1902 Encyclopedia > France > Early Drama

(Part 36)


Early Drama

Before passing to the prose writers of the Middle Ages, we have to take some notice of the dramatic productions of those times, -- productions of an extremely interesting character, but, like the immense majority of mediaeval literature, poetic in form. The origin or the revival of dramatic composition in France has been hotly debated, and it has been sometimes contended that the tradition of Latin comedy was never entirely lost, but was handed on chiefly in the convents by adaptations of the Terentian plays, such as those of the nun hroswitha. There is no doubt that the mysteries (subjects taken from the sacred writings) and miracle plays (subjects taken from the legends of the saints and the Virgin) are of very early date. The mystery of the Foolish Virgins (partly French partly Latin), that of Adam, of Saint Nicolas, and perhaps others, are of the 12th century. But the later moralities, soties, and farces seem to be also in part a very probable development of the sampler and earlier forms of the fabliau and of the tenson or jeu-parti, a poem in simple dialogue much used by both troubadours and trouvéres. The fabliau has been sufficiently dealt with already. It chiefly supplied the subject; and some miracle-plays and farces are little more than fabliaux thrown into dialogue. Of the jeax-partis there are many examples, varying from very simple questions and answers to something like regular dramatic dialogue; even short romances, such as Aucassin et Nicolette, were easily susceptible of dramatization. But the Jeu de la Feuillie of Adam de la Halle seems to be the earliest piece, profane in subject, containing something more than mere dialogue. The poet has not indeed gone far for his subject, for he brings in his own wife, father, and friends, the interest being complicated by the introduction of stock characters (the doctor, the monk, the fool), and of certain fairies—personages already popular from the later romances of chivalry. Another piece of Adam’s, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, also already alluded to, is little more than a simple throwing into action of an ordinary pastourelle. Nevertheless later criticism has seen, and not unreasonably, in these two pieces the origin in the one case of farce, and thus indirectly of comedy proper, in the other of comic opera.

For a long time, however, the mystery and miracle-plays remained the staple of theatrical performance, and until the 13th century actors as well as performers were more or less taken from the clergy. It has, indeed, been well pointed out that the offices of the church were themselves dramatic performances, and required little more than development at the hands of the mystery writers. The occasional festive outbursts, such as the Feast of Fools, that of the Boy Bishop, and the rest, helped on the development. The variety of mysteries and miracles was very great. A single manuscript, now in course of publication, contains forty miracles of the Virgin, averaging from 1200 to 1500 lines each, written in octosyllabic couplets, and at least as old as the 14th century, most of them perhaps much earlier. The mysteries proper, or plays taken from the scriptures, are older still. Many of these are exceedingly long. There is a Mystére de l’Ancien Testament, which extends to many volumes, and must have taken weeks to act in its entirety. The Mystére de la Passion, though not quite so long, took several days, and recounts the whole history of the gospels. But these performances, though they held their ground until the middle of the 16th century, were soon rivaled by the more profane performances of the moralities, the farces, and the soties. The palmy time of all these three kinds is the 15th century, while the Confrérie de la Passion itself, the special performers of the sacred drama, only obtained the licence constituting it by an ordinance of Charles Vi. in 1402. In order, however, to take in the whole of the mediaeval theatre at a glance, we may anticipate a little. The Confraternity was not itself the author or performer of the profaner kind of dramatic performance. This latter was due to two other bodies, the clerks of the Bazoche and the Enfans sans Souci. As the Confraternity was chiefly composed of tradesmen and persons very similar to Peter Quince and his associates, so the clerks of the Bazoche were members of the legal profession of Paris, and the Enfans sans Souci were mostly young men of family. The morality was the special property of the first, the sotie of the second. But as the moralities were sometimes decidedly tedious plays, though by no means brief, they were varied by the introduction of farces, of which the jeux already mentioned were the early germ, and of which L’Avocat Patelin, 200 years subsequent to Adam de la Halle, is the most famous example.

The morality was on the stage the natural result of the immense literary popularity of allegory in the Roman de la Rose and its imitations. There is hardly an abstraction, a virtue, a vice, a disease, or anything else of the kind, which does not figure in these compositions. There is Bien Advisé and Mal Advisé, the good boy and the bad boy of nursery stories, who fall in respectively with Faith, Reason, and Humility, and with Rashness, Luxury, and Folly. There is the hero Mange-Tout, who is invited to dinner by Banquet, and meets after dinner very unpleasant company in Colique, Goutte, and Hydroposie. It is even said that Cheese and Tart figured among the dramatis personoe, while Honte-de-dire-ses- Péchés seems an anticipation of Puritan nomenclature. Some of those moralities possess distinct dramatic merit’ among these is mentioned Les Blasphémateurs, an early and remarkable presentation of the Don Juan story. But their general character appears to be gravity, not to say dullness. The Enfans sans Souci, on the other hand, were definitely satirical, and nothing if not amusing. The chief of the society was entitled Prince des Sots, and his crown was a hood decorated with asses’ ears. The sotie was directly satirical, and only assumed the guise of folly as a stalking-horse for shooting wit. It was more Aristophanic than any other modern form of comedy, and, like its predecessor, it perished as a result of its political application. Encouraged for a moment as a political engine at the beginning of the 16th century, it was soon absolutely forbidden and put down, and had to give place in one direction to the lampoon and the prose pamphlet, in another to forms of comic satire more general and vague in their scope. The farce, on the other hand, having neither moral purpose nor political intention, was a purer work of art, enjoyed a wider range of subject, and was in no danger of any permanent extinction. Farcical interludes were interpolated in the mysteries themselves; short farces introduced and rendered palatable the moralities, while the sotie was itself but a variety of farce. It was a short composition, 500 verses being considered sufficient, while the morality might run to at least 1000 verses, the miracle-play to nearly double that number, and the mystery to some 40,000 or 50,000, or indeed to any length that the author could find in his heart to bestow upon the audience, or the audience in their patience to suffer from the author. The number of persons and societies who acted these performances grew to be very large, being estimated at more than 5000 towards the end of the 15th century. Many fantastic personages came to join the Prince des Sots, such as the Empereur de Galilée, the Princes de l’Etrille, and des Nouveaux Mariés, the Roi de l’Epinette, the Recteur des Fons. Of the pieces which these societies represented one only, that of Maitre Patelin, is now much known; but many are almost equally amusing. Patelin itself has an immense number of versions and editions. Other farces are too

numerous to attempt to classify; they bear, however, in their subjects, as in their manner, a remarkable resemblance to the fablizux, their source. Conjugal disagreements, the unpleasantness of mother-in-law, the shifty or, in the earlier stages, clumsy valet and chambermaid, the mishaps of too loosely given ecclesiastics, the abused of relics and pardons, the extortion, violence, and sometimes cowardice of the seigneur and the soldiery, the corruption of justice, its delays, and its pompous apparatus, supply the subjects. The treatment is rather narrative than dramatic in most cases, as might be expected, but makes up by the liveliness of the dialogue for the deficiency of elaborately planned action and interest. All these forms, it will be observed, are directly or indirectly comic. Tragedy in the Middle Ages is represented only by the religious drama, except for a brief period towards the decline of that form, when what were called profane mysteries, such as those of the Siege of Troy and the Siege of Orleans, came to be represented. These were, however, rather histories, in the Elizabethan sense, than tragedies proper.

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