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Charles Mazouer. Le Theatre francais de la Renaissance.

(Dictionnaires & References, 7.) Paris: Honore Champion Editeur, 2002. 494 pp. + 30 b/w pls. index, bibl. 62 [euro]. ISBN: 2-7453-0560-3.

Charles Mazouer's Le Theatre francais de la Renaissance is the second volume in a series devoted to the history of French drama which will eventually number thirteen. Mazouer penned the first volume (Le Theatre francais du Moyen Age [Paris: SEDES, 1998]) and also directs the series. The work in question by the preeminent scholar in the field is a most welcome contribution which addresses a considerable need. Indeed, in the roughly two decades since Madeleine Lazard's influential Le Theatre en France au XVI siecle (Paris: PUF, 1980), the field has been the object of ever-expanding critical attention. Mazouer has undertaken the daunting task of organizing the immense variety and richness of theatrical production between the dates 1500-1610, while at the same time situating that output within its historical and cultural context. The result is an up-to-date study of impressive breadth and erudition.

Conceptually, Mazouer's recent tome is rigorously symmetrical. Approximately four hundred pages of commentary are prefaced by a concise three-page introduction and followed by an equally condensed but forceful three-page conclusion. The material is neatly distributed into nine chapters. The approach is mainly generic, yet it so happens that genre and chronology tend to coincide. Chapter 1 sets the stage for chapters 2-4, discussing the presence of certain genres inherited from the Middle Ages, with especial effort to flesh out the diverse conditions which either occasioned their continued vogue during the first half of the century or later portended their demise. The next three chapters are devoted then in turn to specific genres, namely Les mysteres (chap. 2), La moralite et la sottie (chap. 3), and Sermons joyeux, monologues et farces (chap. 4). In a similar fashion, chapter 6, concerning the emergence of a national and modern theater, provides a general overview for the remaining three chapters. The unique configuration of new models, different tastes, and clearly articulated theories--in addition to a backdrop of more religious, political, and social volatility--give rise to a theater which stands in almost diametrical opposition to the medieval tradition. The genres of the new school subsequently treated are as follows: La tragedie et la tragi--comedie (chap. 7), La comedie francaise et la comedie italienne (chap. 8), and Les spectacles de cour et la pastorale dramatique. Chapter 5, which analyzes Le theatre scolaire, is the hinge chapter because it constitutes both a look back and a look forward. This is to say that while the Latin-based and didactic theater of the colleges perpetuates some of the old forms, it also proves to be the incubator and disseminator of the new theater. Lastly, the volume is rounded out by useful indices and an extensive bibliography.

Mazouer's work is oriented toward the plays themselves, which are studied in sufficient but not tedious detail. The author displays a near-encyclopedic knowledge of both the subject at hand and the mushrooming secondary-source material. The latter is dutifully and meticulously cited. Even though the works under consideration are grouped in standard genres and subgenres, Mazouer is careful to highlight change as well as continuity, citing those texts which either push the limits or renew the genre. In spite of the balanced approach evinced by the chapter division, it must be stated that Le Theatre francais de la Renaissance is weighted in favor of the tragic genre, whose origins and evolution are carefully retraced. This is due partly to the success which sixteenth-century tragedy enjoyed on its own terms and in its own time, and partly to the fortunes to which it was later destined. Pride of place is also accorded to the major practitioners of the craft: Theodore de Beze, Etienne Jodelle, Jean de La Taille, Robert Garnier, and Antoine de Montchrestien. It goes without saying that a topic of this volume's scope requires that significant ground must be covered, but one never gets the sense that the discussion is hurried or truncated. On rare occasion, treatment of specific plays is relegated to a footnote, perhaps so as not to interrupt the narrative flow. If truth be told as well, because of the overlap of the subject matter in chapters 1-4 with respect to the legacy of certain medieval traditions, the multitudinous auto-references to the first volume of the series are a minor irritant, and one realizes both volumes must be read in tandem to be fully appreciated. It is, though, a smooth and satisfying ride the rest of the way. The prose is as lucid as it is elegant, hence eminently readable by the non-specialist.

Consistent with the twofold aim of the series--to introduce specific texts of the given period and to locate them within their particular historical and cultural setting--Mazouer is ever equal to the task. Whether to some modern eyes sixteenth-century French theater succeeds as drama or not, it is never a dull read, for its tale intersects at every turn with the major powers and polemics, men and movements of the times. French humanist theater can reflect popular culture and daily life, providing acute social or political commentary; and it can be the unwitting agent of change, fostering a new worldview as it channels pagan philosophy through its imitation of the subjects and works of antiquity.

But if Mazouer's work shows us anything, it is that sixteenth-century French theater has finally come into its own. There was a time when theater was treated as the unwanted stepchild of French Renaissance studies. The sheer abundance and diversity of the stagecraft of the period give the lie to such notions. The field can boast of a number of true masterpieces as well, which recent scholarship and more sensitive readings have brought to light. Special emphasis must be laid here upon Mazouer's exhaustive bibliography, which also attests to the burgeoning importance of the field. It is destined to be a necessary point of reference for all future research. As such, this volume is an indispensable addition to institutions with graduate programs in French or Comparative Literature.


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Author:Di Mauro, Damon
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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