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The Theatre In France - Comedy In The 15th Century

( Originally Published 1902 )



The Clercs de la Basoche and the Hall of the Palais de Justice—Religious Moralities—Political Comedy, or the Annals of France—The Enfants Sans-Souci—The Farce and the `Sotie'—Principal political plays of the reign of Charles vii., Louis xi., and Charles viii.—Satirical Farce; various examples—La vraie farce de Maître Pathelin ; its dramatic importance—Satires on the different trades : Le Franc-Archer de Bagnolet—Satires on women and marriage : La Cornette, Le vieil Amoureux et le jeune Amoureux—The Monologue.

COMEDY, which was almost entirely neglected during the fourteenth century, made a new start alongside of the Mystery Play. The development of this type, that was barely sketched out in the thirteenth century, corresponded to a spiritual need. As has been justly remarked by M. Petit de Julleville : ` Humanity was no longer contented with tradition. From henceforward it would use the forces of its intelligence to observe, to analyse, and to conclude.' For the rest, this revolution in the intellectual order originated with the literary class. The numerous clerks in the service of the Government and of the Parliament formed, like the trade-guilds, corporations, the most powerful of which was the Clercs de la Basoche, which included all the lawyers throughout the extent of French territory. This corporation had its own privileges, a special jurisdiction, and a king who wore a cap similar to that worn by the King of France. Of all these advantages, the one most valued was that of giving theatrical representations in the great Hall of the Palais de Justice. Encouraged by the success of the Confrérie de la Passion, the Clerks of the Basoche began to compose plays, of which they were themselves the interpreters. But in-stead of deriving inspiration from the scenes of the Scriptures, they were the creators of a new type, the Morality, or allegorical play, which is only one of the forms of Comedy in the Middle Ages.

The earliest Moralities, which date from the second part of the fifteenth century, inculcated a hatred of vice and a love of virtue. For the most part they opposed the life of the reprobate to that of the virtuous man, setting forth the punishments that attended the wicked in another world, and even in this life, and the rewards reserved for the godly. At other times they attacked a particular vice : gluttony, jealousy, or blasphemy. In the class of Moralities that established a contrast between the conduct of the good and the bad man, the first place must be assigned to the piece entitled Bien-Avisé et Mal-Avisé. The first personifies the virtuous man : the second, the perverted sinner ; the other allegorical personages are Contrition, Confession, Humility, Penitence, Alms, Fasting, Despair, Larceny, Diligence, Patience, Prudence, Honour, Fortune (this last represented by a wheel), and Satan. In this morality, after exciting the terror of the spectators by setting forth the suffering that awaits the evil-doer in Hell, the author ends the piece with a comforting picture—the apotheosis of the virtuous man carried up to Heaven by the angels.

Akin to the Religious Moralities are those designed to give advice to parents on the education of their children. The most important of the moralities of this particular type is that of the Enfants de Maintenant, in which the allegorical personages are Instruction and Discipline. In the same order of ideas we may cite the morality of L'Enfant Ingrat, an attack on parents who wish, from pride, to educate their children above their social station. A religious morality of a very special type (since it has the turn of the true comedy) is that of L'Aveugle et le Boiteux, composed by André de la Vigne, and played for the first time at Seurre, in I496, after the performance of the mystery of Saint Martin by the same author.

Most of the religious Moralities aim at inculcating virtue in the name of the Christian faith, but others pursue the same end from a purely lay standpoint. Among these is the play called La Condamnation des Banquets. This is a kind of treatise on sobriety, written by a professor of law, named Nicolas de la Chesnaye, in the hope of curing his fellow-citizens of the vice of gluttony, which seems to have been over-common at this epoch. In this piece the principal parts are those of Dinner, Supper, and Banquet, the secondary characters being Apoplexy, Paralysis, Epilepsy, Gout, etc., who dog the guests at the close of the repast. Other characters are Health, Sobriety, and Pill, who are the medicaments, and obtain sentence on the two chief offenders, Supper and Banquet.

A second form of Comedy in the fifteenth century is the Moral Farce—otherwise the Political Comedy (or `The Annals of the History of France') which was in vogue from I440 to the end of the sixteenth century, its writers and interpreters being not only the Clercs de la Basoche, but also the members of another society called Les Enfants Sans-Souci. Throughout this period the theatre was a regular tribune, the voice by which the people expressed their grievances or showed their approbation. On the one hand, in effect, it made a violent attack (under the cloak of jesting) on contemporary institutions, where they were absurd or arbitrary ; on the other, it awarded praise to the ruling powers when they deserved well of the nation. From this twofold point of view, these comedies are a true abstract of the History of France—its internal, and sometimes its external politics.

Mention has just been made of the Enfants Sans-Souci. This company was largely composed of the sons of good bourgeois families who were well educated for that period. As early as the commencement of the fifteenth century, they had obtained from the Confrérie de la Passion (who had the monopoly of theatrical representations in Paris) the right, not only of playing their pieces in the capital, but of using the great Hall of the Hôpital de la Trinité, with certain stipulations : e.g. the division of profits between the two companies ; obligatory residence for part of the year of the Enfants Sans-Souci in Paris ; organisation of the company into a regular confraternity, with a leader named the Prince of Fools, and other dignitaries ; the adoption of a special costume with a cap adorned with asses' ears.

It is not always easy to distinguish the pieces of the Enfants Sans-Souci from those of the Basochians, more especially as the plays of one and the other company are termed indiscriminately farces. Generally speaking, however, we may regard the ` Sotie' as an intermediate type between the Farce and the Morality, a type dominated by satire. It is for the most part a kind of Comedy of Manners, recalling those of Aristophanes—sometimes attacking society as a whole, sometimes confining itself to the ridiculing of a trade or social type.

The Enfants Sans-Souci acted their plays on trestles set up in the market-place, and on great occasions in front of the Halle aux Poissons. And, as we have seen, they also acted farces in the great Salle de l'Hôpital, from time to time placed at their disposal by the Brothers of the Passion, who in return for this service obtained permission to act the Soties, plays of which the exclusive rights belonged to their lessees.

Moral Farces of a historical or political character date from the reign of Charles via. The first was composed under the following circumstances. The victory of Patay, gained by Jeanne d'Arc over the English, after the deliverance of Orleans, freed a part of France from the foreign yoke, and enabled Charles VII. to re-enter Paris, August 12, 1429. The king now thought only of reorganising his kingdom, and healing the scars of war, when the country was again disturbed by a revolt of the nobles against the reforms in the army—an out-break known as the Praguerie. The people, reduced to misery by the English war, viewed the prospect of a civil strife with horror. Under these conditions the Farce was chosen to interpret the complaints and grievances of the petite bourgeoisie as well as of the people. On this occasion the Clercs de la Basoche composed and played La Farce morale â cinq personnages allégoriques : Métier, Marchandise, Berger, Temps, les Gens, in which the characters all engage in discussions on the state of affairs. The establishment of a permanent army in France dates also from the reign of Charles VII. The first soldiers were mere robbers, who devastated the country, and plundered the poor. Hence the composition of the morality of the Peuple pensif et Plat-Pays, which denounced the excesses of these soldiers. From the reign of Charles vii., again, dates the imposition of the tax of `perpetual fief,' designed to cover the charges of the military service, the entire burden of which fell upon the people. On the other hand, the excessive expenses incurred by the king in the gratification of his pleasures was another heavy burden on the poorer classes. A lament over all these abuses was sent up in a morality entitled the Farce Nouvelle.

When Louis xi. ascended the throne, he promised his subjects a sensible amelioration in the state of affairs. The people looked for great things from his promises, and were sadly disillusioned in the event. They retaliated by the moral farce Les Gens nouveaux (New-comers, who ` devour the world, and send it from bad to worse '). This farce rallied the reformers, whose pretension is to do better than their neighbours.

This is the only farce left from the reign of Louis xi. The king was hostile to the liberty of the theatre, and political comedy was more or less dumb under his administration.

When his son Charles viii. succeeded to the throne, the Basochians hoped to indemnify them-selves, but their boldness displeased the king, who forbade the performance of several of their farces.

Among the more essentially satirical of the Farces, one of the most famous is the Monde, Abus, les Sots, attributed by some to Gringoire. The author mocks at the whole of human society, under pretext that the world is made up of fools and blockheads. The principal characters of the piece are Sot-Dissolu, who represents the clergy ; Sot-Ignorant, who personifies ignorance; Sot-Corrompu, who symbolises the magistrates, and Sotte-Folle, who stands for the feminine gender. These different folks decide to destroy the world, and build a new one. Their attempts, however, result in wild confusion, and they are obliged to fall back on the old world.

After inveighing against the whole nation, Satirical Farce attacked the individual institutions. Thus, in the farce Les Bâtards de Caux ou Cadets sans Biens, primogeniture is sharply criticised. Yet the Farce rarely makes a direct attack on established institutions. For the most part it criticises abuses, without touching on principles, as is its procedure in regard to the clergy, who are the constant subject of its bitterest railleries. The Farce du Meunier, in which a priest plays an abominable role, was performed on the 9th October I496, before the clergy, who uttered no protest. All the Church demanded was that its dogma should be respected, and, from these different points of view, the Comedy of the Middle Ages is related to Greek Comedy and Tragedy. The Farce directed its most malicious criticisms against the privileged orders, as the clergy, nobility, and the magistrates, but neither did it spare the representatives of the more modest classes, the merchants and artisans. In the farce Folle Bombance, for instance, the satire is violently directed against the petits bourgeois who attempt to copy the gentlefolks in their fashions and manners.

Among social types, the one most closely studied and most successfully ridiculed in the Farces is the honeyed and unprincipled advocate. He goes by the name of Pathelin, and this word has been adopted in the French language to characterise the crafty individual who by his amiability and sweetness endeavours to influence those whom he is hoping to deceive. La Farce de Maitre Pathelin (presumably composed about 1470), is the one piece of the Middle Ages of any real literary value, and is, in fine, the first regular comedy that appeared in France. It is of appreciable value from the literary point of view, since it has enriched the French language with a host of proverbs and phrases. It possesses the qualities requisite for a good comedy : it is of sufficient length, the characters are well-drawn, the comedy goes deep, while the style for that period is excel-lent. It is to be regretted that the author of this little chef-d'oeuvre is unknown, for at the outset it was erroneously attributed to Villon, to Pierre Blanchet, or to Antoine de la Salle. It is now admitted that the author of Pathelin left no trace of his name. There is reason for supposing that this mysterious individual was not a writer by profession, but a mere private individual; as it were, the genius of a day, who in an inspired moment threw all the strength of his nature into this composition. Even in the Middle Ages, this production was regarded as so superior that a considerable number of editions were brought out, twenty-five of which, prior to the seventeenth century, have come down to us. At the commencement of the eighteenth century, Abbé Brueys produced from the original work a prose comedy in three acts, into which he introduced the amorous passion ; calling it L'Avocat Pathelin. This play, which followed the original fairly closely, was retained in the repertory till the middle of the nineteenth century. In I872, however, M. Édouard Fournier made a rhymed translation from the original text ; and this was successfully played at the Comédie-Française, where it has ever since occupied an important place in the repertory of this famous national theatre. To give a rapid summary : A briefless advocate discusses with his wife, Guillemette, their precarious situation, and devises measures for remedying the state of affairs. While Dame Guillemette is complaining more particularly of the poverty of her garments, Pathelin has a sudden happy inspiration. He resorts to his neighbour Guillaume, the draper, and by cajolery wheedles out of him, at a far lower price than that asked by the dealer, a piece of cloth, which he takes on credit, with the distinct intention of never paying for it. He carries off the packet under his arm, with an invitation to Guillaume to fetch his money himself later on. Dame Guillemette happens to be cooking a goose, and the draper shall share the feast. The merchant is delighted : even in reducing the price of his cloth to please his client, he has sold him, at twenty-four sous the ell, a cloth not worth twenty ; and now he will have a good dinner into the bargain ! At the appointed time, Guillaume betakes himself to Pathelin, who, feigning to be very ill, has gone to bed. He babbles, and talks nonsense, in a mixture of patois—Limousin, Picard, Norman, and Latin,—until Guillaume, terrified at this incomprehensible gibberish, and believing his client to be mad, departs incontinently, leaving Pathelin master of the situation. But his triumph is not of long duration. The cloth-merchant has a shepherd called Agnelet, whom he hales before the judge on the charge of having made away with his sheep, whereupon Agnelet appeals to Pathelin to take his defence against his master. What is the stupefaction of Guillaume to recognise in his shepherd's advocate the man who stole his cloth ! He loses his head, mixes up the two affairs, and although the judge reminds him that he is there for his sheep, and not for his cloth, the wretched Guillaume persists in reclaiming the price of his six ells of cloth. Agnelet, for his part, at the advice of his counsel, acts the innocent before the judge, and answers baa' to every question put to him. The judge gets impatient, and supposing he has to do with an idiot, acquits the accused and dismisses the court. The advocate then claims his fee from Agnelet, but the shepherd, remembering his instructions as counsel, answers him too by baa-ing. The moral of the whole story is that Pathelin is the victim of his own tricks, and that among the three rogues it is the most simple who has out-witted the other two.

Another object of the Satirical Farce was to ridicule the braggadocio, and one of the best satires of the type is that of the Franc-Archer de Bagnolet, written in the fifteenth century at about the same date as La Farce de Maitre Pathelin.

This satire ridicules the sharpshooters, soldiers levied by Louis XI., who were highly unpopular on account of their brutality to the country-folk, and from their proverbial cowardice. Adventurers and knaves are also hardly used in the satires. The petty trades again are passed in review. Sometimes it is the water-carrier, who asks the hand of a beautiful maiden, and runs off on the eve of the marriage with all the presents ; some-times the colporteur, who sells indifferently obscene books, or pious manuals. Or it is the domestic servants, who are represented to us in mediaeval comedy as gluttons, thieves, and traitors. Above all, it is the nurses who displease the authors of these farces.

The Satirical Farce of the Middle Ages is hostile to marriage, and girds with especial rancour against women. There are quite a number of pieces which describe their whims. We have crabbed wives and scolding wives, young women who are vain and giddy, stingy, jealous, or untruthful, spendthrift to the point of ruining their husbands by their luxurious toilettes.

And yet among these farces some are very witty, and the authors give to the women they are criticising a certain charm and humour which makes us overlook their perfidy. Among these is a little comedy of refined observation composed by Jean d'Abondance, entitled La Cornette.

Another exception is the farce of Le vieil Amoureux et le jeune Amoureux, which celebrates maternal devotion in these charming lines :—

` Or ça, qui nous a élevés,
Nourris petits, alimentés,
Vestis, et lavés, et frottés,
Tenus nets, et de corps et d'âmes?
Respons.—Et ç'ont esté les femmes.'

The pretty farce Deux Amoureux récréatifs et joyeux by the famous poet Clément Marot, with another composition of the same kind by Marguerite d'Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, make a charming close to this miniature series of comedies in favour of the feminine sex.

Satirical Farce is particularly severe on the wives who want to dominate their husbands, or even are not absolutely submissive to them. In this connection we have the Cuvier (wash-tub), next to Pathelin the most remarkable farce of the Middle Ages. It was played at the Odéon, in I898, at a classical matinée.

Generally speaking, one may say that the authors of the farces delight in making woman responsible for all the griefs, worries, and quarrels of the ménage.

In the Middle Ages the name of comedy was also given to a special type—the Monologue, a sort of burlesque recitation to which the author resorted to make an exposé of all his caprices, and to excite the laughter of the spectators. The Monologue did not survive the sixteenth century.



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