- “Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650–1700.” ed. by Pascal, Desjardins, Deshoulières, and Durand
In France, the midpoint of the seventeenth century witnessed an increase in women writers of dramatic works. As the editor and translator reminds us, we are fortunate to have access to these works, because they were printed and still exist in print. In addition, many of the works were publicly staged. Drama, considered the most prestigious form of literature during this early modern period, received strong support from Cardinal Richelieu, then prime minister. It was Richelieu who charged the newly formed French Academy with the task of perfecting drama. French playwrights thus sought to develop a national dramatic tradition equal to that of the Greeks and Romans.
Another factor contributing to the rise of dramatic output was the prominence of salons. Cultivated women participated more and more and came to play an important role in shaping French literary taste. Women helped impose a preference for simple and clear style, although a large number of male intellectuals shared such ideas.
Even if more women were writing for the stage, they faced difficulties due to their gender. The public believed that notoriety accrued from writing dramas undermined a woman’s reputation for modesty. Society, which frowned upon lucrative enterprises for women, created the need for them to stage or publish plays anonymously.
Topics treated in seventeenth-century tragedies followed the chivalric model and incorporated love as a necessary element. The hero’s selfless devotion to his lady obliged him to prove himself worthy through acts of valor. Conflicts in dramas often involved solicitations of the heart versus obligations of duty to family, nation, or religion.
Endymion, a tragicomedy by Françoise Pascal, relating the love between mortal and goddess, presents a few new twists to this myth. The hero’s conduct is similar to that of the religious mystic: meditation, prayer, acceptance of all [End Page 155] trials with equanimity, and search for union with the deity. The ending of the play stages his ascent to heaven in a chariot, recalling the old-testament story of Elijah. In addition, most of the main plot takes place in a dream. The play was staged at a time when such “machine plays” were performed, providing mythology with a vivid representation. Pascal, though not the first French woman writer, is cited as “the first professional woman writer to compose plays” (21).
Marie-Catherine Desjardins, who called herself Mme. de Villedieu, was the first woman playwright to have a play staged as a professional playwright in Paris, to achieve a command performance at court, and to receive a royal pension based on her literary achievements. In her tragedy, Nitetis, the heroine displays unswerving adherence to duty and moral principles, thus avoiding any breach of social etiquette and any taint to her reputation.
Antoinette Deshoulières was an author whose literary contributions earned her high honors in both France and Italy. In 1684, she was elected to the Accademia dei Ricovrati in Padua. The Academy of Arles elected her in 1689, marking the first time any woman had received such an honor in France. In 1690, the main French Academy in Paris, which would not accept women until the late twentieth century, decided that she should be honored. She was invited to read one of her poems during their meeting. While poetry was her acknowledged strong point, she attempted dramatic works. Genseric is the only play she ever completed and published.
Deshoulières rewrote history in the play Genseric, rendering her characters not fully sympathetic or admirable. The play is a tragedy. The characters who feel true love are destroyed and the absence of poetic justice must have been shocking for audiences at the time. The audacity of such a plot may have accounted for the play’s long run of performances.