French Neoclassical Theatre - Textor to Racine to Moliere
French Neoclassical theatre had its origins in the late 15th century and continued through until the mid sixteenth century. It grew out of a renewed interest in France in Latin and Ancient Greek and the plays of these ancient cultures. This theatre was based on the Ancient Greek ‘unities’ of time, place and action which was joined to notions of verisimilitude, decorum and a new French dramaturgy which saw the writing of pieces in verse and sometimes in everyday French language. Tragedies of this period modeled themselves particularly on Ancient Greek plays and the principles of ‘unities’ while Comedies embraced farce and the stylistic elements of the Commedia dell Arte.
This form of theatre can be seen to start with Alexandre Hardy, who wrote over 500 plays (only 34 survive). Hardy's plays were mostly pastoral comedies (a form developed in Italy in the 1400's) and they grew out of a general interest and love of the satyr plays of antiquity. The central themes were normally love and the triumph of love and although these plays first started to become popular around 1470, they did not reach their peak until the 16th century. Many of these plays follow a five-act structure, used poetic dialogue, ghosts, messengers, and a chorus ignoring verisimilitude and decorum. Violent scenes and acts were often depicted on stage in the middle of comic plays.
More classic conventions and forms started to gather impetus when Cathérine de Médicis married into the French royal family bringing with her a love for the arts and the adoption of Italian theatre conventions and styles into French theatre. Later, Louis XIV, who came to the throne in 1643 and lived in luxury at Versailles, was a strong supporter of the arts and staged court productions, masque and themed parties and balls. This royal patronage saw the development of popular performing arts in the seventeenth century in France including theatre, ballet, baroque opéra, baroque music. Versailles became the centre of these cultural events as overseen by Louis' First Minister Cardinal Richelieu who even started l’Académie Française in 1636. For theatre and the Performing Arts, Richelieu and l’Académie Française saw the classical Greek unity of time, action, and place, along with verisimilitude and decorum as central to performances and writing.
The origin of the French Neoclassical Theatre start in France in the early 1500’s with playwrights such as Ravius Textor who penned a number of Latin Dialogi, which were essentially florid dramatic monologue verses modelled on Ovid and Virgil. These were performed by students at the university from 1501 until 1524. Textor's writings are essentially literary and poetic and reinvigorated an interest in classical verse as a written and a performed art form. Another playwright, Roilletus, wrote, published and performed publicly, three Latin tragedies in 1536. Other Latin plays were performed in both latin and French from the late 1530's through until 1545 and George Buchanan and Muretus were prolific during this period and influential in creating French verse forms to recreate plays based on Oedipus, Medea and Antigone.
In 1552, Étienne Jodelle wrote both the first neoclassical tragedy and neoclassical comedy. They were entitled Cléopâtre captive and Eugène respectively. Eugène followed a Roman farcical style, again, looking back to the past to write in the present. Cléopâtre captive was performed before the king, with Jodelle in the lead role. This established neoclassical ideas in the minds of all. By 1572, Jean de Taille published a preference for the rules, and by that time, most authors were using neoclassical ideals. Many other neoclassical playwrights became popular during the sixteenth century, as well as one theatrical manager. Robert Garnier wrote eight tragedies between 1568-1583. Most of his tragedies were adapted from Euripides or Seneca, but his most well-know (and least characteristic) play was Bradamante , which he wrote in 1582.
An important group in the early 1600's grew out of this tradition. The Pléiades were a group of writers and critics who studied and rewrote classical works and developed a system of poetic and grammar principles for the development of literature and the performing arts. The Pléiades eventually developed into l’Académie Française in 1639.
Valleran LeComte was the first important theatre manager because he was the first to attempt to provide high-quality theatre to a paying audience. He headed a troupe called "The King’s Players," which was a title honoring that they had performed before the king. Between 1598-1612, Valleran’s troupe was the most influential in Paris.
The three most popular neoclassical playwrights were Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière even though stylistically they write in different ways. Pierre Corneille was writing in the 1630's and he broke the rules of unity as defined by Cardinal Richelieu and the Académie Française. His most famous and popular play, 'Le Cid' which was performed in 1637 was popular but heavilt criticised for breaking the rules of unity. Whereas Jean Racine is a true neo-classicist who wrote impressive plays using the boundaries of the Académie Française unities. His most popular plays were his tragedies the 1664 play 'Andromache' and 'Bérénice' which was performed in 1670. They found favour with Louis XIV and the general theatre going public. Many aspects of Ancient Greek drama are evident in his plays such as characters having a fatal flaw. By this time in France, women were not allowed to act on stage again. Racine eventually left the theatre and playwrighting became a histographer for Louis XIV and eventually died in 1684 after writing religious plays near the end of his life.
Enter a new master of theatre - Molière. Molière is the most famous French playwright of this period and is known mostly today for his mastery of farce. He freely depicted humans with all their flaws and used comic situations to show and parody archetypes or character-types of his times to attack specific individuals and make fun of the general follies and weaknesses of humans and human society.
Molière primarily used characters based on the stock characters of the Commedía dell’Arte although he combined this largely improvised and blank verse form with forms developed by the Académie, such as neoclassical verse such as rhyming couplets. Molière embraced the neoclassical theatre convention of the deus ex machina as shown in his most popular play Tartuffe where the conflict is resolved in the end with a letter arriving from the king solving all the problems and providing an external and seemingly arbitrary conclusion to the drama. Molière developed his own theatre troupe and theatre venue called the Palais Royal (Theatre du Palais-Royal or Salle du Palais-Royal) and was situated on RueSaint-Honore in Paris.
In 1665, Louis XIV made Molière’s troupe 'The King's Men'. Molière died in 1673 while acting in 'The Imaginary Invalid'. The last "juro" had hardly passed his lips when he was seized with a convulsion. The curtain was lowered, and he was taken to his home where he took his last breath. Because Moliere was associated with the theatre, he was refused a Church burial but when Louis became distraught at this Molière was buried at night in a small parish. Not long after King Louis brought together under his patronage the Molière-Marais groups into the Comédie Française.
French theatres of this period appeared long and rectangular from the outside and many were built from renovated indoor tennis courts. Inside, the stage was dominated by a proscenium arch, with a back wall like an amphitheater for acoustic reasons. There was usually a small upper platform, at about 13 feet high above the stage used for special effects or to form a picture frame around or near the stage.
In 1640, Giacomo Torelli was brought to Paris to design scenery and to install scene-changing equipment. He built a new theatre, the Petit Bourbon, which utilized a pole-and-chariot system (a variation on the pulley scene changing system). He also introduced the proscenium arch stage to France. He also installed the pole-and-chariot system in the Palais Royale. His designs and scene-shifting machines meant that Italian painted scenic design started to dominate the French stage.
Other theatres were operating in France during the time of the strong influence of Italian scenic design. By 1673, there were five governmentally funded theatres: l’Opéra, Commédia dell’Arte , the Hôtel de Bourgogne, the Théâtre du Marais, and Molière’s troupe. During the 1640’s, the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Théâtre du Marias converted to proscenium arch stages as well. The Palais Royal was the first proscenium arch in France, and the first to use the Italian scene-shifting (pole-and-chariot) machinery.
One interesting way to approach French Neoclassical theatre is to explore some comic speeches that depend on the audience. Some dialogues in pieces by Moliere such as ‘The Misanthrope’ depend on the actors as the characters working on getting the support of the audience for their argument or what they are saying in an almost Jerry Springer style. Look at the following video-clip and then take the following dialogue and have actors compete for the support of the audience for their argument and their character.
Now you try it with the following dialogue from Moliere’s The Misanthrope between Celimene (a young woman who is the object of several men’s desire including Alceste) and Alceste (the man male character in the play).
Alceste: What! Am I never to have you to myself? Why are you so ready to receive the world? Can you not endure for a single moment of your day to deny yourself to visitors?
Celimene: Do you wish him to quarrel with me?
Alceste: You show him a deference that I do not like.
Celimene: He is a man who would never forgive me if he saw that I considered him intrusive.
Alceste: Is that a reason for disturbing yourself?
Celimene: Heavens, yes! Good-will is of value among our fellows. He belongs to a set who, I scarcely know why, have acquired at court a right to be heard. They manage to obtain an entrance everywhere; and though, 'tis true, they may not serv us, they are able to do us a vast deal of harm. Therefore, no matter what support one has elsewhere, we ought never to quarrel with such babbling persons.
Alceste: In short, whatever happens and whoever comes, you find good reasons to see all the world; and these precautions about your lawsuit…
Other Exercises and Questions to consider
Molière is saying that society, specifically French society in his day, is shallow and empty-headed. What would it be like to be a member of that society and watch such a play? Would you get the joke? Would you be offended? Would you think Molière is talking about somebody else?
Present a short monologue that portrays the worst stereotypes about teenagers. Have your students listen and then discuss their reaction. What is their response? Do they get the joke? Are they offended? Do they think you must be referring to somebody else?
Write a journal entry on the notion of fake friends. What is it like to know someone is not your real friend? Have you ever been in that situation?
Discuss the notion of fake friends with the class, especially the idea of someone being nice to your face and then gossiping behind your back. Celimine in the play is often a fake friend, doing just that to the suitors in the play and to other women. In the end she gets caught, is that satisfying?
In groups write modern scenes that explore the concept of “the fake friend.”
Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, Second Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1974.
Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, Third Edition. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977, 1974, 1968.
Goldfarb, Alvin and Wilson, Edwin. Living Theatre A History. McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1994.
Theatrefolk. 2011. Moliere and the 17th Century French Theatre (A great unit with lesson plans, exercises and questions)
Theatrefolk. 2012. The Life of Moliere. (Lesson Plan)
American Library Archive. Full Text Translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope.