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    Stage Decoration and the Unity of Place in France in the Seventeenth Century- Part 1 Essay

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    The simultaneous stage setting of the Middle Ages, with its freedom in regard to the number and situation of scenes, which was in vogue in Paris in the early years of the seventeenth century, was in direct opposition to the rule of the unity of place.

    The Middle Ages and classicism were at swords’ points. Practice was arrayed against theory. When Corneille began to produce plays, he accepted the time-honored system of stage decoration; and, as he said, he followed Hardy and common sense. There is little reason for believing that the appearance of the stage of the Hôtel de Bourgogne had changed at any time from the moment the Confrérie de la Passion took possession of it until at least 1637. Bapst is of the opinion that this theater had stage settings as long as the Confrérie had the management of it; but that from 1578, when other troupes rented it, no real scenery was set until Hardy’s comedians began to play on its stage.

    He argues that these comedians, who rented it from 1578 on, were nomadic; and he asks what they could do on their journeys with scenes at all large. Yet Scarron describes how the later wandering troupes carried scenery on their carts; and it must be remembered that it was almost invariably the practice of the professional drama to employ scenery, although the literary drama of the Renaissance may not have been produced with stage setting. However, even in the representations of plays in colleges, scenery was improvised, if we may take as evidence the passage in Sorel’s Francion in which he describes such a stage as follows: “Jamais vous ne vîtes rien de si mal ordonné que notre théâtre. Pour représenter une fontaine, on avait mis celle de la cuisine, sans la cacher de toile ni de branches, et l’on avait attaché les arbres au ciel parmi les nues.”

    It is hard to believe that the custom of setting the stage suddenly died out for a quarter of a century at the Hôtel de Bourgogne only to be revived by the troupe to which Hardy was attached. Even if the players of this period did not own scenery, what of that which belonged to the Hôtel de Bourgogne up to 1578? Surely it was not destroyed. It is natural to suppose that such settings were considered an asset, an important part of the theater, and were rented by those troupes which played at the Hôtel de Bourgogne from 1578 to 1599. The professional drama of the period would be practically unintelligible without the aid of scenery; and we are not to conjecture that the plays given from 1578 to the beginning of the seventeenth century in the Paris theater belonged to the scholastic drama of the followers of the Pléiade. An important source of information concerning stage decoration in France in the second third of the seventeenth century is the Mémoire of Mahelot and Laurent.

    This document, consisting of 94 folios, is entitled “Memoire de plusieurs decorations qui servent aux pieces contenues en ce present livre, commence par Laurent Mahelot et continue par Michel Laurent en l’annee 1673.” Nothing certain is known of Mahelot and Laurent, but it is generally supposed that they were stage carpenters of the Hotel de Bourgogne at different periods. Mahelot could not have begun the Memoire before 1633 since the second play whose setting it records is not earlier than that date. The handwriting changes for the first time on folio 81, and all the decorations described up to that point belong to plays produced before or during the year 1636, or possibly one produced in 1637, namely Le berger fidelle. Beauchamps cites six plays of this name, and Dacier suggests that the pastoral dated 1637 is the play whose setting is given. The last description recorded in the first handwriting is that of Iphis et lante by Benserade, which was represented in 1636.

    The next description in the new handwriting is the setting of Surina, produced in 1674. Thus the second part of the Memoire could not have been begun before 1674, and the date 1673 given by the manuscript itself as the year in which Laurent continued the work of Mahelot is slightly inaccurate. The first thing which Laurent did in taking up this task was to indicate the scenery for Corneille’s plays produced after 1636, including the Cid. Therefore, it seems that Mahelot had ceased to keep his record about the time that the Cid was given, for he does not describe the setting of plays produced after 1637. Had he kept up the Memoire, we should have found the descriptions of Corneille’s plays in his handwriting.

    It is evidently to supply this lacuna that Laurent begins in 1674, bringing the manuscript up to date. Thus about thirty-seven years pass between the work of Mahelot and that of Laurent. The memoranda of the first part of the Memoire are sufficient proof that the simultaneous stage setting was the rule until at least 1637. Even Corneille’s Illusion comique (1636) requires a multiple setting consisting of a palace in the center of the stage, on one side a cave in a mountain, and on the other side a park. A slight modification of this system could be made by setting a scene only in a particular act, as in Mairet’s Criseide et Arimante, in which “the tomb and the altar appear only in the fifth act,” according to Mahelot’s memorandum.

    Also, in Les galanteries du duc d’Ossone by Mairet, there is found a procedure that may have been the beginning of the new method of changing the scene. In the second act, the stage direction says, “Comme il est entre, la toile se tire qui represente la facade d’une maison, et le dedans du cabinet paroist.” A second room is also disclosed in the same scene, as is shown by the direction, “Icy la seconde toile se tire, et Flavie paroist sur son lict.” These two scenes, being placed side by side for dramatic purposes, form a simultaneous setting.

    In the next act, the setting changes back to the original scene, for the direction reads: “Ici les deux toiles se ferment et Emilie parait dans la rue.” Such a procedure is not new on the French stage, for curtains were drawn on the medieval stage to hide events such as the birth of a child. But in this play, the curtain is used to reveal a new scene, indicating the beginning of a new method of stage setting. Another instance in which these two methods were combined is mentioned by d’Aubignac regarding a performance of Pirame et Thisbe.

    In this case, the wall separating the two lovers was made to disappear so that the actors could see each other, and to allow the space on each side of the wall to represent the two rooms of the hero and heroine. Yet, in spite of these possible modifications, it does not seem to have been regular after the opening of a play. Heisser’s theory is that if the settings did change at the beginning of each act, the author had called it “unite de scene,” in contrast to the later “unite de lieu.” It was quite possible to set two scenes at the same time, representing places as far apart as the proverbial Rome and Constantinople, and the two scenes would not necessarily change during the whole play.

    This setting would not constitute any “unite de scene,” and if there is any distinction to be drawn between the two terms, it is rather that the “unite de scene” was observed in Mairet’s Silvanire, where the different places represented are not far apart, although it is doubtful if any difference in meaning between the expressions can be pointed out. Scudery implies that the Cid was produced with a simultaneous setting, as were all the contemporary plays mentioned in the first part of the Memoire. He says in his Observations that the same place represented the apartment of the king, that of the infanta, the house of Chimene, and the street, presque sans changer de face. The setting for the Cid is noted by Laurent in the second part of the Memoire as “une chambre d quatre portes,” but this may well be a later setting, employed to conform more closely to the rule of the unity of place.

    Evidence in favor of this theory as to the changes in the setting is found in the fact that the setting of Theophile’s Pirame et Thisbe underwent a similar reduction in the number of scenes. It had been produced originally with the decoration noted by Mahelot as follows: “Il faut au milieu du theatre un mur de marbre et de pierre fermi; des balustrades; il faut aussi de chaque cote deux ou trois marches pour monter. A un des cotes du theatre, un murier, un tombeau entoure de pyramides.” When the play was revived in 1682, Laurent records the setting as consisting of the vague “palais de volonte.” However, vague and indefinite scenery, which finally became the rule, was strongly criticized at this period.

    Scudéry objects that the setting of the Cid is so inexact that the audience does not always know where the actors are supposed to be. He says in his preface to his Didon that it is necessary to please the people sometimes by the diversity of spectacles and by the different faces of the scenery. Rayssiguier expresses the same idea in the preface to his Aminte, in which he says that audiences wish to have their eyes pleased by la diversité et changement de face du théâtre. Sarrazin complains in the preface to Scudéry’s Amour tyrannique that the successors of Hardy have made an ambulatory stage, and that one does not know whether the actors are talking in their houses or in the streets. Corneille will later find the vague, single setting a means of concealing violations of the unity of place; but he wrote the Cid, as he did all his early plays, for a stage which was to be decorated with simultaneous settings. After the production of the Cid, the dramatists were confronted on the one hand by the system of simultaneous stage decoration, which could be slightly modified by certain changes of scene, and, on the other hand, by the rule of the unity of place.

    The question was how to reconcile practice with theory. As has been shown, the public then, as always, enjoyed the element of spectacle in drama; and it was difficult to construct plots that would not demand a change of scene to be understood. Scudéry, in his Mort de César, avoided a palpable change of place by having the stage set with communicating rooms that remained hidden until the action was passing within them. In the preface to Proserpine, a play in which the action takes place “au Ciel, en Sicile, et aux Enfers,” Claveret makes the amusing statement that the reader can imagine a certain unity of place by conceiving it as a perpendicular line drawn from heaven to Hades. To such an extent was he ready to sacrifice reason for a rule supposed to be founded on reason.

    It is probable that Cinna, like the Cid, was produced at first with the usual simultaneous setting. The direction given by Laurent for this play, “le théâtre est un palais,” means that the drama came to be produced later with one scene; but Corneille implies that there were other scenes at first when he advises in his Discours that the place should not change during an act but in the intermissions, “as happens in the first three of Cinna,” and that these not have different scenery.

    The fact that opposed to marking different scenes is strong was quite in vogue up to that time. La Mesnardière, in his Poétique published his interpretation of the unity of place in its relation to scenery. In speaking of “asides” he says: “Je n’ignore pas les raisons qu’allèguent les Poètes modernes pour excuser cette erreur. Je sais qu’ils disent que la Scène étant un lieu vaste et ample, par exemple, de l’étendue de la ville de Paris, l’un des endroits du Théâtre peut représenter le Jour et l’autre la Place Royale; et partant qu’il faut supposer qu’encore que l’un des Acteurs parle en la présence d’un autre, celui qui est dans le Louvre ne peut toutefois entendre ce que son Compagnon prononce dans un quartier éloigné, comme dans la Place Royale. Nous permettons aux Dramatiques d’étendre en ces occasions les bornes de leur Théâtre et de partager leur Scène en plusieurs quartiers différents, pourvu qu’ils y fassent écrire. Cet endroit figure le Louvre, et ci est la Place Royale.”

    There is no evidence that this suggestion in regard to the signs was carried out at this date, although they had been used in the Middle Ages, in at least one case, at Rouen in 1474. D’Aubignac says that the first time he read this passage, he thought that La Mesnardière was joking in advocating such a procedure. We naturally wonder whether La Mesnardière knew of the signs used on the English stage.

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    Stage Decoration and the Unity of Place in France in the Seventeenth Century- Part 1 Essay. (2017, Sep 01). Retrieved from

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