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From Homer to Lescarbot: The Iliad’s Influence on the First North American Drama

Andrew E. Porter

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Le Théâtre de Neptune is the earliest surviving theatrical piece written anywhere in North America, north of Mexico (Jones). Significantly, it owes its introduction and central theme to Iliad 15 and Homer’s narrative of the tripartite division of the cosmos. This paper explores why the play’s author, Marc Lescarbot, a Parisian lawyer and temporary immigrant, chose this Homeric story, when he wrote his piece in 1606. Lescarbot’s play is little known and has been little studied, except in general terms regarding its relationship to the types of performances, such as masques, presented to European kings during “Royal Receptions” (McGowan, Mulryne). To date, no consideration of its debt to Homer has been considered. Yet, Lescarbot employs his Old World experience and knowledge of Greek epic to help create and frame a festive moment in the New World, a first that merits our attention. There is, however, more to Lescarbot’s choice of textual exemplar than form and festivity, when we consider both Lescarbot’s New World context and Iliad 15 in closer detail. Further, Lescarbot’s knowledge of Homeric epic is seen, not only in what he includes within his drama, but also in what he intentionally leaves out. Lescarbot models his own poetic lines directly on Iliad 15:187-193, where Neptune gives in to Zeus’ wishes as delivered by Iris, and cosmic order is preserved in the face of the opposite probability, another cosmic war. Yet, Zeus’s demands and the possibility of strife lay just a few verses beyond those that form a model for Lescarbot’s performed lines. The excluded Iliadic framing verses (Iliad 15.184-186, 202-203), I argue, are equally in Lescarbot’s mind as he seeks to keep the French habitants in the colony focused on his drama. Lescarbot is writing amid the cares and anxieties of life in a small colony, and he is aware of the needs of the moment. There exists at Port Royal a tension that needs resolution. As Neptune conforms in Iliad 15 to Zeus’ will, so Lescarbot himself, in the guise of Neptune, and the men dressed as Tritons and natives, conform to the greater project which their expedition and its leader represent. In this reading of Lescarbot’s decision to produce a drama based upon an epic model, the New World can only be faced with the structure and order found in the Old. Anything else will lead to the sort of conflict that Iris warned about in the Iliad.

Session/Panel Title

Reception and National Traditions

Session/Paper Number

13.3

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