During the Renaissance, theatrical events formed a part of everyday life in France. Churches and cities often organized dramatic ceremonies and spectacles. The court took delight in elaborate weddings, military contests, and carefully staged processions to mark a royal entrance into an important city. As a result, scholars find it difficult to label specific types of performance as "Renaissance drama."
Another problem with the term stems from the fact that there was no clear distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in France. Medieval* ways of thinking gave way slowly to a renewed interest in classical* ideas. In the same way, the types of drama popular in the late Middle Ages gradually developed into the typical forms of the Renaissance between 1450 and 1620.
Popular Theater. During the Middle Ages, several types of plays had appealed to large and varied audiences. One example was the mystery play, a form of religious drama based on biblical stories. Some of these productions went on for days and involved much of the population in the towns where they appeared. Such performances continued until 1548, when the king banned them, fearing they would spread Protestant ideas. However, they left a continuing legacy in French drama. Some of these religious plays had included short, comic scenes called farces*. The farce became a dramatic form in its own right and remained popular throughout the Renaissance.
Actors of the 1500s staged several types of popular plays on makeshift platforms in the marketplace. One type, the morality play, served—as its name suggests—to teach a moral lesson. It featured either biblical characters or symbolic figures who stood for abstract qualities. For example, in one play a character named Charity must fight and win a battle with Cheating, Greed, and Death. Plays called sotties, or fools' plays, also tended to feature moral themes. However, they also sometimes included political satire*. Some of their characters served as symbols, like those in the morality plays, but the most common figures were the "fools" from which the plays took their name. Modern scholars find these fools' plays extremely difficult to translate because they relied heavily on complicated wordplay.
Hundreds of French farces have survived from the Renaissance. These comic plays tend to use a handful of standard plots, such as a violent quarrel between a husband and wife, an unfaithful wife tricking her husband, or a fond mother who believes that her idiot son will become a priest. Unlike morality plays and sotties, farces feature characters drawn from everyday life, such as servants, soldiers, shoemakers, and priests. Farces appealed to both intellectuals and common people. They had an influence on later dramas, including the works of the famous French playwright Molière (1622–1673) and possibly the Italian form known as commedia dell'arte.
Two of the most famous French farces are still popular with actors today. The Tub, a piece from the late 1400s, tells the story of a weak husband bullied by his wife. When she falls into her washtub and gets stuck, he refuses to help her out until she agrees to obey him. MasterPeter Pathelin (ca. 1460)—the most famous of all French farces—relates the adventures of a trickster who outwits a greedy merchant, but then is himself outwitted by a shepherd. This play's language was more sophisticated than that of most farces, leading some critics to label it the first true French comedy.
Humanist Comedy. In the mid-1500s, French humanists* began attempting to revive the literary forms of ancient Greece and Rome. In 1552 playwright Étienne Jodelle restored the five-act play structure of ancient drama in Eugène. Jodelle intended this piece to be the first classical comedy of the French Renaissance. However, many modern critics note that the play actually combined elements of ancient Roman comedy and French farce. The plot centers on a tangled web of romances involving a wife, her uncultured husband, her former lover Florimond, her current lover Eugène, and his sister—who is in love with Florimond.
Tangled romantic plots became standard for French humanist comedy. Many playwrights borrowed ideas from the comedies of two ancient Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence. Examples include an unfaithful wife juggling two lovers and an unfaithful husband who tries to take advantage of an orphaned girl, only to learn that she is a wealthy heiress. Certain standard characters appear in many French humanist comedies: family members, irresponsible young men who would rather make love than study, and servants (either helpful or disloyal). Doctors, law officials, and military men also turn up in several of these plays.
Humanist Tragedy. Tragedies, both in Latin and in French, were even more popular in the French Renaissance than comedies. Writers of this genre* often copied the style and subject matter of ancient authors, such as the Greek playwright Euripides and the Roman philosopher Seneca. Étienne Jodelle worked to revive classical tragedy, as he had done with comedy.
Scholars have labeled Jodelle's Cleopatra in Prison (1552–1553) the first French tragedy in a distinct Renaissance style. However, they do not consider it the very first French tragedy. That honor goes to Abraham's Sacrifice (1550), by Théodore de Bèze, even though it has a happy ending. Several other authors chose religious subjects for their plays, but most drew their ideas from the ancient world.
Scholars agree that the most important writer of French Renaissance tragedies was Robert Garnier. Between 1568 and 1583, he published eight plays, including seven tragedies. Garnier followed the five-act structure and many other features of ancient drama. These included the chorus (a character who introduces and comments on the action), large numbers of monologues*, and a style of rapid-fire dialogue. Garnier also took most of his plots from the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome.
Tragicomedy and Pastoral. In the 1580s, Garnier imported an Italian form known as tragicomedy into France. This style of drama blended elements of tragedy and comedy. The genre remained popular well into the 1600s, reaching its greatest heights between 1620 and 1640. Another popular form of the early 1600s was the pastoral*, a style imported from both Italy and Spain. Pastoral plays were set in the countryside, which often represented a quiet and simple way of life. This form of drama flourished for only a short time, but pastoral themes lingered in French literature throughout the 1600s. Playwright Jean Mairet combined the pastoral and the tragicomedy in several plays, but most of them were written too late to be considered Renaissance drama.
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * farce
light dramatic piece that features broad comedy, improbable situations, stereotyped characters, and exaggerated physical action
- * satire
literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness
A Solo Soldier
Perhaps the simplest form of popular theater during the French Renaissance was the monologue. The most famous surviving French monologue is The Bowman from Bagnolet (ca. 1470). In this speech a soldier boasts about his cowardly behavior and his robbery during a war. He then mistakes a scarecrow for an enemy soldier and talks to it at length before realizing his error. Many scholars view this humorous little play as another form of the French farce.
- * humanist
Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)
- * genre
- * monologue
long speech by one character
- * pastoral
relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life