French Drama in the Age of Louis XIV
French Drama in the Age of Louis XIV
The reign of Louis XIV in France from 1643 to 1715 marked a period that is often described as the "Golden Age" of French drama. Producing such dramatists as Jean Racine, Pierre and Thomas Corneille, and Molière, the theater of the period is noted for classicism, social commentary, and a growing audience outside the royal court. Tragedy and comedy, the most prominent dramatic genres of the seventeenth century, were governed by the rules of classicism, which emphasized reason over emotion, and universal, rather than personal, experience. As proponents of classicism, French theorists of the time also advocated that dramatists provide a moral lesson, avoid mixing tragic and comic aspects, and maintain dramatic unity of action, time, and place in their works. Tragicomedy, a third genre, combined components of comedy and tragedy. Although popular during the early years of the century, the genre's failure to conform to the strict guidelines of classicism contributed to its increasing disfavor. Although governed by the rules of classicism, tragedy and comedy also became vehicles for addressing social and political tensions. The most prominent of such issues was the relationship between the monarchy, the nobility, and an emerging middle class, composed primarily of merchants, traders, and non-agrarian craftsmen, which was growing in wealth and size as a result of trade and industry development. The efforts of members of this class to improve their status challenged the traditional hierarchy of aristocrats and peasants which had existed prior to Louis XIV's reign. Racine's tragedies, such as Britannicus (1669), encourage intellectual and emotional resistance to the monarchy among members of the middle class. In contrast, Corneille's tragedies, such as Horace (1640), emphasize the acceptance of the social, economic, and political conditions of monarchal rule. Molière's comedies also address the social behavior and attitudes of the newly emerging middle class. In L'Ecole des Femmes (1662), for example, Molière deals with the education of women, criticizing men who believed that marital security could be achieved by raising female children in an environment devoid of temptation. Seventeenth-century theater audiences expanded to include the middle class as well as the aristocracy. Despite the King's own fluctuating interest in the theater, dramas of all genres were presented to Louis and his courtiers at the French court. Additionally, nobles viewed performances alongside members of the middle class at local theaters. Enthusiasm for the theater was barely dampened by the Roman Catholic Church's indictments against actors, playwrights, and spectators. The Church's harshest criticisms involved actors and playwrights of comedy, on the basis that the genre served no moral purpose; rather, it offered lessons in the vices it purported to denounce. Proponents of comedy responded that it served as a means of moral instruction by displaying as the object of ridicule characters who embodied vice. The success of comedies such as Molière's Le Misanthrope (1666), Les Chinois (1692) by Jean Regnard and Charles Dufresny, and Florent Dancourt's Les Bourgeoises de qualité (1700), and tragedies such as Horace, Thomas Corneille's Timocrate (1656), and Britannicus deflated the public's interest in tragicomedy. Tragicomedy, commonly understood as tragedy with a happy ending, involved complicated plots filled with action and aristocratic characters. The genre began to dwindle in popularity from the mid-1600s to the end of the seventeenth century, with audiences showing less interest in the contrivances and exaggerations often typical of the genre. Theorists also displayed increasingly vehement disapproval of a genre which was not recognized by Aristotle or Horace (the main sources of the rules of classicism). As public and critical disfavor grew, some dramatists reclassified their tragicomedies as either tragedies or comedies. Pierre Corneille, for example, originally labeled Le Cid (1637) as tragicomedy, but the 1648 edition was published as tragedy. While seventeenth-century critics, most notably Abbé d'Aubignac, scrutinized dramatic performances primarily to gauge dramatists' adherence to classic ideals, later scholars have examined the same works with a view to understanding such issues as politics and society in the age of Louis XIV. Many critics agree that the age witnessed the advancement of drama to a new plateau in which it played an increasingly important role in society. Geoffrey Brereton claims that tragedy is recognized "as one of the outstanding achievements of [Louis XIV's] reign," and John Lough has argued that "drama saw its most brilliant period at the French court in the seventeenth century."
Bouscal, Guérin de
Le Gouvernement de Sanche Pansa (comedy) 1642
Clotilde (tragedy) 1659
Campistron, Jean Galbert de
Andronic (tragedy) 1685
Le Cid (tragicomedy) 1637
Horace (tragedy) 1640
Don Sanche d'Aragon (tragicomedy) 1650
Timocrate (tragedy) 1656
Le Comte d'Essex (tragedy) 1678
Les Bourgeoises de qualité (comedy) 1700
Du Ryer, Pierre
Scevole (tragicomedy) 1647
Tucaret (comedy) 1709
L'Ecole des Femmes (comedy) 1662
Le Tartuffe (comedy) 1664
Le Misanthrope (comedy) 1666
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (comedy) 1670
* Psyché (comedy) 1671
Andromaque (tragedy) 1667
Britannicus (tragedy) 1669
Regnard, Jean François
†Les Chinois (comedy) 1692
Rotrou, Jean de
Venceslas (tragicomedy) 1648
*In collaboration with Thomas Corneille and Philippe Quinault.
†In collaboration with Charles Rivière Dufresny.
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SOURCE: "The Introduction of a Regular Stage Censorship," in The Stage Controversy from Corneille to Rousseau, Publications of the Institute of French Studies, Inc., 1933, pp. 130–55.
[In the excerpt that follows, Barras describes the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to seventeenth-century theatre.]
Led by [Jacques-Bénigne] Bossuet the Church presented, officially at least, a united front against plays [during the seventeenth century]. In the Jubilee of 1694 the condemnation of the pariah comedians was solemnly confirmed. On December 9, 1695, Guy de Sève de Rochechouart, Bishop of Arras, in accordance with the explicit policy of the Church, issued a severe Mandement, proscribing the stage in general with all its satellites—actors, playwrights and spectators. The French clergy soon became so intolerant that in 1696 a number of Parisian actors decided to carry an appeal to Rome. They accused the clergy specifically of refusing to grant them the sacraments. But the Papal authorities evidently considered their quarrel as of not enough importance to risk a conflict of opinion with French churchmen. The actors were notified that they should bring their case to the Archbishop of Paris, since the Papal court did not consider it weighty enough for a special decision. As was to be expected, the Archbishop fully upheld the action of the French clergy...
(The entire section is 30282 words.)
SOURCE: "The People in Seventeenth Century French Tragedy," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LII, No. 11, November, 1937, pp 475–81.
[In the essay that follows, Baudin discusses the depiction of popular sentiment in seventeenth century French tragedy in relation to the changing political atmosphere of the time.]
[Cardinal] Richelieu and Louis XIV established an order in which the people had no voice; accordingly, in the theater, public opinion, a counterpart to tyranny, was no more than a relic of another age that had become a cliché. Like obsolete tyranny, emancipation may tempt the skill of a du Ryer or a Corneille, but does not engage his convictions. Such, I believe, is the consensus of modern criticism. With due regard to the history of popular assertiveness, the temper of the government, and the persuasion of the dramatists, I submit that the tragedy of the XVIIth century embodies a new notion of the people.
Its appraisal of the people's significance is not uniform with all authors, or consistent in every play. It contains, for example, "Il faut pour être aimé régner trop mollement," "pour quiconque arrive au (trône) l'opinion publique est toujours une preuve," a speech praising Rome's sense of gratitude and deriding Roman popularity … with words and actions to justify all verdicts. Varied as they are, and confounding usurpers and...
(The entire section is 17575 words.)
Eleanor F. Jourdain
SOURCE: "Comedy," in Dramatic Theory and Practice in France: 1690–1808, 1921. Reprint by Benjamin Blom, 1968, pp. 6–43.
[In the following excerpt, Jourdain discusses the development of comedy by Molière's successors.]
It would have been difficult for any successors of Molière to avoid the dangerous homage of imitation of his methods. Molière had succeeded in making the theatre national in France, and in popularising the painting of manners in the middle classes of society. Now the whole tendency of the drama in the eighteenth century was to throw more light on the middle classes, and it is important to notice that from the days of Corneille onwards they had become regular playgoers in Paris. The early efforts of eighteenth-century comedy were therefore on Molière's lines, though at first of the nature of caricature of his methods. When writers of comedy began to reflect their own time more exactly, the relation with the spirit of Molière became greater, while the direct imitation of the master was slighter. Then appeared the more original dramatists of the comic stage of the eighteenth century, Marivaux and Beaumarchais; and definite homage was paid to Molière by writers of the new genre, the drame sérieux, who did not yield to the writers for the comic stage in their appreciation of Molière's general aim.
(The entire section is 20293 words.)
Henry Carrington Lancaster
SOURCE: "Subsequent History of the Tragi-Comedy," in The French Tragi-Comedy: Its Origin and Development from 1552 to 1628, 1907. Reprinted by Gordian Press, Inc., 1966, pp. 148–54.
[In the following excerpt, Lancaster explains the decline of French tragicomedy in the late seventeenth century.]
Toward 1650, … the number of tragi-comedies that appeared each year was decreasing and by 1660 had become very small, if one may judge by those of which the names have been preserved. With the Psyché of Corneille, Molière, and Quinault (1671) and the Parfaits Amis of Chappuzeau (1672) the genre practically ceases to exist, although sporadic examples of the use of its name recur during the following centuries. The causes of this decay are not far to seek.
In the first place the popular taste had reacted from the spirit of the early seventeenth century, which had found expression in the romanesque tragi-comedy, as well as in the précieux Hôtel de Rambouillet and in the romances of Honoré d'Urfé and Madeleine de Scudéry. The Parisian public, grown weary of the multiplicity of incident and exaggerated portrayal of character, found in the tragi-comedy, turned from that genre to the truer representations of life that they found on the classical stage. It is after the appearance of Horace and...
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Baudin, Maurice. The Profession of King in Seventeenth Century French Drama. The Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages, vol. XXXVIII. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1941, 111 p.
Provides a detailed analysis of several topics related to the role of the king in seventeenth-century French drama, including the king as conqueror, and the role of the people in the drama of this time period.
Fuller, Edmund. "The Theatre of France," in A Pageant of the Theatre, pp. 137–160. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1965.
Discusses the work of several seventeenth-century French dramatists including Jean Racine and Molière.
Howarth, William D.; McFarlane, Ian; and McGowan, Margaret, eds. Form and Meaning: Aesthetic Coherence in Seventeenth-Century French Drama. Amersham, England: Avebury Publishing Co., 1982, 203 p.
Includes fifteen essays, each dealing with the topic of aesthetic coherence, with some essays focusing on individual dramatists or plays of the time period.
Lancaster, Henry Carrington. The Period of Corneille: 1635–1651. A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century, Part II, vols. I and II, 1932, 804 p.
Exhaustive study of tragedy,...
(The entire section is 287 words.)