A wild swerve today, to the 16th century stage: Robert Garnier’s Les Juifves or The Hebrew Women (1583). Long ago most of my reading was in the 16th century, not the 19th, but Garnier’s play was one I missed, thinking it was not available in English. A friendly reader recently informed me otherwise, that The Hebrew Women was hidden in Four French Renaissance Plays (Washington State University Press, 1978) in a plain and unpoetic but clear translation by Michael Zoltak. Thanks so much, Sean K., for the pointer!
The Hebrew Women is an undramatic dramatization of, roughly, 2 Chronicles 36 and 2 Kings 25, where the Jewish king Zedekiah rebels against King Nebuchadnezzar and is defeated and punished. As per 2 Kings 25:7 “And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.” Pretty horrible.
O cruel disasters! O rage! O fury!
O detestable deeds! O Scythian horrors!
O the treachery of the bloodthirsty monster!
O everlasting disgrace for all sceptered kings!
O murderer of innocents (etc., etc., Act V, p. 299)
Early French drama, even more so than the later drama of Racine and Corneille or the Classical model of Seneca, is static, almost immobile, really, and didactic. Characters declaim to the audience or to the chorus. Dialogues are often exchanges of aphorisms:
QUEEN: He who pardons someone gains a debtor.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR: He who forgives insult is rendered contemptible.
QUEEN: By pardoning the vanquished you win their love.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR: By pardoning one outrage you engender another. (etc., etc., II, 256)
The emotional power of the play is real but it is constructed from imagery and an increasing rhetorical intensity, not from action or character development. Nothing more happens on stage in a Racine play, but his characters are much more psychologically complex.
If my praise sounds faint, it is, genuine but muted. Garnier is more Important than he is Good, although he is good enough to be worth the trouble. His plays are crucial intermediate steps in the creation of modern European drama, where morality plays are mixed with Seneca to somehow create Julius Caesar and Phaedra. Where The Hebrew Women leads directly to Racine’s religious plays like Athaliah, another Garnier play, Marc-Antoine (1578), is more important for English literature because of Mary Sidney’s outstanding 1592 translation. It must be available on the internet somewhere, but heck if I can find it. Garnier’s version of the fall of Anthony and Cleopatra is if anything more static than The Hebrew Women, but Sidney’s version of Garnier is an outstanding English poem.
Or so I remember it. It has been a while. My challenge as a reader of Garnier was to re-discover the path into the play, how to read for rhetoric and sententiae. I used to know how to do this. I guess I still do. The mental space where I store my early modern drama reading skills is rather dusty and cobwebbed, and not well organized. Reading Garnier’s play gave me a good excuse to rummage around in there, and allowed me to fill a gap in my knowledge, and made me wish, again, that there were more, or any, early modern-focused book blogs.