Tuesday, July 29, 2014

French Neoclassical Theatre - Textor to Racine to Moliere

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.

French Neoclassical Theatre Exercises and Discussion

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).
Act 2
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.”

Further Readings and Resources on French Neoclassical theatre and Moliere

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.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre – From Liturgical Drama to Zarzuela and Comedia Nueva

Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre – From Liturgical Drama to Zarzuela and Comedia nueva

Introduction to Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre

Just as Italy and England had their own its own theatre Renaissance, Spain had its renaissance or Golden Age of theatre. Spain’s Golden Age went for almost 100 years from 1585 through until about 1685. The sources of influence for the emerging national theatre of Spain of this period were as diverse as the theatre that nation ended up producing. Storytelling traditions originating in Italian Commedia dell’arte, minstrel entertainments and long poetic narratives and liturgical dramas are some of the influences. This period saw the performing arts being patronized and saw not only an increase in the number of plays written and performed but also the emergence of some of the greatest playwright’s in the Spanish language. The patronage and support of Spanish aristocrats meant that theatre flourished in Spain during this period. This meant that theatre also opened itself up to the working classes and was a highly accessible art form for all Spanish people.

The number and variety of Spanish plays written and performed during the Golden Age was unprecedented in the history of world theatre, surpassing, for example, the output of the English Renaissance writers by three to four times. Around 30,000 plays were produced over this period in Spain and they varied in style and subject matter. In its own time, this prolific production helped to contribute to theatre's accessibility in Spain.

What separated Spain’s Renaissance in theatre from the renaissance dramas of Italy and England is that Spain’s renaissance simultaneously included secular and religious dramas and saw the development of both forms. Additionally, state sponsored drama existed harmoniously alongside popular for-profit theatre, with many theatre artists contributing significantly to both. Stylistically, plays ranged from commedia style plays to dramas to operas to greek style tragedies. Some specifically Spanish forms of drama such as Zarzuela and Comedia nueva were developed

Spanish Liturgical Drama
From the 12th Century onwards, Spain had developed a rich history of Liturgical Drama. The oldest Liturgical Drama Auto de los Reyes Magos which dates from around the 1145 was written in old Spanish. By the 16th century, Easter Passion Plays and Christmas Liturgical Dramas (particularly those that told the story of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus) were popular through many regions of Spain. A popular story which often appeared in Easter pagaents was the visiting of Mary to Jesus’ grave after his resurrection and this was a story often performed in Miracle plays of this period.

Lope de Vega
One of the greatest playwright’s of this period and a contemporary of Shakespeare, was Lope de Vega, the most prolific playwright of all time. He wrote about 1500-1800 plays. His plays ranged in style from pastoral romances such as La Arcadia (1598) to fantastical fictionalized histories such as the story of Sir Francis Drake’s last expedition as told in La Dragontea (1598) to morality dramas such as Las Flores de Don Juan (1605) to his Honor Plays. However, during his day, Lope de Vega was most well known for his invention of the Three Act comedia. In 1609, Lope de Vega published his artistic manifesto Arte Nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo to validate his innovations and his break away from the traditional three unities of place, time and action. Lope de Vega boasted that many of his comedies only took 24 hours to write. Many of these comedies can be described as having capa y espada (cloak and dagger) plots. His most well known works today are El perro del hortelano (‘The Dog in the Manger’) and La viuda de Valencia (‘The Widow of Valencia’).

Baroque Zarzuela and the
Some styles or forms of comic drama started to emerge and come to prominence during this period and one of the most famous of these was the Zarzuela form. This is a form of lyric drama which is like musical theatre in that the dialogue and action alternates between spoken dialogue and dialogue which is sung. This form of drama during this period is sometimes referred to as Baroque Zarzuela to distinguish it from the Romantic Zarzuela’s developed in Spain during the 19th century. The Zarzuela form had an influence and developed in many Spanish colonies including in the Philippines where it is known as sarsuela. One of the most significant playwrights of this form during this Golden Age was Calderon de la Barca. Other important figures were Gil Vicente, Lope de Rueda and Juan del Zorrilla who are said to have helped developed the Commedia Nueva form. Two of the last of the playwrights of this Golden Age were Tirso de Molina and Juan Rana.

Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre Practical Exercises and Discussion

Do a reading of the following extract from Lope de Vega’s The Demoniac. Discuss the style of the piece. How might non-naturalistic acting styles such as commedia dell’arte, musical theatre, melodrama and demonstrational acting help you to develop and perform this scene.

The Demoniac
INES, his Daughter

Scene 1
A Street. 

Gil.  No, master wiseacre, you had better not engage in a contest with me; you would be sure to get the worst of it.
Pas.  Silence, fool! I contest with you? Your wits are far from great enough to tempt me to match mine against them. Everything you say is as complete folly as ever I heard in my life.
Gil.  Folly, it seems to you? Listen to me. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am a hunter, have my musket slung across my back, and come across country to an inn. Seven sparrows are sitting on the roof of the inn. I take aim and kill two. How many remain?
Pas.  A question, forsooth, to puzzle wiser heads. If there were seven sparrows to begin with, and two are killed, five remain. Surely, that’s clear?
Gil.  Now I’ll show you what an ass you are. If I kill two with my musket, the other five fly off. That’s clear as day!
Pas.  To be sure!
Gil.  Hence none remain.
Pas.  I grant that I’m beaten.
Enter PEDRO.
Gil.  Do you see that fellow coming up here? We had better go, for the devil walks abroad.
Pedro.  Thank Heaven they are gone. I can hardly step out into the street without meeting these enemies of my heart; for that they are. It is their master’s daughter who, fair as an angel, so fills my soul that I may neither eat nor sleep, but ever like a rocket ascend athwart the sky. It is her wish to speak to me at this hour. Hist! hist, lady!
Ines (at window).  Who is there?
Pedro.  Who could it be but I — I, whose soul is steeped in adoration of the divine beauty of your eyes!
Ines.  Leave compliments aside, and never cross the street again. My father and my brothers have become aware of the way you haunt our house, and it has caused me great annoyance. Therefore, go! Good luck to you, but never return.
Pedro.  Is this possible, sweet lady? Can you drive me away thus? I must return! Leave me not so forsaken in the world!

Further Readings and Resources on Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre

de Armas, F. 2004. Writing for the Eyes in the Spanish Golden Age. Bucknell University Press. Lewisburg.

Frier, F.R. 1977. Lope de Vega. Insel Press. Frankfurt am Main.

Ibanez, M.A.P. 2004. Lope de Vega: Edicion y Estudio. Eneida Press. Madrid.

Larson, D. 1977. The Honor Plays of Lope de Vega. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.

Trueblood, A. 1974. Existence and Artistic Expression in Lope de Vega. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.