I went to see The Revolutionists tonight, the new play on the French Revolution by American author Lauren Gunderson is showing now at ArtsWest, a theater here in West Seattle. (The performance played to a full theater, which was an encouraging phenomenon in itself!) It concerns four women, three historical characters (feminist writer Olympe de Gouges; Queen Marie-Antoinette; Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat) and one fictional character (Haitian rebel Marianne Angelle). All four play an active role and comment upon revolutionary history while it is taking place in Paris. The three real people actually did die by guillotine in the space of four months in summer-fall 1793: Charlotte Corday on July 17, Marie-Antoinette on October 16, and Olympe de Gouges on November 3, 1793. This is a historical fact. It is a sober story. Yet The Revolutionists is also hilarious, endearing, and an overall inspiring play.
Taking her cue from Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, this play’s version of Marie-Antoinette (the wonderfully ungainly Jonelle Jordan) is light-hearted, ditsy, and awkward. She plays with ribbons and does not know how to hug! Yet it is hard to not empathize with a queen who seems more inept than malicious, oblivious of her ability to offend. The beribboned tea cup she offers as a gift suggests how out of touch she is, how delicate and futile. Like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, she knows she’s useless. (Little mention is made of the queen’s true crimes of treason.) But she doesn’t deserve to die for that, we’re led to think…
One can only wonder if Lauren Gunderson read “Aux républicaines”, [To women republicans] which was published in November 1793, as background for The Revolutionists. This is probably the first text to group together those women. “Aux républicaines,” however, is a mean-spirited eulogy of three recently executed women: Queen Marie-Antoinette (portrayed as a bad mother and debauched wife), Olympe de Gouges (madwoman who forgot her femininity), and Madame Roland (guilty of the “ironic gaiety” she brought to the guillotine). The angry male voices one hears off-stage during the play, and the anxious reaction of Olympe de Gouges (played earnestly by Sunam Ellis) while she reads her “Declaration des droits de la femme”, capture the misogyny that dominated the men who led the Revolution in those years.
The play also captures something subtle about words, stories, and truth as we know them, and as they knew them then: history is like quicksilver, forever changing course or inciting feelings one did not foresee. Who knew certain words, such as Trump’s complaint about “fake news” in 2016 or Abbé Sieyès’s attack on les privilégiés in 1789, would be so potent? Why do we not feel angrier at the guilty queen here, or more satisfied at her death by revolutionary tribunal? Putting an ideology into a living person makes all the difference.
Uncertainty, anxiety, awkward efforts at camaraderie—we all know those feelings, but they come into tight focus on the bare stage (supposed to be Olympe de Gouges’s bureau) where the only sense we get of the people outdoors is by sound. First, there are loud, aggressive knocks on the door, then angry men’s voices, and the booing of hecklers. Finally, there is the swoosh of a heavy blade, such as a guillotine might make (but there is no resulting “thump” of the head in the basket, thank heavens!). The actress merely stands on stage under darkening shadows.
Specialists in Haitian history might bridle at the mention of “just one revolution” by Marianne Angelle in one of her more euphoric moments. According to a chapter in Teaching Representations of the French Revolution by scholar Marlene Daut, this attitude unwittingly contributes to the “silencing” of the Haitian Revolution by confining the rebellion of enslaved Africans to European epistemological frames of reference.
However most people will let that ride, enjoying the strong female characters, the stirring rhetoric about rights and sisterhood, and especially the voice of Marianne Angelle (played with brio by Dedra D. Woods), which soars magnificently over the audience and remains in our heads after the end, asking “what would you do?”
I love that the play leaves you wondering what you would do, and feeling pressure to act…