During his lengthy literary career, from 1653 to 1686, Philippe Quinault made significant contributions to both drama and opera. His career can be divided into two separate periods. Between 1653 and 1671, he wrote sixteen plays for important Parisian theatrical troupes. Like his eminent contemporary Pierre Corneille, Quinault was a skillful playwright in many dramatic genres. His sixteen plays include seven tragicomedies, five tragedies, three comedies, and La Comédie sans comédie (the comedy without comedy), which contains four separate plays-within-a-play. Quinault’s masterpieces are La Comédie sans comédie and his tragedy Astrate. His major dramatic achievements are his well-constructed plots and his elegant and profound treatments of the theme of love. Unfortunately, many critics since the seventeenth century have misinterpreted Quinault’s plays. In his Satires (1666) and Dialogue des héros de roman (c. 1665), the influential critic Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux described Quinault as a playwright incapable of portraying any passion stronger than sentimental love. Many critics have blindly accepted Boileau’s simplistic judgment and thus have failed to understand the complex treatment of love in Quinault’s plays.
In the early 1670’s, Quinault began a new career. On January 17, 1671, there was a lavish court performance of Psyché, a play that included musical intermezzos. Corneille, Quinault, Molière, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully collaborated on Psyché. Quinault wrote the words for three of the intermezzos, which Lully set to music. This performance of Psyché was very well received. After this success, Quinault began writing opera librettos for Lully. Lully and Quinault in fact created French opera and had an enormous influence on French opera composers and librettists for more than a century, producing eleven operas between 1673 and 1686.
Connon, Derek, and George Evans, eds. Essays on French Comic Drama from the 1640s to the 1780s. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Provides information on French drama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Quinault was active. Bibliography and index.
Norman, Buford. “Ancients and Moderns, Tragedy and Opera: The Quarrel over Alceste.” In French Musical Thought, 1600-1800, edited by Georgia Cowart. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1989. An examination of Quinault’s Alceste.
Norman, Buford, and Michele Vialet. “A Woman’s Fate in the Balance: The Persephone Myth in Quinault and Lully’s Proserpine.” In Images of Persephone: Feminist Reaching in Western Literature, edited by Elizabeth T. Hayes. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. A look at the Persephone myth in Quinault’s work.
Smith, Patrick J. The Tenth Muse: A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. This study of librettos touches on Quinault’s contribution.
Trott, David, and Nicole Boursier, eds. The Age of Theater in France. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1988. This group of papers examines the state of drama in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Quinault was writing.