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MARY, Nicolas (Sieur Desfontaines) & ROTROU, Jean de
Two French Tragedies of Saint Genest. The Famous Actor or The Martyrdom of Saint Genest: Tragedy by Nicolas Mary, sieur Desfontaines. The Veritable Saint Genest: Tragedy by Jean de Rotrou 1644
Translated, with Introduction and Notes, by Richard Hillman
Publié le 09/05/2023
Scène européenne, « Traductions introuvables »

That these two hagiographic plays were virtually contemporary—both created in or around the same year (1644)—bears witness to the attraction of their common subject. The legend of the actor-saint and martyr Genest (Lat. Genesius), which Lope de Vega had previously dramatised in Lo fingido verdadera (pub. 1620), was taking on increased importance in the context of a defence on the Parisian dramatic scene of théâtre dévot and theatre generally.

The relation between the two French plays, which were produced by rival troupes (at the Hôtel de Bourgogne and L’Illustre Théâtre), raises provocative—and productive—questions, beginning with their uncertain chronological order. That Rotrou was responding to the work of Desfontaines may (or may not) be reflected in the claim in his title to be presenting the “veritable” (“véritable”) Saint Genest. In any case, his play more thoroughly exploits the metadramatic potential inherent in the legend, according to which Genest was converted by divine intervention during a performance—an episode developed by Rotrou so as to comment profoundly, from a Christian point of view, on the relation between true and false identities. The venerable notion of theatrum mundi is deployed with subtle yet forceful irony. But while Desfontaines’s treatment is more straightforward, it is by no means without powerful dramatic moments, linked especially with the evolution of romantic love between Genest and the actress Pamphilie into a shared spiritual commitment and double martyrdom that shake the confidence, even the pagan faith, of their Roman persecutor.

All in all, as the Introduction attempts to demonstrate, these two treatments of the legend of Genest, precisely by virtue of their contrasting approaches, are richly complementary as dramatic texts, as well as revealing with regard to a significant, but often neglected, strain of mid-century French tragedy.