The Rhetoric of Drama

  • Carol L. Sherman


De Gouges exercises an unusual pedagogy in plays that represent husbands and wives who are made to improve their conventional marriages, to be faithful to the only bond that guarantees their stable happiness and protection of their children to whom she assigns rights. She depicts also solutions to the scandal of rape of young, lower-class women. In an effort to realign hierarchies, she depicts friendly and powerful relations among peers. They form a wide swath of community in which the bonds are chosen instead of obeying the demands of class.


Female Character Young Couple Married State Constitutional Monarchy Family Romance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Olympe de Gouges, Théâtre, Oeuvres complètes, I, ed. Félix Castan, 1993. All further references will be to this edition: Le philosophe corrigé, 105–142; Le siècle des grands hommes, 143–191; La nécessité du divorce, 225–243.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In Cartesian Women Erica Harth notes that the central social unit for de Gouges is the family (218–219, 229).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The eighteenth century marks gradually greater popular questioning of the interdiction on marrying for love (Bély, “Sexualité” 1163); this has been seen as a sign that paternal, that is, royal authority over sexual arrangements suffered erosion. Tensions between pope and king were replicated in regional struggles between the church’s greater willingness to sanctify rogue-marriages for its own purposes and the crown’s greater interest in orderly inheritance of property by keeping it in the hands of a small number of families or houses.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Wright, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, 1994, 90–91.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Again, resemblance is a factor important in the affective bond between two individuals. In the Mémoire, the author uses it as proof of biological relationship: she depicts her half-brother as recognizing her, even though they have never met.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The sociological and demographic criticisms of celibacy were already long-lived. Truchet (II, 1536) summarizes the issues frequently addressed. He prints Le vieux célibataire by Collin d’Harleville. It was played in 1792 (the year before de Gouges’s death) and was considered at the time to be his chef-d’ oeuvre. De Gouges’s focuses mostly on personal reasons for avoiding marriage, making them arguments arising from fear of marriage’s permanence as a prison, and on the benefits that couples will derive in marriage by the ability to dissolve it.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    A character called La Fontaine and two marquis de Flaucourt, father and son, are characters in the Mémoire de Mme de Valmont. The elder marquis, figure of de Gouges’s supposed father, dies and his title passes to her half-brother. In the Homme généreux, however, the marquis de Flaucourt is never on stage but stands in for the son or half-brother, which presumably spares the paternal marquis the rage thus expressed against the younger person.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    At this moment, the playwright aligns two heroes, the count and Marianne’s brother who is also caught in a web of deceit woven by La Fontaine. She gives a moral dilemma to both. The brother wonders if he should tell the count the truth about his identity and thus displease La Fontaine, whom he takes for his protector, or continue to cooperate with his benefactor and deceive the count, his employer. Instead of deciding, he chooses to focus on obtaining help for his father. He imagines taking action although he does not know what or how: “Engager mes effets, m’ engager moi-même, voilà le seul parti qui me reste, et j’y vole” (I, 14) (Commit my resources, commit myself, that is the only option that remains to me, and I rush to embrace it). This unfocussed resolution underlines his youthfulness by leaving aside the moral decision and declaring even unclear action to be preferable. Even the embryonic hero wants to be a rescuer.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Although it is only slightly indicated, another trait belonging to comic tradition occurs: the replication of upper class by lower class lovers. The young Montalais shows his affection for Laurette, his sister’s apprentice (II, 2–3).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    It is well known that this practice became widespread among the aristocracy, mostly in consequence of the enormous popularity of J-J Rousseau’s Julie ou la nouvelle Heloise (Julie or the New Heloise) (1761).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Audrey Viguier presents a possible historical model for the curate, an anticlerical patriot: “L’Abbé Gouttes et le curé du Couvent ou les voeux forcés d’Olympe de Gouges,” The French Review 85.6 (2012): 1113–1122.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    For a detailed recital of the plots, see Megan Conway, “Cruel Fortune and Republican Fervor,” Eighteenth-Century Women’s Studies 5 (2008): 211–236.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    A very old ideal, popularized earlier in the eighteenth century by, for example, Montesquieu in Les Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters), numbers XI–XIII, in which a good Troglodyte becomes a reluctant king.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Blanc (2003, 33) explains that use of the particle de has nothing pretentious about it: it was commonly used in the Midi to mean “daughter of.” He takes Brown and Scott to task for ignoring historical context by attributing de Gouges’s use of it to vanity and deception (n.41).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    The playwright was resisted and sabotaged by financial interests because showing the humanity of slaves and the affection and loyalty that certain masters exhibit represented a protest against treating humans as objects. Because she feared violence, she counselled both masters and slaves to make gradual and peaceful change.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Present in the version of 1788, the three-year-old child and her recovery are absent in the later version, titled L’esclavage des noirs, ou l’Heureux naufrage (Black Slavery, or the Lucky Shipwreck), printed in 1792. New characters—Betzi and Coraline (called Caroline in the list of characters)—expand at length on the importance of community and the moral equality of slaves and masters. De Gouges is not only an abolitionist. A gradualist and a naturalright-ist, she develops a pedagogy that seeks mutual respect and cooperation among all members of any society and that fears the result of violent change. The drama of the whole community receives even greater emphasis in the rewritten play. M. de Saint-Frémont’s desire for his lost child Sophie remains, but the younger family is composed only of the couple Sophie and Valère.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Bély’s Dictionnaire de l’Ancien Régime (Dictionary of the Old Regime) says in this regard: “Certes, pour les fils comme pour les filles, la puissance paternelle s’ exerce-t-elle pleinement. Les renaissances du droit romain ont affirmé les droits du père, particulièrement pour corriger et pour établir dans la société. Le père, comme le Roi, est le représentant de Dieu. Sa puissance profite donc aussi des progrès du pouvoir monarchique” (“Enfance” 489). (It is certain that for sons as for daughters, paternal power is fully exercised. Rebirths of Roman law affirmed the father’s rights to punish and to set up their new households. The father, like the king, is God’s representative. His power thus grows along with the monarch’s.)Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Denis Diderot, Le Fils naturel, ed. Anne-Marie Chouillet and Jacques Chouillet, Oeuvres complètes, X (1980), 1–162. All further references will be to this edition, abbreviated OC. In what follows, I shall not consider this play’s relation to the Entretiens sur le Fils naturel. I am reading Le Fils (the play labeled comédie in 1757) as belonging to the genre sérieux. Several relevant discussions appear in Études sur “Le Fils naturel” et les “Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel,” ed. Nicholas Cronk, 2000. Particularly useful is the contribution by Marian Hobson, who identifies private performances as well as recalling what is accepted as the first public presentation in 1771 at the Comédie française (138–149).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Denis Diderot, Le Père de famille, ed. Jacques Chouillet and Anne-Marie Chouillet, OC, X (1980), 163–322. As editor, Anne-Marie Chouillet notes that during its iterations in 1770, 1771, and 1772, the label comédie was changed to drame (176).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Denis Diderot, Est-il bon? Est-il méchant?, ed. Jack Undank, OC, XXIII (1981), 381–479.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    De Gouges was born in Montauban in 1748 and moved to Paris in 1767 or 1768. She had ample opportunity to read Le Fils or to see it in Paris or in the provinces (for instance in Vienne, during 1771), and to read or see Le Père performed in private theaters enumerated by Anne-Marie Chouillet; see OC, X, 165.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Her demand is for equal rights and agency, but ignoring difference is never its condition. Claudia Moscovici efficiently treats the seeming paradox in From Sex Objects to Sexual Subjects, 1996, 80.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    For reading the father as adopting maternal attributes and as using friendship for his model, see Carol L. Sherman, The Family Crucible in Eighteenth-Century Literature, 2005, 27–32.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    De Gouges reverses the gender roles of two myths each of which gave its name to a work by Molière. Amphitryon and L’Ecole des maris (The School for Husbands). In hers, the wife is a kind of Jupiter, visiting her husband-to-be while she is disguised. Another sign of Molière’s presence emerges from the fact that her plot is indeed a school for husbands.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    For a profound and ingenious reading of fatherhood in Diderot’s three main plays and of them as intertexts of each other, see Lars O. Erickson, ‘Reflection and Projection: Diderot’s Theatrical Father’ (unpublished master’s thesis, University of North Carolina, 1997).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    In an article about Ninon, Elizabeth Blood shows that the “great men” of the title include great women and that its author represents artistic creation as a collaborative act.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Like other philosophes before her, instead of attacking rulers’ errors directly, de Gouges depicts them undergoing conversion from absolutism to wisdom and tolerance. She composed this play in 1787–1788, when Louis XVI might still have modified his governance. For most of her life, she wanted the monarchy to be preserved and that it be constitutional. This moderate view, which she fervently promulgated, led to her death under the Terror in September 1793.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    A rare earlier example is the child Molière put on stage in 1673, in Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). Louison is Argan’s little daughter, sister of Angélique. She functions as a source of information in one long scene (II, 11). Her father threatens her with violence in order to learn from her what has taken place between Angélique and her suitor. I am grateful to Professor F. W. Vogler for remembering this.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    She says so clearly in the widely anthologized Déclaration of September 1791. See de Gouges, Ecrits politiques 1788–1791, 1993, 204–215.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Carol L. Sherman 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carol L. Sherman

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations