History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Baroque

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Pierre Corneille[edit]

Pierre Corneille, one of the three great seventeenth-century French dramatists along with Molière and Racine, has been called “the founder of French tragedy”, producing plays for over thirty years.

The main tragedian of the French Baroque period is Pierre Corneille (1606-1684). The plays of Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) include Baroque and Classical/Louis XIV theatre, whose reign started in 1661, from his first play, "Mélitus" (1629), to his final play, "Surena" (1674). The first comedy deserving of the attention of world theatre is "The comic illusion" (1635), in which Pridamant, a worried father, inquires of a magician concerning the whereabouts of his son. While viewing what he thinks is real life, it is only at the end that Pridamant discovers he has merely been viewing a play, because his son has become an actor. Theatrical illusions and real life become mixed in this hallucinating experience. A famous character in this play is Matamore, a modern version of Miles Gloriolosus, the thousand glories of the boasting soldier in Roman comedy, as usual for the Baroque period exaggerated even by the standards of Plautus. This prick of a man, or rather this standing-prick, continuously and at great length vaunts of his martial and sexual proclivities and triumphs, none of which are true. Corneille's first tragedy of note is "Medea" 1635), based on Greek and Roman models by Euripides and Seneca, respectively, in which the daughter of the sun and witch with potent magic powers, maddened by Jason's repudiation of her, murders his intended wife and father-in-law as well as her own children by this lover.

More famous still is the tragicomedy "Le Cid" (The Cid, 1637), in which Rodrigue is faced with the decision either to kill his lover's father in a duel for insulting his own father or repudiating her. In many of Corneille's plays, a character is faced with a difficult and sometimes terrible decision, engendering much suffering, in this case resolved in the end by a beneficient ruler. The play is taken from one written by Guillen de Castro (1569-1631).

Three equally famous plays quickly followed, all set in antiquity: "Horace" (1639, rewritten in 1660), "Cinna" (1640), based on the life of Gnaeus Cornelius Cinna Magnus (born between 47 and 35 BC), and "Polyeuctus" (1641), based on the life of the 3rd century saint of the same name.

Trollope (1898) commented, in regard to "Polyeuctus", that "of all Corneille’s female characters, Pauline is perhaps the most attractive. She is the impersonation of duty, but also of lofty generosity, constancy, and love. Though her love for Severus still lingers in her heart, she attaches herself to Polyeuctes with the highest sense of conjugal duty. In the conflict between the old love and the new, she never allows herself to stray from her high loyalty to her husband ; though she believes in the worth of Severus, so far even as to expect him to understand her in her lofty devotion." (p 62)

"The Cid"[edit]

The Cid must decide between avenging his father or marrying the woman he loves, played by Gérard Philipe (1922-1959) at the Warsaw National Theatre, 1954

Time: 11th century. Place: Spain.

Text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Cid http://www.archive.org/details/greatplaysfrenc00mattgoog https://archive.org/stream/greatplaysfrench00corn#page/n23/mode/2up

Smarting for having lost the king's favor to Don Diego, Count Gormaz slaps his face. Too old to challenge him, Diego calls on his son, Rodrigo, to avenge his lost honor. "Rodrigo, do you possess a heart?" Rodrigo does. He is afire for vengeance until learning that his enemy is the father of his love, Jimena, yet he decides to follow the dictates of duty, and, despite his youth, challenges the count to a duel, because "to well-born souls, valor does not wait on years," he says. Rodrigo kills him. As her father's daughter, Jimena runs to the king and begs for Rodrigo's condemnation, while Diego begs for mercy. The king will consult his counsel. Meanwhile, Don Sancho, Rodrigo's rival for Jimena's hand, takes up her quarrel, offering to challenge him. She answers that she will await the king's decision. Yet she is tormented by thoughts of Rodrigo's fate. "My death will follow his," she says, "and yet I wish to see him punished." Rodrigo comes to offer his life for her sake, but she admits she approves him for "fleeing infamy". "By offending me, you showed yourself worthy of me," she concludes, "I must by your death become worthy of you." Despairing and longing for death, Rodrigo hears from Diego that his country needs him to battle the Moors. He agrees to go to war and is highly successful in the battles, returning as a young conqueror. Loving Rodrigo for her sake, the Infanta of Spain seeks to convince Jimena of abandoning her vengeance, since her lover has now become "the prop of Castille and the Moor's terror". Regarding Jimena, the king confides to Rodrigo that he may no longer consider losing the Cid. "I will no longer listen except to console her," he declares. The king tests her feelings by announcing the false news of Rodrigo's death, at which she swoons. Yet Jimena pursues her quest, wishing the king to declare that she will marry whoever takes up her cause in combat. He agrees provided she marry Rodrigo if he wins. Rodrigo once more offers to kill himself for her sake, specifically by voluntarily exposing himself against Sancho's sword, but she again refuses. After the encounter between the combatants, it is Sancho who presents himself before her. She reveals again her love for Rodrigo by calling Sancho an "execrable assassin" for this deed. With such proof of her sentiments, the king reveals Rodrigo is alive and the winner of the bout and her hand. Nevertheless, he defers the wedding in regard to Jimena's conflicting sentiments and to enable Rodrigo to destroy the Moors. "To conquer a point of honor fighting within you," he advises her to "have faith in time, your valor, and your king."


After three sons from two families confront each other in mortal combat, only Horatius remains alive. 1798 Oil painting of the battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii by Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1776–1805)
When she confronts her brother after he killed her husband, Camilla (played by Rachel Félix, 1821-1858), is murdered by him. Painting by Claude Marie Paul Dubufe (1790-1864)

Time: Antiquity. Place: Rome.

Text at http://www.onread.com/reader/601139

To decide the outcome of the war between Rome and Alba, three warriors on one side will combat three others on the other. Despite strong ties existing between the two families, the Roman choice falls on the three sons of Old Horatius against Curiatius and his two brothers. Young Horatius' wife, Sabina, is sister to Curiatius and the latter's wife, Camilla, sister to Horatius, so that the interests of the state are in mortal conflict with those of the family. On learning the news, Curiatius is stricken with sadness, but to Horatius it is an occasion to win glory for the good of his country. He admonishes his adversary's sadness thus: "If not a Roman, be worthy to be so; if equal to me, make it better appear so." To the equally sad Camilla he is equally severe: "Arm yourself with constancy, and show yourself my sister." When she asks her husband whether he will go to fight indeed, he answers: "Alas, I see, whatever I do, that I must die either in pain or by the hand of Horatius." He is all the more saddened after speaking to Sabina, whose husband he will either kill or be killed. Both men are admonished by the elder Horatius: "What is this, my children? Do you heed flames of love and lose time with women?" The first news of the mortal combat is that Rome is defeated and two of his sons killed, the other is that Horatius fled. On seeing Camilla cry for the death of her two brothers, the elder Horatius reproves her. "Weep for the other one, weep for the irreparable affront his cowardly flight prints on our brows," he declares. But to his relief, the final outcome is that Horace only pretended to flee, killing all three opponents in a death-trap, to which the elder Horatius cries out: "O, my son! O, joy! O, honor of our days! O, of the inclining state unhoped-for help!" But in Camilla's view, her country's victory is no consolation for a dead husband. In his brother's face, she curses Rome. "May heaven's wrath lighted by my wishes rain on it a deluge of fire," she prays, "may these eyes behold that thunder fall, see her houses reduced to cinders and her laurels to powder, see the last Roman at his last gasp, I alone the cause, and die with pleasure." Incensed at these words, Horace runs her body through with his sword. Sabina is devastated and requests him to continue his deadly work with her. He answers that Camilla is unworthy of her tears. Despite being the savior of his country, the Roman king, Tullus, must decide whether Horace should be put to death for murdering his sister. Valerius, a Roman knight who loved Camilla, pleads against him, while the elder Horace and Sabina plead for mercy. Though an inexcusable crime, Tullus acknowledges that it is Horace's sword that makes him "master of two states". He decides to let Horatius live, provided he loves Valerius and ends his murderous spree.


Cinna and other noblemen are grateful to August Caesar for pardoning their rebellion
Cinna played by French actor François-Joseph Talma (1763–1826)

Time: 4 AD. Place: Rome.

Text at http://www.archive.org/details/worksofcorneille00corn

Emilia's father had been banished by the triumvirate and died. To avenge herself on one of the triumvirate and now the emperor, Augustus Caesar, Emilia asks Cinna to kill him in exchange for her hand in marriage. Cinna prepares matters according to her wish along with a band of rebels. "May it have pleased the gods to have you see with how much zeal this troop intends so fair a deed!" he declares. However, to Emilia's anguish, Cinna's freed slave, Euphorbus, surprises Cinna by announcing that he and Maximus, the chief rebels, have been commanded to appear before Augustus. "Go, and remember only that I love you," Emilia swears to Cinna. Before Augustus, Cinna pretends to approve his rise to complete power. "The worst of states is a popular one," he states, to which the emperor replies: "And yet the only one which can please Rome." "My lord, to save Rome, she must unite in the hand of a good leader to whom everyone obeys," Cinna retorts. Pleased with both men, Augustus makes Maximus governor of Sicily and gives Cinna Emilia's hand in marriage. But the donors change nothing of Cinna's resolution of cutting the evil to the root by freeing Rome of tyranny. However, Maximus, in love with Emilia, tells Euphorbus that the emperor's death will only serve his rival, whereby Euphorbus advises him to betray Cinna to Augustus. Maximus hesitates to take that course because of his friendship with the other conspirators. "I dare all against him but fear everything for them," he says. Emilia is relieved to learn Augustus suspects nothing, but when Cinna starts to speak of the emperor's goodness, she cuts him short. "I see your repentance and your inconstant vows: the tyrant's favors gain a victory over your promises," she states. On the contrary, Cinna is pushing her designs forward: "Caesar, stripping himself of sovereign power, would have removed any pretext of our piercing his breast." He accepts her demands, though "Augustus is less of a tyrant than you," he says. Augustus learns from Euphorbus that Maximus is a repented conspirator but that Cinna seeks his life. Yet the emperor's wife, Livia, recommends clemency. Wearied of these troubles, the emperor wishes either to abdicate or to die. "What, you would abandon the fruit of so many pains?" she asks. "It is the love of greatness which makes you importunate," he accuses. "I love your person, not your fortune," she assures him. Rumors circulate that Maximus is dead, but Emilia is surprised to find him alive. His presumed death, he explains, is Euphorbus' plan to keep him still alive. He proposes that they leave Rome together along with Cinna. "Do you know me, Maximus, and do you understand who I am?" she proudly asks. At last he reveals his love to her. "You dare to love me and do not dare to die!" she exclaims. To end the matter, Augustus asks for Cinna one more time. He reminds him of their bonds. "You live, Cinna, but those to whom you owe your life were enemies of my father and mine," the emperor reminds him. "You were my enemy before even being born...I avenged myself only by giving you life." He accuses Cinna of plotting his death. Cinna denies it. Undeterred, Augustus goes on to name all the conspirators and asks him why he joined them. Knowing himself betrayed, Cinna admits he should be executed. Emilia confronts Caesar by declaring that Cinna's plot was all for love of her in avenging her father's death. "Reflect with how much love I raised you," he admonishes, to which she replies: "He raised you with the same tenderness." "His death, whose remembrance fires your fury, was Octavius's crime, not Caesar's," Livia counters. Not to be outdone in honest revelations, Maximus enters to confess his treachery against a rival for Emilia's love. Despite the dangers of such plans against his life, Augustus feels the greatness of his magnanimous soul. "I am master of myself as well as the universe," he declares. He names Cinna to the consulate and gives him Emilia's hand in marriage, which the repentant Maximus agrees with. "More confounded by your bounties than jealous of the good you take from me," he says in admiration of his master.


Saint Polyeuctus was put to death after overturning the statues of pagan gods. 1862 book of Corneille's works

Time: 3rd century. Place: Armenia.

Text at http://www.bartleby.com/26/2/ http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2543

Thinking that a worthy warrior, Severus, died during Rome's war against Persia, Felix, Roman senator and governor of Armenia, marries his daughter, Pauline, to Polyeuctus, an Armenian lord with an inclination towards Christianity, though at this time unrevealed. However, Severus is alive. Very worried that he might exact vengeance on them all for handing his love over to another, Felix requests Pauline to see him, which she accepts, though bitterly complaining. "Yes, I will once more master my feelings, to serve as victim to your rulings," she states accusingly. Although her marriage was the result of a father's command, Pauline asks Polyeuctus not to see her ever again: "Spare me the tears that fall to my shame," she pleads, to which he sadly agrees. "Farewell. I will find in the middle of combats that immortality which a beautiful death yields," he declares, urging her to restrain her tears. She responds that she still has reason to fear, as one half of her dream has already come true: Severus is alive, the other half being Polyeuctus' death. Felix orders Polyeuctus' presence at a pagan sacrifice. This is discouraged by Polyeuctus' Christian friend, Nearchus, who wants him to flee from such altars. Polyeuctus agrees, because he has a strong and dangerous desire to pull them all down. Nearchus reminds him that such a deed means death. To her horror, Pauline learns from her confidante that Polyeuctus has indeed accomplished his wish, and was joined by Nearchus, "the most powerful of gods by an impious hand pulled down at their feet," she cries out, yet she remains loyal to Polyeuctus. "I loved him in duty, that duty lasts still," she states. Felix is indignant at Polyeuctus' act. Fearing the gods and Emperor Decius, he immediately orders Nearchus' execution and enjoins his daughter to convince Polyeuctus to abjure. "Your only enemy here is yourself," she reminds her husband. But he rejects thoughts of wordly advantages. "One day on a throne, the other in mud," he pronounces, his ambition now being immortal, which she calls a Christian's "ridiculous dreams". Moreover, she pleads that his life belongs to his sovereign and the state, to which he counters: "I owe my life... much more to God who gave it to me." "Adore him in your soul and show nothing," she enjoins him. "That I should be both idolater and Christian!" he exclaims. She reminds him of his love of her. "Is that your lovely fire? Are those your vows?" she asks rhetorically. "In the name of that love, follow my steps," he enjoins her. But to her mind, these are "imaginations" and "a strange blinding". Severus enters in response to Polyeuctus' request to give her back to him after his martyrdom, but she refuses to consider it, he, however innocently, being responsible for her husband's likely death. Severus magnanimously asks Felix to spare Polyeuctus, but the latter fears the emperor. Felix enjoins once more Polyeuctus to abjure, who answers that to a Christian "their cruelest torments are rewards". Felix then asks him only to pretend to abjure until Severus leaves, words which he considers "sugared poison". All pleadings by Felix and Pauline are without effect. He is conducted "to death" according to Felix, "to glory" according to Polyeuctus. After witnessing his execution, Pauline challenges her father. "His blood, which your executioners just covered me, has disjointed my eyelids and opened them," she says, and requests him to kill her. Severus enters angry and threatening. Abashed, Felix gives up "his sad dignities", acknowledging Polyeuctus' God as "almighty" and choosing to follow his daughter as a Christian, to her joy and Severus' admiration.

Alexandre Hardy[edit]

Also of interest as a tragedian is Alexandre Hardy (c. 1570-1632). Unlike the polite manner of the French Classic period, Hardy is characterized by verbal onslaught and a definite bent for open stage violence, more similar to English Renaissance plays than French versions. In particular, Hardy wrote "Scédase" (Scedasus, 1624) on the consequences of treachery and rape.


Time: Antiquity. Place: Sparta and Leuctres, Boetia.

Text at ?

Against the advice of an old man, Iphicrates, two young men, Charilas and Euribiades, have fixed their eyes on two sisters, Evexippa and Theana, and so leave Sparta to court them in a Boetian village. Scedasus, father of the two sisters, leaves the village to attend to business, recommending them to keep their virgin honors safe. In the meantime, Charilas and Euribiades are welcomed inside his house. Scedasus scoffs at his daughters' anxieties concerning this arrangement and leaves as the two youths arrive, Charilas exclaiming: "O, celestial place! Since your sight, alas, I have not seen the day." Iphicrates joins them in the village and worries over their lascivisous bent, but Charilas assures him that they do intend no dishonor to the two sisters. "You will sooner see fire born of ice, or earth dislodge Olympus from its place-" he swears. The sisters welcome the two men, Iphicrates approving the women's modest answers, disinclined to lend ear to men's flatteries. The youths are quickly frustrated in their desires. To get Iphicrates out of the way, they request him to return to Sparta for the specious reason of reassuring their parents about their safety. Once the old man goes, Charilas boldy expresses what they want from the two sisters. "You are our sickness, and our remedy, too," he avows. Euribiades assures Theana of his intention to marry her, beseeching her to: "fly from the odious example of an icy rock". Nevertheless, both sisters reject their offers. Furious, the men threaten both with rape, but the sisters would rather die than submit. Nevertheless, Euribiades rapes Theana and when both sisters scream to alert the villagers, he kills her. Unwillingly, Charilas murders Evexippa, then both men escape with the bodies. When a neighbor discovers their corpses inside a well, the returning Scedasus faints, then revives to exclaim against Jupiter. "Such an act in your presence unpunished proves well that the universe has no head that rules," he declares, "that everything rolls haphazardly, without order or justice, that the most virtuous are the most outraged." He travels with his friends to Sparta to plead his case before the king and magistrates, but, lacking eyewitnesses, these refuse to believe such a thing of a noble family. In despair, Scedasus kills himself above his daughters' tomb.

Jean Mairet[edit]

Jean Mairet described the woes attending Sophonisba after her adulterous relation with Massinissa

Mairet reached creative heights with "Sophonisbe" (Sophonisba, 1634) about a queen subject to divers troubles as a result of being suspected of adultery.


Sophonisba, depicted by Guercino (1591-1666), is condemned to death as a traitress to her husband and country

Time: 2nd century BC. Place: Numidia (north Africa).

Text at ?

Syphax, king of Numidia, accuses his wife, Sophonisba, of an adulterous relation with his Numidian rival, Massinissa, having found her incriminating letters whose characters constitute "accomplices and witnesses of adulterous fires", all the more dangerous in view of an imminent Roman attack. Sophonisba defends herself by stating that her love for Massinissa was feigned to help her husband against the Roman army. Syphax does not believe her but does not punish. Massinissa aligns himself with the Romans defeats Syphax. In view of Sophonisba, the victor is subjugated, wishing her to be his queen, not his captive. Their marriage is precipitated by Massinissa's fear of Scipio, the Roman counsel, likely to disapprove of this dangerous match, especially in view of Sophonisba's presumed treason against her husband and her leading him away from Rome's interests. Scipio asks Massinissa to annul the marriage, but he refuses. Instead, Massinissa pleads the Roman counsel to allow it. In response, Scipio condemns her to death. Scipio's lieutenant, Lelius, begs Massinissa to allow Sophonisba to die, but Massinissa refuses. Instead, knowing Sophonisba will poison herself should he fail to convince Scipio of approving their marriage, Massinissa sends her a letter describing his failure. On receiving it, Sophonisba poisons herself, the letter being for her "the final witness of my fidelity". On learning of his wife's suicide, Massinissa stabs himself to death, "ceasing to die by ceasing to live," he declares.

Théophile de Viau[edit]

Théophile de Viau wrote a tragedy on the same subject as Shakespeare's subplot in "A midsummer's night dream" (1595). 17th century engraving of the author

Viau wrote a single play: "Pyrame et Thisbé" (Pyramus and Thisbe, 1623), based on Ovid's fable in "Metamorphoses" and treated as a tragedy, unlike the comedy of the play within the play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer night's dream" (1595).

"Pyramus and Thisbe"[edit]

When Thisbe discovers Pyramus' dying form, she has one recourse: death. Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

Time: Antiquity. Place: Babylon.

Text at ?

Thisbe is spied on by her mother's servant, as she suspects her daughter of harboring a secret love. Irritated at the servant's prudent comments, Thisbe calls her an "old bony specter" and leaves her abruptly. The king reveals to his subject, Syllar, his love of Thisbe, but is frustrated of his success because of a rival, "a simple citizen", whom he will arrange to kill. Syllar proposes to do it. Much like Thisbe with her servant, Pyramus is equally irritated at the prudent suggestions of his friend, Disarque, with which he refuses to comply. "May your judgment work to preserve my disease," he prays. Although Disarque conjures him to be careful, as he is spied on, Pyramus meets Thisbe, who, advancing cautiously, asks: "Is it you, my trouble?" The lovers bemoan the old ever crossing the young, he cursing that "the old erect impotence under the title of virtue". While they agree to meet again soon, Syllar attempts to convince his partner, Dexis, of helping him murder the king's rival. However, in Dexis' opinion, a king is no more allowed to sin than any subject. Syllar argues that since the king knows the two are privy to his murderous thoughts, they are in great danger unless they execute his orders. Unwillingly, Dexis joins Syllar in attacking Pyramus, who counters by stabbing to death Dexis and wounding the fleeing Syllar. In remorse of his attempted deed and before dying, Dexis warns Pyramus that the order to kill originated from the king. As a result of this revelation, Pyramus easily convinces Thisbe to escape with him away from the country. He admits his extreme jealousy. "Should I please my jealous designs," he says, "I would prevent your eyes from looking at your breasts." They agree to meet at night near the tomb of Ninus, Babylon's founder. Meanwhile, Thisbe's mother, on the strength of a mere dream, regrets her intolerance of her daughter's love. Too late. Pyramus arrives first and is horrified on seeing traces of Thisbe's footsteps and veil marked in blood and mixed with traces of a passing lion, at sight of which, despairing, he stabs himself to death. When Thisbe beholds her dead love, she only wishes to follow him. "I see that this rock has burst itself with grief, to spread tears, to open up a coffin," she moans. She retrieves his knife and also stabs herself to death.