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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

In the Jeu d'Adam or de la Feuillee c


Though

the literary value of the Mysteries is slight, except in occasional passages of natural feeling or just characterisation, their historical importance was great; they met a national demand--they constituted an animated and moving spectacle of universal interest. A certain unity they possessed in the fact that everything revolved around the central figure of Christ and the central theme of man's salvation; but such unity is only to be discovered in a broad and distant view. Near at hand the confusion seems great. Their loose construction and unwieldy length necessarily endangered their existence when a truer feeling for literary art was developed. The solemnity of their matter gave rise to a further danger; it demanded some relief, and that relief was secured by the juxtaposition of comic scenes beside scenes of gravest import. Such comedy was occasionally not without grace--a passage of pastoral, a song, a naive piece of gaiety; but buffoonery or vulgar riot was more to the taste of the populace. It was pushed to the furthest limit, until in 1548 the Parlement of Paris thought fit to interdict the performance of sacred dramas which had lost the sense of reverence and even of common propriety. They had scandalised serious Protestants; the Catholics declined to defend what was indefensible; the humanists and lovers of classical art in Renaissance days thought scorn of the rude mediaeval drama. Though it died by violence, its existence could hardly have been prolonged for many years.
But in the days of its popularity the performance of a mystery set a whole city in motion; carpenters, painters, costumiers, machinists were busy in preparation; priests, scholars, citizens rehearsed their parts; country folk crowded to every hostelry and place of lodging. On the day preceding the first morning of performance the personages, duly attired--Christians, Jews, Saracens, kings, knights, apostles, priests--defiled through the streets on their way to the cathedral to mass. The vast stage hard by the church presented, with primitive properties, from right to left, the succession of places--lake, mountain, manger, prison, banquet-chamber--in which the action should be imagined; and from one station to another the actors passed as the play proceeded. At one end of the stage rose heaven, where God sat throned; at the other, hell-mouth gaped, and the demons entered or emerged. Music aided the action; the drama was tragedy, comedy, opera, pantomime in one. The actors were amateurs from every class of society--clergy, scholars, tradesmen, mechanics, occasionally members of the _noblesse_. In Paris the Confraternity of the Passion had almost an exclusive right to present these sacred plays; in the provinces associations were formed to carry out the costly and elaborate performance. To the _Confreres de la Passion_--bourgeois folk and artisans--belonged the first theatre, and it was they who first presented plays at regular intervals. From the Hospital of the Trinity, originally a shelter for pilgrims, they migrated in 1539 to the Hotel de Flandres, and thence in 1548 to the Hotel de Bourgogne. Their famous place of performance passed in time into the hands of professional actors; but it was not until 1676 that the Confrerie ceased to exist.

Comedy, unlike the serious drama, suffered no breach of continuity during its long history. The jongleurs of the Middle Ages were the immediate descendants of the Roman mimes and histrions; their declamations, accompanied by gestures, at least tended towards the dramatic form. Classical comedy was never wholly forgotten in the schools; the liturgical drama and the sacred pieces developed from it had an indirect influence as encouraging dramatic feeling, and providing models which could be applied to other uses. The earliest surviving _jeux_ are of Arras, the work of ADAM DE LA HALLE. In the _Jeu d'Adam_ or _de la Feuillee_ (_c_. 1262) satirical studies of real life mingle strangely with fairy fantasy; the poet himself, lamenting his griefs of wedlock, his father, his friends are humorously introduced; the fool and the physician play their laughable parts; and the three fay ladies, for whom the citizens have prepared a banquet under _la feuillee_, grant or refuse the wishes of the mortal folk in the traditional manner of enchantresses amiable or perverse. The _Jeu de Robin et Marlon_--first performed at Naples in 1283--is a pastoral comic opera, with music, song, and dance; the good Marion is loyal to her rustic lover, and puts his rival, her cavalier admirer, to shame. These were happy inventions happily executed; but they stand alone. It is not until we reach the fifteenth century that mediaeval comedy, in various forms, attained its true evolution.


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