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The Theatre In France - Alexandre Hardy, Rotrou, And The French Stage Prior To The Adoption Of Classical Tragedy

( Originally Published 1902 )



(1600- 1640).

Hardy and the strolling troops of actors—Hardy's fecundity; his principal plays; their sources—Hardy and the Hôtel de Bourgogne between 1600 and 1617—The dramatic repertory between 1618 and 1629—Hardy's troop, and rival companies—Prices of entrance at the Hôtel de Bourgogne—First real French actors--First comedians on the stage—Character of performances at the Hôtel de Bourgogne ; the public—The Prologue to the play—The entr'actes—The system of stage-decoration down to 1625—Character of staging after 1625-Hardy as a dramatist—Hardy and Tragi-Comedy—Hardy and the Pastoral Play—Rotrou, the heir to Hardy's style ; his first plays—The `Rule of the Three Unities' between 1628 and 1636—Rotrou's principal plays—Poets contemporary with this author—Religious Drama in the seventeenth century.

LITTLE is known of Alexandre Hardy before the end of the year 1593, when it is believed that he engaged himself in a strolling company of players. These `troupes de campagne' (as they were called) were generally formed in Paris during Lent.

This season of penitence was a respite for the actors, and they profited by it to engage companies of ten or twelve actors to travel in the provinces after Easter. The best companies included a special poet and a decorator (who was generally enlistéd on the scene of the performance). If not sufficiently wealthy to afford themselves a poet, the company was content to act pieces that had been already printed, and in default of even these, arranged to reproduce others of which the rival companies possessed the manuscript. With the exception of certain great centres such as Lyons, Rouen, Bordeaux, which were famous for their love of the theatre, and where they remained for some time, the companies made but a short stay in each place.

Under these circumstances their best profits were derived from private performances bespoken either by some rich bourgeois on the marrying of his daughter, or by some seigneur who turned the hall of his château into a theatre, to the gratification of his guests. The fairs and gatherings of the provincial Estates were particularly propitious to these public performances, but the municipalities imposed heavy conditions on the companies, and levied a substantial sum on their earnings for the poor of the district.

As we said, the best-appointed companies had their poet, and it was the collaboration of the prolific author Alexandre Hardy that secured for his players an ascendency over the other nomad troops. After some years' apprenticeship in the provinces, Hardy returned to Paris, where between 1598 and r 600 he engaged himself in Valeran's company, the most famous of those which performed at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. He remained attached to this company till his death, that is to say, till 1631, or 1632, and faithfully kept the promise made to his leader to supply him with as many plays as he wanted.

During the greater part of his career of author-ship Hardy received in payment only the proportion that came to each member of the company after the performances. It was only in the later years of his life that he sold his plays to the director of the company, who paid for them in advance. The remuneration was little enough. It varied from two to five crowns.

Hardy is reckoned to have composed an average number of twenty plays a, year, for a period of thirty years, which brings the sum-total of his productions to six hundred. No manuscript of this author is extant. Happily, a certain number of his plays have been printed. These are Les chastes amours de Théagène et Cariclée, printed in 1623. This publication was followed, in 1624, by a volume which appears to be the first of a series, and contained eight plays, namely, Didon, Scédase, Panthée, Méléagre, Procris, Alceste, Ariadne, and Alphée.

Then, in 1625, appeared Le Théâtre d'Alexandre Hardy, parisien, vol. ii., which included Achille, Coriolan, Cornélie, Arsacome, Marianne, Alcée, Le Ravissement de Proserpine, La Force du Sang, La Gigantomachie, Félismène, Sidère, and Le Jugement d'Amour.

Vol. iii. was published in 1626, and contained the six last plays of vol. ii. Sidère, however, was now called Dorise, and Le jugement d'Amour became Corinne ou le Silence. Vol. iv. was published at Rouen in the same year (during a tour in the provinces), and consisted of the seven following pieces : La Mort de Daïre, La Mort d'Alexandre, Aristoclée, Frégonde, Gésippe, Phraarte, Le Triomphe d'Amour. In 1628 appeared vol. v., containing six pieces : Timoclée, Elmira, La belle Egyptienne, Lucréce, Alcméon, L'Amour Victorieux ou Vengé. Hardy sought inspiration for his plays in the French translations of the principal Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish authors. Plutarch's Lives was the work he most frequently put under contribution. Among Latin writers his models were Virgil, Ovid, Quintus Curtius ; among the Italians, Tasso, Boccaccio, Giraldi Cinthio, the author of the Hundred Novels, translated into French by Chappuis ; among Spanish authors, Cervantes, whose works inspired the composition of Cornélie, La Force du Sang, La belle Egyptienne.

When Hardy and Valeran's troop took possession of the public theatre in Paris, in 1599, they brought their provincial repertory with them. These were romantic stories in the genre of Huon de Bordeaux, but instead of merely being divided into days like their predecessors at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, they were subdivided into acts. The repertory comprised, in addition, regular tragedies taken from Greek or Roman history, such as La Mort d'Achille and Coriolan ; or from Jewish history, such as Marianne ; plays that were still very classical, but more dramatic than those of Garnier, and written for the theatre proper, and not for college halls or private reading.

Tragi-Comedy, an entirely new style, also appeared at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, as well as the ancient Farce, which always took the sympathies of the Parisians. Hardy was the sole author who supplied the Hôtel de Bourgogne between 1599 and 1617. But in that year he found a rival in Théophile, whose play of Pyrame et Thisbé obtained an enormous success. Next, in 1618, he had to reckon with the Arténice of Racan. In 1620 Mairet came into prominence by his representation of Sylvie. In 1625 the Amaranthe of Gombaud was performed ; in 1626 and 1627 Sylvanire and Les Galanteries du Duc d'Ossonne, by Mairet. In 1628 Rotrou came forward with his Hypocondriaque. Lastly, in 1629, Corneille gave Mélite, and in 1634 Mairet brought out Sophonisbe, the first tragedy in accordance with the rules of Classical Drama.

Yet the success of these last authors mattered little to the troop of Valeran, in comparison with the competition of the Italian companies introduced by Henri IV., Marie de Médicis, and Anne of Austria. At first they played at the Court, but subsequently removed to the Hôtel de Bourgogne, where the novelty of their acting and its wealth of gesture tickled the curiosity of the spectators. Other formidable rivals to Hardy's troop were the jugglers at the Fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent, who, like the Confrérie of the Passion, had their special privileges. The most serious rivals were the troops from the Foire Pont-Neuf and the Place Dauphine, who gave performances all the year round. There were found the trestles of Mondor, the king of charlatans, and of Tabarin, king of jesters, whose shows did great injury to the Theatre in Paris.

M. Félibien tells us, in his Histoire de la Ville de Paris, that the price of places, which in 1609 were five sous in the parterre and ten sous in the boxes, were doubled by 1634. Moreover, as was shown in the last chapter, numbers of spectators managed to pay nothing at the theatre, including the musketeers and their lackeys, who made their way in by main force. All the members of the king's household, too, had rights of free entrance. Under these conditions the profits were often very modest, and if the company had not had its provincial tours, it would have maintained itself with difficulty.

The first actor deserving of the name at the Hôtel de Bourgogne is Valeran, who, with his colleague Vautray, achieved his greatest successes between 1599 and 1628. During the greater part of this period the serious parts were taken by Robert Guérin (or La Fleur) and Hugues Guérin (Gaultier Garguille), who from 1622 was distinguished in tragedy for his acting of the king's part. Henri Legrand (nicknamed Turlupin), was also famous from 1622, in the parts of valets and knaves. But it really was rather as buffoons than as tragedians that these actors were distinguished.

From 1628, however, public taste began to improve. Disgusted with the coarseness of the farces, people now took real interest in the representation of serious pieces, more particularly in the tragedies of Hardy. This change enabled women (till now excluded from the stage by the impropriety of the early buffooneries) to figure in the new repertory ; and the apparition of La Bellerose, La Beaupré, and La Valliotte, the three first actresses, exerted a happy influence on the fortunes of the Theatre. At the same time the vulgar buffoons were replaced by men like Bellerose and Mondory, that is, by real actors capable of giving brilliant representations of serious comedy and tragedy.

The first Tragedies were constructed on the lines of the Mystery, and were played on several consecutive days : as the tragi-comedy Théagène et Cariclée, which lasted eight days. The performances took place on an average three times a week at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. They began at two and ended at four in winter, and somewhat later in summer. At the outset Valeran announced his performance by the sound of a drum, but this form of publicity was gradually relinquished in favour of pompous posters. The name of the poet or author did not, however, appear on the play-bill till after 1625. About this period the harangue, which contained the praises of the piece, replaced the prologue of former days.

The theatre of the Hôtel de Bourgogne was badly lighted, and its narrow corridors often became the scene of the worst disorders. It was thronged by pages, lackeys, students, needy authors, and disreputable women. Pickpockets frequented it in numbers. They often got up scuffles, profiting by the general confusion to carry off what they could. In short, down to 1628, the public of the Hôtel de Bourgogne was a turbulent, gross, immoral world, with a little core of educated people.

Previous to 1625 the performance began with a prologue, which was generally a mixture of coarse and obscene reflections, redeemed by occasional flashes of wit. Yet the prologue might be of a serious character, and turn on subjects such as honour, friendship, the excellent qualities of man ; although it invariably terminated with praises of the piece, and a réclame for the actors.

The entr'actes were filled by a kind of symphony, executed with a flute, drum, and two or three violins.

Although Farces were above all in vogue at the beginning of the seventeenth century, few new ones were written. The old pieces were performed over and over again, with a few fresh topical allusions. The farce over, the play was brought to an end by a song crammed with coarse jests, a style in which Gaultier Garguille made a great reputation.

In taking possession of the stage at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, as let out by the Confrérie, Hardy was obliged to preserve the system of staging in vogue for the Mysteries, the owners of the theatre of course not wishing to modify it, as they thereby economised the loss of much costly decoration. But it must be remembered that for some time past the character of the staging had been gradually improving in the direction of realism. In the first place the `mansions' had been fitted with doors, that could open or shut, according to the exigencies of the stage. Next, tombs and funeral pyres were introduced. Lastly, the use of curtains hinted at the approach of successive scene-shifting ; while, as we saw above, battles and executions figured in the theatre from the outset of the sixteenth century. Hence there were already openings out of which Hardy could enlarge the system of decoration, which from now onwards was threefold ---

1. The stage was divided into several compartments, forming an ensemble.

2. The decorative system was mixed, that is to say, there might be 0n the one hand a number of compartments forming an ensemble, on the other several distinct compartments, independent of each other as well as of the principal group.

3. The decoration was multiple ; in this case the several parts were absolutely distinct in themselves, and the audience had to suppose these parts at a variable distance one from the other. If the scenes were to approximate, the actor, passing into the next compartment, continued his monologue or dialogue. If, on the contrary, the scenes were supposed to be apart, the actor quitted the stage almost running, and only entered the next compartment after a certain lapse of time, with every appearance of fatigue, and expressing his satisfaction at the happy termination of his journey.

After 1625, when the taste for the `classical rules' had begun to assert itself seriously, Hardy, in order to reconcile the interests of his stock decorations with the requirements of Aristotle's Poetics, conceived the notion of retaining multiple decoration on the stage, but at the same time making his characters act regardless of it, thus giving the piece the unity denied it by its staging. In fine, Alexandre Hardy was brought by force of circumstances to serve as the transition between the art of the Middle Ages and the Classical School. At the outset of his career he inclined to the side of the romantic English and Spanish Schools, under whose influence he had come, and whose liberty, for the rest, was no more than that of the Mediaeval Mysteries. This tendency is exhibited principally in his tragi-comedies. In the later years of his life, yielding to the general trend, Hardy endeavoured to give a more classical character to his system of decoration, and this tendency is more particularly to be seen in his tragedies.

As a dramatic writer properly so-called, the role of Alexandre Hardy is by no means clear or well-defined, for, as a matter of fact, he did not compose a single tragedy that was of interest to the spectators, nor did he create one original tragic type. At the same time it must be recognised that he, more than any of his predecessors, gave depth to his characters, and enlarged his situations, keeping the Drama more strictly within the limits of unity and of reality. Moreover, he suppressed the choruses (although they are to be found in some of his early plays), lessened the importance of the monologue, and consequently increased the number of scenes. From all these different points of view he played a useful part, and his work is of real value, inasmuch as it prepared the way for Rotrou and Corneille.

The best of all his plays is Marianne, the numerous errors of which are atoned for by a real vigour of style.

Although the play of Bradamante, by Robert Garnier, published in 1582, goes by the name of a tragi-comedy, it must be regarded only as a variety of the type which Hardy had really created. The Tragi-Comedy of this author is distinguished by a mixture of tragic and comic, by the introduction of characters of very different social position, by (generally speaking) a happy climax, by the romantic character of the subjects, and lastly, by its more or less free treatment. The Tragi-comedy is divided into a certain number of days. The principal tragi-comedies of Alexandre Hardy are Théagène et Cariclée, Cornélie, La Force du Sang, La belle Égyptienne.

In addition to tragedies and comedies, Hardy's repertory included pastorals. The Pastoral is a play inspired by the charms of country life, the characters being shepherds and shepherdesses.

It came to the birth in Italy, in the sixteenth century, as a very distant development of the Eclogue. The origin of the eclogue again reaches back to the fifth century of Athens, for all its elements are contained in the Satyric Drama. This type is, moreover, easily recognisable in the comedy of The Cowherds by Cratinus, contemporary with Aristophanes, and in another play, The Rustics of Menander, which dates from the end of the fourth century.

The one writer of merit who can be claimed by the School of Hardy is Rotrou. In him we see the last representative of a style which would undoubtedly, and before long, have secured the ascendency of the Romantic Drama over the Classical Theatre, if the tyrannical exigencies of Cardinal Richelieu had not intervened to divert the French Drama from its natural courses.

Rotrou was born at Dreux on August 27, 1609. At the outset of his career he was most probably, like Hardy, associated with a strolling company, whom he supplied with pieces. In 1628 his first work, L'Hypocondriaque, was produced. This tragi-comedy, which is only a series of dialogues and episodic scenes with no marked action, is remarkable for its graceful invention and harmonious versification. In the same year he made a great success at the Hôtel de Bourgogne with his comedy, La Bague de l'Oubli. This was the epoch at which the famous literary dispute as to the ` Rule of the Three Unities' was beginning to occupy public attention. The all-powerful Riche-lieu, posing as leader of the School, had set up as a principle the dictum that everything was to be subordinated to the rule of the twenty-four hours. Corneille in his Mélite (1629), Mairet in his Sophonisbe (1634), the two first regular pieces, had respected the desires of the Cardinal, even in permitting themselves a certain licence. Tristan in his Marianne, Benserade in Cléopâtre, La Calprenède in Mithridate, had inclined the balance in favour of the `rule of the three unities,' when the performance of Le Cid, at the Théâtre du Marais, in 1636, determined the final adoption of Classic Drama on the French stage. After this representation, in effect, Scudéry and Mairet, appealing to the poetics of Aristotle and of Horace, showed that the Cid had sinned against the unity of action, by compressing into twenty-four hours the events that took four years in history. Corneille, who was seeking an opportunity of regaining the Cardinal's good graces, admitted the justice of these reproaches, and thereby gave the signal for a general submission to the exigencies of the classical method. Rotrou alone refused to take up this line, and while professing the greatest admiration for the drama of Corneille, affranchised himself all his life from the ` rule of the three unities.'

In some twenty years he composed about thirty-five plays : tragedies, tragi-comedies, and comedies. His most remarkable tragedies are Antigone, Iphigénie en Aulide, Wenceslas (1647), and Saint-Genest (1649). This last work contains an extra-ordinary mixture of the naïf and the profound, the comic and the sublime. In it Rotrou showed himself the precursor of Victor Hugo. His three best comedies are : Les Captifs, Les deux Sosies (played in 1636, the same year as Le Cid), Don Bernard de Cabre're (1647).

Rotrou, whom Voltaire holds to be the real founder of the French Theatre, died in 165o, at the early age of forty-one, the victim of his civic devotion.

His collaborators in other less well-known pieces were Boisrobert, Pierre Corneille, Colletet, and l'Estoile, whom he met at the house of Richelieu ; but no other poets of the epoch attained the eminence of Corneille and Rotrou.

Among the contemporary productions, not more than three or four passable tragedies can be quoted : Tristan's Panthée, Scudéry's L'Amour Tyrannique, Le Comte d'Essex, by La Calprenéde. In the department of comedy Les Visionnaires of Desmarets, Don Quichotte of Guérin de Bouscal, deserve special mention.

We have already seen that in the last quarter of the sixteenth century there were only eight performances of; Miracle Plays in Paris. With the seventeenth century this order of performance disappeared entirely from the capital. On the other hand a large number of plays were composed and acted till about 1625, under the name of Tragedies, which were really nothing more than disguised Mysteries. The most popular of these religious dramas were the tragedies of Caïn et Abel, of Sainte Agnès, Saint Jacques, and L'Histoire des Machabées.

The provincial representations of Mysteries did not come to an end abruptly at the close of the sixteenth century, but they became gradually less and less frequent. Hardly do we come upon three or four real Mysteries such as La Conversion de Sainte Marie - Magdeleine, Le Mystère de la Nativité, played in certain towns in the south of France at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The tradition was kept up only in Brittany, where performances of mysteries and miracle plays took place into the nineteenth century.



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