Skip to Main Content

France: Women in the Revolution

Adaptations: Film, Theater, Music & Novels

Marie Antoinette. By David Adjmi (New York: ‪Theatre Communications Group, 2017‬‬). Library of Congress General Collections.

The violence and drama of the French Revolution was noted across Europe. Across the English Channel in particular, there was a strong sense of the "excesses" of violence. Scholarly histories such as Edmund Burke's famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was prescient as he criticized the Revolution and predicted the rise of a military dictator, such as Napoleon proved to be. He and other Anglophone political theorists vehemently rejected the idea that France was following in the footsteps of the British and American Revolutions (which had sought liberty as well, but within the confines of law and order) because in his mind the French Revolution was centered on all-out destruction. While Thomas Paine's influential work, The Rights of Man (1791) refuted Burke's assertions, Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History (1837) painted another chaotic picture of the Revolution. While Carlyle did not sympathize with the ancien régime as Burke did, he neither admired the ravenous hoards of revolutionaries who he deemed to be mostly scoundrels — Robespierre in particular. The depiction of the Revolution was one of ceaseless turmoil and mass mobs and murders (via the newly invented guillotine). But these are all histories, and while they almost read like novels (and sold quite well!) there were many adaptations that took liberties and embellished the events of the French Revolution and served up some good entertainment in the process.

But novelists too were taken under the spell of the Revolution. Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1859) allowed for some nuance "it was the best of time, it was the worst of times" in the framing of the Revolution — but it still shaped most of the Western view of the Revolution as a lawless vindictive blood bath — which is not far from the reality. The play The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Orczy again captivated an audience and drew from the saga of the French Revolution and its victims. Many of the interpretations — be they in film, literature or on the stage — place Marie Antoinette in the pivotal role due to her larger-than-life persona. And Marie Antoinette herself had a life-long love of music and stage and made a point of promoting musicians and composers including the famous Christoph Willibald Glück. Music formed a significant part of her early education in Austria before she became queen. There is something therefore fitting about the fact that 19th and 20th century playwrights have found an abundance of material worth sifting through to create new takes on the history and intrigue that characterizes this era of French history. The Revolution inspired not only narrative contemporary accounts, but also artistic creations. Almost immediately following Marie Antoinette's execution an Italian libretto was composed by Agrippino Rosselli called Lamentations of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.

A more contemporary dramatic work, the play, The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson (2018) updates the women of the French Revolution to fit modern standards. Olympe de Gouges is a "badass activist playwright and feminist. Theatre nerd, excitable, passionate, a showman, Widowed and never remarried to ensure her personal freedom." Charlotte Corday is a "badass country girl and assassin. Very serious, hardened by righteousness, never been kissed. Has a pocket watch she keeps checking." Marie-Antoinette is a "less badass but fascinating former queen of France. Bubbly, graceful, opinionated, totally unaware, unintentionally rude, and oddly prescient. Never had a real friend." Lastly, Marianne Angelle is a composite of several Haïtian revolutionaries primarily Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture, "a badass black woman in Paris. She is from the Caribbean, a free woman, a spy working with her husband, Vincent. Tough, classy, vigilant, the sanest one of them all. (Gunderson, p.4).

Marie Antoinette, a play by David Adjmi, retells Marie Antoinette's grim story in contemporary language with plenty of tongue in cheek lines about eating cake and not losing their heads. Starting with her excesses as queen, touching on the well-known scandals, and ending with the imprisonment and execution, the play begins light and ends in a more reflective mood. Adjmi's play has been performed at venues ranging from the Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC (directed by Yury Urnov, 2014), to high schools such as Walt Whitman (directed by Tyler Herman and Aria Velz, 2022). Clearly, the appeal of the characters—and the feisty women in particular—have not faded with the passing centuries. Romain Rolland, the famous French dramatist, would take heart to see this flowering of the People's Theater or Le Théâtre du peuple.

The remarkable novel Ourika by Claire de Duras, published in 1823, is set during the French Revolution. Not only is Ourika the first novel set in Europe that has a black female protagonist, but it is the first French novel written by a white woman that attempts to give voice to a black female heroine. The text itself offers an opportunity to reflect on social constructions of both race and class, not just in the Revolutionary period (during which it is set), but also during the Restoration period, during which the novel was published. Popular opinion and power shifted on the matter of race and slavery between the Revolutionary period, the Napoleonic Era and the Restoration, complicating not only the public reception of the novel, but its interpretation over the years. Ourika inspired plays that often deviated significantly from the text. Duras herself expressed some dismay over this in her private correspondences. In Vénus Noire scholar Robin Mitchell expounds upon what she terms "Ourika mania". Literature, theater, fashion and the arts in general have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. Literature is often adapted into plays, and theater can often influence fashion. Scholar Kylie Sago's research on literary adaptations and racial formation in Ourika delves into these remediations and the complicated and fascinating fashions in clothing and jewelry à l'Ourika. As society continues to grapple with questions about racism and injustice in the world, Duras' text remains relevant to students and scholars from many fields of study.

Perhaps the most well-known novel that is set against the back drop of Revolution in France is Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables. It should be noted that Les Misérable does not take place during the 1789 French Revolution. This novel is set in 1832 during an anti-monarchical uprising in Paris (called the June Rebellion) that was largely in protest to the July Revolution (1830) which placed the liberal constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe in power but left many in Paris feeling the 1830 republican Revolution had failed in its goals. The modern-day musical adaptation has been one of the most popular musicals in the the world since its premier at the Palais des Sports in Paris in 1980. It has inspired international stage productions in over 20 different languages as well as numerous film adaptations. Contemporary scholars continue to explore this topic of theatre and performance in times of revolution or political upheaval, as well as theatre or performance as a site for remembering, transmitting, and repurposing histories and legacies of revolution.

For a summary and guide to resources on revolutions in France, see Revolutions in France: 1789, 1830, 1848 and The Paris Commune

The sections below list musical scores, audio files, films, novels and plays that feature the female protagonists and victims of the French Revolution. The second section lists related online and digitized materials, and the last section lists relevant scholarly works on the topic of music, literature and theater during the Revolution.

For more resources:

France--History--Revolution, 1789-1799--Drama

France--History--Revolution, 1789-1799--Literature and the revolution

France--History--Revolution, 1789-1799--Motion pictures and the revolution

France--History--Revolution, 1789-1799--Music and the revolution

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Online Resources: Popular Films & Performances 

Books on Music, Theater, Novels & the French Revolution