From Mascarade to Tragedy: The Rhetoric of Apologia in Jodelle's 'Recueil Des Inscriptions.'
Cornilliat, Francois, Renaissance Quarterly
On Thursday, 17 February 1558, King Henri II was to come to the Paris Hotel de Ville with Francois de Lorraine, Duke of Guise, and have dinner with the municipal council.(1) This was on rather short notice (the king had signified his intention on 8 February); but then, it was not supposed to be a solemn entree, only a banquet. In addition to the hearty pleasures of a Jeudi Gras, there was a lot to celebrate, most notably the recent (8 January) capture of Calais and the fort of Guignes by the duke, which had put an end to over four centuries of English presence on French soil. The banquet in the decorated Grande Salle was supposed to be the main event, but the aldermen wanted more. And so, only four days before the royal visit they asked Etienne Jodelle if he had something ready, like a comedy or a tragedy, that could be recited to the king. The municipality, no doubt, remembered the triumph that had taken place exactly five years before, in February 1553, at the Hotel de Reims, where Jodelle's Cleopatre captive, the first French tragedy a l'Antique, was performed as a tribute to the same king and duke who had just defeated an imperial army at the siege of Metz. In a matter of hours the 21-year-old Jodelle had become a hero to the young generation of poets and had been introduced to the king, who had enjoyed the show and given the author an unforgettable 500 ecus.(2) Even though in the years that followed this master stroke Jodelle did not publish a thing of significance, he was still famous and seen as Ronsard's most serious rival in the rising generation. He was known to write at incredible speed and improvise in the heat of inspiration, and he carefully nursed his reputation as a genius - "ce Daemon de Jodelle," in the words of Du Bellay.(3)
Although according to what he tells us in Le Recueil des inscriptions (74/227),(4) Jodelle had several unpublished, unperformed plays in his drawers, he felt that something lighter, a mascarade, an epideictic piece in the form of a musical mythological entertainment, would be more appropriate.(5) He actually composed two. The first one, based on the story of the Argonauts carrying their ship on their shoulders in the Libyan desert, was presented as a relative novelty,(6) in the sense that it included a rather long versified text: not only songs, but lengthy harangues to be delivered by characters such as Jason, Mopsus, Minerva, and the ship Argo, which was supposed to have come down from the sky in order to be carried again on the shoulders "des Argonautes mesmes"(7) and presented to the new Jason, the imperial hopeful Henri II. The second mascarade, in a more traditional fashion,(8) "ne parloit point." More of the ballet type, it featured three allegorical characters, Vertu, Victoire, and Mnemosyne, i.e., Memory, who were to distribute crowns made of different kinds of foliage to the king, the queen, the duke, and other members of the court before inviting them to dance. Jodelle says (and it may well be true) that he wrote, cast, directed, and rehearsed the whole thing in four days; he was playing the part of Jason, which he says he wrote - and, a common feat for him, instantly knew by heart - the very morning of the performance (118/ 250). During this time(9) he also designed the sumptuous ornamentation for the building (entrance and stairwell) and the reception room: that is, trompe-l'oeil architecture and other decorations a l'Antique, primarily paintings by Maistre Baptiste featuring inscriptions, short verse and devices in Latin (or Greek) that Jodelle, of course, had also composed on the spot. By the municipal council's account, the decorations were indeed impressive and worth the amount of money they had put in them. But one can doubt whether they were fully understood in all the complexity of Jodelle's iconographical program (masterfully analyzed by V. E. Graham and W. McAllister Johnson in their edition of the Recueil).(10) Even though the inscriptions were supposed to work within the structure of the space in which they were "inscribed" - the most obvious example of this being the word "gradatim," step by step, meaning the progressiveness of any human victory, repeated three or four times on the walls of the stairwell (8 1/231) - it is likely that most participants missed at least some of the poet's allusions, not to mention the intricacies of his symbolical design. …