The Sixth Act
A convincing, vilainous, perverse and provocative novel
In Het zesde bedrijf P.F. Thomése tells the life story of Etta Palm (1743-99), who was born in Groningen and lived in Paris as the Baroness d’Aelders. She was one of the first women to throw herself into the political turmoil of the French Revolution. ‘Etta Palm was a sort of Mata Hari of the eighteenth century,’ said the writer in an interview. ‘What attracted her to me were the clichés about attractive women who end up in politics – seduction, opportunism. She was supposed to have been a spy for the Prussians, the Republic of the Netherlands and the French.’
In his novel Thomése does not simply remain with the clichés attached to his heroine and the French Revolution. Although eighteenth-century Paris forms the wonderful setting, at the same time the writer sensitively mocks his heroine and the deceptive world of etiquette within which she moves. Het zesde bedrijf remains, as the title indicates, a piece of theatre.
The tension between theatricality and reality remains tangible throughout the book. Etta Palm finds herself on the frontier between two eras, trapped between the old formal regime and the new libertarian age. She does everything in her power during the Revolution to maintain her position. ‘Before everything else remain a lady, shot constantly through her mind. Don’t fall now, but rise. Raise yourself above this. But she was so… shocked, she could not think of anything haughty to say.’
Etta Palm sees her ideals of politics and love go up in smoke. On 4 March 1792, as the proud representative of the Société des Amies de la Verité, composed entirely of women, she is given a chance to address the Assembly. But what should have been her moment suprême ends in tragedy. She stands in front of the important gentlemen stammering and stuttering and, before she has finished speaking, is jeered off the stage. As for love, she yearns for the praise and passion of Basile, her junior by twenty years, but fails to attract him.
In the epilogue Thomése gives a final twist to the story of her life. The perspective swings to a prosecutor named De Bas who, in his imagination, conceives a passionate love for Etta. But Etta has no knowledge of De Bas and dies lonely in The Hague. It is an ending that typifies Thomése as a writer: he touches reality through the imagination. Thanks to his sense of irony, Thomése not only convinces his readers, but also allows them to enjoy and to laugh. Het zesde bedrijf is worth a curtsey.