Previous page Page 3 of 4 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

Reason and classicism: 17th century

French writers of the 17th century are the first since classical times to grant absolute priority to the power of reason and the observance of aesthetic rules. A key figure in this development is René Descartes, a brilliant mathematician who aspires to apply the rigour and clarity of mathematical proof to all aspects of life.

Descartes' first quest is to improve the methodology of science. The medieval hotchpotch of ancient scientific theories still prevails (so much so that in 1633 Descartes prudently cancels publication of a book supporting the theory of Copernicus, on hearing the news from Italy of Galileo's experience on this issue at the hands of the Inquisition). He decides that it must be possible to find a coherent method which can be applied to all scientific enquiry.

Descartes publishes in 1637 his Discourse on the Method of properly Guiding the Reason in the Search for Truth in the Sciences. His approach is to use what he calls 'methodical doubt' to reduce the sum of knowledge about any topic to the minimum which can be known with certainty.

When Descartes extends this principle into the realm of philosophy, he arrives at the central truth from which, he believes, the process of human reason must begin - the certainty that if one is conscious, one exists. He sums this up in the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). After Descartes, reason becomes the guiding principle of France's classical dramatists in the 17th century and of the philosophes in the 18th century.

Corneille and Racine: 1637-1677

In a remarkable forty years, from 1637 to 1677, the French theatre enjoys a succession of powerful tragedies from two playwrights, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. Both write within tight restrictions which are considered an essential part of the dignity of their art.

The three Unities of action, time and place are carefully observed (the plot must have a logical consistency and must be completed within a span of twenty-four hours in a single location). The text is entirely in rhyming couplets of twelve-syllable alexandrines, and there are other clearly defined rules. Violent events can only happen offstage. The vocabulary is limited, with frequently repeated poetic phrases - and definitely no vulgarity.

The first play in this style to be a huge success with the Parisian public is Corneille's Le Cid in 1637. The dramatic conflict concerns the love between Chimène, a high-born Spanish lady, and the youthful El Cid of legendary fame. Unfortunately a social slight offered by Chimène's father to El Cid's father makes El Cid honour-bound to seek satisfaction. He challenges Chimène's father and kills him.

The rest of the play, developing a theme characteristic of all Corneille's subsequent tragedies, hinges on the conflict between duty and love. Chimène's duty to her father demands El Cid's death. Her love makes her yearn for him to live.

The ending of Le Cid is ambiguous. Our hero is called away to fight the Moors and there is a hope that time may solve the conflict. Usually in Corneille honour wins more convincingly, making his plays less sympathetic to modern audiences than those of his younger rival Racine.

Racine's first runaway success, Andromaque, follows thirty years after Le Cid, in 1667. The framework and the rules of tragedy are still the same, but the ingredients have drastically altered. In Andromaque honour and duty hardly feature. Instead there is an insoluble quadrangle of unrequited love in the aftermath of the Trojan War.

Orestes loves Hermione who loves Pyrrhus who loves Andromaque, whose only concern is the safety of her young son whom Orestes is attempting to take into captivity and to almost certain death.

This tangle offers as much opportunity for emotional bargain and blackmail as any late 20th-century play of sexual intrigue. Racine guides the relationships towards a tragic outcome in a series of brilliantly developed confrontations, often just between two characters - one of whose positions has usually shifted since the previous encounter.

Over the next ten years Racine produces a succession of powerful tragedies, often with female central characters who are overwhelmed by their emotions. This is true above all of the last of the series, Phèdre (1677), in which the heroine is consumed with lust for her stepson, Hippolyte.

The raw drama of Phèdre, albeit within the classical convention, is too much for some in Racine's audience. But the mixed response to the play is probably not the reason for his retirement at this time from the theatre. More likely it is due to his marriage in 1677 and a new appointment as the king's official historian. But his ten main years as a playwright have produced an extraordinarily intense and finely honed body of work.

Molière: 1658-1673

One October afternoon in 1658 a small theatre company, headed by Molière, performs a Corneille tragedy for the 20-year-old Louis XIV and his brother Philippe, two years younger. The players follow the tragedy with a farce, written by Molière, about an amorous doctor. It greatly appeals to the two young men. The company is granted the patronage of Philippe, who two years later becomes the duke of Orlèans.

This is a turning point in Molière's career. For the past thirteen years he and his company have led a difficult existence touring the provinces. But the experiences of those years enable Molière, as both actor-manager and author, to make the most of the new opportunities in Paris.

Until his death Moliére writes on average two or three plays each year for his company, with leading roles for himself. Since his central theme is ridicule of the pretensions and falsities of contemporary society, the plays involve him in almost permanent controversy.

The first play to cause both delight and offence (a promising blend in any period) is Les Précieuses Ridicules in 1659. A modern translation of the title might be 'Ridiculous Trendies'. The play makes fun of two provincial ladies, arriving in Paris, who are so delighted by the affected manners of the capital that they lose all sense of reality.

Tartuffe (1664) is even more controversial, featuring a religious hypocrite who by an oily display of mock piety persuades a nobleman to entrust him with both his daughter and his property. The play is first performed before the king at Versailles, but opposition from the establishment delays the first public performance by several years.

To some extent Molière's comedy depends on breathing new life into stock comic characters such as L'Avare ('The Miser', 1668, based on a play of Plautus) or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) about a man so eager to climh in society that he falls prey to every charlatan offering to help him. But Molière's dramatic skill makes the character, Monsieur Jourdain, sympathetic as well as ridiculous.

From 1666 Molière becomes increasingly ill, and his experience of doctors provides him with a new vein of comedy. In that year Le médicin malgré lui ('The doctor in spite of himself') features a character who is forced by the plot to masquerade as a doctor and then finds that he likes the role.

Sganarelle, the amateur medic, has perhaps the most famous line in the whole of Molière. Holding forth about the heart, and its position on the right side of a patient's body, he receives a mild note of dissent from someone who thought it was supposed to be on the left. 'Yes,' he replies, 'but we've changed all that'.

In February 1673 Molière plays the central role in the first performance of Le malade imaginaire. Because Argan imagines himself to be ill, he is willing to submit to all the outrageous treatments proposed by his doctors - providing ample scope for satire on the medical profession. But during the fourth performance, a week later, illusion and reality become tragically blurred. Molière falls ill on the stage and dies later that night.

All his life Molière has written words to be acted rather than read. He shows little concern for the publication of his plays. But their texts (some in prose, some in verse) guarantee him a place, with Corneille and Racine, in France's great trio of classic dramatists.

Previous page Page 3 of 4 Next page