Report by Elisabeth Dutton, Université de Fribourg, on the staging of the Comédie des Innocents, by Marguerite de Navarre. Presented by les perles innocentes as part of the Medieval Mystery Cycle 2023 at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford (see there for a synopsis of the play and the cast list).
The play at first reading seemed to me a fairly conventional dramatization of the story, not so different from the story as told in the English mystery plays, for example– the idea that Herod kills his own son is found in the Golden Legend and thus well established in European tradition. But Marguerite gives particular force to female characters, not just the feisty mothers and Nurse who care for the slaughtered babies, but also most importantly Rachel, whose lengthy lament, a rhetorical tour de force, is really the climax of Marguerite’s script. In a play which shows mothers and Herod violently deprived of their children, and which foreshadows God’s loss of his own Son, the Old Testament matriarch Rachel powerfully gives voice to the grief of women, King, and ultimately God. She also raises a protest against tyranny and abuse that feels all too contemporary.
I knew that I needed an actress for Rachel who could be at once strong and feminine, and utterly absorbing to the audience, and I was delighted that Elisa Pagliaro agreed to play the role. I wanted the speech to be supported by some haunting music, and am grateful that Lucy Matheson found a medieval French setting of the Vox in Rama, and agreed to sing it for us for the performance in Oxford. The effect of Marguerite’s verse, delivered by Elisa directly to the audience, with Lucy’s haunting song underneath, was very powerful indeed, and quite unlike anything I had experienced in other dramatisations of the Innocents. Its power took us all a little by surprise.
There was a completely different reading and understanding of the Comédie des Innocents – in particular of Rachel’s lament – from the very first time I independently read it, and the way I felt and understood it on the day of the performance in Oxford.
Elisa Pagliaro on performing Rachel’s lament
The original play is 1075 lines long: in order to fit into our allotted 20 minutes, Aurélie Blanc cut more than half of its lines, while expertly maintaining a sense of the versification. Aurélie was also essential to my vision of the play from the start, as I needed her exceptional talents for the roles both of Herod and of God. As a travelling troupe, we had to keep our costs down through maximal doubling – and the structure of the various scenes required that God be doubled with the royal tyrant, as well as one of the mothers. This doubling was in fact rather pointed, as Aurélie writes:
The main challenge when participating in this play was to take on three roles: I played God, then Herod, and then one of the women whose child is killed by the soldiers. During the play, I did not have much time to go from one character to another. I struggled with those transitional moments because God, Herod, and Woman 1 seemed so different from each other. I tried to find what their main characteristics were so I could focus on these while changing roles. God and Herod are both rulers, both authoritative and confident (at least at times in the case of Herod). However, Herod is more frantic, chaotic, and changeable than God. Surprisingly perhaps, I found the character of God harder to play. It was much easier to relate to Herod with his mood swings and emotional outbursts! As for the Woman, she seemed completely unlike the other two characters. Her tender love for her child is her main concern throughout her scenes. Thinking about these characters helped me understand them, but I felt that things truly came together when I realized that all three were parents and all three lost their child.Aurélie Blanc on playing God, Herod and a grieving mother
God’s worry for his son is what prompts him to send an angel to Joseph and Mary, it is the reason motivating his first speech. Understanding this helped me relate to God: when playing him, I did not have to try to pretend to be all powerful and all knowing, I had to focus instead on thinking about saving a person that I loved. Herod’s motivations are more selfish, but he also acts with his son in mind: he wants his son rather than Jesus to rule over his kingdom after him. Once I saw this, I found it much easier to play his shock and grief when his dead son is presented to him. And Woman 1, of course, was always a character focused on her child. Understanding these connections between my three characters was really helpful to me. These people no longer seemed entirely different from each other but were united by the same love and the same grief. This love and grief could stay with me throughout the play as I moved between God, Herod, and Woman 1.
Aurélie’s performance of all three roles was extraordinary. And the requirements of the doubling also lay behind the blocking of the piece, which came to me very early on in rehearsals. I wanted to find a way to use the whole of Teddy Hall’s front quad: early drama, I believe, always exploited its venues to the full, and it’s good to make actors do hard physical work. Then, the actors would have no ‘offstage’ space for changing, and in any case they wouldn’t have time to do anything other than change ‘onstage’; but the audience needed to recognize clearly their changes of role, so we associated role with place (an idea most clearly demonstrated in medieval drama by the extant stage plan of the Castle of Perseverance, with its ‘skaffolds’ for the God, the World, the Flesh and the Devil.)
I enjoyed the sense of empowerment that came from filling the front quad with our voices and bodies.Helene Wigginton on performing in a medieval venue
God begins the play in a scene of heavenly harmony, commanding his angels. We established him standing on the well in the centre of the quad (scriptural associations of wells are a pleasing coincidence). In each of the four corners of the quad we placed a black storage stool, containing costume changes, and Mary and Joseph began sitting on the stools to God’s right, while Herod was to occupy the stool on God’s left. The effect was formal and stylized, which matches the verse. The angels could move freely between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’, delivering messages and also distributing chocolates to the audience (we are a Swiss troupe, after all); when the angel actors had to become soldier-tyrants, they went to the other ‘left’ stool to swap their wings for helmets.
As the scene shifted from heaven to Herod’s court, Aurélie left her golden cape on the well and donned regal robes on Herod’s ‘throne’: since Herod then issues quick-fire commands to doctors and soldiers, frantic activity ensued as all the other actors rushed backwards and forwards across the playing area to obey his orders. The pace contrasted with the calm order of heaven, and the audience had a disconcerting sense that the focus was pulled ‘off-centre’ with Herod’s power. Tyranny pulls all things out of joint.
The babies (dolls with soft torsos) were slaughtered using a sword and two spears, mainly because I am haunted by the image of ‘naked infants spitted upon pikes’. We used this device once before, in a staging of the Middle English Digby Killing of the Children, and it provoked horrified laughter in the audience. I was fascinated that the effect in Marguerite’s play was completely different: there was no laughter, but there was genuine horror. I think this is partly because, whereas the Digby play includes a Fool character among Soldiers, who all seem rather dim, Marguerite writes her killers concisely and explicitly as Tyrants.
Carmen Vigneswaren-Smith on her role as soldier: ‘the audience flinched back from my spear, gasped and covered their mouths in surprise at the murder of the babies, and I was suddenly reminded of what the familiarity of rehearsal can make you forget — that it was in fact a brutal massacre that we were acting out.’ One woman in the audience clutched her own baby to her. Audience members commented that their stomachs were knotted.
The sense of horror was not entirely dispelled by the final song, which was a Christmas song, since the play would originally have been performed on the feast of the Innocents, December 28th. The script states that it should be sung to “Si j’ayme mon amy”: for our performance, Sandy Maillard, founder of the all-female choir Fa Mi Cantar, adapted a tune of that name found in the songbook of Françoise de Foix, Countess of Châteaubriant, 1495-1537, celebrated beauty and lover of King Francis I (the songbook is now British Library MS Harley 5242.) It is a strangely unnerving ending to a powerfully disconcerting play.
The sixteenth-century French seemed to present no obstacle to the audience’s engagement, and we are grateful to have had such an opportunity to explore its quality. Our production was probably different in many ways from any performance Marguerite might have seen or even envisaged, but we hope that our all-female production, delivered with precise attention to the words she wrote, may have captured something of their spirit, which seems that of an almost feminist protest against tyranny.
Cf. also the blog post on the whole cycle by Alison Ray