Some called her the first French feminist. More to the point, Olympe de Gouges was quite likely the first woman to be executed for forthright opinions about women’s rights. This obscure French heroine has sparked the imagination of playwright Wendy Kesselman, and the result is a stylistic departure for the author of such powerful but intimate dramas as My Sister in This House. Kesselman’s broadly-painted story of this wild but marginalized figure from the French Revolution is called The Butcher’s Daughter. The work is receiving its premiere through April 11 at the Cleveland Play House.
Despite the Play House’s early involvement with the play, The Butcher’s Daughter was originally written for New York City’s Ubu Repertory Theatre. Back in 1989, Ubu artistic director Francoise Kourilsky received a grant to commission a play about any “relatively unknown” French heroine from the Revolutionary era, and put Kesselman to work. Although Kesselman knew little about the period, she had already become fascinated with the subject of executioners while researching in France for My Sister in This House.
Although guillotines were at their sharpest during the Revolution, the last guillotining took place as late as 1976, with the practice not officially outlawed until 1981. As members of one of the few professions fully able to withstand any changes in the political climate, the gentlemen who chopped off heads as a vocation were a strange bunch, Kesselman discovered. Throughout French history, executioners were much-feared figures who took for themselves the airs and proclivities of nobility and an almost-spiritual level of self-dignity. Their families frequently intermarried; executioner’s daughters were also often married off to up-and-coming butchers. The daily life of an executioner’s family was engulfed in superstition–their loaf of bread, for example, was always turned upside down by the baker.
Historically, the only incontrovertible connection between the first French feminist and that odd breed of bureaucrat was that de Gouges was guillotined by one of them. So Kesselman set out to forge a history between the harbingers of death and the revolutionary young woman–who was, after all, the adopted daughter of a butcher. The playwright came across de Gouges’s story completely by accident in Oliver Blanc’s Last Letters, a collection of the final missives written by guillotine victims. Kesselman was hooked: “That discovery changed my life. I read so much that I couldn’t stop.”
Born free and equal
Olympe de Gouges was the illegitimate child of an aristocratic father and ignoble mother. She would grow up the daughter of a provincial butcher, unacknowledged by her birth father. After running away to Paris, the wild-spirited de Gouges became a radical playwright and found herself embroiled in the French Revolution, torn between her aristocratic and proletarian selves, her loyalty to the fickle King and her revolutionary ideals–especially those that emphasized women. De Gouges is probably best known for her “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen,” a 1791 document that makes a compelling case for extending the promise of the Revolution to both sexes. De Gouges’s assertion that “woman is born free and lives equal to man” was widely reviled at the time.
Kesselman decided to combine a fictional story of the executioners with the historical truth of the life of Olympe de Gouges. She achieved this by writing a play with two interwoven plots, one based around de Gouges and another focusing on a fictional daughter of the Executioner of Paris, whom she named Celeste. Linking the two narratives is a storyteller, a singing narrator-prophet based on actual individuals who passed on news of political machinations to common people throughout France. Although de Gouges and Celeste barely interact in the play, Kesselman draws numerous parallels between their twin struggles for freedom and peace. Much of the stylized dramatic language and action has a strong erotic charge, emphasizing de Gouges’s free, cheerfully sexual personality. But sexuality in the play also has a much darker purpose, as Kesselman links physical desire with the lust for blood and power.
As the project became more and more complex, its cost became prohibitive, and a number of theatres read the play and then passed on the option of producing it. But Cleveland Play House artistic director Josephine Abady, who has been outspoken about the need of the American regional theatre to get away from small-cast, televisionesque dramas, felt strongly enough about the work to press hard for its inclusion in the season. Happily for Kesselman, the Cleveland Play House received one of four $50,000 grants awarded by AT&T as part of the company’s New Plays for the Nineties project to give the play a green light in Ohio.
Women doing big things
The premiere marks the mainstage directing debut of Play House artistic associate Leslie Swackhamer, who had served as dramaturg for the play’s original reading. Swackhamer, who has been working with The Butcher’s Daughter for two years, says she was particularly attracted by the play’s combination of feminist sensibility with epic dramatic action: “The heroes are women doing big things. They are confronting the world on their own terms.”
With a set designed by Tony Straiges, Swackhamer’s production features a scaffoldlike structure backed by a projection of a turbulent, moving sky, designed to track the desires and frustrations of the central characters. The wild Olympe is usually found outdoors, looking in on the set’s innumerable small rooms, while the trapped executioner’s daughter usually appears inside looking out. At the climax of the play, Straiges’s design takes the form of a giant guillotine, which overwhelms and consumes the characters’ lives. Paul Tazewell’s costumes find their inspiration in the 18th century, but have a contemporary look, part of the collaborators’ desire to give the play immediacy.
The Play House has put together an intriguing ensemble cast, led by Mabou Mines veteran Frederick Neumann in the role of the cello-playing executioner, a gentle, loving man forever dislocated from his chosen profession. Beth Dixon plays the executioner’s wife, with newcomers Jennifer Rohn and Anney Giobbe playing the two young women at the play’s heart.
After attending each and every reading across the country, the irrepressible Kesselman is clearly delighted that her play (now in its 43rd draft) has finally come to life. This year marks the 200th anniversary of de Gouges’s death, an appropriate time to afford her some delayed recognition. For her part, Swackhamer sees the piece as an important statement by the Play House: “This work will break the barrier of how people here view women’s plays.”