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    Stage Decoration and the Unity of Place in France in the Seventeenth Century- Part 2 Essay

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    La Mesnardière, as late as 1640, still advocated the old system that had come down from the Middle Ages. As he said, since the stage generally represents a whole city, often a small country, and sometimes a house, it must show as many scenes as there are different places. It must not present a garden or a forest for the scene of an action that has happened in a palace. Even in this palace, the stage should not show anything happening in the king’s apartment that should take place in the queen’s apartment. If the event has happened on the seashore, the stage must show a marine scene on one of its façades so that the action may not be misunderstood. The whole stage should be arranged as follows:

    Si l’Aventure s’est passée moitié dans le Palais d’un Roi en plusieurs appartements, et moitié hors de la Maison en beaucoup d’endroits différents; il faut que le grand du Théâtre, le “irpovKrjviov” des Grecs, c’est-à-dire cette largeur qui limite le parterre, serve pour tous les dehors où ces choses ont été faites, et que les Renfoncements soient divisés en plusieurs Chambres, par les divers Frontispices, Portaux, Colonnes, ou Arcades.

    Such a stage does not differ at all from the setting of the medieval stage. It has been believed that scenery ceased to be a matter of importance after the production of the Cid. However, stage setting is still so important that La Mesnardière even describes how certain single scenes should be constructed. The prison scene – one which dates back centuries in its use – should be mounted so that the prisoner could be contained within and not be allowed to leave its limits. The eyes of the spectator should be able to penetrate its depths, and the darkness and obscurity lit up by a somber light would make the prison more frightful. Mahelot directs that the prison in Du Ryer’s Clitophon be set with a large, low, barred opening so that three prisoners can be seen.

    According to La Mesnardiere, the same arrangement applies to cave scenes. Their mouths must open on the stage like a door, and if the cave is supposed to be closed, the interior must be made visible by means of a barred opening. Thus, the dark cavern will seem more cruel in proportion as it is more closed, darker, and horrible. La Mesnardi’re objects to the custom of reusing scenery which grew up on account of the indigence of the comedians.

    Each play, he claims, should have its scenery, and Rome should not be turned into Constantinople, and Libya should not become Norway. He, too, was against the inexactness of stage decoration, and he says it is a mistake to represent what happened in the room of a king as taking place in a scene that is vague and open on all sides like a public square. He bids the dramatist study the scenery and the arrangement of the setting. If the action is what he calls “pacific,” his scenery will be composed of palaces and gardens; but if the action represents tumult, war, and the chase, the dramatist will choose for the place of the action the vastness of fields and forests.

    Care must be taken to see that a cave scene is not used for a hunting scene; and one must be sure that the beautiful spectacles furnished by perspectives, caves, woods, palaces, and other scenes are not contrary to reason or verisimilitude. Thus, he applies the classical test of reason to the construction and arrangement of scenery; but regarding the interpretation of the rule of the unity of place, he is very free. He says that, according to the unite de la scene, the action should not be carried to different climates, but it should be bounded by the extent of a small country. La Mesnardi6re is interpreting the rule of the unity of place not in accordance with reason or verisimilitude but in terms of contemporary stage decoration.

    His expression “unite de la scene” is evidence that he was thinking of stage conventions and conditions, and not of the theories of the critics. To observe the unity of time was much easier. Time could be indefinite, and the audience could be deceived, but with the different scenes before the eyes of the spectator, they could easily recognize a violation of the unity of place. The system of stage setting was in direct opposition to the rule, and that is one reason why d’Aubignae could say that he knew of only one play that observed the unity of place: Corneille’s Horace.

    By the time that d’Aubignac is writing his “Pratique du theatre,” the multiple stage decoration has not been discarded, for he criticizes the young poets who are inspired to write a play and place France at one end of the stage, Turkey at the other, and Spain in the middle, while if anyone is supposed to pass over the sea from Denmark to France, the action is indicated by the drawing of a scene. He also points out the mistake of the poets who place on the stage at the same time some characters supposed to be in Spain and others supposed to be in France.

    The fact that he makes fun of this procedure is evidence that the old system is still used. Otherwise, he would not have attacked it. He is evidently thinking of a stage on which several scenes are set at once, and also of a change of scene. D’Aubignac is far more restricted than La Mesnardidre in his interpretation of the unity of place. He asserts that the ground on which the actors walk must not change and that the place represented by the stage cannot be greater than the space in which a man can see another, although recognition may not be possible.

    However, this does not preclude a change of scenery, which can be managed as follows:

    .... dès qu’on a choisi un terrain pour commencer quelque action par représentation, il faut le supposer immobile dans tout le reste du poème, comme il l’est en effet. Il n’en est pas de même du fond et des côtés du théâtre; car comme ils ne figurent que les choses qui environnaient dans la vérité les personnages agissants, et qui pouvaient recevoir quelque changement, ils peuvent aussi changer dans la représentation; et c’est en cela que consistent les changements de scènes et ces décorations dont la variété ravit toujours le peuple et même les habiles quand elles sont bien faites. Ainsi, nous avons vu sur un théâtre une façade de temple ornée d’une belle architecture, et puis venant à s’ouvrir, on découvrait en ordre de perspective des colonnes, un autel, et tout le reste des autres ornements merveilleusement représentés; tellement que le lieu ne changeait point, et cependant, souffrait une belle décoration.

    The Mahelot Memoire records a similar change of scene in Benserade’s Iphis et lante, giving the direction: “The temple is closed until the fifth act and opens in the middle of the act.” Racine employs the same device in Athalie, and Voltaire revives it in his Mahomet as late as 1742.

    D’Aubignac does not stop with this compromise between a rigorous observance of the unity of place and scenic change, which is so important an element of drama even in his generation. He wishes to preserve at all costs the unity of place, which, he says, “now passes as valid”; but the old system of stage setting so appeals to him that he tries to reconcile it to the rule of the unity of place in the following manner:

    .… on pourrait feindre un palais sur le bord de la mer abandonné à de pauvres gens de la campagne; un prince arrivant aux côtes par naufrage, qui le ferait orner de riches tapisseries, lustres, bras dorés, tableaux et autres meubles précieux : après, on y ferait mettre le feu par quelque aventure, et le faisant tomber dans l’embrasement, la mer paraîtrait derrière, sur laquelle on pourrait encore représenter un combat de vaisseaux. Si bien que dans cinq changements de théâtre, l’unité du lieu serait ingénieusement gardée. Ce n’est pas que le sol ou l’air de l’avant-scène ne puisse changer aussi bien que le fond et les côtés, ou que ce soit seulement en la superficie ; car cela se ferait sans perdre l’unité du lieu : par exemple, ainsi que les géants portèrent dans la fable Pelion sur Ossa…

    It must be confessed that these scenes smack pretty strongly of romantic melodrama to have been devised by a classicist, and they show how strong the tradition of multiple stage decoration was. On the other hand, d’Aubignac objected to the stage representing a whole town or even showing the different apartments of a palace; and he adds that his objection cannot be answered by saying that to mark the different apartments, there may be curtains to shut and draw, for these curtains are fit for nothing but to toss their inventors in. He would have had a hard time punishing the inventors of this device, for the use of these curtains dates back to the Middle Ages.

    The procedure of changing scenes had evidently come more and more into vogue, for d’Aubignac advises that all permanent scenes to be represented be already placed on the stage when the play begins, in order that the surprise and applause which generally attend such sights may be over before the actors begin to speak. If it is necessary to change the decorations, the shift should be made in the interval between the acts so that the stagehands may have time to get their machine moving. Thus, the scenery seems to have been concealed from view before the play began; otherwise, d’Aubignac would not have suggested that the scenery be set at the “outerture du thedtre,” so that the murmurs of the audience might subside before the actors began.

    As for the dropping of the curtain between the acts, Bapst says that this did not happen until the nineteenth century; but that statement must be modified somewhat. Perhaps as a rule, the entr’actes were marked by violin playing, and the scene remained in full view of the spectators. d’Aubignac warns poets not to suppose that events have taken place between the acts in the scene shown on the stage, “which is open and exposed to the eyes of the spectators” during the intermissions, for in that case, the audience ought to have seen those things which are supposed to have happened. If a change had to be made in the scenery at any time during the performance, the curtain was dropped.

    This curtain is described by d’Aubignac as the “toile de devant, qui ne fait point partie de la decoration, et qu’on tire seulement quand on y veut changer quelque chose; afin que le people ne s’aperçoive point du désordre qui se fait en ces ajustments, et qu’il soit plus agréablement surpris en voyant soudainement une nouvelle face du theatre.” Music accompanied this drawing of a curtain to mark a change of scene, for d’Aubignac says sarcastically that to pass from France to Denmark “il ne faut que trois coups d’archet ou tirer le rideau.” An example of a play in which changes of scenery were made during the intermissions is found in Molière’s Don Juan. Laurent records the setting as follows: first act, a palace; second act, a room and a sea; third act, a wood and a tomb; fourth act, a room; fifth act, the tomb.

    The setting for the second act – a room and a sea – is practically a simultaneous setting. The decoration for Andromaque, given as “a palace with columns and a sea with ships,” and the setting for Iphigénie, given as “tents and a sea with ships,” correspond in a modified way to the simultaneous scenes of the old system. In such scenes as the bust, the unity of place is not destroyed by the scenery, and this system is far better suited to preserving the unity of place than the procedure of changing scenes between acts or at any other time during the performance. This point was brought out very plainly by Cailhava at the end of the eighteenth century. He called attention to the fact that the first act of Démocrite amoureux takes place in a wood and the other acts are at the court.

    Thus, while these two places are not far distant, yet the changes in decoration destroy the illusion. The author of Isabelle et Gertrude, however, in making the action take place during the night, part of the time in a dark garden and part of the time in a lighted room, had the theater represent a garden embellished with a boudoir but placed so that the spectator saw everything that happened on the whole breadth of the stage. Thus, he claims, the illusion was increased instead of being destroyed, as it is when walls and cities disappear at the sound of the stage manager’s whistle.

    Since the changing of scenery was out of keeping with the unity of place, either the somewhat modified multiple stage setting or the single indefinite scene had to come into use when the rule became binding. It was Corneille who found a way out of the difficulty in the vague and inexact settings which had been so criticized until 1660, the date of his Discours. He advocated an indefinite scene – a lieu théâtral – which would not be the apartment of any one character but into which all apartments would open and in which the characters would speak, as if they were in their own rooms. Thus, the actors on the stage, instead of going to the apartments of the other characters, could remain on the stage and be sought by the latter. In this way, the continuity of scenes would be preserved, and the unity of place would be observed.

    The stage setting of Le Cid, described by Laurent as une chambre de quatre portes, corresponds exactly to this scheme of a lieu théâtral, and perhaps was introduced at Corneille’s request. Corneille also advocated naming only the general place in which the action was supposed to happen, such as Paris or Rome. Even if two places were necessary to the action, he recommended that they not be marked by different scenery and that they remain unnamed. This expedient, he says, will help to deceive the spectator, who, not seeing the different places marked, will not perceive the change of scene except by critical and malicious reflection, while in Le Menteur, the different decorations made the change of place only too visible. He admits in the Examen of the Place Royale that he has violated the unity of place by introducing the scene in Angélique’s room, but this is necessary because the heroine would not lament in the street. He had used the old system in his early plays, although he had given up the liberty of placing Rome and Constantinople on the stage at the same time.

    Yet he merely reduced his unity of place to a whole city in these early plays and allowed the scene to change. He was prompted in this, not by reason, but by theatrical conventions of his time. In the Examen of Agésilas, moreover, Corneille detailed his revision of the rule on the ground that each play, for success on their scenery, requires the action to be placed in different localities. In fact, he declares that a city hardly suffices. Thus, the rule of the unity of place was rare until as far as actual practice is concerned, up to 1650. The critics could theorize as much as they wished, but the only limit imposed upon the rule by the playwrights was the limits of a city.

    It is after this date that the vague unity of place became more precise, but even then it was by no means the only one. Had it been the regular setting before that time, Corneille would hardly have taken the trouble to advocate its use in order to preserve the illusion of the unity of place. The fact that the later plays of Corneille and the plays of Racine were produced with one scene, coupled with the great reputation of these men, is likely to bring one to the conclusion that in the latter half of the seventeenth century, the stage was always set with one vague and unchangeable scene; but such was not the case, as is proved by the second part of the Jansenist controversy.

    On the contrary, there were several methods which grew out of the different ways of combining the old simultaneous setting with the present system of changing scenes. The single scene could be modified in two ways, as has been shown: (1) by following d’Aubignac’s suggestion of opening up a staple, a procedure which was carried out by Racine in Athalie; or (2) by making the one scene large enough to show two places not far distant, as in the Ring, which shows a theater with columns and, in the background, a ship. Entrée and Don Juan, the latter being recorded after August 25, 1660, are examples of plays in which changes of scene were marked by the acts. In 1675, Corneille’s La Comédie des Tuileries was presented with a change of scene in the fourth act in which the prince appears. Jeanne la Folle, by Scarron, and a play of uncertain authorship, recorded by Laurent after 1675, also change the scenery between the acts. La Femme Juge et Partie, in which the “théâtre est de.

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