Thursday, June 14, 2012

Robert Garnier's Hebrew Women - an early modern French detour - O the treachery of the bloodthirsty monster!

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.


  1. I've followed this blog for some time, but only now had the chance to dislurk. It's a find source of literary roughage, wish more blogs were like it.

    With that suspicion-alleviating - but nonetheless sincere - flattery out of the way (I've always felt a first comment is like appearing, unannounced, in the dining room of some unsuspecting tenant), I can point you towards, if you haven't found it already, Mary Sidney's translation of Marc-Antoine. Complete with introductory apparatus by Alice Luce, if that means anything. It doesn't to me.

    I want to read more drama that predates Marlowe, particularly for the stasis and rhetorical focus you mention. It would be amusing to see such a play produced nowadays; our desire for the thrust of some sort of psychological penetration is so ingrained as to render Robert Garnier et al positively "experimental."

  2. Erratum: l. 2: "fine" for "find" - dratted, palsied fingertips!

  3. Thanks, and welcome. Literary roughage, yes, good for the literary digestion.

    Thanks for the link, that's it. You can tell from the beginning that the poet is expert ("Since all misshapes of the round engine do \ Conspire my harm"). It takes a little more reading to understand that nothing whatsoever is going to happen in the play.

    But as you say, I would love to see either Antony or Les Juifves performed, in the right hands, at least. The potential for the actors and for messing around with the staging is high.

  4. Find Sidney's 'Antonie' here also:

  5. Thanks - that link is more useful for browsing, although it has trouble with the word "Caesar".