IT REMAINED for French drama and poetry to bring Europe under their sway.
The humor of history arranged that French literature in this age should take to the stage; that the drama, so long outlawed by the Church, should be encouraged by Cardinal Richelieu; that Italian comedy should be imported into France by Cardinal Mazarin; and that Louis XIV should inherit a taste for the theater from these two ecclesiastics who had prepared or preserved his power.
The modern drama had reached literary form in Italy under the highly cultured popes of the Renaissance, and Leo X had attended plays without demanding that they be fit for virgins. But the Reformation, and the consequent Council of Trent, had put an end to this ecclesiastical lenience. The drama continued to be tolerated in Italy, said Benedict XIV, to avoid greater evils, and in Spain because it served the Church. In France, however, the clergy, shocked by the sexual freedom of the comic stage, condemned the theater as an enemy to public morals. A long succession of bishops and theologians ruled that actors were excommunicated ipso facto, by their very profession; the Paris clergy, through the authoritative voice of Bossuet, refused them the sacraments or burial in consecrated ground unless they repented and renounced their calling. Unable to secure priestly administration of sacramental matrimony, actors had to content themselves with common-law marriages of hectic impermanence. French law too pronounced actors infamous, and excluded them from every honorable employment. Magistrates were forbidden to attend theatrical representations.
It is one of the outstanding features of modern history that the theater overcame this resistance. The popular demand for make-believe to alleviate and avenge reality generated a long supply of farces and comedies; and the pains of monogamy provided an especially paying audience for dramas of licit or illicit love. Richelieu apparently agreed with Leo X that the easiest way to keep the theater within bounds was to patronize the best rather than condemn all; thereby he might give a lead to public taste, and bread to decent companies. Note Voltaire’s report: “Since Cardinal Richelieu introduced regular performances of plays at court, which have now made Paris the rival of Athens, not only was there a special bench for the Academy, which included several ecclesiastics among its members, but also one for the bishops.” 1 In 1641, presumably at the Cardinal’s request, Louis XIII took under his protection a group of actors thereafter known as the Troupe Royale or the Comédiens Royaux, gave them a pension of twelve hundred livres per year, issued an edict acknowledging the theater to be a legitimate form of entertainment, and expressed the royal wish that the calling of an actor should no longer be held prejudicial to his social standing. 2 This troupe established its theater at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, received the official patronage of Louis XIV, and continued throughout his reign to excel in the production of tragedies.
To raise the standards of French comedy, Mazarin invited Italian players to Paris. One of these was Tiberio Fiorelli, whose performance of the boasting buffoon Scaramuccia made him a favorite with Paris and the court. He and his fellows probably shared in giving the theatrical fever to Jean Coquelin IV, and in teaching him the arts of the comic theater. 3 When “Scaramouche” returned to Italy (1659) Jean Coquelin, known to the stage and the world as Molière, became the chief comedian to the King, and soon, in the fond judgment of Boileau, the greatest writer of the reign.