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  • Playing the Martyr: Theater and Theology in Early Modern France by Christopher Semk
  • Joseph Harris
Christopher Semk. Playing the Martyr: Theater and Theology in Early Modern France, Bucknell UP, 2017. 198 pp.

Theater and theology made an awkward couple in seventeenth-century France. The 1630s in particular were dominated by a process of rigorous secularisation that Christopher Semk’s new study, Playing the Martyr, neatly calls “the separation of Church and Stage.” Yet the relationship between religion and theater was by no means a purely antagonistic one, and the intersections of the two could lead to moments of great dramatic creativity. As its title suggests, Semk’s study explores this “dynamic and productive relationship between theater and religion” (xvi) through the specific figure of the martyr. Being hard to integrate into traditional Aristotelian models of dramatic plot, martyr plays have often proved a thorny topic for seventeenth-century theater historians. As Semk reminds us, however, martyr plays proved very popular with audiences, both in Paris (which saw eleven such plays between 1636 and 1646) and—more particularly—in the provinces. Yet martyr plays do not form a neat, cohesive genre either; forming a “heterogeneous corpus” (xvii), they address and dramatize their subject matter in a variety of different and often creative ways.

Reasoning that even the period’s “separation of Church and Stage” itself appears “less like the product of ecclesiastic antitheatrical polemic and more like a compromise between two camps eager to preserve the sanctity, so to speak, of their respective institutions” (31), Semk does justice to both religious and dramatic factors in his analyses. Indeed, one of the real strengths of this study is that Semk scrupulously refuses to grant either discourse—the religious or the dramatic—epistemological or hermeneutic primacy. Semk’s corpus of primary dramatic texts is relatively restricted. Rather than cover a wide range of plays as Paul Scott did in his doctoral [End Page 493] thesis The Martyr-Figure in French Theatre, 15961675 (an unfortunate omission from the bibliography here, and readily available online at, Semk homes in on a small handful of plays from the mid-1630s until the mid-1640s. These include canonical, well-documented works like Pierre Corneille’s Polyeucte and Rotrou’s Le Véritable Saint-Genest alongside lesser-known pieces like Desfontaines’s Le Martyre de saint Eustache and L’Illustre comédien. Yet he assails his primary corpus with such an astounding range of contextual material—of both theology and drama theory, classical and early modern—that he is able to both tease out subtle ideas and provide rich, illuminating general readings of the works.

Indeed, while the ostensible focus of this study is martyr drama, the discussions of individual texts are informed by a far wider understanding of the institutional context, both theological and dramatic. This theoretical richness is particularly apparent in Chapter One, “The Separation of Church and Stage,” which traces the seventeenth century’s attempt to disengage the theater from its origins and early incarnations in pagan, and then Christian, devotional practice. Although this chapter is the least concerned with martyrological theater per se, its succinct and engaging overview of the relationship between theater and stage in seventeenth-century France offers an important theoretical backdrop to the studies of specific plays in the three remaining chapters. Yet this study is not simply focused on the theater. Semk shows a keen attention to the anxieties that theater could awaken about the nature and practices of religious ritual—he addresses, for example, preachers’ concerns that “audiences attended sermons as though the pulpit were a stage, effectively bringing theatrical sensibilities into the church and making a mockery of the Word” (4). More troublingly, unwelcome theatrical analogies could also cast doubt on the doctrine of transubstantiation underpinning the Eucharist, raising analogous questions about the relationship between belief, sensory perception, and faith in establishing truth. As Semk suggests, however, these anxieties could also be harnessed and turned to positive effect by dramatists.

The remaining three chapters involve close, theoretically well-informed readings of various plays. Chapter Two, “The Spectacle of Martyrdom,” explores the martyr’s double role as...


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pp. 493-495
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