Philippe Quinault made significant contributions to the history of French theater and opera. His contemporaries recognized both the brilliance of Lully’s music and the high literary quality of Quinault’s librettos. Later commentators, including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot, who disliked Lully’s music, still expressed great admiration for Quinault’s librettos. During his eighteen-year career as a stage playwright, Quinault demonstrated his artistry in three separate dramatic genres: tragicomedy, comedy, and tragedy. Though the theme of love dominates Quinault’s sixteen plays and eleven operas, Quinault did portray love in several different modes. Since the seventeenth century, Quinault has been famous for his descriptions of altruistic and sentimental lovers, but he also described love in a comic vein and as a destructive passion. Quinault was a gifted playwright and librettist whose works merit the serious attention of theater historians.
Although Quinault wrote twenty-seven full-length works, his masterpieces are clearly the plays La Comédie sans comédie and Astrate and his libretto Alceste. Fortunately, modern editions exist for these three masterpieces.
La Comédie sans comédie
La Comédie sans comédie is a fascinating series of four one-act plays-within-a-play. Quinault wrote La Comédie sans comédie for the Parisian Theater of the Marais, and members of this troupe are themselves the major characters in this play, whose unifying theme is theatrical illusion. In the opening act, the characters explain that the main obstacle to their happiness is a middle-class merchant named La Fleur, himself a member of their troupe. La Fleur disdains actors and actresses and does not want his son and daughter, also members of this troupe, to marry people engaged in such a disreputable profession. The other members of the troupe conclude that it is in their own self-interest to convince La Fleur of the excellence of their profession. For the edification of La Fleur and other spectators in the Theater of the Marais, they perform four one-act plays.
Each play-within-a-play illustrates a different contemporary dramatic genre. Act 2 is a pastoral play, act 3 is a farce, act 4 is a tragedy, and act 5 is a tragicomedy that utilizes elaborate stage machinery. Each dramatic genre would normally require three or five acts for a complete play, but the twenty-year-old Quinault was already such a skillful playwright that in each one-act play, he expressed the essential elements of a specific dramatic genre. Both the pastoral play and the farce are very witty. His pastoral play is in fact an elegant parody of traditional pastoral comedies. While act 2 stresses the artificiality of pastoral drama, act 3, the farce entitled “The Glass Doctor,” deals with a very strange type of madness. The doctor is convinced that he is made of glass; if others touch him, he may break into pieces. This disturbed doctor also speaks French in a ludicrous and highly Latinate style.
The literary source of acts 4 and 5 is the epic Gerusalemme conquistata (1593; Jerusalem Conquered, 1907), written by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Act 4 describes the fatal love between the Christian prince Tancrède and the pagan warrior Clorinde. Despite their religious differences, the crusader and the infidel love each other deeply. During a battle, however, Clorinde’s helmet and armor hide her true identity from Tancrède, who kills her. After her death on the stage, Tancrède pronounces a moving monologue and then commits suicide. The costume worn by the actress playing Clorinde hid her identity and sex and thus created a theatrical illusion. This one-act tragedy also establishes a close link between love and violence.
Act 5 further develops the intimate connection among love, violence, and fate. The main characters in this tragicomedy with machines, set on the enchanted island of Armide, are the pagan magician Armide and the Christian knight Renaud. During the Crusades, Renaud killed many enemies, including several of Armide’s cousins, yet after having seen a portrait of Armide, Renaud fell madly in love with her. When he reaches her enchanted island, Armide plans to kill him. The god of Love, however, intervenes and shoots an arrow into her heart. All ends well for the two lovers in this tragicomedy, which illustrates the adage omnia vincit amor (“love conquers all”). Quinault makes good use of extensive stage machinery—Armide and the god of Love are frequently suspended in the air—and using such elaborate devices was an essential element in the eleven operas on which he collaborated with Lully. La Comédie sans comédie illustrates the fluency and the range of a young playwright who would later write very successful comedies, tragicomedies, tragedies, and opera librettos.
Astrate is Quinault’s masterpiece. Like the one-act tragedy “Tancrède” in La Comédie sans comédie, Astrate...
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