Ashland playwright Molly B. Tinsley’s “Pompadour” will premier Saturday, Jan. 19, with Ashland Contemporary Theatre. Peggy Rubin directs, and Jeannine Grizzard plays the titled mistress of King Louis XV of France. Molly and I met at Bloomsbury Coffee.
EH: What was the inspiration for “Pompadour”?
MT: There was an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum called “La volupte du gout (taste of the voluptuous): French Painting in the Age of Madame de Pompadour.” I went through it three times. I was fascinated by the overripe, color-saturated, complacently allegorical imagery.
The exhibit was punctuated by four or five portraits of Madame de Pompadour. There was something over-the-top about the robust fleshiness that began to evoke its opposite — gaunt death. And I noticed strange shapes hiding in the corners of paintings that were never explained in the guided tour or in text beside them. Overall, I got a feeling of surface health, beauty and well-being, yet something wrong underneath.
The painting that stuck in my memory was “The Abduction of Europa,” for which Pompadour was probably the model for Europa. It’s sort of a writhing mass of humans, animals, half-human-half-animals, a sort of barnyard cow/bull carrying this fancily dressed woman (except one breast is exposed) over the sea, and there’s this sea-monster-like eye emerging through the waves, as though the water itself were a huge animal; the bull is riding on the back of it. There were very melodramatic expressions on the faces — except for the woman and the bull, who look pretty mellow. The whole impression was just so weird. Then I began to read Pompadour biographies, and this feeling was reinforced in more specific terms.
EH: What were Pompadour’s accomplishments?
MT: She was incredibly gifted in the arts — sang, danced, produced and performed in plays presented in a small theater she installed in Versailles for the king. She designed, had built, and had remodeled numerous chateaux; founded a military academy for the sons of nobles who didn’t have money; started porcelain factories whose output was famous and coveted. She advised the king on foreign affairs. She was intensely patriotic, and was probably more than a little responsible for France’s defeat by England and Prussia, but then the French generals were idiots. If she’d been able to direct the war unilaterally, maybe it would have gone better.
EH: What did you take away from your research?
MT: Coming to know Madame de Pompadour in some depth and detail helps reclaim the female-centered parts of history that have been relegated to footnotes (if that) for centuries. She was a phenomenon — a commoner who rose by her wits to practically rule France — in the mid-18th century. Sure, it all started because she was beautiful, but she survived long beyond her beauty and sex appeal because she was brilliant.
Interesting, too, that someone originally favored as a sex object turns out to have never enjoyed the pleasures of sex. In general, my experience has been that history, when you get into the human details, is unbelievably fascinating — too bad we can’t reclaim all of it from the dry textbooks that were inflicted on us in our youth.
EH: What’s the challenge of writing a one-woman show?
MT: You create the space and bring people in. She speaks to different people because she sees different people periodically, she hallucinates them. In a way, she could be speaking to the audience, too.