Jean de Rotrou’s plays are seldom performed, yet his reputation has not suffered from this theatrical neglect. His plays are still read and appreciated by scholars and students alike. He was a prodigious composer during his short life, writing thirty-five plays that are extant; there were probably others that have been lost. His talent as a playwright was admired by the literati, and his success inspired many contemporary French authors to cultivate the imbroglio play. Indeed, his plays became a veritable gold mine for other dramatists. The appeal of his dramas lay in Rotrou’s ability to construct a well-knit plot that holds together in every respect.
In the context of Rotrou’s entire theater, one can say that it is, above all, eclectic. Rotrou borrowed freely not only from the classical past, but also from the courtly tradition, pastoral literature, history, and contemporary Spanish and Italian sources. The importance of his theater does not lie in profound character portrayals or in any poetic beauty of the language; it lies, instead, in the area of dramaturgy. The problem of dramaturgy doubtless occupied much of Rotrou’s time, because he consistently strove to write exceptionally well-constructed scenes and acts. He gave his plays an air of verisimilitude by linking his scenes whenever possible and by arranging them in a logical pattern, by transposing or omitting scenes from the source material, and by inventing some original scenes of his own. He tried to observe a proper lapse of time between events and justified encounters of characters whenever feasible, as well as their entrances, exits, and motivations. His alterations in staging are proof that he paid particular attention to staging techniques when their effects had a significant bearing on total dramatic interest. For these reasons, Rotrou proved to be an innovative adapter who paved the way for other playwrights. At a time when the theater in France was groping toward a new direction, Rotrou showed his countrymen what good theater could be.
All of Rotrou’s plays can be grouped into one of three dramatic genres: tragicomedy, comedy, or tragedy. Of the thirty-five plays that have survived, eighteen are in the genre of tragicomedy; these are typically adventure plays with characters from the upper classes or royalty, the denouements of which are almost invariably happy. The only “tragic” aspect of this type of play is the threat of death for the hero (usually in the fourth act), a threat that is quickly dispelled. Tragicomedy is, in fact, a hybrid genre, but one that was immensely popular with theatergoers of the period. The primary source for most tragicomedies was either the pastoral or the cloak-and-dagger adventure novels fashionable with the public. The nature of these plays is such as to demand a constant attention to external details, which were intended to create complicated situations. Rotrou accentuated the Romanesque elements usually associated with this genre (such as disguises, duels, mistaken identities, trickeries, and numerous intrigues). Moreover, with him, the Terentian double plot—two closely related actions involving two sets of characters—became the basic element of plot construction.
It is the consensus of critics that Wenceslaus is Rotrou’s finest tragicomedy. He borrowed the plot from a play by Fernando de Rojas, No hay ser padre siendo rey (pr. 1522). Nevertheless, Rotrou altered so extensively his source material that more than half the play is new. The plot centers on the twin themes of fraternal rivalry and paternal self-sacrifice. Wenceslas is an old monarch who is weary of ruling. He has two sons, Ladislas and Alexandre, both of whom are in love with the same woman, Cassandre. She prefers the more gentle Alexandre to the tempestuous Ladislas. A double love intrigue concerns the love of the minister, Frédéric, for the king’s daughter, Théodore. In a case of mistaken identity, Ladislas enters Cassandre’s palace one evening and kills her presumed lover. Unbeknownst to him, he has inadvertently killed his brother. Cassandre rushes to the king to demand justice for the death of Alexandre, slain at night by Ladislas. The king condemns the latter to death, but when he is about to be executed, Cassandre and Théodore beg for his life. Frédéric has been informed by Théodore that if he aspires to marry her, he must prevent the execution of her brother. In the meantime, the people have overrun the place of execution and revolted at the thought of their prince being put to death. The aged king solves the problem by abdicating in favor of his son, who is henceforth placed above the law of the realm. King Ladislas now gives his sister to Frédéric in marriage and asks Cassandre to marry him. She indicates her intent of doing so after a suitable period of mourning.
Many critics have been drawn to this play in spite of the broader moral implications of showing vice seemingly rewarded. They praise the profound psychological portrayal of the characters, especially Wenceslas and Ladislas, and the play’s excellent structural cohesiveness. The suspenseful plot is based largely on anxiety and fear and is constructed in accord with the classical unities. Certain changes in staging enabled Rotrou to achieve greater theatrical effects than were achieved in the original play. For example, the fact that the audience is kept in ignorance of the person whom Ladislas has killed makes the revelation of the fratricide in the fourth act even more dramatic than it might otherwise be. In his monumental study, A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century (1929-1942), Henry Carrington Lancaster considers this scene to be one of the most effective in all French classical drama. Lastly, the generational conflict, the confrontation between parent and children depicted in the play, has always been a popular motif with the public. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that more than thirty editions of Wenceslaus appeared between 1648 and 1980, and that it was performed two hundred and fifty-seven times at the Comédie-Française between 1680 and 1980.
Rotrou affixed the label comédie to eleven of his plays. One of them, La Bague de l’oubli, shows close affinities with tragicomedy; the influence of the pastoral is evident in five others—La Diane, Filandre, Célimène, Florimonde, and Clorinde—all written between 1633 and 1635; three follow closely the comic tradition of antiquity found in Plautus’s theater, Les Ménechmes, Les Sosies, and Les Captifs; and two are Italian adaptations, Clarice and La Sur. Such is Rotrou’s comic theater—eleven plays that reflect a variety of influences. Unquestionably, comedy of intrigue constitutes their principal ingredient. His two best-known comedies are Les Sosies and La Sur.
Les Sosies proved to...
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