The French Stage at the Beginning of the Baroque

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The French Stage at the Beginning of the Baroque

Crisis and Recovery.

The later sixteenth century in France had been punctuated by religious wars and economic and political instability. With the accession of Henri IV (r. 1594–1610) and his promulgation of the Edict of Nantes—a royal decree that granted a limited degree of religious toleration to French Calvinists—a new tenuous stability began to develop in the country. Although Henri IV was assassinated in 1610, France did not sink into civil war again as might have been expected. Instead under the regency of Henri's wife Marie de' Medici and the rule of her son, Louis XIII (r. 1610–1643), the country's political systems and economy gathered renewed strength and the way was prepared for France's rise to European dominance in the second half of the seventeenth century. Developments in the professional theater were very much affected by these trends as well. In 1600, Paris, which was by far the country's largest city, possessed a theater that was little developed when compared against the high standards of professionalism being developed in England and Spain at the time. A half-century later, a new generation of playwrights was producing quality tragedies and comedies that were eventually to shape drama, not only in France, but throughout Europe as well. While the sudden rise of several generations of playwrights that included such geniuses as Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), Jean-Baptiste Molière (1622–1673), and Jean Racine (1639–1699), may appear meteoric, their successes nevertheless stemmed from the traditions of theater that had flourished in France before them.

The Sixteenth-Century Theater.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a variety of genres of drama were popular in France and were being performed by mostly amateur troupes of actors in the country's cities. As in other parts of Europe at the time, the popularity of religious drama was still strong, and mystery plays performed on important feast days often consumed the efforts of scores of actors in France's cities. Allegorical morality plays were also popular throughout the country, while for lighter fare, French audiences enjoyed silly farces and satirical dramas known as soties. In the second half of the century, however, the impact of humanism began to manifest itself in the writing of new kinds of comedies, tragicomedies, and tragedies inspired by the works of Antiquity. In comedy, the impact of the five-act form of the ancient writers Terence and Plautus began to produce subtle modulations around 1550 in French farces and comedies, as a group known as the Pleiades tried to adopt classical forms to the country's theater. This group took its name from the celestial constellation that, according to Greek mythology, had been formed out of the remains of seven prominent poets. The most prominent of these figures, Joachim du Bellay (c. 1522–1560) and Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585), had studied classical forms with the intention of raising the standards of French drama to compete with the brilliance they saw in Italian humanist theater of the time. While many of the dramatic structures of ancient comedy came to be applied to the works of the Pleiades, much of the writing of the group continued to be faithful to French traditions of farce common in the later Middle Ages. As a group, the Pleiades still favored the octosyllabic, or eight-syllable, verse writing that had been commonly used in the writings of French comic farces to this date. They did not, in other words, emulate the use of prose that was common among Italian humanist dramatists of the day. At the same time many writers adopted plots that were drawn directly from Antiquity, from the works of Terence and Plautus. Plays treating adulterous husbands and wives, scheming family members, and lovelorn students derived many of their plots from Antiquity, while continuing to be set in the urban world of the time. At about the same time that these experiments in new forms of comedy were appearing, French humanists also turned to the tragedies of Latin Antiquity for inspiration as well. Like Italian tragedies of the day, the many French tragedies that date from the second half of the sixteenth century evidenced the use of ancient canons of dramatic writing. A renewed interest in the Roman tragedies of Seneca and in the Greek works of Euripides was important in prompting French writers to emulate the ancient five-act structures of classical tragedy as well as to develop a role for the chorus. At the same time, many of the tragedies written in this period were not performed, but were primarily "closet dramas" intended to be read by educated elites. In this way ancient stories about figures like Julius Caesar, Medea, or Cleopatra often became a vehicle for commenting upon the grave circumstances of the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Writers saw in these ancient episodes events that might provide virtuous moral lessons for their contemporary readers, who were suffering through a time of uncertainty and political instability.

The Confraternity of the Passion.

The sixteenth century also saw the rise of a nascent professional theater in Paris around the institution known as the Confraternity of the Passion. In 1402, this organization, which was comprised of young amateur performers who were usually apprentices and journeymen in Paris guilds, had been granted a royal monopoly over all dramatic productions in the city. This monopoly was to be upheld well into the seventeenth century before being formally abolished by Louis XIV, who began to charter new theaters in the city. For much of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Confraternity of the Passion had been responsible for the annual staging of the city's mystery plays, religious dramas that accompanied the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi and other important religious holidays throughout the year. During the sixteenth century the Confraternity came under increasing criticism for the liberties that it took in producing religious dramas. Churchmen attacked the organization for including spurious material in their productions. French Protestants, in particular, detested the group's productions, fearing that the theater provided an entree into idolatry and immorality. By 1548, the Parlement of Paris, the local governing body, forbade the group from performing religious dramas in the city. At the same time, the Confraternity of the Passion retained its rights to use the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a palatial residence that the group owned in the city. Deprived of their ability to perform religious dramas, the members of the Confraternity began to perform light farces and other kinds of secular fare in the Hôtel's theater, a large room outfitted with a simple two-story stage and bleachers. Over the following decades, though, the group gradually abandoned acting altogether and began to lease out their theater to professional troupes that performed their repertory there. Until 1600, no troupe, however, was able to achieve any modicum of financial success performing in the theater; at that time the company of Valleran le Conte set up shop in the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and its successful exploitation of the space as well as its populist-tinged dramas began to develop a professional theater in early seventeenth-century Paris. Le Conte had a highly successful relationship with the playwright Alexandre Hardy (c. 1575–1632), who in his relatively short life wrote hundreds of comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, and pastorals. Unlike the cultivated dramas that Renaissance humanists were writing at the time, Hardy's works relied on a realistic mixture of coarse language, sexuality, and outright violence. His dramas were fast-paced and designed to please a broad spectrum of Paris' populace, filled as they were with a progression of short scenes and sudden plot turns. While highly cultivated French writers of the time labored to revive classical drama, Hardy gave his audiences a steady stream of crowd-pleasing sensations. Limbs were severed in duels, eyes were plucked out, and characters were beheaded in the many plays that he wrote for the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Eventually, Valleran's troupe took up permanent residence in the facility and hired Hardy from 1611 as their official playwright. The productions of the Conte de Valleran's troupe and Hardy were to have an undeniably important impact on French theater. While the quality of the dramas they produced may not have been particularly memorable, the sustained professionalism and high production values of their efforts helped to popularize theater in Paris.

Other Groups.

Although the Hôtel de Bourgogne's monopoly over theatrical productions in Paris was not formally revoked until 1676, the growth of urban sprawl in Paris affected the theater there, just as it did in London at about the same time. In the English capital, Puritan ministers and city officials in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London feared the disorder that accompanied the theaters. While many objected to drama, they also detested the theaters as the haunts of criminals and prostitutes. To skate the regulations of the city of London's officialdom, theater owners in London had thus located their large public theaters in the areas known as the Liberties, places on the outskirts of the city where municipal regulations held no force. While the professional stage was not nearly so highly developed in Paris in 1600 as it was in London at the same time, Paris' growing urban sprawl provided a similar opportunity for professional troupes that were anxious to perform in the capital's vicinity. Around this date plays began to be performed at the fairs that were held in the suburban districts of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent in the spring and summer months. Thus these new temporary theaters developed alongside the monopolistic Hôtel de Bourgogne and flourished as venues for short dramas, dances, and song at the fairs on Paris' outskirts. In this way the dominance of the Confraternity of the Passion's control over the Parisian theater was gradually challenged. And as the royal government, too, acquired a taste for the theater in the 1630s and 1640s, new troupes were allowed to perform within the city's walls.


Karten Garscha, Hardy als Barockdramatiker, eine stilistische Untersuchung (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1971).

Brian Jeffrey, French Renaissance Comedy, 1552–1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Jillian Jondorf, French Renaissance Tragedy: The Dramatic Word (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Donald Stone, French Humanist Tragedy: A Reassessment (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1974).

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The French Stage at the Beginning of the Baroque

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