Mors comoedia. A comedy a hundred years old brought to life again in 1726

Sheer chance is an important factor in research. Some sixteen years ago I was surveying a sammelband held at Antwerp University Library that contained 257 programs documenting theater performances in Jesuit schools in Flanders.1 And now, just a month ago, one of the many Neo-Latin theater plays in the Folger collections unexpectedly helped me to identify the author of one of the largely anonymous texts. The author in question is the Jesuit dramatist and English recusant William Drury, who taught at the English Jesuit college in Douai. Two of Drury’s Neo-Latin plays were published in one volume in Douai in 1620, together with a poem entitled “De venerabili Eucharistia”: Aluredus sive Alfredus tragicomoedia and Mors comoedia. A third play, Reparatus, sive Depositum, was added to the second edition which also appeared in Douai (1628), and the so-called  “editio ultima ab ipso auctore recognite” (which suggests that Drury himself corrected this latest edition) was brought to light in Antwerp in 1641. 2 The Folger has a copy of the second and third editions.3

Opening page of the comedy Mors in the 1628 and 1641 editions.

Opening page of the comedy Mors in the 1628 and 1641 editions. (Click this, and all the images in this post, to enlarge)

Let me first give you some background about the tradition of Jesuit school drama. Fairly quickly after the establishment of the first secondary schools for Latin and Greek by the Jesuit order (founded in 1540), the priests began to stage theater plays in Latin which were performed by their students. Soon it became a custom that each class would perform one play each school year. In addition, in Lent and at the end of the school year extra plays were staged. As a result the larger colleges, such as the Flemish ones in Antwerp, Brussels or Ghent, would stage seven regular school dramas which anyone could attend for free.

In Flemish Jesuit schools, the main play always was performed in Latin.4 Printed (or sometimes handwritten) programs with a brief background and outline of the play were distributed to the audience. Depending on the school’s policy and the needs of the local public, the programs or argumenta were written in Latin or the vernacular (in Dutch or French in the borderland between Flanders and France). In the eighteenth century, bilingual programs begin to appear as well, often in Latin and Dutch, mainly in Ghent and Mechelen.

Incomplete copy of the theatre program Symmachus et Boëtius tragœdia exhibebitur [...] Gandavi 6. septembris 1695, Gandavi: typis Henrici Saetreuver, 1695, here fol. A3 verso.

Incomplete copy of the theater program Symmachus et Boëtius tragœdia exhibebitur [...] Gandavi 6. septembris 1695, Gandavi: typis Henrici Saetreuver, 1695, here fol. A3 verso.

The main drama (usually a tragedy and usually in three acts or, after the 1690s, five acts) often was interspersed with a comedy. Typically, if the tragedy consisted of three acts, the students would play the first part of a comedy after the first act of the main drama and the final part of it after the second act. In the case of a five-act drama, the comedy would be divided into four parts, each of which would be shown between the acts of the main play. Before 1633 programs rarely refer to the comedies played (although that does not mean they weren’t included in the performances); even after that date information about the comedies remains rather succinct. About 20% of the programs mentions a title, and about 10% give a reference to a text (e.g. the Scripture) or an author, often classical authors such as Ovid, Hesiod, Horace, Juvenal, Plautus, Seneca, or Terence. About a third of the programs give a very brief summary of the comedy, in general not much more than two or three sentences offering a very general idea of the actual play, which makes the identification of the original sources very problematic.

Was it a mere coincidence that when I was looking through the Folger’s copy of Drury’s Dramatica poetica my eye was caught by the title of the second play? In any case, the comedy rang a bell—I vaguely remembered having seen a Flemish Jesuit program referring to it. Since there are so few comedies in the programs with titles, the title Mors did not bring about any play in my inventory nor did the author’s name, but the names of the main characters did. There are two Jesuit programs mentioning the roles of Chrysocancrio, Scombrio, Crancus, and the other characters. Both programs, one in Dutch and one in Latin, refer to the same play in the Ypres Jesuit college dating from September 1726.5 On the second and third day of September 1726, the students performed the Biblical story of the Maccabees, and in between the five acts the students played Drury’s Mors comoedia. I had seen the programs for the first time in the fall of 1997:

Title page of the Latin program of the Ypres play Septem fratres Machabaeis tragoedia. Shelf mark: University Library Antwerp Ren Dra 156 (right).

Title page of the Latin program of the Ypres play Septem fratres Machabaeis tragoedia. Shelf mark: University Library Antwerp Ren Dra 156 (right).

Fol. [A]1 verso of the Latin program of the Ypres play Septem fratres Machabaeis tragoedia showing the summary of the comedy and a list of the names of the characters.

Fol. [A]1 verso of the Latin program of the Ypres play Septem fratres Machabaeis tragoedia showing the summary of the comedy and a list of the names of the characters.

It does not come as a total surprise to see Jesuit teachers turning to theater texts more than a century old. On the one hand, they were constantly looking for material they could use to craft yet another play in the endless series of school performances. On the other hand, Drury’s comedy certainly was an excellent choice, and not just because he was a fellow Jesuit. Albert H. Tricomi characterizes the play as follows:

Among his select readership, Mors is roundly attested to be the best of Drury’s plays, swiftly paced, admirably constructed, and thoroughly stageworthy. Mors felicitously conjoins the stock characters of Latin comedy and the Commedia dell’Arte with those of the native dramatic tradition. The mixing of traditions permits the characters of the miserly senex (Chrysocancrio), the spendthrift son (Scombrio), the servant (Crancus), and miles gloriosus to confront the medieval dramatic characters of Death and Devil, along with a sorceress thrown in for good measure, producing novel situations unknown in Plautine and Terentian comedy. Pleasingly ambitious is Drury’s duplication of the Faustus motif whereby the dramatist has Scombrio make a pact to sell his body to Death and another to sell his soul to the Devil. By dramatizing both motifs but casting the greater emphasis upon the contract with Death, Drury displays an inventiveness that may be likened to Shakespeare’s doubling of the pairs of identical twins in his Plautine extravaganze The Comedy of Errors.6

Tricomi’s words certainly are the best possible invitation for scholars to revisit this great text, which remains most attractive.

  1. For the results of this research, see Goran Proot, Het schooltoneel van de jezuïeten in de Provincia Flandro-Belgica tijdens het ancien régime (1575-1773), Doct. diss. Antwerpen: Universiteit Antwerpen, 2008. []
  2. For a description of the 1641 Antwerp edition, see http://anet.ua.ac.be/record/stcvopac/c:stcv:6602987/E; a digital surrogate of the complete edition is available at http://anet.ua.ac.be/digital/opacua/uapreciosa/o:lvd:776015/N. Two more copies of the 1641 edition are available at Ghent University (Acc.001186 and BL.001490) and available through Google Books (copies 1 and 2). Both Ghent copies have Augustinian provenances: the first copy was acquired by father Ignatius de Dijckere, who in 1645 founded a convent in Bree. The book would later become part of the library of the Augustinian friars in Dendermonde. The second Ghent copy originally belonged to father F[ranciscus?] [van?] Reckendaele and was integrated in the library of the Ghent Augustinians (shelf mark 490/R). With thanks to Ellen Storms (Antwerp University Library) and Régine Dedecker (Ghent University Library). To learn about the foundation of the convent in Bree and the Augustinians in Dendermonde and Ghent, see Jürgen Vanhoutte [et al.], Latijnse scholen in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden (16de-18de eeuw): repertorium en archiefgids Vlaanderen en Brussel. Brussel 2007. []
  3. See shelf mark PA8135 D8 1628 Cage and PA8135 D8 1641 Cage. []
  4. The situation in other provinces of the Jesuit order may differ. In France, for example, there seems to have been a growing problem with the ability of Jesuit teachers to teach in Latin in the eighteenth century. For the Flemish province—technically the Provincia Flandro–Belgica—I never came across undeniable indications that the main theater performances in Flemish Jesuit schools would not have been staged in Latin. []
  5. The Dutch-language program is kept in the University Library Ghent (shelf mark Acc.001244/9), the Latin version in University Library Antwerp (shelf mark Ren Dra 156). []
  6. Albert H. Tricomi, Robert Knightley. Alfrede or Right Reinthron’d. A Translation of William Drury’s Aluredus sive Alfredus. New York 1993, p. 8–9. []

Author: Goran Proot

GORAN PROOT is Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Rare Books at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is currently surveying layout and typography in early modern books.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: