Jessica Goodman's edition of plays commemorating Mirabeau, a totemic figure of the French Revolution, is now out in Critical Texts.
Mirabeau was first into the Panthéon, a building which Louis XV had begun in 1757, and which was completed just in time for the Revolution to use. Mirabeau had the perfect credentials to be buried there: statesman, Jacobin, Assembly member, a moderate, an intellectual, and a conveniently dead rival. That he was secretly being paid by Louis XVI only emerged later. So did Mirabeau himself: his remains were dug out after only three years of his projected stint of eternity.
But in 1791, at least, he also made it into another pantheon. In the imagination of politically likeminded playwrights, he roamed a sort of pagan afterlife, where he conversed on equal terms with other departed geniuses. It takes a certain bravado to write a play like that. In the opening line of Olympe de Gouges's Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées (1791), Voltaire strides on stage and says 'Je te dis encore, Montesquieu, les temps sont changés.' Sure, Olympe. Why not? And how helpful of the great man to be so expository.
As Jess's introduction lays out, this was a popular literary conceit of its time. It hasn't gone away even now: Tom Stoppard makes fun of this sort of scene in Arcadia, but he brazenly uses it himself in The Invention of Love, and The Coast of Utopia, where Marx, Herzen, Oscar Wilde, and so on, have crunchy conversation in dream sequences. It always strikes me as a little improbable that Voltaire, strolling in the Elysian Fields, bumps into Montesquieu rather than any of the hundred million other Frenchmen in the afterlife. Evidently there is some sort of first class lounge down there, and what Madame de Gouges wants us to know is that Mirabeau got into it.