European Theories of the Drama: An Anthology of Dramatic Theory and Criticism from Aristotle to the Present Day

By Barrett H. Clark | Go to book overview

FRENCH DRAMATIC CRITICISM OF THE RENAISSANCE

While many of the ideas incorporated into the dramatic treatises of the later Renaissance in France were derived from Minturno, Scaliger, Castelvetro, and other Italian theorists, the beginnings in France hark back to the Middle Ages and antiquity. The commentaries and fragments of Donatus and Diomedes were first published toward the end of the fifteenth century. Horace was also known to the grammarians and scholars, while the architectural treatises of Vitruvius and Alberti, containing chapters on the theater, were freely drawn upon. As in Italy, Aristotle Poetics was seldom referred to; not until the middle of the sixteenth century does he become a force to be reckoned with. Among the earliest French writings on the drama was the introductory matter--Praenotamenta--to Jodocus Badius' edition of Terence ( 1504). This is practically a summing-up of the doctrines of the Middle Ages. Badius' edition of Seneca ( 1514), in which he was aided by others, contains commentaries, and the usual excerpts from Donatus and Diomedes. These preliminary and running commentaries constituted a veritable "practical dramaturgy." Meantime, foreign influences were at work: Polydorus Vergil De rerum inventoribus ( 1513), with its section on comedy, was known, and later ( 1544) translated into French; Erasmus' Adages, Colloquies, and Letters, however meager in their references to Aristotle, helped to disseminate the ideas of preceding ages. Lazare de Baïf, one of the first translators of Greek plays, composed a Diffinition de la tragédie which he prefixed to his version of the Electra ( 1537). His conception in this note, as in the Dedication to his Hecuba ( 1544), was purely classical. In Buchanan Dedication to his Latin translation of the Alcestis (printed 1554), there is a new note: the poet urges the tragic writer to turn aside from the conventional themes of murder, parricide, etc. Meanwhile, the numerous editions of Terence ( 1529, 1542, and 1552) continued to print the commentaries of Donatus, Diomedes, and invariably quote Horace. In Jean Bouchet Epistre responsive au Roy de la Basoche de Bordeaux (written in 1526, and published in 1545) the usual classification of drama into the two categories of Comedy and Tragedy is modified to include the Satyre.

The very earliest Rhetorics and Arts of Poetry are of little importance as regards dramatic theory--the first of these is Eustache Deschamps' Art de dictier (finished in 1392). Together with the numerous treatises on versification, they may be ignored. Pierre Fabri manual, Le Grand et vray art de pleine Rhetorique, was published in 1521; this was followed in 1539 by Gracian du Pont's L'Art poétique, which contains little that is not found in Fabri's work. Both Arts belong in spirit to the late Middle Ages. The Art poétique of Thomas Sebillet, published in 1548, is interesting chiefly because of the parallel made between the old French "moralité" and the tragedies of antiquity. The work likewise contains probably the first trace of the influence of Aristotle Poetics in France. Sebillet, whose work appeared only a year before Du Bellay Deffense, foreshadows, in spirit at least, some of the reforms advocated by the spokesman of the Pléïade. Joachim Du Bellay's Deffense et illustration de la langue françoise ( 1549) heralded the opening of a new era and announced the close of the old. Of vast importance in the realm of French literature, it contains nothing but a single brief reference to drama--in which he urges dramatists to write plays after the manner of the ancients. This manifesto was answered in 1550 by the Quintil Horatian sur la Deffense et illustration de la langue françoise, the author of which was recently proved to be Barthélemy Aneau, instead

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