In 1911 Gustave Cohen published an important article in Revue des Etudes Rabelaisiennes entitled "Rabelais et le theatre." (2) Cohen's article
centered on late medieval theater and Rabelais; specifically he focused on the theater of farce and its role in Rabelais's work. Almost a century later, another medievalist from the University of Amsterdam, Jelle Koopmans, commented that Cohen's article "est reste pendant longtemps, malgre sa date de publication (1911) [...], le dernier mot sur la question," (3) while underscoring the need for much more work on this important influence on Rabelais's work. Rabelais's tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel contain a surprisingly large number of references to farces, and many episodes within the Chroniques are structured with a farce-like framework. Rabelais was extremely familiar with the theater of farce, and this intimacy affected his work in important ways. Indeed, the theater of farce is a crucial subtext in understanding Rabelais's literary project.
Rabelais's use of dramatic farce offers a fascinating dynamic of cultural transferal. His books were written towards the end of a watershed era of this theatrical genre in France, from approximately 1450 to 1550. There remain over 150 extant French farces dating from this period, the best known being the Farce de Maitre Pathelin. Rabelais alludes to Pathelin some two dozen times in his work, and, as Koopmans has noted, "Rabelais cite soit directement soit indirectement, textuellement et librement, des centaines de passages [des farces], voire plus, parfois directement, parfois indirectement." (4) It is not a coincidence that, in one of only two instances of authorial self-reference within the work, the text refers to a farce in which Rabelais took part while a medical student at Montpellier (Tiers livre ch. 34). (5) Records confirm the autobiographical reality behind this, as Rabelais, like so many students in France, participated in a theatrical group that enacted productions of farce, such as the specific play referred to in the chapter, Celui qui espousa une femme mute. (6) These references point to an underlying farcical, theatrical spirit that informs Rabelais's work. Moreover, farce becomes a central structuring mechanism for many of the narrative encounters in Gargantua and the Pantagrueline chronicles. (7)
An overview of the way farce functions, both in its original dramatic format and, more importantly, in Rabelais's books, illustrates the radicalization of this genre. Beyond the obvious example of generic transferal, as theater is transcribed into prose, the transformation of farce takes place on two primary levels in Rabelais. First, the subject matter is altered in significant ways. The setting of farce is primarily a domestic one, with disputes between spouses and additional characters such as imbecilic servants and lascivious monks. This private, anonymous setting is replaced by the much more public, ideologically-charged settings of Rabelais's farce-like scenes. Second, the ethos of farce is inherently conservative; the humiliating reversals that characterize the genre are not posited to call social norms into question, but rather to reinstate them. (8) Rabelais turns these comedic reversals on their head, and whereas in farce the victim is always a transgressor of the status quo, Rabelais takes aim at societal institutions in the areas of education, law, and theology, effecting humiliating volte-faces on characters that reflect these power structures. (9)
There is not a better example of an archetypical trompeur than Pantagruel's companion Panurge. From the moment he arrives in chapter nine of Pantagruel, he is immediately associated with Pathelin, the supreme trickster of the genre. His elaborate glossalalia constitutes an updated, humanist-inspired version of Pathelin's famous delirium scene with the merchant. Panurge then goes on to best the Englishman Thaumaste in a farcical performance before turning his attention to the haute dame de Paris. …