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Still No Precise Subject: The View from French

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 161-169 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0016

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Still No Precise Subject:
The View from French

Many american scholars in French studies spend a year or so in Paris during graduate school: in libraries, but also in seminars, in often silent anthropological study of their French counterparts, so similar in preoccupations and yet sometimes so very other in their way of pursuing them. From my year I remember in particular one encounter with a French student also working on theater. She asked kindly, having asked some months previously, how I was imagining the shape of my thesis after the year’s reading. I proffered some sentences recently formulated for a successful grant abstract back home. “Ah,” she said, “toujours pas de sujet précis, alors” (still no precise subject, then).

Anyone who’s been a graduate student can imagine the despondency brought about by such an observation. But her response says a lot about the different ways in which national and international disciplines organize themselves. In France, scholars have tended to work around precisely defined genres, and on proper nouns in relation to those genres (prudence in burlesque, let’s say); in the United States, in the last decades, this has been less and less the case, and scholars have worked increasingly on broader bodies of discourse ranging across traditional genres. In short, we tend indeed not to have a precise subject: something that sometimes is a result merely of doctoral confusion, as I’m fully prepared to admit might be the case [End Page 161] for the account I relayed, but that also comes to be its own form of intellectual and institutional strength. Whereas French French scholars are often compelled to define themselves in narrow chronological or methodological ways (a scholar of the early years of Louis XIV, or a specialist in performance history) to differentiate themselves from one another, we who work as a minority outside France are freer to read differently and to play around with the barriers between genres and historical moments. (We are also, of course, compelled to speak across intellectual barriers in the interest of our own survival.) I want to set out here some of what seems to be happening now in studies of early modern French theater and in the institutional settings of that work, and to describe some of the important imprecision of our subject to colleagues working in other national traditions.

First, and in relation to the title of this journal, it seems important to note that the term “Renaissance drama” sits strangely for French studies. Colleagues in the sixteenth century, mindful of the ways in which period-specific jobs tend now to disappear into one early modernist position, might find themselves still with important reasons to define themselves as Renaissance rather than early modern scholars. But even those who describe themselves thus would find it hard to claim a large place for the drama of the late Renaissance in France. There is a theatrical corpus in the period, but it tends toward the theological and unwieldy, and for this reason it has certainly not been the focus of the kind of pedagogical attention that distills a canon.

Instead, French early modern theater in the United States (and the awkwardness of that formulation tells you something about the field) has long been boiled down to the triumvirate of French seventeenth-century classical drama: Corneille, Molière, Racine. This carefully formed canon formed the backbone of the period until quite recently. In the United States, it seemed to have fallen out of focus in the last decades of the twentieth century, although it still formed a central part of many undergraduate courses. Up until about 1975, the study of the period was still largely in thrall to a narrative developed in the late seventeenth century by the critic Nicolas Boileau, according to which “classicism,” as it was later called, arrived in triumph in the guise of the poet Malherbe, sweeping away forever the curlicues and excess of what came before. Boileau put it this way: “Enfin Malherbe vint” (finally Malherbe arrived). And, in turn, a new broom arrived [End Page 162] to sweep away this narrative in the last decades of the twentieth century...