, with a stage-like podium facing the delegates and with reserved space on three sides of the hall for the public spectators. The large space encouraged the orators to speak loudly, to enunciate clearly, and to punctuate their discourses with broad gestures to ensure that they be heard, seen, and understood [End Page 50] from the furthest corner of the hall. The successful orator had to adopt the techniques of a skilled actor. 11

As democratic governance literally transformed the space of politics, so too was the spatial configuration of judicial practice altered. Before the Revolution, justice exercised upon the discovery of the truth was the purview of God and the king, or their chosen representatives. Truth was revealed mostly in the private, hidden recesses of the confessional or in the sealed chambers of the judge. In stark contrast to the despised judicial practices of the ancien régime, the Revolution exposed the truth and the workings of justice in the public arena of the open trial. 12 The sovereign people now sat in judgment where God and the king sat before. In his speech to the Convention calling for the king’s trial and execution, Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just, the radical theorist of the Montagne party, defended the logic behind this new practice of the open trial: “[K]ings used to prosecute virtue in the dark; we, we judge kings before the universe! Our deliberations are public so that no one accuses us of unseemly behavior.” 13

Furthermore, a rhetoric of transparency in public discourse, where words relate intention and meaning unproblematically, and therefore confirm the essential virtue of the speaker, began to substitute for the rite of Christian confession and prepared the groundwork for the scene of the public trial just as the fêtes révolutionnaires replaced the traditional celebrations of the Christian calendar. 14 As the contentious atmosphere [End Page 51] of the successive governing bodies intensified, and the paranoia manifest in constant rumors of counterrevolutionary plots beginning as early as 1789 escalated, this rhetoric of transparency became more discernible in the representatives’ speeches. Under pressure to defend their positions or ideas from attacks from both the opposition and the public galleries, the speakers invoked more and more frequently the trope of putting themselves and their ideas on trial, thereby encouraging a tendency to conflate public oratory with the rendering of public justice; the public was now called upon to judge the words and delivery of the orator as proof of his patriotic and virtuous intentions. The public trial of the king in January 1793 would ratify this trend, transforming what until then had been a rhetorical tendency into an actuality, impinging upon a historical event with real consequences. As Saint-Just had argued, the truth of the King’s crime would only be able to be determined openly in the public forum of the Convention. Three months later, in March 1793, the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal extended the possibility of a publicly accessible trial equally to all citizens.

The ideal of transparency between public discourse and private intention, between representatives and public, between political or dramatic representation and patriotic meaning, would also affect reforms in the theatre. Although calls for liberalizing the monopolistic stronghold of the Comédie Française had preceded the Revolution, it was not until January 13, 1791, that the Assembly voted to free the theatre from censorship and the restrictive laws and codes that governed its practices. 15 The new law effectively ended the monopolies and protections enjoyed by the state theatres; from now on any entrepreneur or company was free to found a theatre, authors retained performing rights and could negotiate with theatres as they pleased, and the classic repertory, no longer the exclusive property of the Comédie Française, entered the public domain. If some legislators had initially envisioned that the liberalization of the theatre would inaugurate a new form of didactic theatre that would educate the spectators in the morals and values of the Revolution, they would be disappointed. The immediate effect of the new law was the explosive increase in new theatrical establishments and in the number of plays. 16 The second, major effect of the liberalization of the theatre was the popularization of the audiences. As the newly opened theatres competed for audiences, they broadened their reach to include spectators from the popular classes. If by the beginning of 1793, nonpolitical theatrical productions still dominated, the tumultuous responses of audiences to those plays that did allude to contemporary events alerted the revolutionary authorities to the need to re-impose some controls and to the possibilities of politicizing the theatre. The debate about the political uses of theatre culminated in a series of decrees ratified by the Convention on August 2, 1793, to require theatres to produce plays exemplifying civic virtues and portraying the “glorious events” of recent revolutionary history and current transformation, for the purpose of edifying the spectators and fostering their [End Page 52] patriotism. 17 The immediate re-presentation or theatricalization of political events would now be officially encouraged and would foster the growing confusion between dramatic representation and actual political event. 18

The Trope of the Trial

Olympe de Gouges was the only woman actively participating in the Revolution who accepted the challenge of operating under such public scrutiny. Today, and especially since the commemorative activities sparked by the 1989 bicentennial celebration of the Revolution, de Gouges is best remembered as the visionary feminist who, in her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (The declaration of the rights of woman), clearly identified the legislators’ exclusionary politics and attempted to include women and people of color in the founding charter of the French Republic. 19 To us, de Gouges’s call for women to unite, to consider themselves as a disenfranchised group, to voice collectively their rights and opinions, to present themselves as a group with a right to political representation, seems strikingly progressive and audacious. 20 Her contemporaries, however, hardly reacted to her [End Page 53] feminist perspective and her rewriting of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme (The declaration of the rights of man). To them, her most outstanding characteristic was not her call to represent women in the new republic but rather her most unconventional insistence on representing herself repeatedly in her political pamphlets and other public writings. Indeed, at a time when it was unprecedented for a woman to declare herself publicly femme de lettres, as de Gouges did at her trial; when most women writers published anonymously, as Mme de Staël did her political texts on the Revolution, or simply circulated their texts and letters privately, as did Mme Roland; when it was almost impossible for a woman playwright to have her work staged without the mediation of a well-placed homme de lettres, Olympe de Gouges defied the conventions of anonymity, discretion, and modesty by flaunting herself in all her texts.

For a self-educated woman from the south, whose native language was not French, and who did not enjoy the social and financial advantages of well-placed Parisian connections, she was an unusually prolific and successful writer. From 1784 to her execution in 1793, she authored and published over sixty political pamphlets and claimed to have written thirty plays, twelve of which have survived. She also responded to Rousseau’s ideas in a theoretical tract, Le Bonheur primitif (Original happiness), produced two novels, and carried on a contentious correspondence with the Comédie Française. 21 Most strikingly, she exposed this steady production for constant public inspection, soliciting responses and insisting on inserting her voice in the public discourse. Undaunted by the difficulties she encountered in having her plays staged, she demanded the right to have the public judge her work. When she succeeded in producing the plays, she fought the press, the actors, and the public just as publicly and tenaciously if their interpretations of her works were hostile. In prefaces to the publication of her plays, public letters circulated through newspapers, and separately published memorandums, she chronicled the history of her struggles with the Comédie and argued incessantly for reforms to grant playwrights copyright over their plays and the right to control their publication. For example, in the case of her protracted dispute with the Comédie over the staging of L’Esclavage des noirs (The enslavement of the blacks), it took her four years to overcome the company’s fear and censorship of the plot of a slave revolt and have it honor its original commitment to produce the play. 22 In fighting the archaic management practices of the Comédie she [End Page 54] echoed the protests of other, better known playwrights, among them Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Louis Sébastien Mercier, and Jean-François de La Harpe, but she was the only woman and, more importantly, she was the only playwright, male or female, to project herself so publicly in the struggle. 23

Yet, despite the obstacles any playwright faced getting the limited number of playhouses before January 1791 to stage a play, and despite the almost impossible hurdles confronting a woman author, she chose to write often for the theatre. 24 Moreover, she anticipated the politicalization of the theatre: With the exception of one her earliest plays, Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin (The unexpected marriage of Chérubin) (1784), a sequel to Beaumarchais’ Figaro, all of her extant plays explore socially controversial issues, from the more private problems of adultery, freedom in marriage, the rights of illegitimate children, and divorce, to the social injustices of imprisonment for debt, forced vocations, and slavery. 25 Five of her plays, including the last three (among them, La France sauvée, ou le tyran détroné), commemorate specific revolutionary moments or dramatize actual political conflicts.

Of the four plays she succeeded in having staged during the revolutionary period, all dealt explicitly with controversial political issues. L’Esclavage des noirs, first accepted by the Comédie in 1785 and finally staged in December 1789, exposes the inherent contradiction and the ensuing conflict that arises between humane and enlightened feelings on the one hand, and the practice of slavery on the other. The much awaited play provoked a fracas between partisans of the pro-slavery, colonist party and sympathizers of a more liberal policy toward slavery who believed France should review the law to be more consistent with the new rights under discussion in the Assembly. The controversy caused the premature closing of the play after only three performances, but paradoxically, by risking failure in treating such a political subject, de Gouges succeeded in drawing attention to both the political problem and herself. Not only did the colonist party publicly attack the play, they vilified her personally as well. Her second staged play, Le Couvent, ou les voeux forcés (The convent or the forced vows) (October 1790), was less explicitly political, its plot of forced vocations more common than original, but contemporaneous events—the ratification of the civil Constitution of the clergy—politicized its anticlericalism and transformed its conventional sentimentality into a passion for freedom. It was so popular that it ran eighty times, an exceptional success compared to the more usual run during this [End Page 55] period of less than ten representations. 26 Mirabeau aux Champs Elysées, her third stage success, was produced on April 15, 1791, at the Théâtre des Italiens, followed by a well-received run in Bordeaux. It was one of a first of commemorative-type plays to become increasingly popular as the theatre became politicized. The one-act play, written within three weeks of the acclaimed orator’s death, gathered on stage an assembly of great men and women (Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Louis XIV, Benjamin Franklin, Ninon de Lenclos, Mme Deshoulières, Mme de Sévigné) to celebrate Mirabeau’s arrival in the Elysian Fields and to comment upon the current political events. The timing of her fourth and last stage production, L’Entrée de Dumouriez à Bruxelles ou les Vivandiers (Dumouriez’s entry into Brussels or the canteen-keepers), guaranteed its politically and critically controversial reception. Written in the fall of 1792, after General Dumouriez’s military successes in Belgium, the Théâtre de la République agreed to stage it in late November, but subsequently put it off until January 23, at a time when Dumouriez’s imminent betrayal was suspected. The war, changing events, and Dumouriez’s politicking had transformed the play’s hero into a traitor, and its author’s patriotism into potential treason.

It is evident from the political and social topics of de Gouges’s plays that she shunned theatre as light entertainment to engage instead in the politically charged theatre favored by the leaders of the revolution. Such a politically engaged theatre, however, would soon prove to be controversial and difficult to control. As representations or dramatizations of historical events or political debates were increasingly experienced by audiences as real, actual moments of the Revolution, any deviation from the official version of the historical event could be construed as criticism or political opposition. Inevitably, political theatre reinstated and depended on censorship. 27 Thus, although de Gouges seemed to adhere to the revolutionaries’ view of the didactic and moral uses of theatre, her vanguard position put her at risk. In light of her notorious reputation as a combative and controversial playwright, sustained not only by her infamous successes but also by her very public disputes, the authorities were bound to scrutinize her manuscript, La France sauvée, ou le tyran détrôné, for signs of its political position.

If de Gouges’s theatre was political, her political pamphlets were increasingly theatrical. Like her theatre, de Gouges’s pamphlets voice her opinions and ideas about topical issues recently debated in public. Written within days if not hours of the public exchange, quickly printed, distributed to the members of the current governing body, [End Page 56] and often plastered all over the walls of Paris, these pamphlets attempt to enter the fray as immediately as possible. 28 Although de Gouges did not write them as or for the theatre, their rhetoric alludes to and emulates a theatrical situation between the author and her interlocutors. In almost every case, de Gouges addresses her brochures to a specific interlocutor. Within the text itself, she apostrophizes her addressees and often redirects her comments to a larger audience, thereby producing a virtual theatrical space where she and her interlocutor share the proscenium or podium in front of a larger audience. As a woman, de Gouges did not have as ready an access to the podium of the Assembly as did the (male) legal representatives of the nation or other governmental officials. She circumvented this problem by having some of her pamphlets read by the current presiding secretary in front of the assembled representatives, as was the practice at the beginning of each session of the governing body. If she herself could not declaim her speech and speak directly to her audience, she would have a third party play her role and recite her lines. In the cases when her texts were not read in front of the Assembly, or when they were interrupted and their reading abandoned, their rhetoric still transformed them into a script for a theatrical scene. Affixed to the walls of the city as posters, the pamphlets re-presented the scene of Olympe de Gouges addressing her interlocutors in front of the Assembly as a virtual street theatre for the broadest public possible. 29 The prefaces that she added to her plays upon publication reproduce the intense relationship she establishes between readers and herself in her pamphlets, as if the mediated relationship between audience and author through the performance of the play muted her voice, and she needed to reinsert herself directly in a theatrical space. 30 As de Gouges gained experience in political pamphleteering and understood better the obstacles she faced in disseminating her ideas, she began to anticipate and include in her discourses defenses and justifications for her ideas, her texts and herself. Onto the oratorical rhetoric that conjured up a virtual theatrical space she grafted a judicial rhetoric that redefined the podium or proscenium as a public court of law and the audience as the jury or the judge.

It should come as no surprise, then, that long before appearing in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal, she repeatedly asked her readers—the people, the public, the Nation—to judge her and her works. As early as May 1789, in her fifth pamphlet, Avis pressant à mes calomniateurs (Urgent notice to those who slander me), she appealed to the public to defend herself and her works against accusations of not writing her own texts, of selling herself and works to the government, and against allegations of immorality: “I must justify myself; I am being made to do so, and I call upon the whole [End Page 57] public as my witness.” 31 As a woman audacious enough to participate in the public discourse, and to insist on being heard, de Gouges discovered that she had to defend not only her political ideas and positions, but more often the authenticity of her texts, her literary capabilities, and the morality of her personal life. As in the critiques of her theatre, the attacks she parried were always double, personal as well as political.

Like many of the public personalities of the Revolution, de Gouges identified with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Carol Blum has summarized the various ways in which this identification was expressed. 32 Women, such as Mme Roland, were moved by the new role and position Rousseau had defined for women and identified with the fictional ideals he had created. In striking contrast, however, de Gouges rejected the philosopher’s ideas on women, bypassed the female role models he had so powerfully conjured, and identified with Rousseau the writer. The affinity that she expressed for Rousseau, and in particular for his relationship to language and discourse, led her to compare her approach to writing to his in several ways. Equating her lack of formal education to Rousseau’s rejection of polite society and its reliance on artifice, she saw both Rousseau and herself as uncorrupted by society—as students of nature—and therefore, her argument goes, as the voices of truth. She argued further that, like Rousseau, she knew and felt the purity of her intentions, and that she needed only to communicate them to the public for them to be self-evident and transparent. And much like Rousseau, who valued the voice and the immediacy of presence over writing and re-presentation, and yet whose rhetoric revealed an intuitive and anguished understanding that voice and presence are always mediated by writing and re-presentation, de Gouges found her “voice,” far from being immediately understood, to be in fact, misinterpreted, her intentions transmuted, and her presence barred from the actual podium, reduced to being embodied figuratively in a trope.

De Gouges’s emulation of Rousseau’s rhetoric of transparency and her appropriation of his valorization of voice and presence over writing and re-presentation have particular consequences for her as a woman. Attacked on personal grounds, the authenticity of her writings and the sincerity of her intentions challenged, her morals and her virtue impugned, what little authority she had as a woman undermined, de Gouges was forced to defend herself repeatedly. 33 She countered personal attacks by writing about herself, often including in her pamphlets anecdotes or relating lively, comic scenes in which she plays the heroine who, slandered by some passerby, vindicates herself by making fools out of her attackers. 34 In “retelling” these supposedly [End Page 58] authentic occurrences, de Gouges re-stages them for a different, larger public, which now judges not only her character but the other “actors” as well. Today these “scenes” read as curious digressions from the political topic and from the serious tone of her texts, as if she were not in control of the texts’ aim. Yet in the context of the prevailing discursive practices of the Revolution, where attacks against the speaker’s sincerity, virtue, and authenticity discredited his politics, de Gouges’s transformation of these allegations into comic scenes deflates their seriousness and deflects public judgment from her onto her critics.

She did not, however, limit her defense strategies to transforming herself into a comic heroine for the public’s amusement; she also attempted to redefine the terms of the attack and to refocus the critique onto her political ideas by imagining more serious scenes of a public trial in which she invokes her texts and ideas as evidence, as in the following, very typical passage from a September 1791 brochure, Repentir de Mme de Gouges (Repentance of Mme de Gouges). I have kept de Gouges’s original punctuation, which translates best her imitation of an oral delivery before a live audience:

The National Assembly, or some of its honorable members, believe, so I’m told, that I am crazy; let them prove that they are more reasonable than I; I’ve lost my case, but I call upon the members of the majority who are sound of mind to hear me. Here I am at the bar: what is the evidence of your aristocracy, the President asks me? my Esclavage des noirs, published in 1784, that depicted how both the French and Blacks of America were enslaved. My Caisse patriotique [My patriotic fund] of 1788. My views on welfare in favor of the unfortunate during the “terrible winter,” the establishment of public workshops, the responsibility of the ministers, etc. including the review of the King’s qualifications, all this is to be found in my writings, including the principles of equality, justice and humanity, for which the Constitution is indebted to me. Here is my true aristocracy. 35

Beginning in 1792, the rhetorical figure of the trial becomes the dominant trope of her texts, used not only to defend herself and her works, but also to pronounce judgment on others, including the king, the queen, Marat, and Robespierre. As both she and her ideas come increasingly under attack, she responds by organizing her pamphlets as scenarios of mock trials where she takes the role of the innocent defendant, her interlocutors sit as her judges, and her previous texts, referred to, incorporated, or quoted at length, serve as material evidence of her patriotism and innocence. 36

Rehearsing the Queen’s Trial

By the time de Gouges was finally brought to trial on November 2, 1793, two months after the beginning of the Terror, both the public’s and the government’s attitude toward the political uses of theatre had evolved. As James H. Johnson summarizes: “Fueled by the spirit of purification that denounced all things not strongly for the Revolution as against it, the dramatic vision of the Terror was never [End Page 59] stable, never satisfied with the state of public spirit, never convinced that there was a perfect transparency of interests among the citizens on the stage and in the audience.” 37 De Gouges’s play, La France sauvée, which earlier might have been interpreted as a patriotic and “politically correct” commemoration of the fall of the monarchy, would now be censured not only for depicting and thus resurrecting the reviled and recently executed queen, but also for dramatizing imaginary scenes, and, paradoxically, for mixing reality with fiction and thus blurring two realms that, according to Jacobin views of theatre, should remain clearly distinct.

What did de Gouges expect to convey in this play? Besides the manuscript itself and the discussion of the play at her trial, the only indication of her intentions are the references she makes to the play in two pamphlets, Réponse à la justification de Maximilien Robespierre, adressée à Jérôme Pétion (Response to the claims of Maximilien Robespierre, addressed to Jérôme Pétion), published and distributed as a wall poster in November 1792, and Compte moral rendu et dernier mot à mes chers amis, par Olympe de Gouges, à la Convention nationale et au peuple, sur une dénonciation faite sur son Civisme (Moral account and last word to my dear friends, by Olympe de Gouges, to the National Convention and to the people, against a denunciation of her civic loyalty), published one month later. Addressing the first brochure to Pétion, at the time president of the newly constituted Convention, she announces that the play she is currently writing pays homage to his role in the recent events of August and praises in particular his calm, composed actions and his dispassionate but moral speeches in face of the king’s and his partisans’ duplicitous behavior. In his capacity as the wildly popular mayor of Paris, Pétion had been the first to demand officially before the Assembly on August 4 the king’s deposition and had subsequently been held hostage in the palace the night of August 10. By appealing to Pétion for approval, if not protection, of both her play and her pamphlet, she anticipates that the play could be critiqued as pro-royal and clearly positions it in the anti-royal camp. She further expresses her hope that the play’s title presages the future of France, that the republic will indeed be saved from the divisive factionalism that threatens it from within as well as from without. 38 As these remarks to Pétion show, de Gouges was well aware that representing the deposed monarchs on stage, even if to justify their deposition, was a politically risky gesture. Yet in the later pamphlet, written as a defense against accusations that she had colluded with the queen, she alludes to the play to justify her actions. Recounting her efforts to interest the queen in supporting a women’s parade for the June 1792 fête in celebration of the slain mayor of Étampes, she recalls her infelicitous encounter with the queen’s imperious lady-in-waiting, the Princess de Lamballe, and how she has transcribed the meeting in her play: “I’ve rendered word for word the conversation I had with her,” she writes, “in one of the scenes of a five-act [End Page 60] drama that I intend to produce soon under the title La France sauvée, ou le Tyran détrôné, and in which the public will finally get to know me fully.” 39

These two brochures indicate that de Gouges was actively working on the play in the late fall of 1792, the period of the most intense political turmoil and of de Gouges’s most engaged political writing. As de Gouges’s comments make evident, the play incorporates both discursive trends under discussion—the politicalization of theatre and the theatricalization of trials. Not only is it blatantly political, dramatizing one of the most significant events of the Revolution, but by reviewing on stage the king’s and the queen’s political machinations, it proleptically anticipates their trials as spectacle. Historians such as Jules Michelet have remarked how historical accounts of the events of August 10 were the most distorted and obfuscated of the Revolution because, as its crucial turning point, interpretations of its significance were ideologically charged rather than historically truthful. 40 De Gouges’s drama does not evade Michelet’s judgment; it invents an imaginary reconstruction of the strategies and machinations of the counterrevolutionaries as well as the inner thoughts, fears, and doubts of the king and queen, while it also revises history by adding a “fictional” character, Olympe de Gouges, to the scene. But by setting the action in the inner sanctum of the palace, the drama exposes for public scrutiny what previously had always been mysterious and unknown. The play can also be interpreted as a rehearsal of the royal couple’s public trials. Indeed, this play could be seen as de Gouges’s response to the silence and criticism that greeted her proposal to serve as the king’s public defender. 41 Her offer to speak publicly on behalf of the king’s defense in front of the Convention denied, she transmutes the public trial into a play and gives herself a role from which to voice her silenced opinions. Finally, de Gouges’s remarkable self-representation as the character Olympe de Gouges allows her to embody fictively the political and judicial role denied her in real life.

Although the play’s title, La France sauvée, ou le tyran détrôné, alludes to the king, the central character is in fact the queen, who dominates the stage in twelve of the eighteen scenes. Weak, vacillating, and passive, the king has already been deposed by the queen who, in contrast to her consort, takes charge of saving the monarchy. As she bemoans: “And why am I not in your place?” 42 Thus the character of the queen that de Gouges imagines in her play conforms to the most current commonplaces concerning the queen’s dissimulating behavior: her proud and haughty demeanor, and her control and manipulation of the king. But de Gouges’s conception of the queen shows more depth than the popular one-dimensional caricatures in public circulation at the time. Although many of the pamphlets attacking the queen that flourished before and during the Revolution pretended to give the queen’s own views through first-person narratives, the first person served in fact as a rhetorical ploy to ventriloquize the point of view of the attacker. 43 De Gouges imagines a queen fighting to save the throne and [End Page 61] monarchy, but also one capable of reflection, of doubt, of clairvoyant political judgment, of listening to the opposition, indeed of listening to a republican patriot such as the character Olympe de Gouges. Herein, no doubt, lies a first and compelling reason for the Tribunal’s interpretation of the play as seditious. The figure of the monarch had long been eclipsed by a fictional “paper” queen constructed from virulent political and pornographic pamphlets. 44 De Gouges’s dramatic conception of a tragic queen, torn between, on the one hand, ambition, will to power, and belief in monarchy and, on the other, her consort’s fear and hesitation, and her own admiration for incorruptible republicans, clashed with the public’s and the Tribunal’s most recent characterization of the queen at her trial. Yet despite the more nuanced and complex portrayal of the queen, it is no less fictive or symbolic a representation than the ones in the political and pornographic pamphlets. Although de Gouges had publicly addressed earlier letters and pamphlets to the queen, including her Déclaration des droits de la femme, never had she fashioned such a theatrical role for the queen, imagining action, gestures, and motivation, and putting words and speeches in her mouth. In this case, the queen not only represents the historical personage; she also takes on a symbolic role in the drama’s structure. She embodies one of the antipodes of the play’s central confrontation between monarchy and democracy, dissimulation and open transparency, in opposition to the character Olympe de Gouges, who incarnates the other.

And although de Gouges had previously voiced her ideas through characters in some of her plays, and had represented herself in her pamphlets, never had she embodied herself so directly as a character on stage. Such a self-reflexive creation bespeaks de Gouges’s growing sophistication and originality in her conception of the theatre. The only other such startling self-representation of which I am aware from the early period is Molière’s ingenious portrayal of himself and his troupe discussing and preparing a rehearsal in the Impromptu de Versailles. But Molière’s play had not been re-staged since 1664 and was not well known in the eighteenth century. 45 Hence, it seems most likely that de Gouges developed this extraordinary self-representation from her practice of portraying herself in her political pamphlets.

The script prepares carefully for the queen’s confrontation with Olympe, as the play calls her. Several characters first describe Olympe to the queen: “You’ve seen that [End Page 62] woman who, through her writings, hounds partisan fanatics and kings, and faces all the daggers with stoic courage: you’ve heard her speak the audacious language of a republican” (191), says the Princess de Tarente as she reminds the Princess de Lamballe of her actual encounter with de Gouges. In the ensuing conversation, the queen speculates about Olympe’s usefulness for her interests and praises some of her ideas. She regrets that “this woman” has steadfastly refused to work in the interests of the monarchy or to be bought off. Thus, before appearing on the scene, the pros and cons of de Gouges’s “corruption” case have been aired. The queen herself has begrudgingly provided the evidence of de Gouges’s virtue. The valet’s announcement of Olympe’s imminent arrival piques the queen’s interest: “A woman who has neither the attitude nor the language of a partisan fanatic has asked to speak to you. She insists that she only wishes to discuss your own welfare. Her speech is full of wisdom. She’s fascinating the attendants” (191). Because court protocol proscribes any direct confrontation between royalty and “the people,” the queen hides behind a screen and has the Princess de Lamballe stand in for her. When Olympe bursts onto the stage, the audience knows that both she and the queen are present together, but the queen remains hidden and unattainable for Olympe. As the princess tries to uphold the hierarchical, political, and personal distance between the monarchy and her plebeian visitor by invoking the rules of protocol, Olympe responds by laughing and lecturing her, and of course the queen, on the collapse of both the protocol and the artificial distance: “Vain illusion! Rank, birth have never given the right to offend others with impunity. At what a time, good God, you allow yourself these excesses, this superstition, this folly, this extravagance” (193). The spatial configuration on stage thus mirrors the actual political situation between the monarchy and the republicans, with the monarchy operating through mediation, its intentions and plotting veiled from direct public apprehension, and with the republicans insisting on direct and open representation.

In the ensuing harangue addressed to the princess, and indirectly to the queen, Olympe accuses the court of counterrevolutionary plotting, and warns it to desist in order to save what is left of the monarchy from the inevitable bloodbath:

What would you not do, you courtiers, to satisfy your blind ambition? All your efforts are powerless, the mass of good citizens want freedom and equality. You will all perish before any power, any authority can change their resolve. Reason, justice, nature favor national sovereignty; you are no longer anything, I tell you. Yet it is up to you, vile courtiers, to save this throne from a blood bath, this shadow monarchy, which has imposed centuries of ignorance, which censures the people, which tyrannizes the most sacred rights of man. There is still time to prevent a dreadful massacre.


De Gouges thus imagines an extraordinary scene, where, through her character Olympe, she delivers the truth to Marie-Antoinette “for the first time,” thereby outwitting the devious lady-in-waiting, and the court, who would otherwise suppress the message.

But it is only by embodying herself as a character on stage, by fictionalizing herself, and by fictionalizing the queen that de Gouges succeeds in acting out such a confrontation. Yet, is this fiction or not? Are the characters of Olympe and Marie-Antoinette fiction or do they represent Olympe de Gouges and the queen themselves? The Revolutionary Tribunal raised this question when they used this play against her. Certainly, de Gouges is fully aware of the difference. The fictive realm [End Page 63] allows her to revise the historical event, to rewrite her encounter with the Princess de Lamballe and to control the outcome so that she succeeds in approaching the queen and staging a confrontation. The dramatic fiction also lets her preempt her own trial and imagine a verdict of innocence. The Tribunal’s ability to distinguish between fiction and reality, however, is less clear. When, at her trial, the judge asked de Gouges why she had the Capet woman (the queen’s plebeian name as wife of Louis Capet) in her play make such insulting and perfidious statements against the most ardent defenders of the rights of the people, she answered, as a playwright, that she had the Capet woman speak in character. 46 The Tribunal condemns her both for representing the queen realistically, and for augmenting her fictional role, as leading the counterrevolutionaries on August 10. But in both instances, the Tribunal interprets the queen’s character as a literal re-embodiment of monarchy, and thus exposes the critical fallacy operating at the core of its conception of political theatre, the conflation, indeed the confusion, of reality and fiction. Whether or not de Gouges intended the play to review the king’s and the queen’s “crimes,” whether or not she once again aimed to justify her politics, in the end the play served to link her indelibly with the queen. This fictive confrontation between her and the queen offered proof to the Tribunal of de Gouges’s collusion with the queen. Speculative fiction or not, the play counted as evidence against her and not as the vindication she was convinced it was. By presenting herself so publicly as if on trial for her ideas and patriotism, de Gouges had given the Tribunal a script for her actual trial.

The Actual Trial: Fact or Fiction?

With her arrest on July 20, 1793, the figure of the trial shifted from fiction to fact. Having so often rehearsed being on trial in her writings, she now eagerly sought her right to take the stand publicly at her actual trial, convinced that her texts and her speech would prove her innocent. In her letters from prison she repeatedly asks to be tried and acquitted. Impatient with the unexplained delays, at two different moments she takes matters into her own hands and writes, publishes, and distributes a pamphlet from her prison cell. The two posters, Une patriote persécutée à la Convention nationale (A patriotic woman persecuted by the National Convention) and Olympe de Gouges au Tribunal révolutionnaire, both imagine her on trial before the assembled delegates of the Convention and the magistrates of the court; both appeal beyond them to the public and to posterity to judge her. 47 It is unclear, however, whether, because she had played out the trope of the trial so often, she could no longer distinguish between trope and reality, or whether, on the contrary, the rehearsal of imaginary trials prepared her extraordinarily to act out a real one on the public stage. In the early morning of November 2, summoned to appear before the Tribunal, and denied her right to a lawyer’s defense counsel, Olympe de Gouges finally played both a role and herself in front of a real court with powers of life and death. Indeed, the records of her actual trial read much like the fictive ones she had imagined. A spectator at her trial noted that, as the charges against her were read, she “repeatedly joined her [End Page 64] hands and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, then with an expressive gesture would suddenly show surprise, then, looking straight into the audience, smile.” Such histrionics suggest that de Gouges in fact played the part of the innocently accused, turning the real trial into a spectacle for the benefit of the audience, who, according to another spectator, would have been moved to acquit her had the judges not bungled her defense and cut her off. 48 In this case, the Tribunal did not respond to the actual performance they were witnessing; for proof of her sedition, it deferred instead to the scripts of the roles that she had crafted for herself in her texts. Olympe de Gouges was executed in the afternoon of November 3, 1793, but not without taking one last opportunity to address the crowds who had gathered for the spectacle of her execution. From the scaffold, gazing at the spectators with defiance and confidence, she exclaimed, “Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death.” 49 Fusing reality with theatre one last time, she turned the realilty of her death into the performance of her life.

Janie Vanpée

Janie Vanpée is Associate Professor of French at Smith College. She has published essays in Yale French Studies, Esprit Créateur, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and Eighteenth-Century Studies on Rousseau, J.-B. Greuze, Laclos, Riccoboni, the Encyclopédie, and Olympe de Gouges. She is currently preparing a study on Françoise de Graffigny’s 1750 drama, Cénie.


1. According to the transcript of her interrogation on August 6, 1793, she had had 500 copies of the first pamphlet printed, of which 100 had been given to an “afficheur” for distribution. See Archives Nationales, W 293, no. 210 for the actual transcription. A. Tuetery summarizes all the documents pertaining to her case in Répertoire général des sources manuscrites de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, vol. 10 (1912), 156–64.

2. “Quiconque sera convaincu d’avoir composé ou imprimé des écrits qui proposent le rétablissement de la royauté en France, ou la dissolution de la représentation nationale, sera traduit devant le tribunal révolutionnaire et puni de mort.” As the deputy, François Lamarque, who proposed the decree, argued, the proclamation would not only reinforce the previous December 4, 1792, decree against any attempts at reinstating the monarchy, but would also clarify the responsibility of writers, publishers and printers involved in the distribution of any such text. For the transcript of the March 29, 1793, discussion in the Convention, see Le Moniteur universel, Sunday, 31 March 1793, no. 90.

3. This was the Revolution’s second constitution, written largely under the influence of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon, after Condorcet’s constitutional proposal was rejected, along with the eviction of the Girondins, in early June, 1793. This second constitution would be accepted on June 24, 1793. When accused of defying it, de Gouges argued that she had conceived of her pamphlet before the constitution was adopted. For an interesting discussion of the various meanings of the concept of the Republic, and the impossibility of pinpointing its exact origin in the Revolution, see Pierre Nora, “République,” in Dictionnaire critique de la révolution française, ed. François Furet and Mona Ozouf (Paris: Flammarion, 1988), 832–46.

4. For de Gouges’s offer to defend Louis XVI at his trial, see “Olympe de Gouges Défenseur officieux de Louis Capet,” which she first addressed to the Convention and then distributed as a poster. Her opinions on the king’s trial are detailed in “Arrêt de Mort que présente Olympe de Gouges contre Louis Capet.” For her comments on the arrest of the thirty-two Girondins and her sacrificial offer to take their place, see “Testament politique d’Olympe de Gouges.” Her opposition to Robespierre is evident in several brochures starting with the April 1792 “Grande Eclipse du soleil jacobiniste et de la lune feuillante, pour la fin d’avril, ou dans le courant du mois de mai; par la LIBERTE, l’An IVe de son nom; dédiée à la terre,” continuing with “Réponse à la justification de Maximilien Robespierre, adressée à Jérôme Pétion, par Olympe de Gouges,” and “Pronostic sur Maximilien Robespierre, par un animal amphibie. Portrait exact de cet animal,” both dating from November 1792, and ending with “L’Avis pressant à la Convention par une vraie Républicaine,” from March 20, 1793. These pamphlets, as well as all of de Gouges’s political texts have recently been reedited in Ecrits politiques, vol. 1 (1788–1791) and vol. 2 (1792–1793), ed. Olivier Blanc (Paris: Côté-femmes, 1993).

5. See Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville’s “Acte d’accusation” among the papers pertaining to de Gouges’s trial, Archives Nationales, W 293, no. 210. For details of her arrest and subsequent incarceration and trial, see Olivier Blanc, “Arrestation et procès d’Olympe de Gouges,” introduction to Ecrits politiques, 2:7–46.

6. Lynn Hunt chronicles the excesses of Marie-Antoinette’s trial in “The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette: Political Pornography and the Problem of the Feminine in the French Revolution,” in Eroticism and the Body Politic (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 108–30.

7. All translations from the French are my own.

8. Quoted in Olivier Blanc, Olympe de Gouges (Paris: Syros, 1981), 176, from a letter dated November 3, 1793, W 293, Archives Nationales.

9. Mona Ozouf, La Fête révolutionnaire 1789–1799 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976).

10. Jean-Claude Bonnet reviews the difficulties that the revolutionaries had of securing permanent headquarters for the new public form of government, of managing the space, the delegates and the public, of controlling the effervescence of public speech in “La ‘sainte masure,’ sanctuaire de la parole fondatrice,” in La Carmagnole des muses, ed. Bonnet (Paris: Armand Colin, 1988), 185–222.

11. Both Peter France in “Speakers and Audience: The First Days of the Convention,” in Language and Rhetoric of the Revolution, ed. John Renwick (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1990), 50–74, and Patrick Brassart in Paroles de la Révolution: Les Assemblées parlementaires 1789–1794 (Paris: Minerve, 1988) study how the physical surroundings and the changing public affected the rhetoric of the political discourses in the assemblies. Both also analyze the particularities of revolutionary rhetoric and draw parallels with the theatre.

12. Certain cultural and literary developments in the latter half of the eighteenth century both predicted and prepared the judicial transformations that the Revolution would institute. Historians such as Sarah Maza and Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink have analyzed the role factums, or mémoires judiciaires as they came to be called, played in creating and disseminating a public opinion and in bridging the gap between private and public domains. Written by lawyers pleading the case of their client, legally published without going through the cumbersome censorship process, these widely distributed texts constituted part of the dossier the judge consulted when making his judgment. As Nadine Bérenguier has argued, the authors of the mémoires judiciaires grafted onto these popular texts the literary techniques more common to novels and melodrama than to legal documents in order to grab the interest of their readers and the judge, and in order to persuade them of their clients’ plight. It can be argued that the mémoires judiciaires transformed their readers into a virtual jury, calling upon them to “judge” the case, thereby preparing the public to assume this role later on. See Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, “L’Affaire Cléraux (Rouen 1786): Affrontement idéologique et tensions institutionnelles autour de la scène judiciaire au XVIIIe siècle,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 191 (1980): 894–900; Sarah Maza, “Le tribunal de la nation: les mémoires judiciaires et l’opinion publique à la fin de l’ancien régime,” Annales: Economies, sociétés, civilisations 42 (1987): 73–90, and Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Célèbres of Prerevolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Nadine Bérenguier, “‘Fiction dans les archives’: adultère et stratégies de défense dans deux mémoires judiciaires du dix-huitième siècle,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 308 (1993): 257–79.

13. From Saint-Just’s speech to the Convention, December 1792, as quoted in Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 176.

14. Both Lynn Hunt in “The Rhetoric of Revolution,” in Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 19–51, and Carol Blum in Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue trace the development of the rhetoric of transparency back to Rousseau’s influence. See also Peter France’s detailed analysis of this type of rhetoric in “Speakers and Audience: The First Days of the Convention,” in Language and Rhetoric of the Revolution.

15. See Marvin Carlson, The Theatre of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 73–93.

16. According to F.W.J. Hemmings, by November 1791, “twenty-one new theatres had opened, giving Paris a total of thirty-six and twenty-five more than had existed in 1789.” See Theatre and State in France, 1760–1905 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 61.

17. Carlson, The Theatre of the French Revolution, 164–66. Indeed, the immediate effect of the law was the explosive increase in new theatrical establishments and in the number of plays. But the vast majority of these new dramatic productions were not in the least political. Citing the statistics from Emmet Kennedy’s studies, James Johnson notes that “In 1792 there were 665 plays with revolutionary titles staged as compared to 6,544 with nonrevolutionary titles; in 1794, when the numbers were the closest, the nonrevolutionary still outnumbered the revolutionary by 4,872 performances to 2,443.” See “Revolutionary Audiences and the Impossible Imperatives of Fraternity,” in Recreating Authority in Revolutionary France, ed. Bryant T. Ragan Jr. and Elizabeth A. Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers State University Press, 1992), 192. For the original statistics, see Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 396. For a list of plays produced, and a more complete analysis of the genres of drama favored by audiences during the decade of the Revolution, see Emmet Kennedy, Marie-Laurence Netter, James P. McGregor, and Mark V. Olsen, Theatre, Opera, and Audiences in Revolutionary Paris (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996).

18. James H. Johnson traces the development of a political theatre during the Revolution and shows how this gradual confusion led to the erasure of the separation between stage and audience, so that audiences accepted as real the fictionalized scenes represented on the stage. See “Revolutionary Audiences and the Impossible Imperatives of Fraternity,” in Recreating Authority in Revolutionary France, 57–78. In addition, see Marie-Hélène Huet, Rehearsing the Revolution: The Staging of Marat’s Death 1793–1797 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 7. In “Performing Arts: Theatricality and the Terror” (Representing the French Revolution, ed. James A. W. Hefferman [Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992], 135–49), Huet pursues her analysis to show how the fusion of theatre and politics, actors and politicians, spectators and judges, led to the excesses of the Terror.

19. The Déclaration des droits de la femme was included in two important anthologies with wide circulation, Les Femmes et la révolution 1789–1794, ed. Paule-Marie Duhet (Paris: Gallimard, 1970) and Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789–1795, ed. Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, Mary Durham Johnson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980).

20. Once de Gouges’s Déclaration des droits de la femme was republished in several accessible texts in the early 1980s, it sparked the interest of feminist scholars. See Joan W. Scott, “French Feminists and the Rights of Man: Olympe de Gouges’s Declarations,” History Workshop Journal (Fall 1989): 1–21 as well as the chapter, “The Uses of Imagination: Olympe de Gouges and the French Revolution,” in her recent book, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 19–54; Erica Harth’s chapter on de Gouges’s feminism in Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 213–34; and Janie Vanpée, “Taking the Podium: Olympe de Gouges’s Revolutionary Discourse,” in Women Writers in Revolutionary France: Strategies of Emancipation, ed. Donna Kuizenga and Colette Winn (New York: Garland Press, 1997), 299–312.

21. Most of de Gouges’s works have recently been reedited. In addition to Olivier Blanc’s edition of her Ecrits politiques, three volumes of her political theatre have also been reedited by Côté-femmes, L’Esclavage des noirs (1989), Théâtre politique, vol. 1 (1991) and vol. 2 (1993). The remaining plays can be found in Olympe de Gouges, Théâtre, ed. Félix-Marcel Castan (Montauban: Editions Cocagne, 1993). Her first novel, Mémoire de Madame Valmont, is available in a French-German edition (Frankfurt am Main: Ulrike Helmer Verlag, 1993), and her second novel, Le Prince philosophe, conte oriental, was reedited in 1995 (Paris: INDIGO & Côté-femmes).

22. For the quarrel concerning the staging and reception of L’Esclavage des noirs in December 1789, see de Gouges’s correspondence with the actors of the Comédie Française, Archives de la Comédie Fran-çaise, as well as her two pamphlets, “Réponse au Champion américain ou Colon très aisé à connaître” (January 1790), and “Lettre aux littérateurs Français” (February 1790), both in Ecrits politiques, vol. 1, and her brochure Les Comédiens démasqués ou Madame de G. ruinée par la Comédie Française pour se faire jouer (A Paris, 1790). De Gouges recounts the controversy over the public reception of L’Entrée de Dumouriez à Bruxelles ou les Vivandiers and blames the actors’ delays and politicking for the play’s failure in two brochures, “Olympe de Gouges à Dumouriez, général des armées de la République française,” and “Complots dévoilés des sociétaires du prétendu théâtre de la République,” both published immediately after the play’s closing in January 1793, in Ecrits politiques, vol. 2.

23. For an idea of how remarkable Olympe de Gouges’s public struggle with the Comédie Française was for her time, see Sylvie Chevalley, “Les Femmes Auteurs dramatiques de la Comédie Française,” Europe (November–December 1964): 41–44. According to this study, of the 2,627 plays accepted into the Comédie’s repertory since its founding in 1680, only seventy-seven were authored by women, three in the seventeenth century, seventeen in eighteenth century, sixteen in the nineteenth century and eleven in the twentieth.

24. On the specific difficulties confronting women playwrights in eighteenth-century France, see English Showalter, “Writing off the Stage: Women Authors and Eighteenth-Century Theatre,” Yale French Studies 75 (1988): 95–111.

25. For a much needed reassessment of de Gouges’s contribution to French theatre in the context of her period, see Gabrielle Verdier’s excellent essay, “From Reform to Revolution: The Social Theatre of Olympe de Gouges,” in Literate Women and the French Revolution of 1789, ed. Catherine R. Montfort (Birmingham: Summa Publications, 1994), 189–221.

26. Theatre, Opera, and Audiences in Revolutionary Paris compiles an exhaustive list of the plays produced on Parisian stages during the decade of the Revolution and enumerates the number of times each play was staged. The database should also soon be available for consultation through the ARTFL project, University of Chicago and CNRS at

27. The decree passed by the Convention on August 2, 1793, and put into effect on August 4, not only called for the regular staging of patriotic plays for the benefit of the public, but also officially reestablished censorship. As Couthon argued, “Vous blesseriez, vous outrageriez ces républicains, si vous souffriez qu’on continuât de jouer en leur présence une infinité de pièces remplies d’allusions injurieuses à la liberté, et qui n’ont d’autre but que de dépraver l’esprit, et les moeurs publiques, si même vous n’ordonniez pas qu’il ne sera représenté que des pièces dignes d’être entendues et applaudies par des républicains.” Of course, the terms proposed to judge the “political correctness” of a play would prove to be much too vague and ambiguous. See Le Moniteur universel, 5 August 1793, for the record of the August 2 debate in the Convention.

28. From de Gouges’s comments and the record of her arrest, it seems that she usually had between 500 to 1,000, and sometimes as many as 2,000 copies of her pamphlets and posters printed.

29. In Paris pendant la Révolution, Louis Sebastien Mercier attests to the prevalence of this method and its effectiveness for reaching a mass public: “Des millions d’affiches bleues, violettes, jaunes et rouges, affichées à chaque heure du jour, devenaient autant de tribunes publiques qui attiraient des flots de peuple autour d’elles; les murs parlaient, conseillaient le meurtre et le pillage, et jamais prédicateurs ne furent ni plus avidement écoutés, ni plus ponctuellement obéis” (vol. 2 [Paris, 1862], 76–77).

30. Unlike all her other texts, the prefaces to de Gouges’s plays have not been systematically reedited. Their undefined genre, neither political pamphlets nor purely theatrical, most likely led to this unfortunate oversight. More than any of her texts, the prefaces offer a site where de Gouges presents herself openly and positions her ideas, her texts, and herself in the public sphere.

31. De Gouges, Ecrits politiques, 1:79.

32. Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue, in particular chapter 7, “Identification with Virtue,” 131–52.

33. For an alternate analysis of how the Revolution’s concept of virtue and the rhetoric of virtue create a double bind for women attempting to speak it, see Dorinda Outram, “‘Le Langage mâle de la vertu’: Women and the Discourse of the French Revolution,” in The Social History of Language, ed. Peter Burke and Roy Porter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 120–35.

34. See, for example, the end of “Départ de M. Necker et de Mme de Gouges,” in Ecrits politiques, 1:156; “Observation à M. Duveyrier, sur la fameuse Ambassade,” appended to her brochure “Adresse au Roi, Adresse à la Reine,” in Ecrits politiques, 1:182–86; the anecdote at the end of La Déclaration des droits de la femme, in Ecrits politiques, 1:213–14; the anecdote included in the long brochure “Le bons sens français, ou l’apologie des vrais nobles, dédiée aux Jacobins,” in Ecrits politiques, 2:101–4; and the end of what was to be a preface to the publication of her collected pamphlets, “Oeuvres de la citoyenne de Gouges, dédiées à Philippe,” in Ecrits politiques, 2:231–32.

35. De Gouges, Ecrits politiques, 1:202.

36. See in particular, “Le bon sens français ou l’Apologie des vrais nobles, dédiée aux Jacobins (April 15, 1792), “Le Cri de l’innocence” (July, 1792), “Les fantômes de l’opinion publique” (October 1792), “Compte moral rendu et dernier mot à mes chers amis, par Olympe de Gouges, à la Convention nationale et au peuple, sur une dénonciation faite sur son Civisme” (December 1792), and “Testament politique d’Olympe de Gouges” (June 9, 1793), all reedited in de Gouges, Ecrits politiques, vol. 2.

37. Johnson, “Revolutionary Audiences and the Impossible Imperatives of Fraternity,” in Recreating Authority in Revolutionary France, 72.

38. “Heureuse si dans l’ouvrage dramatique de la journée du 10, que je vais produire au grand jour de la représentation, je parvenais à rendre ce grand caractère que vous avez déployé dans les circonstances les plus terribles! Heureuse, si les accents de votre morale si douce et si pure éloigne le peuple des agitateurs qui l’égarent sur ses plus chers intérêts! Plus heureuse encore, si le titre que j’ai donné à cette pièce, de La France sauvée, est le présage de la gloire de cette république et de ses destinées. Mais hélas! Vous le savez, vertueux républicain: si les Français se divisent encore, jamais je ne verrai l’accomplissement de mon ouvrage, et vous, celui de vos travaux.” De Gouges, Ecrits politiques, 2:164.

39. De Gouges, Ecrits politiques, 2:181.

40. For Michelet’s account of the events of August 10, 1793, and the political turmoil leading up to it, see Histoire de la Révolution française, vol. 4 (Paris: A. Lacroix et Cie, 1877), 226–393.

41. See “Olympe de Gouges, défenseur officieux de Louis Capet,” Ecrits politiques, 2:191–94.

42. Théâtre politique, vol. 2, ed. Gisela Thiele-Knobloch (Paris: côté-femmes éditions, 1993), 199. Subsequent citations refer to this text and will be noted parenthetically.

43. Lynn Hunt analyzes the prevailing imagery in the pornographic literature against the queen in “The Many Bodies of Marie-Antoinette,” in Eroticism and the Body Politic (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 108–30. Chantal Thomas summarizes the rhetoric of the pamphlets: “Dans les pamphlets, la substitution de la première à la troisième personne n’introduit aucun élément subjectif, aucune profondeur ni complexité d’identité. Elle ne doit pas incliner le lecteur à un mouvement de sympathie. Le vertige, la fusion avec celui qui dit je, effets de lecture des textes autobiographiques, sont proscrits. Quand, dans un pamphlet qui la met en scène, Marie-Antoinette s’exprime à la première personne, elle ne fait alors qu’intérioriser une sanction, s’identifier à une image extérieure. C’est la voix du peuple qui parle en elle.” La Reine scélérate: Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets (Paris: Seuil, 1989), 65–66.

44. For an analysis of how the widely circulated pamphlets degraded the monarchy and the queen in particular, see Jacques Revel, “Marie-Antoinette and Her Fictions: The Staging of Hatred,” in Fictions of the French Revolution, ed. Bernadette Fort (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 111–29.

45. According to Sylvie Chevalley, after the original staging in 1663 and 1664, the Comédie Française would not re-stage the play until 1838, and then only for three brief representations. It has not been until this century, and mostly since the post-war period, that the play’s striking modernity has sparked the interest of directors and producers. See “L’Impromptu de Versailles 1663–1971,” in Molière: Stage and Study, ed. W.D. Howarth and Merlin Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 238–53.

46. See Olivier Blanc’s account of her trial in Olympe de Gouges, 177.

47. Lise Andries studies the rhetorical strategies, the commonplaces, the recurrent metaphors and images found in a group of texts she defines as a new genre, “mémoires justificatifs,” written from prison by the accused on behalf of their own defense and addressed to the public. See “Récit de survie: les mémoires d’autodéfense pendant l’an II et l’an III,” in La Carmagnole des muses, 261–75.

48. Blanc, Olympe de Gouges, 179–84.

49. “Enfants de la Patrie, vous vengerez ma mort,” in Blanc, Olympe de Gouges, 183.

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