- Tragedy in the Aftermath of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre: France’s First Phedre and the Hope for Peace
Before the bloody Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre claimed thousands or tens of thousands of lives on August 24, 1572, France’s first major tragedian, Robert Garnier, had published Porcie (1568), the first part of a trilogy detailing the Roman civil wars in evident echo of the current disputes between Catholics and Protestants. The second two parts of the trilogy – Cornélie (1574) and Marc Antoine (1578) – were published after the massacre and continued to offer indirect reflection upon the causes and consequences of the current chaos.1 Published before and after the massacre, the trilogy depicts a country polluted by religious discord and political turmoil. The purpose of the present article is to study the curious interruption of the trilogy that coincided with the massacre. In the aftermath of the bloodiest event in the wars, Garnier published another, seemingly unrelated and apparently timeless and apolitical, tragedy: Hippolyte (1573).2 The text, in fact, was actually [End Page 255] published twice that first year.3 Why? What made it so appropriate? And is the play really as disconnected from history as is generally thought? Garnier’s decision to publish Hippolyte in 1573 is initially all the more surprising given that other French tragedians seemingly responded to the massacre in very direct ways, raising the issue of the limits of the reason of State, directly referencing the fifth war of religion, or offering unrestrained praise of the murder of the Protestant leader, Coligny.4 Might it be possible, I ask in what follows, to reconnect France’s first play about Phèdre and her stepson to the massacre?
1. From tristes jeux to d’autres jeux
A number of clues as to how Hippolyte opens out onto the historical moment of production can be located in the letters and praise poems that precede the play. Although Hippolyte can seem like a pause or rupture in Garnier’s response to civil strife, such was not the opinion advanced by Pierre Amy in a Latin poem included in the original 1573 edition. There, Amy explicitly connects Hippolyte to the cycle of Roman plays about civil war. Porcie, notes Amy, was so moving that “nostra obstupuit scena” (our [French] stage was astonished) – before the 1568 tragedy, France had never known “cothurni [...] magniloqui” (the great eloquence of Athenian tragedy [in reference to the buskins, i.e. boots worn by Athenian actors]) (Hippolyte 55). Yet, he continues, Hippolyte will be even greater, such that “Invidi major Graecis se comparat” (greater will be the rivalry with the Greek muses). In this first instance, Amy compares the two plays purely on their esthetic merit. In a second moment, however, he asserts that the praise he offers Garnier is not just his own, but that of the French nation: the French are now again ready to face death for the wellbeing of the nation (“pro re communi”); all of France (“nobis nostrísque”) offer Garnier praise for his play. The stakes are [End Page 256] clearly national. Porcie’s relationship to France’s suffering is here appropriated for Hippolyte.
It is however not Amy but the great cousin of Pierre de Ronsard, Nicolas – he signs merely “N.D.R.” – who offers the most promising model for understanding how Hippolyte might relate to the massacre. Written in the second person (“Tu”) and naming its addressee a total of three times (“France”), Nicolas de Ronsard’s sonnet, offered to Garnier, connects Hippolyte to the nation via the figure of apostrophe. Most importantly, the poem calls for peace: “Ma France, je te pry, laisse ton propre flanc.” But the poem is not just a call for peace – it is also a call for replacing fighting in the streets with something else: “Tu devrois arracher de tes poings outrageux / Les glaives, et, paisible, à d’autres jeux t’ébatre.” And the other games that the sonnet’s author has in mind are theatrical. The connection becomes clearer when we recall that the sonnet begins by referring to France metaphorically as a theater: “Tu sers trop longuement au monde de theatre...