“That’s no way to begin a comedy!” cries out a woman dressed strikingly in a flowing pink gown, her powdered white hairdo adding almost a foot to her height. This is Olympe de Gouges (Sunam Ellis), a feminist playwright attempting to capture in writing the tumult of the French Revolution. In The Revolutionists at ArtsWest, the revolution is not televised: it’s written into a darkly funny play covering the Reign of Terror, intersectional feminism, and playwriting itself.
Written by the prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson, The Revolutionists is an earnestly optimistic and hilarious argument for feminist solidarity in uncertain times. It explores the dynamics between four very different women: writer Olympe de Gouges, Haitian revolutionary Marianne Angelle, young assassin Charlotte Corday, and the infamous Marie Antoinette. The Revolutionists became a meta narrative about Olympe’s play, influenced by each woman who enters. Although the humor leans distractingly self-conscious—it’s a play within a play and Gunderson doesn’t let you forget it—the witty dialogue and nuanced treatments of identity are fun and thought-provoking. How do we build real solidarity between women when virtue signaling often takes the place of organizing, and as gender categorization at all is increasingly blurry? And where do we find a voice in a history that erases us?
ArtsWest’s set was simple and elegant: a raised wooden stage, fronting a backdrop of red ribbons knotted into stripes. With high heels tapping against the hollow stage, each woman was thoughtfully dressed in pink, lavender, and sequined gowns. Glamorous and ladylike without being over-the-top, the set and costuming created a cohesive and decidedly feminine aesthetic (whatever that means). At first glance, the stage reminded me of a tampon commercial: a clean, sanitized front that covered, or maybe highlighted, the bloody reality underneath.
The play is structured around Olympe as she attempts to create tangible political change with her pen (with the less-noble goal of getting clout as an artist). Although she truly believes in her causes (revolutionary, abolitionist), she gets sidetracked by both the brilliance and the riskiness of her own work. Olympe de Gouges was a real historical figure, known for writing the radical-for-the-time feminist text Declaration of the Rights of Women in 1791. In The Revolutionists, she was characterized as a well-intentioned armchair activist who struggles to prioritize real solidarity over her artistic ego. Unlike her activist friends, she’s terrified of leaning too controversial and putting her life on the line. During a societal moment literally called the Reign of Terror, where any dissent to the revolutionary regime was a quick cart-ride to the guillotine, Olympe’s fears were valid: her play was a matter of life and death.
Marianne Angelle (Dedra D. Woods) entered the scene regal in a lavender headwrap, greeting Olympe with the gossipy enthusiasm of sisters. Marianne, a Black Haitian revolutionary, arrived to ask Olympe to write abolitionist pamphlets to call the French to action against slavery. Composed, quick-witted, and a loving wife and mother, Marianne was easy to root for. However, her character sometimes seemed like a moral compass designed to keep the white women’s egos in check, which although important, seemed ultimately more like a lesson intended for white audiences than a portrayal of a complex and compelling character. This was clearly the intention of a white playwright to create positive representation, but what does it mean when people with marginalized identities can’t be shown as flawed? Although well-meaning, flattening out a character into a single dimension is dehumanizing, even if that dimension is flattering.
This is perhaps influenced by the fact that unlike the other characters in the play, Marianne Angelle was not a real (or at least not a documented) person. The achievements of women, especially women of color, are rarely recorded in the mainstream historical narrative. Without a known history, artists are forced to invent and extrapolate. That’s the power of historical fiction: it allows marginalized groups (women, people of color, the queer community) to fill in the gaps in our lineages that the historical record erases. So although we don’t know the names of the real people that Marianne’s character represented, it makes it all the more meaningful when she stops waiting for Olympe and writes her abolitionist pamphlets herself.
Concern for her place in history is why Charlotte Corday came to Olympe for help. Played with stridently blunt humor by Hannah Mootz, Charlotte burst onto the scene demanding last words. The real Charlotte Corday was guillotined for murdering one of the Reign of Terror’s most influential propagandists. In The Revolutionists, Charlotte comes to Olympe looking for memorable last words to give her agency over her legacy, if not over her death.
Last but, as she would be the first to assure you, not least, Marie Antoinette (played with ditzy excellence by Jonelle Jordan) shows up to ask Olympe for a rebrand. Marie, hamstrung by her privilege and by her tottering silver heels, struggles to adjust after a hard fall from glamorous royalty to despised enemy of the people. Still, she is ultimately treated with sympathy. Although she could be an easy villain, The Revolutionists takes a more nuanced and optimistic approach towards her character—it’s worth building common ground and solidarity even with those who seem deeply ideologically flawed.
Throughout the play, people ask Olympe: how will the play end? In response, she can only wonder: Where the hell are we headed? As we approach the 2020 election, a polarized nation in a world on the verge of ecological crisis, it’s a familiar feeling. The Revolutionists is a reminder that we have always lived in uncertain times: Solidarity and speaking up are not and have never been easy, but they remain worth it.
The Revolutionists was presented at ArtsWest January 16-February 9. For event information see here