Olympe de Gouges

English translations of the original French texts

PLAY OUTLINES

Zamore et Mirza ou l'Heureux naufrage - (written 1784, published 1788, performed 1789 with a new title L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage) is the first French play to put a slave on the stage in the hero's role, to give people of colour voices equal to their white peers, to highlight the barbarity of slavery - emphasising the damage it does to both the enslaved and those who oversee the trade - while simultaneously portraying women and men as equals and addressing the problems of children born out of wedlock. De Gouges's forceful abolitionist essay Réflexions sur les Hommes Nègres was appended to this publication of the play.

La Nécessité du Divorce, written in the autumn of 1790, addresses the need for divorce and the problems that may, or may not, arise from its implementation. The core arguments are put forward by an elderly bachelor but the actual marital crisis at the heart of the family is resolved by the solidarity, intelligence and courage of the two women who have been deceived by their errant husband/lover. The play highlights both contemporary attitudes regarding divorce (the subject was debated in the National Assembly on 5 August 1790) and de Gouges's own feelings towards marriage and its indissolubility. Divorce was not legalised for a further two years: the attitudes expressed in the play were in advance of their time and, although it is one of her best plays, it found little favour and was never performed.

L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage - (1792) is the revised version of Zamore et Mirza. The play is tighter with fewer characters and and a clearer dramatic intent. The Preface reflects de Gouges's thoughts on the violence that had erupted in the colonies in 1791 and the subsequent laws that offered some freedom to the enslaved while also creating draconian responses to insurrection.

Molière chez Ninon, (written in 1787 and published in 1788, but never performed) is a five act homage to Ninon de l'Enclos and her playwright friend. De Gouges uses the life story of the famous 17th century courtesan to create her ideal woman, someone strong, free-spirited and generous who is cherished by many friends and admirers despite living according to her own principles and not those of the society that surrounds her. The play is episodic in form and naturalistic in its treatment of its subject, indeed de Gouges prided herself on having presented the famous figures from history in her work as real people irrespective of their rank and status. The play also touches on the plight of natural children, a subject close to the author's heart, and didactically highlights the benefits of love and acceptance over the more usual rejection.

L'Homme Généreux (1786) is a five act drama closely linked to de Gouges's Memoire de Madame Valmont, placing the eponymous heroine of the Memoire at the heart of the play. The 'generous man' is a nobleman whose moral conundrum and emotional development thematically drive the pedagogic message of the work. Deception, attempted rape, societal power structures, the effects of poverty and debt, love both familial and romantic, these are the situations that have to be confronted before the generous man can see clearly where his heart and duty lie. One evil character comes perilously close to destabilising all. Good triumphs over evil in the end but only after deception, both general and of the self, has been abandoned in favour of honesty and cohesion. Evil loses its power when all right minded people set aside their imposed class and gender strictures and embrace their shared humanity. Bound with other plays, it featured in the 1788 edition of de Gouges's Œuvres but was not performed on the stage.

Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin. In 1784, after seeing Beaumarchais' La Folle Journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, de Gouges was inspired to write a sequel, Les Amours de Chérubin. In her enthusiasm for the original she viewed her own work as an homage to the great playwright. He did not share her opinion, accused her of plagiarism, and used his considerable fame and influence to end to any hopes of it being played. Realising that the performing life of her play was over de Gouges published it, in 1786, under the title Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin. The storyline is similar to the original in which a young bride is threatened by an aristocratic roué - who thinks he is entitled to a wedding night initiation - but the narrative is subtly altered to offer a different approach, one that will improve family ties, and therefore society. The women in the play are people of integrity, strength and resolution who do not rely on intrigue to achieve their ends: de Gouges was offering the public a view of her sex that was inspirational and aspirational. The old order, as epitomised by the Count and Countess and their dysfunctional union, could (and should) be replaced by marriages founded on mutual trust and affection. Beaumarchais who, despite modern interpretations, had no interest in bringing down the old order — and certainly no interest in female emancipation — may have found this play far too progressive for his taste.

La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détrôné (August/September 1792) This unfinished play was found in manuscript form when de Gouges's lodgings were searched by the authorities following her arrest in June 1793. The play is set in the Tuileries palace the night before the events of the 10 August. De Gouges was in fact absent from Paris at the time so she is not offering an eye witness account however the events would have been so well known that major details changed for satirical effect, such as Barnave being in love with Madame Elizabeth and not Marie Antoinette, would have been understood for what they were, critical ironic representations of those in power. The tribunal judging her chose to wilfully misunderstand the play’s tone and use it against her at her trial (along with other material) to prove that she was not a committed republican. Admitting to being the author of this unfinished play, in part, cost her her life.