Sometimes, a Revolution Just Needs a Woman’s Touch. On “The Revolutionists” by Lauren Gunderson
In the late 18th century, France was on the brink of bankruptcy due to their involvement in the American revolution as well as King Louis XVI’s extravagant spending which, on July 14, 1789 (known as Bastille Day), led to the start of France’s own revolution. Inspired by both real and fictional events and characters, Lauren Gunderson’s play “The Revolutionists” takes us through the perspective of the voice of the revolution in a play about a play. The story follows four women, one by one as they face the guillotine as they are caught in subversive acts against the Reign of Terror.
Charlotte Corday is widely remembered for having murdered the French revolutionary leader and radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat whom she believes is responsible for the death of a hundred of her neighbors. To her, the revolution has become “for the zealots’’ rather than for the people. Killing him, she believes this would prevent an all-out civil war. Instead, the assassination only rendered Marat a martyr and herself a crazy woman to some, yet still to others a hero.
“Who are we without a riot?
What is a song without a band?
What plays on during the quiet
Is the beat of the beat
The beat of the heart
The heart in our hand”
The Trojan Horse
Marie Antoinette is a controversial character from the start. She learns that Olympe is the only female playwright in France and seeks her help to clean her reputation. When she goes to trial for smuggling Olympe’s script, she is accused of a number of things including “conspiring with the enemies of France to promote war and destroy the populace, orchestrating orgies at the palace, sending French money to her homeland Austria, designed a massacre of Swiss guards, and having incestuous relations with her own son”. In her final words at the scaffold, however, she asserts her position as citizen, mother, and queen, and it is as though France was seeing her for the first time, and unfortunately the last time.
“Who are we without our power?
What is a truth that none understand?
Fame’s a force
Building era from hours
And the beat of the beat
And the beat of the heart
And the heart in our hand”
Olympe de Gouges wrote for women’s rights, abolitionism, and the rights of orphaned children among many things. In this instance, however, she struggles to write while the country is in crisis and in urgent need of action. To make matters worse, she witnesses the trial of Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette before she even finishes writing her play. The clock is ticking. She questions herself and whether her words hold any weight at all. But as she thinks of the women she is with, she strengthens her resolve. “A story is more alive than a fact. A story lives.” Olympe says.
“Who are we without a story
Washed away like sea in the sand
Yet we survive the roughness of glory
By passing the beat
The beat of the heart
From hand to hand”
And pass the heart in the hand does Olympe. At the guillotine, she exposes the hypocrisy of the executioner pretending to stand for something when he is really just like a puppet carrying out orders.
Marianne Angelle is a fictional Caribbean Spy and freedom fighter, a Haitian revolutionary rallying against slavery in the Caribbean French colonies. When Olympe sets about to burn the manuscripts, Marianne is the one who stands up to her.
And it is only fitting that the spy is the one who passes on the cause by saving the revolutionary writings.
Tragic as the story seems, we see how each woman courageously fought for freedom. Here we have the only things you need to start a revolution: an assassin, a Trojan horse, a playwright, and a spy. And contrary to how history is often written to highlight the role of men while glossing over women, Marie Antoinette would say, “Sometimes a revolution just needs a woman’s touch”. She couldn’t be more right. With an active hand in their stand, the play is nothing short of revolutionary.