Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Staging Rousseau's Republic: French Revolutionary Festivals and Olympe De Gouges

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Staging Rousseau's Republic: French Revolutionary Festivals and Olympe De Gouges

Article excerpt

The French Revolution engendered new types of theater, both inside and outside the playhouse. The lifting of theater and copyright restrictions in 1791 led to an explosion of new theatrical pieces written by previously unknown dramatists, who were now free to act outside the literal veil of anonymity. (1) While the French Revolution overturned traditional barriers to performance, the Revolution itself took on dramatic character and qualities. The spectacle of the French Revolution depicted on the stage, in festivals, and in Jacques-Louis David's artistic renderings celebrated and debated the meaning of the new republic. One of the functions of this flurry of dramatic activity on the streets of Paris was capturing spectators' imagination in order to bring a new fiction to fife: the republican citizen. While the scenes in front of the guillotine could be considered spectacles worthy of theatrical consideration in their own right, Revolutionary festivals represent the First Republic's primary mode of dramatizing its new identity. (2) The ideological and material background of French Revolutionary fetes publiques or public festivals relate to the eighteenth century's contemplation of theater's role in shaping communal manners and morals. Though the Revolution and, as this article will discuss later, its theater, have been labeled failures, the Revolution staged the theoretical debate about republican modes of performance initiated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

This article compares theatricality and performance in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Letter to M. d'Alembert on Theatre (Lettre a M. d'Alembert sur les spectacles, hereafter Letter) with Olympe de Gouges's (1748-1793) dramatic work. In particular, this essay examines the ways in which Rousseau's Letter, though generally considered an antitheatrical and antifeminist text, can be seen as inspiring republican performances during the early years of the French Revolution. The institution of Revolutionary festivals mirrors Rousseau's suggestion, at the end of the Letter, to revive the civic festivals of his youth. The second contention here is that Rousseau influenced new models of performance and gender in the late eighteenth century. A prominent political activist and dramatist, Olympe de Gouges (best known for her 1791 treatise, Declaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne or Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen) helped organize and stage the Festival of the Law in honor of the assassinated mayor Simonneau in 1792. In this festival, as in her dramatic and polemical pieces, Gouges responds to Rousseau's concern about dissimulating women by insisting that women engaged in public life do not dissemble. Rousseau and Gouges are both concerned with what it means to act like a republican citizen and how spectacles inform national character.

Rousseau's theories about theater, theatricality, performance, and civic identity played such a large part in French Revolutionary culture because they responded to a specific need: the education, edification, and construction of a new republican identity. Despite groundbreaking works like Mona Ozouf's La fete revolutionnaire (1976; trans. Festivals and the French Revolution, 1988), Revolutionary festivals have been archived in historical annals alongside that era's long-forgotten plays and dramatists. From a scholarly perspective, public festivals and theater during the Revolution seem more like "spectacular failure[s]" than successful performances. (3) These French Revolutionary performances may all be failures in the sense that they did not elicit lasting public applause, but it is a third contention here that we need to redefine the terms failure and success when evaluating late eighteenth-century European theater, especially when it is situated outside of or marginalized from the national playhouse. This article counters the assumption that French Revolutionary Theater, which I define as a theatrical narrative, as European plays performed between 1789 and 1794 referring, in some way, to Revolutionary events, and the dramatization of republican identity found in public festivals, somehow constitutes an unsuccessful performance. …

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