French Drama Since the 1600's Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As the eighteenth century began, the influence of the great dramatic poets—Pierre Corneille , Jean Racine , and Molière —was dominant. Their plays continued as the standard fare in the repertory of the Comédie-Française, created by the fusion of Molière’s actors and the Hôtel de Bourgogne players in 1680. Yet whereas the seventeenth century had had a predilection for tragedy, the eighteenth century tended to favor comedy, and, with the exception of Voltaire, there are no tragic playwrights of note as tragedy evolved into drama, melodrama, historical, and thesis plays. At the turn of the century, the most prolific tragic dramatist, Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon while imitating his predecessors in his choice of subjects taken from Greek history and mythology, favored plots with violent deeds and fast-paced action in which passion leads to mayhem. Eschewing the reasoned analysis of passion that lay at the base of Racinian tragedy, Crébillon’s works harked back to the early days of the seventeenth century and baroque exaggeration in the style of Alexandre Hardy. Crébillon justified himself in a celebrated dictum in which he posited that since Corneille had taken Heaven and Racine, Earth, there was nothing left for him but Hell. In Idoménée (pr. 1705), a father kills his son; in Atrée et Thyeste (pr. 1707), a father drinks his son’s blood; and in Électre (pr. 1708), a son kills his mother. Crébillon’s contribution to the...

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Italian Theater and Marivaux

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although the Comédie-Française enjoyed a virtual monopoly on theater production throughout the eighteenth century, there was competition provided by two other theater groups: the Italians and the Opéra Comique The latter theater had been formed in 1713, when the musicians and players of the Théâtre de la Foire won the right to perform their musicals, thus creating a new kind of entertainment, attracting such playwrights as Lesage and later Charles-Simon Favart and Michel-Jean Sedaine, and offering an important market for dramatic writers. The Italians had shared the stage with Molière but had been expelled from France for indecency in 1697. The charge was the result of a play called La Fausse prude (pr. 1697), which was thought to ridicule Louis XIV’s wife, Mme de Maintenon. The Italians were allowed to return to France in 1716 and eventually took over the theater of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The musicians and authors of the Théâtre de la Foire and the Italians merged in 1762, to form one company, taking the name Opéra Comique officially in 1780. Three years later, the company moved into the Salle Favart, which—rebuilt twice after fires destroyed it in 1837 and 1887—continues to exist as a major theater for musical productions in Paris.

The return of the Italian theater and the emergence of a new playwright, Marivaux were a happy coincidence for the French stage. The author of one tragedy and thirty-four comedies, written for both...

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“Tearful” and Social Comedy

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A contemporary of Marivaux, Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, like others of his generation, fell under the influence of English sentimental novels, of which Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741; 2 volumes) was the most widely read. La Chaussée’s plays, among which there is an adaptation of Pamela (pr. 1743), present a series of virtuous heroines overwhelmed by misfortunes of every sort. The genre is called tearful comedy (comédie larmoyante)because it emphasized the pathetic and romantic at the expense of the comic. La Chaussée’s theater is anti-intellectual, vaunting middle-class morality even though the characters represent all social classes. The playwright proposed a study of morals, social questions, and the contemporary political scene, thus predating the bourgeois drama of Denis Diderot and playwrights of the nineteenth century: Alexandre Dumas, fils, Émile Augier, and François de Curel.

The literary output of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is modest. Two bourgeois dramas on the theme of money, an opera, and a sentimental drama titled La Mère coupable (pr. 1792; The Guilty Mother, 1993), written during the revolutionary period, could all have relegated the playwright to oblivion if it were not for his two comic masterworks of worldwide reputation: Le Barbier de Séville: Ou, La Précaution inutile (pr. 1775; The Barber of Seville: Or, The...

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Drama Before the Revolution

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

From the perspective of historical hindsight, it might surprise the modern reader to know that the great philosophe Voltaire mdash;novelist, short-story writer, historian, literary critic, poet, celebrated for his social, political, and philosophical work popularized in such witty prose satires as the famous Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759)—thought of himself, above all, as a man of the theater. Beginning with dipe (pr. 1718; Oedipus, 1761), Voltaire created numerous tragedies in the classical mold. Although emulating the tragic playwrights such as Racine, Voltaire was also influenced by William Shakespeare, whose plays he discovered during a trip to England. Indeed, Voltaire was responsible for introducing and popularizing the English playwright in France. Although refusing to be as violent as his English model, Voltaire nevertheless filled his plays with movement, action, and exaggerated passions tending toward the melodramatic.

As in other genres, Voltaire used his theater as a podium to express his ideas, turning his plays into thesis dramas. In this regard, he reflected the taste of his age, borrowing from La Chaussée and foreshadowing the nineteenth century’s use of the stage for preaching social reform. He was attracted by the geographically exotic with plays such as Alzire (pr. 1736; English translation, 1763; set in Peru), Mahomet (pr. 1742; Mahomet the Prophet, 1744; set in Mecca), and even L’Orphelin de la Chine (pr. 1755; The Orphan of China, 1756; set in China), or the historical La Mort de César (pr. 1733), giving an important place to spectacle in his productions. Generally acknowledged as his best play, Zaïre (pr. 1732; English translation, 1736) demonstrates how far removed Voltaire was from the classical litotes of Racine and Corneille.

Voltaire played a major role in ridding the French...

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From Revolution to Romanticism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, there were two principal theater companies in Paris, the Comédie-Française and the Opéra Comique, although there were other theaters on the exterior boulevards in which vaudevilles and melodramas were performed. The Comédie-Française had eliminated seats on the stage in 1759, but it was not until 1782 that seats were installed in the orchestra. The Comédie-Française, which occupied the present-day Théâtre de l’Odéon in 1782, moved into its new quarters adjacent to the Palais-Royal in 1790, where it continues to reside.

The revolution also brought the end of censorship on January 13, 1791, leading to an emancipation of actors and the formation of fifty new theaters in Paris. Indeed, the period beginning with the revolution and continuing throughout the nineteenth century was to be the era of great actors There was the celebrated Talma, who joined the Comédie-Française in 1787. Specializing in tragic roles, his first great part was in Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX (pr. 1789). A favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte, Talma helped introduce reforms on the French stage, urging natural acting and period costumes and scenery. Himself inspired by the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, he appeared in classical roles in bare arms and legs, shocking his audiences. The beautiful Mlle George (Marguerite-Joséphine Weimer) played tragedy at the Comédie-Français but also created principal female roles in the Romantic dramas of Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alexandre Dumas, père. Mlle Mars (Anne-Françoise-Hippoyte Boutet) attained renown...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Romantic Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the short-lived history of French Romantic drama, the honor of having been the first Romantic play belonged to Dumas, père’s Henri III et sa cour (pr. 1829; Catherine of Cleves, 1831; also known as Henry III and His Court, 1904), although the theoretical basis was truly contained in the preface to Victor Hugo’s Cromwell (pr. 1827; English translation, 1896), which had appeared two years earlier. Hugo rsquo;s dramatic theory called for a mixture of genres to create a combination of sublime and grotesque, because, he stated, everything in nature should be in art. Like Népomucène Lemercier before him, Hugo wanted to do away with the unities of time and place; unity of action, he...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

The Triumph of Realism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Eugène Scribe , a prolific writer of nearly four hundred plays for the Théâtre Madame and the Comédie-Française, attempted nearly every dramatic form except the five-act drama in verse. Deemphasizing character development and analysis, Scribe built a reputation based on clever plot construction known as the well-made play , and his stated goal was success as measured by box-office receipts. One of his most popular historical plays, La Verre d’eau: Ou, Les effets et les causes (pr. 1840; The Glass of Water, 1850) is based on the idea that small events can cause great ones. A misunderstanding between two women concerning a glass of water spilled on Queen Anne’s dress leads to the dismissal of the duke of...

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The Rise of Naturalism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Realist theater—characterized by the well-devised dramatic plot, with its emphasis on psychological truth and human pathos—tended to be sentimental and moralistic and to preach social reform. Like other genres of the period, realist theater evolved toward naturalism which aimed at overturning theatrical convention. Authors of naturalist theater, while demanding natural acting and realistic sets, tended to produce one-dimensional characters and gave little attention to psychological analysis. As a genre, it professed to be unsentimental and, consequently, antibourgeois, showing real life, even at its seamiest, in all its cruelty and degradation. The Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules, both better known as novelists, presented...

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François de Curel, Paul Hervieu, and Eugène Brieux

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

An anecdote tells that Curel sent three plays under three different names to Antoine at the Théâtre Libre in the hope of getting them produced. Antoine agreed to stage two of the three. Thus L’Envers d’une sainte (A False Saint, 1916), a psychological study of sanctity, opened in 1892. In this play, a woman, rather than commit murder, confines herself to a convent, returning only after the death of the man whose wife she contrived to kill. L’Invitée produced in 1893, addresses the problem of broken families when a long-divorced mother returns to her daughters, who do not know her. She is invited to come back by the girl’s father, who wants to secure good marriages for them.

Curel is...

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Countercurrents and Comic Relief

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The naturalist theater of ideas did not have a monopoly on theatrical productions in the late nineteenth century. In striking contrast, there was the self-styled theater of love (Théâtre d’Amour) of Georges de Porto-Riche and the psychological drama of Henry Bataille,which examined the conflicts encountered by love. Porto-Riche’s theater of love was a series of eight plays that chronicled the perpetual gallantry of men and the deep sensitivity of women. La Chance de Françoise (pr. 1888; Françoise’s Luck, 1915) declared that even though the heroine was lucky to keep her husband despite his desire to be unfaithful, love still would not bring happiness. Amoureuse (pr. 1891; A Loving Wife,...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Satire, Romantic Revival, and Comedy

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Alfred Jarry roduced satiric farces with exaggerated grotesque characters such as the unforgettable Ubu in Ubu roi (pr. 1896; English translation, 1951), performed at Lugné-Poë’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. In the series of Ubu plays (Ubu enchaîné, pr. 1937; Ubu Enchained, 1953; and Ubu cocu, wr. 1888; Ubu Cuckolded, 1953) Jarry’s satire is vicious. Through the Ubu experience, which began as a schoolboy farce, Jarry developed a theory that, in general, all dramatic action should revolve around a single character. His sets were reduced to a minimum, simple accessories to the action, and his actors wore masks. Jarry’s work had an important influence on Antonin Artaud, who founded...

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Before World War II

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

French drama in the twentieth century is in large measure the story of theater directors who, like their predecessors Antoine and Lugné-Poë, set trends and discovered new authors. Jacques Copeau founded the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier , which he administered from 1913 until 1924. Symbolic of Copeau’s desire for change, his theater was on the Left Bank in Paris, as opposed to the other theaters of the time. Training other important directors such as Charles Dullin and Louis Jouvet, e sought eclecticism in the repertory: the classics, foreign authors, and unknown and unpublished playwrights. His principles were basic: sincerity, force, depth, and an ensemble company with no stars. Where Antoine believed in precisely realistic...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Theater of Cruelty and Paul Claudel

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Through his theories published in Le Théâtre et son double (1938; The Theatre and Its Double, 1958), Antonin Artaud brought to the stage his notion of a total theater that appealed to the whole organism through the senses. His concept of the Theater of Cruelty underlined the arduous task of spectator and actor, the former coming to the performance to participate in the dramatic ritual. Artaud wanted to place the audience in the middle of the theater, with the action taking place all around, and, to this end, he proposed movable sets. Jean-Louis Barrault was influenced both by Artaud and by Dullin, and one sees this most clearly in Barrault’s collaboration with Paul Claudel. Like Artaud, Claudel fell under the...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Jean Cocteau and Jean Giraudoux

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jean Cocteau as either a virtuoso genius or a dilettante, depending on one’s point of view. Though often accused of frivolity, Cocteau succeeded in everything he touched: novels, poetry, film, and theater. His dramatic work contains elements drawn from Surrealism and from classical Greek theater: Orphée (pr. 1926; Orpheus, 1933), Antigone (pr. 1922; English translation, 1961), and La Machine infernale (pr. 1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936), an adaptation of the Oedipus legend. Cocteau’s surrealism lies in the magical powers he bestows on objects: mirrors, horses, talking statues, and hermetic symbols repeated in both his plays and films. Like the Surrealists, too, he insists on the...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Postwar Forms and Trends

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The importance of theater directors continued after World War II. Jean-Louis Barrault, following his celebrated production of Claudel’s The Satin Slipper during the Occupation, went on to found his own company and eventually to assume the directorship of a state-subsidized theater. Another director to make his mark was Jean Vilar, who in 1951 took over as head of the Théâtre National Populaire which had languished since its creation in 1920. When Vilar came to the large (3,500-seat) theater in the Palais de Chaillot, he did what Copeau had done at the Vieux Colombier: He removed the proscenium arch, footlights, and front curtain and had a large apron added to the stage. The effect was to eliminate any separation...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Fiscal Crisis and Decentralization

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1960’s saw the Théâtre National Populaire pass through a number of financial difficulties. Early in the 1970’s, Roger Planchon was hired as its new director, and the production center was moved to Villeurbanne, in the Paris suburbs. At the same time, the theater at the Palais de Chaillot came under the directorship of Jack Lang,former director of the Festival International de Nancy. Yet Lang’s expensive remodeling of the theater building resulted in his termination from the position in 1974. In 1981, he became minister of culture at the beginning of the first Mitterrand presidency. He succeeded in doubling the budget for French cultural expenses in 1982 and acted as a flamboyant advocate of the French arts....

(The entire section is 536 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bradby, David. Modern French Drama, 1940-1990. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Excellent, comprehensive study and detailed discussion of major themes, major playwrights, and their work. Bibliography, historical table of play productions, index.

Daniels, Barry V., ed. Revolution in the Theatre: French Romantic Theories of Drama. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983. Collection of perceptive essays probing the shape of drama in French Romantic theater. Index.

Gaensbauer, Deborah B. The French Theater of the Absurd. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1991. Useful survey of major...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Jean Anouilh

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Postwar French drama, despite important trends in philosophical theater, anti-theater (sometimes called Theater of the Absurd), and political and experimental drama also held to the old habits and pleasures of bourgeois theater best represented by Jean Anouilh whose career spanned three decades from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Undeniably the French playwright with the widest international appeal since World War II, Anouilh saw his work translated into many languages, and English versions have played with great success in the United States.

Anouilh’s Le Bal des voleurs (wr. 1932; Thieves’ Carnival, 1952) was performed in New York in 1954, and Le Voyageur sans bagage (pr. 1937;...

(The entire section is 406 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jean-Paul Sartre came from the novel to the theater in a series of brilliant plays from 1943 to 1959. He saw in drama an effective means of communicating his ideas, giving human form to his philosophy. At the base of Sartre’s notions are the act (which makes thought concrete), good faith (which makes the act conform to the thought from which it emanates), and responsibility (which demands that the author of an act acknowledge responsibility for it). He is the major French exponent of existential hilosophy.

Inspired by his experience in a German concentration camp, Sartre wrote Les Mouches (pr. 1943; The Flies, 1946), a retelling of the Electra myth with ironic twists. His theater is based on the...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Theater of the Absurd

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In twelve plays performed between 1950 and 1966, Romanian-born Ionesco created a “shock” theater, not unlike Samuel Beckett’s, meant to disorient the traditional theatergoer.The central theme of most of Ionesco’s early works is the fundamentally insufficient weight of language and its inability to communicate meaning. Ionesco claims, for example, that he was inspired to create the play La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956) by his attempts to learn English through the audiolingual method. During this experience, he became aware of the linguistic dominance of the cliché and the nonsensical pattern talk that make up the bulk of everyday conversation. The illogical responses to stimuli in...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)

Director’s Theater and Literary Plays

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the 1970’s, the French theater scene was very lively. There was a continuing effort toward decentralization and a promotion of theatrical companies in regional centers. Theater festivals such as the one in Avignon, founded by Vilar, contributed to broadening the audience base. French television began to mount special productions of the classics, even telecasting a British series of Shakespeare plays. Television also started to transmit live performances of boulevard comedies directly from the theaters in which they were being performed. Yet if there was one characteristic above all others that described the state of French theater in the 1970’s, it was the dearth of new “literary” playwrights and the increasingly...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Théâtre du Soleil

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The government’s policy of decentralization forced the development of new theater companies, among which one of the most successful in the 1970’s and 1980’s was Ariane Mnouchkine ’s Théâtre du Soleil(literally, “theater of the sun”). Mnouchkine exemplifies, like Chéreau, the power of the director in contemporary French drama. Ironically, Mnouchkine prides herself on a nonauthoritarian, collectivist approach, and even participated in menial chores at the Théâtre du Soleil, collecting tickets and sweeping the stage. However, this cannot distract from the fact that the artistic identity of her theater is of her own making, and her talent continued to shape the company’s successful productions of the 1990’s and...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Early Twenty-first Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, French drama flourished again, invigorated by new plays of high caliber. A new generation of playwrights had come into its own. For example, Michel Deutsch and Jean-Paul Wenzel,who had formed the Théâtre du Quotidien (theater of the everyday) company in 1975 as a countermovement to the then all-powerful director’s theater, remained dedicated to the promotion of new plays. Deutsch gained fame with his fragmentary, nonlinear play Convoi (pr. 1980; convoy), which explored characters trapped in the conventions of everyday speech. His play Skinner (pr. 2002) is set as night entombs a typical French town. While sirens wail off stage, the characters are abandoned in a...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Private Theater and Multicultural France

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Eric-Emmanuel Schmittis one of the few contemporary playwrights who has written for the commercial, private theaters of Paris. Surviving without direct government subsidies, unlike the public theaters that, in the early twenty-first century, still enjoy generous state funding, the private theaters must rely on box-office receipts and depend on popular plays. The only state support comes through the fonds du soutien (support funds), which help, for example, with the production of the first three plays of a new author. Yet the productions of private theaters still draw roughly half of France’s annual theater audience.

Schmitt’s incredibly successful Variations énigmatiques (pr. 1996; Enigma...

(The entire section is 409 words.)