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  • Revolutionary Games:Helen Maria Williams’s Playtime at the Apocalypse
  • Luke A. Iantorno (bio)

“While you observe from a distance the great drama which is acting in France, I am a spectator of the representation. I am placed near enough the scene to discern every look and every gesture of the actors, and every passion excited in the minds of the audience.”

Helen Maria Williams, Letters from France, Volume 3.

Helen Maria Williams arrived in France on 13 July 1790 to participate in the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille the next day. The Fête de la Fédération, as Williams describes it in her 1790 epistolary non-fiction novel Letters Written in France: in the summer of 1790, to a friend in England: containing various anecdotes relative to the French revolution; and the memoirs of Mons. And Madame du F- is exhilarating: “The most sublime spectacle … ever represented on the theatre of this earth” (1.1.63). Williams describes the events of 14 July 1790 as one act within a comprehensive play of the universal human drama. Echoing Miranda in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Williams encounters a brave new world, one where Williams, both as author and as character, chronicles the transformation of France through gameplay (5.1.283–6). As the public play in Revolutionary France developed, Williams documented its volatile and apocalyptic paroxysms, while writing herself into that public drama as both spectator and player.

The games I will examine here are a series of public and private theatricals that Helen Maria Williams dramatizes in her work. While Williams does not use the word “game” per se to describe the Revolution, she does associate the Revolution with “entertainments” as a mode of both amusement and performance (1.1.71). Material game, in the sense I use it in this paper, is abstract; I examine material theatricality (the physical stage, props and costumes, performance, and audience participation) as a form of gameplay. My claim is not that Williams intended Letters to be an unequivocal commentary on material theatricality in revolutionary France or that she interpreted the Revolution as a game itself. I, however, do contend that intimations of material theatricality as a form of gameplay further develop knowledge about the Letters and its place in the vital historical moment of the 1790s. Williams’s play of the Revolution as articulated in her Letters take several shapes: political and religious ceremonies of the revolutionary culture, a deliberately and artfully resurrected Bastille prison, and a private performance in which Williams inhabits the heroic role of Lady Liberty. [End Page 87]

Historian of the French Revolution

Williams traveled to Paris for the 14 July Fête de la Fédération, a day we now commemorate as Bastille Day. Williams documents her experiences in Letters, which she published in eight volumes. In terms of genre, Williams’s Letters are both documentary travel literature and sentimental romance, and in them, Williams is the heroine who, as both author and character, invites readers (the “friend” and ever-present “you”) to experience the Revolution. The varied experiences Williams describes for her audience reveal how the spirit of revolution transforms her and France, and she highlights how familiar entertainments turned into objects of liberté, égalité, and fraternité [liberty, equality, fraternity]. As James Anderson indicates, a variety of games shifted with the new political atmosphere:

Besides balls, dolls, spinning tops, and other amusements, children had board games designed to communicate to them the meaning of the struggle. The ancient jeu de l’oie (goose game) was changed to meet the revolutionary criteria. … Updated versions appeared early in the revolution in which players progressed by squares from the siege of the Bastille through major revolutionary events or achievements to the National Assembly (or, in other versions, to the new constitution).


Further, the Bastille, like other symbols of the Revolution, became a child’s plaything, as toymakers created collapsible miniature Bastilles for both children and adults (Frey 42). Revolutionaries also refashioned decks of cards and chess pieces: neither “could include queens or kings1; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Genius took their place” (Frey 42). Games were essentially re-made, so a “new person...


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