Men telling women what women want in defiance of their own expressed wishes is a long tradition, eerily echoed in a recent (2003) controversy over whether to dig up and relocate to Paris the remains of novelist and playwright George Sand, who died in 1876 and was buried in the family cemetery behind her house in a village of less than a thousand people in rural France. “Laissez verdure” – “Leave me among the vegetables” – were reportedly her last words.
Rebecca Maxfield, director of Sand’s Gabriel and artistic director at Head Trick Theater, chose an all-female and non-binary gendered cast for this 1839 play about a female child of nobility secretly raised as a boy and educated in isolation to despise everything female. This unusual scenario happens at the orders of Gabriel’s grandfather, so that the child may inherit the principality through primogeniture restricted to the male line. As Gabriel approaches the age of majority, the grandfather whom she/he has never met before reveals the truth: Born with a female body, the child has been “made” male through education and training, and therefore will think like a man, act like a man, and champion manly values.
Born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, George Sand’s own ancestry is illustrative: Her grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a marshal of France, himself the illegitimate son of a king of Poland and therefore cousin to the French monarchs; Sand’s husband was the illegitimate son of a French baron. As a result, Sand was regarded socially as a baroness without actually being one, sometimes treated with the courtesy of nobility and other times denied it. In her mid-20s, she separated from her husband, taking the children with her, and began a series of romantic relationships with other men, mostly artists and musicians, while writing dozens of novels and plays.
Remembered today mostly for the eccentricity of taking a male pseudonym, dressing in men’s clothing, smoking cigars, and openly becoming involved with enough male lovers that contemporaneous writer Charles Baudelaire called her a “slut,” she was in her own time famous for her novels and plays that were both widely admired and commercially successful. Translators E. H. and A. M. Blackmore and Francine Giguère in their introduction to Five Comedies by George Sand wrote, “She acted in her own plays and other people’s. She directed actors at every possible level of the profession, from Sarah Bernhardt to the enthusiastic but utterly incompetent amateur. She designed sets and made costumes. She was familiar with the practicalities of stage lighting and scene changes. She collaborated. She adapted. She improvised and experimented. Surely no other novelist in history was so thoroughly steeped in the theatrical profession, or made such a success of it.”
Gabriel is one of Sand’s earliest plays, written less than two years into what would become her 10-year relationship with Polish expatriate composer Frédéric Chopin. Sand wore the pants in the family both literally and metaphorically: Chopin was six years her junior, and his lifelong, chronic, declining poor health (generally ascribed to either tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis) made her his caretaker until they finally separated two years before his death at age 39. Gabriel was originally published in serial form as a “play for reading” – that is, not intended to be performed – and this makes it a challenge to adapt for the stage, although Head Trick wisely cut it down to a reasonably-paced and manageable two and a half hours. Trying to get the play produced in 1850, Sand renamed it (and the title character) Julia and revised it into a more conventional and less subversive version that is ignored and almost totally forgotten today. As far as I know, Gabriel was not even translated into English until 1992 (by Gay Manifold, who is primarily responsible for bringing modern attention to the dramatic works of Sand).
We meet “Gabriel” (Christine Pavao) being tutored in isolation by “Abbé Chiavari” (Amy Thompson) at the orders of “Prince Jules” (Sandra Laub). (Sand’s first, extramarital affair was with writer Jules Sandeau, and together they produced her first published work under the joint pseudonym “Jules Sand,” her first assumption of a male identity and the basis for her later use of the pseudonym “George Sand.” There is, therefore, a parallel between the real-life Jules and the character Jules in Gabriel, both of whom change a female into a male.)
Because of his isolation, Gabriel has never met a woman and knows only what her/his teachers have said, which is that women are weak creatures to be despised. Upon learning the truth about herself/himself, she/he has no choice but to go along with the ruse, threatened by her/his grandfather with incarceration in a cloistered convent.
Motivated by responsibility and guilt, Gabriel seeks out “Astolphe” (Kelly Robertson), her/his cousin and the rightful male heir of the body to their grandfather’s titles and fortune under the laws of primogeniture. Astolphe is a nobleman without portfolio, occupying his time drinking, gambling, and carousing, especially with prostitute “Faustina” (Destinee Mangum). Accompanied by faithful valet “Marc” (Sissy O’Hara), Gabriel finds Astolphe in a tavern and rescues him from bandits. Gabriel, having been well trained as an expert swordsman, kills one of the bandits and lets another bandit escape after he begs for his life at the point of Gabriel’s sword. Astolphe, believing Gabriel a man, agrees to travel together as friends and “brothers.”
Astolphe and Gabriel grow increasingly close, especially as Astolphe keeps noticing Gabriel’s feminine features, although Astolphe repeatedly catches himself falling in love and has to remind himself that Gabriel is a man. A chance occurrence after a masked ball results in Astolphe discovering that Gabriel was really born a woman: She assumes a new identity “Gabrielle” and the couple live together with Astolphe’s mother “Settimia” (Sarah Sinclar) and Settimia’s confessor “Brother Como” (Rebecca Tung), keeping secret Gabrielle’s prior life as Gabriel. Although no longer disguising herself as a man, Gabrielle continues to act like one, refusing to surrender the privileges of male life, such as riding horses in a most unladylike manner. While the unconventionality of Gabrielle thrills Astolphe, it leads to conflict with Settimia and Brother Como.
She/he lives some months at a time as Gabrielle with Astolphe and other months as Gabriel the heir presumptive. This drives Astolphe mad with jealousy because, unlike most women of the age, his lover is free to leave him and do as she pleases. A nobleman “Antonio” (Ashley Macamaux) suspects the truth, but his attempts to confirm his suspicions do not work out as he intends. The cast also includes “Sancho/Menrique” (Nina Carbone) and “Giglio” (Morgan Potter). The performances of Destinee Mangum as Faustimia and Sarah Sinclar as Settimia, two female characters in the play, and of Sissy O’Hara as Marc and Ashley Macamaux as Antonio, two thoroughly male characters, are particularly strong.
The play stands or falls almost entirely on the interactions of Gabriel/Gabrielle and Astolphe. Pavao as Gabriel/Gabrielle must play not only a man, but a woman playing a man and eventually a woman playing a man playing a woman: That’s a huge challenge for an actor, and Pavao does a superb job with the role. Robertson as Astolphe gave a masterful perfomance in a definitively male role: the character is defined by his masculinity and his assumption of male dominance over women. The play is meta-theatrical in the sense that the characters are themselves playing artificial roles within the play, roles assigned them by society.
The opening night performance was followed by an hour-long talk-back session featuring the director, the entire cast, and special guests Rex LeBeau from TGI Network of RI and Diane Crosby from the Women’s Fund of RI. It was one of the best talk-back sessions I’ve seen. (Maxfield plans to post a video recording of it on the Head Trick Facebook page.)
Robertson confessed during the talk-back to being personally unnerved by playing a character whose male conduct would be fairly described as abusive, seeking power and leverage in a romantic relationship going bad: “Wow, guys feel this, they give you shit and they like it, it’s so messed up. Feeling that is really alarming.” That observation sums up what is best about Head Trick’s Gabriel. It is undeniably thought-provoking to see a female actor portraying an entitled male prick motivated by his own insecurity, especially as well as Robertson does it. That is also a tribute to Maxfield’s decision to cast solely female and non-binary actors in all roles.
Gabriel, as performed by Head Trick Theatre, was a very different play than I expected – by no means an obscure historical curiosity from nearly 200 years ago, but invested by an innovative director and uniformly excellent cast with surprisingly modern relevance to gender identity questions that today’s society has only recently started to ask publicly. Head Trick breathes genuine life into Gabriel, a work that was way ahead of its time in understanding the subtleties of what makes men men and makes women women – if anything at all does.
Gabriel, written by George Sand, translated from French by Gay Manifold (Smith), directed by Rebecca Maxfield, performed by Head Trick Theatre at AS220 Black Box, 95 Empire St, PVD. About 2h30m including one intermission. Refreshments available. Handicap accessible. Thu (12/14), Fri (12/8, 12/15), Sat (12/9, 12/16) 7pm, Sun (12/10, 12/17) 2pm. Talk-back after every performance. Facebook: facebook.com/events/145415859421783 Tickets: headtrickgabriel.brownpapertickets.com
Note: Although such concepts were alien to the early 1800s when George Sand lived, we would say today that she consistently identified as a cis-gender woman and consistently used feminine pronouns for self-description in French, a highly gender-specific language, and this article follows that practice.