“Wherein True Bliss is Buried”: A Tragi-Comedy for the Prince of Poland, Brussels 1624

In the fall of 1960 an auction catalog was delivered to the Acquisitions Department of the Folger Shakespeare Library in which the following small typewritten notice was enclosed:

 "We understand that you are particularly interested in this sale, and, since the catalogue was rather late coming in from the printer, and surface mails so slow, we enclose a further copy via airmail, in order that you will not miss it."

The typewritten note from Sotheby’s

The auction catalog was from Sotheby’s and it listed 544 lots of “valuable printed books, fine bindings, autograph letters, literary mss. and historical documents” originating from more than five different properties, to be sold on November 8–9, 1960. The public auction opened on the first day with the sale of 113 lots from the property of the Marquess of Downshire.1 

Title-page of the auction catalog for the sale of November 8-9, 1960

Title-page of the auction catalog for the sale of November 8-9, 1960

At any rate, the Folger was indeed very interested in this public sale and the Library bid on a number of lots which were subsequently added to the collections, including John Sanford’s 1605 A grammer or introduction to the Italian tongue (STC 21735).2 But on other lots the Library was outbid, such as, for instance, lot number 150, for which the Folger stopped bidding at £90. That lot consisted of Nicholas Webster’s ca. 1650 autograph manuscript Certain profitable and well experienced collections for making conserve of fruits (V.a.364), which went for £95 to the English bookseller H. W. Edwards who, later on, would sell the manuscript to the Folger.

The same turn of events happened with lot number 72, “Pamphlets,” approximately 600 items that would later be described by the Folger’s Acquisitions Department in its records as the “Collection of Anglo-Dutch-French Political Pamphlets.” That lot was also acquired by Edwards, but six months later the collection that originated with the Marquess of Downshire was nevertheless added to the Folger’s holdings.3

Description of lot 72 in Sotheby's auction catalog

Description of lot 72 in Sotheby’s auction catalog

Lot 72 proved to be valuable purchase worth every penny, not only because it contains so many items, but also because it so many are ephemeral publications and so-called uniques, editions of which only one surviving copy has thus far been recorded.4

At least two items in that lot relate to cultural events which took place in Brussels in September 1624 and about which very little is known. One is a theatrical performance directed by the Brussels Jesuits, and the other one is a ballet performed at the premises of the Duke de Croÿ. Both events are only referred to very briefly in a contemporary diary kept by Jan Hagenaw, a Polish courtier who was traveling with his master, the Lithuanian chancellor Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł, who in turn was escorting prince Ladislaw Sigismund Wasa on this Grand Tour through Europe.

For now, I will only discuss the broadside documenting the Jesuit theater play. Jan Hagenaw wrote in his diary under the date of Saturday 14 September 1624, “After lunch, the Jesuit fathers got a tragicomedy ready about the true bliss of this world, for showing it this same day, since they were hoping that His Royal Highness the Prince Royal would grace it with his presence.”5 We do not know whether the Polish prince went to see the performance in the college of the Brussels Jesuits, nor does his name appear on the broadside.

Broadside announcing the theater performance organized by the Brussels Jesuits in 1624 (Folger 183539)

Broadside announcing the theater performance organized by the Brussels Jesuits in 1624 (Folger 183539)

The title of the openly moralizing play reads “En qvoy gist la vraye foelicité. Tragicomedie,” which can be translated as “Wherein true bliss is buried. Tragicomedy.” Following custom, it consists of three acts subdivided in a number of scenes with each act ending with an intervention of the chorus.6 The play is populated with allegorical figures, such as Philotychius, alias “Amoureux de la fœlicité” (Love for True Bliss), who engages with his counterpart “l’Esperance de la faulse fœlicité” (The Hope for False Bliss). Other allegorical figures are “l’Honneur” (Honor) and “la Vertu” (Virtue), who call upon historical characters such as Baiazetes, Belisarus, Ruffin, and others, who are depicted as shining examples for those who want to find the true bliss of this world. At the end of the play, Love for True Bliss is guided by Virtue, who explains to him that true bliss disapproves of worldly goods and embraces a felicitous death. The moral of the play is obvious, as it was not only meant to educate the actors and other pupils in the college, but also to pass that message on to the audience of parents, family members, and other residents of the city of Brussels. As the broadside points out—in the largest typeface in the middle of the title—the play was dedicated to the magistrate of Brussels, who was donating the prizes to the best students of each year. Jesuit theater was always propaganda, too, and all stakeholders had to be acknowledged.

Many printed programs of Jesuit theater survive, but many more are lost. Broadsides like this one announcing plays are extremely rare, probably because they were meant to be nailed or glued onto a wall, a display that in most case caused  their destruction. But the copy originating from the Marquess of Downshire is almost in perfect condition. The sheet still has its deckle edges and has never been pressed or washed out. It has been stored folded, which has caused a small hole in the middle of the bill, but other than that it does not bear any trace of use. To find this very rare printed witness in the Folger’s collections can bestow one with true bliss.

  1. It is not entirely clear to which Marquess of Downshire the books then belonged. The sixth Marquess, Arthur Wills John Wellington Trumbull Blundell Hill (1871–1918), had died some 42 years before, and the seventh Marquess, Arthur Wills Percy Wellington Blundell Trumbull Hill (1894–1989), was still alive. Did he need money, or did he just want to clear up the library? []
  2. A handwritten note sitting in the Folger copy of the auction catalog indicates that the Folger intended to go up to a maximum bid of £200 for Sanford’s Grammer; the hammer came to £180. []
  3. According to a handwritten note in pencil in the Folger’s copy of the auction catalog, “HWE” paid £650 for the lot. On May 18th 1961, the “French pamphlets unbound, as selected by Miss Pitcher,” were ordered by the Folger’s Acquisitions Department for the amount of £1,500. It is not entirely clear whether all items from the original lot were bought, whether some items were left out, or whether other items were added to the collection. The description of lot 72 in the auction catalog only mentions a dozen of individual titles, which are followed by the phrase “and other 16th and 17th century French pamphlets.” []
  4. See for instance the lottery book which I discussed in a former Collation Post. []
  5. My translation. The German translation of the original reads: “Nach dem Essen bereiteten die Jesuitenpatres eine Tragikomödie über die Glückseligkeiten dieser Welt vor, um sie am heutigen Tag vorzutragen, da sie hofften, S. Hoheit der Kronprinz würde sie mit seiner Anwesenheit beehren.” Cf. Die Reise des Kronprinzen Władyslaw Wasa in die Länder Westeuropas in den Jahren 1624/1625. München 1988, p. 112. This publication does not clearly indicates whether the original diary was written in Polish or in Latin. []
  6. In the 1690s, Jesuit theater plays performed in the Flemish Jesuit Province, the so-called provincia Flandro-Belgica, consisted of five acts, and the chorus also disappeared. See: Goran Proot, Het schooltoneel van de jezuïeten in de Provincia Flandro-Belgica tijdens het ancien régime (1575–1773). Antwerp 2008, vol. 1, chapter 6, esp. pp. 209, graph 5–20. []

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.

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