«Quel langage pour un pasteur!»1 The Rhetoric of Convent Theatre during the French Revolution



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FR322: Revolution and Empire

« Quel langage pour un pasteur! »1

The Rhetoric of Convent Theatre during the French Revolution


An essay with particular reference to the following plays:

Olympes de Gouges, Le Couvent ou les Vœux Forcés, première le 21 octobre, 1790

Jacques-Marie Boutet, dit Monvel, Les Victimes Cloitrées, première le 29 mars, 1791

Louis-Benoit Picard, Les Visitandines, première le 7 aout, 1792

Charles-Antoine Pigault-Lebrun, Les Dragons et les Bénédictines, première le 6 février, 1794

Word Count: 4,750

The theatre is a crucial resource for analysing the French Revolution, not only in terms of understanding the culture but also its politics and ideology. As Hyslop writes, ‘For the literary critic, the theater throws light upon the period of transition from the eighteenth century Enlightenment to the nineteenth century Romanticism. For the historian, such a study complements the knowledge of the political, social and economic crisis [and for] the psychologist [… it offers light] upon individual and mass psychology during a period which combined foreign and domestic war with the use of terror against civilians.’2 A particularly popular genre during this period was the convent play. Rodmell suggests this began with ‘Fontanelle’s Ericie [whom by means of] a transparent Roman disguise, mounted an attack on the conventual system with vestal virgins representing nuns’.3 Between 1789 and 1799 over twenty-six plays set in or around convents or monasteries were performed in France.4 Olympe de Gouges’ Le Couvent and Monvel’s Les Victimes Cloitrées were both performed over eighty times; the more common amount for a play being under ten.5 Despite its popularity, Ford laments that the ‘relationship between the copious claustral literature produced between 1760 and the 1840s … is a fascinating one and has not received the consideration it deserves'.6 This essay is therefore an attempt to rectify this criticism, focusing on the years of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1794. By asking “How revolutionary was convent theatre?” we shall be able to understand the importance, aims and achievements of the genre, have a fresh insight into the French Revolution and a wider understanding theatre’s development during the period. Furthermore, as it is ‘impossible to understand the revolutionary phenomenon itself without examining the very special political discourse which it generated,’7 we will look in particular at the plays’ rhetoric. Through four popular plays which encompass the period in question, De Gouges’ Le Couvent ou les Vœux Forcés (1790); Monvel’s Les Victimes Cloitrées (1791); Picard’s Les Visitandines (1792) and Pigault-Lebrun’s Les Dragons et les Bénédictines (1794) we will assess whether they became increasingly radical reflecting the political atmosphere of that period.8

The structure of this essay will be as follows: firstly, we shall question the novelty of convent theatre; secondly, we shall assess whether the rhetoric depicts Revolutionary ideals; thirdly, we will consider the question of women and finally, we will ask whether the plays reflect the Revolution’s anticlericalism. This should allow for a thorough analysis of convent theatre, whilst providing a large scope for debate. It should be noted that all of these plays were performed in Paris. They therefore represent a Parisian perspective of the Revolution, arguably different from that found en province. Rodmell states that ‘it is proper to concentrate on the Paris theatres because … [this was where] the heart of the Revolution was to be found, and … [where] theatre was above all significant, becoming directly involved in the political action of the time’.9

The Novelty of Convent Theatre


Revolutionary can be defined as ‘relating to, characterized by, or of the nature of political revolution and involving or constituting radical change.’10 In terms of the genre, no particular ‘radical change’ took place with the birth of convent theatre during the French Revolution. Indeed, the political attack on the convent ‘was by no means novel’ writes Walker, citing Protestant anti-monasticism in the sixteenth century as an example of ‘how potent a symbol of religious and civic identity the convent has always been’.11 Rivers recalls the hundreds of eighteenth century libertine novels whose titles have clerical references or are set inside convents.12 Even in de Gouges’ Le Couvent the Chevalier quips:

Crois-tu que ce soit la première fois qu’un amant déguisé est entré … dans ces asiles. Crois-moi, … il se passe souvent dans ces retraites des aventures que le public ignore.13

Ironically, the 18th century public certainly did not ignore such ‘aventures. Their obsession with religious institutions – be it through hate or erotic appeal – will become apparent throughout our discussion. Furthermore, Diderot’s La Religieuse (1796), arguably the most popular piece of convent literature, ‘is only one famous example of a rather common tale’.14 Although it appears to be a Revolutionary text, it was originally written in 1760, further highlighting this longstanding interest in cloistral literature.

The weakening of censorship was hugely significant for convent theatre during the Revolutionary period. Mason describes the history of eighteenth-century French theatre as ‘one long-continued struggle for freedom’.15 This explains de Souza’s argument that ‘le côté dramatique de leur [the nuns’] situation [as in, the concept of convent theatre] n’avait pas échappé aux écrivains d’avant la Révolution ; mais la censure était trop sévère pour qu’elle pût être exposée au théâtre.16 Freedom of speech was a key feature of 1789: no longer did writers have to disguise criticisms of the King or Church and, coupled with the ever-expanding printing industry, precipitated a boom in publications. By 1790 the Gallican church’s ban on performing in clerical costume had been disregarded.17 Convent theatre provided the perfect genre to confirm this revolutionary break from tradition. Indeed, after Ericie came Laujon’s Le Couvent ou les fruits de l’éducation, performed in April, 1791, which thoroughly exploited the relaxation of legislation; Rodmell suggests it carved the way for many more, ‘some of them decidedly scurrilous in nature’.18 The thrilling controversy these plays would provoke is difficult for a twentieth century audience to imagine. However, to see figures of authority (clergy, noblemen and king) ridiculed on stage, in their traditional robes and without allegory for a shield (such as Ericie’s Roman metaphor), is a force revolutionary theatre provided which cannot be underestimated.

Let us now consider whether the convent plays marked a turning point in theatre’s development. While the majority of revolutionary plays continued to follow the traditional five act tragedy or high comedy in verse, the convent plays did not, pursuing the newer style of melodrama. Furthermore, Marchand stresses that convent theatre marked the appearance of increased (and often unnecessary) stage directions, citing Les Dragons et les bénédictines as an example.19 Most importantly, however, Les Victimes Cloitrées is considered to be ‘the first example of a new type of melodrama in France’20 which was to replace the ‘farcical and scatological’21 style of previous performances. Moreover, Ginisty considers the fourth act to epitomise melodrama in terms of style and tone.22 If convent theatre was the debut of melodrama and breakdown of traditional structure, the lack of literature on the subject proves even more astounding. However, the convent plays still followed the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action: the events occur within less than one day (in almost real-time), they are all set in one general locality, they have few subplots, the servants play the wise yet comic roles whilst the middle to upper class characters are more serious and all drama is resolved at the end. We can therefore conclude that whilst revolutionary in terms of breaking taboo and inspiring a new style of theatre; the setting in literature was by no means original at the time of the Revolution; and the plays retained several fundamentally traditional elements.


Convent Theatre and Revolutionary Ideology


Culture during the French Revolution generally became increasingly politicized therefore we must look at the ways in which convent theatre reflected revolutionary politics. The theatre became a means by which actors, writers and producers could ‘vouchsafe their revolutionary credentials,’23 especially during the Terror. In terms of the plays’ content, it would be difficult to argue, however, that Les Dragons et les Benedictines was decidedly more radical than Les Victimes Cloitrées. Hyslop explains that this lack of radicalisation was not limited to convent theatre. Even during the Terror, the theatre was ‘moderate in tone… if one wished bloodshed and revenge against ci-devants and priests, one could go to the Place de la Révolution or watch the victims of the guillotine’.24 We also should consider that whilst we have the dates when the plays were first performed, we do not know when exactly they were written (with the exception of les Visitandines: first submitted in 1790 but only accepted in 1792).

The theatre was revolutionary because it became accessible to people who had never attended before 1789. Les Victimes cloitrées was often performed for free, ‘“par et pour le peuple”’.25 Furthermore, the theatre became a tool for educating audiences on the Revolution and its ideology, particularly as illiteracy remained widespread. As Maslan puts it, ‘the Revolution made politics into theater … in order to make the people into an audience that could be disciplined and repressed “by means of the spectacle”’.26 This therefore stresses the significance of Revolutionary rhetoric:

An instrument of political and social change… The language itself helped shape the perception of interests and hence the development of ideologies… revolutionary political discourse was rhetorical; it was a means of persuasion, a way of reconstituting the social and political world. 27

We should, therefore, consider the key elements of Revolutionary ideology – vertu, egalité, fraternité and liberté – and how they were promoted in convent theatre.

The French Revolution was a period of increasingly radical idealism, the peak of which was during the Terror. Robespierre himself was known as l’Incorruptible for his dedication to Jacobin ideology and strict moral codes. Indeed, Ozouf suggests that the Revolution was seen as a period of rebirth, « la reconstitution d’une nouvelle innocence, la recreation d’un nouvel Adam ».28 We can therefore understand the emphasis placed on the most morally upright, virtuous characters in convent plays. Les Victimes Cloitrées, has M. de Francheville and Le Père Louis, both referred to as « honnête-homme[s] », a compliment of the highest regard.29 In particular, working for the state is portrayed as « une distinction aussi honourable », both praising and promoting the efforts of Revolutionaries.30 Moreover, Hyslop highlights the indulgent tone of Les Dragons et les Benedictines towards soldiers, who had fought bravely defending France in the on-going revolutionary wars.31 The audience’s admiration of Le Père Louis comes not only through his actions, but his modesty:

J’ai protégé l’innocence, j’ai défendu la cause de l’humanité, j’ai fait mon devoir et je suis récompensé.32

Many revolutionary ideals (defence, humanity, innocence) are depicted; the repetition of « j’ai » increases to pace to create a fervour: one can imagine the cheers from the audience. In many ways, he appears to depict what the revolutionaries would like to think of themselves. It should be noted however that this acclamation to a member of the clergy suggests the plays cannot reflect the Revolution’s radical anticlericalism.



« Vivent les dragons pour convertir les nonnes » declares the Captain in Les Dragons et les Bénédictines.33 Convent theatre provided a popular scenario with a “moral” cause where Revolutionary officials could play the heroes. ‘The dramaturgy of these plays constructs a heroine for whom the audience is to feel pity and a hero with whom the audience is to identify; [we can therefore assume] … the target audience is male.’34 Le Couvent and Les Victimes Cloitrées end with soldiers saving the heroines from their cloistered fate. Such scenes would remind the audience of the victory of enlightenment thought.35 ‘Revolutionary deputies were considered “benefactors” and “liberators”’ 36 who would save the nuns from their despotic institutions ‘convinced that claustration had driven most nuns to … insanity.’37 The decrees forbidding monasteries, convents and new religious vows were legalised as early as February, 1790. Furthermore, it was typical to depict a ‘conflict between an older social order (the phrase ancien régime was invented in these early days) and a new one’38: the latter using reason to triumph over the former.

The ideology of the French Revolution, with its emphasis on equality can be described as a form of proto-socialism. Les Victimes Cloitrées is the only play however to include a scene to discuss Revolutionary politics:

Mme de St. Alban: Ah ! voilà le grand argument de la philosophie ! des hommes ! vos égaux, n’est-ce pas ? vos semblables ?

M. de Francheville: Oui, mes semblables ; mes égaux.39



« Fière et entichée de sa noblesse, » 40 Mme de St. Alban uses ‘vos to separate herself from ‘les hommes, believing herself to be above others. She is ignorant of contemporary politics while M. de Francheville stands as an educated voice of reason, promoting the ideals of 1789 (to the delight of the audience). The repetition of ‘égaux’ and ‘semblables would greatly please the audience: revolutionary rhetoric triumphs in the face of ancien régime hierarchy. The plays were able to praise equality through making the convent a symbol of inequality. Authors ‘understood the convent to be an inherently despotic institution because of its hierarchical structure, which allowed whim to take precedence over rules’.41 However, the fact that the plays are set within convents (religious, hierarchical institutions) also prevents them from being revolutionary in a utopic sense; the distinctive social divisions also render this impossible.

Liberty was unquestionably the most important Revolutionary ideal conveyed through these plays. This was done largely through making the convent a metaphor for a prison. In Le Couvent we frequently see such references from Le Chevalier and Antoine (who calls it a « cage »).42 Les Victimes Cloitrées depicts entering a religious community as a « sacrifice de sa liberté »43 and Pigault-Lebrun goes as far as to call it « le plus ridicule esclavage ».44 Strasser explains that this metaphor was not limited to literature: ‘religious communities figured prominently in the most pressing public debates and courtroom dramas where – like the Bastille … – they provided potent symbols in discussions of liberty, public order and despotism’.45 Indeed the Bastille symbolized the ancien régime and its suppression symbolized the triumph of liberty.46 Furthermore, throughout revolutionary theatre, ‘the enemies of the Revolution were enemies of liberty and equality.’47 The concepts of forced vocations, false imprisonments or even entering a religious community for lack of other options were then counter-revolutionary. This encapsulates what Choudhury describes as the ‘contradictory images of women religious as “victims” and “despots”’: the convent being tyrannical and the nuns ‘victims’.48



« Liberté ! liberté ! soutiens-moi »49 cries Dorval towards the end of Les Victimes Cloitrées. This is a clear example of Revolutionary rhetoric being used in theatre. Liberty becomes a Goddess-like figure who rescues victims subjected to ancien régime oppression. Interestingly, Dorval uses the familiar, ‘tu form of the imperative which appears to emphasise his desperation but arguably also suggests misogynist undertones: being female, liberty must respond to man’s appeals, as opposed to reacting of her own accord. Liberty is also treated as a saviour in Les Dragons et les Benedictines where Sœur Sainte-Claire announces she plans on leaving the convent, with « le bonnet de la liberté sur la tête ».50 The Phrygian bonnet had become such an important symbol of liberty during the French Revolution that in June 1792 Louis XVI was obliged to don it in order to appease demonstrators; to see it used in theatre further stresses the mixing of politics and culture. As the Revolution progressed the allegorical figure, Marianne, became more prominent. Landes suggests this was to replace the ‘masculine visage of the monarch’.51 Convent theatre thus provides a hugely valuable resource when discussing gender and the Revolution and the focus of the following chapter. We can thus conclude that we can describe the plays as revolutionary for promoting some of the Revolution’s ideals; but they are not themselves revolutionary, that is to say, they do not suggest any new ideological ideas.

Women and Convent Theatre


The fact that a focal point of these plays was the liberation of women does not mean that they were revolutionary in terms of gender equality. After all, ‘“liberty is not represented as a woman… because women were or are free.”’52 Despite the revolutionary rhetoric calling for equality, women were denied rights in both the 1791 and 1793 constitutions. The inequality is demonstrated in the plays; however, it is depicted more so as factual than a political stance calling for women’s rights. In fact, de Gouges’ Le Couvent hardly reflects the sentiment depicted in her 1791 Déclaration pour les droits de femmes. However, the theatre was arguably the most important means by which writers could make a name for themselves: perhaps by producing a play which would please revolutionaries, de Gouges would have had more of a voice with regards to gender equality. Certainly ‘there can be no doubt about [her] ardent feminism’ by the time of her execution in 1793 which Abray highlights ‘was not without its significance as a gesture of repression towards the feminists’.53

Levy and Applewhite suggest that during the French Revolution biological and political discourse created scientifically justifiable distinctions between the sexes:

The goals of the revolution were, after all, liberty, sovereignty, moral choice informed by reason, and active involvement in the formation of just laws. All of these were firmly designated male prerogatives, defined in contrast to the female:

Active/Passive, Liberty/Duty, Individual Sovereignty/Dependency, Public/Private, Political/Domestic, Reason/Modestly, Speech/Silence, Education/Maternal Nurture, Universal/Particular, Male/Female.54

Such gendered rhetoric is clearly depicted in the convent plays. « Sexe faible et malheureux »55 laments the Curé in Le Couvent creating a pathos which, unsurprisingly, is only effective coming from a male character. It even extends to a gendered toning of voice. In Les Dragons et les Benedictines the Captain softens his voice to enchant Soeur Agnes and Soeur Scholastique.56 Euphémie, in Les Visitandines, sings:

Dans l’asile de l’innocence,

Amour, pourquoi m’embrasser de tes feux?

Eloigne-toi, la froide indifférence

Doit seule régner dans ces lieux.57
Gendered rhetoric is then shown through the differences in male and female verse: the men sing when intoxicated and the women when in love. Alcohol is used as a – albeit light-hearted and amusing – symbol of immorality, most notably in Les Visitandines but we see it also in Le Couvent. A popular attack was calling Louis XVI ‘le buveur,’ and whilst not making direct references to the King, it is interesting to draw a parallel between the two. Furthermore, Hyslop reminds us that scenes of drunkenness would guarantee to produce laughter (‘in any age’), stressing that Les Visitandines should be regarded primarily as ‘good-humored rather than biting’.58 The use of assonance in the song gives a soft, angelic tone reflecting feminine purity. Innocence then appears to be the female equivalent of Revolutionary vertu. A defining feature of all of the heroines in the convent plays is their virginity. This highlights yet another reason for the genre’s popularity: the convent ‘represents the most eroticized space imaginable in ancien régime France… by the very fact of pretending to shut sexuality out, it effectively shuts it in’.59 The Rousseauean image of a ‘young, innocent, and pure’ female goddess of liberty seeming to almost ‘call out for the protection of virile republican men’ demonstrates how convent theatre catered to officials’ tastes - ‘beneath any elevated rhetoric against the cloister lies an adolescent male lust’.60

We see gendering even in the set design and stage directions of convent theatre. Murphree emphasises the importance of space within these convent plays in terms of their gendered and revolutionary messages. Indeed, all of the sets are designed to show in and outside the convent, often simultaneously, differentiating between female and male, ancien régime and Revolution. ‘Accordingly, the exterior spaces are more strongly identified with male characters and secular desires.’61 By entering the gardens or breaking in through disguise, the male characters penetrate, even violate, the convent setting, adding to the erotic dimension of convent theatre.

Nearly all convent plays depict two types of female: the young, virginal, beautiful orphan entirely at the mercy of the old, conservative, repressive abbess. Mme. de Genlis describes the latter:

Une Abbesse est une espèce de Reine… une Souveraine absolue, qui… vit avec faste dans une représentation continuelle, en gouvernant despotiquement ses sœurs & ses égales.62

She is clearly referring to Marie-Antoinette, the only woman of any importance in France and who by 1790 had lost all support. This typecasting was not confronted by the convent plays but encouraged: in order to restore the balance of power the abbess must be defeated by male characters.63 Interestingly, in this sense de Gouges is arguably the most guilty of stereotyping. In Le Couvent, the abbess embodies ‘both the corrupt aristocrat and the grasping cleric.’64 She is strict, unsympathetic and greedy; characteristics which in 1790 related particularly well to Louis XVI whose refusal to change resulted in the constitutional crisis.

Finally, ‘women who assumed the religious vocation…were frequently regarded as the saddest women of all because they lacked a purpose and had renounced their natural calling as women.’65 According to Rousseau, rejecting the maternal role contaminated civilisation.66 This is applicable to all the convent plays: although they are “saved” from despotism, women are not freed from their limited social expectations. In Les Dragons et les Benedictines, it is fortunate Sœur Sainte-Claire is one of the young beauties who can be rescued by « le bonheur d’un galant homme ».67 The fates of Sœur Agnès or Sœur Scholastique, however, remain unclear. It is frustrating to see that in this sense convent theatre is correct in depicting the situation of women, but not out of pity. Nevertheless, Les Dragons et les Bénédictines does express some change which occurred during the French Revolution: « Autrefois, en France… on épousait un nom ou une dot. Aujourd’hui nous épousons des femmes ».68 The notion of a woman’s charactère thus became more important during the French Revolution, as did that of men. We can therefore conclude that convent theatre was not hugely revolutionary in calling for gender equality, but revolutionary in the sense that it was generally designed to appeal to the misogynistic audience.

Anticlericalism in Convent Theatre


Une des passions les plus actives de l’époque [était] la haine des moines et du clergé.69 Indeed, ‘the cloister … functioned as a symbol for everything wrong with … the ancien régime – church, family and monarchy – led to its ultimate demise during the French Revolution’.70 Corruption and greed within the Church were particularly criticized during the French Revolution. This can be linked back to the French Revolution’s proto-socialist ideals which clashed with the wealthy, hierarchical and patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, corrupt clerics do not fit in with the Revolution’s notions of vertu. Anticlerical legislation began as early as 1790 and became increasingly radical. Doyle writes that monastic orders, although they reappeared after the Revolution, ‘never proliferated as they had done under the old order’71 having been portrayed, through discourse, theatre and literature as leeches on society.

This anticlerical sentiment became fashionable and contributed to convent theatre’s popularity.72 However, in terms of content, the plays are not immensely controversial. Kennedy suggests their biggest attack on the Church was their representation of religious figures on stage as opposed to genuine criticism.73 As we have discussed, Le Père Louis, despite his vocation, is considered a virtuous man, as is Le curé in Le Couvent. In terms of revolutionary action, Pigault-Lebrun’s is the only play to actually depict the disbanding of a convent. Interestingly, the legislation for “emancipating” nuns was written early in 1790, suggesting a significant delay in the theatre reflecting the politics of the French Revolution. Furthermore while Les Dragons remains rooted in the Christian setting, by 1794 Catholicism was being replaced by the cult of the Supreme Being amongst a downpour of secular discourse. Arguably therefore convent theatre did not uphold requirements to promote a revolutionary, secular message.

Let us now consider some of the attacks on the clergy. Les Visitandines arguably contains the most anticlerical jibes: ‘le succès le mit véritablement en vue…on y trouvait en quintessence … tout ce qui, depuis tant d’années, se distillait de malice contre les nonnes et les couvents’.74 Frontin describes the convent as « une sotte communauté »75 and La Tourière admits religious women are not perfect: « sœur Sainte-Ange est bavarde, sœur Joséphine est coquette, sœur Augustine fait la prude ».76 Such criticisms hardly reflect the anticlerical legislation being passed between 1790 and 1792. However, they appear more insulting towards women than towards the church, using stereotypically gendered adjectives. This supports what Choudhury describes as ‘gendered anticlericalism,’ where nuns were reduced to the limited image of women and ‘victims,’ yet monks were generally regarded as the most immoral of men, ‘parasitic clerics.’77

The genre’s obsession with and criticism of forced vocations proves even more interesting given Choudhury’s research which suggests the numbers of documented cases of voeux forcés or involuntary enclosure were much lower than suggested.78 Doyle writes that whilst the monks appeared to welcome release from their vows in 1790, the nuns ‘were almost unanimous in opposing the dissolution of their convents’.79 The inverse, however, is reflected in the ‘gender disparity between the handful of plays featuring monks and the dozens focusing on nuns’.80 Monvel’s play is thus revolutionary by highlighting a male victim of clerical despotism. Moreover, De Souza questions Les Visitandines’ place in anticlerical theatre: ‘il est vrai qu’on y voit une jeune fille qui veut se faire religieuse parce qu’elle se croit oubliée ; mais personne ne l’y oblige.81 Like Julie in Le Couvent, so long as she does not say her vows, she remains free. Although, perhaps this is expecting too great a freedom of expression from women both within and outside of theatre. However, if the genre does not reflect the reality of forced vows, it could be argued that convent theatre was in fact not dedicated to emancipating women (from religious or other limited expectations) nor even criticising the church but that its primary aim was to be a propaganda tool for the revolutionary ideal of liberty and thus only truly criticises the convent’s restrictive nature.

Finally, the plays certainly did not question the existence of God which would have reflected enlightenment criticism of religious institutions. The philosophe Voltaire died ‘en adorant Dieu … et en détestant la superstition82 and Dorval begs forgiveness for blaspheming in the final scenes of Les Victimes Cloitrées.83 Yet this too prevents the plays from adopting truly revolutionary (as in secular) rhetoric. Hunt explains that ‘although it was enunciated with religious fervor, revolutionary language was nonetheless resolutely secular in content…. revolutionaries eliminated most positive references to Christianity from their vocabulary’.84 Therefore in terms of anticlerical sentiment, the convent plays were not radical or critical enough to be revolutionary but the politics of the Revolution made them appear more so.

Conclusion


The popularity of convent theatre diminished under the Directory which Murphree suggests was due to their ‘structural limitations… in terms of plot, characterization and rhetoric’. The nuns (eventually losing the male audience’s interest) were replaced somewhat ironically by the melodramatic heroine ‘as the passive recipient of male action,’ given the fact that convent theatre introduced melodrama.85 Furthermore, the success of anticlerical legislation (resulting in an almost complete elimination of convents until their re-emergence later in the nineteenth century) certainly contributed to the genre’s demise. Furthermore, Choudhury suggests the convent as a symbol changed: where it ‘had once been a microcosm of the Old Regime … it had become – for proponents of republicanism – a foreign realm within France, an anachronistic but nonetheless dangerous remnant of the gendered despotism that the Revolution was supposed to have vanquished’86 and therefore a more sensitive subject to depict on stage. It reflects the tumultuous atmosphere of the Revolution, where ideas could be enormously popular and yet short-lived.

However, despite reflecting the trends and giving us an insight into the politicized culture of the French Revolution, from this analysis it would appear that convent plays were not hugely revolutionary, both in terms of content and rhetoric. Anticlericalism was limited, they did not call for gender equality and they could not reflect revolutionary rhetoric to its entirety due to their religious content. Although their popularity remains significant, the plays suggest a more moderate audience than expected and the fact that the genre lost momentum suggests a more fickle relationship between the theatre and politics. Most importantly, the major emphasis on liberté and vertu cannot be ignored: this rhetoric is a subliminal form of propaganda which would both penetrate and be encouraged by the audience. The plays are more subtle than, for example, Maréchal’s Le Jugement des Rois (1793) and their male-catered content more popular. Hufton and Choudhury both suggest that the Revolution and its literature contributed to the feminization of Catholicism, (the Cult of the Virgin Mary) highlighting another dimension to convent theatre’s importance as a historical source.87 We can therefore conclude that convent theatre, despite its limitations as revolutionary propaganda, provides a unique insight into the French Revolution and its theatre’s audiences.




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