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The Theatre In France - Historical Comedy, Dogmatic Moralities, Dramatic Moralities, And The Last Mysteries In The 16th Century

( Originally Published 1902 )



Political Comedy under Louis xii.: Le feu du Prince des Sots,.—Political Comedy under Francis i.: La Farce des Théologastres, and the Reformation in Germany—Comedy in the provinces—The Theatre and the struggles of the Reformation in France : La Maladie de Chrétienté La Comédie facétieuse de Frère Fécisti, and the end of the political theatre—The Dramatic Morality the precursor of the Social Drama : Un Empereur qui tua son neveu--The Mimed Mystery in Paris and the provinces—The Spoken Mysteries, and the Brothers of the Passion : Les Actes des Wires and Le Vieux Testament at the Hôtel de Flandres—Disputes between the Brothers and the Parliament—Last representations of the Mysteries at the Hôtel de Bourgogne: the Edict of 154S—The Farce, the Sotie, and Parliamentary censure : end of Mediaeval Comedy—Influence of the Mysteries and Moralities on the destiny of the French Theatre.

COMEDY continued to flourish in the sixteenth century under the form of the Morality, the Farce, and the Sotie, and, in conformity with the traditions of the preceding century, remained the faithful mirror of the chief political events of the time.

The good days of the Theatre were under Louis xII. Even the most audacious comedies were patronised by the king, from political motives. By protecting the Farce and the Sotie, Louis xII. preserved them in a measure for his own uses, hoping thus to exploit the stage as a tool to work upon the minds of his subjects, and attach them to his cause. He did not even shrink from sacrificing his amour propre, and permitted himself to be constantly attacked and ridiculed at the theatre on the score of his avarice. A farce called La Résurrection de Jenin Landore, written about 1509, doubtless at the king's wish, abounds in allusions to the war with Italy, and the struggles of France with the Pope, with Spain, and with Venice. In I510 came the rupture of Louis with Pope Julius 11. This was due to the disloyal conduct of the Pontiff, who had suddenly turned against the French after summoning them to Italy as his allies. Since this struggle assumed a religious character, Louis XII. needed the support of his people to engage in a war with one who was recognised by all French Catholics as their spiritual leader. In this emergency he called the Theatre to his aid, and the poet Gringoire, at the king's order, composed different farces with the direct object of exciting the Catholics against the Pope, and thus winning them to the cause of their sovereign. The Carnival Fêtes were used for playing these farces, the most famous of which is Le Jeu du Prince des Sots.

This piece was acted on Shrove Tuesday, February 25, 1512, and the king himself is believed to have assisted in the performance. Le jeu du Prince des Sots is divided into three acts or parts : the sotie, the farce, and the morality. The principal abstract personages are the Seigneur de la Lune, who symbolises the part of the inconstant ones ; the Seigneur du Plat d'Argent, who personifies the poets, often without a roof to their head; the Prince des Sots, who is no other than King Louis xi1. ; Mère Sotte, the Pope ; and lastly, Sotte Commune, who stands for the peasants. Louis XII. won his cause ; but the Pope found some zealous defenders in the provinces, particularly at Lyons, where plays in honour of the Sovereign Pontiff were performed publicly in the market-place. Unfortunately, none of these plays have come down to us.

In the reign of Francis 1., who succeeded Louis XII., political allusions were rarely tolerated. In any case, the rôle of the Political Comedy in Paris became that of mere description. In this order of idea may be cited La Farce morale des trois pèlerins et Malice, which dates from the year 1520 : it gives us a very complete picture of contemporary manners, at the same time setting forth the Lutheran doctrine. From this period, indeed, began the active propaganda in France in favour of the Reformation spreading from Germany. The first Reformers perceived that the Theatre was a considerable force in the diffusion of their doctrines, and to this end wrote a great number of comedies and pamphlets, with the object of discrediting the Catholic religion. The most celebrated of their plays is La Farce des Théologastres, composed about 1525. The characters in this play are : Théologastre, or theology ; Fratres, or the monks ; Reason ; Faith ; the Mercury of Germany, who personifies Luther. Théologastre and Fratres discuss with Text and Reason the contradictions of the Councils, and the Mercury of Germany arrives, boasting that he is going to bring in light, and cure Faith, whom he declares to be very sick. To this end he washes Text in the Holy Scriptures, blackened by the theologians of the Sorbonne ; and after this operation Faith recovers his ancient vigour, and the piece ends.

In the provinces the Theatre was more free, and did not scruple to mix in politics after a general fashion. One celebrated farce, played at Rouen in 1536, is that of Les Sobres-Sots, which is filled with allusions to the political affairs of the moment, such as the edict against those who harboured Lutherans (1535), the tortures of the heretics burned in Paris, the expeditions of Charles v. to Tunis, Piémont, and Provence.

The Reformation in France dates from the first year of Henri 11. From that period, and down to the accession of Henri IV., comedy was often the instrument by which the Reformers attacked their enemies and set forth their own doctrines. The Catholics, on their part, resorted frequently to the same means for their defence. In 1558, at La Rochelle, a famous farce called La Maladie de Chrétienté, a violent satire against the Christian religion, was played before the King and Queen of Navarre. The principal characters of the play are Hypocrisy and Christianity. The latter, having fallen into a serious sickness after absorbing the poison of sin, refuses the ministrations of a third person, the Heavenly Doctor, who signifies Christ. Christ then forces him to swallow a syrup of justifying grace, and Christianity is at once relieved. The physician then undertakes an analysis of the poison absorbed, and this analysis is nothing more than an attack against all the powers that be—in particular, the clergy. Marguerite of Navarre, sister of Francis i., was herself the author of several farces written in favour of the Reformation. The best known is that entitled L'Inquisiteur. The Church began to resent these attacks ; and, in 1559, an edict was published at Nantes, by the terms of which it was forbidden to perform in public any farces, comedies, or moralities which had not previously been approved by the chief curé, officer, or magistrate.

The Catholics more than once resorted to the Farce as a weapon against their religious adversaries, but their plays were weak and had little success. The best of them is La Farce morale du maitre d'école, la mère et les trois écoliers, which is a direct attack on Luther. The Reformers re-plied by La Comédie facétieuse et très Taisante de Frère Fécisti en Provence, which contains all sorts of outrages against the Pope, the Sorbonne, and the monks. The excesses of this play contributed in large measure to disgust the public with Political Comedy. In the later years of the reign of Henri III. it was seen less and less frequently, and by the accession of Henri Iv. it had entirely disappeared from the stage.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century some genuine little dramas were composed, under the name of Moralities, taken sometimes from history, or from historical legends, sometimes in-spired by sensational contemporary events. These compositions, while insignificant in appearance, marked a date in the history of the French Theatre. They were, in fact, the first step towards a National Drama in the English sense ; a drama, that is to say, released from the tyrannical exigencies of the ` rule of the three unities,' and gay, pathetic, and animated, without recourse to antiquity, or to the. surrounding nations. If this type had found acceptance, the dramatic genius of France would have revealed itself half a century sooner. The Romantic School would perhaps have essayed its forces at the same moment as Shakespeare, that is, more than two hundred years before the publication of the Preface to Cromwell ; and the bourgeois drama of Ducis and Diderot would also have seen its destinies advanced by two centuries.

The most famous of these dramatic moralities are the plays entitled Un Empereur qui tua son neveu, and La Tragédie Française à huit personnages, traitant de l'amour d'un serviteur et de tout ce qu'il en advint, both taken from contemporary history. Among the dramatic moralities in which the subject was drawn from the sources of ancient history, we have a pretty play founded upon a celebrated anecdote related by Pliny the Elder. It is the story of a woman condemned to death as a traitor to her country. Her daughter, who has vainly sued for pardon from the judges, obtains instead the favour that her mother shall not perish by a violent death, but shall suffer the pains of starvation. Permitted to visit the prisoner in her cell, this girl, who is married and is at the moment nursing her child, nourishes her mother, thus prolonging her life for six weeks, to the stupefaction of every one. Detected by the gaolers, she is denounced to the judges, who are struck with admiration, and pardon the condemned mother.

While Comedy was flourishing in the sixteenth century, the Religious Drama continued to enjoy a certain popularity, at least till 1550. The Mimed Mystery of the fifteenth century, though sup-planted by the Spoken Mystery, made a few last efforts in Paris during the first quarter of the sixteenth century ; but, as we have already seen, it changed its character after 1458--the allegorical element having come in to replace the purely religious element. Thus the two mimed mysteries represented in 1514 and 1515, the first on the entry into Paris of Mary of England, the other on the entry of Francis 1., were pure allegories. In the provinces the mimed mystery preserved its religious character. It was derived from the scenes of the Old and New Testament, and was usually played at the Feast of Corpus Christi, on sumptuous scaffolds. This was particularly the case at Draguignan and at Béthune, which were celebrated for the magnificence of their processions at the Fête-Dieu.

The Spoken Mysteries in Paris were the mono-poly of the Brothers of the Passion, who played them on Sundays and Feast days in a permanent theatre. Thus between 1500 and 1539 the Passion and the Mystère du Vieux Testament were represented in the Salle de la Trinité. Yielding, however, as we have seen, to the demands of the spectators, who began to weary of the monotony of these performances, the Brothers subsequently arranged with the Enfants Sans-Souci to act farces, and henceforward mingled the pleasing and the severe, to the great satisfaction of their audience. In 1539 the Brothers established themselves in the Hôtel de Flandres, where they performed Les Actes des Apôtres and Le Vieux Testament.

Five hundred characters took part in Les Actes des Apôtres, which was played on Sundays and Feast days, from Easter to All Saints. The mystery of the Vieux Testament was given in the following year, and its performance caused considerable annoyance to the Confraternity. The licentious character of the drama attracted the attention of the Parliament, and they forbade its performance in public, but the Brothers took no notice. This dispute between the Confraternity and the Parliament contributed not a little to the popularity of the show. The attacks aimed against the immorality of the play stimulated the curiosity of the Parisians, who resorted in masses to the theatre, and thus made its fortune. The play was so run after that Antoine, King of Navarre, passing through Paris on a week-day, and being unable to prolong his stay till the Sunday, solicited the favour of a special performance. The authorities acceded to his request, and he was thus enabled to applaud this highly religious, but also very indecent, mystery. Finally, however, the Parliament won its cause from Francis 1., who sanctioned the former interdict, by the terms of which it was forbidden to the Brothers to introduce into the mysteries any profane, licentious, or ridiculous scenes. It further profited by this opportunity to exact obedience to the statutes limiting the duration of the performances and the price of seats. Since their removal from the Hôpital de la Trinité, the Brothers had, in effect, increased their prices, which in any case did not exceed two sols, and had lengthened the performances, which should have been over by five in the afternoon. In 1547 the Hôtel de Flandres was demolished, and the Brothers settled finally at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Rue Mauconseil. Less than a year after, the Parliament issued its famous edict of November 17, 1548, by which the performance of sacred mysteries was forbidden, while the Confraternity was still licensed to perform moralities and farces. This edict, at the same time, conferred on them the exclusive monopoly of the theatre in Paris and in the suburbs. The performances of mysteries at the Hôpital de la Trinité and the Hôtel de Flandres, between 1500 and 1547, numbered about eighty. Between 1547 and 1576 not more than fifteen were given. Finally, during the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the number of performances dropped to eight. After 1548, moreover, not a single play had been composed of the nature of the true mystery.

Exiled from the capital, the Mysteries took refuge in the provinces, where they were suitably represented throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. Those most frequently per-formed were : the Sacrifice d'Abraham, at Chartres, Laval, Metz, Lyons, Nancy ; the Saint jean-Baptiste, at Chaumont, Lyons, Draguignan ; La Passion, at Rouen, Argentan, Auxerre ; La Ré-surrection, at Angers and Douai ; and Le Vieux Testament, at Lyons and Draguignan.

The Mysteries were proscribed in Paris, in 1548. Neither were the Farces and Soties in any brilliant case at that moment. As early as 1536, the Basochians and the Enfants Sans-Souci had been forbidden to make allusion to any person whatsoever in their plays. In 1537 they were compelled to submit the manuscripts of their comedies to the censure of the Parliament. The rigours of the law applied to those who did not submit to this preventive measure, as well as the restrictions pertaining to the institution itself, disgusted authors and actors alike with the theatre.

Mediaeval Comedy weakened year by year, after 1550, and towards the end of the sixteenth century it entirely disappeared. During the whole of this period three regular dramatic companies were giving performances : the Brothers of the Passion, the Basochians, and the Enfants Sans-Souci. Along with these three societies, there were also troops of wandering comedians, histriones, mountebanks, art and trade guilds (who gave occasional performances), and burlesque societies, which flourished in particular at Rouen and Dijon, and whose spectacle consisted mainly in processions.

The influence of the Mystery on the destinies of the French Theatre was nil. Between Sacred Drama and Classical Tragedy there was nothing in common ; the passage from the one type to the other took place without any transition, and from the one day to the next the Drama underwent a radical alteration in form and matter. The influence of the Morality upon Comedy was quite otherwise ; the evolution occurred in regular order. The Morality in shedding off its abstract personages developed naturally into the Comedy of Character, such as L'Avare, Le Misanthrope, Tartufe, of Molière ; and later (in the eighteenth century) the Turcaret of Lesage ; Le Curieux Impertinent, and L'Ingrat, of Destouches. The Farce, in its turn, in becoming regularised, developed into the Comedy of Manners inaugurated by Les Précieuses ridicules of Molière ; illustrated in the eighteenth century by the plays of Dan-court ; and in the nineteenth by those of Picart, and, above all, of Labiche.



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