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  • L'Écriture du spectacle. Les didascalies dans le théâtre européen aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles
  • Perry Gethner
Véronique Lochert , L'Écriture du spectacle. Les didascalies dans le théâtre européen aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Geneva: Droz, 2009. 712 pp.

This remarkable study traces the history of stage directions and other dramatic marginalia through the seventeenth century, and Véronique Lochert takes on the even more formidable task of covering not one country but four (England, France, Italy and Spain), to examine both the parallels and contrasts of their various theatrical traditions. It is by far the most complete treatment of the subject to date and should prove definitive for a long time to come. To my knowledge, this is the first-ever general study of the subject for France, and it is definitely the most comprehensive comparative study ever undertaken.

Lochert, who provides a history of the terminology, prefers the increasingly standard French term didascalie (derived from Greek), which has a more extensive range than the most common English term, "stage direction," in that it applies to all portions of a dramatic text not pronounced by the actors on the stage. She refutes the common belief that these paratextual elements are merely directions for people involved in the performance of a play, showing that in many cases they are specifically intended for readers of printed texts. This view is buttressed by her examination of didascalies intended to assist the reader but that are not stage directions, including explanatory notes, indications of sources, polemical declarations, authorial self-justifications, [End Page 269] internal headings signaling rhetorical or poetic set pieces, and special typography to point out succinct moral lessons.

In her study of how didascalies changed over time, Lochert departs from previous schemes of periodization, which have tended to ignore or undervalue both the medieval and early modern eras. She shows that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries play an unexpectedly pivotal role in that evolution owing to multiple developments that occurred simultaneously in all four countries, such as the formation of professional acting companies, the rethinking of dramatic practice and theory thanks to the rediscovery of texts from antiquity, and the new prestige of drama as a literary form. She links the increase of notations specifying emotional states to a refining of acting technique and to greater audience interest in psychological action.

Lochert, who begins with a detailed prehistory of didascalies going back to the Hellenistic period, proposes an intriguing theory for how they arose in the European Middle Ages: they derived from notations in liturgical books, where their role was to signal the replaying of a timeless event or ritual, rather than serving as a mimetic code. Later, as performances of religious plays were increasingly confided to amateurs, authors had to provide more specific instructions to help them. During the Renaissance pedagogical editions of Latin drama made abundant use of a wide variety of annotations designed to aid comprehension. Yet playwrights consciously following Greco-Roman models tended to be very sparing with annotations, insisting on the primacy of the text, especially in Italy and France.

The comparative study of didascalies in the four European countries reveals far more common ground between them than might have been expected. While in general England and Spain underwent a gradual transition between medieval and Renaissance genres and practices, whereas in France and Italy authors openly broke with the past and far more attention was paid to dramatic theory, events within each country were far from uniform. There were splits, especially noticeable in France, between baroque and classicizing tendencies, between genres more closely tied to antiquity and those that privileged spectacle, between writers who viewed rules and regularity as indispensable and those who questioned their legitimacy and effectiveness. Variation in the number and length of stage directions was often linked to how much violent action was shown on the stage, as opposed to being narrated. [End Page 270] Stage directions likewise reveal the aesthetic values involved in adaptations of earlier plays, whether from one's own country or from abroad, reflecting how much spectacle was added, eliminated or altered. The fact that over half the didascalies in...


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