Tuesday, July 16, 2013

La Devineresse, 1679

La Jobin and the Marquis, with body parts falling down the chimney

La Divineresse, ou les faux Enchantements was a play first performed in 1679, created by the younger Corneille (Thomas) and Jean Donneau de Visé.

My purpose here is to try to read this text against texts which are far more familiar to me, the Jacobean and Caroline witch plays. One first finding instantly suggests itself - just as Heywood and Brome converted the cruelly credited accusations and the slow-moving central process to resolve the 1633-4 Lancashire case into a ‘merry and excellent’ comedy, so Corneille and his co-adjutor opted to write a comedy, one that is as free as possible from polemic, or from promoting any metaphysical alarm. 

King Charles might have found a model for state intervention in local witchcraft trials and verdicts (as happened in 1634) either in some of the later actions of his father, or from learning of processes abroad, specifically in France. Across the channel, if provincial courts passed guilty verdicts in witchcraft trials, the Parlement de Paris would overturn these verdicts. Witchcraft remained an uncontested verity: but the central authorities would quench or nullify all local action about particular instances of it.

Then, in ‘the affair of the poisons’, sorcery was discovered to be happening in Paris, and at Versailles. Ian Bostridge suggests that the surviving documents perhaps give us access into a world of ‘elite’ witchcraft. Privileged clients, male and female, were apparently willing to credit a wide range of paranormal powers and pay to have them harnessed to their desires. La Bosse, La Voisin, La Vigoreaux and other practitioners seem to have been dispensing love philtres, fortune-telling (by palmistry, mainly), and selling all kinds of charms and amulets. These ‘sorceresses’ also seem to have been the agents for more dangerous services. The double moral weight of Louis’ authoritarianism and that the church seem to have promoted recourse in some people to acts of desecration, in having black masses performed. For women in trouble with unwanted pregnancies, La Voisin facilitated abortions, then illegal. Switching to the other obvious category of person a woman might desperately want to be rid of, these urban wise women offered methods of causing husbands who refused to die to depart with a more convenient speed - either by magic purportedly promoting this desired effect, or by poison. La Bosse was conclusively proved by an entrapment to deal in poison. Numbers of female clients were susceptible to this fantasy of murder with responsibility as it were magically transferred to its facilitators.

As with Simon Forman and the Countess of Essex in London forty years before, credulity and cruel desperation reached to the top of the social ladder. Louis XIV’s chief investigator, La Reynie, was soon eliciting (by ‘enhanced interrogation’, as the Pentagon might say) from the arrested ‘sorceresses’ and their associates, the names of people from the highest social circles, including the Sun King’s own former maitresse en titre, Madame de Montespan. The story concocted was predictable (being the kind of thing that was said about the Earl of Somerset and James I): that she had won his love in the first place by magic, had subsequently tried to regain it by more magic, and that she had a hand in the death of a rival, the Duchess of Fontanges, when that occured right in the middle of the poisons affair.

As soon as aristocrats were named, Louis had set about a cover up - all testimonies naming courtiers, and records of the questioning of those courtiers who did not flee the scene rather than testify, were to be kept by his investigator La Reynie on separate sheets of paper. A coherent and continuous account of the evidence against the expendables, without obvious redactions, could then be produced. Famously, when the king finally called off the whole investigation, he personally burned all the evidence against the favoured denizens of his Versailles - that La Reynie had made copies was unknown to him, and from their rediscovery comes the knowledge scholars have of these murky events and allegations.

And so, in a Paris gripped, mortified, appalled by these findings (for elite Parisian gossip served as effectively as Twitter might do now, and names leaked out from the ‘Chambre Ardente’ hearings despite everything), and when ten expendable persons had already been put to death, the play, La Divineresse was performed. Like The Late Lancashire Witches, it was well-timed, and a great success. Its lengthy series of 175 performances was rather more like what we’d understand nowadays as a good theatre run than the wonder of three consecutive afternoons which was the exceptional achievement of the Heywood-Brome play.

Poisons? Abortions? Black masses and acts of desecration? Non, non, et non! Against a background of wild stories - many of which probably originated with wretched people under torture trying to prolong their own lives by naming aristocrats as their former clients - and operations of the melodramatic court, that newly-revived ‘Chambre Ardente’ - black-draped, flambeau-lit, inquisatorial and (notionally) secret, Donneau and Corneille opted for a drawing room / quack’s consultation room comedy. There is no black magic here: there is only macabre fraud and gullibility. They recommend their piece as highly didactic, salutory, a helpful exposure of the realities of professed practitioners of magic.

Their play is described critically as a pièce à tiroirs, a chest of drawers, as La Jobin’s clients (like those of Jonson’s Alchemist) arrive one by one. Each embedded scene contains its own little set of contents. The diablèrie is in the heads of the clients. La Jobin is lucid, acute, and, when not entire in control, a brilliant improviser. She is assisted by subordinates, who, to impress new clients, say and hint far more about their mistress’s dark powers than she herself does. La Jobin plays up to their expectations while parting them from their money.

Besides the very expressive pièce à tiroirs designation, La Divineresse is also described as thèâtre de machine, a play reliant on spectacle or stage machinery. La Jobin, nothing else but a charlatan and a cheat, has at her command the illusionistic and personnel resources of a theatre. At moments in Jonson’s Alchemist, belief in the project seems to rub off from the clients onto Subtle, who will start talking about the ‘Great Art’ as if he believed in it in some part of his mind separate from knowledge of his own utter fraudulence. Madame Jobin has no such deviations from clear-sightedness. She is a bland promise-making machine - as soon as she knows what the client wants (and one truly believing customer can barely be brought to utter what it is, so confident is she in the supernatural insight a sorceress has to have), La Jobin is ready with assurances. A commercial fairy-godmother, she will condescend to grant the wishes of each client: an ointment that will peel away ugliness from a woman, and then a syrup that will which enable her to sing like an opera singer. A magical hand-grip upon a rapier, the little finger held just so to make the charm operative, that will give the war-loving coward M. Gilet invulnerability. (His enthusiam to show his courage has finally to be reined in with a caution that he must be mindful that she has performed the same service for other men, who also bear charmed lives). One woman client wants larger breasts (and breast augmentation certainly seems to have been part of La Voisin’s stock-in-trade). A male client called La Giraudiere seeks the ability to have sex with any woman he desires. After he has filled the purse of a masquerade devil, La Jobin’s establishment extends to a procession of the women he will have. She barely leaves the stage to make what would be in realistic terms very hasty arrangements for this parade. La Giraudiere is artfully led to understand that he will get to have these women only after six months or maybe more, the spirits involved in such a powerful spell being very difficult to win over.

The main plot strand of the play involves three characters. Madame Noblet comes closest to the realities of the poisons scandal: she wants her old husband out of the way, and for La Jobin to prevent the possible marriage to a countess of the marquis she has decided on as his successor. The countess (of Astragon), in her turn, will only marry the marquis if he can prove to her that La Jobin is a fraud. Despite La Jobin deploying her most elaborate effects to convince him, he perseveres, and eventually succeeds.

Madame Jobin’s business repeatedly involves convincing a woman who is reluctant to marry, or to re-marry, that a suitor really loves her, and only her. The fortune-teller as go-between and match-maker is familiar enough from the kind of accusations made about William Lilly’s manipulation of clients by prediction. In Act 2, a Marquise is convinced of La Jobin’s abilities by witnessing bodily swelling pass from one of her accomplices to another (Julia Prest seems to think this is an oblique allusion to the abortions La Voisin arranged. If this demonstration hints at a pregnancy, it ludicrously transfers to a man). Once she has been convinced, the Marquise is told that she will see her husband-to-be in a magical mirror (this stage property is initially curtained off). Beyond a sheet of what may in performance have been smoked glass, the sorceress has positioned her male client. A love-letter is sent, with an instant delivery and reply accomplished, rather as in ‘Harry Potter’, by means of ‘une maniere de Chat-huan qu’elle a la-dedans’. The Marquise sees the paranormally-delivered letter she has just written arrive; and then she sees a reply being written, and sent by owl-post, so that it falls to her from above.

Later, and more strikingly, a Monsieur Troufignac from Perigord arrives late in the action. His wife has left him, and he wants magic to bring her back. ‘Donnez-moi sept pièces d’or pour les offrir a l’Esprit qui m’amènera votre femme’. No nonsense about offering the spirit your soul, or blood from your body. Only money counts. He cavils at the price: how about four gold pieces? Haven’t you ever heard, she asks him, that seven is a mystical number? This he reluctantly concedes.

La Jobin is reflecting in soliloquy on how how many fools there are, who make her wise in spite of herself, when he re-enters, with news that he has just seen his wife arrive outside, dressed as a man (and he allows that he’s very impressed by the speed with which Jobin’s spirit has coerced her to the house). He leaves the scene, and the information he has just given allows La Jobin to stupefy Madame Troufignac with her occult powers of identification. But the wife herself has arrived with a quite remarkable request to the sorceress: to be transgendered into a man, to escape the disagreeable life of a married woman (‘La condition des femmes est trop malheureuses’). La Jobin tries to normalise this extraordinary woman, telling her to go back to Perigord with her husband. But Madame Troufignac says they can talk about that another day when the money she has purloined from the marital home has run out: for now, she will spend as long as she can in the role of libertine, chasing the women she has noticed seem to be responsive to her new appearance. The practitioner of magic is simply unable to make any money out of this lesbian. As La Jobin works on commission to convince those who doubt the wisdom of marrying, and would profit from Monsieur Troufignac if she did persuade his wife to return, she seems in general to promote and guard marriages. But here, she meets a person beyond her manipulation, a misogamist beyond her  ill-founded assurances (Madame Troufignac would not be interested in having the husband she has left treated with a love philtre, as is offered - that’s of no use to her at all.)

The discourse of misogamy, professions of reluctance to marry, or of a woman’s desire to remain a widow, is prominent in the play. It is as if a mutual scepticism can only be banished by practices that, in a proper view of the reality of things, demand their own scepticism. But then again, contrary to the suggestion I have just made (that the scepticism of the misogamist requires magic to deceive it), it might be inferred from this play that the feeble nature of the fraudulent contrivances that impart belief expresses how little we require to instil belief that a would-be partner is the ideal. (Off-hand, I can only think of Massinger’s The Picture as mixing misogamy and magic.)

Up to date as it seems to be about the daunting price of marriage (especially for women), the play also sounds modern about money. La Jobin makes her promises in return for a fee. In place of the diabolic contract, it’s a situation where any unscrupulous but moneyed client secures illicit aid. The clients arrive at the consulting rooms pre-corrupted by the money that promises to secure their wishes for them. Handing it over is a transfer of sin to an experienced sinner - or we can see it as a version of confession (‘I wish to do these amoral things in the future’, they confide), with a absolving penance beforehand (‘then part with your money’). La Jobin has a brother, introduced to us as anxious about the damage to his reputation in the tax office done by having a sister who is a reputed sorceress is doing. In some gently subversive humour, his sister convinces him that switching to assisting her in her trade would only be a small change, and he’d make more money than he does as a ‘pauvre Procureur Fiscal’. He does indeed join in with her fleecing of her clients. It is this brother that the Marquis forces to confess at pistol point to end the action. At the denouement, what seems to be a devil is revealed to be Gosselin, the taxman. While Gosselin sustains his role, his sister’s theatrical tricks back him up, with lights emerging from a hellish trapdoor. ‘Vostre Enfer ridicule ny tous vos eclairs ne m’etonnent pas’, affirms the Marquis. The only credible tormenter left is the taxman. La Jobin seems to hint that she would make the silence of those who have seen her exposure worthwhile, but the Countess says that ‘Il faut que la chose eclate, afin que personne n’y soit plus trompe’. 

But I am omitting the spectacular elements. Stolen property is located (La Jobin arranged the disappearance anyway) when a vision of the missing pistolets is given by means of a gauzy curtain on which they are painted, which flaps down from a ‘zigzag’. More impressive is the elaborate means she uses to convince the sceptical Marquis: parts of a dismembered body fall down the chimney, assemble into a kind of golem, which then walks to the middle of the theatre, and disappears through the floor. That’s the scene illustrated at the top of this post. One assumes that the back of the chimney was black cloth with long vertical slits. Puppeteers behind might control the fall of fake legs and arms, and then start to assemble them, until a performer can rise up in place of the composite puppet. In the subsequent scene, La Jobin’s brother says he helped move the pretend body-parts. The highlight of Act V was a big scene with a talking head and a terrified female client who is persuaded to touch it.

The scholars writing about this play point out some resemblances between the duped clients in this play and those who consulted La Voisin and her like. Like M. Gilet, the Marquis de Feuquieres wanted invulnerability from La Vigoreaux; the Duchess of Foix wanted larger breasts; and various clients asked, like the Marquis in this play, to talk to the devil.

As with The Late Lancashire Witches, there has been some scholarly surmise that there was an element of official collusion in the appearance of this play, even a suggestion that La Reynie personally encouraged the authors. The play is certainly in line with the 1682 royal legislation against sorcery, which was aimed at people who pretend to undertake magic, at poisoners, and at those who commit acts of desecration. Yet it seems odd that a play so resolutely insistent on simple fraudulence should be written and produced when La Voisin was shortly to be burned at the stake. The play makes La Jobin guilty of exploiting other people’s stupidity, and allows her to leave the scene at the end, vaguely promising restitution, and pursued by those who suddenly doubt that she can deliver their foolish dreams. No judge, no magistrate, no cleric is referred to, the only tribunal is public opinion after exposure, the only investigator the Marquis, whose motivation comes from the challenge set by the Countess, not personal zeal.

The play is studiously not ‘about’ La Voisin. La Jobin was played by a man. The play isn’t about sorcery, but about not being made ‘jobard’ (gullible) by someone like La Jobin. When witchcraft comes to town, it is a matter of trickery. There’s something like a perception that illicit or unassuaged needs and desires in more or less anyone can be exploited by the crafty. As La Jobin herself reflects, it is fools that teach her to be wise, in spite of herself. In prison cells, accused people made up confessions under duress. La Voisin fought desperately to remain in the coffin in which she had been brought to the stake. In his palace, the Sun King burned testimonies against aristocrats. In theatres, audiences laughed night after night at this comedy of their own folly.