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“Entre Deux Transatlantiques”: American Religion and the French Family at the Comédie-Française (1890)

LeeAnn Broderick, Carter Charles et Corry Cropper


Considéré en 1865 comme une expérience religieuse et sociale « américaine » menée « à notre profit », selon Hippolyte Taine, le mormonisme est souvent mentionné en France au cours de la seconde moitié du xixe siècle. Bien qu’il soit difficile de dire si Taine l’envisageait ainsi, cette religion est mise à profit même dans les débats qui traversent la société française sur des questions sociales de premier plan. Prenant appui sur une approche relevant des cultural studies, nous montrons dans cette étude que Philippe Gille, critique littéraire et dramaturge, mobilise le mormonisme dans la pièce Camille pour explorer des questions de genre, d’identité sexuelle et de mariage en lien avec les normes sociales établies par l’état civil sous la Troisième République. Représentée pour la première fois en 1890 à la Comédie-Française, la pièce de Gille met en scène la rencontre transatlantique des valeurs et des cultures franco-américaines pour délocaliser puis interroger la capacité de l’État à réguler le mariage et les relations familiales.

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  • 1 “Mormons” and “Mormonism” were nicknames for adherents and the religious movement officially known (...)

1Mormonism, a religious utopia that sprang out of the soil of Second-Great-Awakening America, became a shorthand in fin-de-siècle France to talk about the evolving relationship between church, state, and the family.1 The French stage was a main venue for such conversations because since at least Molière, the theater served as an ideal public venue to both lay bare and explore sociopolitical issues (Kroen; Pedersen 1; Glaumaud-Carbonnier 263-264). It is against the backdrop of this encounter between art and the politics of the family that we examine Philippe Gille’s one-act play, Camille (1890). Relying on a cultural studies approach, we argue that throughout the play Gille uses a transatlantic lens to engage in conversations about family relationships, using Mormonism to both evoke social problems in France and to indirectly question the state’s ability to regulate family relationships in the French Third Republic. More than a geographic distance, Gille’s transatlanticism is conceived as an encounter followed by cross-pollination of cultures and identities that allows his characters to escape France’s strict administrative norms in the areas of gender and marriage. Because of the significance of transatlanticism in the play, we begin by providing a few elements of context before discussing the play, the issues it addresses, and Gille’s possible reasons to present those issues through the prism of an American religion.

The Shared Transatlantic Historical Context Leading to Gille’s Camille

  • 2 See also: Cropper and Flood; Lee.
  • 3 A French version of Marianne Meets the Mormons is forthcoming, most likely 2024, with Sorbonne Univ (...)

2In his acclaimed De la religion en Amérique, Denis Lacorne reminds his readers that since Voltaire, a French fascination for the United States—the other revolutionary nation across the Atlantic—has always brought in its wake a special interest in religion: “à la recherche de grandes utopies transformatrices […] d’autres philosophes […] traverseront plus tard l’Atlantique” (2007 17). While “French historical scholarship has tended to veer south and east,” as noted by Tony Judt’s foreword to the English edition of Lacorne’s book (2011 ix), the western religious landscape of the United States was far from being neglected by the French. Recent works, most notably by the authors of Marianne Meets the Mormons (Belnap et al),2 show that throughout the nineteenth century, French scholars, journalists, playwrights, and illustrators—such as Olympe Audouard, Jules Verne, Alfred Naquet, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Pierre Benoît—took special interest in the American West, especially in the movement called “Mormonism,” a peculiar, if not unique utopia.3 In America in the French Imaginary, Hallman and Leal observe that French intellectuals became “increasingly enthralled” by “the young nation’s political experiments, vast landscapes, and diverse culture,” while also delighting in the well-worn French “tropes of anti-American backwardness, savagery […] uncouth frontiersmen, [and] uncultured businessmen” (2). Specific interest in the Mormons was fostered by the fact that Utah, in which they began to settle in 1847, became a sort of way-station for travelers en route to and from Gold-rush California in the 1850s. This position was strengthened on May 10, 1869, when the “Golden Spike” connected the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, a little over sixty miles to the northwest of present-day Salt Lake City (Homer).

  • 4 For a comprehensive review of the twentieth-century scholarship on this religion in France, see Cha (...)
  • 5 Prominent among the “ideologues, prophets, and seers” of the Parisian religious “manufacture,” Bert (...)
  • 6 Mormon polygamy, one of such experiments made official in 1852, seemed to have alarmed French autho (...)

3Several French scholars have also researched and written about this American religion in the past decade or so (Rigal-Cellard; Gillette; Charles; Euvrard),4 introducing, among other aspects, the movement’s transatlantic expansion, even into France in the second half of the nineteenth century at a time of renewed enthusiasm for alternatives to traditional Christianity. Louis Auguste Bertrand, a French convert who settled and died in Utah, and rightly nicknamed “utopiste impénitent” (Zuber 12), recalled that at the time of his conversion to Mormonism in December 1850, Paris was “la grande manufacture des utopies contemporaines” (Bertrand 241). Put simply, the Parisian religious landscape of his time was similar to that of the Eastern United States.5 Paradoxically, as France was going through its own revolutions and experiments with religious and political utopian movements, the arrival of Mormonism led French social theorists like Hippolyte Taine, Jules Rémy, and Alfred Maury to study Manifest-Destiny-fueled groups in their westward migration, writing specifically about the social and economic experiments implemented by Mormon leader Brigham Young (1801-1877): various forms of socialism, women’s suffrage, polygamy, and divorce, to name a few.6 By 1890, references to Mormonism in France reached their nineteenth-century high-water mark in the French press, as illustrated in Figure 1. This 1890 peak corresponds to the church’s official renunciation of polygamy and the performance and coverage of two French plays dealing with Mormonism: Les Douze femmes de Japhet, at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, and Camille—the focus of this paper—at the Comédie-Française.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Frequency of the word “Mormon” in the French press by year (Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France). The peaks correspond to different landmarks in the reception of Mormonism in France, its tumultuous history in the United States, and echoes of that history in France. More specifically, the spikes between 1870 and 1880 correspond first to the enactment by the U.S. Congress of the Poland Act (1874), which curtailed the power of Mormonism in Utah politics and empowered federal authorities to actively prosecute polygamists; and to the death of Brigham Young (1877).

The Play, the Plot, and the Problem

  • 7 Gille also collaborated frequently with one of France’s best Boulevard playwrights, Eugène Labiche.

4Philippe Gille is best known for his librettos to works by Georges Bizet, Jacques Offenbach, and Jules Massenet and for his election at the Académie des Beaux Arts in 1899. He was already an established name in the Parisian theatrical and literary world when Camille debuted at the Comédie-Française on March 12, 1890. In addition to Gille’s star power as a playwright, the celebrated Alexandre Honoré Ernest Coquelin, also known as “Coquelin cadet,” was cast in the lead role in the performance.7

5Camille engages with issues that were topical in 1890 France and that remain relevant today, namely: the role of the state in establishing gender identity, the function of religion in the state, and the definition of marriage. To explore these issues, Gille resorts to stereotypes and cultural tropes; and, most evidently, he sets French culture and politics against American characters who belong to Mormonism, perceived in the artistic and literary world of nineteenth-century France as “the authentic American religion,” even before Harold Bloom borrowed language from Tolstoy to identify it as such (Bloom 97).

6The play’s plot hinges on the love between French-born Camille Prélard and the American-born, Parisian-raised, Edith Murphy, daughter of a very wealthy and very violent miner from Utah. Sixteen years earlier, Murphy, wanting to focus on his wealth and his mines, had sent his daughter to France, “comme un colis,” as she laments (Gille, 1890 3), along with two other American Mormons, a “pasteur” named Pigatt and his wife, to bring Edith up in their religion (Gille, 1890 3). Edith having come of age, Murphy arrives in France to arrange and expedite her marriage.

  • 8 Some French theater goers would have been familiar with Albert Robida’s 1883 illustrated novel Le V (...)

7Of course, after so many years in the French capital, the American-born and Mormon-raised Edith has also become very French on certain issues: she finds discussions about business tedious and is frightened of firearms. Estranged from her biological father at such a young age, Edith struggles to connect with Murphy, upset that he should land “comme une bombe” in the midst of her otherwise peaceful life with the Pigatts (Gille, 1890 4). In fact, Edith fits the description of the new, fin-de-siècle Parisian woman, to borrow language from Marie Louise Roberts’ Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France (Roberts). As such, Edith “disrupts” the masculine world she lives in, questioning the patriarchy, the objectification of women, and the idea of arranged marriages. Edith further questions the sincerity of her father’s newfound interest in her: “Je ne m’explique guère cet accès de tendresse, entre deux transatlantiques,” she confesses (Gille, 1890 3); and she wonders aloud if this man, so foreign to her, actually has any right “pour me caser” (Gille, 1890 4). But although Edith leans French, the fact remains that she has come of age in the Mormon religion in which she was educated, which means singleness is not an option.8 And Pigatt, who officiated at the wedding of Edith’s parents, has seen to it that Camille Prélard, his favorite suitor, pays Edith regular visits. Love on such occasions is on full display: “Deux fois par semaine, à heure fixe, il vient me faire les yeux doux, rougit quand j’entre dans le salon, pâlit quand j’en sors…” Edith reports (Gille, 1890 4).

8While Edith’s suitor appears unmistakably in love, for some mysterious reason, Prélard remains reluctant to commit to marriage and blurts out truncated sentences like: “Ah !… Cette union est impossible !… je ne la veux pas !… et je ne dois pas… honnêtement…” (Gille, 1890 14). Like Cordelia (King Lear) who could not “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth,” Prélard wonders and exclaims in the same breath, “Est-ce que la bouche est maîtresse de ses paroles quand… […] Quand… impossible !” (Gille, 1890 28). Prélard later insists: “ce mariage, le rêve de ma vie, ne peut… ne peut s’accomplir !” Yet, he provides no immediate explanation as to why (Gille, 1890 33-34). In lieu of words, Prélard pales in Edith’s presence, trembles at the thought of her, and, waxing even more erotic, passionately—and oddly—licks a lemon that Edith previously bit.

9Exasperated and impatient to return to Utah to make money and surveil his employees, Murphy takes out his revolver and threatens to kill Prélard for his indecision. Only then is an explanation articulated: “Parce que…,” Prelard begins haltingly before brutally confessing: “… je ne peux pas être considéré comme un homme !” (Gille, 1890 36). Indeed, when Prélard was born, in the turmoil of June 24, 1859, the date of the French military victory in Solferino, an indifferent and distracted functionary took his cue from Prélard’s gender-neutral first name Camille and indicated on the birth certificate that Prélard was of the feminine sex. Legally then, Prélard is a woman and therefore cannot wed Edith, another woman.

  • 9 In Rabelais’s Gargantua (1534), the Abbey of Thélème’s only rule is “Fay ce que voudras.”

10Later in the play, Edith posits that a rigid French bureaucratic system that forces feminity on young men (“forcer les garçons à devenir des filles”) should be counterbalanced by a flexible all-American legal system that allows the opposite, to wit: “autorise[r] les jeunes filles à devenir des garçons” (Gille, 1890 43). Standing in for America, Mormonism, the archetypical religion of the new world, comes to the rescue of the unhappy couple through Pigatt. He is a “pasteur de la vingt-septième variété des Mormons” whose creed is: “Toutes les fois qu’un Mormon […] éprouvera quelque difficulté dans la vie, et que nul texte ne lui viendra en aide pour la réalisation ses projets, ce mormon pourra ajouter lui-même le verset qui lui semblera nécessaire” (Gille, 1890 2-3). The short version of Pigatt’s creed, “ne faire que ce qui plaît” (Gille, 1890 2), is reminiscent of François Rabelais’s “fay ce que vouldras.”9 Although Gille’s varieties of Mormonism are fictional, they echo the Latter-day Saint belief in continuing revelation canonized in one of their religion’s thirteen “Articles of Faith.” Penned in 1842 by founder Joseph Smith, the article reads: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Smith 709-710). In Pigatt’s estimation, one can indiscriminately add verses to the canon if the new revelation will help overcome difficulties, theological or otherwise. Pigatt insists, citing to that effect the fourteenth verse of his twenty-seventh variety Mormonism: “Tous ceux qui appartiennent à notre secte, ont le droit, dans les circonstances solennelles d’où dépendent le bonheur de la vie, de renoncer à tout, à leur nationalité, à leur religion, à leur famille, à leur nom” (Gille, 1890 43-44).

11The ever-proliferating varieties of Mormonism in the play are a nod to American theological inventiveness, flexibility, and even excess. In fact, as early as 1858, a satirical Parisian almanac used Mormonism as the embodiment of American religious exuberance, predicting, not without humor, the following: “Mars est le mois expiatoire / Des péchés du carnaval […]. Ce mois sera marqué par des événements de la plus grande importance. Il sera favorable aux spiritistes, aux médiums, aux magnétiseurs. Les tables, les chaises, les fauteuils se livreront à des sarabandes désordonnées, et prédiront toutes sortes de choses épouvantables. L’Amérique verra naître vingt-deux religions nouvelles. Entrée triomphale du chef des mormons dans Mormonopolis” (“Prédictions” 89-90, italics in original). Evidence of such connections between America and religious experimentation continued beyond the nineteenth century. Writing in 1918, French sociologist Jean Finot, for instance, saw America as: “le pays où la graine du propagandisme lève mieux et plus vite, où quelque idée qu’on jette au vent rencontre plus sûrement une terre fertile […], le sol propice à la création des religions nouvelles” (173). Finot goes on to classify Mormonism among “les plantes les plus pittoresques” to have blossomed in America, one that deserves chapter-length treatment in his book (ix; 171-196).

  • 10 Despite being at odds with the rest of the United States and the western world on marriage, Latter- (...)

12Because of the creed of his twenty-seventh variety Mormonism, Pigatt considers that in order to pursue a happy life, Edith has an implied God-given right to renounce her biological sex and declare herself a man if that allows her to happily marry Prélard, who, for his part, cannot change genders because of a French bureaucratic mistake. In fact, by Pigatt’s prophetic decree, Edith does become “le fils de M. Murphy” (Gille, 1890 44). While Murphy believes in new prophetic revelations as an adherent of Mormonism, he is at first adamantly opposed to this unprecedented gender-switching revelation: “Par exemple ! Mais on se moque de moi ici !” he exclaims with anger.10 But Murphy is still pressed for time; he needs to return promptly to his all-important money-making mines. So he agrees to expedite the process, although he remains surprised at the wonders this version of his religion can accomplish: “Comment, ma fille serait mon fils, elle épouserait un homme qui deviendrait ma bru !” (Gille, 1890 44). Murphy stammers in amazement: “Elle : monsieur !… Lui : mademoiselle !… Quel fouillis !…” (Gille, 1890 45). Gaston, Prélard’s friend, has the last line of the play: “Ne vous inquiétez pas ; l’amour aura bien vite débrouillé tout cela !” (Gille, 1890 45).

Reception of the Play

13According to the performance roster of the Comédie-Française, Gille’s Camille was performed nineteen times in 1890 and twenty-four other times between 1891 and 1897 (Joannidès 47; Carruthers 356). It was “not a great success,” as the only scholar who seemed to have considered the play puts it (Carruthers 348). Nor was it a failure either, since it did not suffer the same fate as certain plays between 1620 and 1920, as Joannidès reports: “Quinze pièces n’ont jamais été jouées entièrement, car, à leur première et unique représentation, le public fit baisser le rideau avant la fin du spectacle” (Joannidès ii). In fact, most reviews of Camille were positive. Among the few negative ones, the reviewer for Le Temps was blunt in his appreciation: “Je n’ai pas trop aimé, pour mon compte, le petit acte de M. Philippe Gille” (Sargey 1). But he is also the one reviewer who reports on the reception of the play by Comédie-Française administrators: “à la lecture devant le comité les sociétaires, qui l’écoutaient, se sont tordus de rire et qu’ils l’ont reçue d’acclamation.” He goes on to conclude that Camille’s relative success with the public “semble leur avoir donné raison” (Sargey 2).

14More positively, Le Gaulois of March 11, 1890 reports good pre-performance buzz hinting at a play “pétri d’esprit et de gaieté” in which “[l]es situations amusantes abondent, ainsi que des détails empreints d’un parisianisme charmant et d’une originalité exquise” (Nicole 3). Post-performance reviews in the same paper confirm a “[s]pectacle gai, extraordinairement parisien” particularly suited for “les gens du monde, peintres amateurs et personnes de distinction” (Pessard 3). An article in Les Annales du théâtre details the play’s plot then adds that the audience “a ri, et applaudi […] Coquelin cadet, proclamant le nom de Philippe Gille” (Noël and Stoullig 46). The weekly L’Univers illustré calls Camille “une spirituelle et délicieuse comédie fantaisiste,” and “[l]e grand succès de la soirée,” adding that it will likely earn “la place due à un joyau si artistement ciselé” in the Comédie-Française repertoire (Damon 180; 182). Le Journal amusant even featured a large illustration of the play, depicting Coquelin cadet as Camille ladling punch from a bowl held by Marie-Rose-Eugénie Müller in the role of Edith (see figure 2). Behind them one can see Murphy holding what appears to be a revolver, Camille’s friend Gaston, and the Mormon pastor Pigatt, whose high collar, long hair, and flowing beard code him as a religious patriarch.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Michelet, “Camille par Philippe Gille,” Le Journal amusant, March 29, 1890 (Source / BnF)

15Most of the ink spilled over this play focused on the venue. Writing for L’Écho de Paris, Bicoquet describes it as a vaudeville “qui ne serait point déplacé en lever de rideau au théâtre du Palais-Royal,” known for its comic farces (3). In another review of the play, Charles Gilbert-Martin likewise laments:“M. Philippe Gille, qui est un homme de beaucoup d’esprit, [lui] semble s’être fourvoyé complètement, non pas en écrivant Camille, mais en portant ce badinage à la Comédie-Française” (2). Hugues Le Roux worries in La Revue politique et littéraire that patrons, who profess “un respect presque religieux” for the French national theater “vont peut-être crier au scandale et nous dire que cette fantaisie, pour spirituelle et divertissante qu’elle soit, eût été mieux placée aux Variétés ou au Vaudeville” (342). Writing about the play in La Patrie, Anatole Claveau also stresses that Camille did not belong at the Comédie-Française, maintaining that it should have been staged at either the Variétés or the Renaissance (342). He adds, however:

La Comédie[-Française] est une grave personne qui vous intimide. Avec elle, on n’ose pas, ou l’on n’ose qu’à demi ; on s’arrête à moitié route. […] Cela est sensible dans Camille. La pièce en garde une allure indécise dont on voit immédiatement la cause, et il a fallu à Philippe Gille une adresse extraordinaire pour nous amuser pendant une grande heure comme il l’a fait avec une pièce qui est un peu androgyne elle-même comme son héros. J’applaudis des deux mains à ce tour de force. Je ne l’aurais pas cru possible. (Claveau 342; emphasis added)

  • 11 For Robert Nye, the “crisis of masculinity” in fin-de-siècle France was “provoked by the challenge (...)

16For Claveau, the venue combined with Prélard’s gender indeterminacy points to the “androgyny” of the entire play. Indeed, Camille straddles genres, genders, countries, national identities, and forms of government separated by the Atlantic Ocean that end up converging in Paris. Hence, the Atlantic Ocean symbolizes cultural and societal divides that seem both insurmountable (Camille’s administrative gender) but that are yet crossable. Indeed, just like the American protagonists who travel across the Atlantic to settle in Paris, Gille’s version of an American religion eventually facilitates marriage, in Paris, between the American Edith and the French Camille. The transatlantic encounter at the heart of the play both reinforces and undermines clichéd French perceptions of Americans, highlights contemporary criticisms of French bureaucracy, hints at a role for religion in an increasingly secular state, and provides a window into the crisis of masculinity, questions about marriage, and the role of women in late nineteenth-century France.11 In other words, the play’s transatlanticism creates a situation of boundary-blurring and boundary-crossing that permeates the entire play. As mentioned earlier, this boundary-crossing theme is captured even in the gender-neutral first name of the protagonist.

Gender, Religion, and the State

17Two years before Camille’s premiere, we find Gille extolling the religious dimension of Emile Zola’s novel Le Rêve on the front page of Le Figaro. Gille praises Zola’s narrative for inviting readers to look heavenward and presenting them with:l’immatériel et le mystique […] une idylle quasi-biblique […] dont les pages semblent comme éclairées de lueurs de cierges et parfumées de l’encens des autels.” These religious characteristics, Gille argues, mark Zola’s Le Rêve as unique in his largely anticlerical work: un de ces livres aujourd’hui trop rares, dont on peut dire que ce sont des œuvres dignes d’être mises dans toutes les mains” (Gille, 1888).

18Gille’s nostalgia and longing for religion in a country dominated more and more by anticlericalism and secularism prove key to understanding the sociopolitical issues at play in Camille. Gille takes his audience back about a century in time with the play, to 1792 to be precise, when the French state asserted its right over the prénom and introduced the notion of état civil (Coulmont, 2022 8). This decision removed the historical Catholic Church from the construction of individual and collective identities from cradle to grave, as the state no longer acknowledged the Church’s christenings or marriages. While this move was well intentioned and inclusive for non-Christian and non-religious people, it also introduced new problems. Where ecclesiastical leaders and Church recorders had centuries of experience and took charge of birth, death, and marriage procedures as part of their vocations, the state had functionaries who were paid not only to work but also to vacation. By 1890, paid holidays for civil servants, introduced in November 1853, had become an established part of the bureaucratic culture. Prélard meticulously details the administrative nightmare in the play, hinting at its broader implications for French citizens:

[…] mon père commença les démarches nécessaires pour faire rectifier sur les actes de l’état civil une aussi désastreuse erreur ! Mais les vacances de la magistrature allaient arriver. Vous savez que la justice vit surtout de congés. L’examen de la réclamation paternelle fut remis. On arriva aux vacances de Pâques, de la Pentecôte, aux grandes vacances, suivies aussi d’autres vacances de Pâques qui, à leur tour… Tant et si bien que les années s’écoulèrent et que mon père, lassé, abandonna [et]… se fit naturaliser Suisse avec moi… “Je ne veux plus des tribunaux français !” s’écria-t-il… (Gille, 1890 39)

19The two Prélards move out of the country and change their citizenship in hopes of fixing abroad what could not be fixed in France, but to no avail. Camille informs Murphy: “Je ne suis pas Suisse, monsieur… je suis… Suissesse” (Gille, 1890 40). One contemporary reviewer noted: “ce changement de nationalité n’a point suffi à transmuter légalement le petit Camille en jeune garçon” (Pessard; emphasis added). Another reviewer underscored that two generations of Prélards could not get the state to do this one thing: “restituer [à Camille] son sexe veritable” (Blasius 2).

20While Gille could be accused of hyperbole, it is worth noting that such état civil and gender issues were not entirely uncommon. In an article in the newspaper L’Intransigeant, Frivolet explains: “Camille roule sur un sujet décidément à la mode chez les auteurs d’aujourd’hui : une erreur d’état civil. Et quelle erreur : inscrire sur le registre une fille pour un garçon !” But, he adds, this état civil problem was not just fiction:

C’est une histoire véridique qui a fourni à M. Philippe Gille la donnée de son acte. Seulement, la victime de cette inqualifiable erreur était une femme, la célèbre comédienne Amédine Luther ; elle avait été inscrite sur les registres de l’état civil sous le nom d’Amédée. Lorsqu’elle se présenta à la mairie pour se marier avec Raphaël Félix […] le maire refusa de procéder à l’union, disant, d’un air malin, qu’il ne pouvait prononcer le mariage entre deux individus du même sexe. Amédine Luther fut obligée de prouver qu’elle n’avait rien de masculine, et la cérémonie eut lieu un mois plus tard. (Frivolet 2)

21Several other sources, including an article in Vert-vert, corroborate that Camille’s plot was based on a true story and reflected a very legitimate “critique de l’administration et de la justice française” (Boyer). Since the secular state seemed unable to properly handle this crucial identity matter, one wonders if Gille, politically conservative and pro-Catholic, was suggesting that religion—albeit a new, more flexible variety than the Ancien Régime one—help manage some of life’s matters.

22The play’s transatlanticism further points to questions of transgenderism associated with the symbolic power of naming within the context of the French état civil. Sociologist Baptiste Coulmont writes that the raison d’être of the état civil is: “pour devenir ‘soi-même’,” “pour faire famille, pour sceller des alliances ou marquer des séparations” (Coulmont, 2013 90). In this light, Prélard’s administrative gender issue lays bare the idea that to truly belong in the collective we, there is a need to first become self, to separate from an administratively determined identity, and also from the type of immutable life trajectory that Anne Linton spells out in Unmaking Sex: The Gender Outlaws of Nineteenth-Century France. Of particular relevance to our discussion is her observation that,

[a]lmost from the moment of birth, having a gender was a social necessity in nineteenth-century France. French law gave doctors three days to record sex on the birth certificate, and from that moment forward, whether they listed “male” or “female” would determine what kind of education one could receive, what kinds of jobs one could have, how much one would be paid for them, and even whom one could marry. (18)

23Prélard’s ongoing état civil fiasco hints at several larger issues. First, that sexual/gender identity was a matter over which the state asserted exclusive rights, an identity that conditioned participation in civil society which was itself regulated by the state. Because of that interconnectedness and the state’s prerogatives, the state’s documentation—even with errors—remained more important than any individual’s claims or religious conviction. In other words, the secular state was entirely responsible for determining its citizens’ gender and, by extension, each individual’s role in society, their eligibility to attend school, to marry, etc. Second, Prélard’s story reveals that after the state sidelined the Church and took exclusive charge of record-keeping and identity matters in France, they were often handled by careless or anxious bureaucrats, or worse, by constantly vacationing functionaries. Prélard is a woman because of an administrative error and remains one because in nineteenth-century France, vacation time is more sacred and vital than the happiness of citizens; or, as Prélard observes, “la Justice vit surtout de congés” (Gille, 1890 39).

24Gille’s Camille evolved from a story entitled “Camille Prélard” he published in Le Figaro illustré in 1886. Significantly, the cover of that issue features an illustration by Émile Bayard of a woman dressed in pants and depicted as a matador, the most masculine of professions (see figure 3). Other women had been depicted as bullfighters, of course. But consider Gustave Doré’s illustration of the Andalusian bullfighter Teresa Bolsi: though her role may be transgressive, she remains appropriately attired, wearing a dress even in the ring (see figure 4). In Bayard’s cover illustration for Le Figaro illustré, transgressive dress (softened a bit by the presence of the guitar on the model’s back) points to the theme of Gille’s novella, namely transgressive gender roles.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Émile Bayard, Le Figaro illustré, December 1, 1886 (private collection)

Figure 4

Figure 4

Gustave Doré, “Teresa Bolsi,” 1874 (Source / BnF)

25Gille’s 1886 original short story already had the boundary-blurring and transatlantic themes that would form the basis of his 1890 play, and Mormonism, the western American utopia, is directly conflated with Saint-Simonianism, the utopian movement that advocated abandoning conventional marriage in favor of free unions. More specifically, Gille introduces Mormons in his 1886 novella writing: “il en est maintenant de quelques-uns de ces mormons, sous-mormons et de leurs variétés et sous-variétés, comme de nos Saint-Simoniens d’autrefois” (Gille, 1886 17). As Saint-Simonians saw it in the 1830s, the conventional family structure was so corrupted by bourgeois values that only a femme-messie bringing a “new revelation” could remedy the situation (Duveyrier 46). In the meantime, the order of the day would be: “l’alliance libre et volontaire de l’homme et de la femme supérieurs […] qui se donneraient à plusieurs sans jamais cesser d’être l’un à l’autre […] élargissant tous les jours davantage le cercle sacré de leur communion” (Duveyrier 46). By the 1880s, although Saint-Simonianism had lost its utopian impulse, some of the movement’s ideas had been adopted by respected politicians, economists, and authors. Gille imagines Mormonism in a similar way: the excesses of early believers have mellowed, and now urbane practitioners fit in as easily “à l’Opéra, à Hyde-Park, au Prater, que les représentants des vieilles aristocraties,” to which Prélard belongs, being heir to a “fortune […] considérable” (Gille, 1886 17-18).

26Anticipating Church of the Latter-day Saints’ president Wilford Woodruff’s September 25, 1890, Manifesto that ended solemnization of plural marriages, polygamy is conspicuously absent in Gille’s Mormonism: Murphy and the pastor Pigatt do not appear to have more than one wife each, and these wives exist only as references in the play. And while there never was a position of “pastor” in the Mormon ecclesiastical structure, Gille uses the word to signal the new religion’s difference and inventiveness in grappling with contemporary issues. The specter of polygamy—by 1886 long associated with Mormonism in France—evokes the flexibility that opposes Mormonism to the rigid French bureaucratic state, while also calling to mind France’s own utopian experiments, most notably Saint-Simonianism with its culture of common property. What is more, the very mention of Mormonism in 1886 and 1890 France reminds readers and spectators of the contingent nature of marriage and the family. Some state intervention may be necessary to uphold the traditional marriage structure in the face of utopian movements, but too much state or other forms of institutional intervention could prove detrimental and, as is the case for Camille, prevent a legitimate union that would produce more French offspring. Given the fears of depopulation in 1890 France, even occasional bureaucratic mistakes could, on a large scale, be cause for national concern (Accampo 9).

  • 12 Gille retains this aspect in the 1890 play with the stage direction “Édith, récitant,” followed by (...)
  • 13 The Utah gun making company Browning Firearms was started in Nauvoo, Illinois’ Mormon settlement, b (...)
  • 14 A “browning” in the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales online dictionary refers (...)

27The illustrations by Eugène Courboin that accompany Gille’s story in Le Figaro illustré underscore the transatlantic encounter between the western American religion and France by demonstrating just how French the Mormons have become (see figures 5 and 6). Edith adheres to her Mormon beliefs to the point that she can recite them to Pigatt unwaveringly and without questions.12 But she also displays her French identity: she is dressed in the latest Parisian styles and sits with other fashionable Parisiennes dining with Pigatt. Murphy, too, inhabits a transatlantic, Franco-American space both in the 1886 novella and in the play. In Courboin’s illustration, Murphy bears a striking resemblance to Brigham Young (see figure 7), but his dress, his demeanor, and his cigar imply that he is perfectly at home in Pigatt’s Parisian salon. It is worth noting that when Gille transitions his characters from the page to the stage, Murphy’s western Americanness stands out as he criticizes France and its people in these terms: “Drôle de pays!... drôles de mœurs!... drôles de gens!” (Gille, 1890 25). Murphy also proves to be impulsive, craven, and of a quick-draw. This gun predilection is embedded in both his American and Mormon identities: because of persecutions beginning in 1833 in Missouri, Mormons embraced the larger American gun culture and eventually shaped it with Jonathan Moses Browning, who started his gun company in Mormon-controlled Nauvoo before moving it to Utah.13 In fact, Gille’s repeated references to Murphy’s pistol hints at the eventual sedimentation of the Browning name in the French language by 1907.14

Figure 5

Figure 5

Eugène Courboin, “Camille Prélard,” 1886 (private collection)

Figure 6

Figure 6

Eugène Courboin, “Camille Prélard,” 1886 (private collection)

Figure 7

Figure 7

Charles R. Savage, “Brigham Young Bust Portrait,” ca. 1875-1877 (Courtesy, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602).

28Gille’s 1886 novella “Camille Prélard” also includes an explanation of Edith’s religiously-sanctioned gender change that is largely omitted from the stage version. In this original Figaro illustré version, Pigatt clearly spells out how Mormonism serves as a foil to the state and its stultifying bureaucracy. He tells Murphy:

Mon vieil ami, à quoi nous servirait d’avoir reconnu l’insuffisance de toutes les civilisations, de toutes les législations, si ce n’est à briser à notre profit les liens qui les entravent ? A quoi nous servirait d’avoir si justement déclaré inutiles les paperasseries, les formalités ridicules, les démarches humiliantes qui usent le plus précieux du temps de la vie, si ce n’est à en débarrasser la nôtre [?] Comment, vous êtes un homme des nouvelles idées et vous vous conduisez comme ferait ce véritable type de l’Européen qu’on appelle M. Prudhomme ! Allons, Murphy[,] rappelez vos esprits, redevenez l’homme pratique, et ne laissez pas entrer dans votre cerveau ce parasite qui le rongerait infailliblement et qui s’appelle la routine ! Quoi qu’elle en dise, la France libre est plus esclave que les contrées régies par les plus féroces despotes. Ses gouvernements ne sont pour rien dans cette question ; elle les choisit, les fait et les défait comme Pénélope attendant Ulysse, sous les yeux de ses prétendants. Elle ne sait et ne veut qu’obéir. Vous n’avez pas plutôt réuni trois Français qu’ils se sont nommé un président ; celui-ci, instantanément ivre de pouvoir, les assomme du bruit de sa sonnette et des exigences de son autorité. Je sais bien qu’ils le renvoient tout de suite, mais c’est pour en nommer immédiatement un autre. Et c’est à ce pays que vous voudriez emprunter ses préjugés, ses habitudes du joug, pour renoncer à la liberté que veut votre instinct et que votre raison exige !… Allons, Murphy, ne laissez pas croire à ces messieurs que la variété dix-sept de la civilisation des mormons, la dernière éclose, celle qui vous a uni à votre défunte et qui a donné ses droits à votre fille, n’est qu’une plaisanterie ! (Gille, 1886 20)

29Pigatt here posits Mormonism—in this case the “seventeenth variety” of it—as superior to the French status quo. Where the French are devoted to a burdensome, self-serving hierarchy, nineteenth-century Mormons eschew it for a hierarchy that removes barriers to community, one that enables people who love each other to be together. Where the French are committed to bureaucratic procedures, seventeenth-variety Mormons can simply declare them unnecessary. Where the French are slaves to routine, Mormons are free-thinking and rational beings open to novel ideas. Where the French are bound by custom, Mormons, in the image of America, are free to continually reinvent themselves. Gille here clearly expresses a criticism of contemporary France: it has become an administrative state unable to meet the emotional (and perhaps the spiritual) needs of its citizens. Mormonism, as he envisions it, provides a way out of the bureaucratic cul-de-sac.

30In both the 1886 novella “Camille Prélard” and the 1890 play Camille, Mormonism, a foreign religion, restores order by upending the idea of “true sex” completely: if French bureaucrats can dub Camille a woman, seventeenth or twenty-seventh variety Mormons can change Edith’s gender to male to allow them to become a family. Gille hints at the fact that this ability to work around bureaucratic mistakes is something the majority of French people cannot do. Pigatt tells Murphy, after the latter cheated at cards, that in Paris, “il y a des cercles spéciaux pour cela” (Gille, 1890 12; emphasis added); but in Murphy’s country, workarounds are common. For Murphy and the Mormons, working around red tape is not a question of cheating; instead, bending rules becomes a practical tool when unnecessary, erroneous policies stand in the way of individual and collective happiness. In Camille, in a surprising twist, Mormonism makes traditional marriage possible by upending traditional gender roles imposed by administrative rigidity and sustained by the cultural preference for vacation over vocation. Religion can and is often dogmatic but as the play suggests, utopian religion sometimes has flexibility the state lacks. As Gille and other French people understood it, this American religion with a dynamic creed could adapt to the present moment and change rules to enable happiness. Gille thereby implies that, at least for religious conservatives like him, religion—not the modern secular state—is best placed to judge in matters of sex, sexuality, identity, family, and marriage.

31Religion’s power derives from its declarative authority. Sacred texts and new revelations, especially the ability to interpret them in contemporary contexts when tolerated, provide the narrative that helps people navigate ambiguity and find happiness in a confusing, constantly changing world. In Gille’s play, aside from love’s power “to sort things out,” it is a literary, artistic use of religion that cuts through the bureaucracy of gender, gender roles, and marriage to provide a way for Camille and Edith to find happiness. But why Mormons? The most obvious answer is that Mormons are not Catholics. The play’s gender neutral and evasive title Camille suggests that Gille wanted to tread carefully when bringing controversial sociopolitical issues to the stage. Mormonism could stand in as a generic religion without arousing knee-jerk pro-Catholic or anti-clerical reactions. When it came to larger sociopolitical issues, as Carruthers argues, Mormonism was strategically employed “obviously because a society so preoccupied with vagaries of sexual conduct was bound to be fascinated by the notion of more or less civilised white contemporaries openly and legally practicing polygamy” (347). Adherents of the faith would argue that polygamy was beyond sexuality as understood by outsiders, and certainly not about crossing gender boundaries. Still, because of this perceived similarity and fascination, Carruthers insists, “French audiences were prepared to believe anything about beings as exotic as Mormons,” a fact that “could be said of Americans in general as they were depicted in French comedy during these decades” (348).

  • 15 For further reading, we recommend and draw attention to Talbot’s aptly titled chapters “‘More the C (...)
  • 16 Tartuffe (1664) is of course this eponymous play in which Molière points to the hypocrisy of self-r (...)

32More often than not, the themes of Mormonism and sexuality naturally evoke polygamy, often associated with patriarchy and female subjugation. Such associations might lead to the conclusion that Gille’s Mormonism is merely an artistic, not an historical creation. While it is a fact, especially since the 1970s, that “in some ways Mormon feminism is an oxymoron” because women’s right in some areas did recede in Latter-day Saint religion and subculture (Givens 217), Carter Charles pointed in an essay on feminism and religious empowerment among Mormon women, that it is important to account for “the complexity of the Mormon past” (2014 49). Contrary to what is generally assumed, in the days of the foremothers of contemporary Latter-day Saint feminists, when it comes to female empowerment in the nineteenth century, “the church […] was much more inclusive, but those were also the days of polygamy […]. That polygamy ever existed in their history makes their Mormon past difficult to come to term with” (49). Beyond polygamy, however, in which Olympe Audouard and Alexandre Dumas found positive values for women (Belnap et al 90-91), the nineteenth-century Utah that inspired Gille was one where women’s rights were very advanced. Women in Utah gained suffrage in 1870, before being temporarily disenfranchised by none other than the US Congress: it could not see any other purpose in “the Legislature’s move” but “a political maneuver on the part of the Mormon male hierarchy to secure statehood for polygamous Utah” (Charles, 2014 49). As the historian Christine Talbot reports, “a writer for the Phrenological Journal articulated [in 1871] what most nineteenth-century Americans understood to be the paradox of Mormon woman’s suffrage”: “Utah is the land of marvels. She gives us, first polygamy, which seems to be an outrage against ‘woman’s rights,’ and then offers to the nation a ‘female suffrage bill.’ […] Was there ever a greater anomaly known in the history of a society?” (63).15 All of this explains why Mormonism was a boon to Gille: it proved useful because as a foreign, marginal, and supposedly retrograde religion, it gave French theater goers a Tartuffian, hypocritical sense of distance or estrangement from inherently local issues in which their country actually lagged behind.16

33Mormonism, moreover, was en vogue on Parisian stages in 1890. As mentioned in our introduction, in addition to Camille, the operetta Les Douze femmes de Japhet debuted at the Théâtre de la Renaissance the same year. It features a Frenchman who travels to Salt Lake City, marries twelve women, and then returns to Paris with them. The operetta features twelve marriages and as many divorces, capturing some of the anxiety surrounding the passage of the 1884 Naquet Law that legalized divorce in France. In a similar way, Camille uses Mormonism to reflect anxiety around gender and gender roles in 1890 France: girls now had access to free public education, women were able to organize politically, and the masculinity of Frenchmen was put into question in the wake of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Mormonism is, in Gille’s play, the ultimate embodiment of free-wheeling American individualism—anyone can be who they want in the pursuit of their own happiness. Unlike the bureaucratic French state, an American religious system is able to fulfill desires and is new enough to be eminently adaptable. Mormonism serves as a deus ex machina that saves characters from the hubris of French bureaucracy and provides a way to navigate the uncertainty of gender roles in Third-Republic France. Yet nothing in the play suggests that Gille wanted Mormonism to take over France. One may thus only hypothesize that he was envisioning adding the best of both transatlantic worlds to make an ideal one.

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1 “Mormons” and “Mormonism” were nicknames for adherents and the religious movement officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those nicknames derive from “The Book of Mormon,” one of the church’s sacred texts. In August 2018, Russell M. Nelson, then newly installed president of the church, invited both adherents and non-adherents of the church to refrain from using those nicknames and other shortcuts like “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church,” and so forth, in preference for the official name (Nelson). The authors of this article understand and respect this decision, especially as viewed in the larger context of individual and group self-identification. The continued use of the nicknames here is meant to reflect the nineteenth-century context in which they were used.

2 See also: Cropper and Flood; Lee.

3 A French version of Marianne Meets the Mormons is forthcoming, most likely 2024, with Sorbonne Université Presses.

4 For a comprehensive review of the twentieth-century scholarship on this religion in France, see Charles, 2018.

5 Prominent among the “ideologues, prophets, and seers” of the Parisian religious “manufacture,” Bertrand lists Hoëné Wronski, Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, Étienne Cabet, Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Philippe Buchez, and Victor Considérant (Bertrand 7; 241).

6 Mormon polygamy, one of such experiments made official in 1852, seemed to have alarmed French authorities as it reminded them of previous issues with the Saint-Simonians. Hippolyte Fortoul, Minister of Education and Worship, instructed local prefects: “S’il s’élevait aujourd’hui des sectes prêchant ou admettant la communauté des biens ou la polygamie, si quelques esprits exaltés renouvelaient les provocations qui, de nos jours et sous nos yeux, n’ont point été inutilement adressées à de dangereuses passions, le Gouvernement serait-il donc réduit à souffrir, au nom de la liberté religieuse, ces attaques à l’ordre social dont il est le garant ?” (Fortoul).

French authorities anticipated United States Supreme Court decision in Reynold v. United States (1879) which would strike polygamy on the grounds that while civil authorities could not interfere with religious beliefs or abstract principles under the First Amendment, they could adjudicate “when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order” (U.S. Supreme Court). Christian Euvrard first brought attention to Fourtoul’s letter (Euvrard, 2009 82). The authors thank Daryl Lee for sharing the complete letter with them.

7 Gille also collaborated frequently with one of France’s best Boulevard playwrights, Eugène Labiche.

8 Some French theater goers would have been familiar with Albert Robida’s 1883 illustrated novel Le Vingtième siècle. In it, he tells a story in which England is invaded by polygamous Mormons who imprison those who refuse marriage in a “Bachelor’s Prison” (Belnap et al. 149-150).

9 In Rabelais’s Gargantua (1534), the Abbey of Thélème’s only rule is “Fay ce que voudras.”

10 Despite being at odds with the rest of the United States and the western world on marriage, Latter-day Saints have always taken the religious mainstream view of strict gender boundaries. This stand is at the heart of ongoing tensions within the movement. For further readings on those modern implications, see: Charles, 2013 347-386; Petrey. It should be noted for full disclosure that Petrey’s book was one of the two co-winners in 2021 of the “Best Book Award” of the Mormon History Association while Carter Charles was chair of the association’s book award subcommittee.

11 For Robert Nye, the “crisis of masculinity” in fin-de-siècle France was “provoked by the challenge of feminism” (226). The French defeat to Prussia in 1870, declining fertility rates, and the legalization of divorce in 1884 were other contributing factors.

12 Gille retains this aspect in the 1890 play with the stage direction “Édith, récitant,” followed by the twenty-seventh variety creed, to which Gille indicates, again with a stage direction, “Pigatt, avec joie” responding “Chère enfant ! Elle sait mon texte par cœur ! (Gille, 1890 2-3).

13 The Utah gun making company Browning Firearms was started in Nauvoo, Illinois’ Mormon settlement, by Jonathan Browning, a Mormon who engraved on some of his revolvers the motto “Holiness to the Lord—Our Preservation,” in echo of “The House of the Lord—Holiness to the Lord,” a slogan associated with Mormon temples since that period. Mormons will even make American gun history: it is in Utah that Browning’s son, Moses, designed a single-shot rifle that was eventually licensed as a Winchester (Browning). See also Gibson.

14 A “browning” in the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales online dictionary refers to “un pistolet automatique à chargeur”: Accessed February 11, 2023. See also Gorenstein.

15 For further reading, we recommend and draw attention to Talbot’s aptly titled chapters “‘More the Companion and Much Less the Subordinate’: Polygamy and Mormon Women’s Citizenship” (63-82), and “‘They Can Not Exist in Contact with Republican Institutions’: Consent, Contract, and Citizenship under ‘Polygamic Theocracy’” (105-128).

16 Tartuffe (1664) is of course this eponymous play in which Molière points to the hypocrisy of self-righteous characters who attempt to hide their bad behavior through excessive and overt religiosity.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Frequency of the word “Mormon” in the French press by year (Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France). The peaks correspond to different landmarks in the reception of Mormonism in France, its tumultuous history in the United States, and echoes of that history in France. More specifically, the spikes between 1870 and 1880 correspond first to the enactment by the U.S. Congress of the Poland Act (1874), which curtailed the power of Mormonism in Utah politics and empowered federal authorities to actively prosecute polygamists; and to the death of Brigham Young (1877).
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Titre Figure 2
Légende Michelet, “Camille par Philippe Gille,” Le Journal amusant, March 29, 1890 (Source / BnF)
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Titre Figure 3
Légende Émile Bayard, Le Figaro illustré, December 1, 1886 (private collection)
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Titre Figure 4
Légende Gustave Doré, “Teresa Bolsi,” 1874 (Source / BnF)
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Titre Figure 5
Légende Eugène Courboin, “Camille Prélard,” 1886 (private collection)
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Titre Figure 6
Légende Eugène Courboin, “Camille Prélard,” 1886 (private collection)
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Titre Figure 7
Légende Charles R. Savage, “Brigham Young Bust Portrait,” ca. 1875-1877 (Courtesy, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602).
Fichier image/jpeg, 233k
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LeeAnn Broderick, Carter Charles et Corry Cropper, « “Entre Deux Transatlantiques”: American Religion and the French Family at the Comédie-Française (1890) »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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LeeAnn Broderick

Brigham Young University

Carter Charles

Brigham Young University

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Corry Cropper

Brigham Young University

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