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The Theatre In France - The Theatre In The Early Part Of The Reign Of Henri IV (1589-1600)

( Originally Published 1902 )



The League and Spanish influence—Antonio Perez and English euphuism—The various plays represented between 1589 and 1597—Rule of the Three Unities threatened—Critical period in dramatic literature—Staging at the different halls or theatres—The Hôtel de Bourgogne—Use of hangings—Spectators on the stage--Women and the dramatic career.

TOWARDS the year 1588 the studies of antiquity and the literary exercises were suddenly interrupted by the civil war. A party had formed in France in defence of the Catholic religion, which was said to be insufficiently protected by the king, Henri III, This party, the ` League,' was headed by the Duc de Guise, who, seeking to replace the House of Valois on the throne, with this object approached Philip II., King of Spain; who, on his side, cherished the secret hope of marrying his daughter to the young duke, son of the Leaguer, and thus making her Queen of France. Permanent relations were thus established with Spain. France was speedily invaded by Spaniards, whose language was diffused through the country. When they were expelled in 1594 the ideas and modes that prevailed beyond the Pyrenees were not to be banished, and even Henri iv. set to work to learn Spanish. His master was one Antonio Perez, a former secretary of Philip II. This person, after quarrelling with the King of Spain, had taken refuge at the court of France, and played an important part in the literary revolution of the end of the sixteenth century. It was he who introduced into France the elegant but precious style of Spain, reinforced by the euphuism of John Lyly. From the court of Elizabeth, where he sojourned for some time, Perez returned with this style, or rather language, constructed of hyperbole and of absurd metaphor. In short, the taste for antiquity disappeared, to make way for the study of the masterpieces of Spanish literature, and in particular of the dramas of Cervantes and Lope de Vega. In 1594 the Basochians nevertheless reproduced the famous sotie of the Prince des Sots. In 1595 a French troupe of comedians, under Courtin and Poteau, acted farces and profane mysteries, licit and honest, at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. In 1596 a Christian tragedy, entitled Les Machabées, was performed there ; in 1597 La Nouvelle tragi-comique of Marc Papillon was represented with great success.

Even the college theatres were, like the Hôtel de Bourgogne, invaded from 1589 by all sorts of political manifestos.

In brief, the repertory included a little of all sorts : moral tragedies, allegorical or political pieces, tragi-comedies, tragic histories, farces, soties, and even mysteries. It was a medley of all types, and in the midst of this general anarchy the ` rule of the three unities' itself was menaced. Marc Papillon had in some measure given the signal of this dramatic revolution, by changing the scene of action at every moment, in his Nouvelle tragi-comique. Lastly, an influential critic of the period, Pierre de Laudun, had pronounced formally against the rule of the twenty-four hours.

If Alexandre Hardy (of whom we shall speak below) had but had genius, `coming under such opportune circumstances, he would,' says Sainte-Beuve, ` have found a magnificent part awaiting him. He might have created everything. No dogmatic precepts, no half-understood scruples fettered his instincts, and a vast field lay before him. Into our Ancient Theatre, into that of antiquity, into the literature of Spain, the long legendary histories and the many romances of chivalry then being published, and read with profit by the mighty Shakespeare, Hardy had but to dive, and to choose with no other law than the instinct of dramatic imagination, no condition but that of rousing emotion and giving pleasure. Imagine again the great Corneille, freed from the censures of the Academy, from bickerings with the Cardinal, from the regulations of d'Aubignac, not confined to the perusal of the latest Spanish literature, but feeding on more immediate, more national studies, and venturing on innovations by his sole genius—under such circumstances, we may well believe, the destinies of our Theatre would have changed for ever, and paths of Tragedy, wider by far than those of the Cid or the Horace, would have opened to the talents of the great minds that followed. Hardy, alas, failed to grasp the situation.'

So long as the Moralities were allegorical in character the mise en scène was necessarily little complicated, since the Church, Virtue, and Vice to a certain extent supplied all the paraphernalia of the piece. But when it came to the performance of merry moralities, and of historical or political farces, the staging became luxurious enough, both with Basochians and with the Enfants Sans-Souci, and continued to be so until the Renaissance. Then came a further change : the Farce made way for the first essays in the Comedy of Character, imitated from Plautus ; and since there were now only general types, the mise en scène, rid of all external precision, fell into neglect, and finally disappeared altogether. The only decorations that remained were stretched sheets, marking the limits of the stage.

Independently of the Halls of the different societies or corporations, real theatres existed during the second part of the sixteenth century in several of the Colleges. The most famous were those of de Boncourt, Beauvais, and Reims, which each had their particular company, their own repertory, and fixed days of performances. Others, as those of de Guise, Coqueret, and Harcourt, had as actors their own pupils, or amateur societies. The Collège de Boncourt had a monopoly of the works of Jodelle, and the Sophonisbe of Saint-Gelais was represented at the Hôtel de Reims. In these various Halls the staging was even more simple than in the public theatres : it consisted merely of hangings which hid the three walls at the back.

The Hôtel de Bourgogne, the most celebrated of all the theatres of the period, deserves a special description : ` The building in question bore little resemblance to what we nowadays call a theatre, and approximated more nearly to an office. The hall was vast, but low, in comparison with its dimensions, which admitted an audience of more than two thousand persons. The stage was of an extraordinary depth, since it was constructed for the representation of mysteries which involved a considerable number of actors. In performing plays which demanded little staging, the space was reduced by means of tapestry curtains, hung from the middle of the vast stage. The lighting, during the performances, consisted of a row of candles in front of the stage, which required constant snuffing. In addition, there was above the actors a chandelier with four branches, hung in the air, with four great yellow wax-candles. There were two superposed rows of boxes, and each box, fitted with wooden benches, could contain some dozen spectators, plunged in semi - obscurity. The pit, in which the audience stood, or moved about at will, was no better lighted than the boxes.'

It was in the use of tapestries or stretched sheets, employed as we have just seen in the public or private theatres, that the idea originated of the fixed scenes and invention of corridors in the seventeenth century, for it was soon perceived that between the hangings and the walls of the stage a space could be contrived that might be transformed into passages for the use of the actors.

It was for a long time, but very erroneously, believed that the custom of seating the spectators at the wings of the stage (an English institution) had been adopted in France, as in England, about the middle of the seventeenth century. M. Germain Bapst has corrected this error, and shows that the custom was only imported into France at the end of the sixteenth century, that is, fifty years after its adoption across the Channel.

After 1578, when the Confrérie of the Passion began to let out their hall to different companies, the costumes, formerly one of the attractions of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, became mere sorry rags. This was because the different companies who played there in succession rarely covered their expenses. The entrance was only five sous in the parterre, while numbers of spectators forced their way in without paying.

The large boxes were rarely occupied, and at times the play could not take place for want of sufficient receipts to cover the expenses of the day. And this was from no lack of publicity, for the performances were generally announced by pro-cessions, when the actors, in costume, paraded the streets to the sound of music.

From the earliest period women figured in the Mimed Mysteries, but it was only from the sixteenth century that their presence on the stage in Spoken Mysteries was recognised. They never appeared in the Comedies and Tragedies of the period, owing to the impropriety of these pieces.



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