The Revolutionists


Through Sunday, Oct. 14

Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh

At a time when a would-be American monarch incited his faithful mob by mocking a rape victim for confronting her attacker, it provides no comfort that the timeliest show by far on local stages is a play about the Reign of Terror.

In The Revolutionists, playwright Lauren Gunderson remembers the work of women during the French Revolution as well as their unfair recompense. We generally don’t recall that women marched to Versailles, sacked the King’s palace, and persuaded the royal family to accompany them back to Paris in 1789, mainly because the revolution’s own leaders ultimately ignored their contribution. The National Assembly snubbed women’s petition for equality after the march, two years before playwright, feminist, and abolitionist Olympe de Gouges wrote her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen.

That work, which influenced the later thoughts of Mary Wollstonecraft and American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, earned de Gouges the distinction of being only woman to be guillotined during the Reign of Terror for her political writings.

From this troubling material, Gunderson has crafted a lively, largely backstage comedy, one calculated to give her characters the last word—and laugh—in a way their own lives never did. Under Amy White’s brisk direction, Lu Meeks makes de Gouges a divinely dissatisfied genius in seemingly perpetual motion. Her labors on her latest play are complicated when she’s suddenly beset by Charlotte Corday (Liz Webb), the famed assassin of Jean-Paul Marat; Marianne Angelle (an intense Tiffany Lewis), a fellow theatrical as well as a Caribbean abolitionist and spy; and, least likely of all, Marie Antoinette (a bubbly Melanie Simmons). All need de Gouges’s words so their true efforts are not forgotten.

As each makes her painful contribution to posterity, The Revolutionists becomes a pensive contemplation on the social responsibilities and limitations of art and the crippling self-doubt endemic to creative process. Angelle castigates the privilege that affords de Gorges the luxury of whining about writer’s block at the height of a revolution, while Corday reminds her that her plays have been written for the rich. When de Gorges objects, noting that those chandeliers just came with the space, Corday ripostes, “And so did the starving peasants outside.” 

After a week that underlined how far we haven’t come since the late-eighteenth century, the fight for the same fundamental, equal rights clearly continues among “a class of people so vacant-hearted that they can’t see the horror of their own luxury,” as Angelle says. One sharp truth underlies these women’s words and acts, so often focused on personal sacrifice. Someone has to live to tell the tale, and that someone needs to be able to do so in full fidelity. Otherwise, as Corday notes, we’re all in a play that someone else is writing—and it doesn’t matter to them if we don’t like the ending.