Théâtre complet. Tome I. La Sophonisbe — Le Marc-Antoine ou la Cléopâtre — Le Grand et Dernier Solyman; ou, la mort de Mustapha
Here is scholarship of truly outstanding quality, and a telling reminder of everything that separates a scholarly critical edition from what we too readily call critical editions, but that are in fact reprints of a pre-established text with the addition of a literary critical introduction and some explanatory notes. Little known today outside seventeenth-century circles, Jean Mairet is the author of twelve plays, first performed between 1630 and 1640. He is important because he is one of a handful of dramatists, including Pierre Corneille, who together, in that decisive decade, by a mixture of theory and practice, inflected the course of French drama for the next two hundred years. This is the first of four volumes that will constitute the first ever collected edition of Mairet's theatre, because he himself only published his plays separately. For most of the plays, this will be their first ever critical edition. This volume contains his three tragedies, including La Sophonisbe, with its claim to being the first regular modern French tragedy. Each of the three editors is responsible for a single play, but the volume as a whole is a team effort, as there is much cross-referencing, and Alain Riffaud's exceptional skills as a material bibliographer have explicitly shaped and contributed to the editorial work of his two colleagues. It is no exaggeration to say that, if the remaining volumes of the edition are completed to the same standards as this one, Mairet will be the seventeenth-century dramatist whose œuvre has been best served by modern critical editions. The reason is that Riffaud is tireless in his pursuit and scrutiny of copies of what appear to be the same edition. It is a duty that all critical editors are aware of, but that most shy away from, partly because of time constraints, partly because the rewards are not always commensurate with the effort expended. However, such work is crucial unless we want to close our eyes to complex historical truths, as it reveals the aleatory nature of the text, always subject to the competing and contradictory forces of authors, publishers, printers, compositors and markets. Establishing a text for a modern readership that might want to read works like these for a whole range of reasons is a perilous activity, as it can make them look definitive, when historically they never were. But when the work of material bibliography has been done and its findings presented, as here, with thoroughness and scrupulous care and with the help of photographs of title pages and examples of mise en page, readers have all the evidence with which to assess the provisional nature of the texts presented by the editors and the complex evolutionary processes to which the early editions [End Page 391] were subjected. Not that Mairet is as difficult in bibliographical terms as Rotrou, Corneille or Molière. And not that the editors limit themselves to matters of bibliography. Their introductions explain fully all that they have discovered about conditions of first performance; and the genesis or fabrication of the plays is explored by analysis of sources and dramaturgy, as one might expect from a team working under the direction of Georges Forestier. Bibliography, biography, lists of other treatments of the same subjects in French and other European languages all help to make this volume an indispensable tool for future research on Mairet and the theatre of the 1630s. It will stimulate many instances of critical discourse, but it will long outlive them.