French Drama in the Age of Louis XIV Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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."