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13th Century French Farce: The

Birthplace of French Drama


by

James Michael Evatt


TR221

Wayne Turney

Nov. 22 2010
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In the Thirteenth century in France, a new form of drama began

to emerge: the farce. This drama was a happy extension of historical

roots in Roman drama and the minstrelsy. Even though little record of

the plays that formed the basis for this genre in the Thirteenth

century is extant, the pieces that do exist have had a wide reaching

impact on both medieval and renaissance literature. The farce became

one of the most popular theatrical genres in France to the point

where even today there is a French essence to the farce. The recent

film, Dinner for Schmucks is based off what was originally a french

play, Le Diner de Cons. The Thirteenth century French farce was the

birthplace of the early modern drama.

The primary focus of medieval drama, especially within the

extant literature, was religious in nature. While medieval theatre

was dominated by religious drama, there was still some secular

dramatic expression. The forms that these dramas took included

Shrovetide plays, interludes, and farces. The development of secular

and religious drama share a unique correlation. Not long after

religious plays began to be performed outside the church in the

twelfth century, the religious dramas shifted from liturgical—meaning

that they were performed in latin—to vernacular drama in the local

dialects (Brocket 79). At the same time the earliest extant secular

plays were written, including the works of Adam de la Halle, such as

Le Jeu de Robin et Marion and the earliest french farce Le Garcon et


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L'Aveugle. It is a reasonable assumption that as religious drama

became more accessible to the common medieval man the amount of

secular drama increased. The end of separation between the

performances of religious and secular drama led to growth for both.

The use of the common vernacular may be partially responsible for the

development of farce, in order to both please and educate a broader

audience. This period of drama is the source of the resurgence of

public drama since its demise at the beginning of the dark ages.

An examination of the history of farce is incomplete without of

definition of its characteristics. It is interesting, and certainly

telling of its properties as theatrical genre, that farce is

homonymic with one definition being: a dramatic work whose sole

purpose is to excite laughter, and the other being: forced meat. This

was a type of dish that was served as filling within another dish.

This definition did not arise until approximately 1390 (Oxford

English Dictionary). Although it is pure conjecture it is possible

that this use derived from the performances of medieval farces as

interludes for other sacred pieces or else as a reference to the

nature of the content being that of filler. The resurgence of farce

as a literary drama surfaced first in France in the Thirteenth

century.

The literature of the french farce is rooted in the folk fable.

These stories were plentiful in the poetry of the time period. The

verse form for these poems was generally in octosyllabic couplets


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(Fabliaux). The farces also appear to have been written in a similar

verse form.

Pour mi pourmener sans mesfaire

aval la cité de Tournay:

tu prieras, je canterai;

s'arons assés argent et pain. (Le Garcon ln. 29-32).

For me to lead without some wrong

Down to the city of Tournay:

You a-beggin', me a-singin';

You need enough silver and bread. (Translation Mine)

The french farce is the intellectual descendant of the roman

mime plays. These plays were at times violent, bawdy, obscene, and

profane, much like the Roman Mime plays that Tertullian and others

resisted. It is interesting to note that by the thirteenth century

the church seemed much less interested in squashing the profane

drama. The farce even became a part of some religious drama

(Wheatley). Perhaps part of the reason for this was the cultural

roots of the stories in folklore and the fabliaux.

The subject matter of these fabliaux was domestic and sexual in

nature. They were meant to mock and thus educate human weaknesses.

They were typically obscene and crude. Once the fabliaux made the
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transition to farce, they became the first plays in medieval theatre

that dealt with themes of real life. It was an important step for

theatre to broaden past the prophetic, apocalyptic, and miraculous.

Although certainly not realism, these plays and poems helped to

address the real issues of the lay population.

The authors of the fabliaux poems were anonymous jongleurs

(Fabliau, the). These minstrel storytellers are the intellectual

descendants of the Roman mimes. The jongleurs were wandering

performers the only professional “actors” of thirteenth century

france. Apparently they maintained the tradition of the Roman skits,

along with displays of juggling, acrobatics, and even magic

(Fletcher). The tradition of the jongleurs was oral in nature much

like other medieval storytellers, like the scops. According to John

H. Baldwin, these performers were also composers of songs and the

authors of the same stories they performed (Baldwin).

One of the primary plots of the fabliaux and in turn the farce

was a love triangle between a cuckolded and doting husband a

deceiving wife, and lover. The titles of several extant french farces

suggest this subject matter, for example The Farce of the Fart and

The Pie and the Tart (Medieval Drama Translation Bibliography).

Another one of the devices commonly used was that of a trickster by

someone seen to be beneath them. The Fifteenth century play, Pierre

Pathelin, is a prime example of this. The play features a lawyer who

tricks a merchant, and is then cheated by a peasant (Brockett 93).


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These french farces were usually short and only required a few

actors. Those actors eventually found their professional home as a

member of the guild, the Clercs de la Basoche. This guild is

responsible for the development of the farce past the Thirteenth

century (The Basochians). The held theatrical performances to

increase their public promonence. The Basochians were not long

without competition however. Another form of farce, called a sottie,

was developed by a group of educated youths who called themselves Les

Enfants Sans Souci. They were known for their hooded costume

accompanied with donkey's ears. The head of this band of performers

was called the prince of Fools. An obvious reference to one of the

precursors of the farce, the feast of fools. The religious “farces”

were performed during the christmas season and were remainders of

earlier pagan rituals (Brocket 77).

The earliest extant French farce is Le garcon et l'aveugle,

written by anonymous author in 1280. It is a short work; only 265

lines. The play features a blind beggar who is deceived by a boy

through ventriloquism, who then robs and beats him (Brocket 92). The

play begins with a blind man lamenting that he has no guide. A boy

arrives and agrees to help him. The boy then tests the beggar to see

if he actually blind. Stereotypes and concerns about the blind faking

disability were common at the time (Wheatley). When offended, the boy

feigns a different voice, insults and slaps the beggar. He changes

his voice back and feigns innocence. Then when they arrive at the
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beggar's home. The boy offers to buy food and have the beggar's robe

mended. The blind man gives the boy the money. The boy in turn leaves

the blind man to his own devices.

It is clear that a the play achieved a substantial measure of

popularity and, according to Carol Synes, went through a great deal

to be preserved (Wheatley). She points to five stages of development

in the manuscript.

[F]ive main phases in transmission can be identified:

the original transcription campaign, carried out sometime

around 1270 (Scribe); an initial attempt at clarification,

either by the same scribe working at a later time (with a

better pen) or by a close contemporary (Hand A); a further

attempt at clarification, effected sometime between the end

of the thirteenth and middle of the fourteenth centuries

(Hand B); and two periods of radical revision and

censorship in the mid to late fifteenth century, the heyday

of the farce (Hands X and Y). (Wheatley)

The amount of work and time that went into the preservation of

this drama demonstrates both how important this play must have been

and also why more examples of this beginning of farce Although most

scholars appear to believe that there were many plays performed

during
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The story is incredibly similar to the first chapter of a

Spanish novella, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y

adversidades. This book was published in the mid sixteenth century.

In this version of the story a young boy become the guide to blind

beggar who mistreats him. The boy tricks the man into running into a

stone post and knocking himself unconscious (The Life of Lazarillo de

Tormes). The play features a style of farce called a knockabout.

This kind of farce features menials being humiliated in often

brutally violent fashion. (Bermel)

The story of the blind man which surfaced in the thirteenth

century became a staple of french farce. Played a part in Farce du

Goguelu (1490) and La Farce de l'aveugle et de son varlet tort

(1512). It even found its way into a mystery play, Le Mysteré de la

Résurrection (1456). It is likely that story of a blind man and his

guide is sourced in folklore, perhaps even in fabliaux told by the

jongluers.

These stories were clearly not ignored by the learned. Farce

became a staple of French dramatic literature. Without the tradition

of farce, first recorded in the Thirteenth century, it is hard to

imagine that the work of master playwrights like Moliere would have

come to fruition. The farce became the standard of secular drama in

France during the high middle ages all the way to the renaissance.

Several scholars believe that the Medieval french farce

influenced the work of William Shakespeare. Edward Wheatley points to


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Le Garcon et L'Aveugle as a source for the trickery of Gloucester by

Edgar in King Lear. In that play, Edgar pretends to be a beggar who

leads Gloucester to a cliff where he can commit suicide. But he

Gloucester tries to jump off he simply fall down on the ground. Edgar

continues to pretend to be someone else and convinces his father that

he was rescued from death by the gods and thereby dissuading him from

suicide (Wheatley). This scene obviously shares many similarities

with Le Garcon et L'Aveugle. It demonstrates the importance of

french farce as far back as the thirteenth century. Shakespeare

borrowed many plots throughout his career, for example the source of

Twelfth Night in Plautus' The Manaechmi. It is hard to believe that

he was unaware or uninfluenced by the French Farce.

This is not the only example of possible influences of french

farce on dramatic literature especially English Literature. In 1915,

Pr. Karl Young wrote an important essay documenting the influence of

French Farce on John Heywood (Redoff). M.L. Redoff in an installment

of Modern Language Notes in 1933 drew connections between the

language lesson scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V and

similar examples in French Farce.

So what did performance of farce look like in the thirteenth

century? It is likely, that plays like Le Garcon et L'Aveugle could

have been performed anywhere by the street performing jongleurs.

However, Donald Clive Stuart points to need of representing the house

which is entered in the course of the play. He states that, “As soon
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as a piece of scenery is necessary to the action, one may be

reasonably sure that it was represented (Stuart 42). He states that

whatever the staging, it was no doubt simple, and had little

difference from the set of the religious drama of time. Just as the

religious drama had begun to move out of the doors of the church it

is likely that the secular farces were performed out of doors.

Perhaps on temporary platform stages. However, Roger Loomis points to

possible evidence for buildings set aside for theatrical performance

as early as 1236 (Loomis). Perhaps the rebirth of theatre

construction began as early as the thirteenth century.

It is safe to assume that productions of farce were at times

accompanied by music from the minstrel performers. The costumes were

no doubt simple and contemporary (Brockett 84). The costumes and

props were provided by the actor who used them (Brockett 84). It

seems as if these productions were a privy to a do-it-yourself

mentality reminiscent of the Provincetown Players found space

productions in Massachusetts.

When looking for a starting point of early modern drama, it

won't be long til you're looking at thirteenth century France. The

two sources of extant drama from the time period, Adam de la Halle

and Le Garcon et L'Aveugle, share much historical importance. As the

birthplace of modern French secular theatre it stands as the

birthplace for modern european drama. Many scholars would put the

rebirth with the neoclassists of Italy and France in the Fifteenth


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Century. While these theorists and authors were using Seneca and

Aristotle as there models, the less pretentious farce was using a

source nearly as old, the roman mime plays. The influence came not

from study but from oral tradition. The farce holds in important

place in the renaissance of theatre.

The French farce dates from at least 1270. With the first known

record of a farcical play. This play, Le Garcon et L'Aveugle, holds a

great deal of historical importance. The french farce was sourced in

the fabliaux, and minstrelsy. The farce grew into one of the most

important genres of French theatre. It had a wide literary influence

and sparked the beginning of early modern drama in Europe.


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Works Cited
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1200” Jstor. Web. 21 Nov. 2010 <http://
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Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. © Oxford University Press 2003,
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Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre
(10th Edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2007. Print.
“The Basochians and Enfants Sans Souci” The Drama: Its History,
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Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 10-11.
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Radoff, M. L. “Influence of the French Farce in Henry V and The Merry


Wives” Jstor. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://
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Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1910. Print.
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