Theses Doctoral

Forms of Enclosure: The Convent Plays of the French Revolution

Curulla, Annelle Marie

This dissertation addresses the emergence and proliferation of plays about convents, a French revolutionary subgenre based on the representation of monastic costume, setting, and characters. In the Old Regime, the theatrical representation of Roman Catholic clerics and garb was prohibited from the public theater. After 1789, however, societal norms surrounding the treatment of religious objects were radically transformed. The collapse of the Old Regime system of censorship and the nationalization of Church property helped trigger a flood of plays that depicted clerics on stage before live audiences. The convent play is perhaps the best example of how the freedom to represent the Roman Catholic clergy impacted dramatic practice of the revolutionary period. Unprecedented on stage prior to 1790, and all but absent from playhouses with the return of censorship in the First Empire, convent plays remained constant if controversial staples of most playhouses during their brief but prolific existence.

Despite their differences, farces, dramas, tragedies, comedies, and operettas about convent life constitute, in my view, a single genre. They all combined fictional sources and contemporary events with pre-existing theatrical codes in order to create new, gendered narratives of secularization. Convent plays overwhelmingly ended with a nun's decision to leave the convent in order to marry a patriot. I suggest that this dramatic conclusion was socially and historically specific to the republican gender ideology of the French Revolution. In the face of the ongoing defamation of real-life nuns, their fictional doubles underwent secular conversions in the theaters, and thereby incorporated the sacred pillars of chastity, obedience, and poverty into Republican parables of wifely valor. The convent play, a precursor of romantic theater, both reflected and advanced the new social order outside the playhouse, where civil authority replaced the divine right of kings.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Stalnaker, Joanna R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 30, 2012