Comedy, Drama, History and the French Revolution

Two Honors tutorials bring Lauren Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists to the stage and the classroom

by MJ Montgomery

In a new set of Honors tutorials, theatre, history, and fiction meet in a big way.

Two tutorials, taught by Dr. Claire Syler and Dr. Catherine Rymph respectively, explore the theatrical and historical contexts of Lauren Gunderson’s 2018 play “The Revolutionists.” The play takes place during the French Revolution, following four women from all walks of life as they experience comedy, tragedy, violence, art, and fourth-wall breaks. 

Dr. Syler’s tutorial consists of four students: Abby Uphoff, Payton Woodruff, Anya Lewinski and Samuel Varnon. Varnon is pursuing music, Payton, theatre and social work, Anya, anthropology (with a triple minor in Spanish, jazz, and religious studies) and Abby, English and theatre, but they all have one thing in common — a love for the art form.

One Student stands on a table acting while two other students stand on the floor in response

Syler’s tutorial isn’t the kind of class where you sit and take notes. Instead, outside of analysis of the play, students can be seen climbing on top of tables, kicking open doors, yelling — in a class on theatre, the students are there to perform.

“Performance is about integration,” Dr. Syler says. “The practical, analytical, and theoretical merges.”

Gunderson was one of the most produced playwrights in America in 2017, and Dr. Syler sings her praises. 

“The play animates history,” Dr. Syler says. She describes Gunderson’s play as “fierce, funny, and feminist.”

The play was originally going to be performed by Stephens College, but when the pandemic hit in 2020, it shut down. The Mizzou Theatre department is picking up where Stephens left off.

Dr. Syler approached Dr. Catherine Rymph about possibly teaching a class on the play, and was surprised when Dr. Rymph not only agreed, but wanted to teach her own class on the historical context of the play. While Dr. Syler approaches the play from a theatrical angle, Dr. Rymph challenges her students to look deeper into the actual people within the play.

A group of 7 people stand in a row outside a set of double doors

The students in Dr. Rymph’s tutorial come from all majors and interests, as well. French, Spanish, computer science, journalism and history are all represented.

The class is led through student analysis. After reading a scene, Dr. Rymph asks, “So, how are you interpreting this scene?” Then, the students take over.

Students are encouraged to dive into a historical aspect of the play that interests them and then present their research to the class.

One such student, Bailey Martin, a history and constitutional democracy major, is covering the context of the play leading up to the French Revolution. She is reading A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution, an account of the French Revolution by Jeremy D. Popkin. 

Martin focuses on delving into the often-forgotten parts of the French Revolution. For example, the women of the French Revolution, who are frequently neglected in historical accounts. Women were present for the storming of the Bastille. Women essentially started the bread riots. Marie Antoinette, despite being the Queen of France, is often overlooked in favor of her husband. Part of Martin’s research seeks to tackle this bias. After all, The Revolutionists centers on four women of revolution-era France.

Other students are analyzing the characters of the play. Some are researching the backstories of the real Olympe de Gouges, Charlotte Corday and Marie Antionette. Another examines original French texts written by Olympe de Gouges. Another explores the Haitian Revolution, which informs the character of Marianne.

Performances of The Revolutionists by the theatre department will begin on April 27th in the Rhynsburger Theatre. Several students participating in the tutorials have a hand in the play. Behind the scenes, Honors students are unravelling Gunderson’s comedy line by line and stitch by stitch.

More information about the Play can be found at the Theatre website.