The Conversion of Polyeucte's Felix: The Problem of Religion and Theater

By Ekstein, Nina | French Forum, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Conversion of Polyeucte's Felix: The Problem of Religion and Theater


Ekstein, Nina, French Forum


The relationship between religion and theater gave rise in seventeenth century France to much discussion and dissent, commonly referred to as the Querelle de la moralite du theatre. The 1640s were a rare period during which religious subjects were popular on the French stage; almost all of the major playwrights wrote at least one play that could be thus categorized (Pasquier 201). I propose to examine the friction between the domains of theater and religion through a discussion of the two most enduringly famous religious plays of this period, Pierre Corneille's Polyeucte (1643) and Jean Rotrou's Le Veritable Saint Genest (1645). I will approach the broader issues by tackling the long-standing problem of Felix's sudden conversion in Polyeucte's final scene.

The quarrel between religion and theater, or more precisely, the objections that religious authorities have to theater, date back to ancient times. Marc Fumaroli argues that the common belief that modern theater has religious roots may be based on a misunderstanding. (1) From the perspective of the seventeenth-century Church the two domains do not have, or perhaps rather should not have, anything in common, religion dealing with the sacred and theater entailing "un contrat mercantile" between actors and the public (450-51). Seventeenth-century thought on the relationship between religion and theater is in line with Plato's reflections on mimesis (Thirouin 22). In Platonic thought, the concrete reality of our world is merely a shadowy representation of the ideal, an ideal that is to be found in the higher realm of the divine. Plato and the seventeenth-century religious writers both criticize theater for compounding the distance from the ideal by providing an (inferior) imitation of reality, a reality that is itself but a pale imitation of the ideal. Thus the theatrical representation is at a double remove from the "true" reality. (2) While the favor of Richelieu and the Declaration royale de 1641 help make this brief period of tolerance for religious plays possible, and while certain moderates such as Francois de Sales assert theater's potential for moral utility, the voices and arguments rallied against the stage in France were strident and powerful.

There seems to be no doubt that Corneille and Rotrou were both profoundly devout men. We may thus assume that in writing Polyeucte and Saint Genest they sought to write sincerely Christian plays. It is important to establish from the onset that I am not interested in questioning the intentions of the authors. That the plays the two men wrote pose certain problems when judged against such devout intentions is not to be credited to the authors so much as to larger and more fundamental incompatibilities. It is worth noting at this juncture, however, the degree to which all discussion of religious theater seems to be personalized. Not only are the religious beliefs of Corneille and Rotrou at issue, but those of the literary scholar discussing their religious plays are as well. Kosta Loukovitch's observation is shared by many, although usually stated less baldly: "La psychologie de Corneille dans ces deux pieces [Polyeucte and Theodore] est une psychologie theologique. Qui les etudie en profane, comme Lemaitre, n'en saisit que la moitie, et la moindre" (231; see also Cairncross 571). If one speaks from outside a religious perspective, as I do, one may be readily dismissed for a lack of true understanding. If one speaks as a believer, a defensive posture toward all discrepancies or inadequacies is seemingly automatic. In discussion of other kinds of plays, the personal beliefs of the person examining the work are almost never at issue. The mere mention of religion, even in a context over 350 years old, remains polarizing. (3)

In Polyeucte, and later Theodore, Corneille seems to have set himself the challenge of reconciling theater and religion, perhaps the two most important domains in the playwright's life. …

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