The Theatre of Martyrdom

Performing Piety in 1640s France

by Charles Stone (Author)
Monographs VIII, 132 Pages


«In this readable and closely argued study, Charles Stone sheds light on a phenomenon that has baffled generations of scholars: why did plays about Christian martyrs grip seventeenth-century French audiences? After all, these tragedies are not very tragic. Stone unravels this mystery of the plays’ success, showing how martyr-themed plays tackled wider questions of theology, language and performance. In this thought-provoking book, Stone relates not only why these plays mattered to their first spectators but also why they should matter to us.»
(Professor Paul Scott, University of Kansas, USA)
This study examines the genre of tragedy through the lens of one of its most curious manifestations: the martyr play. The equation of Christianity with tragedy has often been seen by literary and theological scholars as specious at best, sacrilegious at worst. During the mid-seventeenth century, however, a group of French playwrights saw fit to produce tragedies that drew not on Roman or Greek mythology, as was the norm, but on stories of Christian heroism.
The author examines a broad corpus of plays ranging from the famous works of Pierre Corneille to near-forgotten examples of female-authored tragedy. Drawing on the writings of Michel Foucault as well as a host of contemporary and modern-day theologians, the author shows the martyr to be a major figure in theatrical performance and religious thought alike, exposing the porosity of the boundary separating the spaces of stage entertainment and church worship. The martyr plays, whether they threaten to destabilize the genre or define it, are ultimately shown to be integral to our understanding of what constituted tragedy in early modern France.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • PART I. Discourse and Divinity
  • CHAPTER 1. Christian discourse and ‘pastoral power’
  • CHAPTER 2. Martyrological discourse
  • CHAPTER 3. The ritualization of language
  • PART II. Theatre and Ritual
  • CHAPTER 4. Kenosis
  • CHAPTER 5. ‘La transsubstantiation théâtrale’
  • CHAPTER 6. Spectatorship and (non-)spectacle
  • PART III. Martyrdom and Tragedy
  • CHAPTER 7. The tragic genre
  • CHAPTER 8. Tragedy and theology
  • Conclusion
  • APPENDIX. French martyr theatre, 1640–1655
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This book has been adapted from a thesis I produced during my MPhil year at Selwyn College, Cambridge. I am most grateful to Nicholas Hammond, who besides being a wonderful supervisor for my thesis project, has always taken the time to provide advice, support and encouragement from the very beginning of my interest in French martyr theatre all the way to the final stages of publication. I also feel enormously fortunate to have benefitted from Paul Scott’s expertise, generosity and interest in my work. Giles Waller’s many recommendations on the theological side were fantastically useful. I am grateful to scholars including Michael Moriarty, Nicholas White, Timothy Chesters, Emma Gilby, Bryan Cameron and Edmund Birch, whose teaching has had a formative impact on my academic life. Charlotte Woodford’s willingness always to lend an ear has been of great value. I would not have been in this position without the inspirational teaching of Michael Tilby. Funding from the Cambridge Trust and Selwyn College made my MPhil, and therefore this book, possible. Roger Mosey’s encouragement throughout my undergraduate and graduate career was particularly appreciated. Everyone at Peter Lang, especially Senior Acquisitions Editor Laurel Plapp, as well as series editor Noël Peacock and my peer reviewer, has been generous, efficient and professional in moving this book to publication. Finally, I would like to thank my family, and Lucy, for their continued support and kindness.

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Besides being a man of the theatre, Pierre Corneille was, by all accounts, a man of faith.1 Although the vast majority of his professional life was spent composing a wide range of genres for the Parisian stage, he also translated a number of devotional works, foremost among these the publication of L’Imitation de Jésus-Christ in 1656. This translation of Thomas à Kempis’s influential medieval handbook, a text counselling withdrawal from society and private spiritual life, seems at odds with Corneille’s public theatrical exploits in the decades before and after its appearance.

However, the breach between Corneille’s theatrical and devotional oeuvre is not so extreme as at first glance. Published in instalments between 1651 and 1656, the Imitation was a popular work, as attested by Corneille in his preface to the second edition: ‘le bon accueil qu’en a reçu le premier échantillon de cet ouvrage m’a bien enhardi à le poursuivre’.2 The text shares with his theatre a vernacular destined for consumption by the general public, and the style of the French has been shown to recall in various ways the verse of Corneille’s tragedies.3 Moreover, Corneille’s single mention of his theatrical works in the 1656 preface to the Imitation, in which he emphasizes the ‘vertus morales et politiques, et quelques-unes même des chrétiennes’ that he considered as his contribution to the genre of tragedy, demonstrates an affinity with his religious work.4

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Indeed, in the decade preceding the translation of the Imitation, Corneille played a decisive role in the vogue for writing tragedies that sought to transform the Parisian stage into a site of Christian virtue. If a text such as the Imitation endeavours to impart a model of spiritual life by which the layperson can imitate the virtues of Christ, the Christian plays that were performed and published in the 1640s presented an alternative, more spectacular model of imitation: martyrdom. This ‘golden age of religious theatre in early modern France’ was inspired in no small way by the success of Corneille’s Polyeucte martyr, which appeared on stage in 1642.5 Between 1635 and 1642, a little over 10 per cent of all tragedies published in France dramatized the lives of Christian martyrs. From the first performances of Polyeucte in 1642 to the end of 1649, almost 25 per cent of tragedies were martyr plays, and a third of all tragedies published had sacred subjects.6 The ‘effet Polyeucte’ instigated such a volume of religious theatre that ‘almost all of the major playwrights wrote at least one play that could be thus categorized’.7 By the early 1650s, however, the ‘golden age’ had passed, and martyrs began to depart the stage.8

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The origins of early modern Christian theatre come much before Polyeucte. Paul Scott highlights the ‘strong tradition in France of localised mystères’, performances which represented the Passion and the lives of the saints across the country.9 Although these were banned in the capital in 1548, the vogue returned towards the end of the century and the start of the next. This marked a moment of transition in religious theatre: ‘[A]t the turn of the seventeenth century’, writes Michael Meere, ‘a wave of hagiographical tragedies emerged in France that began to move away from the medieval mystery and introduce a new type and conception of religious theater.’10 The new religious theatre almost invariably took as its subject the stories of Christian martyrs (figures who were enjoying a renewed cult of interest during the Counter-Reformation), reaching its peak in the 1640s.11

To write a play on martyrdom is to attempt to reconcile two cultural institutions that many in the early modern period saw as incompatible: Church and theatre. Certainly, these plays proved controversial in the eyes of some theoretical and theological writers, who claimed, like Charles de Saint-Évremond in 1672, that

le théâtre perd tout son agrément dans la représentation des choses saintes, et les choses saintes perdent beaucoup de la religieuse opinion qu’on leur doit, quand on les représente sur le théâtre.12

Stage performance, in this view, should never take on Christian subjects. What I propose to argue in this study, however, is that these condemnations (which continue to influence critical analysis today) are unable to ←3 | 4→do justice to the questions raised by the martyr plays about the relationship between Christianity and the early modern stage.13 Namely, what first seems an isolated movement in seventeenth-century theatre instead has profound implications for the understanding of an art form whose historical links to Christian ritual, despite efforts to the contrary, continued to influence its production, performance and reception.

My aim in this study is to provide a reassessment of the complex separation of Church and stage in the seventeenth century through close analysis of a variety of martyr plays. Six works form the primary corpus, ranging from the most famous examples of martyr theatre offered by Corneille and Rotrou to the lesser-known works of Desfontaines.14 These plays are broadly representative of the genre at large: they are mostly neoclassical in form, centre upon one or more Christian protagonists who are persecuted by pagan authorities and finish with the martyrdom imparted at execution. Unlike many of the martyr plays published at the time, though, all have clear evidence of performance: the spectacle brought by performance on the Parisian boards will form a key part of my analysis of this theatre. In addition to these, I make reference throughout to a range of martyr plays, published during the 1640s and early 1650s, which provide important ←4 | 5→insight into the genre and its significance. Taken together, the works examined in this study build a detailed picture of the state of mid-seventeenth-century religious theatre in France.15

Dividing the study into three parts, I explore in Part I the relationship between discourse, subjectivity and early modern Christian institutions through a Foucauldian framework. The specific discourse of martyr-figures brings about a ritualization of language that points to the subject of Part II, ‘Theatre and Ritual’. Here the connection between Church ritual and theatrical performance is examined in depth, and I argue that the enactment of scriptural and liturgical processes on stage offers more than a simple representation of the Christian faith. Part III addresses the long critical tradition of denying the martyr plays the title of tragedy. Drawing on early modern theoretical and theological writings, I offer a new reading of the relationship between the theatre of martyrdom and the tragic genre.

‘Regarde les Martyrs, les Vierges, les Apôtres’, Corneille tells the reader in his Imitation, ‘Et tous ceux de qui la ferveur | Sur les sacrés pas du Sauveur | A frayé des chemins aux nôtres’.16 Martyrdom is to be witnessed, seen, experienced first-hand. It is an event whose highly visual nature calls for the stage rather than the scholar’s treatise. Small moments such as this in the Imitation bring the reader’s attention back to a time in which these events did provide the subject of stage performance and seriously challenged the prevailing secularization of the theatre. Although the twenty-first century has seen a renewal of interest in early modern hagiographical drama, academics tend to picture martyr theatre as an isolated phenomenon that disappeared from the Parisian stage just as swiftly as it entered.17 Engaging with these critics and others, I will show instead that an analysis of martyr theatre destabilizes conventional understandings of seventeenth-century French theatre and adds important nuance to the multifaceted and volatile genre that is tragedy.


VIII, 132
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (December)
Charles Stone The Theatre of Martyrdom tragedy martyrdom seventeenth-century France
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. VIII, 132 pp.

Biographical notes

Charles Stone (Author)

Charles Stone is an independent scholar based in Cambridge. A graduate of Selwyn College, Cambridge, he specializes in early modern French theatre, with a particular interest in tragedy of the mid-seventeenth century. He has published previously on martyr tragedy in French Studies and works also as a translator and book reviewer for various publications.


Title: The Theatre of Martyrdom