Academic journal article Comparative Drama

From Saint Genesius to Kean: Actors, Martyrs, and Metatheater

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

From Saint Genesius to Kean: Actors, Martyrs, and Metatheater

Article excerpt

Since Lionel Abel published his seminal work in 1963, considerable attention has been paid to metatheater, although there is still no firm consensus on a general definition of the phenomenon. (1) Even though some scholars claim to have found metatheater in antiquity and in non-Western drama, it is generally agreed that the European baroque (late sixteenth through mid-seventeenth century) and modernism (late nineteenth through mid-twentieth century) represent the most important and the most productive periods for a theater that comments on itself through self-conscious awareness of its own theatricality, usually through the medium of a play within the play. Comparatively examining individual plays from these two eras may eventually lead us to a better understanding of both baroque and modernist metatheater.

One of the important contributions baroque playwrights made to theater was the introduction of actors as characters, even protagonists, in plays in which they play scenes--a genre that might be considered a subset of metatheater. The actor as character can of course be found in other periods as well, but baroque and modernist plays probe the nature of theater and illusion through these characters as others do not. Luigi Pirandello is the chief modernist example, although his variation might be called the character as actor. Jean-Paul Sartre, not usually thought of as either modernist or metatheatrical, acknowledges Pirandello's influence on his theater and displays his affinities with the baroque in the title of his monumental biography Saint Genet: Comedien et martyr, taken from Jean Rotrou's Le veritable Saint Genest, and in his play Le diable et le bon dieu, adapted from Cervantes's El rufian dichoso. (2) However, it is Sartre's adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's Kean, written just after the publication of Saint Genet, that best exemplifies a twentieth-century metatheatrical rewriting of the actor as saint and martyr as portrayed in Le veritable Saint Genest, itself an adaptation of a play by Lope de Vega. In order to understand Sartre's Kean through Rotrou's Genest, we must first look at Rotrou's models in the legend of Saint Genesius.

Although the very existence of Saint Genesius is called into question by the Catholic Encyclopedia, he has a feast day (25 August) and continues to be venerated, especially as the patron saint of actors. (3) According to most accounts, Genesius was not only an actor, but also the equivalent of a director of a troupe of actors. Knowing of Diocletian's antipathy toward Christians, in the persecution of whom Genesius had participated, he prepared a satiric comedy on the subject in honor of the emperor's visit to Rome. While imitating a ceremony of baptism, Genesius suddenly lay down on the stage as if sick, saying that he felt a "great weight" on himself. He then asked to receive baptism in order to die as a Christian. Diocletian, thinking that this was all part of the comedy, laughed. Actors representing a priest and an exorcist came to the actor's side and performed a stage baptism; actors playing soldiers presented the "baptized" Genesius to the emperor to be martyred. Genesius then revealed the truth: while he was being washed with the baptismal water, he had a vision of a company of angels who recited all of his sins from a book, then washed the book clean. He was thus "really" baptized by an angel. Genesius then admonished Diocletian and all present to believe in Jesus Christ, whereupon the enraged emperor ordered him to be beaten and then turned over to Plautian, the prefect of the praetorium, who had him put on the rack, torn with iron hooks, and burned with torches. The martyrdom occurred either in 286 or in 300.

It is no surprise that at least since the thirteenth century, Genesius, who discovered truth through illusion, has been the patron saint of actors. His story seems perfectly suited to theatrical adaptation. Of course, the hagiographical legend can be glossed in either a pro- or anti-theatrical manner: Genesius may be seen as saved from the corrupting and sinful milieu of the theater through divine grace, or, on the contrary, the illusionary world of theater might function as the means of his salvation. …

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