Neoclassicism in France From 1550 to 1570

The 17th century in France, the age of the sun-king Louis XIV, witnessed the rise of the neoclassical ideal and, with it, France’s three greatest masters of the drama: Corneille, Moliere, and Racine. Following the decline of religious drama in the mid-16th century, the French theater had been slow to develop. At the turn of the century, however, France’s first professional playwright, Alexander Hardy, paved the way for neoclassicism in the public theaters, with tragicomedies and pastorals loosely based on classical models.

It was Pierre Corneille’s enormously popular tragedy Le Cid (1636) and the controversy it aroused that set the standards for the rest of the century’s dramatic development. Although today it appears thoroughly classical–a lofty drama of a national hero, his noble lover, and their struggle with conflicting claims of honor–to the newly formed Academie Francaise it violated certain Aristotelian precepts. Despite this adverse judgment, Corneille went on to create a string of tragedies–among them Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1642)–that are still mainstays of the French repertoire.

Jean Racine experienced his first success with the tragedy Andromaque in 1667. Three years later, when his Berenice proved more popular than Corneille’s dramatization of the same story, his success eclipsed that of the master. Whether his settings were Greek, as with Phedre (1677), Roman, as in Britannicus (1669), or Oriental, as in Bajazet (1672), his major tragedies all delve beneath the classical surface to probe the irrational, fierce, sometimes uncontrollable emotions occasioned by the onset of love.

Jean Baptiste Poquelin, who took the stage name of Moliere to spare his family embarrassment when he became the manager and leading actor of a struggling theatrical troupe, began his career by adapting Italian farces for the French stage, imitating the improvisational style and character types of the commedia dell’arte. When finally he branched out from farce to write his own comic satires, he both delighted and scandalized his Parisian audiences. His satire was by no means tender; Tartuffe (1664) attacked false religiosity, and the darkly philosophical Don Juan (1665) provoked a number of powerful enemies. Yet his comedies of character, such as The Misanthrope (1666), The Miser (1668), and The Imaginary Invalid (1673), together with the neoclassical comedy Amphitryon (1668), the comedy-ballet The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670), and his continuing output of farces established him as France’s leading comic playwright, a position that has gone unchallenged to this day.

France was beset by civil strife and wars until the 1620 (this is after the death of Shakespeare in 1616). Therefore, adoption of Italian standards and conventions was delayed.

Not many professional companies, theatre were rented and fees charged, and medieval mansions were still used. Improvised farces became popular (France became known for the farce), and many farce actors were famous (such as Gros-Guillaume – “Big William”).

In 1625, Cardinal Richelieu became Chief Minister of France. Under his leadership, religious squabbles were squelched, and with peace came more theatre developing.

In 1635, Richelieu established the French Academy – a prestigious literary academy to maintain purity of the French language and literature.

In 1645, Giacomo Torelli is hired to redesign the court theatres. After this, there were always at least two professional theatre companies in Paris, and often more.

With the decline of religious strife and the establishment of the Academy, educated men began to write plays.

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

Le Cid – 1636 – based on a Spanish play. – a tragedy.

Tries to be more Neoclassical – brought into question many elements of the Neoclassical ideal:

Richelieu got the French Academy to judge Le Cid: they praised it whenever it stuck to the neoclassical ideals, but condemned it when it didn’t.

The Academy’s conclusion: Le Cid was not a good neoclassical tragedy.

–The unities were observed; it took place in a single town.

–There was unity of action – no sub-plots.

–Unity of time was observed, but stretched verisimilitude: too much happened in 24 hours (the original story took several years).

–Decorum was violated: the heroine agrees to marry the man who killed her father. No respectable woman of her class would do that, they claimed. Thus decorum is strained.

Le Cid was a popular success, but the Academy’s ruling made the public aware of neoclassical ideals. Corneille eventually accepted the verdict and tried thereafter to adhere to the principles.

THUS: Neoclassicism took over France for 100 years after 1636 and even into the 1800’s.

Jean Racine (1639-1699)

The peak of French neoclassical tragedy.

Phaedra – 1677 – usually considered to be the best of French neoclassical tragedies. Based on Greek.

Molière  Real Name: Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673)

An actor – playwright.

Headed his own theatrical troupe by 1660.

Wrote most of the plays the troupe did.

Established his troupe at the court of Louis XIV (14th).

Influenced by commedia and by Roman comedies and French farces – he used these forms to ridicule social and moral pretensions.

Less witty that English restoration – more farcical and “slapstick-y”.

Clever verbal elegance and wit overshadowed by farcical business (like commedia’s lazzi) and visual gags.

People came expecting to see the bits.

School for Wives 1662

The Miser 1668

Tartuffe 1669,1673 – he was playing the lead in this play, had convulsions, and died a few hours later. Denied rites by the church – as an actor – but Louis XIV intervened and granted him a Christian burial. (*There are various disputed accounts of his death and burial.)

By 1680, the great period of French Playwriting was over; Corneille and Racine stopped writing, Molière’s company merged with the Marais Theatre to form the Comèdie Française, the first (and still existing) national theatre.

So conservatism wins out. Dominated France.

People tried to copy Molière, Corneille, and Racine.

Neoclassicism wins out IN STAGING AND PLAYWRITING.

Acting is highly oratorical / declamatory.

By 1750, French theatre is tradition-bound.

Actors probably supplied their own contemporary costumes.

Tho’ there were still some illegal theatres for non-mainstream theatre.

(to be continued)


About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
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