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Review of Postert, Kirsten. Tragédie historique ou Histoire en Tragédie? Les sujets d’histoire moderne dans la tragédie française (1550-1715). Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2010. ISBN 978-3-8233-6553-2. Pp. 440.

Article Citation: 
XIII, 2 (2011): 206–209
Perry Gethner
Article Text: 


This study of French tragedies based on modern (defined as post-1492) history provides a systematic overview of a subgenre that has typically been viewed as anomalous and inconsequential. Kirsten Postert demonstrates that the phenomenon was not really rare (she has found 32 such tragedies from the period under review) or viewed at the time as unacceptable (some theorists deem them legitimate and discuss the feasibility of writing them). She goes beyond previous studies by formulating a categorization for the plays based on such factors as the author’s explicitly stated motivation for writing, the privileging of either character study or of historical causality, and the attempt (or lack thereof) to make the text conform to literary conventions. She also situates the discussion of the subgenre within the broader context of how thinkers of the classical era understood the intersection of history and drama.

The opening chapter provides a theoretical underpinning for the new critical approach by juxtaposing overviews of the development of historiographic theory and poetic theory in France during the period in question and by showing how in the seventeenth century the two were not as far apart as we might imagine today. Given that the most widely read historians emphasized aesthetic excellence and moral instruction, along with an emphasis on what is timeless, rather than erudition and emphasis on factual accuracy, the principle of vraisemblance overlaps the two realms. The discussion of how the latter principle functioned in classical dramatic theory retraces familiar ground, but the collation of texts referring to the writing of tragedy based on French and/or recent history brings to light many unfamiliar texts.

Postert logically divides the analytical chapters into three groups based on geography: the episodes from modern history chosen by writers of tragedy were derived almost exclusively from France, England and the Orient (mainly Turkey). Each chapter consists of two parts: a general treatment of the corpus as a whole, followed by a detailed analysis of two tragedies deemed to be especially significant or representative. This allows her to avoid the pitfall of providing little more than a catalogue of plot synopses. The chapter on France is prefaced by an intriguing analysis of plays based on French history or current events in the periods just preceding 1550 and just following 1715. The former group of works, labeled as moralities, reveal one of the tendencies that will also dominate some of the later tragedies: they feature a polemic or propagandistic perspective, trying to shape popular perception of events.

Given that one of the practical difficulties in writing tragedies about modern history, as often noted at the time, is the lack of distance, which tends to restrict the poet’s freedom of invention and may prevent the characters from attaining the heroic elevation associated with the remote past, writers resort to a variety of strategies. For France, where geographical proximity is unavoidable, this was especially tricky. Writers of propagandistic plays often used onomastic semi-disguise: the names of easily recognizable persons are replaced by anagrams or initials or by Greek names that hint at their roles. Another method was to introduce supernatural events or personages, such as a representative of God or Satan, thus deemphasizing the psychological dimension (the characters are mere puppets of cosmic forces). For non-French subjects, aesthetic distance was based on both geographic distance and radical differences in mores: in fact, authors played on popular stereotypes of the countries as barbaric. England was widely viewed as both isolated (being an island) and filled with harsh, cruel inhabitants. The Ottomans, alien in far more ways than the English, were an object of both fascination and fear.

The analyses of individual plays make for interesting reading and contain much new material. In some cases the comprehensive review of possible historical sources for the plays includes works not considered by previous scholars. However, Postert goes beyond the usual inquiry into the degree of fidelity to the historical sources at the playwright’s disposal to try to determine how each playwright viewed history in general and how and why he manipulated the factual material. Among the elements she studies is local color (the number and importance of references to the geography of the country where the action is set and to relevant historical events outside the basic plot); these are often far fewer than we might expect. Non-propagandistic authors from the Renaissance tended to treat their material in a highly abstract fashion, using the specific historical event merely as an exemplum in order to teach philosophical and moral lessons: even the powerful are subject to forces beyond human control (fate or divine providence). In plays from the last third of the seventeenth century the notion of “secret history,” which likewise dominated the fictional production of the time, led to a privileging to love plots and purely psychological motivations at the expense of political considerations.

Postert also provides plausible hypotheses about why certain types of subject matter were chosen. In the case of plays dealing with France, the focus tends to be on periods of civil war or other national dangers: the denouement typically points to a resolution of the crisis in which the monarchy is preserved and peace is restored. If tragedies based on English history are limited to the period of the Tudors, with most featuring Elizabeth I, it is mainly because that was the era when England suffered several phenomena that France was spared, including the official triumph of Protestantism and the presence on the throne of a woman (and one thought to be dominated by passion and caprice). At the same time, the most reused subjects seemed to resonate with French audiences in special ways. Mary Stuart, of course, had been Queen of France, and many French writers believed that she was persecuted for that very reason. The Earl of Essex seems to have embodied for the French public the spirit of aristocratic resistance to absolutism found in works like Le Cid. Thomas More was viewed as a Catholic martyr who resisted both earthly tyranny and religious heresy. The Turks, with their sumptuous lifestyle and reputation for excessive passion, especially violence, were especially appealing to baroque sensibilities. Moreover, the Ottoman royal family was especially suitable for the type of plot recommended by Aristotle (conflicts between close relatives) because of the constant and bloody power struggles within families. Both societies could serve either to criticize flaws in the “other” or to make veiled criticism of France itself.

Another of Postert’s strong points is the problematizing of the concept of history. She notes the degree and varieties of bias found in historical materials of the time, including an obvious pro-French attitude in dealing with non-French lands, a pro-Catholic attitude in dealing with Protestant rulers, and a general abhorrence of the mores of “orientals.” Historians, no less than playwrights, sometimes added material of their own invention. Moreover, dramatists treating historical subjects frequently relied on fictional sources for their plots. On the other hand, tragedies composed at the time of the events they dramatize or shortly thereafter could be seen as a part of the historical record, documenting how people perceived recent events and trying to set down for posterity what the author deemed the correct interpretation.

The main flaw of this book is the lack of careful proofreading. There are numerous errors involving everything from typography to grammar and punctuation to misspelled names to facts (Mary Stuart was born “cinq ans après la mort de son père”). In some passages sentences or paragraphs do not flow well, or information seems to be in the wrong place. But despite those minor deficiencies, this is a useful study that goes beyond the scope of existing scholarship and proves that a largely neglected group of tragedies deserves renewed attention.

Perry Gethner, Oklahoma State University

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