Delving, with Laughter, into HERstory :: Liz Duffy Adams Talks 'The Salonnières'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday October 29, 2018

Henriette, the Comtesse de Maré, and Gabrielle, the Marquise D'Aulney — two of the characters in Liz Duffy Adams' play "The Salonnières," now playing through Nov. 11 at the Greater Boston Stage Company — are old hands at the game of sexual politics in pre-revolutionary France. Much less experienced and far more naïve is the young Madeleine de Sauveterre, a teenager who has been cloistered away for much of her life in a convent and who has only recently entered society at large prior to entering into an arranged marriage. More knowledgeable, perhaps, than any of the other women in de Maré's salon — the setting of the play — is Françoise, a servant, who has a better idea than her employer or her guests as to what the strange happenings out on the street portend.

This gathering of women is occasioned by a weekly salon hosted by de Maré, a seemingly innocuous assembly in which women share gossip and tell fairy tales. But there's an underlying edge to de Maré's salon; a barely concealed political and philosophical current that calls into question all the sanctities of a self-serving patriarchy under which the women of France, rich and poor alike, must maneuver to survive. When Madeleine confides in the older women that she's desperate and terrified of the marriage her father has arranged, surface pieties about the enviable match soon give way to deeper reflections about the role to which women are consigned.

But there's another guest in de Maré's salon on this occasion: Claude, the Duc de la Beauchene, who, like de Maré and D'Aulney, is in his thirties. A political animal to the core — and someone not shy about using his influence with the king to destroy his enemies — Beauchene also happens to be the man who whom Madeleine is betrothed. Though he staunchly defends the "proper order" of their male-dominated society, Beauchene is all too willing to forgo niceties such as a proper wedding, so eager is he to consummate his impending nuptials with the terrified Madeleine, and it's up to the socially prominent women — and the serving girl — to improvise some form of rescue.

Along the way, the women of the salon telling, specially tailored versions of familiar fairy tales. Those fanciful stories are more than mere diversions, however; they provide a glimpse into the subterranean struggles talking place beneath decorous words and outwardly polite gestures. The souls of all these women — and the soul of France itself — hang in the balance of what sort of ending the competing fairy tales land on.

Liz Duffy Adams, a Massachusetts native and award-winning playwright, takes us to the lost world of Enlightenment-era drawing rooms and lifts the veil on the battles women of that place and time had to wage in order to question their assigned social roles. In doing so, she comments all too urgently on the state of gender relations and gender parity in America in 2018 — and place and time where, as Adams tells EDGE, "women still must fight to be believed, to be heard, to have a fraction of the respect and bodily autonomy that men are automatically allowed."

EDGE had the pleasure of interviewing Adams recently about her play, and the degrees of progress... and regress... we've made in the centuries since the French revolution.

EDGE: Fairy tales have traditionally been used as illustrations for children of life's harsher realities (even though in recent centuries they have been blunted and sweetened up a bit). " The Salonnières" points out another use of fairy tales, though - they have been weaponized to tell women what their place is: That they should be meek, submissive, and ever in need of being saved by (and, in return, servicing) a handsome man. Was that the starting point when you got the idea for the play?

Liz Duffy Adams: Yes, something like that. I happened to re-read Angela Carter's brilliant and brutal rewriting of fairy tales, "The Bloody Chamber," and then, my interest piqued, I began reading about the origins of our modern fairy tale, particularly in essays by writer/folklorist Terri Windling, and found out for the first time about the historical Salonnières. I've long been aware that the present day versions seem designed to teach girls to put the highest possible value on pleasing men and settling down with them, and it was fascinating to learn about some of the deeper history.

EDGE: Pre-revolutionary France is one of those historical periods that Americans are fascinated with. What drew you to that specific moment in history?

Liz Duffy Adams: For me it's two things: One, the tipping point just before revolution is always dramatically interesting (I can't help wondering if we're at such a point now, in one direction or the other). And also, I love Restoration theater and to some extent Molière: The high stakes and serious undercurrents carried along by wit and style. It gives me so much pleasure, I wanted to try my own version.

EDGE: I love the line early in the play where one character says, "This is a literary salon, not a revolutionary cabal!" In a sense, of course, it's both - when fairy tales and propaganda give way to serious scrutiny of idea long held (or long imposed), that's a revolutionary thing. You mentioned historical Salonnières a moment ago — so were there indeed, as in your play, women who were questioning their assigned social roles?

Liz Duffy Adams: There were! It was a movement that went on in various forms for over a century, but in a nutshell, they were much as the play describes: Aristocratic women who held literary salons in order to discuss ideas for social change under that disguise. They'd take old folktales and rewrite and elaborate on them for that purpose, making young women and fairy godmothers the active protagonists, and in the process they reinvented the form. For example — and my realizing this was an early spark for the play — we think of the "happily-ever-after" ending of fairy tales, where the girl gets her man, as sentimental, something that reduces a woman-centric story to be all about getting married. But at this earlier time, for these women who had absolutely no right to marry for love, or by choice, who were essentially sold into marriage by all-powerful fathers, and owned after that by whomever their husband was, the idea of choosing who you marry, of marrying for love, was radical. It was a part of an array of rights they were denied and were attempting to influence their culture about: The right to chose how you live. So that "fairy tale" ending for them had to do with human rights, not female subjugation — just the opposite!

And then I couldn't help noticing that these women were relatively privileged — lacking in rights but wealthy in a time of extreme economic inequality — and perhaps not particularly engaged with the rights of less fortunate women. Not very intersectional, as we might say now. So that's where my character Françoise comes in.

EDGE: Reading the characters' dialogue (and appreciating the roles they reflect in traditional stories) I started to wonder whether gender equality - or equality of any sort - is actually an area in which we have made true (and non-illusory/non-temporary) progress. What's your view of this?

Liz Duffy Adams: Oh man, that is the question. I mean, to a huge extent, yes. Women can legally own property, take out loans, control our own money; we can vote; we can get advanced degrees and jobs; we can sue for divorce. Rape is a crime, even within marriage (a shockingly recent development—marital rape was legal in some states as recently as the 1990s). The characters in my play had none of these rights. But as we know, when a self-declared sexual predator can reach the highest position in our country, and women still must fight to be believed, to be heard, to have a fraction of the respect and bodily autonomy that men are automatically allowed, we must see the fight isn't over.

EDGE: Is gender inequality truly, as men like to argue, biological in some way? so far, that is, as men have a tendency to dominate women, and each other, and celebrate this trait as proof and validation of masculinity?

Liz Duffy Adams: I don't think so. I think the whole point of civilization is for people to become better — men and women both — less impulsively violent and selfish, more enlightened and empathic. I don't quite understand the attraction to atavistic terror on the interpersonal level. It is something to evolve out of, not glorify! (Or it's a sex thing, which between consenting adults is of course perfectly all right!)

EDGE: This play is, in addition to a deft reworking of fairy tales and an examination of social questions like gender inequality, a comedy. Was this, for you, a matter of sugar coating the subject matter? Or perhaps pursuing your argument as a reductio ad absurdum?

Liz Duffy Adams: Well, on the one hand, it's a matter of what comes naturally; I have a sense of humor, and I don't resist that. I find life in equal parts terrible and hilarious, and I love plays that play with that balance. I began in theater by studying Shakespeare and of course there is great funniness in his darkest plays and vice versa.

I also like a theatrical dynamic I call "funny funny WHAM," by which you lure the audience into a receptive state. :)

EDGE: Without spoiling anything... was that a "Thelma and Louise" reference at one key point in the play?

Liz Duffy Adams: Ha! Well, I loved "Thelma and Louise," but I think the moment you're referring to will end better for my characters than it did for them.

"The Salonnières" continues through Nov. 11 at the Greater Boston Stage Company. For tickets and more information, please go to

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.