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The Importance of Martin Guerre -- Part One [by Joe Lehman]

"Martin Guerre: Now and Then; Then and Now" [by Joe Lehman]


“Land to last, as it's passed, man to son, when it's done as plannedThen we'll pray it will stay as good Catholic land.”

After the experience of living through the past four years, this lyric sounds a lot like Make America Great Again. At least, that was the thought that came to mind when I listened to the music of Martin Guerre in the summer of 2018.

I had the privilege of attending one of the original performances of the short-lived musical Martin Guerre when visiting London, England, in late December 1997-early January 1998, when I was fourteen. It has had a troubled existence; rarely has it been revived. I don’t believe it has ever opened on Broadway. As I was so young when I saw Martin Guerre, I didn’t appreciate its meaning. Twenty years went by, and in a dream one night, the memory of the musical came to me. The next morning, I purchased the soundtrack of the original cast recording. The musical, and the story behind it, has held a great significance for me ever since.

Martin Guerre 3The tale of the sixteenth century French peasant Martin Guerre and the imposture conducted by his army buddy Arnaud du Thil was resurrected in the 1982 French-language film The Return of Martin Guerre, as well as in a nonfiction book with the same title by historian Natalie Zemon Davis. Subsequently, the story has been immortalized as a continuing trope in many incarnations, including the 1993 movie Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, where the story is transported to post-Civil War and Reconstruction-era Tennessee, and the titular character and his imposter are veterans of the Confederate Army. It has even taken the form of satire in an episode of TV’s “The Simpsons,” where the Vietnam veteran Principal Skinner is revealed to be an imposter, a former comrade-in-arms of the ‘real’ Skinner.

It is in Martin Guerre the musical that the story is placed most prominently in the context of bigotry, nativism, and religious intolerance. The history of Catholic persecution of the Protestant Huguenots figures heavily. The setting is the provincial village of Artigat. Strangely, for reasons unknown to me, the word “Huguenot” is never uttered in the show. What is known is that Artigat is populated by a Catholic majority and a Protestant minority. Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols are betrothed to marry at an adolescent age, so that their families will merge in attempt to keep their shared land under Catholic ownership. But Martin is unable to perform sexually and in a fit of wanderlust, finds the only way available for French peasant to gain upward mobility: He leaves the village and Bertrande, and joins the Catholic army.

Seven years pass and when Martin is seemingly felled in battle, Arnaud du Thil travels to Artigat and almost accidentally assumes his identity, his land, and his wife Bertrande, who, despite being the one who knows about the fraud, falls in love with Arnaud, and together they clandestinely convert to Protestantism. Guillaume, an anti-Protestant fanatic who is also a jealous former suitor of Bertrande’s, discovers the truth and becomes Arnaud’s main accuser. Arnaud is arrested, brought to trial, where he continues relentlessly to insist he is the real Martin Guerre. The members of the courtroom are divided across Catholic and Protestant lines, in Arnaud’s favor and against it. The surprise witness who is able to provide the ultimate evidence of Arnaud’s imposture is Martin Guerre himself, who reappears to testify to his true identity. The musical sees Artigat burn down in an orgy of violence and Arnaud murdered at Guillaume’s hands. This version differs from the historical record. In fact, Arnaud’s case was tried, appealed, and tried again before he was found guilty and executed by hanging, while Bertrande was returned to her legal husband’s custody. I can only surmise that this modification was made for dramatic purposes. The show ends with the villagers contemplating the consequences of their hateful actions and praying for forgiveness.

French historian Philippe Erlanger in his book St. Bartholomew’s Night chronicles the bloody history of France during the turbulent century of the Protestant Reformation:

The world was changing at a bewildering pace. The old order was giving way. Men had once placed all their hopes in heaven: now they were beginning to look for happiness here on earth again.

 Erlanger describes the atmosphere of the Reformation and the Renaissance:

A society which for a great while had been preoccupied with local quarrels suddenly beheld the horizon torn wide open before it; and at the same time, it became conscious of curiosities, doubts, and wild irrational beliefs.

It seems to be a constant throughout history that with the coming of liberalization and modernization of people and civilization, comes a reactionary backlash equal in force. Erlanger writes:

Intolerance bred intolerance. Fanaticism increased in the same measure as the struggle for liberation of the minds of men.

Erlanger could very well have been describing the political and racial tribalism and its ensuing chaos that exists in present-day America, where the Proud Boys battle Antifa and Black Lives Matter in vicious street confrontations.

Ed note: this is part one of a two-part article. For part two, click here.

February 19, 2021

February 18, 2021

February 06, 2021

December 10, 2020

November 08, 2020

October 02, 2020

September 14, 2020

September 11, 2020

June 19, 2020

June 08, 2020

May 08, 2020

May 07, 2020

May 06, 2020

May 05, 2020

May 04, 2020

April 16, 2020

April 15, 2020

April 13, 2020

December 06, 2019

December 04, 2019

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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