An interview with THE REVOLUTIONISTS playwright Lauren Gunderson, from the 7 Stages production in Atlanta:
1. When you hear reign of terror, your brain doesn’t automatically think comedy. Were you always headed down the funny path with this play or did the humor come as a welcome break for the dread of the guillotine?
It was always a comedy. This horrific phase of the French Revolution was based on such hypocrisy by it’s leaders. Hypocrisy is a reversal of expectation, which is the definition of a joke. A dark, scary joke but still. For this play it’s funny until it’s not.
2. The Revolutionists is set in the past but incredibly timely. Did you go into the play knowing what issues you wanted to talk about, or did that happen naturally?
I didn’t have to search for the modern equivalences as they were quit obvious. Brazen, violence-peddling, divisive rhetoric is the same then (Marat, Robespierre) as it is now (Cruz, Trump). The shocking difference between the rich and the poor, the national debt amassed by needless wars, hunger, anger, inequality. Modern America really needs to have a long talk with 18th Century France.
3. A play that calls for a full cast of four powerful females is unfortunately hard to find and the play itself talks about gender equality. What advice do you have for female artists to keep fighting the good fight?
I tend to fight with humor more than anger. Comedy can trick you into coming way closer to a hard topic than drama can. Making someone laugh invites them into the conversation, it equates us as people as opposed to dividing us by ideology. Outrage is necessary, and there is a lot to be outraged about, but when I write about feminism, racism, or violence, I lead with a funny that ends with heart. Humor and heartfullness humanize. As Olympe says of her play, which is true for this one as well, it starts out as a comedy but ends as a drama. We don’t have a word for that other than… life.
4. What’s your favorite moment in the play? Too many to name! But probably when Marianne is describing her husband’s courtship or any time Marie Antoinette enters a room.
5. How did you choose which historical women to write about? And what inspired you the most about them?
I discovered the history of Olympe de Gouges while on a trip to Paris with my mom and sister. Reading a small footnote I was stunned to learn that she was a radical feminist playwright who was guillotined only months after Marie Antoinette. I was so inspired and conflicted at the same time. She was an artist and an activist but neither could save her or her country (at the time). It made me think about other forms of political activism and what art means in a real crisis. I thought, who would Olympe be friends with? I’d always loved the story of Charlotte Corday and her proud, brave but morally questionable assassination. And who doesn’t love Marie Antoinette, especially if you look deeper and uncover her humanity and strange soulfulness. But the real wonder came when I realized that while France was fighting a civil war for equality and freedom it was enslaving black men and women in Haiti. This allowed me to imagine a brilliant, strong, witty Caribbean woman, who I named Marianne after the symbol for French freedom La Marianne, who could complete this fierce foursome. Marianne became the heart of the play really, as she is the ideologue and the backbone of the cause of liberty. I think you always have you write plays about real, feeling, flawed people as opposed to grand ideas. Ideas can’t breathe and laugh and learn. Ideas are contained inside minds alive with curiosity, conflict, and relativism, and that’s what makes a theatrical journey.