Article Title

From Saint Genesius to Kean: Actors, Martyrs, and Metatheater


Metatheater has been found in every epoch of world drama, but it is generally agreed that the European baroque and modernist periods are the most fertile for this genre. Plays using actors as protagonists, a subset of metatheater, were especially developed on the baroque stage and are found in modernist drama as well. Theatrical adaptations of the legend of Saint Genesius, the patron saint of actors, such as Lope de Vega’s Lo fingido verdadero (1608) and Jean Rotrou’s Le véritable Saint Genet (1645), portray the actor as martyr through the device of the play within the play and other metatheatrical techniques used to question the nature of truth and probe the boundaries between reality and illusion.

Jean-Paul Sartre, whose interest in Rotrou is evident in the title of his monumental biography of Jean Genet, Saint Genet: Comédien et martyr, produced a twentieth-century metatheatrical play featuring an actor as martyr in his adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s melodrama Kean. Sartre referred to the great nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor as “the patron saint of actors.” Like Lope’s and Rotrou’s actor-characters, Kean is highly conscious of his own, and everyone’s, theatricality and like them he faces a hostile inner audience that refuses to accept his attempt to break through the theatrical illusion. Although not literally martyred, Kean presents his rejection as a social martyrdom. Neither of the “patron saints” can finally leave the world of theater. In Lope, this plays itself out as a “divine comedy,” in Rotrou as tragicomedy, and in Sartre as ironic, intertextual melodramatic comedy.

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