- Beyond the ‘Affaire Tartuffe’: Seventeenth-Century French Theatre in Colonial Quebec
On December 31, 1646, the inhabitants of the fledgling French settlement of Quebec – missionaries, colonists, and Amerindians – assembled around a makeshift stage in the warehouse of the colony’s trading company to watch a tragicomedy, tentatively identified by most scholars as Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (Journal des Jésuites 75). Surprising though such an event may seem to most students of seventeenth-century France, which often is thought of in scholarship as “enclosed within an insular, self-protective bubble” (Melzer 14), scholars of French America long have known that plays from the metropolitan stage sometimes found their way to audiences in New France. Most scholarly treatments of the phenomenon have been content, however, to reserve most of their analysis for a single well-documented and controversial moment in early Quebec’s theatrical history: the fight that erupted in 1694 between secular and religious authorities over a planned presentation of Molière’s searing comedy Le Tartuffe. This article examines instead the record of French plays that were actually presented in the colony, and attempts to glean from it lessons about the most basic aspects of the phenomenon – its extent, how plays may have been chosen, and their reception. The relative sparseness of this record makes it impossible, for the present, to draw many firm conclusions. And yet, close attention to examples aside from the oft-studied case of Le Tartuffe brings some potentially useful nuance to the conclusions that scholars typically have drawn about the place of theatre in colonial life, and points the way to further research that may have much to teach us not only about colonial New France, but also about its relationship to seventeenth-century France and its literature.
Various accounts of life in New France record the performance there of plays from the Old World. The first was an unnamed tragicomedy that was [End Page 451] performed in 1640 to celebrate the birth two years earlier of the child who would become King Louis XIV, according to the Relations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France that were published annually from 1632 to 1673 (Campeau Vol. 4, 566). Next, the missionaries’ journal, written by several hands across more than two decades, testifies to the performance in 1646 of the above-mentioned tragicomedy, identifying it as “le Sit.” Scholars frequently have understood this to be a misspelling of Cid, although this identification must be regarded as speculative in the absence of further clues. It is made at least plausible, however, by the fact that Corneille’s iconic play was later performed in the colony, and that the Jesuit chronicler misspelled the title in that instance, labeling it “Scide.” According to the Jesuits’ journal, that performance took place on April 16, 1652 (166). The same source indicates that Corneille’s Héraclius was performed on December 4, 1651 (164), and that the anonymously-authored tragicomedy Le Sage Visionnaire, published in Paris in 1648, was performed twice in February 1668, in the span of only three days (358). Finally, the 1694 mémoire of colonial soldier Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac reveals that tragedies by Corneille and Jean Racine – Nicomède and Mithridate – found their way to the New France stage in 1693 and 1694.1 Apparently seeking to build on that success, the colony’s governor, Louis de Baude, Comte de Frontenac, reportedly sought in 1694 to stage a performance of Molière’s Le Tartuffe, a proposition that sparked a bitter feud between the colony’s secular and religious authorities and resulted in an outright ban on theatre there that seems to have lasted decades, even at least temporarily including pedagogical dramas in the colony’s religious schools (Grégoire 263). Theatre appears to have become acceptable again, at least in some cases, by the time the colony was transferred to British control in 1763. A few plays are known to have been performed in New France in the years leading up to the end of French rule, although it is unclear if any of them were imported from the Old World.2
None of the above-listed performances is unknown, but...