Little is known about the circumstances of the French playwright Alexandre Hardy’s early life or education. He was born sometime around 1575, but later attempts by theater historians to construct his biography must be looked at cautiously, since few documents survive that allow us to construct his life. Like the Golden Age Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega, Hardy was similarly prolific, although his crowd pleasing style has more similarities to the popular commercial theater of the Renaissance than to the greater finesse achieved during the great age of achievement that developed in French theater by the midseventeenth century. In a long career Hardy claimed to have written more than 600 plays. Unfortunately, only 34 of these survive, a sampling that allows us to gauge his talents, which most critics have insisted lay in his lyrical poetic style. Hardy’s plots, by contrast, were often problematic, although his plays had a wide appeal.
At the time Hardy wrote for the Parisian stage, the medieval Confraternity of the Passion still controlled Paris’s chief theater, the Hôtel de Bourgogne. In 1402 the French crown had given the Confraternity a monopoly to stage religious plays in Paris. The organization developed as a guild of amateur actors until 1548, when the local Parliament or town council outlawed the staging of the traditional religious mystery cycles. In the same year, though, the confraternity remodeled a hall inside the former residence of the Dukes of Burgundy in the city, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and began to stage farces and other light entertainments before a paid audience.
The group also rented out their facility to other troupes, and because they still possessed a medieval monopoly, anyone hoping to stage a drama in Paris had to do so under their auspices. In effect, the Confraternity thus became the chief royal censors, charged with inspecting the material that was to be performed before Parisian subjects. The theater in the Hotel de Bourgogne flourished for a while, but during the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), civil disruption in France exacted a toll on its popularity. Most tragedies written during this period served as a kind of literary commentary on the bleak course of the wars and never made it to the stage.
Light comedies continued to be written and produced, but the1570s and 1580s produced scores of plays that have long since been forgotten. Around 1600, Alexandre Hardy, working in tandem with Valleran Le Conte, advanced the development of a popular, commercial theater in France. In 1599 Le Conte brought his company of players to the city from the provinces for a three month term at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Hardy may have already been connected to the group as an actor or writer at this time, or his connections may have developed somewhat later.
But over the next thirty years he wrote for Le Conte’s company a series of immensely popular successes. Like many theaters at the time, the Hôtel de Bourgogne was a scene of raucous and bawdy humor and of audiences that might erupt into fistfights at any time. By keeping his audience in rapt attention, Hardy ensured that the fighting was on the stage rather than in the theater’s pit. His plays were action packed, with many short scenes and frequent plot twists.
They were also graphic and visually spectacular in a way similar to the medieval mysteries. Arms were severed, eyes plucked out, and nothing seems to have been left to the imagination. In addition, his works called for spectacular special effects, all of which garnered for the Le Conte troupe a wide audience in the city of Paris. Hardy drew his subjects from classical Antiquity or from later historical events, and he displayeda fondness for making these events into tragedies and tragicomedies. These dramas show that he must have possessed a smattering of humanist education, but, unlike later French playwrights of the seventeenth century, he did not imitate Aristotle’s classical definitions of tragedy.
Instead he thrust the action of his dramas forward through a true dramatic sense of how a play should unfold. While Hardy’s plays are not important in the modern French repertoire, his career nevertheless advanced the history of the French stage. When Hardy arrived on the scene in Paris around 1600, the French theater was dominated by short farces, interludes, and other genres that were largely traditional. Tragedy had, by and large, made little impact on French drama, outside of the Senecan styled tragedies that were read by a learned audience.
Hardy relied on the form and created an audience for staged tragedies, and in so doing he created commercial successes. He also seems to have been the first French playwright to earn his living exclusively from the theater. Although his plays certainly lacked the finesse and elegance of the later French masters Racine, Corneille, or Molière, it is difficult to imagine how these playwrights could have achieved their successes without the audience that Hardy created for them.