1902 Encyclopedia > France > 16th Century French Drama

France
(Part 42)




FRENCH LITERATURE (cont.)

16th Century Drama


The change which dramatic poetry underwent during the 16th century was at least as remarkable as that undergone by poetry proper. The first half of the period saw the end of the religious mysteries, the licence of which had irritated both the parliament and the clergy. Louis XII., at the beginning of the century, was far from discouraging the disorderly but popular and powerful theatre in which the Confraternity of the Passion, the clerks of the Bazoche, and the Enfans sans Souci enacted mysteries, moralities, soties, and farces. He made them, indeed, an instrument in his quarrel with the papacy, just as Philippe le Bel had made use of the allergorical poems of Jehan de Meung and his fellows. Under his patronage were produced the chief works of Grigore (1474-1434), by far the most remarkable writer of this class of composition. His Prince des Sots and his Mystére de St Louis are among the best of their kind. Anenormous volum of composition of this class was produced between 1500 and 1550. One morality by itself, L’homme juste et l’homme mondain, contains some 36,000 lines. But in 1548 when the Confraternity was formally established at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, leave to play sacred subjects was expressly refused it. Moralities and soties dragged on under difficulties till the end of the century, and the farce is immortal. But the effect of the Renaissance was to sweep away all other vertiges of the mediaeval drama, at least in the capital. An entirely new class of subjects, entirely new modes of treatment, and a different kind of performers were introduced. The change naturally came from Italy. In the close relationship with that country which France had during the early years of the century, Italian translations of the classical masterpieces were easily imported. Soon French translations were made afresh of the Electra, the Hecuba, the Iphigenia in Aulis, and the French humanists hastened to compose original tragedies on the classic model. It was impossible that the Pléiade shoul not eagerly seize such an opportunity of carrying out its principles, and one of its members, Jodelle (1532-1573), devoting himself mainly to dramatic composition, fashioned at once the first tragedy, Cléopatre, and the first comedy, Eugéne, thus setting the example of the style of composition which for two centuries and a half Frenchmen were to regard as the highest effort of literary ambition. The amateur performance of these dramas by Jodelle and his friends was followed by a Bacchic procession after the manner of the ancients, which caused a great deal of scandal, and was represented by both Catholic and Protestants as a pagan orgie. The Cléopatre is remarkable as being the first French tragedy, nor is it destitute of merit. It is curious that in this first instance the curt antithetic GREEK, which was so long characteristic of French plays and plays imitated from them, and which Butler ridicules in his Dialoque of Cat and Puss, already appears. There appears also the grandiose and smooth but stilted declamation which came rather from the imitation of Seneca than of Sophocles, and the tradition of which was never to be lost. Cléopatre was followed by Didon, which, unlike its predecessor, is entirely in alexandrines, and observes the regular alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. Jodelle was followed by Grévin (1540-1570) with a Mort de César, which shows an improvement in dramatic art, by Jacques de la Taille and others, such as Pierre Mathieu, who is strongly moral, and Jean de la Taille brother of Jacques. A very different poet from all these is Robert Garnier (1545-1601). Garnier is the first tragedian who deserves a place not too far below Rotrou, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, and Hugo, and who may be placed in the same class with them. He chose his subjects indifferently from classical, sacred, and medieval literature. Sédécie, a play dealing with the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar is held to be his masterpiece, and Bradamante deserves notice because it is the first tragic-comedy of merit in French, and because the famous confident here makes his fires appearance. Garnier’s successor, Antoine de Monchrétien (d. 1621), set the example of dramatizing contemporary subjects. His masterpiece is L’Ecossaise, the first of many dramas on the fate of Mary Queen of Scots. While tragedy thus clings closely to antique models, comedy, as might be expected in the country of the fabliaux, is more independent. Italy had already a comic school of some originality, and the French farce was too vigorous and lively a production to permit of its being entirely overlooked. The Pléiade and their imitators made endeavours, without such success, to write comedies on the classical model, but the first commix writer of great merit was Pierre Larivey (1540-1611) (Giunto), an Italian by descent. Most if not all of his plays are founded on Italian originals, but the adaptations are made with the greatest freedom, and deserve the title of original works. The style is admirable, and the skilful management of the action contrasts strongly with the languor, the awkward adjustment, and the lack of dramatic interest found in contemporary tragedians.






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