During his lifetime, Jean Mairet helped establish the viability of the classical unities through his dramatic efforts. By placing believable personalities in plausible psychological conflicts, he avoided creating an aesthetic breach between dramatic theory and practice. Despite the inherent weaknesses in his works, he attained a level of believability during most of his career that furthered his primary desire, that of correctly interpreting the tastes of the audiences that he wished to please.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, the dramatic pastoral became a recognized genre in France, largely as a result of Italian influence. The refined portrayal of young love and the evocation of a delicious rustic fantasy world, free from material cares, where benevolent gods or magicians assured that all would turn out right, were among the principal attractions of the form. The 1620’s, when Jean Mairet composed his three pastoral plays , marked the high point of the genre’s popularity, soon to be eclipsed by that of tragedy. Already overly stylized and conventional, the pastoral had recently acquired a new vitality with the publication of Honoré d’Urfé’s monumental novel, L’Astrée (1607-1628; Astrea, 1657-1658). Besides appealing to his countrymen’s patriotism by setting his Arcadia in the Forez region of France, d’Urfé proved a model of stylistic excellence and a wide range of interesting plots and characters that would inspire the coming generation of playwrights. Mairet took the plots of his Chryséide et Arimand and La Silvanire directly from Astrea; Sylvie, based on a variety of literary sources, also shows the influence of d’Urfé.
Sylvie, probably the finest of all French pastorals, was certainly the most popular. It went through twenty-two editions in Mairet’s lifetime, fifteen of them in its first ten years, and remained in the active repertory for a number of years. Although much of the play’s charm derives from the delicate grace of Mairet’s poetry, its dramatic appeal results from a skillful mixture of elements from other dramatic genres. From the tragicomedy, Mairet took the chivalrous subplot of Prince Florestan, who falls in love with the beautiful Princess Méliphile upon viewing her portrait, undertakes a long and dangerous journey to meet her, is shipwrecked on the very island he seeks but is miraculously preserved, and finally wins the hand of his beloved by destroying a powerful magic spell. From the tragedy, Mairet took the cruel king who persecutes the young lovers and the moving episode in which the other pair of lovers, Thélame and Sylvie, each believing the other dead, pronounce a lament over the body of the beloved. These scenes were doubtless inspired by the tragedy Pyrame et Thisbé (1623) by Théophile and may well have been intended as Mairet’s homage to his late friend. There are even comic episodes, such as the scenes involving Sylvie’s materialistic parents, the delightfully witty repartee between the shepherdess and her rejected suitor Philène, and the stratagem whereby the latter tries to convince Sylvie of her prince’s infidelity.
Although Sylvie predates Mairet’s official acceptance of the three unities, it does try to observe the unity of place, at least in the flexible interpretation of the 1620’s and 1630’s. Apart from the opening scene set in Candia, the action is limited to a forest overlooking the coast of Sicily, with the two nearby dwellings, the royal palace where the Princess Méliphile and her brother Prince Thélame live, and the hut of Sylvie’s parents. Of more significance, though, is the presentation of the locale as an enchanted country blessed with exceptional fertility and beauty, conducive to blissful love and knightly adventure. Florestan, upon landing on the island, exclaims that this must be the abode of the gods. Thélame, revolted by the insincerity of life at court, goes there to seek not only love but also the purity and freedom of the natural order. This sense of exhiliarating liberation is mirrored in the plot, which focuses on the indomitable love between a prince and a shepherdess, despite the opposition of a jealous rival, the irate fathers, and considerations of state. Although it requires the intervention of an oracle to ordain their marriage, it should be noted that Mairet does not utilize the customary last-minute recognition scene revealing his heroine to be of noble birth.
Mairet showed little regard for the unities of time and action here, although the first four acts span roughly twenty-four hours. Like earlier pastorals, Sylvie moves at a leisurely pace, with little attempt to create suspense. Certain episodes could be eliminated with no effect on the denouement. There is no real character development, although Mairet does try to motivate Philène’s last-act change of heart (enabling him to marry the shepherdess Dorise, whom he has hitherto spurned). Finally, there is a note of unabashed sensuality, common to much of Mairet’s theater but which would be anathema to the following generation. The characters freely give vent to their feelings, and spontaneity sometimes comes at the expense of dignity, as in Thélame’s impetuous desire to enjoy Sylvie’s body. The sensuality never becomes excessive, however, for Sylvie is perfectly capable of safeguarding her honor. At the same time, she maintains an ironic distance from the hyperbolic language of love and courtship, making the triumph of simplicity and sincerity one of the key motifs of the play.
(The entire section is 2301 words.)