Jean Rotrou : "Le Veritable Saint Genest", a Baroque Masterpiece

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The Play’s the Thing and Le Véritable Saint Genest


the idea, or simile, that ‘Life is a Play’ has a very long history. It can be traced back at least to the Romans of the second and third century AD. At its basis is the notion, or rather feeling, that life in this world is  “not only unimportant [but] also in some sense not quite real”. (The quotation is taken from E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, a book I cannot recommend too highly.)

            In what is still a somewhat obscure passage in The Republic Plato compares life in this world to the situation of chained prisoners in a cave. It has been suggested that this potent image is based on the actual experience of initiates to the Eleusinian Mysteries, a sort of elite Freemasons’ Society of the time, and it is quite conceivable (though by no means certain) that Plato himself was an initiate as a young man. The rough idea seems to be that the chained persons have their backs to the light (which either comes from outside the cave itself or from a blazing fire behind them), and the shapes they see in front of them are shadows cast on the wall of the cave, not the actual puppet figures which are being manipulated by someone standing behind them, and of whose presence they are unaware. In their ignorance and delusion, these prisoners take these shapes on the wall for the real thing. The main aim of philosophy (lit. ‘love of wisdom’) should be, according to Plato, to enlighten the wretched prisoners in the cave — the mass of humanity — as to the true state of affairs in the universe and beyond. It is striking that modern physics and mathematics, which owe a lot to Plato indirectly if not directly, tell us that ‘reality’ at its most irreducible level, that of quarks and quantum vacuums and space-time warps, is quite different from the ‘reality’ we perceive through our senses — a difference that is greater, not lesser, than the ‘reality’ the chained prisoners are familiar with compared to the Platonic daylight outside the cave.

            There are two main features about a play, or other ‘realistic’ art form : firstly, there is the conflict between ‘illusion’ and reality which is all the more telling if the play is really persuasive, and, secondly, there is the situation of the actors and actresses who are not free to do what they wish. Plato is perhaps the first prominent thinker to have specifically connected these two features and made the connection the central plank of his philosophy. It is precisely because what we fondly call ‘life’ is such a persuasive illusion, a master play if ever there were one, that we, as living beings, are not free for much the same reason as a madman is not free. For the true ‘reality’ is not down here, but is the world of eternal Forms of which this world is a pale copy. Only the philosopher, the man who has ‘seen through’ the physical world, is capable of ‘free’ action. Humanity  is doomed, not because of any deep-rooted character flaw such as pride or disobedience — this is the Judaeo/Christian approach —  but because of ‘wrong judgement’ about what is truly real. This is close to the Buddhist position. But, during his own lifetime, this otherworldly side of Plato did not have much effect : Athenian society was still too buoyed up with its own successes to turn away from physical reality which it was beginning to master through technology, rational thought and mathematics. 

            From about the time of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who appears in the opening scene of the film Spartacus) a general feeling sets in, amongst pagans and Christians alike, that life in this world is hopelessly inadequate and not worthy of much more respect than the antics of puppies fighting over a bone — the simile comes from the Diaries of Marcus Aurelius himself.  What is new  is not the idea that human society is bad, but that it is also in some sense insubstantial —  the ‘substance of a dream’. This view of the world  contributed to the eventual triumph of Christianity since the latter placed ‘true reality’ in the afterlife, but it certainly did not originate there, indeed many of the early Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nyassa and Saint Augustine, were trained in the ‘pagan’ universities and imbibed a lot of their otherworldliness from strictly pagan sources. The ‘illusionist’ view of the world, though it left a strong mark on the development of Christianity, never quite became orthodox doctrine since, ephemeral and imperfect though it might be, the physical world was nonetheless created by God and thus retained something divine within it, as did mankind.

            The Renaissance took up the theme of ‘Life is a Play’ but with a considerably reduced belief in the afterlife. The prolific Spanish playwright Calderon wrote a very effective play entitled Life is a Dream  where the protagonist actually has considerable difficulty in distinguishing between what is real and what is dreamed — because he is suddenly transported from his mountain prison to the King’s palace for a single day, and then transported back again, all this without being told what is going on. But Calderon is no Platonist : he is much more concerned with human behaviour in the real world down here than with any supposed contrast between deceiving physical reality and what is ‘ultimately real’. The most we get is the rather too pat ‘argument’ that there is no foolproof way of  distinguishing between dream and reality : it is all on a level with Chuang-tzu’s parable of the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and, on waking up, could not decide whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. But, in point of fact, outside very special circumstances like being under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, or when people play tricks on us, we do not have much difficulty in distinguishing between dream and reality : if we did life would be a good deal more dangerous than it actually is. It is also perhaps worth remarking that it is not possible for an actor, at any rate in the theatre, to get completely carried away by the part he or she plays, since, if he did this, he might well actually kill someone for real, or more likely fall off the stage and break his leg.   

               Shakespeare uses the theatre simile a good deal in his plays, but never to contrast illusion and reality in the truly metaphysical or Buddhist sense. Jacques’ famous speech “All the world’s a stage…”, memorable though it is, is essentially a put-down on life, not a philosophic statement. And Hamlet does not arrange for the staging of The Murder of Gonzago to show people that life, and the world, is unreal, or that ‘art is truer than ordinary reality’ : he has the play put on for a specific, pragmatic, purpose, namely to reveal the truth about his father’s death. The contrast is not between the sequence of events narrated in The Murder of Gonzago and the actual sequence of events that led to the death of Hamlet’s father, but between the action of the play-within-the-play and what most people think happened in reality, which is quite another matter. In The Tempest Shakespeare comes closer to tackling the Illusion/Reality issue via the character of Prospero who is supposed to be a magician, that is, a person who can create his own reality. But it is obvious that Shakespeare, a man of this world if ever there was one, does not believe in magic as certain near contemporaries of his such as Dr. Dee definitely did.

            The forgotten seventeenth century French neo-classical drama, Le Véritable Saint Genest, which I came across more or less by chance, is a far subtler and more suggestive treatment of the Illusion/Reality theme than anything the Renaissance or Elizabethan period produced, and has been rightly compared to the work of twentieth century authors such as Pirandello — as far as I am concerned, it goes far beyond them.

            What makes Rotrou’s play so striking is that it recounts a double martyrdom, the miraculous conversion to Christianity and subsequent  disgrace of a famous Roman actor, Genest, together with the earlier martyrdom of a prominent public official, Adrian. The two martyrdoms are fitted one within the other, like the painted wooden figures given as presents in Eastern Europe at Eastertime, since the actor, Genest, supposedly becomes converted while playing the part of Adrian in a play put on before the Emperor himself — an extreme case of an actor getting carried away by his theatrical persona.

            The occasion for the ‘play within the play’ is the forthcoming marriage of Diocletian’s daughter, Valerie, to the conquering general and co-Emperor, Maximin. The famous actor, Genest, is summoned and asked to provide an entertainment for the Court; rather rashly as it turns out, he decides to stage a play relating the martyrdom of an official, Adrian, for which Maximin himself was responsible. The real Maximin will thus shortly see an actor representing himself on the stage — “César à César sera représenté” . Genest’s odd  choice of play for the festive occasion  — he specifically rejects the idea of a comedy which would seem more appropriate — and his bold decision to actually ‘double up’ one of the spectators and get him to watch himself, soon unleashes disaster.  This is perhaps the ‘original sin’, as it were,  of the entire action, as if, by messing about with layers of illusion and reality from the very beginning, the actor Genest has broken a sacred law and must pay the penalty. At first,  however, all is well since Maximin readily accepts the idea of  seeing himself on the stage :


                        “Oui, crois qu’avec plaisir je serai spectateur

                        En la même action dont je serai l’Acteur ».


                        (‘ Yes, of course, I shall be happy to view as a spectator

                        the same events in which I was an actor’)


            In Act II we are behind the scenes, as it were : Genest chats with the Decorator, arranges his costume and reads through his script. He, as the leader of the troupe, plays Adrian, the future martyr, and, left alone, he recites  the stirring speech when Adrian, a high Roman official and in the past relentless persecutor of the Christians, steels himself to declare publicly his own conversion to Christianity, well aware that this will almost certainly lead to his death. Genest’s actual wife, Marcelle, the leading lady of the troupe, interrupts his private rehearsal to complain about the unwelcome attentions of hangers-on back-stage. Genest observes that, most likely, she does not find all this attention as objectionable as she claims, and asks her to read out one of her set speeches from the ‘play within the play’ which she does, much to his satisfaction. He then asks to be left alone once more to carry on practising and Marcelle leaves.


            We now reach Act II Scene IV, the crucial scene on which all the subsequent events depend. According to Aristotle, every well constructed tragedy should have a peripeteia, a ‘reversal’ or ‘turnabout’ when the whole play suddenly takes a completely different and usually unexpected course. Generally, the peripeteia  comes a lot later, since we are concerned with private emotions — a form of religious conversion — it is appropriate that the ‘turnabout’ occurs much earlier, since it needs time to work itself through the actor’s inner processes before being translated into action. A less skilful dramatist would have had the actor Genest converted, or at least knocked down, on the spot in the manner of Saint Paul and in the earlier Jesuit play, from which Rotrou took the idea, it seems that this is what happens. But Rotrou has Genest little by little feeling himself getting carried away, fighting against this and attempting to reason himself out of the situation. Moreover, Genest is a sincere pagan who believes, as Diocletian and Maximilian do, that Christianity is wrong and adds piquancy to the situation by  actually appealing to the Roman gods to come to his aid :


      « Dieux, prenez contre moi ma défense et la vôtre;

      ………….je me trouve être un autre ;

      Je feins moins Adrian que je ne le deviens… » 


            [‘O gods, defend me against myself, defend yourselves,

              …..  I feel myself turning into someone else,

            And instead of playing Adrian I am becoming him.’]


            He tells himself that, as an actor, he is used to the sensation of taking on a strange identity, but suspects there is something more at work here. Feeling himself more and more attracted to Christian ideas, he is horrified by the ‘sacrilege’ — in much the same way as a sincere Christian would be horrified by a sudden attraction to another belief. He rallies and tells himself firmly that he must stick to his professional role — “Il s’agit d’imiter , et non de devenir”  (‘My job is to represent someone and not to become him’).

            At this point, Genest hears a voice from above which exhorts him to continue in his role, and promises God’s help if he does so. This ‘role’ is not the theatrical one of the play within the play, but Genest’s future role as a martyr, or, if you like, it is both at once. Genest is astonished, at first impressed but immediately afterwards he returns to his rational self and concludes it must be someone playing a trick on him — “Quelqu’un s’est voulu diverter par cette feinte voix”. But the effects of this voice and its message are, he has to admit, undeniable. In total confusion he prays once more to the (pagan) gods to come to his aid, but amusingly ‘hedges his bets’, if  one can put it that way, by simultaneously praying to the Christian God to show his hand more clearly.

            At this point the Stage Decorator enters to light the candles for the show. The spell is broken — for the moment — and, with delicious irony, Genest mocks himself but at the same time says more than he realizes :


      « …  Tu m’as distrait d’un rôle glorieux

      Que je représentais devant la Cour des Cieux… »


      (‘You have distracted me from a glorious role I was 

      playing before the Court of Heaven’).

            Note that Genest compares the ‘play’ that is about to be put on in front of Diocletain’s Court with the ‘play’ which is Genest’s earthly life and which is being observed by the Court of Heaven. This is baroque indeed !  For look at the boxes within boxes. We, as spectators in the Parisian theatre, are watching an actor preparing to put on a play before the Roman Court. However, everything that takes place is a sort of ‘play’ that is being performed in front of a heavenly audience, an audience, moreover, which intervenes in the sort of way in which a Prompter intervenes in an actual play if he feels the actor is departing from his lines.

            Overriding the terrestrial Illusion/Reality conflict, there is the Christian/Platonic dualism which places our ‘real’ lives in the beyond. Later on, Genest makes this point specifically :


“Ce monde périssable et sa gloire frivole

Est une comédie où j’ignorais mon rôle ; »


(‘This ephemeral  world with its vainglory

Is a comedy in which I mistook my role’)          


            Rotrou was writing at a period when there was intense religious feeling in certain circles in France : it was the era of Saint Vincent de Paul, also of the Jansenists at Port-Royal. Blaise Pascal, who originally made his name as a mathematician and was something of a freethinker in his youth, actually did undergo a sudden conversion rather like that of Genest, though he did not hear a  voice from the sky.

            When Genest actually does appear on the stage representing Adrian on his inevitable course towards martyrdom, the Court audience is full of praise for his extraordinarily vivid acting. There is an Interval while the audience comment on the performances, the play within the play recommences and leads up to the scene when Adrian declares his indomitable Christian faith and defies the Emperor. At this point, to the dismay of the rest of the cast, and the Prompter, Genest steps out of his role and makes a public declaration of his (Genest’s) conversion to Christianity. The audience at first thinks this is still part of the play, but it seems to be going on too long, Diocletian gets increasingly irritated and eventually ‘the penny drops’ and the audience realizes that Genest really means what he says. In fury, Diocletian has him thrown into prison and threatens him with torture and death if he does not recant. In the ‘play within the play’, Adrian’s wife, Natalie (played by Genest’s wife, Marcelle) visits Adrian in prison. She turns out to be a secret Christian herself and, far from trying to deflect him from his course, she exhorts him to be brave and prepare himself for the glory of martyrdom. This scene has, as its deformed mirror image, the scene towards the end of the (real) play when Marcelle visits Genest in prison and makes a desperate attempt to change his mind. She considers Christianity a low-down sort of religion and dismissed Christ as a criminal that no self-respecting Roman would worship. More to the point, she appeals to his responsibilities towards his wife and his troupe, since they are threatened with ruin because of his crazy behaviour. But Genest is inflexible and goes to his death with serenity. Maximilian sums up the whole sorry tale from his point of view, leaving us once again with the bittersweet theme of Illusion/Reality

« Il a bien voulu, par son impiété,

Par une feinte, en mourant, faire une vérité »


 (‘In his impiety, his aim was, by dying, to

turn  play-acting into reality’).




 Note on Jean Rotrou


Jean Rotrou was, during his lifetime, a highly successful dramatist and quite a prolific one — he wrote over  thirty-five plays in the space of twenty years. Surprisingly, considering the complexity and genuine religious feeling of Le Véritable Saint Genest, Geoffrey Brereton, though he praises the play in his French Tragic Drama in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, presents Rotrou the man as an ambitious and opportunistic person.  

            Since the seventeenth century this minor masterpiece has been almost completely neglected : it was only put on twice in Paris during the entire nineteenth century. In 1963 the Théâtre de Paris staged it and it received a mixed reception. 





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