A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 5.

The Theatre from Gringore to Garnier.


It so happened that the mediaeval theatre closed, as far as its exclusive possession of the stage is concerned, with one of the most remarkable of all its writers. Pierre Gringore205, who towards the close of his career preferred the spelling Gringoire, was a Norman by birth. His poetical and dramatic capacity has been considerably exaggerated by the learned but crotchety scholar who was at first charged with the joint editorship of his works in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne. But, when the hyperboles of M. Charles d'Héricault are reduced to their simplest terms, Gringore remains a remarkable figure. It is to him that we owe the only complete and really noteworthy tetralogy, composed of cry, sotie, morality, and farce, which exists to show the final result of the mediaeval play — the Jeu du Prince des Sots. To him is also due the most remarkable of the sixteenth-century mysteries, that of Saint Louis; and his miscellaneous poems, as yet not fully collected, show us a man of letters possessed of no small faculty for miscellaneous work. Gringore first emerges as a pamphleteer in verse, on the side of the policy of Louis XII. He held the important position of mère sotte in the company of persons who charged themselves with playing the sotie, and Louis perceived the advantages which he might gain by enlisting such a writer on his side. Gringore's early works are allegorical poems of the kind which the increasing admiration of the Roman de la Rose, joined to the practice of the Rhétoriqueurs, had made fashionable in France; but they are directly political in tone, and an undercurrent of dramatic intention is always manifest in them. Les folles Entreprises is a very remarkable work. It might be described as a series of monologues of the kind usual and already described, but continuous, and having the independent parts bound to each other by speeches of the author in propria persona. The titles of the separate sections —L'Entreprise des folz Orgueilleux, Réflexions de l'Auteur sur la Guerre d'Italie, le Blason de Pratique, Balade et Supplication à la Vierge Marie (et se peult Interpréter sur la Royne de France), etc. — explain the plan of this curious book as well as any laboured analysis could do. The author takes what he considers to be the chief grievances in Church and State, and dilates upon them in the manner, half moralising, half allegoric, which was popular. An argument of Les folles Entreprises would, however, require considerable space. It enters into the most recondite theological questions, and of its general tone the heading of the last chapter tells as good a story as anything else can do: 'Comme le très-chrestien roy et Justice relevent Foy qui estait abattu par Richesse et Papelardise.' Other works of the same semi-dramatic, semi-poetical kind are even more directly political in substance: Les Entreprises de Venise; La Chasse du Cerf des Cerfs (Pope Julius), etc. Sometimes, as in La Coqueluche, the author becomes a simple chronicler describing incidents of his time. Indeed it would hardly be an exaggeration to describe Gringore's work as the result of a kind of groping after journalism condemned by the circumstances of the time to the most awkward and inappropriate form. In his definitely dramatic work the same practical tendency reappears. The tetralogy is of a directly politico-social kind. The cry, a summons in ironical terms to sots of all kinds to come and hear their lesson; the sotie, an audacious satire on the state of things; the morality, in which the very names of the personages — Peuple François, Peuple Italique, Divine Pungnicion, etc. — speak for themselves, all show this tendency; and even the bonne bouche at the end, the farce (which is altogether too Rabelaisian in subject for description here), seems to illustrate the motto — a very practical one —'Il faut cultiver son jardin.' Less directly the same purpose can be traced in the Mystère de Monseigneur Saint Loys. This is a picture of the ideal patriot king doing judgment and justice, and serving God by his voyages over sea, and his punishments of blasphemers and loose livers at home.

The last Age of the Mediaeval Theatre.

The first two quarters, and especially the first quarter, of the century contributed plentifully to the list of mysteries, moralities, and farces. The dates of the latter are not easy to ascertain, and it is probable that most of them are older than the present period. The taste for very lengthy mysteries and moralities, however, had by no means died out, and some of the mysteries, notably those of Antoine Chevallet, are of considerable merit. To the sixteenth century too belongs what is probably the longest of all moralities, that on The Just and Unjust Man, which contains 36,000 lines, besides the Mundus, Caro, et Daemonia, and the Condamnation de Banquet already described.

This school was continued, though under some difficulties, until a late period of the century. It had two things in its favour; it was extremely popular, and it lent itself, far more than the stately rival soon to be discussed, to the political and social uses which had long been associated with the stage in the mind of audiences. In Beza's tragedy of Abraham Sacrifiant, a kind of union takes place between the two styles. But even the triumph of the Pléiade did not at once abolish the mysteries which were still legal in the provinces, which had a strong hold on the fancy of the populace, and which some men of letters who were themselves much indebted to the new movement, notably Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, upheld with pen as well as with tongue. Thomas Le Coq, a beneficed clerk of Falaise, wrote a really remarkable play, Cain, of the purest mystery kind, in 1580; and the troubles of the League brought forth a large number of pieces which approached much nearer to the mediaeval drama, and especially to the mediaeval drama in the form which Gringore had given it, than to the model of Jodelle.

Beginnings of the Classical Drama.

It was, however, this model which had the seeds of life in it, and which was destined to serve as the pattern for the French drama of the future. In the manifesto of the Pléiade Du Bellay gave especial prominence to the drama among the literary kinds, in which French had need of strengthening from classical sources. The classical tragedy in the classical language, and even in translation, was already no stranger to French audiences, and the principle of constructing modern vernacular plays on the same model had become familiar to the upper and learned classes by the practice of the Italians, with which they had become acquainted, partly through the numerous visits, friendly and hostile, paid by Frenchmen to Italy in the early years of the sixteenth century, partly through the reproduction of these Italian plays at the courts of Francis I. and Henri II. This reproduction of foreign work was not confined to the court, for in 1548 the town of Lyons greeted Catherine de Medicis with an Italian play acted by an Italian company. As for translations of classical drama, Lazare de Baïf translated the Electra as early as 1537, and Buchanan, Muretus, and others composed Latin plays for their pupils to act. In all these plays, Latin, Italian, and French-translation, the influence of the tragedian Seneca was paramount, and this influence made an enduring mark on the future drama of France. Greek, though it was ardently studied, was, from the purely literary point of view, little comprehended by the French humanists, and of the three tragedians Euripides was the only one who made much impression upon them. Seneca, as the only extant Latin tragedian, had a monopoly of the classical language which they understood best and revered most heartily. His model was also peculiarly imitable. The paucity of action, the strict observation of certain easily observable rules, the regular and harmonious but easily comprehensible system of his choruses, the declamatory style and strong ethical temper of his sentiments, all appealed to the French Renaissance. Within a year or two from the time when Du Bellay had sounded the note of innovation, Jodelle answered the summons with a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.


Étienne Jodelle206, Seigneur de Lymodin, was one of the youngest of Ronsard's fellows. He was born at Paris in 1532, and was thus barely twenty years old when, in 1552, he founded at once modern French tragedy with his Cléopâtre, and modern French comedy with his Eugène. The representation was a great success, and obtained for the author from the King, Henri II., besides many compliments, the sum of five hundred crowns. The success of the plays also brought about an incident famous in French literary history of the anecdotic kind. The seven determined to celebrate the occasion by a country excursion, and on the way to Arcueil they unluckily met a flock of goats. Deeply imbued as they all were with classical fancies, it was almost inevitable that the idea of a Dionysiac festival should strike them, and a goat was caught, crowned with flowers and solemnly paraded, Ronsard himself officiating as the god. This harmless freak was represented by the zealots of the time as an impious pagan orgie, in which the goat had been actually sacrificed to a false god, and the reputation of the brotherhood sank almost equally with Catholics and Protestants. Six years after, Jodelle produced his second tragedy, Didon, also with great success. But he was not a fortunate person. The miscarriage of a pageant of which he had the direction alienated the favour of the court from him, and he was too proud or too careless to solicit its grace. He was a loose and reckless liver, and receives from Pierre de l'Estoile a character which very probably is unduly harsh. However this may be, he died at the age of forty, indigent and ruined in constitution. His literary activity was great, but only a small part of his work survives, and his three plays are the only important portion of this.

The comedy has some impression of classical study, though very much less than the two tragedies. It is, unlike the indigenous farce, divided regularly into acts and scenes; it is much longer than the native comedy, and some of the characters show, though faintly and at a distance, some traces of a reading of Terence. But it retains the octosyllabic metre, and its general scheme, despite a somewhat greater involution of plot and multiplicity of characters, is that of a farce. Eugène, the hero, a rich and luxurious churchman, is in love with Alix, whom, to save appearances, he has married to a wittol of the name of Guillaume. Alix, however, has several other lovers, among whom is Florimond a soldier, the rejected suitor of Hélène, Eugène's sister. These personages are completed by Maître Jean, the abbé's chaplain and general factotum, a creditor of Guillaume's, some servants of the soldier Florimond, etc. The plot is very simple, consisting of hardly anything but the return of Florimond from the wars, and his wrath at discovering Alix's relations not merely with Guillaume but with Eugène. He is finally made happy with Hélène. Alix takes the wise resolution to be less prodigal of her affections, and the play ends. Some detached passages, especially the opening scene, in which the lazy, dissolute life of wealthy churchmen is very pointedly satirised, are amusing enough, and the characters of the chaplain and the husband are not far from la vraie comédie. The tragedies are indirectly of more importance, but intrinsically much duller reading. Instead, however, of cleaving, as Eugène does, closely to the lines of the existing drama, the innovation in them is of the boldest kind. The octosyllabic verse, hitherto sacred to drama, is exchanged in Cléopâtre for a mixture of the decasyllabic and the Alexandrine, some scenes being written in the one, others in the other. Nor is the tentative character of the work only thus indicated; for the rhymes follow different systems in the different scenes. In Didon, however, Jodelle settled down to the unbroken Alexandrine with alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, which has remained the standard vehicle of French tragedy ever since. His general scheme follows that of Seneca closely, and his choruses are written in stanzas of short verses regularly arranged. The matter of both plays is taken with tolerable exactness, in the one case from Plutarch, in the other from Virgil; but a somewhat full analytic description of the first French tragedy must be given. Didon is something of an advance in versification, as has been pointed out, but in other respects it is perhaps inferior to Cléopâtre.

The piece begins with a prologue to the king, and then the first act opens with a long soliloquy from the ghost of Antony. Long speeches, it should be said, are the bane of this early French tragedy, and for nearly a century the evil increased instead of diminishing. Cleopatra, Charmium, and Eras then appear, for the play follows Plutarch strictly enough. The queen expresses her despair, and announces her intention to die. The first act is concluded by a long chorus of Alexandrian women, who bewail the shortness of life in six-syllable quatrains. The second act, like the first (unless the monologue of the ghost is counted in this latter), consists of only a single scene and a chorus. The scene is between Octavian, Agrippa, and Proculeius, who argue about the probable fate of Cleopatra. The conqueror is disposed to mercy and to regret for Antony's death, but his officers are less amiably minded. They agree, however, that Cleopatra will have to be watched for fear of suicide. The chorus now is nominally divided into strophes and antistrophes, but these are really only uniform stanzas of six six-syllable lines each, with the rhymes arranged a, b, a, b, c, c, and there is no epode. The third act contains the interview of Octavian with Cleopatra, the surrender of the treasures, and the treachery of Seleucus. The chorus takes part in this scene both by a short song and a longer one in couplets, but arranged in eight-line stanzas, which is preceded by a dialogue with Seleucus. The act thus consists of two scenes. In the fourth act Cleopatra repeats and regularly matures her resolve of death. It contains two choric pieces of some beauty. The first is an undivided song in sixes and fours; the second has a regular arrangement of strophe, antistrophe, and epode three times repeated, consisting of five-syllable lines, of which the strophe and antistrophe contain eleven each and the epode eight, arranged — strophe and antistrophe a, b, a, b, c, c, d, d, e, e, d, epode a, b, a, b, c, c, d, d. The fifth act is very short, containing a recital by Proculeius of the Queen's death, and a choric lament in quatrains. It will thus be seen that the action in the piece is very small, except in the brawl with Seleucus; that the chorus has the full importance which it possessed in the classical tragedy; and that, owing to the few changes of scene and the other restrictions imposed upon himself by the poet, the dramatic capabilities of the plan are not a little limited. The same state of things continued to be the case during the whole duration of the school whose master Jodelle was. Style and versification were sometimes better, sometimes worse than his; but, with comparatively few exceptions, the general conception was the same, long monologues, few characters, an almost total defect of action, which is conducted by the aid of messengers, etc.

Minor Pléiade Dramatists.

The fervent spirit of imitation which characterised the satellites of the Pléiade has already been noticed more than once. But in no department was it more marked than in that of drama. Jean de la Péruse, who, like many of the Pléiade poets, died very young, produced a Medea imitated from Seneca, and Charles Toustain an Agamemnon, also taken from the same author. Jacques de la Taille at a very early age wrote a Darius and an Alexander, besides a Didon, which is lost. These pieces have some merit, and it is noteworthy that the metre varies, as in Jodelle's model. A slight eccentricity of realism, however, has been Jacques de la Taille's chief passport to a place in the history of French literature. The death of Darius occurs in the middle of the word recommandation,

Mes enfants et ma femme aie en recommanda . . .

Il ne put achever, ear la mort l'en garda.

It is perhaps not insignificant that the verse is completed if the word is not.

Of this immediate group of Jodelle's followers, however, the most remarkable before Garnier was Jacques Grévin, who was noteworthy both as a dramatist and as a poet. Grévin was a Protestant and a practitioner of medicine, in which capacity he accompanied Marguerite de France, Duchess of Savoy, to Turin, and died there, at the age of thirty. Before he was twenty he wrote a tragedy, La Mort de César, which has considerable merit, and two comedies, Les Esbahis and La Trésorière, which are perhaps better still. Jean de la Taille, the brother of Jacques, but a better poet and a better dramatist, wrote Saul Furieux and Les Gabaonites, two of the numerous sacred tragedies which have always found favour in France, and the tradition of which it has been sought to revive even in our own day. The theatre, like the pulpit, was used as an engine by the Leaguers, but nothing of much value resulted from this.


Although many of the practitioners of this classical tragedy, notably Jodelle, Grévin, and Jean de la Taille, produced work of interest and merit, it contributed only one name which can properly be called great to literary history. This was that of Robert Garnier207, who brought the form to the highest perfection of which it was capable in its earliest state. Garnier was born at La Ferté Bernard in 1545, and died, apparently in his native province of Maine, in 1601. He was a lawyer of some distinction, being a member of the Paris bar, then Lieutenant Criminel at Le Mans, and finally Councillor of State. He was an immediate disciple and favourite of Ronsard, who has spoken of him in those terms of magnificent eulogy of which he was liberal, but which here, if somewhat exaggerated, are by no means altogether misplaced. His dramatic works, extending to eight plays, were all composed in his earlier manhood, between 1568 and 1580. There is, however, a wide difference between the first six plays and the last two. The former, Porcie, Cornélie, Marc-Antoine, Hippolyte, La Troade, and Antigone, are all, as their titles show clearly, tragedies of antiquity closely modelled on Seneca and Euripides, especially Seneca. The Cornélie, it may be observed, was translated into English by Kyd. They do not differ much in arrangement from each other, or from Jodelle's Cléopâtre. In his two last plays, however, produced in 1580, much greater power and originality appear. These were Les Juives, a Biblical tragedy on the fate of Zedekiah and Jerusalem, and Bradamante, a romantic tragi-comedy on a subject taken from Ariosto. The latter was apparently the first of its kind, dramatists having hitherto confined themselves to classical, contemporary, and Biblical subjects. There is, moreover, a curious incident connected with it. It contains no choruses, and in the preface of the published edition the manager is requested to have the want supplied in case of its being acted. Here too appears the confidant, a dubious present to the French theatre, but one of no small importance. The play is a remarkable one. The mixture of comic with tragic models gives the author much more liberty, of which he duly avails himself; the scenes are more numerous, the action more lively and complicated, the interest in every way greater. Yet it would seem, from the remark made above, that there was some doubt in the mind of the author whether it would ever be acted. Nor does it seem to have had much, if any, effect on the general character of stage plays. These continued to follow the Jodelle model until Hardy brought in the influence of Spain. Of that model Les Juives is assuredly the masterpiece. The choruses are of great beauty, admirably diversified in metre and rhythm, and occasionally all but equalling the best lyrics of the Pléiade. There is interest in the story, which deals with the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar on the Jewish king, and its chief drawback is its unrelieved gloom. The first act too, which consists of a monologue by the Prophet (unnamed) relieved only by the chorus, is justly open to that charge of monotony and absence of action, which is the great drawback of this class of drama. Subsequently, however, a real interest is created in the question whether the conqueror will or will not give up his sanguinary purposes in consequence of the remonstrances of his general, Nebuzaradan, and the entreaties of Zedekiah's mother and his own Queen. The stiffness of the dialogue, which is remarkable in most of the tragedies of the period, is here a good deal softened. The speeches are still sometimes too long — Garnier was indeed a great offender in this way, and in his Hippolyte has inflicted an unbroken monologue of nearly two hundred lines on the hapless spectators. But very frequently the dialogue is fairly kept up, and sufficiently varied by the avoidance of the practice of concluding the speeches uniformly at the end of lines.

Defects of the Pléiade Tragedy.

On the whole, however, despite the literary excellence of at least some of the work composing it, it is impossible to give high rank as drama to the model of Jodelle. Although the unities were not by any means followed with the strictness which prevailed afterwards, the caution of Horace about awkward transactions on the stage was rigidly observed, and, with the usual illegitimate inference, carried out so as almost to exclude all action whatever. The personages were generally few, the acts divided into but a scene or two at most, the set tirades mercilessly long, and the whole thing, as it would appear to a modern spectator, dull and spiritless.

Pléiade Comedy.

The dramatists of the Pléiade school, though they chiefly cultivated tragedy, did not by any means neglect comedy, their leader, Jodelle, having, as has been shown, set them the example in both kinds. Their comedy was, however, for some time a somewhat indeterminate kind of composition, and did not for the most part show much sign of the extraordinary excellence which French comedy was to attain in the next century. They seem to have hesitated between three models, the indigenous farce, the Italian comedy, which was a graft on the Latin, and the Latin comedy of Plautus and Terence itself. Yet Eugène, as has been said, is a great deal better as a play than either Didon or Cléopâtre. Its manner was closely imitated in the already-mentioned comedies of Grévin. The Reconnue of Belleau is a work of merit. Baïf turned the Miles Gloriosus into French under the title of Taillebras, which was acted with the curious accompaniment of choruses composed by, among others, Desportes, Belleau, and Ronsard himself. All these pieces kept the octosyllabic verse which the farce had consecrated. Afterwards it became fashionable to write comedies in prose. Jean de la Taille thus gave Les Corrivaux, Odet de Turnèbe Les Mécontents, François d'Amboise Les Napolitaines. But the chief comic author of the century, a better playwright than Garnier himself, was Pierre Larivey, who also wrote in prose208. He was born at Troyes about 1540, and died probably in the second decade of the seventeenth century. His father was an Italian, of the famous printer family of the Giunti, and on settling in France he had dubbed himself L'Arrivé, which soon took the less recognisable form under which the dramatist is known. Pierre Larivey held a canonry at Troyes, and translated many Italian books of the most diverse kinds into French. Among these were numerous comedies, and the genius of the translator for his task in this case produced what are in effect as original compositions as most plays which call themselves original. Larivey took the utmost liberties with his models, adding, dropping, altering, exactly as he pleased, and writing his adaptations in a style excellent for the purpose. He produced twelve plays, of which nine are extant, Le Laquais, La Veuve, Les Esprits, Le Morfondu, Les Jaloux, Les Escoliers, published in 1579, and Constance, Le Fidèle, Les Tromperies, published in 1611. Each of these has an Italian original. But, as the originals themselves are frequently derived from classical sources, Larivey very often seems to be imitating these latter. A nearly complete idea of the character of his best piece, Les Esprits, may be obtained by those who know the Aulularia and Andria, and, on the other hand, the École des Maris and L'Avare, for he stands about midway between the classical comedies of Latin and French. Molière found a good deal of his property in Larivey, and so did other French comic authors.

205 Ed. Héricault, Montaiglon, and Rothschild. 2 vols. Paris. 1858-1877.

206 Ancien Théâtre Français, vol. iv.

207 A good modern edition has appeared by Förster. Heilbronn, 1882.

208 Ancien Théâtre Français, vol. vi. vii.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29