introduction: The Protestant Reformation in Germany produced hundreds of short dramatic interludes designed to popularize the new teachings among the people. Some of these were performed, while others circulated as dialogues in cheap pamphlets. The greatest of sixteenth-century German dramatists was hans sacks (1494–1576). In his A Pleasing Disputation between a Christian Shoemaker and a Popish Parson he defended Protestant teachings. Like some other German Reformation dramas, this text was translated into English. In England, as in Germany, texts like these inspired a vogue for polemical dramas that supported the Reformation. The emphasis of the following passage upon Christianity as a system of moral ethics is found in many of Sachs’s works.

Shoemaker: When you do sincerely and purely teach God’s Word, then men are bound to hear you, even as Christ himself. But when you preach your own imagination … then ought no man to give ear to you. For all that is not planted of God shall the Heavenly Father pluck up by the roots.

Parson: Are the Councils then the teaching of men?

Shoemaker: If a man should say the truth, the Councils have done great damage in Christendom …

Parson: What hurt or damage have they done, I pray thee heartily?

Shoemaker: First through their commandments, which as you yourself know are innumerable and unmeasurable, and these they have confirmed through many excommunications … Such people, Paul has declared, would in the latter times depart from the faith with their commandments and give heed to error and devilish doctrine …

Parson: What then are the right and true works of the Christian Man?

Shoemaker: Christ says: All that thou would have men to do unto you, do even the same unto them and that is the fulfillment of the whole law and prophets. And he doth teach us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to harbor the harborless, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, and to comfort the prisoner.

Parson: Are these the only works of the Christian man?

Shoemaker: Yea. A true and faithful Christian man who is born of the water and the Spirit … serves God alone in spirit and in truth, and he serves his neighbor also, which is the whole sum of a Christian life.

source: Hans Sachs, A Goodly Dysputacion Between a Christen Shomaker, and a Popysshe Parson. Trans. Anthony Scoloker (London, 1548): 14–15. Text modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

Jesuit Drama.

The origins of another kind of religious theater, the Jesuit school play, lay in the fifteenth-century revival of ancient drama that had occurred in Italy. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, university professors there had begun to stage Latin revivals of the ancient comedies of Terence and Plautus in order to perfect students’ use of classical Latin. In the secondary schools that the Jesuit Order founded throughout Europe in the mid-sixteenth century they relied on a standardized curriculum, closely modeled on humanist examples. As a consequence, they adopted the custom of staging Latin school dramas. The first performance of a school play seems to have occurred at the Jesuits’ first institution at Messina in Sicily during 1551. By 1555, the first Jesuit play had been produced in Vienna, and by 1560, many schools the order now ran in Germany and Northern Europe staged these dramas. In its early stage of development the Jesuit Theater produced classical and biblical stories with ennobling content. Popular themes included the stories of Hercules, Saul, and David. Gradually, however, the Jesuits adopted stories in which female heroines like Judith, Esther, and St. Catherine were the central characters. The choice of these materials forced the order to relax the prohibition against young boys playing female parts. Latin remained the dominant language used in the plays for most of the sixteenth century. The first example of a non-Latin Jesuit play, Christus Judex, originated in Spain, but schools in Italy and Germany soon had translations. Over time, the Jesuit productions grew more elaborate. Around 1600, the Jesuit dramas already had large casts of characters, and in the course of the following century operatic arias, intermezzi, and even ballet became components of the productions. Similarly, their staging became more elaborate, with lighting effects, costumes, and scenery machinery adopted from those used on the professional stage.

French Theater.

Although the tone of most medieval mystery plays was often solemn, short farces had sometimes served as relieving interludes within these dramas, the performance of which sometimes stretched across several days. As in Germany, comic carnival plays, too, provided a save valve through which people prepared for the self-denial and rigorous disciplines of Lent. Between 1450 and 1600, these traditional comic forms became the basis for the establishment of a popular theater in France. Broad segments of the French urban population, rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike attended productions staged in this popular theater. In contrast to other forms of drama, then, the subjects treated in these plays by necessity had to have broad appeal and general intelligibility. The comic farce was thus one of the most common staged dramas in the French popular theater of the time. Its characters were, by and large, drawn from daily life. A parade of ordinary family members, scheming servants, priests, and tradespeople marched through these plays. In contrast to the morality plays still popular at the time, which had characters with names like Avarice, Hope, and Charity, the farce aimed to represent real-life situations, albeit with a comic twist. French farces were usually written in eight-syllable (octosyllabic) verses. Their plots attacked gullibility, misplaced trust and idealism, and human faithlessness in ways akin to comic traditions stemming from the days of Chaucer and Boccaccio. The stories were often predictable, as characters became embroiled in cases of mistaken identity or tangled in webs that grew from deceit or seemingly harmless lies. In some cases the line of plot development was relatively thin, and witty verbal games dominated the action.

Famous Plays.

The two most famous farces to survive from this period are still performed today: Le Cuvier, or The Tub (c. 1500) and Master Peter Pathelin, (c. 1460). In The Tub, a shrewish wife dominates her husband and keeps him busy with a long list of chores. While he is thus occupied, his wife falls into the tub and cannot get out. The husband checks to see if helping his wife out of the tub is included on his list of duties. It is not, and so the play concludes with his proposition to help her, so long as he becomes master of the house, a Renaissance happy ending that reinstated male dominance. In Master Peter Pathelin, the play’s hero is a shady legal type who tricks a local merchant out of cloth by offering to pay for it later. When the merchant arrives at his house to collect the payment, Pathelin has taken to his bed in a feigned and hilarious delirium that lasts for weeks. Later a local shepherd who works for the same merchant comes to Pathelin, asking him to protect him from his employer—the very same merchant Pathelin has already tricked—because he has eaten the flock he was supposed to be guarding. Pathelin advises him to say merely “Baa” to any questions that are asked of him. In court, the merchant becomes confused about the two crimes in which he is a victim, and a comic scene ensues before the judge. As a result Pathelin is momentarily victorious in defending the young shepherd, but when he tries to collect his fee, the shepherd merely responds with a “Baa.” Among the many popular farces staged at the time, Pathelin stands out because of its sophisticated plays on words, its comic timing, and plot development. The play is almost twice as long as any other farce produced in fifteenth-or sixteenth-century France, yet the author manages to sustain the protracted schemes of Pathelin over this enlarged scale. Plays like Pathelin acquired a broad audience in France and earned the respect of both intellectuals and ordinary people. Several translations of French farces into English played a role in shaping later comedies.

French Learned Comedy.

By the second half of the sixteenth century the effects of humanism grew more visible in French theater. The play Eugène has long been seen as the first truly “Renaissance” comedy to appear in the country, meaning that its author Étienne Jodelle made use of the classical conventions of Roman comic form by dividing his play into five acts. Jodelle was a member of the Pleiades, a group of authors who labored to revive classical poetic and dramatic forms in France in the mid-sixteenth century. The group took its name from the major constellation, which according to Greek myth, had been formed from the remains of seven prominent Greek poets. The sixteenth-century Pleiades’ fashioning after the famous constellation expressed their hope to revive classical forms in french literature. Like Jodelle’s Eugène, many early efforts of this group still relied on elements of traditional French poetry and drama. Eugène, for instance, is composed in the octosyllabic verse typical of the older farces, rather than the prose typical of comedies of the Latin revival. Its plot also combines some elements of the traditional farce with newer dimensions drawn from the more recently rediscovered comedies of Terence and Plautus. Like the ancient forms, it makes use of power struggles and sexuality in a more direct way than the traditional farces. The play’s conclusion is also morally ambiguous since the central love interest is adulterous and the conflict is resolved in the couple’s favor at the drama’s conclusion. Despite these innovations inspired by ancient comedy, the play’s characters, language, and Parisian setting are undeniably French.

Other Comedies.

The bourgeois world that Jodelle created in his Eugène was the favored setting of other humanist-influenced comedies written in the years that followed. These dramas adopted the five-act structure typical of ancient Roman comedies, but until 1573 none was written in prose, each retaining the octosyllabic verse that seems to have been much prized by French writers and audiences alike. In some cases the new comedies took their plots directly from earlier works of Terence and Plautus. The theme of the adulterous spouse who manages one or several affairs simultaneously was a popular one, and the characters that populated these dramas were largely those who might appear in upper-class urban life. Doctors, lawyers, military officers, and both helpful and scheming servants were common figures in the play. In the wake of Antoine de Baïf’s The Braggart (1567), a series of plays appeared in which the central character or characters were boasting and rambunctious fools. De Baïf was a member of the Pleiades group, and he based his play on Plautus’s Miles gloriosus. Although he did not surpass his source, his drama is almost as appealing as the original. Another theme popular in the humanist comedies of the time was impersonation, and the central heroes’ disguises as peasants, fatherly figures, and so forth became the linchpin around which the plot revolved. Another sign of innovation at the time was the revival of Greek comedy. In his Cloud-cuckoo City, Pierre Le Loyer relied on the ancient Greek Aristophane’s Clouds to create a comedy that was more informally structured than previous examples. His work also made use of verses of varying forms. A final milestone in the development of humanist comedy in France was the publication of Pierre de Larivey’s first set of six comedies in 1579. These works were very similar to Italian comedies of the period, although their language was a lively French. Despite certain similarities in plot, the humanist comedies of the later sixteenth century in France display considerable variety. Although their characters are often selected from a stock repertory, French humanist playwrights drew their characters so that their foibles and strengths elicit the admiration of readers and audiences alike. Not all of these dramas found life on the stage, however, since many were likely exercises in language and the application of new dramatic theory. But later playwrights seem to have read and learned from them, and the quality of their drama still retains a great freshness and vitality.

French Tragedy.

While French humanists wrote many comedies, their output of tragedy was even more extensive. In many of these works dramatists imitated the conventions of the ancient tragedies of Euripides and Seneca. Some French humanists relied on the dramatic form to propagandize for their Catholic or Protestant sympathies, as in the Calvinist Théodore De Bèze’s play Abraham’s Sacrifice from 1550. Others, like Étienne Jodelle, used the forms of classical tragedy to enlarge FRENCH literature. Jodelle crowded his Cleopatra in Prison (c. 1552) with verses of varying lengths and a wealth of rhetorical flourishes designed to expand the literary possibility of the language. Others viewed the writing of tragedies more as an intellectual exercise befitting to men of letters. A few French tragedies drew their subjects from the Bible, but the vast majority treated classical themes. While some adapted Greek themes, most were Roman in nature. The greatest French writer of tragedies from the second half of the sixteenth century was Robert Garnier, who published seven tragedies between 1568 and 1583. They relied on the classical forms of the genre, including the use of a chorus, monologues, and dialogues. All of Garnier’s plays treated classical themes, although the author saw the political rivalries and wars that his dramas recounted to be applicable to the contemporary situation of France. During the wars of religion that raged in the country between 1562 and 1598, staged tragedy became a vehicle for commenting upon and lamenting the country’s civil conflicts. French tragedies from the period are filled with much pathos as well as moralistic pronouncements about the danger of tyrannicide, political ambitions, and human desires. Like the similar dramas written in Italy at the same time, they are largely concerned with rhetoric and ethics, and they appear to modern scholars to be more a form of literature than staged drama. The number of plays read as social commentary by an elite audience probably outweighed the number performed on the stage.


In the second half of the sixteenth century French dramatists began to mold classical comedy and tragedy into forms suitable for their own native expression. While they wrote many new plays in these genres, relatively few of the works inspired by Renaissance humanism had audiences outside the royal court and noble households, beyond those intended for use as school exercises. For most of the sixteenth century, the French theater continued to be dominated by royal spectacles and court entertainments and street performances of farces, morality plays, and other popular forms of drama that could be performed in towns and cities throughout the country on hurriedly constructed makeshift stages.


introduction: At the end of the fifteenth century, scholars began to rediscover Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise on dramatic and poetic theory that had been known in the middle ages only in extremely corrupt versions. At this time new editions of the work were published, and knowledge of Aristotle’s ideas about drama began to spread relatively quickly throughout Europe. Nowhere were they to have more profound effect than in France. Here during the wars of religion, dramatists began to rely on Aristotle’s tragic theory to create works that lamented upon the course of contemporary politics via the mirror of classical tragedy. Aristotle’s influence persisted, and in the seventeenth century a wave of neoclassical tragedies, best exemplified in the works of Corneille and Racine, was produced for the French court. In contrast to the ancient theories of the Roman Seneca, which had stressed the literary dimension of tragedy, Aristotle dealt with the form as a theatrical genre able to move and inspire the human passions.

We have already spoken of the constituent parts to be used as ingredients of tragedy. The separable members into which it is quantitatively divided are these: Prologue, Episode, Exode, Choral Song, the last being divided into Parode and Stasimon. These are common to all tragedies; songs sung by actors on the stage and “commoi” are peculiar to certain plays.

A prologue is the whole of that part of a tragedy which precedes the entrance of the chorus. An episode is the whole of that part of a tragedy which falls between whole choral songs. An exode is the whole of that part of a tragedy which is not followed by a song of the chorus. A parode is the whole of the first utterance of the chorus. A stasimon is a choral song without anapaests or trochaics. A commos is a song of lament shared by the chorus and the actors on the stage.

The constituent parts to be used as ingredients of tragedy have been described above; these are the separable members into which it is quantitatively divided.

Following upon what has been said above we should next state what ought to be aimed at and what avoided in the construction of a plot, and the means by which the object of tragedy may be achieved. Since then the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity—for that is peculiar to this form of art—it is obvious to begin with that one should not show worthy men passing from good fortune to bad. That does not arouse fear or pity but shocks our feelings. Nor again wicked people passing from bad fortune to good. That is the most untragic of all, having none of the requisite qualities, since it does not satisfy our feelings or arouse pity or fear. Nor again the passing of a thoroughly bad man from good fortune to bad fortune. Such a structure might satisfy our feelings but it arouses neither pity nor fear, the one being for the man who does not deserve his misfortune and the other for the man who is like ourselves—pity for the undeserved misfortune, fear for the man like ourselves—so that the result will arouse neither pity nor fear.

source: Aristotle, The Poetics. Trans. W. H. Fyfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960): 43, 45.

HÔtel de Bourgogne.

The Parisian theater was an exception. Paris was the largest city in sixteenth-century Europe and developed one of the continent’s first professional stages. In 1548, the Confraternity of the Passion built a theater on the second floor of a town-house that had once belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy. In 1402, the French king had awarded the Confraternity, an organization that grew out of the city’s guilds, a monopoly over the performance of all religious dramas in the city. Their new hall was long and narrow (45 feet wide by 108 feet deep). The platform stage was only 35 feet deep and 25 feet wide with a secondary stage above its main floor. The theater’s pit was for standing spectators, while above, ranks of boxes filled the sides. At the rear stepped up benches faced the stage. With this scheme the Hôtel probably accommodated an audience of more than a thousand spectators. The construction of the confraternity’s new theater coincided with the Parisian parliament’s decision to outlaw the traditional mystery cycles in the city. As a result, the confraternity became a troupe of actors who staged secular dramas and farces far different from the mysteries and passions for which they had originally been chartered. These plays were performed before paying audiences with as much spectacle as could fit onto the facility’s small stage. The confraternity’s theater relied on the medieval style of simultaneous staging, with five or six different sets displayed on the stage at the same time. During the 1550s the theater was successful, but with the ills of the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598) audiences at the house shrank. By the 1590s the guild began to rent out their space to other French and foreign troupes; the confraternity’s continued monopoly over theatrical production in Paris forced other professional troupes to negotiate with the guild to perform in the city. The problem of negotiation coupled with the climate engendered by the civil conflicts of the Wars of Religion doomed most foreign or French troupes to failure. This situation began to change around 1600, as the company of Valleran le Conte visited the theater annually. Le Conte developed a highly profitable relationship with the playwright Alexandre Hardy (c. 1575–1632), who in his relatively short life wrote hundreds of comedies, tragedies, tragi-comedies, and pastorals. His plays were notable for their coarse language, sexual suggestiveness, and violence, as well as their short scenes and sudden plot twists. Like the medieval spectacles of the mysteries, limbs were severed, eyes plucked out, and characters beheaded. The results proved to be crowd pleasing, and the Hôtel de Bourgogne finally attracted a reliable clientele. Eventually, Valleran’s troupe, known as the “Royal Comedians,” took up permanent residence at the Bourgogne, and Alexandre Hardy became, from 1611, the group’s official dramatist. By the mid-seventeenth century, the continuing monopoly of the Confraternity of the Passion over theatrical productions in Paris angered many playwrights. Dramatists attacked the Confraternity, a one-time religious organization that was now a force over the secular stage, as a symbol of archaic decadence. In their great masterpieces, the seventeenth-century masters of the French stage—Corneille, Racine, and Molière—also aimed to distance the French drama from the blood and gore of the days of Hardy and Valleran at the Hôtel de Bourgogne.



M. Banham, ed., The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

R. Hsia, Social Discipline in the Reformation, Central Europe: 1550–1750 (New York: Routledge, 1989).

B. Jeffrey, French Renaissance Comedy, 1552–1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

G. R. Kernodle, The Theatre in History (Fayetteville, Ark.: Arkansas University Press, 1989).

C. Molinari, Theatre Through the Ages (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972).

D. Stone, French Humanist Tragedy: A Reassessment (Manchester, England: University of Manchester Press, 1974).

(to be continued)


About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
This entry was posted in θεα-τ-ρο=THEA-TER and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.