Reflections on translating French women playwrights

Curiously, I stumbled onto the study of French women playwrights essentially by accident. The process began over four decades ago, when I was recruited by my closest friend from graduate school to help him in preparing a critical edition of a tragedy by Pierre du Ryer and found out in the process that I enjoyed doing editions. My colleagues at my first tenure-track position did not much care for the topic of my dissertation (religious tragedy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). They advised me to forget about reworking it into a monograph and instead confine myself to doing critical editions. I consequently turned to another of my interests at the time: the debate over the existence of a literary baroque.

Portrait of Marie-Catherine de Villedieu by Charles Devrits, published in an 1845 book of portraits of Norman poets.

I worked on editions of three plays by Jean Rotrou that I viewed as typical examples of baroque drama. I got one of them published but soon realised that it would be difficult to publish multiple plays by the same author. I therefore began to look around for another suitable playwright. One of my colleagues, who had published a monograph on Mme de Villedieu at the start of his career, suggested that I look at her tragicomedy, Le Favori (1665). I was so impressed by that play, which struck me as a neglected masterpiece, that I decided to explore the overall history of female playwrights in France. There was no general study of that subject, and I was unable to find anyone else in the United States working on it, even though English women playwrights were garnering a lot of attention. Indeed, most scholars of early modern French literature seemed unaware that there were any women playwrights in that period.

At that point, it became clear that an edition of Le Favori by itself would be inadequate and that something on a much larger scale was needed. So I decided to embark on a full-length anthology of French women playwrights, covering multiple authors and genres. I also realised that, since Women’s Studies was taking off as an academic field, it was necessary to make the plays available to a wider audience, which meant translating them as well as preparing French editions. And that meant turning my anthology into a bilingual edition.

Frontispiece of the 1750 edition of Cénie by Françoise de Graffigny, the most successful play by a French woman on the Parisian stage prior to the Revolution (Paris: Cailleau, 1750).

The next question was how many plays to include and within which time period. Eventually, I settled on 1650 to 1750, for the following reasons. First of all, although I discovered a handful of women playwrights in the sixteenth century, starting with Marguerite de Navarre, none of the authors seems to have intended their works for public performance (with one exception, and that play is lost), and there is no indication that any of them knew about the others, meaning that there was not yet a sense of tradition. As for the first half of the seventeenth century, I found only one play, which survives in manuscript, was never performed, and in my opinion is not very good. It was not until 1650 that women playwrights started to find an audience, with a number of them publishing their works or getting them publicly performed, or both. Françoise Pascal, who published six plays between 1655 and 1662 and had at least two of them staged by professional companies, struck me as the proper place to begin. As for the endpoint, I chose Françoise de Graffigny, whose Cénie (1750) was the most successful play by a woman on the Parisian stage prior to the Revolution.

In order to show the diversity of genres cultivated by these writers, I included a short farce, a tragicomedy, a comedy-ballet, two tragedies, and a tearful comedy. Unfortunately, once I had completed the bilingual anthology, I was unable to find a publisher for it. Finally, I lucked out thanks to a casual conversation that I had with Wolfgang Leiner during a conference. He expressed his willingness to publish my book in the monograph series that he directed, Biblio 17, but he was not prepared to handle a bulky bilingual edition. Instead, he gave me the choice between submitting just the French originals or just the translations. I sent him an all-French version, which he accepted, and I was soon to find an American publisher for the companion volume with just the translations.

Françoise de Graffigny, author of Cénie. Victorine-Angélique-Amélie Rumilly, Presumed portrait of Françoise de Graffigny (1695-1758), 1836, oil on canvas, 75.3cm x 65cm, Palace of Versailles.

The appearance of these volumes produced such a huge amount of interest in these women playwrights that I quickly realised the need to prepare a second volume, covering another six plays from the same period, with a greater emphasis on plays with explicitly feminist content, including Anne-Marie du Boccage’s 1749 tragedy about the Amazons. This time I included some works from the théâtres de société in addition to plays intended for public performance. The French-language edition was quickly accepted by the Biblio 17 series. However, finding a publisher for the translations was more difficult than anticipated, since the U.S. publisher that had accepted the first volume had ceased operations. I eventually got the volume accepted by the ‘Other Voice’ series, which is primarily devoted to early modern women authors, but there was an unexpected obstacle: at that time the series had a cut-off date of 1700. Since I had not yet translated all six of the plays from the French edition, I agreed to do a shorter volume with only the first four of the projected plays. Left out were works by Staal-Delaunay and Du Boccage.

Portrait of Anne-Marie Du Boccage by Charles Devrits, published in an 1845 book of portraits of Norman poets.

While I was engaged in preparing the second volume of both the English-language and French-language versions of my anthology, an exciting new project got underway. Henriette Goldwyn, one of the first American colleagues to share my interest in women playwrights, got in contact with the eminent French feminist scholar, Eliane Viennot, and with the French actress, director, and independent scholar, Aurore Evain. Together they developed a plan to publish a multi-volume anthology that would cover the entire Ancien Régime period. I was eventually invited to join the general editorial team alongside Aurore and Henriette. The original plan was for a three-volume collection, but it was ultimately expanded to five volumes, of which four have so far been published. This collection, far more comprehensive than my earlier two-volume anthology, included two-thirds of the plays that I had previously edited, but we decided that it was worthwhile to have a certain amount of duplication.

In addition to my work with the editorial team, I wrote the general introduction to two of the volumes and edited a number of the individual plays. After the publication of the third volume, the press handling the series, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, experienced financial difficulties and was unable to commit to publishing the remaining volumes. Eliane and Aurore successfully negotiated with Classiques Garnier to take it over, with the publisher insisting on reissuing the first three volumes under its own imprint. In the meantime, I collaborated on an edition of the pedagogical plays of Mme de Maintenon, which we felt did not properly fit into the five-volume anthology. At this point, I felt that I had arguably done enough with editions of French women playwrights in French.

Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700, ed and trans. by Perry Gethner (Toronto and Tempe: Iter Academic Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015).

More recently, however, I have started to feel that there is a need for an additional volume of women playwrights in translation. My plan is to focus just on comedy and to expand the period covered as far as 1800. I have not finalised the list of plays, but the authors will most likely include Louise-Geneviève de Sainctonge, Marie-Anne Barbier, Marguerite de Staal-Delaunay, Françoise de Graffigny, Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, and Olympe de Gouges. I expect this project to occupy me for roughly five years.

I have several broad considerations in mind when I work on these translations. I want them to be as accurate as possible yet readable, avoiding awkwardness and stilted language; I would like the readers to enjoy the plays as much as I do. I want the introduction and notes to provide adequate information to help non-specialists appreciate the works in their historical context. I try to make the translations suitable for actors, in the hope that my versions may be used in performance. In addition, I feel a responsibility to the playwrights, knowing that this is the first time their works are being rendered into English, and that quite possibly it will also be the last. Finally, I want to note that I have learned much from studying this neglected group of texts, especially the insights into the authors’ personal perspectives on such matters as women’s rights, their capacity for reasoning, leadership, and friendship, and their frustration with social injustice.

– Perry Gethner, Regents Professor of Foreign Language, Oklahoma State University


Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700, ed and trans. by Perry Gethner (Toronto and Tempe: Iter Academic Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015).

Femmes dramaturges en France (1650-1750) : Pièces choisies, ed by Perry Gethner (Paris, Seattle, Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature [Biblio 17, 79], 1993).

Femmes dramaturges en France (1650-1750) : Pièces choisies. Tome II, ed by Perry Gethner (Paris, Seattle, Tübingen: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature [Biblio 17, 79], 1993).

The Lunatic Lover and Other Plays by French Women of the 17th & 18th Centuries, ed by Perry Gethner (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994).

Maintenon, Françoise d’Aubigné de, Proverbes dramatiques, ed by Perry Gethner and Theresa Varney Kennedy (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014).

Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, ed by Aurore Evain, Perry Gethner, and Henriette Goldwyn, 3 vols (Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2006-2011).

Théâtre de femmes de l’Ancien Régime, ed by Aurore Evain, Perry Gethner, and Henriette Goldwyn, 5 vols [of which 4 have appeared] (Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2014-).

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