French Renaissance Literature - Theatre


Sixteenth century French theater followed the same patterns of evolution as the other literary genres of the period.

For the first decades of the century, public theater remained largely tied to its long medieval heritage of mystery plays, morality plays, farces, and soties, although the miracle play was no longer in vogue. Public performances were tightly controlled by a guild system. The guild “les Confrères de la Passion” had exclusive rights to theatrical productions of mystery plays in Paris; in 1548, fear of violence or blasphemy resulting from the growing religious rift in France forced the Paris Parliament to prohibit performances of the mysteries in the capital, although they continued to be performed in other places. Another guild, the “Enfants Sans-Souci” were in charge of farces and soties, as too the “Clercs de la Basoche” who also performed morality plays. Like the "Confrères de la Passion", "la Basoche" came under political scrutiny (plays had to be authorized by a review board; masks or characters depicting living persons were not permitted), and they were finally suppressed in 1582. By the end of the century, only the "Confrères de la Passion" remained with exclusive control over public theatrical productions in Paris, and they rented out their theater at the Hôtel de Bourgogne to theatrical troupes for a high price. In 1599, they abandoned this privilege.

It is of note that, alongside the numerous writers of these traditional works (such as the farce writers Pierre Gringore, Nicolas de La Chesnaye and André de la Vigne), Marguerite of Navarre also wrote a number of plays close to the traditional mystery and morality play.

As early as 1503 however, original language versions of Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Aristophanes, Terence and Plautus were all available in Europe and the next forty years would see humanists and poets both translating these classics and adapting them. In the 1540s, the French university setting (and especially — from 1553 on — the Jesuit colleges) became host to a Neo-Latin theater (in Latin) written by professors such as George Buchanan and Marc Antoine Muret which would leave a profound mark on the members of La Pléiade. From 1550 on, one finds humanist theater written in French.

The influence of Seneca was particularly strong in humanist tragedy. His plays — which were essentially chamber plays meant to be read for their lyrical passages and rhetorical oratory — brought to many humanist tragedies a concentration on rhetoric and language over dramatic action.

Humanist tragedy took two distinct directions:

  • Biblical tragedy : plots taken from the bible — although close in inspiration to the medieval mystery plays, the humanist biblical tragedy reconceived the biblical characters along classical lines, suppressing both comic elements and the presence of God on the stage. The plots often had clear parallels to contemporary political and religious matters and one finds both Protestant and Catholic playwrights.
  • Ancient tragedy : plots taken from mythology or history — they often had clear parallels to contemporary political and religious matters

During the height of the civil wars (1570–1580), a third category of militant theater appeared:

  • Contemporary tragedy : plots taken from recent events

Along with their work as translators and adaptors of plays, the humanists also investigated classical theories of dramatic structure, plot, and characterization. Horace was translated in the 1540s, but had been available throughout the Middle Ages. A complete version of Aristotle's Poetics appeared later (first in 1570 in an Italian version), but his ideas had circulated (in an extremely truncated form) as early as the 13th century in Hermann the German's Latin translation of Averroes' Arabic gloss, and other translations of the Poetics had appeared in the first half of the 16th century; also of importance were the commentaries on Aristotle's poetics by Julius Caesar Scaliger which appeared in the 1560s. The fourth century grammarians Diomedes and Aelius Donatus were also a source of classical theory. The sixteenth century Italians played a central role in the publishing and interpretation of classical dramatic theory, and their works had a major effect on French theater. Lodovico Castelvetro's Aristote-based Art of Poetry(1570) was one of the first enunciations of the three unities; this work would inform Jean de la Taille's Art de la tragedie (1572). Italian theater (like the tragedy of Gian Giorgio Trissino) and debates on decorum (like those provoked by Sperone Speroni's play Canace and Giovanni Battista Giraldi's play Orbecche) would also influence the French tradition.

In the same spirit of imitation — and adaptation — of classical sources that had informed the poetic compositions of La Pléiade, French humanist writers recommended that tragedy should be in five acts and have three main characters of noble rank; the play should begin in the middle of the action (in medias res), use noble language and not show scenes of horror on the stage. Some writers (like Lazare de Baïf and Thomas Sébillet) attempted to link the medieval tradition of morality plays and farces to classical theater, but Joachim du Bellay rejected this claim and elevated classical tragedy and comedy to a higher dignity. Of greater difficulty for the theorists was the incorporation of Aristotle's notion of "catharsis" or the purgation of emotions with Renaissance theater, which remained profoundly attached to both pleasing the audience and to the rhetorical aim of showing moral examples (exemplum).

Étienne Jodelle's Cléopâtre captive (1553) — which tells the impassioned fears and doubts of Cleopatra contemplating suicide — has the distinction of being the first original French play to follow Horace's classical precepts on structure (the play is in five acts and respects more or less the unities of time, place and action) and is extremely close to the ancient model: the prologue is introduced by a shade, there is a classical chorus which comments on the action and talks directly to the characters, and the tragic ending is described by a messenger.

Mellin de Saint-Gelais's translation of Gian Giorgio Trissino's La Sophonisbe — the first modern regular tragedy based on ancient models which tells the story of the noble Sophonisba's suicide (rather than be taken as captive by Rome) — was an enormous success at the court when performed in 1556.

Select list of authors and works of humanist tragedy:

  • Théodore de Bèze
    • Abraham sacrifiant (1550)
  • Étienne Jodelle
    • Cléopâtre captive (1553)
    • Didon se sacrifiant (date unknown)
  • Mellin de Saint-Gelais
    • La Sophonisbe (performed 1556) - translation of the Italian play (1524) by Gian Giorgio Trissino
  • Jacques Grévin
    • Jules César (1560) - imitated from the Latin of Marc Antoine Muret
  • Jean de la Taille
    • Saül, le furieux (1563–1572)
  • Guillaume Le Breton
    • Adonis (1569)
  • Robert Garnier
    • Porcie (published 1568, acted in 1573),
    • Cornélie (acted in 1573 and published in 1574)
    • Hippolyte (acted in 1573 and published in 1574)
    • Marc-Antoine (1578)
    • La Troade (1579)
    • Antigone (1580)
    • Les Juives (1583)
  • Pierre Matthieu (1563–1621)
    • Clytemnestre (1578)
    • Esther (1581)
    • Vashti (1589)
    • Aman, de la perfidie (1589)
    • La Guisiade (1589)
  • Nicolas de Montreux
    • Tragédie du jeune Cyrus (1581)
    • Isabelle (1594)
    • Cléopâtre (1594)
    • Sophonisbe (1601)

(See the playwrights Antoine de Montchrestien, Alexandre Hardy and Jean de Schelandre for tragedy around 1600-1610.)

Alongside tragedy, European humanists also adapted the ancient comedic tradition and as early as the 15th century, Renaissance Italy had developed a form of humanist Latin comedy. Although the ancients had been less theoretical about the comedic form, the humanists used the precepts of Aelius Donatus (4th century A.D.), Horace, Aristotle and the works of Terence to elaborate a set of rules: comedy should seek to correct vice by showing the truth; there should be a happy ending; comedy uses a lower style of language than tragedy; comedy does not paint the great events of states and leaders, but the private lives of people, and its principal subject is love.

Although some French authors kept close to the ancient models (Pierre de Ronsard translated a part of Aristophanes's "Plutus" at college), on the whole the French comedic tradition shows a great deal of borrowing from all sources: medieval farce (which continued to be immensely popular throughout the century), the short story, Italian humanist comedies and "La Celestina" (by Fernando de Rojas). The most prolific of the French Renaissance comedic authors, Pierre de Larivey, adapted Italian comedies of intrigue by the authors Ludovico Dolce, Niccolò Buonaparte, Lorenzino de' Medici, Antonio Francesco Grazzini, Vincenzo Gabbiani, Girolano Razzi, Luigi Pasqualigo, and Nicolὸ Secchi.

Select list of authors and works of Renaissance comedy:

  • Étienne Jodelle
    • L'Eugène (1552) – a comedy in five acts
  • Jacques Grévin
    • Les Ébahis (1560)
  • Jean Antoine de Baïf
    • L'Eunuque (1565), a version of Terence's Eunuchus
    • Le Brave (1567) – a version of Plautus's Miles gloriosus
  • Jean de la Taille
    • Les Corrivaus (published in 1573) – an imitation of Boccaccio and other Italians
  • Pierre de Larivey – Larivey was an important adapter of the Italian comedy
    • Le Laquais (1579)
    • La Vefve (1579)
    • Les Esprits (1579)
    • Le Morfondu (1579)
    • Les Jaloux (1579)
    • Les Escolliers (1579)
  • Odet de Turnèbe
    • Les Contents (1581)
  • Nicolas de Montreux
    • La Joyeuse (1581)
    • Joseph le Chaste (?)
  • François d'Amboise (1550–1619)
    • Les Néapolitaines (1584)

In the last decades of the century, four other theatrical modes from Italy — which did not follow the rigid rules of classical theater – flooded the French stage:

  • the Commedia dell'arte — an improvisational theater of fixed types (Harlequin, Colombo) created in Padua in 1545; Italian troupes were invited in France from 1576 on.
  • the Tragicomedy — a theatrical version of the adventurous novel, with lovers, knights, disguises and magic. The most famous of these is Robert Garnier's Bradamante (1580), adapted from Ariosto's Orlando furioso.
  • the Pastoral — modeled on Giambattista Guarini's "Pastor fido" ("Faithful Shepard"), Tasso's "Aminta" and Antonio Ongaro "Alceo" (themselves inspired by Jacopo Sannazaro and Jorge de Montemayor). The first French pastorals were short plays performed before a tragedy, but were eventually expanded into five acts. Nicolas de Montreux wrote three pastorals: Athlette (1585), Diane (1592) Arimène ou le berger désespéré (1597).
  • the Ballets de cour — an allegorical and fantastic mixture of dance and theater. The most famous of these is the "Ballet comique de la reine" (1581).

By the end of the century, the most influential French playwright — by the range of his styles and by his mastery of the new forms — would be Robert Garnier.

All of these eclectic traditions would continue to evolve in the "baroque" theater of the early 17th century, before French "classicism" would finally impose itself.

Read more about this topic:  French Renaissance Literature

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