Neoclassicism in Seventeenth-Century Paris

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Neoclassicism in Seventeenth-Century Paris

A Century of Greatness.

In 1600, no great playwrights comparable to the English Shakespeare or Jonson or the Spanish Lope de Vega or Calderón were active in France. Thirty years later, though, a great age of dramatic writing was just beginning to unfold in the country. As a result of the efforts of Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), Jean-Baptiste Molière (1622–1673), and Jean Racine (1639–1699), the theater played a major role in the country's aristocratic society, and its tastes and fashions influenced drama in many parts of Europe. As this new style of theater rose to popularity in mid-seventeenth-century Paris, it did so primarily in opposition to the salacious, crowd-pleasing spectacles that Alexandre Hardy and others had long provided the Parisian audience. In contrast to the great popularity of the theater in Tudor and early Stuart England, or in Golden-Age Spain, the masterpieces that France's great seventeenth-century dramatists produced were aimed at a considerably narrower audience of courtiers and wealthy, educated Parisians. Elite tastes thus defined the new tragedies and comedies that flourished in the period, and the royal government was, in large part, responsible for the great flowering of the stage in Paris in the half-century that followed 1630. Louis XIII's chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), carefully tended to the development of the theater, allowing new troupes of actors to take up residence in Paris, besides those that had traditionally resided at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. His efforts to develop a national stage that catered to aristocratic tastes coincided with the early career of Pierre Corneille, a writer of genius whose works may have had a limited appeal but nevertheless achieved a devoted following in Parisian high society. In painting, sculpture, and architecture, France's seventeenth-century theorists and artists became concerned to develop styles notable for their classicism, and they frequently turned to the works of High Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael for inspiration. So, too, in the theater the classical heritage in France produced plays that were very different from the histories, tragedies, and comedies of England or Spain. In both these countries, the commercial and popular nature of the theater had produced a flurry of works that frequently violated the canons that Renaissance writers of comedy and tragedy had advocated for the governing of drama. In his many vivid historical plays, for instance, William Shakespeare had ranged across decades, presenting incidents that frequently occurred years apart. To satisfy audiences in early seventeenth-century Spain, Lope de Vega and other writers of comedias tailored their works to appeal to a broad spectrum of urban society, and like those produced in England, their fast-paced dramas showed little indebtedness to the culture of Renaissance humanism. By contrast, the great outpouring of theatrical writing that occurred in seventeenth-century France proceeded from theoretical assumptions and certain intellectual premises that were traceable to the fascination with Antiquity, a fascination that played a large role in shaping all the arts in the country during the course of the seventeenth century.

The Classical Unities.

In contrast to the many theaters that were flourishing at the time in London or Madrid, Paris never acquired more than three principal playhouses during the seventeenth century. These houses were considerably smaller than many of the theaters of London or Madrid. And while plays were performed in the English and Spanish capitals on weekdays, a theatrical troupe was only allowed to perform three times a week in Paris, thus limiting the commercial possibilities of the French stage. No Parisian theater was thus able to survive without the patronage of the king, and as a result court tastes defined French drama far more extensively than in other places. During the reign of Louis XIII (r. 1610–1643), it was Cardinal Richelieu, the king's chief minister, who helped to define the conventions of the French stage. During the 1630s he became an avid supporter of the theater, establishing a group of five playwrights who became known as "The Society of Five Authors." He regularly commissioned works from these dramatists, and one of the members of this group was Pierre Corneille, the figure who subsequently revolutionized French drama. At the time Richelieu was just beginning to patronize the theater, French drama critics and scholars were advocating the adoption of the notion of classical unities in theatrical writing. The notion of the unities traced its origins to sixteenth-century Italian commentators on Aristotle and ancient drama. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, the ideas of Aristotle had played an increasingly important role in defining taste in the arts in Italy, as scholars turned to the Greek philosopher's Poetics for inspiration in their attempt to reform the arts. Although their reading of Aristotle has long been shown to be problematic, Italian theorists derived a theory from the Poetics that stressed that all action in a drama should share unity of time, place, and action. In practice, these rules of the classical unities meant that all the action of a play should occur in the same place on the same day between sunrise and sunset, and that authors should not stray into subplots but should carefully outline all the implications of a single story. As French dramatists developed their craft in the mid-seventeenth century, the classical unities played a major defining role in shaping their writing. Fascination with these rules produced a number of stunning works that were undeniably great literary achievements. At the same time, the restrained classicism of the French theater and the strict subjection of drama to an oftunbending set of rules held relatively less popular appeal than the great commercial successes typical of the English or Spanish stages. Where several thousand spectators had often crowded into London and Madrid's theaters to see a particularly popular play, at the high watermark of the theater's success in seventeenth-century Paris average attendance at the theater was around 400, and the most popular productions never drew more than 1,000 spectators. Most plays were only performed about a dozen times, while the greatest had no more than 30 to 40 performances.

The Theaters.

Specialization was the rule among the five troupes that performed in the theaters of seventeenth-century Paris, with certain troupes performing tragedies and others specializing in lighter comedies. While the Confraternity of the Passion's monopoly over dramatic performances in the city was not abolished officially until 1676, new venues for theater had begun to flourish in the city long before that date. Besides the theater at the Hôtel de Bourgogne—home to the Comedians of the King—two new theaters developed in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1629, Cardinal Richelieu encouraged a company directed by the great actor Guillaume du Gilberts, who was also known as Montdory, to perform in the city, and Montdory's troupe soon scored a success with a production of Corneille's first comedy Mélite (1630). A few years later, Montdory's troupe renovated an indoor tennis court in the Marais, then a fashionable residential district in the city, for the performance of plays. By 1641, the last of Paris's seventeenth-century theaters began to take shape. It was built in the private residence of Cardinal Richelieu. The new theater made use of Italian innovations like the proscenium arch as well as other elements of stage machinery that to this time had been little known in France. When Richelieu died in 1642, his new state-of-the-art theater came into royal hands and became known as the Palais Royal, a venue that saw many great successes not only in drama, but also in opera and ballet. It remained a center for the performance of all three arts during the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV. In the 1640s, Richelieu's successor as chief royal minister, Cardinal Mazarin, whose affections for the theater were considerably less developed than Richelieu's, did bring the great Italian stage designer Giacomo Torelli to Paris. Torelli remodeled the original theater to allow for easier changes of scenery, and he staged several productions in the theater that made use of these Italian innovations. Most often, though, scene changes were kept to a minimum in French theater. Given the prevailing rules about unities, most comedies had a set that suggested a single chamber usually outfitted with multiple doors. Tragedies were often performed in front of backdrops that suggested a royal palace or public setting. While the dramas staged in Paris's public theaters were notable for their spare production values, royal spectacles undertaken in Paris and Versailles at the same time were often quite elaborate and made use of complicated stage machinery. In 1660, for example, Louis XIV imported the Italian stage designer Gaspare Vigarani to supervise the building of the Salles desMachines within the palace of the Louvre. This room was to this time the largest theater ever built in Europe and was more than 225 feet long. Its enormous stage, however, consumed more than half this space. The purpose of a grand theater like this was to stage royal spectacles—in this case, the festivities that were to celebrate Louis's impending marriage. Because of the highly literary nature of the art of theater in seventeenth-century France, the use of such spectacle and elaborate stage machinery was generally avoided in dramatic productions. The French theater of the seventeenth century was anything but naturalistic. Acting troupes and their playwrights did not strive for realism. Poetic lines were declaimed, that is, they were recited with an elaborate elocutionary style intended to heighten their effect. As each player recited his lines, he stepped forward to the front of the stage to deliver them, then moved back to allow another actor to speak his response. Such conventions were intended to heighten the dramatic effects of the words being spoken, but generally the style of performance suggests the great importance the theater attained in France as a vehicle for communicating an art that was perceived primarily as a literary form.


Georges Forrestier, Passions Tragiques et Règles Classiques: Essai sur la Tragédie Française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003).

Robert McGridge, Aspects of Seventeenth-Century French Drama and Thought (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979).

Harriet Stone, The Classical Model: Literature and Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century France (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

see also Literature: French Literature in the Seventeenth Century