The Theatre In France - Classical Drama And The Schools Of The Renaissance Between 1550 And 1588

( Originally Published 1902 )

First translations of Greek and Latin plays—First performance of a Classical Tragedy—The School of Jodelle ; its innovations—Criticism of Sainte. Beuve—The School of Garnier ; character of his plays—His imitators —Italian plays, and the first French comedies in prose—Les Corrivaux —Larivey and the comedy of Les Esprits—Influence of Italian plays upon Comedy in France—Influence of the Latin Theatre—Classical Comedy superior to Tragedy.

WHILE Comedy was perishing from the restrictions imposed upon it by the censors, the study of the Ancient Theatre had begun to inaugurate new ideas, and was insensibly preparing the way for a regular system of dramatic composition. In France the imitations were preceded by translations. One of the first of these was the Iphigeneia of Euripides, done into French by Thomas Sibillet, and published in Paris, 1549.

Saint-Gelais translated six comedies by Terence ; Charles Estienne translated The Andrian Woman by the same author ; Lazare de Baïf, the Electra of Sophocles and the Hecuba of Euripides. But to Pierre de Ronsard belongs the honour of introducing the Classical Theatre on the French stage. He was not more than eighteen when he put the Plutus of Aristophanes into French verse, and gave a performance of the comedy, in which he, as well as his fellow-students, played a part, before the director of the Collège de Caqueret, where he was then finishing his studies. This event took place in 1549, and its brilliant success determined the most literary minds of the period to pursue this line of dramatic reform.

Étienne Jodelle placed himself at the head of the movement, and became leader of the school. His tragedy of Cléopâtre appeared in 1552, and is the first really French classical tragedy ; followed later on by his Didon. His disciples plunged into the same vein. From La Péruse we have the tragedy of Médée from Jean de la Taille, Saül Furieux; from Antoine de Baïf, a translation in verse of the Antigone of Sophocles. Guérin, in his turn, composed La Mort de César.

As Sainte-Beuve has pointed out, it was in Tragedy that the innovations of the school of Jodelle were remarkable, for it passed without any transition from the Christian Mysteries to the Tragedy of Antiquity. The theatre, moreover, instead of being a public hall such as the Hôpital de la Trinité, or the Palais de Justice, was the refectory or dormitory of a college. In place of artisans, the authors were themselves the actors, and enjoyed the satisfaction of applause from a sympathetic audience. `The tragedies of the school of Jodelle,' says Sainte-Beuve, `whether in Cléopâtre, Didon, Médée, or Antigone, are remarkable in this, that, as in Greek Tragedy, the action is simple, the characters few in number, the acts short, composed of only one or two scenes, and interspersed with choruses. The unities of time and place are strictly observed ; the style is distinguished by its pretensions to nobility and seriousness. Nevertheless, these plays are but pale imitations of the Ancient Tragedy, of whose grandeur and magnificence they give no conception.

At the close of his life Jodelle suffered the total eclipse of his renown by the successes of Garnier. This writer composed six tragedies on the Greek model, with choruses, but characterised, like those of Seneca, by sententious phrases and abuse of rhetoric. This is especially the case in Hippolyte, La Troade, and the Antigone.

The other plays likewise borrow something of their plot from the Latin Drama. Be this as it may, however, the historians of the period were unanimous in discovering in the works of Garnier a force of conception and a vigour of style which set them far above the tragedies of Jodelle, and marked a new step in the evolution of the Drama. Unfortunately, the result did not justify this pre-diction, even for the two most brilliant disciples of Garnier, Montchrestien and Billard. Montchrestian, it is true, exhibits a certain independence, in borrowing from contemporary history the subject of his two tragedies, L'.Ecossaise and Marie Stuart, but he did not venture to go further in the path of reform. The plays of these two poets are generally political tragedies, modelled on the pattern of Sophocles and Euripides, in which, along with the public characters of the period, one finds choruses of different kinds.

In the meanwhile, the infatuation of Europe, and of England in particular, for the Italian plays, had penetrated to France. The first translation was that of Les Abusés, by Charles Estienne. Jean de la Taille translated the Gli Suppositi and the Negromante of Ariosto. This writer is supposed to be the author of the first regular prose comedy, Les Corrivaux (1562).

To Larivey, however, belongs the honour of having formally introduced prose into comedy, in 1579. A native of Italy, but speaking French with surprising perfection, he sought to acclimatise Italian Comedy in France. To this end he modified its external form, suppressed the foreign miseen-scène, naturalised the names of characters as well as places, and yet respected the foundation of his models, throwing into relief whatever was original in them. He placed in Comedy a number of types which have been adopted permanently, e.g. the dishonest valet and the swaggering soldier.

His greatest merit was, perhaps, that he taught the art of cleverly embroiling a situation, introducing into French Comedy the imbroglio unknown to the authors of the Mediaeval Theatre. Larivey is the author of a dozen pieces written in prose, the most remarkable of which, taken from the Aridosio of Lorenzo de Medicis, is the comedy of Les Esprits, where he draws his situations from the works of Plautus and Terence. Molière found inspiration in this play for the École des Maris and the Avare. Regnard also took from it his Retour Imprévu. For the justification of this revolution in the dramatic art, Larivey insisted on the fact that the Querolus of Plautus, and other lost comedies of great value, were written in prose. He also invoked the example given by Bibiena, Piccolo-mini, and Aretino, whose plays also are in prose.

Although Larivey occupies the first place in the history of the Old Theatre, next to the author of Maitre Pathelin, the impulse given by this writer found no following, and up to the time of Molière the Prose Comedy had no serious disciples. At the same time we must recognise that the influence of the Renaissance upon the destinies of Comedy had been fortunate. We have already seen the action of the Italian Drama ; that of the Latin Theatre was no less appreciable, since we owe to it the division of the plays into acts and scenes, which was unknown before the Renaissance.

The classical comedies of the period inaugurated by the Eugène, a play in verse by Jodelle, are admittedly superior to the tragedies, for they were for the most part written with great talent ; but on the other hand they were nearly all immoral and coarse, and little suited for the stage of the college theatres, which enjoyed a monopoly of these classical pieces. In fact, none of the works of Jodelle, Garnier, La Péruse, de la Taille, or Larivey were ever represented at the Hôtel de Bourgogne or any other public place. It is true that in 1584 a troupe of comedians, whose nationality is unknown, played for some days at the Hôtel de Cluny, and gave a certain number of pieces from the Pléiade, but this theatre was a strictly private hall.

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