Q. Where were you born, and what do your parents do?
JG. In Redhill, Surrey, but we moved to Cardiff when I was two. They’re university administrators, now retired: my dad was Director of the Careers Service and Student Services at Bristol, my mum worked in postgrad and researcher training in Cardiff.
Q. How did you become a modern linguist?
JG. I’m pretty sure my lifelong love of both talking and reading meant it was the way I was always headed! Though I was only able to study one language at A-level, I loved working out how to communicate my ideas in new ways, and finding out the intricacies of how the grammar fitted together. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine giving up English, History and Music, so Modern Languages — in my case, French and beginners’ Italian at Oxford — seemed the perfect way to combine all of this. That was where it all started.
Q. Who influenced you?
JG. Very obvious people, really. My parents, who kept me well-supplied with books from an early age, and were always willing to talk to me about them. My undergraduate tutor, Kate Tunstall, whose interest in the eighteenth century sparked my own, and my PhD supervisor, Alain Viala, whose methodology has really influenced my work. But also far too many friends and colleagues to enumerate, who have influenced me through conversations, or by setting an example in their own work style or career progression.
Q. Your first book was on Carlo Goldoni - now famous again because of One Man, Two Guvnors, but who’s almost always called an Italian playwright, or anyway a Venetian one. When I saw that you’d written on Goldoni in Paris, I must admit that I thought ‘oh, did he visit?’ - I had no idea he’d lived there for thirty years, and became a hanger-on at the court of Louis XVI. Was this a successful transplant, like Handel in London?
JG. Sadly, that’s all too common a reaction! Most French people don’t even realise he was there – at least, not for thirty years. And in a way, that’s your answer: no, it wasn’t all that successful. He attracted decent audiences, he had contact with lots of the big literary names of the period, and he got that position at court – but he didn’t do all that well in ensuring he’d be remembered as a French author. He only really wrote one properly successful play in French. It was performed for a while into the nineteenth century, but the last time it appeared at the Comédie-Francaise was 1849. His other productions were pretty much all scenarios, which the actors used to improvise around.
Q. At first sight the plays in your new edition seem much less like box-office material — as if they’re political pamphlets, for armchair reading. But in fact they were performed, and I don’t know what to make of that. Olympe de Gouges’s play was given only twice, but should we call it a flop? There were two big houses of the Parisian élite in attendance, and it was a lavish event, with a full orchestra for the funeral march. Could we almost call this a memorial service in theatrical form?
JG. In many senses that’s exactly what it was. Re-enactments of big political events (which included funerals like Mirabeau’s) were an important tool to create a sense of community and consensus in the Revolution: it meant more people could feel like they were there, and the emotions aroused could be prolonged. So Gouges is praising Mirabeau in her own way — and the small number of performances might well be tied to the necessarily circumstantial nature of the play. But I think she is doing other things too — not least, as I argue in my Introduction — trying to create a place for herself in the sort of glorious posterity that Mirabeau, Rousseau and Voltaire inhabited.
Q. There seems to be some hint that de Gouges hoped her play would be given regional performances as well. Did she want to be a star of the dramatical firmament, or to have her say in the politics of the Revolution?
JG. Again, a bit of both. There’s definitely an element of self-fashioning, and elsewhere she’s very aware of her status as a dramatist. But positioning herself (a woman) as equivalent to Mirabeau (a ‘great man’) is highly political: this play was written just months before her ‘Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne’, after all. What she didn’t want from the provincial performances was money – at least, not for herself. She said any payments she was due should go to help patriotic women who had supported the Revolution.
Q. How open was French theatre to women? Actresses, of course, and singers, but authors?
JG. There were a decent number of female authors across the early modern period – in the past decade there has been a five-volume publication of Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, which gives you some indication! The women didn’t have it easy – Gouges complains about the way the Comédie-Française treats her, and implies it’s because of her gender – but many of them still managed to have their plays performed or printed in some form. Our knowledge is also complicated by the way plays were attributed, especially at the Comédie-Italienne, where women like Mme Favart and Mme Riccoboni collaborated with their husbands.
Q. Producers even, or directors?
JG. They didn’t really develop as a separate entity in the modern sense until the nineteenth century – many troupes were run by the actors themselves, in some cases with funding and overall control coming from the court. Either a head actor or (occasionally) the author would deal with how plays were performed.
Q. One of the fascinating things about this book is that it’s a snapshot of a moment in history. If Mirabeau had lived only slightly longer, maybe he’d have been guillotined and put in a potter’s field, rather than memorialised. Or maybe he would have gained power. Were plays like these laments for the loss of a cause as well as a politician, or were the writers still campaigning?
JG. Things moved very quickly during the Revolution – Mirabeau was unceremoniously removed from the Panthéon just three years after his grand funeral. But the real acceleration of shifting goalposts hadn’t quite started when Gouges et al were writing in 1791. They weren’t necessarily aware of just how brief their hero’s moment in the sun could be.
Whether they thought they could actually influence events is quite a different question, for which I don’t think the answer is necessarily the same for all the plays in the edition, at all moments of their existence. Writing for theatre is, in the first instance, about attracting an audience, entertaining them, making money. Although Gouges and Dejaure both publish their plays, hinting at a desire to have a broader and/or longer-lasting impact, this first ‘publication’ in the salle de théâtre, capitalising on the public outpouring of grief of Mirabeau at that precise moment, has to be at least the initial motivation.
Q. What surprised you most when you were researching into this?
JG. The accidental discovery of a published Dutch version of one of the plays that, until then, I had thought only existed in one (French) manuscript copy. I had an interesting detour into some Dutch publishing history to chase that up, though unfortunately, a lot about it still remains a mystery!
Q. Outside of your academic life, what do you read for pleasure?
JG. Contemporary fiction in English, and bits of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French that I don’t get to look at in my work. In French, I’ve recently been catching up on Marie Darrieussecq’s works, after seeing her speak in Oxford, and in English I’ve just read His Bloody Project (Graeme Macrae Burnet) and I’m halfway through A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara).
Jessica Goodman’s edition Commemorating Mirabeau: Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées and other texts is now available as volume 58 in our Critical Texts series. Her study of Goldoni is published by Oxford University Press.