Olympe de Gouges: Writing or Dying

Marie-Olympe-de-Gouges Different time, same result. Olympe de Gouges was a writer at the end of the Eighteenth-century. Not only a writer actually, when the French Revolution started, she dedicated her life and her pen for freedom and equality. Opposed to Robespierre, leader of the Montagnards, she was arrested and beheaded in 1793. It seems appropriate to recall her history now.


Born in Montauban in 1748, Marie Gouze is the daughter of Pierre Gouze and Anne Olympe Mouisset. There was a rumour in the village that Marie was not Gouze’s daughter but the illegitimate child of the marquis Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Pompignan, a famous writer of the Eighteenth-century. Real or not, this liaison is accredited by Olympe herself who used that plot for one of her novel, Mémoire de Madame de Valmont contre la famille de Flaucourt. She was unhappily married in 1765 to a man who died soon, Louis-Yves Aubry. Marie Gouze, free, settled in Paris soon after with her son, Pierre. She changed her name around that time and was know in the capital as Olympe de Gouges. During the 19th century, she was known as a courtesan, but among her putative lovers, only Jacques Biétrix de Rozières is known for sure: their liaison was quite official, he paid for her expenses and gave her annuities. It seems that he even ask her in marriage, but de Gouges always refused to marry again (she qualifies in her Declaration des droits de la femme the marriage as « le tombeau de la confiance et de l’amour »). She was obviously not following the traditional rules for wedding, her personal situation seems to be closer of the kept-woman than of the courtesan. Olympe de Gouges started to write plays in the early 1780s and had some fame among the Parisian literary circles: Zamore et Mirza, ou L’heureux naufrage in 1785 (only performed by the Comédie-Française in 1792), L’Homme généreux in 1786 or again Le Couvent, ou les vœux forcés in 1790.

Déclaration des droits de la femme
Déclaration des droits de la femme

At the beginning of the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges became a passionate pamphleteer, writing about politics, society and morality. Visionary, she sought equal rights for women and blacks, the right to divorce, education for all and the creation of national workshops for the unemployed. To promote equality between man and woman, Olympe de Gouges parodied the text of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. She used the same structure, with a preamble and seventeen articles based on the shared humanity of man and woman. De Gouges added a preface, a postamble and a short text called ‘Forme du Contrat social de l’Homme et de la femme’. The Déclaration demands the full legal assimilation, political and social empowerment of women. Olympe de Gouges made herself the spokesperson of women as we can see with the first sentence of the preamble: ‘Les mères, les filles, les sœurs, représentantes de la nation, demandent d’être constituées en Assemblée nationale’. The Declaration was written in September 1791 to be presented at the National Assembly on the 28th of October 1791. Olympe de Gouges’s text requested full legal, political and social assimilation of women. It is the first truly universal Declaration of Human Rights, which raises a universally valid requirement for both men and women. When she wrote the text, she was disappointed by the National Assembly, which did not talk at all about women’s rights during the discussions about the new constitution. Strongly opposed to the Jacobins and especially Robespierre, she was arrested in July 1793 for the publication of Les Trois urnes ou le Salut de la patrie, par un voyageur aérien. Faithful to her Déclaration and its article 10 ‘La Femme a le droit de monter sur l’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune’, she was quickly judged and guillotined in November 3, 1793.


The Parisian Theatres

The interior of the Comédie-Française
The interior of the Comédie-Française

The most famous theaters of Paris were the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne, the two historical theater of France. However, they were not the only ones providing performances, there was as well the Théâtre des Italiens, the Théâtre Français du Faubourg Saint-Germain and a wide range of private theaters like the Théâtres du Boulevard du Temple. An actor at the Théâtre Français du Faubourg Saint-Germain and one at the Comédie-Française did not have the same pay neither the same opportunities. Indeed, since Louis XIV made the two theatres and the Opéra into royal companies, the actors in the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne were named as the the king’s actors’.  By consequence, all the performers were under the supervision of the First Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. The companies were symbol of good taste and had some help from the Crown and, most important, the monopoly of some works.

The Comédie-Française is created in 1680 by a royal ordinance of Louis XIV to merge the only two Parisian troops at the time, the troupe of the Hotel Guénégaud and the one of the Hotel de Bourgogne. Also called Théâtre-Français, the troupe had the monopoly of playing in Paris and of French authors such as Molière and Racine. The First Gentlemen of the Bedchamber was the one responsible of the choice of the actors for the plays if the author was dead. Being a member of the Comédie-Française was very prestigious and a way for actors to secure a salary and a life pension when retired. Moreover, it was gender-neutral until the end of the eighteenth century: women had an equal involvement and decisional power than men through the general assembly of the Comédie Française.

The first Italian troupe arrived in Paris at the end of the sixteenth century. Under the protection of the king, the troupe proposed to the French public commedia dell’arte in Italian before opening its repertoire to the greatest French dramatists of the period. In 1716, they started having the protection of the Duc d’Orléans, the Regent of the French kingdom, an annual pension of 15,000 livres and a repertoire including French plays and operatic works. Concurrenced by the Opéra-Comique of Jean Monnet, the two troupes were fusion in 1762 under the name of Italian Comedy or Comic Opera Italian. But a 1779 decree banned Italian plays, most of the Italian actors went back home and the French ones stayed, changing the name for Opéra-Comique.

Finally, in the 1760s the royal government allowed Jean Nicollet, to open the Gaieté, a private theatre. This stage was not depending on royal subsidies and direct state supervision. By consequence, actors did not have a fixed salary or the possibility to have a pension when they will retire, contrary to the official theatres. Not allowed to stage the famous and classic pay of the French play writers, it was a way for the government to maintain the boundaries between high art and popular diversion.

Because of the French Revolution, the Comédie-Française changed its name in 1789 for the Théâtre de la Nation. The Revolution gave actors civil rights, but it put an end to the privileged position of the Comedy. In 1791, the troupe split up in two groups: the actors loyal to the king and the ones in favor of the Republique (leaded by the famous actor Talma). The first group kept the traditional room and the second created the Théâtre de la République, rue Richelieu. The 3rd of September 1793, the Comité de salut public closed the Comédie-Française and imprisoned the actors because of their choice of plays, judged too royalist. Charles Labussière, employee at the Comité de salut public, saved them from the guillotine.  Robespierre’s fall makes their liberty; but ruined, without theater, the actors were dispersed into ephemeral troops from Paris and the provinces. Finally, in May 1799, the troupe is reunited in the theatre rue Richelieu and have not move since.

The theatre as a dangerous place

The performance of a Molière's play in a French theater in Eighteenth-century
The performance of a Molière’s play in a French theater in Eighteenth-century

Most of the Enlightenment philosophers defended theater and even wrote for it, like Voltaire and Diderot. Educated people and nobility could be crazy about theater, like the Queen Marie-Antoinette, who used to go to theater in Paris really regularly, created a private theater at Versailles and even performed on it! But theater had bad reputation for the Church especially. D’Alembert when writing the Encyclopedia, did the article about Geneva and regretted that the city did not have a theater:

“If the actors were not -only suffered in Geneva, but hold by wise regulations, protected then, & even considerate as soon as they would be worthy, finally absolutely placed on the same line that the other citizens, this city would soon have the advantage of possessed what we believe rare, & that it is only by our fault, a troupe of actors priceless. Let’s add that this troupe will become soon the best of Europe: several persons full of taste & aptitude for theater, & who fear the dishonor while engaging in would come in Geneva, to grow not – only without shame, but even with respect, a talent so nice & so unusual. The stay in this city, that many French considered sad because of its loss of shows, would become then the stay of honest pleasures, as is the one of Philosophy & Freedom; & foreigners would not be surprised to see that in a city where decent & regular shows are defended, it allows pranks coarse and without mind, as contrary to good taste than to morality. This is not all: slowly the example of Geneva’s actors, the regularity of their conduct, & the thoughtfulness that they would have, would be a role model for the foreign actors, & as lesson to those who have treated them so far with so much rigor and even inconsistency. We would not see them on a side pensioned by the government, and on the other a cursed object; our priests would lose the habit of excommunicating them, & our bourgeois to look at them with contempt; & a small republic would have the glory of having reformed Europe on this point, perhaps more importantly maybe that we think.

The Lettre à d’Alembert written by Rousseau was an answer to that article. The philosopher argued against the creation of a theater in Geneva because of the corruption of the performers that makes it a dangerous place for virtuous citizens. For him, theater gives bad examples which encourage immorality (like Figaro in Le Barbier de Séville of Beaumarchais who is disrespectful to his master or like Molière’s characters who are making fun of virtuous). This idea was followed by some play writers at the end of the Eighteenth-century like Mercier (who wrote the famous Tableaux de Paris) or again Olympe de Gouges. To elevate the public’s feelings (and the actors), they wrote plays with good examples of heroes: no more Figaros, but virtuous male and female characters who are facing fate or Machiavellian enemies; but they success and even their enemies realize their mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

More than the immorality of the plays, that was more the immorality of the performers that was pointed by its critics. It was a very common view that theaters were places of debauchery especially because of the scandalous live of the actresses. Actresses were visible, influent, creating rumors and new fashions like nowadays. But most of them had luxury tastes and their salary was not enough to pay for everything, so most of them were high-level courtesans, using men’s fortunes to finance their home (which could be a mansion for the one with the richest lovers), their furniture, jewelry and clothing (there was no stage costumes, so they used to wear their own clothes when performing and having the richest one was a sign of high level status). Beauty, charm, and sensuality facilitated the struggle for success. These were also the qualities that would allow an actress, who had few other assets except her talent, to obtain the “protection” necessary to establish a career at the best theaters.’

Theater had such a bad influence that the performers were almost never coming from middling and high social classes. The very few examples that we have (like the sisters Saint-Val) explain that they had to find a way to survive after their families’ ruin. Otherwise, performers were mostly coming from theatrical families or were recruited because of their talent and/or their protector (Madame Deschamps for example as never been a good actress or dancer, but her powerful lovers guaranteed her protection and position in the theater). Because of this (or despite it) theaters were in vogue in the second half of the Eighteenth-century: there was 4,000 sits in 1700 and 13,000 on the eve of the Revolution. The leading actresses of the Comédie-Française (and some of the lesser theaters) were among the most celebrated women of the Eighteenth-century France. And for most of men, women with even a very small and marginal power was a threat and thus dangerous for the society.