Scene Focus
A bilingual online journal published by IRCL

N° 01 – 2012  

Pyrame & Thisbe : the death of lovers

Edited by Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay (Université Montpellier 3, IRCL) & Janice Valls-Russell (CNRS, IRCL)

156 pages
Photo © Nathaniel Baruch

About us

In Book IV of Metamorphoses, Ovid already structured the death of Pyramus and Thisbe in a theatrical, scene-like manner. Since then, this final episode of the story, marked by the singularity and powerful pathos of a twofold death arising from a tragic error, has inspired countless literary and visual adaptations and representations. Two major works have become landmarks in the history of these appropriations, to the extent that later adaptations have had to engage with them as well as the Ovidian hypotext: the play-within-the-play in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Théophile de Viau’s Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé. In Shakespeare’s comedy, the Ovidian story seems to have been cut back to the death scene - or rather to its parody; in Théophile’s tragedy, the lovers’ suicides give rise to a long sequence that lastingly influenced his contemporaries. This issue of Arrêt sur Scène/Scene Focus is organised around those two plays, which are addressed from different perspectives: Théophile de Viau’s play having received less critical attention than Shakespeare’s, while enjoying a renewal of interest thanks to Benjamin Lazar’s production (2011), which was the starting-point for this issue, it appeared necessary to include contributions that discuss the scene in a broader context, in terms of creation and reception; the death sequence in Shakespeare invites comparisons with Romeo and Juliet and is approached through a selection of productions, some of which seem to echo iconographic reworkings of the myth.

Ont collaboré à ce numéro : Sandrine Blondet, Fabien Cavaillé, Nicoleta Cinpoes, Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay, Florence March,, Lise Michel, Dominique Moncond’huy, Pierre Pasquier, Michèle Rosellini and Janice Valls-Russell. Avec la participation de : Jodie Blin et Noëmie Charrié.


Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay et Janice Valls-Russell (IRCL, Université de Montpellier 3)

I. Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé de Théophile de Viau

Fabien Cavaillé (Université de Caen – Basse Normandie)
Singularité de Pyrame ? Théophile face aux tragédies d’amour françaises (1600-1620)
Pierre Pasquier (Université de Tours)
Une scénographie exceptionnelle pour une tragédie atypique : réflexions sur le décor des Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé de Théophile dans le Mémoire de Mahelot
Michèle Rosellini (E.N.S. de Lyon)
Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé : paradoxes d’un théâtre tragique épicurien ?
Sandrine Blondet (Université de Chambéry)
The Pyrame du sieur de La Serre : hommage ou opportunisme ?

II. De Pyrame et Thisbé à Pyrame et Thisbé

Lise Michel (Université de Lausanne)
Le passé présent : le « temps » de Pyrame et Thisbé dans l’imaginaire critique du XVIIe siècle
Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay (Université de Montpellier 3)
La postérité de la mort de Pyrame et Thisbé dans le théâtre français des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles
Dominique Moncond’huy (Université de Poitiers)
Les représentations picturales du triste sort de Pyrame et Thisbé : attendus et enjeux du sujet

III. Autour de Shakespeare

Janice Valls-Russell (IRCL-UMR5186 du CNRS)
Des murs de Pompéi aux planches de Stratford : la mise en corps de la mort de Pyrame et Thisbé
Florence March (Université de Montpellier 3)
Pyrame et Thisbé revisité par Shakespeare et Vilar dans Le Songe d’une nuit d’été: le théâtre populaire en abyme
Nicoleta Cinpoes (University of Worcester)
Pyramus and Thisbe 4 You or a « Wondrous Strange » Tale of Contemporary Romanian Shakespeare


Table ronde avec Benjamin Lazar et Anne-Guersande Ledoux autour de la mise en scène de Pyrame et Thisbé de Théophile de Viau par B. Lazar (transcription et annotation par Noëmie Charrié)

Compte-rendus de spectacles


Abstracts and bio-biblios

Sandrine BlondetUp

Sieur de la Serre’s Pyrame: tribute or opportunism?

This study considers Pyrame et Thisbé, which Puget de la Serre wrote in the wake of Théophile de Viau’s play. Contrary to what one might think, the two plays did not directly compete: they were published at six years’ interval (1623 and 1629); and Théophile de Viau’s death on 25 September 1626 rules out all possibility of a frontal rivalry between the two playwrights. In fact, the Address to the Reader explicitly presents Puget’s play as a tribute to his predecessor. Puget de la Serre’s play consequently comes across not so much as a promising first attempt than as a career strategy, whereby a playwright attempts to benefit from the aura of a famous predecessor to make a name for himself. Without being an instance of straightforward competition, Puget de la Serre’s play draws on the more usual strategies associated with competition between dramatists.

After studying French literature and musicology at the Sorbonne and the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique of Paris, Sandrine Blondet wrote a doctorate, supervised by Georges Forestier, on “rival plays” in the Paris theatre of the 17th century and, more widely, on the rivalry that opposed the companies of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, the Marais, and the Illustre Théâtre between 1630 and 1650. Currently on a postdoctoral fellowship attached to a research project, “Les idées du théâtre”, led by Marc Vuillermoz (Université de Savoie), Sabine Blondet is working on the publication of her thesis, contributing to the edition of Alexandre Hardy’s plays, and planning an edition of Nicolas Desfontaines’ tragi-comedies.

Fabien Cavaillé (Université de Caen-Basse Normandie)Up

Pyrame’s singularity? Théophile de Viau and French love tragedies (1600-1620)

This article addresses the idea that Théophile’s play is an hapax in the French drama of the first third of the 17th century. In fact, late 16th and early 17th-century French tragedies are fashioned by the recurring themes of tragic love, romance, the misfortunes of innocence and compassion. Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé belongs to that sentimental corpus, of which the play is one of the most elaborate examples. It is interesting to study Théophile de Viau’s one and only tragedy in that light. The play’s singularity is to be considered rather in the context of his own work, in the ways it resorts to existing dramatic techniques while bearing its author’s mark and contributing to the elaboration of a persona that characterizes volume 2 of the Œuvres du sieur Théophile.

A former student of the École nationale supérieure and agrégé of French Literature, Fabien Cavaillé is lecturer at the Department of Performance Studies of the University of Caen-Basse Normandie. The author of a doctorate on Alexandre Hardy (Alexandre Hardy et le theâtre de ville, forthcoming from Garnier), he is currently contributing to the 5-volume edition of the Théâtre d’Alexandre Hardy, to be published by Garnier. His research covers the relationship between performance and the urban world in the modern world and the emergence of new forms of sentimentality in love tragicomedies and tragedies.

Nicoleta Cinpoes (University of Worcester, UK)Up

Pyramus and Thisbe 4 You or a “Wondrous Strange” Tale of Shakespeare in Romania

Like its title, Pyramus and Thisbe 4 You, Alexandru Dabija’s production at the Odeon Theatre, Bucharest, was a tongue-in-cheek invitation to the audience that at once aimed to tease past and recent Romanian endeavours and to tease out the stage potential a Shakespeare play holds today. My examination of the production re-constructs the local cultural contexts the production plays with and against, referring to the Romanian ways of making Shakespeare this production enters into dialogue with. Take 1, an all-female version casting the mature stars of the Odeon, I read against both Elizabethan all-male stage practice and Andrei Serban’s all-female Lear at the Bulandra (2008). Take 2, “an old device” (V.1.50): a teacher-student “devising” session at the Academy of Theatre and Cinema, I read against critics’ “more strange than true” (V.1.2) parlance on “theories of perception and reception” and against hi-tech Shakespeare dominating the Romanian stages in the first decade of the third millennium. Take 3, local political banter on ethnic discrimination, I read as “satire keen and critical” (V.1.54) on both communist censorship and the recent rise of nationalism in Romania. Take 4, a “cold” reading-cum-improvisation performed by the technical crew – this production’s mechanicals – I read as “palpable-gross play” (V.1.376) on both acting and spectating practices. What I argue in this article is that Dabija’s production goes beyond its local context and mores, and proposes a re-assessment of Shakespeare’s cultural currency in (European) Romania and Europe at large by exposing current tyrannies in Shakespeare studies: from translation and adaptation, through directing and acting, to viewing and reviewing.

Nicoleta Cinpoes is senior lecturer in English – Shakespeare at the University of Worcester, where she teaches Renaissance Literature, in its original context and in contemporary adaptation, and is co-director of Worcester’s Early Modern Research Group. She is the author of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Romania 1778-2008: A Study in Translation, Performance and Cultural Appropriation (Mellen, 2010) and of the open-access website: The Jacobethans. Her work has appeared in Shakespeare Bulletin, SEDERI, Studia Dramatica, and in a number of volumes of collected articles, most recently The Hamlet Zone, Theatrical Blends and Shakespeare in Europe: History and Memory. In the theatre, she has worked in several capacities – from that of dramaturge to assistant director and translator. Currently, she is editing Doing Kyd (forthcoming, MUP) and collaborating on a new Romanian translation of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, writing introductions to Hamlet (2010), Titus Andronicus, and The Comedy of Errors.  

Bénédicte Louvat-MolozayUp

The death of Pyramus and Thisbe and its aftermath in French 17th- and 18th-century drama

The enduring success of Théophile de Viau’s Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé was partly the success of a singularly pathetic dramatic structure: the one which, in Act V, offers a double staging of the lovers’ death in a mirror pattern. This contribution focuses on the aftermath of this twofold sequence: after a historical survey of the double death motif in the pastorals and tragedies of the 1620s and 1630s, this essay retraces the appropriation of the scene, at the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries, in various adaptations: on stage (in a tragic vein with Pradon, or a parodic one in the Italian or Fair Theatre) and in opera (La Serre’s musical tragedy). While considering the extent to which Théophile de Viau’s play soon became a model, this paper seeks to draw attention to the recurring aspects but also the pitfalls of these imitations, in each genre as in each period.

A senior lecturer in French literature at Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3, and a member of the Institut universitaire de France, Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay specializes in French 17th-century literature. She has published several works, which include Théâtre et musique. Dramaturgie de l’insertion musicale dans le théâtre français (1550-1680), Champion, 2002; Le Théâtre, GF-Corpus, 2007; and some forty articles. She has also edited or co-edited ten plays (by Rotrou, Mairet, Molière) and theoretical works (such as Corneille’s Discours, with Marc Escola, GF-Dossier, 1999), and directed and co-directed several collections of essays (such as Le Spectateur de théâtre à l’âge classique, L’Entretemps, 2008, with Franck Salaün). She has recently completed an essay on the elaboration of the French tragic model between 1610 and 1642. She also leads or co-leads several research programs at the IRCL, which include “Arrêt sur scène/Scene Focus” (with Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin) and “Hybrid Texts: the contacts between French and Occitan in 17th-century drama”.

Florence March,Up

Pyrame et Thisbé revisited by Shakespeare and Vilar in A MIdsummer Night's Dream: a mise en abyme of popular theatre

When he created the Avignon Festival in 1947, Jean Vilar had already planned to stage A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Honour Court of the Papal Palace. Shakespeare's comedy seemed appropriate to promote the festive quality of open-air theatre, which addressed large audiences of diversified social origins. It was only in 1959, for the 13th edition of the Avignon Festival, that Vilar actually produced the play, at a time when he faced the issue of renewing popular theatre in Avignon so as to prevent it from becoming predictable. In such a context, programming A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose metatheatrical dimension allows an insight into the rehearsals and the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe by an amateur company and deconstructs the mechanisms of theatrical illusion, proved a highly significant gesture. On the one hand, the embedded play crystallises Vilar's vision and practice of popular theatre in many ways: the position of the spectator is enhanced; the craftsmen's humility echoes Vilar’s attitude as he haunted the stage in dungarees, fought against stardom and preferred to be called a "stage manager" rather than a "director"; various social classes are gathered to celebrate a festive theatrical event. On the other hand, the parodic treatment of the tragedy within the comedy conveys both Vilar’s agenda to promote a theatre that stimulates questioning and debate, and his critical, non complacent attitude to the Festival which, according to him, had reached a turning point in the history of popular theatre in Avignon.

Florence March is professor in Early Modern English Literature at Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3 and a member of the IRCL (UMR5186). Recent publications include a book on the French stage director Ludovic Lagarde (Ludovic Lagarde. Un théâtre pour quoi faire, 2010), a monograph on theatricality in Restoration comedy (La Comédie anglaise après Shakespeare. Une esthétique de la théâtralité 1660-1710, 2010), and a collection of short texts on the pact of performance which frames the relationship between stage and audience at the Avignon Festival (Relations théâtrales, 2010). Her latest monograph on Shakespeare in performance at the Avignon Festival (Shakespeare au Festival d'Avignon. Configurations textuelles et scéniques, 2004-2010) was issued in 2012.

Lise MichelUp

Past present: The periodisation of Pyrame et Thisbé in the representations of 17th-century criticism

In the critical discourse of the 17th century, the tragedy of Pyrame et Thisbé is constantly alluded to in an ambiguous relationship with literary temporality. Invoked as a structuring element of critical representations, the play invariably seems to belong to the here and now of literature while being simultaneously recognized and even constructed by the same discourse as an antiquated structure. This essay proposes a few directions in an attempt to understand why Théophile’s play has been at the heart of a tension between contemporaneity and the past in theatrical tastes. Pyrame et Thisbé emerges as having a potential to suggest a rare form of continuity with the past while embodying the potential of renewal in literary history.

A former student of the École normale supérieure, agrégée in the classics, Lise Michel is assistant professor at the Université de Lausanne. Her research centres on drama in the French classical era. She has published several articles on poetics, co-edited two collections of essays and contributed to the edition of Molière’s Complete Works in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (2010). Her monograph, Des Princes en figure. Politique et invention tragique (1630-1650), is forthcoming from PUPS (2013).

Dominique Moncond’huy (Université de Poitiers)Up

Pictorial representations of the sad fate of Pyramus and Thisbe: expectations and issues

How was the Pyramus and Thisbe story represented? What problems did it raise and what solutions did artists opt for? Addressing the issue of representation, this paper seeks to bring out specific characteristics that are related to the narrative and almost inevitably open onto a symbolic interpretation that encompasses much more than the fate of the lovers themselves. This leads into considerations on the issue of genre (dramatic and iconographic) and on the way the tale was perceived at the Renaissance and in the French classical era, which was marked by Poussin’s painting. The approach is not that of the art historian, but rather an invitation to consider the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe’s death from the perspective of its pictorial representations and to offer thereby some insights into the story.

Dominique Moncondhuy teaches 17th-century French literature at the Université de Poitiers. He first worked on tragedy in the 1630s and 1640s, publishing critical editions of Scudéry and Rotrou, and editing an issue of Littératures classiques on Du Ryer, as well as publishing contributions on Mairet and Cyrano. He has also researched other aspects of the “serious theatre” of the 17th century, co-directing, with Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay, an issue of La Licorne on “Racine the poet”. His interest for Scudéry’s Cabinet and Femmes illustres led him to investigate the realm of painting, the politics of galleries and collections, as well as the analysis of paintings (which led to the publication of L’Art pris au mot ou comment lire les tableaux, Paris, Gallimard 2007, co-authored with Alain Jaubert, Valérie Lagier and Henri Scepi). Taking these interests further, he currently devotes much of his research activities to cabinets of curiosities and co-edits the website Curiositas.

Pierre Pasquier (Université de Tours)Up

An exceptional scenography for a typical tragedy: considerations on the sets for Théophile’s Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé in the Mémoire de Mahelot

This paper sets out to study the designer sketch for Théophile de Viau’s Pyrame et Thisbé in the Mémoire de Mahelot, a technical register for the actors at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the unusual features of this design in comparison with Mahelot’s designs for other productions, and to appreciate the extent to which the decorator of the Troupe Royale imagined a set that met the singularities that characterized the play in the context of the French stage in the 1620s and 1630s.

Pierre Pasquier works on 16th- and 17th-century dramatic theory, the history of performance techniques and theatre design in the 17th century, and 17th-century devotional theatre. He has published several critical editions: Le Véritable Saint Genest, de Rotrou (Théâtre complet, vol. 4, STFM, 2001), Le martyre de la glorieuse vierge sainte Reine, de Claude Ternet (Tragédies et récits de martyre en France [fin XVIe – début XVIIe siècle], Garnier, 2009), le Mémoire de Mahelot (Champion, 2005). Pierre Pasquier has also published two studies: La Mimèsis dramatique au XVIIe siècle, histoire d’une réflexion (Klincksieck, 1995) and La représentation théâtrale au XVIIe siècle: conditions et techniques, co-edited with Anne Surgers (Armand Colin, 2011). He is currently working on a critical edition of Polyeucte martyr, forthcoming in a new edition of Corneille’s plays, by Liliane Picciola for Garnier, and another of Saint Eustache martyr, forthcoming in an edition of Baro’s plays by Bénédicte Louvat-Molozay, also for Garnier.

Michèle Rosellini (ENS de Lyon)Up

Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé : paradoxes of an epicurean tragedy?

In this tragedy, Théophile de Viau applies the theory he had formulated in La Satire Première: “follow nature”. Love, total surrender to the passion of love, is the most evident implementation of this philosophical programme. The poet thereby seems to reactivate antique Epicureanism, which brought on him charges of being an “epicurean”, that is to say, an atheist, by the judges of the Parlement before whom he was brought. Besides his criticism of absolutist monarchy, Théophile de Viau’s Epicureanism is of a troubled, conflicting nature, since he does not seek spiritual peace but rather spiritual upheaval which he considers to be an awakening to the authentic experience of life. This philosophical idiosyncrasy underpins a dynamic approach to drama, which transforms Théophile’s only play in a genuine tragedy, well before the reinvention of the genre.

Michèle Rosellini is a senior lecturer at the École nationale supérieure of Lyons, where she teaches 17th-century French literature. Her research interests are, on the one hand, reading practices and, on the other hand, the works of libertine authors in relation to morality and censorship. She has published a study of Théophile de Viau’s Œuvres poétiques (Éditions Atlande, coll. « Clefs-Concours-Lettres », 2008) and several articles on aspects of the poet’s life and work, which include « Écrire de sa prison : l’expérience carcérale de Théophile de Viau » (Écriture et prison au début de l’âge moderne, Jean-Pierre Cavaillé (dir.),Cahier du Centre de Recherches historiques (EHESS-CNRS) 39, avril 2007, p. 17-38) and « Du saint au poète, la puissance du nom “Théophile” » (in Gueux, frondeurs, libertins, utopiens : autres et ailleurs du XVIIe siècle. Mélanges en l’honneur du Professeur Pierre Ronzeaud, Philippe Chométy et Sylvie Requemora-Gros (dir.), Aix-en-Provence, Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2013).

Janice Valls-RussellUp

From the walls of Pompei to the theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon: embodying the death of Pyramus and Thisbe

This article addresses the deaths of lovers in two of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, through a twofold approach that seeks to bring to light the proximities between the rhetorical strategies of tragedy and comedy. The reworkings of this Ovidian myth in the Elizabethan era, and in the wider context of the Renaissance, with its processes of imitation, appropriation and displacement, are studied through an analysis of the multiple forms of transmission into which Shakespeare tapped. The iconographical appropriations of the myth in the 16th century illustrate the aesthetic appeal of the lovers’ death scene; while a joint consideration of textual and visual elements provides insights into the transfer to the stage, which is studied through a selection of 20th-century productions that use techniques of bricolage that would have appealed to the mechanicals and to Elizabethan players. Critical exchanges between then and now attempt to show how the myth’s structuring elements travel through time, genre and artistic forms. The permanence and renewal of the mythological story are analysed through the death scene that has in turn been raised to the status of a myth through the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and film adaptations such as those by Baz Luhrmann or Franco Zeffirelli that have moved generations of young audiences.

Janice Valls-Russell is a research associate at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and employed by the IRCL (UMR5186). She holds a doctorate and has published on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe in the English Renaissance. She has edited and translated Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet (Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2012). She is Reviews and Managing Editor of Cahiers Élisabéthains and Project Coordinator of A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Classical Mythology.