The Legacy of Corneille, Racine, and Molière

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The Legacy of Corneille, Racine, and MoliÈre


It was in tragedy that two of the three great dramatists of seventeenth-century France—Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) and Jean Racine (1639–1699)—excelled. Corneille was the son of a prominent Norman lawyer who was eventually ennobled by the king. Like the comic genius Molière, he was educated by the Jesuits, the great counter-reforming religious order that established an impressive network of schools throughout Catholic Europe during the later sixteenth century. Drama played a key role in Jesuit education, and instruction in the theater was seen as a way of inculcating classical values. Although the Jesuit theater produced no lasting monuments of drama, the order experimented with all the latest production techniques, eventually adding dance and music to their productions so that many of the Jesuit school plays resembled operas more than drama. Corneille's art did not follow these paths; instead he became a great writer of tragedy and tragi-comedy, a hybrid form that merged both comic and tragic elements. Finishing his education, he received a license to practice law and soon won a position as an administrator of royal forests and waterways, a position that he held well into his forties, while he continued to develop his career as a playwright. When he was just twenty he completed his first play, the comedy Mélite, which was performed at Rouen in 1629 and then staged in Paris. It caused great excitement and Corneille quickly became established in the 1630s as one of the chief authors for the Paris stage, receiving a number of commissions for plays from the king's minister Richelieu. His art continued to break new ground, but in 1636, the performance of his tragicomedy, Le Cid, caused controversy. While his previous plays had experimented with the laws of classical unities and with classical ways of expressing the emotions in a restrained fashion, Corneille broke from this path in Le Cid. Audiences were stunned by his representation of strong emotions and by the tale's plot, which involved a pair of star-crossed lovers kept apart by a feud between their families that eventually resulted in the hero killing his lover's father. Corneille's tragedy thus highlighted the moral dilemma that arose from the questions of the relative importance of family honor or love, but Corneille did not neatly resolve this dilemma. Instead, his work insisted that either path—love or duty—might have been the correct one for the heroine to take. Several pamphlets soon appeared in Paris attacking his work as morally defective, and Richelieu himself found his young playwright's ending troubling. He submitted the play to the Académie Française, the Parisian academy Richelieu had recently founded and charged with establishing standards in French literature. The critics of the Academy found the play filled with much glorious poetry, but ultimately morally questionable, and so Richelieu suppressed its performance. Corneille eventually reworked his masterpiece, transforming it into a more thoroughly tragic piece, and in the plays that followed his Cid he became more conservative in his choice of subject material. Although it was feared when it first appeared, Le Cid has survived as one of the great literary landmarks of seventeenth-century French. Its encapsulation of the dilemmas of love and family duty and its glorious use of Alexandrine verse—a stately and extremely formal twelve-syllabic line—remains one of the great statements about the effect of the passions in the Western tradition.


In the years that followed, Corneille continued to write plays, although none of his tragedies was to be as ground breaking and controversial as Le Cid. He chose safer historical themes, usually setting his plays in ancient Rome and developing plots that set up dilemmas about patriotism, Christianity, and family honor. Avoiding controversy, Corneille's works often celebrated the deeds of kindly despotic kings in suppressing chaos or they celebrated the triumph of Christian morality over the human passions of romantic love, jealousy, and hate. Working in this vein, the quality of his plays gradually declined. By the 1660s, his place as France's greatest tragedian was ever more being subsumed by Jean Racine (1639–1699). Racine had been orphaned at a young age, and received his education in a convent school that was at the time heavily influenced by the pious Jansenist movement. The Jansenists, in contrast to the piety advocated by the Jesuit Order, fostered a deep sense of sinfulness and of humankind's inability to participate in their own salvation. Although Louis XIV eventually suppressed the movement because he feared it was a form of crypto-Protestantism, the fervent piety the Jansenists advocated left its stamp on the young Racine, as did the Jansenists' affection for classical literature. Racine eventually studied the law, but as he matured he sought royal patronage for his writing. He sent Louis XIV's chief minister Cardinal Mazarin a sonnet that praised his efforts in concluding a treaty with the Spanish, but received no royal appointment. Next, he tried to obtain a position in the church, but was again unsuccessful, and so he returned to Paris to try his hand at writing dramas. This course angered his Jansenist teachers, who found the theater to be a poor choice for someone of his pious nature who was possessed with gifts as a scholar. But in 1665, the young Racine's fortunes were assured with his production of Alexandre le grand, a play that meditated on the tragic shortcomings of the ancient conqueror Alexander the Great. His subsequent plays developed the Alexandrine verse that Corneille had immortalized in his tragedies, developing its possibilities to a high point of perfection. These works included Andromaque (1667), Britannicus (1669), Bérenice (1670), and his masterpiece Phèdre (1677). In these and other works Racine often set up his tragic dilemmas as conflicts between love, duty, and honor. When at the height of his powers as a dramatist, it is interesting to note that Racine's own sense of duty, and perhaps his piety, won out. At the age of only 37 he retired from the stage, and in the last quarter century of his life he wrote only two biblical dramas that were performed in girls' schools. Even though his retirement robbed the French stage of the possibility of a number of great works of tragedy, his considerable output in his early years provided a storehouse of plays that stand as some of the greatest poetry in the French language.


At the same time as the great tragedies of Corneille and Racine were fascinating audiences in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known to history as Molière (1623–1673), was developing standards in comedy that were not to be equaled in the country for generations. Of the three great dramatic geniuses seventeenth-century France produced, Molière is today the most universally recognized. His works continue to be performed in France and throughout the world, and their mixture of slapstick humor, wit, and sophisticated urbanity is still widely admired. If Corneille and Racine rank as important figures in the development of literary French, Molière was at once a man who was at home in the theater from an early age. When he was just 21 he formed a troupe of actors at Paris, but Molière quickly went bankrupt. To support themselves, the band of actors left the city and spent twelve years traveling through the French provinces. In this long apprenticeship as a playwright, Molière discovered firsthand just what kept audiences entertained, and when he returned to Paris, he was poised to make a major mark on the theater of the city. In 1658, King Louis XIV was in attendance at a performance of his comedy The Affected Young Ladies. From that date his importance as a writer of comedies for the Paris stage as well as entertainments for the king steadily rose. Louis XIV gave the playwright and his troupe use of the theater in the Palais Royal three days each week, and eventually conferred a small office in the royal household on the writer. Molière's royal favor irritated the clergy, powerful officials in Paris, and the other troupes that performed in the capital, and he claimed that he had to publish his plays so that these other companies did not pirate his works. Like Corneille, he had the benefit of a Jesuit education, with its exposure to the classics, but his family origins were considerably humbler, and without a family fortune or another profession to fall back upon like Corneille and Racine, he frequently had to scramble to produce his theatrical ventures. His plays satisfied the court's desire for light entertainments, and often had little in the way of literary pretensions. In most of these works he aimed to please rather than to educate or elevate his audience. At the same time his sense of comic timing, his undeniably keen observations of human nature, and the gentle mockery he directed at all categories of seventeenth-century people still manages to captivate modern audiences. Yet in Molière's own time his art was not always assessed as positively as it is today. His Tartuffe (1664) caused an immediate scandal among the clergy, who objected to the biting sarcasm the author directed against their hypocrisy. They succeeded in banning its performance for five years, and continued to harass the author for much of the rest of his life.

MoliÈre 's Later Troubles and the Decline of the Theater.

The playwright refused to be worn down by these scandals. Instead he immediately responded by producing a new version of Don Juan in which the notorious Spanish lover meets his hellish fate, but only after entertaining the audience with his wit and amorous antics over the course of an evening. In the years that followed, Molière was frequently unable to find suitable plays for his company to perform, so he responded by taking on the task of writing a number of works for them. In the years between their return to Paris in 1658 and his death in 1673, he wrote about a third of the 95 plays his company produced. Although the king favored him, he still faced great trials in making a success of his company. In 1666, Louis' mother, Anne of Austria died, and Paris's theaters were closed for more than two months as a time of national mourning. To make up for this great loss in revenue, Molière wrote five new works for his company to be performed after the playhouses reopened, even though he himself was in failing health. This tremendous output continued even though the author was also called upon to write a number of other entertainments for the royal course. The quality of these later works remained high, despite his health, but on 14 February 1673, Molière finally collapsed on stage while acting in one of his own plays. He died soon afterward. Because his death came so suddenly, the playwright and actor had not been able to take the Last Rites of the church. Thus he was unable to repent of the sinfulness that was believed to be inherent in the profession of acting. As a result he was buried without fanfare, and in the months that followed his troupe struggled to survive. Eventually, it merged with the company that performed in the Théâtre Marais to become the Théâtre Guénégaud; in 1680, this group merged again with the troupe that continued to perform at the Hôtel de Bourgogne to form the Comédie-Française, which was the only surviving theatrical troupe in Paris performing French-language productions at the end of the seventeenth century. While the Comédie-Française survived and still exists as the oldest national theater in Europe, the merger of the various troupes that had performed in the city in the years between 1630 and 1680 points to a decline in the popularity of drama as an entertainment at this time. In the years after 1680


introduction: The great French dramatist Molière's comedy Tartuffe caused a furor when it first appeared in 1664 because of its mockery of clerical hypocrisy. The French clergy responded quickly by suppressing its performances. The following speech from a main character in the play, Cleante, is a biting example of what so offended the religious establishment.

I'm not the sole expounder of the doctrine,
And wisdom shall not die with me, good brother
But this I know, though it be all my knowledge,
That there's a difference 'twixt false and true.
And as I find no kind of hero more
To be admired than men of true religion,
Nothing more noble or more beautiful
Than is the holy zeal of true devoutness;
Just so I think there's naught more odious
Than whited sepulchres of outward unction,
Those bare-faced charlatans, those hireling zealots,
Whose sacrilegious, treacherous pretence
Deceives at will, and with impunity
Makes mockery of all that men hold sacred;
Men who, enslaved to selfish interests,
Make trade and merchandise of godliness,
And try to purchase influence and office
With false eye-rollings and affected raptures;
Those men, I say, who with uncommon zeal
Seek their own fortunes on the road to heaven;
Who, skilled in prayer, have always much to ask,
And live at court to preach retirement;
Who reconcile religion with their vices,
Are quick to anger, vengeful, faithless, tricky,
And, to destroy a man, will have the boldness
To call their private grudge the cause of heaven;
All the more dangerous, since in their anger
They use against us weapons men revere,
And since they make the world applaud their passion,
And seek to stab us with a sacred sword.
There are too many of this canting kind.
Still, the sincere are easy to distinguish;
And many splendid patterns may be found,
In our own time, before our very eyes.
Look at Ariston, Periandre, Oronte,
Alcidamas, Clitandre, and Polydore;
No one denies their claim to true religion;
Yet they're no braggadocios of virtue,
They do not make insufferable display,
And their religion's human, tractable;
They are not always judging all our actions,
They'd think such judgment savoured of presumption;
And, leaving pride of words to other men,
'Tis by their deeds alone they censure ours.
Evil appearances find little credit
With them; they even incline to think the best
Of others. No caballers, no intriguers,
They mind the business of their own right living.
They don't attack a sinner tooth and nail,
For sin's the only object of their hatred;
Nor are they over-zealous to attempt
Far more in heaven's behalf than heaven would have 'em.
That is my kind of man, that is true living,
That is the pattern we should set ourselves.
Your fellow was not fashioned on this model;
You're quite sincere in boasting of his zeal;
But you're deceived, I think, by false pretences.

source: Jean-Baptiste Molière, Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite. Trans. Curtis Hidden Page (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1908): 28–29.

Louis XIV fell increasingly under the influence of his second wife, Madame de Maintenon, who nourished his piety, and he gave up his former taste for dramatic entertainments. In these years, the king became involved in a series of costly international wars as well, and was unable to maintain the lavish standards of royal patronage in the theater. The court in these years began to favor the opera rather than the drama. With the deaths of Molière in 1673 and Corneille in 1684 as well as Racine's premature retirement, no figure of similar genius appeared in Paris to continue the great experiments in drama these writers had nourished in earlier years.


David R. Clark, Pierre Corneille: Poetics and Political Drama under Louis XIII (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

George McCarthy, The Theatres of Molière (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jacques Schérer, Le théâtre de Corneille (Paris: Nizet, 1984).

P. J. Yarrow, Racine (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978).

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The Legacy of Corneille, Racine, and Molière

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