Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Convent

The French playwright Olympe de Gouges considered her plays to be dramas, though writing around the same time as the French Revolution, she introduced many sensationalistic elements that came to be adopted by the incipient new form known as melodrama.

Her first successful play Black Slavery (originally titled Zamore and Mizra) reflected her strong abolitionist views. Though it was written before the revolution, the Comédie-Française did not stage the work until December of 1789, when the revolution was already in full swing. Pro-slavery partisans heckled the play, and it closed after only three performances, though de Gouges later claimed the hecklers had not prevented the theatre from selling tickets. The piece inspired numerous imitations, leading the author to attack those she felt had plagiarized her.

In 1790, the revolutionary government in France began dissolving convents and monasteries, seizing their property to pay the nation's debts. There had also been allegations of young women being forced to take the veil as nuns, and the government had officially banned the taking of new religious vows even before it started closing convents. It was in this environment that de Gouges wrote The Convent, or The Forced Vows. The three-act play premiered on October 4, 1790, and continued to be performed off and on until 1792, the year she published the piece with an accompanying preface.

The Convent centers around Julie, a novice brought up in a convent and preparing to take her final vows. Julie attracts the romantic attention of a young chevalier who sees her when visiting the monastery with his father, a marquis. The chevalier bribes a gardener named Antoine to help him gain access to Julie so he can determine if she reciprocates his affections. His plan is to dress up as a Capuchin friar, but before he can don his robes, he is forced to flee the stage to avoid being seen by his father, the marquis. It is due to the marquis, we learn, that Julie is being asked to take her vows in spite of moral qualms. Something is afoot...

In the second act, Julie begins to confess to an older nun, Sister Angélique, the reason for her reluctance to take the veil. Just as she is about to reveal her secret, though, the abbess enters to brow beat her into going through with taking her vows. It turns out that the marquis has paid for Julie to be brought up in the convent, and if she refuses to become a nun, that money will disappear. The abbess sends Sister Angélique away, and welcomes a Capuchin friar to convince the girl to take her vows, not realizing that the friar is the chevalier in disguise.

Julie admits to the friar that she has fallen in love with a mysterious man she has seen in the company of the marquis. Elated, the chevalier reveals himself, but he is discovered by the abbess and his father. The marquis threatens to disinherit his son and even have him imprisoned, something powerful aristocrats definitely had the power to do prior to the revolution. Just in the nick of time a Commissary arrives with a contingent of soldiers, determined to get to the bottom of the matter. Saved by the revolution!

Act III begins with two nuns worrying what might happen if their convent is dissolved by the authorities. If that happens, one of them worries: "vows will no longer be pronounced, and each one of us will be what we will, or what we can... it will expose us to unusual temptations." Another nun seems to look forward to those temptations, though, and they exit dreaming about the men they might marry if their vows are dissolved (with the exception of one nun who seems to enjoy the flagellations practiced in the convent). All of this would have seemed very topical in 1790, when many nuns were being cast out into the world, and some did indeed marry.

The resolution comes when Sister Angélique reveals that she is Julie's mother, and sister to the marquis. It seems she married against her brother's wishes, and the marquis killed her husband in a duel. Overcome with guilt, the marquis cries out, "Oh! Lacerating remorse! Barbarous prejudices! To what excesses have you led me...." He begs his family to forgive him, and the lovers (in spite of being first cousins) are able to marry with their parents' consent.

Unfortunately, de Gouges did not experience a similarly happy ending. In 1793, King Louis XVI was executed, just two days before the premiere of de Gouges's play The Entrance of Dumouriez in Brussels at the Théâtre de la République. She considered the performance a disaster. By de Gouges's account, "actors allowed themselves to take only a few scraps of my play, to dilute them into a sort of medley, half farce, half pantomime."

In spite of de Gouges's enthusiasm for the revolution, she was not radical enough for some, and many people suspected she harbored royalist sympathies. In reality, she aligned herself with the moderate Girondins, but after Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, even being a moderate was enough to get you killed.

Three days after Corday was guillotined, authorities arrested de Gouges. She managed to smuggle some of her writings out of prison, but couldn't avoid the fate of so many who perished during the Reign of Terror. On November 3, 1793, de Gouges died on the guillotine.