Theatre of France - Historic Overview - Theatre Under Louis XIV

Theatre Under Louis XIV

By the 1660s, classicism had finally imposed itself on French theatre. The key theoretical work on theatre from this period was François Hedelin, abbé d'Aubignac's "Pratique du théâtre" (1657), and the dictates of this work reveal to what degree "French classicism" was willing to modify the rules of classical tragedy to maintain the unities and decorum (d'Aubignac for example saw the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone as unsuitable for the contemporary stage).

Although Pierre Corneille continued to produce tragedies to the end of his life, the works of Jean Racine from the late 1660s on totally eclipsed the late plays of the elder dramatist. Racine's tragedies—inspired by Greek myths, Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca -- condensed their plot into a tight set of passionate and duty-bound conflicts between a small group of noble characters, and concentrated on these characters' double-binds and the geometry of their unfulfilled desires and hatreds. Racine's poetic skill was in the representation of pathos and amorous passion (like Phèdre's love for her stepson) and his impact was such that emotional crisis would be the dominant mode of tragedy to the end of the century. Racine's two late plays ("Esther" and "Athalie") opened new doors to biblical subject matter and to the use of theatre in the education of young women.

Tragedy in the last two decades of the century and the first years of the eighteenth century was dominated by productions of classics from Pierre Corneille and Racine, but on the whole the public's enthusiasm for tragedy had greatly diminished: theatrical tragedy paled beside the dark economic and demographic problems at the end of the century and the "comedy of manners" (see below) had incorporated many of the moral goals of tragedy. Other later century tragedians include: Claude Boyer, Michel Le Clerc, Jacques Pradon, Jean Galbert de Campistron, Jean de La Chapelle, Antoine d'Aubigny de la Fosse, l'abbé Charles-Claude Geneste, Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. At the end of the century, in the plays of Crébillon in particular, there occasionally appeared a return to the theatricality of the beginning of the century: multiple episodes, extravagant fear and pity, and the representation of gruesome actions on the stage.

Early French opera was particularly popular with the royal court in this period, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was extremely prolific (see the composer's article for more on court ballets and opera in this period). These musical works carried on in the tradition of tragicomedy (especially the "pièces à machines") and court ballet, and also occasionally presented tragic plots (or "tragédies en musique"). The dramatists that worked with Lully included Pierre Corneille and Molière, but the most important of these librettists was Philippe Quinault, a writer of comedies, tragedies, and tragicomedies.

Comedy in the second half of the century was dominated by Molière. A veteran actor, master of farce, slapstick, the Italian and Spanish theatre (see above), and "regular" theatre modeled on Plautus and Terence, Molière's output was large and varied. He is credited with giving the French "comedy of manners" ("comédie de mœurs") and the "comedy of character ("comédie de caractère") their modern form. His hilarious satires of avaricious fathers, "précieuses", social parvenues, doctors and pompous literary types were extremely successful, but his comedies on religious hypocrisy ("Tartuffe") and libertinage ("Don Juan") brought him much criticism from the church, and "Tartuffe" was only performed through the intervention of the king. Many of Molière's comedies, like "Tartuffe", "Don Juan" and the "Le Misanthrope" could veer between farce and the darkest of dramas, and the endings of "Don Juan" and the "Misanthrope" are far from being purely comic.

Comedy to the end of the century would continue on the paths traced by Molière: the satire of contemporary morals and manners and the "regular" comedy would dominate, and the last great "comedy" of Louis XIV's reign, Alain-René Lesage's "Turcaret", is an immensely dark play in which almost no character shows redeeming traits.

Select list of French theatre after 1659:

  • Molière (pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) (1622–1673)
    • Les précieuses ridicules (comedy) - 1659
    • L'Ecole des femmes (comedy) - 1662
    • Tartuffe ou L'Imposteur (comedy) - 1664
    • Don Juan ou Le festin de pierre (comedy) - 1665
    • Le Misanthrope (comedy) - 1666
    • L'Avare (comedy) - 1668
    • Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (comedy) - 1670
    • Les Fourberies de Scapin (comedy) - 1671
    • Les Femmes savantes (comedy) - 1672
    • Le Malade imaginaire (comedy) - 1673
  • Thomas Corneille (1625–1709) - brother of Pierre Corneille
    • Timocrate (tragedy) - 1659, the longest run (80 nights) recorded of any play in the century
    • Ariane (tragedy) - 1672
    • Circée (tragicomedy) - 1675 (cowritten with Donneau de Visé)
    • La Devineresse (comedy) - 1679 (cowritten with Donneau de Visé)
    • Bellérophon (opéra) - 1679
  • Philippe Quinault (1635–1688).
    • Alceste (musical tragedy) - 1674
    • Proserpine (musical tragedy) - 1680
    • Amadis de Gaule (musical tragicomedy) - 1684, based on the Renaissance chivalric novel
    • Armide (musical tragicomedy) - 1686, based on Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered
  • Jean Racine (1639–1699)
    • Andromaque (tragedy) - 1667
    • Les Plaideurs (comedy) - 1668, Racine's only comedy
    • Bérénice (tragedy) - 1670
    • Bajazet (tragedy) - 1672
    • Iphigénie (tragedy) - 1674
    • Phèdre (tragedy) - 1677
    • Britannicus (tragedy) - 1689
    • Esther (tragedy) - 1689
    • Athalie (tragedy) - 1691
  • Jacques Pradon (1632–1698)
    • Pyrame et Thisbé (tragedy) - 1674
    • Tamerlan, ou la mort de Bajazet (tragedy) - 1676
    • Phèdre et Hippolyte (tragedy) - 1677, this play, released at the same time as Racine's, had a momentary success
  • Jean-François Regnard (1655–1709)
    • Le Joueur (comedy) - 1696
    • Le Distrait (comedy) - 1697
  • Jean Galbert de Campistron (1656–1723)
    • Andronic (tragedy) - 1685
    • Tiridate (tragedy) - 1691
  • Florent Carton Dancourt (1661–1725)
    • Le Chevalier à la mode (comedy) - 1687
    • Les Bourgeoises à la mode (comedy) - 1693
    • Les Bourgeoises de qualité (comedy) - 1700
  • Alain-René Lesage (1668–1747)
    • Turcaret (comedy) - 1708
  • Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674–1762)
    • Idoménée (tragedy) - 1705
    • Atrée et Thyeste (tragedy) - 1707
    • Electre (tragedy) - 1709
    • Rhadamiste et Zénobie (tragedy) - 1711
    • Xerxes (tragedy) - 1714
    • Sémiramis (tragedy) -1717

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