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Review of Michael Meere, Ed. _French Renaissance and Baroque Drama: Text, Performance, Theory_

Article Citation: 
17 (2006), 77–
Author: 
Christopher Semk
Article Text: 

Meere, Michael, Editor. French Renaissance and Baroque Drama: Text, Performance, Theory. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61149-548-5. Pp. 336. $90

French Renaissance and Baroque Drama is a collection of fifteen es­says that grew out of two panels at the 2012 Renaissance Society of America conference in Washington, D.C. The essays, by both early-career and senior scholars, are divided in a more or less chronological fashion. The volume’s purpose, as stated in the introduction, is threefold: to intro­duce scholars and students to the diversity of French baroque drama, to emphasize the performative aspect of drama (rather than adopt a narrowly textual approach), and, ultimately, to return neglected drama to the stage. The volume admirably executes the first two. It covers a wide range of dramatic texts, some familiar (e.g., Garnier’s tragedies), others less famil­iar (e.g., Puget de la Serre’s theater) and a wide range of critical approaches, from Victor Turner’s anthropological “social drama” (Meere and Gates) to Lacanian psychoanalysis (Guild). In addition, the term “drama” is broadly construed to mean not only theater, but also rituals, festivals, demonic possession and exorcism, trials, and other social “dra­mas.” In turn, many of the contributions address either the material conditions of baroque performance (Chevallier-Micki), its broader cultural context (Beam, Noirot, Welch, Calhoun, O’Hara), or the interplay between politics and performance (Usher, Hillman, Cavaillé). There is, however, much less about staging renaissance and baroque plays today. Only Sza­bari’s contribution considers (and then only briefly) recent productions of renaissance theater. There is otherwise very little about how one might bring these plays to the contemporary stage or why. Nevertheless, by bring­ing to light an underappreciated dramatic corpus and drawing attention to its performative aspects, the volume does represent an im­portant first step toward the entry of renaissance and baroque drama into the contemporary repertoire. French Renaissance and Baroque Drama would be of interest to students and scholars of theater, theater history, and early modern France more generally.

The first essay, by Andreea Marculescu, examines the representation of demonic possession in mystery plays and prose narratives. The author notes that narratives of demonic possession adopt a vocabulary that was developed in mystery plays, but deny the demoniac the agency that he or she had in the earlier dramatic tradition in order to focus on the Church’s purchase on truth. The essay draws on a wide range of critical approaches, from affect theory (Cvetkovich) to performance studies (Roach). In particu­lar, the novel approach to representation, following Taussig rather than Aristotle, offers a fresh perspective on mimesis in the early modern period.

John Lyons reads Théodore de Bèze’s Abraham sacrifiant against the Bib­lical account and in light of Aristotelian dramatic imperatives, showing the theological consequences of dramatic adaptation. Lyons focuses espe­cially on the introduction of Satan, whose rationalizing was meant to recall Scholastic, which is to say Catholic, philosophy. The playwright made Abra­ham more human by introducing an element of human reason, only to make the human disappear. This is the sense in which Abraham sacrifiant heralds an “end of ethics”: yoked to human reason, ethical deliberation becomes the enemy of God.

Turning toward Rabelais, Carolien Gates and Michael Meere offer a close reading of the Chiquanous episode in the Quart Livre in light of anthro­pologist Victor Tuner’s theory of play as a creative and cohesive force. Taking to task the view that cruelty and farce are destructive, the authors show that violence and laughter together become an organizing principle for social cohesion. This contribution makes the case for the applica­tion of an anthropolgical approach to resolve the problems posed by violence in dramatic texts.

While we often place Protestantism on the side of antitheatricality, Sara Beam’s contribution recovers the neglected role of the theater in Protestant evangelization. Beam discusses two plays written, published, and performed in Geneva in the 1560s. Neither play says much about theol­ogy, which Beam shows is strategic: by smoothing over the differences between the various Protestant churches, the plays present Protes­tantism as a unified front against Catholicism. Thus the purpose of the plays, Beam concludes, was not to demonstrate the finer points of Protestant theology, but rather to “intensify contempt for the Catholic hierar­chy, strengthen the resolve to combat corruption, or evoke a sense of satisfaction or even joy of belonging to the party of truth” (75).

Corinne Noirot takes on the failure of erudite comedy in the Renais­sance by asking who might have been the audience of Jean de la Taille’s comedic plays. Through close readings of paratexts, Noirot shows that the plays suffered from a tension between pragmatism (thereby reaching a wider audience) and poetic conventions (thereby appealing to an erudite, but restricted, audience). Making the case for a tiered audience comprised of “those who can” (nobles) and “those who know” (humanists), Noirot argues that La Taille’s comedies fell victim to a desire to reach both audi­ences.

The next essay, by Ellen Welch, similarly engages with the question of the audience. Reading court ballet in the context of diplomacy, with a particu­lar focus on the 1573 Ballet des Polonais, Welch convincingly argues that the audience of court ballet (e.g., the presence of foreign observ­ers) necessarily disperses power and thus has consequences for interpretation: multiple interpretations and constant negotiation of mean­ing. Moreover, court artists (e.g., Dorat), Welch argues, anticipated the multiple perspectives of the audience. Ultimately, the negotiation inherent in the performance of the ballet mirrors that of diplomacy itself. This es­say, like Noirot’s, shows how attention to reception bears upon our interpretation of renaissance and baroque performance.

The next essay, by Antonia Szabari, offers a fascinating contextualiza­tion of Garnier’s Greek tragedies with respect to ancient sacrificial practices and contemporary religious violence. Noting “Garnier’s familiar­ity with classical rituals” (117), Szabari examines how ritual practices function in theatrical performance, concluding that “Garnier’s plays look at this ‘barbarous’ ritual of the past in order to allude to the return of vio­lence in France” (134). In this way, Szabari shows how drama might reactivate ritual to give it contemporary religious or political significance.

In the second essay on Garnier, Phillip John Usher examines the associa­tion of the tragedies with the parlement. Considering the dedicatory letters of the tragedies as well as Garnier’s dramatization of the material, Usher argues that Garnier makes the Greek material “appear as public tri­als worthy of the parlement’s attention” (149) and in this way brings his tragedies into a public sphere. Garnier’s tragedies thus become an appeal to negotiate for peace at a time when France was torn apart by religious conflict. Usher’s approach has the great merit of overcoming the pitfalls of contextualization, where a piece of literature becomes the “expression” of contemporary events, by looking at the ways in which an author con­sciously and actively engages with the public sphere.

Fabien Cavaillé also considers the public sphere in an analysis of the repre­sentation of festivals in Montaigne’s Essais. Turning, like Gates and Meere, toward Turner’s definition of play, Cavaillé proposes an anthropologi­cal understanding of early modern festivals as an alternative to a “poetic” paradigm according to which the arts are useful insofar as they convey particular content. The anthropological paradigm, on the other hand, focuses on the collective nature of performance, regardless of “what one performs or not” (162).

Elizabeth Guild’s contribution joins psychoanalysis and skepticism in reading Montaigne’s 1562 encounter with “cannibals” in Rouen. Guild argues that “Montaigne’s representation [of the encounter with the “canni­bals”] dramatizes the significance of waiting until later for understanding, rather than—whether through the illusion of knowing already, or driven by fear of being too late—rushing to have the last word and thereby exclud­ing other possible pasts and futures” (170). This essay is the most heavily theoretical of the volume and assumes some familiarity with psychoan­alytic criticism. It nevertheless offers a compelling interpretation of Montaigne’s dramatization of his encounter with the other.

Christian Biet’s contribution, a translation of an article that some may al­ready be familiar with, reads Jacques de Fonteny’s pastoral play Le beau berger (1587) as a kind of “experiment” (189) with dramatic genre. Biet reads Fonteny’s innovations, particularly the celebration of male homosexual­ity between the shepherds Chrisophile and Chrisalde, as nationalistic: Fonteny thus creates a specifically French pastoral, which returns to an ancient tradition the celebrated male love. The monstrous sa­tyrs, then, become parodic figures of Italian and Spanish pastoral drama, exposing the generic limitations of pastoral drama based on heterosexual love only.

Sybile Chevallier-Micki looks at the material conditions of perfor­mance in Rouen from 1600–1620 and considers the complex relationship between stage design and the reality of public trials, executions, and other forms of spectacle. In addition, it was not only memory of real spectacles (e.g., mystery plays) that informed stage design, but also the collective memory of recent religious conflicts. Chevallier-Micki’s contribution ends on a speculative, but promising, note, asking us to consider the ways in which new dramatic forms recycled or reappropriated preexisting scenic elements and recast them according to new political demands.

Alison Calhoun considers the relationship between dignity, an essen­tially public affect, and emotion, which is private, in burlesque ballets by looking closely at the Bal de la douairière de Billebahaut (1627). Rather than enact power and control, the leaders perform their own weaknesses. Building upon recent work in affect theory, Calhoun argues that in the bal­let, political problems are “felt” before they are addressed in the political, public arena (236), in much the same way that affect is “felt” before it is identified as emotion.

Stephanie O’Hara examines the “dramaturgy of poison” in the develop­ment of tragedy, noting that poison moves toward metaphor in neoclassical tragedy. Although this is not especially surprising, given the dual imperative of verisimilitude and decorum that rendered the neoclassi­cal stage inhospitable to gruesome scenes of violent death, O’Hara also shows that the stylized dramatic representation of poison coexisted with vivid pamphlet literature. O’Hara’s contribution shows how dramatic repre­sentation offers fictional resolution to “intractable political and social problem[s]” (261) like poison crimes.

In the volume’s final essay, Richard Hillman addresses the question of topical allusions in early modern drama by looking closely at two minor plays by Puget de la Serre and André Mareschal. Considering both au­thors’ relationships with Marie de Medici at the time of her exile, Hillman looks at how both plays work with English material (i.e., Sidney). This exceptionally lucid essay demonstrates how we might investigate the “allu­sive operation of theatrical intertextuality” (285) in order to tease out the relationship between theater and its immediate political context.

Christopher Semk, Yale University

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