Sonnez Les Matines by J.C. Scharl. Menomonee Falls: Wiseblood Books, 2023. 119 pp. Paperback. $12.
Serenely indifferent to the diktats of our literary commissars, Jane Clark Scharl has written a delightful play—in verse!—set in Paris in the late 1520s and centering on François Rabelais (born between 1483 and 1494), Ignatius of Loyola (born 1491), and John Calvin (born 1509), here referred to as “Jean Cauvin.” Sonnez Les Matines (“Ring the Matins”) covers the last few hours of Mardi Gras before Ash Wednesday begins, the transition from Carnival to Lent. “Too often,” Scharl writes in her preface,
we think of these things—body and soul, feast and fast, sin and grace, death and life—as juxtaposed, existing at cross-purposes, undoing and undermining, but that is all wrong. The Church says so in her Easter Exultet, singing “O felix culpa!”— François Rabelais (between 1483-1494), “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
So, after all, this play is really just a little bridge, connecting things that don’t seem to be connected at all, and I pray it will carry you over some small abyss to good ground.
I don’t want to dwell too long on the preface, but a couple of points here are essential. First, there is an interesting tension between the manner of Scharl’s direct address at the outset and the content of the preface (for instance, “but that is all wrong,” with reference to the way “we” believers think of the relation between sin and grace, say, or death and life: an outrageous declaration, if taken literally, perhaps best understood as a deliberate provocation). We should pay attention: Scharl is at once unself-consciously pastoral in her intentions and at the same time much trickier than some of her readers may suppose.
Sonnez Les Matines follows its three characters over the course of the night as they banter and argue. The only significant “action” in the play is the discovery of the body of a young woman who has been killed, her body discarded like “a heap of garbage.” Could one of the three know more than he is saying? Is the knife discarded near the body the one that Ignatius had earlier in the evening? (He lost it somehow, he says.) Arguments and accusations about the woman’s murder intertwine with the theological debates the three men carry on from the outset.
Scharl makes no pretense of impartiality. She favors the playful, self-consciously outrageous Rabelais. Ignatius is clearly the most reliable of the three. Jean is belligerent and largely humorless, both very angry and very young. We should not fault the playwright on this score. Her characters are historical figures, it’s true, but she appropriates them for her purposes, quite distinct from the biographer’s imperatives.
The set-up of Scharl’s play recalls Tom Stoppard’s superb Travesties, which took off from an odd historical datum: James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara (of Dada fame) were all in Zurich during World War I. (“So what?” you ask. “Read Travesties,” I answer.) Rabelais, Ignatius, and Calvin were all studying in Paris at some point in the 1520s, though whether there’s any evidence that they were there at the same time I don’t know.
Both Sonnez Les Matines and Travesties exemplify the uncanny richness of coincidence, and if you are as taken by Scharl’s play as I was, you should by all means track down a copy of George W. Rutler’s delicious 2006 book, Coincidentally. “Any consideration of coincidence requires a sense of humor,” as Rutler observes, and I hope that my friends who are Calvinists will keep that in mind if a copy of Sonnez Les Matins should make its way into their hands. But if it would be a mistake to suppose that Scharl’s Jean is intended to be an accurate representation of the historical John Calvin, it would be equally foolish to suppose that her affectionately rendered hero = the historical Rabelais. The actual Rabelais was far more rhetorically “excessive” than Scharl’s character (and never mind the Rabelais boom provoked in literary critical circles several decades ago by a partial understanding of Mikhail Bakhtin’s transmission of the profligate Frenchman).
Forgive me for underlining this point. Rabelais has many eloquent advocates (as is only fitting); see for example Rosalie L. Colie’s fantastically learned Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox, first published by Princeton University Press in 1966 and reissued a few years ago in Princeton’s Legacy Library. But reading Colie’s admiring exposition is quite different from reading Gargantua and Pantagruel itself, just as Rabelais’ witty dialogue in Sonnez Les Matines is written for readers with modern sensibilities. To put it bluntly, the real Rabelais went on and on and on and on. He was deliberately excessive, to a degree that his modern expositors utterly fail to convey even as they are praising him. The effect on at least some readers of his time was liberatory, to a degree we can barely imagine; we should certainly not judge him by our own standards. But there is something paradoxical, you might say, about holding him up as a model for own time, a remedy for what ails us.
I haven’t yet had an opportunity to meet Jane Clark Scharl in person, but we have corresponded briefly. I was delighted when she said that, just around the time Sonnez Les Matines was published, she realized that she wanted to think of it as the first play in a trilogy. “I am interested in the lost medieval folk culture of carnival/feasting/inversion (of which Gargantua and Pantagruel is the highest expression),” she wrote:
I think we are all longing for folk culture today. Local cults, festivals, songs and dances; these are all the things that allow us to season the tragedy of life with comedy. Our lives are all ‘problem plays,’ if you will, but today we are too aware of the tragic element. We have no comic culture. I have many theories about why, but the biggest reason I sense is this: We have overturned all our structures, and therefore we have crowned upheaval as a new structure. There is little comedy in constant upheaval. Comedy is the unexpected, the inverted, the startling, the previously unforeseen connection.
The second part of the trilogy will be an episodic pilgrimage play set on Epiphany, and the last will be a farce of a high romance, each seeking structures to pit against chaos.
I can’t wait to read–and perhaps even see–the rest of the trilogy.
John Wilson was editor of Books & Culture and editor at large for Christianity Today magazine. He received a B.A. from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, in 1970 and an M.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1975. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, First Things, National Review, and other publications. He and his wife, Wendy, are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church in Wheaton; they have four children.