Adam de la Halle (Writer)

(ca. 1250-ca. 1306) musician, playwright

Adam de la Halle was born in Arras, France, and spent most of his life there. He was educated in the church but did not take holy orders. Because of his writing talent and connections in literate and cultural circles, Adam became a spokesman for a group of local men who criticized the corrupt aristocratic government of Arras. In 1283, he traveled as court musician to Robert II, Count of Artois, in Naples, where he died around 1287.

Adam de la Halle was a gifted composer whose surviving body of work includes motets and chansons for single and multiple voices. He was not only talented enough to contribute to medieval music but also wrote two plays that are some of the most frequently anthologized pieces of medieval drama. Both The Play of Madness (Le Jeu de la Feuillee, ca. 1276) and The Play of Robin and Marion (Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, ca. 1283) are secular comedies that are fresh, charming (and in The Play of Madness’s case, raunchy and absurdist) glimpses into the medieval mind and society.

The Play of Robin and Marion is a pastoral in which the title characters court each other and entertain their fellow shepherds with songs and dances. There is some dramatic tension when a knight becomes infatuated with Marion and tries to abduct her, but Robin and his friends recover her and they celebrate with a picnic and games. The piece charms readers and spectators because of its playfulness and light touches of humor and realism; when Marion asks Robin to dance the farandole, a lively court dance, he excuses himself because his leggings are torn. The picnic consists of water, bread, apples, and cheese, and the partygoers are extravagant in their delight; one wonders if a courtly audience laughed condescendingly at the rustic characters’ simple pleasures or recognized themselves in some of the games and songs the characters play. The Play of Robin and Marion has been recorded by several contemporary early-music groups and could still entertain a contemporary audience.

The Play of Madness, however, more closely resembles 20th-century experimental theater than the morality plays and farces of the time period. Adam’s characters are himself and his friends from his Arras circle mingling with fairies, and there are stock comic characters such as an old woman, a doctor, and a village idiot. Nothing is sacred in this piece; Adam mocks his own desire to leave Arras for Paris, as well as his distaste for his aging wife.

The humor in the play is often bawdy and insensitive; male characters complain about their wives’ shrewishness, the idiot spouts obscene jokes, and characters mock church politics and the public’s gullibility when it comes to worshipping saints’ relics. Political and social satire intertwine with physical comedy. There is no plot per se; characters shift from center stage to background, from participant to observer of what takes place center stage. The play’s in-jokes about the well-to-do townsmen of Arras indicate its original audience may have been the literate burghers of this prosperous northern French city. The specific details of medieval life and the fresh direct language of both plays make Adam de la Halle’s surviving plays not only significant artistic contributions to European drama but also intriguing glimpses into his world.

English Versions of Works by Adam de la Halle

Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. Translated by Shira I. Schwam-Baird. New York: Garland, 1994.

Medieval French Plays. Translated by Richard Axton and John Stevens. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971.

Works about Adam de la Halle

Baltzer, Rebecca A., Thomas Cable, and James I. Wimsatt, eds. The Union of Words and Music in Medieval Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Dane, Joseph A. Res/Verba: A Study in Medieval French Drama. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1985.

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