- Laughing Matters: Farce and the Making of Absolutism in France
Sarah Beam's book treating farce during the French Renaissance is a well-researched addition to the corpus of drama studies. Combining a firm literary understanding of the plays themselves, she also brings the researcher's willingness to dig in the archives to unearth documentation that helps elucidate performance conditions, as well as the before and after effects of their practice. Further, Beam does not hesitate to dispute elements of commonly accepted theories. Norbert Elias's localization of absolutist development at Louis XIV's Versailles, and Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas of sociopolitical opposition inherent in the carnivalesque, do not escape unscathed. At the heart of her vision are the various paradocuments, including legal texts, memoirs, and chroniques, that provide regional officials' reactions, emanating not from centralizing power structures, but from the margins of those forces.
Her introduction presents contextual and historical principles that structure her analyses, including the conditions that define humor in given historical moments, as well as the broader definition of the French Renaissance she adheres to: 1450-1560. The construct that laughter is a political act informs her examination [End Page 1273] of farcical theater as a barometer of political climate. Beam contends that an investigation of not only the primary texts themselves, but also of archival evidence documenting regulation and censorship of performances reveals important factors in the development of absolutism in France, which she ties to the inception of the modern state. She traces the transformation of farce performance from commonplace to rare as a process resulting from two forces, the urban elite's changing attitudes during the Wars of Religion (1562-98), and the later peace under Henry IV (1589-1610). In short, the suppression of farce between 1550 and 1650 can be seen to parallel the rise of absolutism. Her text is an exploration of the unexpected mechanics of that process and the price of those cultural changes.
The first two chapters lay the groundwork. "Farce, Honor, and Bounds of Satire" documents cases in which the disrespect inherent in farce, though often accepted as stereotypical mocking, was occasionally brought before city officials when it crossed the line of type and directly implicated a known political figure. "The Politics of Farcical Performance in Renaissance France" expands on this premise by contrasting royal patronage (Louis XII and François I), with censorship of farce, even during its heyday (1450-1560). Moreover, provincial urban elites played a crucial, yet often overlooked, role in farce patronage. Occasionally, intersections of these civic leaders with festive societies at ceremonial entries or other civic events crossed the fine line between satirical humor and slander.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the importance of the Reformation in attitudes towards theatrical performance. "The Growing Cost of Laughter: Basoche and Student Performance" examines decreasing opportunities for liberal farce performance with the advent of the Wars of Religion. Basochiens and student performers were affected by the increased censorship caused by religious reform and rising importance of royal institutions. "Farce during the Wars of Religion" illustrates the repression of farce performance from the mid-sixteenth century that had enjoyed liberty for at least a hundred years. Beam details a case in which the arrival of Calvinist pastors in Amiens combined with economic pressures meant that public gatherings such as farces were considered fertile ground for Reformists.
As she moves into the problematic period between Renaissance and Neo-Classicism, Beam covers a broad range of topics. "Professional Farceurs in Paris, 1600-1630" treats the professional actors who replaced the amateurs of the Renaissance. Beam maintains throughout that the cultural shifts of the early seventeenth century resulted from diverse influences well established by the time Cardinal Richelieu patronized theater after 1635. In "Absolutism and the Marginalization of Festive Societies" and "Jesuit Theater: Christian Civility and Absolutism on the Civic stage" Beam grapples with the linkage between the emergence of absolutism and the demise of festive societies and amateur farce players, pointing...