December 15, 2020
Even in a century so commonly associated with the stage as the French siècle classique , the theatre’s social, political and religious acceptance as a cultural practice remains highly contested. Hence, the recourse to the seemingly obsolete dramatic genre of the martyr tragedy that both Corneille ( Polyeucte , Théodore ) and Rotrou ( Le véritable Saint Genest ) take in the 1640 s must be understood as an attempt to secure a possible alliance between Christian devotion and the stage. Rather than effecting a reconciliation between the two, however, all three plays in question, in their attempt to adapt the martyr play to the emergent aesthetics of bienséance and vraisemblance , point to the irredeemable discrepancy of religion and the theatre instead, arousing doubts about the authenticity of conversion and potentially undermining the credibility of martyrdom itself. Small wonder then that the scathing Jansenist critique of the theatre, launched most forcefully by Pierre Nicole, takes this attempt to renew the martyr play as its point of attack. Yet, a closer examination of this polemic reveals that the seemingly stable ground of Christian faith finds itself haunted by the spectre of simulation.