Between Jest and Earnest: Ironical Defenses of Theatre in Seventeenth-Century England and France

By Thouret, Clotilde | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Between Jest and Earnest: Ironical Defenses of Theatre in Seventeenth-Century England and France


Thouret, Clotilde, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


In His Supplication to the Divell (1592), Pierce Penniless defies the members of the Council of London who want to suppress the playhouses: "I will defend it against any cullion, or club-fisted [block-headed] usurer of them all, there is no immortality can be given a man on earth like unto plays" (Nashe, ''The Defence of Plays" 129). Two decades later, on the stage of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Bruscambille, quoting an accusation against the players, replies to it immediately in one of his prologues: "Damn those actors, may canker strike them, no-one has ever seen such money-grabbers, these people only wipe their arses with gold coins, Nego majorent [I deny the premise], since as far as I'm concerned that type of money is as rare in my pockets as the shit of a phoenix." ["Au Diable soient donnés les Comédiens, le Cancre les accueille, on ne vit jamais tant d'attrapeurs d'argent, telles gens ne se torchent le cul que de pistoles, Nego maiorem, pour mon regard car cette monnaie-là est rare chez moi comme merde de Phénix"] (Bruscambille, "En faveur de la Comédie du Monde" 549).2 With their parody of high style, and with the gap between the apparent noble posture of the speaker and the colloquial register, these utterances appear to be rather comical and satirical-and even deeply ironical, given that smut and abuse were some of the more frequent grievances against theatre at the time. The English satirist and the French comic actor were nevertheless real advocates of the theatre, claiming its utility as "a rare exercise of virtue" (Nashe 128) and proclaiming the honesty of the acting trade.3 Defending the theatre in this way may seem quite strange and unusual, especially to modern readers accustomed to the imprecations of the violent pamphlets of the anti-theatricalists or to the seriousness of the apologies. Yet Thomas Nashe and Bruscambille are not the only ones to have chosen this satirical or somewhat ironical discourse in the polemics on theatre.

It is to this particular vein of texts, which have been largely overlooked by the critics, that my essay is devoted. In fact, even the corpus of the defenses as a whole is studied far less than the attacks. The majority of the studies on the controversies over theatre in early modern Europe are devoted to the anti-theatrical discourses.4 This may be explained by the fact that not only are there more texts against theatre than there are apologies for it, but also that they provoke more evident interest. The verve of the style, the curses against the disorder caused by the playhouses, the entertaining stories of desires aroused by the performance, the power of theatre that they denounce but prove at the same time-all this seems more interesting to modern readers than the defenders' justifications of utility or morality, repeating the same general arguments and the same humanist topoi taken from Horace and Cicero. When apologies or vindications are considered, most of the time they are qualified as clumsy or lame by today's scholars (Clare 64). The three "Caroline defenses" studied by Jonas Barish are judged so unconvincing that they can barely be called defenses (Barish 1986); and, to the attempt of Aubrey Williams to re-evaluate the defenses of the Jeremy Collier controversy (1698), Michael Cordner opposes the "dubious arguments" (214) of William Congreve and the irrelevant defense of John Vanbrugh.

I would like to argue that, at least to some extent, the unfavorable disposition toward the defense of theatre in seventeenth-century England and France is due to the fact that the (sometimes partly) satirical and ironical apologies are disregarded by recent scholars. A whole series of texts use satire and/or irony to defend the theatre, and they do so from the beginning of the polemics (i.e., the end of the sixteenth century in England and the beginning of the seventeenth century in France). These treatises, prologues, tracts, prefaces, and even plays, encapsulate a specific polemical effectiveness and bear witness to a real inventiveness on the defenders' side. …

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