Le Mémoire de Mahelot
The so-called Mémoire de Mahelot is a crucial document for the study of seventeenth-century theatre, the notebook of scenic designers at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, the miraculous survival of which offers unique insights into on-stage performance conditions. This is the first edition since that of Lancaster of 1920, and its 200 pages of introduction now offer the best available account of seventeenth-century French scenography pertaining to the performance of spoken drama. The manuscript, really several different manuscripts, in different hands, privileges the early 1630s and the 1670s. For most of the plays listed in the earlier period there is both a verbal description of the set requirements and a drawing; for the later plays, there is only a summary verbal description. Accordingly, Pasquier devotes most of his attention to the earlier material, although a strength of his presentation is to conjure up both as clear as possible a vision of the two different scenographic practices in force in the earlier and later parts of the century and an evolution between them. In the 1630s, the dominant scenography used five concurrent sets disposed around the stage, some of them flat, some practicable with doors and windows, some containing visible interiors in which actors could perform; Pasquier refines the traditionally sanctioned concept of simultaneity of decor into one of relative simultaneity, as the occasional use of small curtains (painted to represent yet another set) to hide and then reveal the sets rests on the opposite principle of successivity. By the 1670s, the dominant scenography used one single set, representing either outside or inside, but not allowing the on-stage transition from one to the other that the earlier scenography allowed. Pasquier suggests how the different components of the multiple sets became gradually unified in the late 1630s and early 1640s (for instance, the five components increasingly representing parts of the same town or palace). His discussion is informed not only by his knowledge of a vast number of plays, but also by his sensitivity to the traditions of medieval performance, Italian sets for comic and tragic performance in the sixteenth century, evolving practices in the staging of ballets de cour, and the elaborately spectacular staging of Italian opera in mid-century Paris. He shines the cold light of evidence and patient analysis [End Page 390] on a number of idées reçues. One will suffice by way of illustration. It is now dogma that actors came to the front of the stage to perform. Pasquier shows that there is no evidence to support this view, but a considerable amount of evidence to show that they performed just about everywhere else. This work constitutes a major revision of many time-honoured claims in Scherer's La Dramaturgie classique.