Hollinshead-Strick on Johnston (2014)


Johnston, Joyce. Women Dramatists, Humor, and the French Stage, 1802–1855. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. 233. ISBN: 978-1-137-45671-7

Cary Hollinshead-Strick, The American University of Paris

While scholars have published studies of novels, journalism, and poetry by nineteenth-century women authors in recent years, plays by women have been relatively ignored. Joyce Johnston’s book seeks to remedy this discrepancy, focusing on the work of four dramatists from the first half of the nineteenth century: Sophie de Bawr, Sophie Gay, Virginie Ancelot, and Delphine Gay de Girardin. Because humor is the transversal theme of the study, most of the plays considered are comedies or vaudevilles. Marriage, with the range of behaviors it occasions, is the stuff of comedy, a circumstance which allowed these playwrights to air a variety of social concerns, even within codified genres. 

Drawing on the perspectives on women and humor presented in Regina Barreca’s Last Laughs (1988), and referring to Henri Bergson and Charles Baudelaire’s theories of laughter, Johnston makes a convincing case for the gendered humor of the plays she analyzes. Comedy, in addition to providing somewhat lower barriers to entry for its authors than drama, opera, or tragedy, staged the bourgeois domestic realm that these women playwrights, all of whom held or attended Parisian salons, knew well. On the one hand, humor allowed some margin of maneuver for women authors to criticize constraints on women’s choice of spouses and injustices perpetrated by the legal system. On the other, legitimate concerns about the effect of theatrical writing on their reputations, combined with conservative dramatic conventions, frequently softened women playwrights’ critiques.

Nonetheless, Sophie Bawr was able to use the marriage plots of light comedy and vaudeville to reveal how difficult it was for people to have access to crucial information about future spouses. Bawr’s clever heroines set up various pretenses and has masquerades to find out what they need to know and to prevent unfortunate pairings. Her greatest success, La Suite d’un bal masqué (1813), has the ruses of a young widow prevail where the law courts had failed to resolve a conflict.

Likewise, in Virginie Ancelot’s Follette (1844), each half of a prospective couple behaves uncharacteristically in order to test the reaction of the other partner. Such bits of metatheater are common in comedies, but it is reasonable to assume that women playwrights, who withheld their names more often than male authors, paid particular attention to what could be achieved by temporarily hiding one’s identity.

As part of her contention that women’s humor was often tempered, and was rarely cruel at the expense of its characters, Johnston points out that when Delphine de Girardin wrote a slapstick comedy, Le Chapeau d’un horloger (1854), its comic “business” tended to be carried out at the expense of inanimate objects, rather than people. Given the eventual emergence of vaudevilles specifically written to sell furniture, which Manuel Charpy has studied, Girardin’s critique of excessive concern for household objects seems prescient.   

While women made up a small minority of playwrights during the first half of the nineteenth century, they did write revealing literary genealogies into their comedies. Sophie Gay set up Mme de Sévigné as a judge of her son’s conduct in Le Marquis de Pomenars (1819), and had the Duchesse de Longueville intervene to save the hero from execution by la Fronde in Le Chevalier de Canolle (1836). Likewise, Virginie Ancelot staged works about Anne d’Autriche, Mme Roland, Mme de Scudéry, and the Marquise de Rambouillet.

Clearly Johnston’s study can be read fruitfully with critical work on salon culture. It also dovetails nicely with biographies of actresses, for Mlle Mars starred in Sophie de Bawr’s greatest hit, and Rachel begged to play the title role in Delphine de Girardin’s Lady Tartuffe (29, 162). While Johnston is rightly cautious of over-reading the politics of specific plays, Tartuffe, as Sheryl Kroen has shown, was a contentious figure on the nineteenth-century French stage. Hugo’s reaction to Girardin’s play (“Lady Tartuffe par Mme Molière”) suggests that her choice of such a title was a successful bid for more than just ticket sales (163).  

Tickets did sell, though. Girardin’s experience writing a column at La Presse, and Ancelot’s co-running the Théâtre du Vaudeville placed each playwright at the center of current developments in news and theater. Their successes revealed not only their own talent, but also their expert awareness of what was likely to succeed with readerships and audiences.

Women Dramatists, Humor and the French Stage clearly and concisely presents authors whose work has been forgotten to our detriment. Joyce Johnston’s readings of these plays are judicious, and her examples and analysis are enlightening. She suggests that some of the plays discussed could be added to courses that include work by Marivaux or Molière (196). Doing so would, indeed, broaden students’ vision of French comedy. The important questions that this book raises about genre, gender, and theatrical authorship will also interest scholars working on women’s writing more generally.