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  • Performing Justice: The Trials of Olympe de Gouges
  • Janie Vanpée (bio)

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...

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