by Paola Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco
On December 4th, Noah Guynn shared his preliminary work on farce in late medieval and early modern France. This presentation is the first semester of seminars on our two-year research theme: “The World Upside Down: Topsy-Turvy.” In fact, Guynn’s essay, which is the introductory chapter from his book on politics and ethics in medieval and early modern French farce, impeccably shows how both literary works and theater have the power to challenge, change, deliberately reverse, and undermine expected order. In his essay, Guynn aims to theorize and historicize festive comedy, by demonstrating how farce confronts controversies of the day over ethics, politics, and power. Guynn’s exploration of farce questions the prevalent idea that festive misrule is a temporary inversion of social power and hierarchies, responding to a large body of criticism on Bakhtin’s work. Bakhtin describes Carnival as the “the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance” (9), standing in contrast with official feasts. Critics of Bakhtin see Carnival purely as an instrument of mass-control; this can be summarized by Eco’s words: “The prerequisites of a ‘good’ carnival are: (i) the law must be so pervasively and profoundly introjected as to be overwhelmingly present at the moment of its violation, [and] (ii) the moment of carnivalization must be very short, and allowed only once a year.” (6) Guynn finds a middle ground between Bakhtin and Eco, demonstrating how farce is open to plural readings that attempt to recognize all tensions, negotiations, and dialogues that were mediated by comic theater. Plural reading seems inferred in these plays by the fact that they were often performed in public spaces and accessible to large and diverse audiences (i.e., diverse in terms of age, gender, wealth, social status, education, vocation, etc.) (10).
In exploring this middle ground, Guynn engages with James Scott and his theories of infrapolitics and hidden scripts. Central to Guynn’s work is not only the analysis of scripts – which can only partially reveal the realities of performance and were probably censored before being printed – but, also, archival sources (e.g., formal bans on performance, writs of censorship, and legal records documenting investigations and prosecutions of actors), which give us insight on performers and show how all performances were subject to scrutiny from the elites, thus indicating that the ruling elites perceived theatre, farces, and more broadly festive comedies a potential threat to civic order. These archival sources also show how elites sponsored farces for propaganda in different ways. For example, while Louis XII understood the importance of farce to obtain information on social dissent, Francis I, who was also a patron of farce, controlled scripts, plays, and actors much more than his predecessor through censorship.
Here are a few of the questions I posed to Noah: 1. I would ask you to give us more information on your book project. Will you mainly focus on your archival study or also provide an analysis of some of the most representative scripts of that period? 2. How different were farces that were performed in other periods of the year from carnivalesque farces? 3. How many farces do we know of that were produced in late medieval and early modern France? Can they be grouped based on plot and social, political, gender issues they addressed? 4. Is there a difference between 15th-century farces and 16th-century farces? 5. How much does this genre retain of its ancestor, that is, the Latin atellan farce? Can we recognize in late medieval farce stereotypical traits that date back to the Latin masks of atellan farce? What is really original and innovative in this farce that makes it so contextual? 6. I found your focus on archival sources amazing. I am wondering if iconography can also tell us about the places where these plays were enacted and their audiences.