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

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The three main dramatists of the Classic period, starting at the death of King Louis XIII in 1643, are Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), Jean Racine (1639-1699), and Molière (1622-1673).

Pierre Corneille[edit]

Pierre Corneille continued his high-level tragic writing with "Rodogune", in which a mother intends on keeping her power over her twin sons. Portrait of the author by an unknown artist

After 1643, Corneille continued the strong work of the previous reign with "Rodogune" (1644).


Time: Antiquity. Place: Syria.

Text at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.123600

The twin brothers, Antiochus and Seleucus, are waiting for their mother, Cleopatra, queen of Syria, to reveal at last which of the two is the eldest and thereby destined to claim the throne. She has always kept this information secret to reign alone. Both brothers love Rodogune, princess of Parthia, kept a prisoner in Syria. Nevertheless, it is agreed that the elder will not only become king but also win her hand in marriage. Cleopatra hates Rodogune for having married her husband while he was imprisoned in Parthia and who had almost seized the crown from her until she killed him. Antiochus is ready to yield the crown for Rodogune's hand, but, to his grief, so is Seleucus. "She must marry, not you, not me," Antiochus concludes, "but me or you, whoever will be king." Both affirm that they are content to see their mother reign in their place. Cleopatra is happy to hear that, but expects more from them. She proclaims that the crown belongs to whoever kills Rodogune. Both are astonished and silently grieve at this decision. She in turn is astonished at their silence. "Will you marry one to have her flout me," she cries,"to submit my destiny at the hands of my slave?" The brothers agree to visit the princess in prison and stay united, where Antiochus asks her to reveal the man she loves, but she refuses. "The choice you offer me belongs to the queen," she says. Seleucus warns her of the queen's hate, to be countered by choosing a husband, but she fears by choosing one to create two enemies in stead of one. At last, pressed on both sides, she says she will give her hand to the man who avenges their father's murder. However, alone with Antiochus, she admits she loves him more and no longer wants to become "the prize of crime" but rather will wait to see who the queen announces as the rightful king. Antiochus reveals to his mother that they both love Rodogune. Feigning to weaken at these news, Cleopatra says: "Rodogune is yours together with the empire." But yet, alone with Seleucus, she reveals he is the eldest after all and yet might lose all. Despite his mother's wrongs against him, he answers as she wishes. "Hope to see in me but friendly feelings towards my brother and zeal for my king," he declares. Nevertheless, to continue her reign alone, she has her son killed and pretends to join Antiochus and Rodogune for the marriage ceremony. She gives Antiochus the nuptial cup, a poisoned one, but before he can put it to his lips, he receives news of his brother's murder, for which Cleopatra blames Rodogune and she Cleopatra. Antiochus does not know what to think, but is ready to press the ceremony forward. He reaches for the cup, but Rodogune, suspecting poison, prevents him and asks for a servant to swallow it. Feeling caught in her own trap, Cleopatra reaches for the cup herself, drinks it, and dies. A grieving Antiochus commands that "the nuptial pomp be changed to funeral designs".

Jean Racine[edit]

Jean Racine was the dominant tragic playwright of the French Classical period. Portrait of the author by Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1651-1717)

While Corneille wrote a myriad of comedies and tragedies, Racine wrote only tragedies except for "The litigants" (1668). Among Racine's most admired plays are "Britannicus" (1669), based on histories of Ancient Rome, mainly that of Tacitus (58-120), "Phèdre" (Phaedra, 1677), adapted from the "Hippolytus" of Euripides (480-406 BC) and the "Phaedra" of Seneca (12-65), and "Athalie" (Athaliah, 1691), based on a Biblical source, 2 Kings 11. Contrary to Grien's opinion (1905, p 282), it is untrue that Racine is "a great orator rather than a great playwright". Among many other factors, what makes his plays intensely dramatic is the element of surprise: the characters are often startled by turn of events and each other's behavior, creating great fear and worry. A second recurrent theme is sibling rivalry, often leading to murder.

Clark (1939) pointed out that the style of "Britannicus" is of a Tacitean terseness (p 154). The character studies are striking. Indeed, Agrripina "is shown not merely as the ambitious plotter but as the mother who resents the loss of her influence over her son, not merely as the clever dialectician but as the woman liable to imprudent fits of temper...Burrhus’ virtue is mitigated by certain prudential considerations. Narcissus is a villain of a subtlety and psychological insight never before seen in drama outside of Shakespeare... (p 156) Narcissus arrives with the news that preparations are complete for the poisoning of Bntannicus Note the cool cynicism of his first speech, his quick utilization of Nero’s revised decision to enforce still more strongly his own point of view, and the short, sharp struggle with Nero’s conscience which he brings to triumphant issue by his poisonous allusion to Agrippina’s boastings." (p 162)

In "Phaedra", Clark (1939) noted that Racine "will closely follow Eunpides m the scene wiere Phaedra confesses her secret to the nurse Then he will borrow from Seneca the false rumor of Theseus’ death, for this will make Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus seem somewhat less criminal and thereby make her relax her watch over herself slightly Besides, by putting Hippolytus in a position of power as his father’s successor, it will give an excuse for Phaedra to seek an interview with him in order to assure his protection to her own son Finally, it will provide a sensational perifetie in itself and pave the way for a still more strikmg one when Theseus returns. Then, when Phaedra has her interview with Hippolytus, he will mtroduce Seneca’s idea of having her blurt out a declaration of love to the latter." (pp 201-202) The most important change in dramatic character was in Hippolytus from Euripides' chaste misogynist to a lover, which drives Phaedra's passion as it becomes becomes "exasperatited by jealousy..." (p 203) Phaedra "takes her place with a very select few Antigone, Lear, Faust — in the gallery of the world’s tragic portraiture." (p 207) According to Fry (1977), Hippolytus, in loving Aricia, rebels against the father. Hippolytus subjugated the animal in himself but yet is ironically killed by animals. In particular, he kills the bull-dragon but not the horses. The inference is that love’s ease made him neglect horsemanship, undoing him at the end.

In "Athaliah", the dramatic characters are "portrayed with a sureness of touch that reveals the matured master...Abner is a very subtle study of the temporizer...Mathan makes a fine Biblical pendant to the profane Narcisse in Briianmcus. But the two crowning glories of the cast are, of course, the old Athalie, half queen, half witch, and her mortal foe, the priest Joad, that thundering, foaming cataract of divine fury." (Clark, 1939 pp 267-268) Gassner (1954) wrote that "the powerful characterization of the guilt-laden queen and of the sweet-tempered lad, the effective dialogue, and the magnificent lyrics of this tragedy create an impression of rare majesty. If some of us must find its labors academic, it is difficult to withhold one's admiration for Racine’s virtuosity or deny this work the right to be considered the greatest of all biblical plays." (p 279)


Britannicus is poisoned by a jealous Nero, 1675, by François Chauveau (1616-1676)

Time: 1st century AD. Place: Rome.

Text at http://www.archive.org/details/worksofcorneille00corn https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.186696

Agrippina worries over her waning influence over her son, Nero, the young emperor. She does not understand why he abducted Junie, the intended of Britannicus, his half-brother. "I would soon fear him, should he no more fear me," she admits. Nero startles a courtier, Narcissus, by declaring that he loves Junie, seeing in her a woman "beautiful without ornament, in the simple attire of a beauty torn away from sleep". In the first meeting with his captive, Nero astonishes her by declaring that he wishes to marry her, despite already being married to Octavia. Suspecting Junie's love of Britannicus, the emperor commands her to refuse him while he observes their meeting hidden behind a curtain. When Britannicus arrives, she behaves reservedly towards him, much to his distress, and Nero's, too, the first because of her apparent coldness, the second because he senses the latent fires of her love. After learning of Nero's intention to repudiate Octavia, Agrippina is incensed, and more worried than ever about her declining position. In their next meeting, as Junie explains her fake conduct to the reassured Britannicus, Nero suddenly emerges and angrily separates them, murmuring: "thus their fires are redoubled". When Agrippina at last is allowed in Nero's presence, she reminds him that he owes his position entirely to her, who, only for his sake, cast away Britannicus as ruler of the Roman empire, being the son of the previous emperor, Claudius. Assailed thus by his mother, Nero hypocritically promises to yield Junie to his rival, but when Burrhus, his tutor and a valiant soldier, enters rejoicing, he reveals his real sentiments. "I embrace my rival only to choke him," he confesses. Hearing Burrhus' pleadings for Brittanicus and then Narcissus' pleadings against him, but seeking mostly freedom from his mother's influence, Nero is still uncertain about what to do. Just as Agrippina congratulates herself on her ability to restrain Nero, Burrhus runs in with the horrible news that Britannicus has been poisoned, falling "on his bed without warmth and without life". Horrified by this deed, she expects her son will live out a dire and troublesome reign. An attendant then enters to announce that Junie, renouncing the world as a vestal virgin, was restrained on her way from the world by Narcissus, at which time the people, angry at his interference, stabbed him with a "thousand blows" to the extent that "his blood besprinkled Junie". At this news, the emperor retires alone in his apartment in "fierce silence".


Phaedra, played by Rachel (1821-1858), is tormented by her incestuous desires of Hippolytus, her husband's son from a previous marriage

Time: Antiquity. Place: Trezene, Peloponnesus, Greece.

Text at http://www.bartleby.com/26/3/ http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Phaedra_(Racine) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1977 https://archive.org/details/phaedraaclassic00racigoog https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.186696

Hippolytus, conscious of the presumed hate of Phaedra, his stepmother, and seeking to escape the amorous attentions of Aricia, disapproved of by his father, Theseus, intends to leave Troezen. On seeing Phaedra, he escapes immediately, while Phaedra, seeing him go, sinks under her woes, saying: "How these vain ornaments and veils press me down!" and seems to be slowly dying. Her confidente, Oenone, is unable to lift her spirits, not knowing the cause of such suffering. At last Phaedra reveals that not only does she not hate Hippolytus, but, though her stepson, she loves him all too well and culpably, for on seeing him a little after her marriage she "recognized Venus and her fires". News arrive that her husband, Theseus, has died, so that, according to Oenone, Phaedra now has all the more reason to live, since the husband's death "has cut the knots that made all the crime and horror of your fires", at which Phaedra agrees to follow her advice and live. Now that his father is presumed dead, the way is free for Hippolytus to divulge his love to Aricia, whose response is discretely favorable. As Hippolytus prepares to subdue Athens for her sake, Phaedra asks him to protect her young son. In Hippolytus she seems to see her husband once more. He is ashamed of such attentions. Despairing of her quest to make him love her, Phaedra takes away his sword and threatens to kill herself, but Hippolytus does nothing. Oenone takes the unhappy Phaedra away. Meanwhile, Athens has declared in favor of Phaedra's son as her rightful king. Despite her sufferings, Phaedra still hopes to obtain Hippolytus. She decides to yield the crown of Athens to Hippolytus. "I place under his power both son and mother," she says to Oenone. But, before speaking with Hippolytus, Oenone advises her to abandon her quest. "You must choke off the thought of such vain love," Oenone pleads, because Theseus is alive, at which Phaedra sinks into even deeper woes, expecting Hippolytus to reveal her adulterous love, or else perhaps herself will do so inadvertently. Oenone proposes that she accuse Hippolytus of incest. When Theseus enters, Phaedra suspiciously retires with her stepson's sword, saying she is "unworthy of pleasing or approaching" him. Too long inactive, Hippolytus proposes to leave and build a name for himself, worthy of his father's. Theseus is dismayed at his wife's behaviour and seeks her to find out who has played the traitor in his absence. Thinking to benefit her mistress, Oenone tells Theseus that Hippolytus is guilty of an incestuous attempt. The father curses his son by threatening to use Neptune, the sea-god, as his violent avenger. Guilt-stricken at Oenone's proceeding, Phaedra returns, but loses any scruple after learning from Theseus that Hippolytus loves Aricia. When Aricia encounters Hippolytus, she pleads that he return to his father to assure him of his innocence, but Hippolytus considers this useless, being particularly unwilling to reveal to his father Phaedra's guilt. Nevertheless, Hippolytus proposes to marry Aricia and leave for Mycaena, which she agrees to do. Theseus wants to learn more on his wife's conduct from Oenone, but is told that she has drowned herself and Phaedra is in a state of "mortal despair". As Theseus fears the worse, he learns of Hyppolytus' death: affrighted by a "formidable voice" and a "humid mountain" from which "vomited" "a furious monster" the horses of his chariot plunged forward out of control and tore the unfortunate passenger to pieces, where "dripping brambles bear the bloody remains of his hair". While Theseus grieves and prepares to accuse Phaedra, she admits her guilt under the effects of a deadly poison, whereby her husband concludes: "May so dark a deed expire with her memory."


After being afflicted by a nightmare, Athaliah interrogates Joash. 1741 picture by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752)

Time: Antiquity. Place: Jerusalem.

Text at http://www.archive.org/details/greatplaysfrenc00mattgoog https://archive.org/stream/greatplaysfrench00corn#page/n23/mode/2up https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.186696 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21967

After murdering several little children of Athaliah's son in her quest to become sole reigning sovereign, unbeknown to her, one of them, Joash, is saved by Jehoshaba, his aunt, and Jehoiada, a high priest, who nurture him to become the future king. One of the main officers of the kings of Juda, Abner, expresses to Jehoiada great fear that Athaliah will seek further revenges. But Jehoiada at this time or at any other time never loses confidence in his God. Athaliah describes a dream which deeply perturbs her, in which her mother, Jezebel, appeared, "as on the day of her death pompously arrayed", warning her to tremble that "the cruel God of the Jews does not defeat you as well". Moreover, Athaliah sees in her dream a boy plunging a sword into her breast, the very child she just saw when she was awake, in a ceremony conducted by the high priest. She demands to see that boy. When interrogated, Athaliah is charmed by Joash's manner, to the extent of offering him to live in her palace, but he refuses that honor. She consults Baal's priest, Mattan, who recommends, to Abner's horror, that they kill the boy. Mattan first speaks to Jehoshaba, then to Jehoiada, who both refuse to hand the boy over to Athaliah. Instead, Jehoiada annouces to the Levites and the priests Joash's true identity as king of the Jews, and they prepare to resist Athaliah's army. Unaware of what is prepared against her, Athaliah enters the temple where she is surrounded. "Unpitying God, you alone conducted this," she cries out in despair. She is murdered along with her priest.


Molière dominated French comic writing for the theatre in the 17th century. Portrait of the author by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752), 1730

Among the most admired comedies of Molière are "Tartuffe" (1664), "Dom Juan" (Don Juan, 1665), "Le misanthrope" (The misanthrope, 1666), and "Les Femmes savantes" (The learned women, 1672), all characterized by sparkling wit and profound psychology.

In "Tartuffe", Orgon has suffered financial and social failures and, as a result, is all the more vulnerable to be fooled by a man who purports to help him succeed at least in he after-life. "Orgon lives in the illusion that God has sent Tartuffe as a sign of his special mercy" (Fischer-Lichte, 2002).

In the view of Gassner (1954) "'The misanthrope' dispensed with vigorous or spectacular action, and appealed to the intelligence. It is, in fact, the coolest and most Olympian of his comedies. It is an expose pure and simple; the action is left scrupulously unresolved at the end and the characters remain pretty much as they were at the beginning. The play simply revolves around Alceste, an upright man whose disgust with the follies, affectations, and corruption of his times, amounts to an obsession. The social world that buzzes around him is a collection of fops, bootlickers, intriguers, and philanderers. With them he finds it impossible to compromise even though his loyal friend Philinthe counsels caution. He would rather lose his law case than bribe the court, and he would rather make enemies of the courtiers than flatter their stupidity. The weak point in his armor is his love for an incurably flirtatious woman, whom — like Moliere himself—he loves against his better reason. But in spite of his infatuation with her, he cannot bring himself to accept the world of intrigue which is her natural habitat. When she refuses to leave it for a life of retirement with him, he renounces her too." (p 297) According to DiBastita (1977), Celimene's satire agrees with self-interest, Alceste's to society’s interest. Alceste rejects Arsinoe’s personal advances as well as her judgments on society. Alceste is subject to “tragic inflation”, Celimene to “comic deflation”. His love for her reflects his desire to redeem her as well as society. This is opposite to Eliante’s vision of the lover: “If she has any blemish, fault, or shame/He will redeem it by a pleasing name.” He does this while confronting Celimene with her letters, a time when the satirist is in conflict with the lover. Unlike Alceste’s, Celimene’s targets of satire are behind people’s backs, so that when finally exposed, she becomes isolated.

Gassner (1954) interpreted the ending of "Don Juan" as "comic" (p 296), mistakenly taking Sganarelle's lack of feeling as a sign of how the reader should respond. Nevertheless, Gassner finely observed that "Don Juan’s cynicism was illuminated with brilliant flashes of wit. In comparison with his clever sallies, his servants’ commonplace precepts sound like parodies on conventional morality." (p 296)


When Orgon discovers Tartuffe hiding under his wife's table, Tartuffe is exposed as a religious hypocrite. 17th century engraving

Time: 1660s. Place: Paris.

Text at http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/4/1966/frameset.html http://www.bartleby.com/26/4/ https://archive.org/stream/greatplaysfrench00corn#page/n23/mode/2up http://azactorsacademy.com/uploads/plays/tartuffe.pdf

Supported only by his mother, Orgon has invited in his house Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite who zealously lords over Orgon's family, in an uproar because of him. When the servant, Dorine, reports on his wife's poor health and Tartuffe's ravenous appetite, distracted Orgon exclaims four times: "Poor man!" "Whoever follows his lessons tastes profound peace and regards the entire world as excrement," according to Orgon. Orgon's brother-in-law, Cléante, disagrees, as no one is more odious than those "devout for place, whose sacrilegious and cheating grimaces abuse without impunity." When Cléante asks Orgon about his intentions regarding the proposed marriage between his daughter, Marianne, and Valère, he receives only vague answers. To Marianne, Orgon has a very disagreeable surprise: he wishes her to marry Tartuffe. Dorine interrupts this exchange, unable to believe that Marianne would be "business for the bigoted" and that Orgon would "choose a beggarly son-in-law". She is convinced that such a marriage will only promote adultery. After Orgon leaves to cool off, Dorine admits she is scandalized to hear that Marianne's objections to this proposal appear so weak. Orgon's daughter is timid, but pleads at last for help, to which Dorine responds: "No, you will, by my faith, be tartuffied." But before Marianne leaves the room in despair, Dorine brings her back. After hearing about the awful rumor, Valère also is offended when timidity prevents Marianne from declaring her love more openly. They quarrel. To make peace, the servant invites them to join hands. After some hesitation, they do. Her plan is to pretend acceptance of the proposal and stall for time. Meanwhile, Orgon's son, Damis, is also interested in this love-match, because he himself would like to marry Valère's sister. Against Dorine's advice, he hides inside a closet to discover Tartuffe's intentions. When looking at Dorine's half-naked breasts, Tartuffe takes out a handkerchief and hypocritically exclaims: "Cover that breast I am unable to look on." Orgon's wife, Elmire, also wishes to discover Tartuffe's intentions. In his zeal to serve her, he presses her fingers too hard, then his hand strays to the knee. Though Elmire wishes to speak of her daughter, he deviates the conversation towards her beauties. "Though devoutly religious, I am nonetheless a man," he assures her. Disgusted at this courtship of his stepmother, Damis steps out of hiding and, against her advice, tells his father of Tartuffe's "injurious avowal of a culpable flame". But Orgon knows his family is in league against his friend and dismisses such accusations. Exasperated by his son's insistence of Tartuffe's hypocrisies, he looks around for a stick to beat him with, but is restrained by Tartuffe. Instead, he disinherits his son in favor of his friend. Orgon hastens forward Marianne's marriage. On her knees she implores him that if he is opposed to her choice of a husband, he at least send her to a convent: "to spend the sad days heaven has given me," she has. But he refuses. Surprised at his incredulity of Damis' accusation, Elmire proposes that he himself be the witness of Tartuffe's hypocrisies by hiding under the table while she converses with him, where matters will go as far as he wishes. When Tartuffe enters, Elmire says she has secrets to reveal and that he should "look everywhere in fear to be surprised". She then pretends to disclose her attachment to him. Suspicious of this about-face, Tartuffe advances to obtain from her more than pleasant words. Elmire coughs as a warning to her husband, but he does not budge. To disarm her scruples, Tartuffe Goes further. "It is the world's scandal that makes all the offense," he assures her, "and to sin secretly is no sin." In desperation, she sends him in the next room to make sure her husband is not near. With Tartuffe out of the room, Orgon abandons at last his hiding place, completely abashed. "Nothing so evil ever left hell," he cries. When Tartuffe returns, Orgon orders him out of his house. Yet Tartuffe is by no means confounded, threatening to "avenge heaven's injury". He says that Orgon should leave, because the house belongs to him now, and Orgon fears this to be true. He also fears the consequence of some lost papers left him by a friend. An officer of the court arrives to order Orgon out the house, now Tartuffe's property, and to take away the furniture. Valère informs them that Tartuffe went to the prince with the missing papers, Orgon considered guilty of keeping as a secret matters relating to criminal activities. Stunned by such treachery, Orgon murmurs cynically. "Man, I admit, is an evil animal," he declares. Valère proposes to help him escape from justice, but is intercepted by Tartuffe accompanied by an officer of the law. However, the officer surprises Tartuffe by arresting him instead, the prince having discovered Tartuffe's ploys just in time. Greatly relieved, Orgon at last offers to Valère Mariane's hand in marriage.

"Don Juan"[edit]

A statue comes to life to halt Juan's evil courses, to his servant's horror. 17th century engraving

Time: 14th century. Place: Spain.

Text at http://www.archive.org/details/molireaffectedm00pagegoog

After luring Elvira away from a convent by marriage and then quickly abandoning her and after murdering a commander, father to yet another cheated girl, Don Juan disappears with his servant, Sganarelle. Though morally opposed to such doings, Sganarelle is reconciled to them by the wages he receives and its bodily comforts, convinced that, contrary to Aristotle's opinion, "tobacco is the best of all goods". Juan and Sganarelle sail away to capture the intended of a friend when, surprised by a storm, their boat is overturned, both saved only through the intervention of an energetic peasant. With little delay, Juan rewards the peasant by successfully seducing his intended. After escaping again from any sort of attachment, Juan learns that Elvira's brothers intend to kill him, so that master and servant must now walk about disguised. On the way, Juan saves a stranger from bandits, no less than one of Elvira's brothers, Carlos, who owes Juan his life. Recognizing Juan as the mocker they were looking for, the other brother challenges him to end their quarrel with swords, but Carlos, the recipient of Juan's courage, prevents him from any thought of vengeance for the moment, Juan promising both to render satisfaction at a later date. As they travel farther on, Juan and Sganarelle are surprised to discover the commander's tomb. As a jest, Juan invites the commander's statue to dinner. To his astonishment and Sganarelle's terror, the statue nods in agreement. After witnessing Juan's mocking of a timid creditor, his indifference at seeing Elvira's return as a nun to plead for his salvation, and his suppressed anger at being forced to listen patiently to his father's bitter remonstrances, Sganarelle is found even in a worst state of mind when the statue appears at dinner time. The servant, but not the master, attributes his arrival as a warning from heaven. The statue declines to eat, but instead invites Juan to dine with him. Juan accepts. Sganarelle pleads that he must refuse the honor because of a cold, but his master dismisses that argument. When next Juan meets his father, he promises to amend, a sight that much rejoices the old man as well as Sganarelle, but to the servant's dismay, all was pretense, Juan now choosing religious hypocrisy as the best cover of an evil disposition. When Carlos returns to request marriage on behalf of his sister, Juan refuses by pretending to lead a life of chastity, specifying that he hears "heaven's voice" in that vocation. Juan's pretense at religion is found out when a specter appears, transformed into the shape of time carrying his scythe. Juan dismisses the figure as he did every other warning. The commander appears, offering his hand. Juan resolutely takes it and suddenly feels burning by an "invisible fire". Thunder strikes, the earth opens, and Juan is plunged into the abyss where fires emanate. Sganarelle cries out in despair, not because of his master's fate but for lost money: "By his death, everyone is satisfied. Heaven offended, laws violated, girls seduced, families dishonored, parents outraged, wives evilly served, husbands pushed to the limit, all are satisfied, I only am unlucky. My wages, my wages, my wages!"

"The misanthrope"[edit]

Alceste takes little account of Philinte's indulgence towards humankind. 17th century engraving

Time: 1660s. Place: Paris.

Text at http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/4/1967/frameset.html

Alceste accuses Philinte of flattering people he barely knows. "So great an anger against the times is to many a source of ridicule," his friend responds. Alceste admits he hates all humankind. "Some because they are evil and do harm,"he enumerates, "others for being to evil men complaisant." But then why does his heart incline towards Célimène, "whose coquette humor and scandal-mongering seems so in tune to the present mores?" Oronte arrives to greet Alceste with much ceremony, wishing to obtain from him an opinion on his sonnet. He rejoices at the opportunity of receiving an honest opinion, but, after obtaining it, he is extremely offended. At Célimène's house, Alceste frowns and fumes on listening to a long series of scandal-mongering between her and two marquis. She describes one acquaintance in this way: "He is a strange talker, who always discovers the art to say nothing with long speeches." Another is described as a man who "without any business is always busy." Of yet another: "of his cook he has obtained merit, and it is his table that receives visits," whereas his own person is "a bad meal." Bur for all this, notes Alceste, they socialize with those they satirize. These pleasantries are interrupted by representatives of Oronte, who wish to settle amiably the subject of their contention. When alone together, both marquis agree that whoever shows signs of having found favor with Célimène should let the other cede his place. Célimène next receives a visit from Arsinoé, a dishonest prude in love with Alceste. According to Célimène, "to save the honor of her feeble attractions, she attaches a crime to the power they do not have." After speaking ill of her for a considerable time, Célimène rushes to bid her friend welcome. Arsinoé arrives with the disagreeable (though secretly pleasant) task of announcing to her friend that "among people of singular virtue", Célimène's galantries have attracted widespread blame. In turn, Célimène is quick to point out to her friend what people say about her, that among "persons of very rare merit" "her prudery and fits of zeal were not cited as a very good model" and that her "bitter censures on things innocent and pure" "were blamed by common opinion," that she "orders nudities in paintings to be covered up, but has a love for the realities." To prevent more bitter terms, she leaves her in Alceste's company. Arsinoé is quick to point out his merits and, to promote them properly, offers to help obtain for him a position at the royal court, but he is certain not to possess the talents of the courtier. Failing that and despite her friendship towards Célimène, she finds her unworthy of his love. She invites him to her house, where she says: "I will let you see a loyal proof of the infidelities of heart of your belle," where also "something may be offered to console you." So tormented appears Alceste's relation with Célimène, in Philinte's opinion, that Eliante, Célimène's cousin, should be the object of his heart. She is open to the idea, though uncertain about the state of Alceste's mind. But yet Philinte specifies that he himself is willing to offer his hand to her in marriage should her heart be free. Devastated, Alceste rushes in, a letter in hand containing certain evidence of Célimène's betrayal: in her own handwriting a love-letter addressed to Oronte, the least likely rival. In a spirit of vengeance, he offers his heart to Eliante, but she demurs, knowing that "a guilty lover is soon innocent". Alceste confronts Célimène with the letter. "But if this letter is addressed to a woman," she asks, "in what way does it harm you?" When he does not believe her, she, exasperated, admits it was addressed to Oronte, but this only weakens his resolve. "Force yourself to appear faithful," he pleads, "and I will force myself to believe you." He is called away to learn he has unjustly lost a court-case. In addition, Oronte circulates untrue rumors about him in revenge. Furthermore, Oronte visits Célimène to insist on the need to banish Alceste forever from her sight and show at last her true heart, a course which Alceste also agrees with. Before she does, the two marquis and Arsinoé crowd in with more of her incriminating letters, which mock all of her suitors. Except Alceste, all suitors leave her contemptuously. Only Alceste forgives, provided she abandon society, but Célimène, so young and frivolous, is unwilling to "bury herself in his desert". Turning towards Eliante, Alceste specifies he feels unworthy of her love. Philinte steps forth, who, for the honor of marrying her, "would sacrifice both blood and life", resolving at the same time to prevent Alceste from retreating completely away from all humankind.

"The learned women"[edit]

Trouble starts when women read with no sense of discernment and sneer at men. Early 20th century drawing of the learned women

Time: 1670s. Place: Paris.

Text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Learned_Women

Armande is disgusted at her sister's intention to marry. "Far from being to a man's law enslaved, sister, marry philosophy," she avers. Henriette answers she is content with grosser pleasures. "Do not suppress, in wishing to be followed, some little learned one wishing to enter the world," she declares. Though hating the thought of marriage, yet Armande appreciated Clitandre as a follower. When asked for his opinion, he entirely favors Henriette. To help win her, Clitandre begins to explain his case to her aunt, Bélise, who mistakes in thinking that his love is meant for her. Ariste informs his brother and Henriette's father, Chrysale, of Clitandre's love, but Bélise interrupts to say: "One cannot cheat more galantly," for her own person is no doubt his object, as is the case of several other men. Though none have dared to say one word of it, "mute interpreters have all done their office," she adds. Chrysale assures Ariste that he agrees with Henriette's choice and there is no need to consult his wife, Philaminte, but is dismayed on hearing that Martine, their servant, has been dismissed by her. He promises to support her, but when his wife appears, he immediately backs down. Martine is sacked for bad word usage, "wild and gross", bad grammar, "enough to kill a sensitive ear". "What a village soul!" exclaims Bélise. Chrysale mildly objects: "I live thanks to good soup, not good language," he swears. He gets hotter, though only when addressing his sister. Left with his wife alone, Chrysale changes the subject to Henriette's marriage prospects, whereby Philaminte declares she has already selected her son-in-law, the pretentious pedant, Trissotin. Chrysale is mute. When Ariste asks about Henriette, his brother answers that the affair "is not quite done". Despite being often interrupted by their exclamations, Bélise having to catch her breath, Trissotin is able to serve a small feast of poetry to the learned women. Thus Philamante: "One can no more," Bélise: "One swoons," Armande: "One dies in pleasure." Tired of mispent time common to their sex, as in judging skirts, each woman seeks for higher studies, Philamante at her telescope already sure to have clearly seen men walking there. Trissotin introduces his friend, Vadius, mutually showering each other with compliments, until the latter, not knowing the author, insults the former's sonnet. Now Trissotin grumbles before hearing Vadius' ballad, the authors then showering insults against each other. At last, Philaminte announces to Henriette that she has chosen for her a husband, which Bélise nobly yields. But to the two sisters, Chrysale reveals his will: Trissotin for Armande, Clitandre for Henriette. In front of her mother, Armande accuses Clitandre, because "a faithless heart is a monster in morality". Since according to him, one must have "knots of flesh", she is ready to submit, but for Clitandre too late. Trissotin mocks his rival for defending ignorance, Clitandre for defending pedantry. A letter from Vadius promising to prove Trissotin's pillage of Latin authors is without effect on Philaminte's mind, so that Henriette must make him desist, with no better result. Chrysale brings back Martine and strongly assures Henriette of his support, but would nevertheless like to be seconded. When Philaminte enters with the notary, he requests the name of her future spouse, but each parent points to a different one. "Two husbands!" the notary exclaims. Husband confronts wife. Martine is of the opinion that "the hen must not crow in front of the rooster". They are interrupted by Ariste's arrrival with two letters, the first containing news of Philaminte's loss of a great deal of money in a trial, which she stoically accepts, though hating the word "condemned", the second containing news of Chrysale's bankrupty. To this, Trissotin balks, but not Clitandre. Henriette refuses his sacrifice until Ariste reveals both news were false, invented by his desire to expose the false. At long last, Chrysale manly asserts himself. "Write the contract as I said," he commands the notary.

Jean Rotrou[edit]

Jean Rotrou depicted the life of St Genest, actor and Christian martyr. Portrait of the author by an unknown 17th century artist, 1820

Though of a lesser note, Jean Rotrou (1609-1650) stands out as a fourth dramatist of interest in the Classic period, especially with "Le véritable Saint Genest" (The true Saint Genest, 1645). Like Corneille's "Polyeuctus", "The true Saint Genest" describes the life of a Christian martyr in ancient Rome, this time in the form of an actor who reveals the nature of his religion while acting in his play.

"The true Saint Genest"[edit]

Time: 4th century. Place: Nicodemia.

Text at ?

An acting troupe play in front of Diocletian the emperor during the marriage celebrations of his daughter, Valeria, with Maximinus. The main character in the presented play is Adrian, a martyr once put to death as a Christian by Maximinus. Genest plays Adrian, thrown in prison at the start of the play for his Christian beliefs. Adrian receives a visit by the people's tribune, Flavius, who tries to dissuade him from his voluntarily imposed arrest but is unable to. Next Maximinus curses him as an ingrate and threatens him. "Fear to behold, and soon, my neglected favor and the insult to the gods cruelly avenged," he declares, but Adrian remains firm. Next, Natalia, Adrian's wife, visits him, revealing that she, too, is a Christian. When asked why she never said so before, seeing her husband order the death of so many Christians, she answers his rage seemed then uncontrollable. Flavius returns to free him temporarily from his chains, since he continues all the firmer in his purpose. Seeing her husband freed from his bonds, Natalia rages against his seeming abandonment of the Christian faith, but he reassures her. "God always in my heart conserves his victory," he affirms. Genest, the actor, proves it in real life as did Adrian in the play by suddenly stepping out of his role and disclosing his Christian faith in front of Diocletian, who cries out: "O execrable blasphemy! O impious sacrilege, which we will answer if his blood does not expiate it." In view of dimmer prospects without Genest and in fear of retributive punishments, one of the members of the acting troupe, Marcella, pleads with Genest to desist. "O ridiculous error, to boast the power of a god who to his own gives death as recompense!" she exclaims. "You will see whether those gods of metal and stone will be powerful in heaven, as they seem on earth," he retorts. To her despair and that of the other actors, an officer reports Genest's death. "By your command, my lord," he announces to the emperor, "that glorious actor, of the most famous heroes renowned imitator, of the Roman theatre the splendor and the glory, but so bad an actor in his own history, as complete as ever in his impiety and by my efforts solicited in vain, has by the gods' wrath against his perfidy with a bloody act ended the tragedy."

Thomas Corneille[edit]

Thomas Corneille achieved a high level of tragic writing with the stories of Timocrates and Ariadne. Portrait of the author by the circle of Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743)

A fifth dramatist of note is Thomas Corneille (1625-1709), Pierre's brother. Although his comedies are generally weak, his tragedies show a high degree of stoutness and refinement, especially "Timocrate" (Timocrates, 1656) and "Ariane" (Ariadne, 1674).


Time: Antiquity. Place: Argos, Greece.

Text at ?

The queen of Argos receives an ultimatum from Timocrates, king of Crete: either war or the hand of her daughter, Eriphile, in marriage. She consults two neighbor-princes and Nicander, a subjected prince, all three rivals for Eriphile's hand, all proposing to reject the marriage offer. The queen next asks the opinion of Cleomenes, a worthy soldier and subject to Nicander. Although he favors peace, the queen rejects the marriage offer, with all the more reason as she swore to avenge her husband's death at the hands of Timocrates' father, the former king of Crete. She declares her daughter will marry whoever defeats Timocrates. Cleomenes reveals to Nicander that his opinion was motivated mostly by personal interests, for he, too, loves Eriphile, but, being devoid of royal blood, feels himself unworthy of her. "I love that she escape my flame this day more as the victim of the state than that of love," he despairingly says. Learning Cleomenes' opinion, Eriphile is heartily dejected, for he is the true object of her desires. When Nicander arrives for encouragement in his aim, she does so only partially, admitting only that she prefers him to the two other princes. When Cleomenes comes, she accuses him of being a traitor. "To love more, I wished to hate myself, and was traitor to myself in fear of being yours," he counters. Despite appearances, he intends to kill Timocrates. "Combat, win," she says. "And especially do not expose my faith to refuse elsewhere what is only meant for you." During the bloody conflict, Timocrates succeeds in killing the two princes and capturing Nicander. Sure of his success and wishing to impress the queen, he releases Nicander without conditions. But the queen hates him all the more as the son of her husband's murderer. Against all hope, Cleomenes defeats Timocrates. In accordance with her oath, the queen offers him Eriphile's hand in marriage. But, unexpectedly, the Cleomenes is found to be an impostor. Hearing this rumor, Eriphile challenges Cleomenes to deny he knew of it. His silence first convinces her that he did. He then counters that it is indeed Timocrates who gave up all claims to her to him. After Eriphile angrily leaves him, the queen requests Cleomenes to explain the matter of his imposture. To her astonishment, he reveals to her he is Timocrates. She is now subject to two conflicting vows offered to the gods: on one hand to give her daughter away in marriage to Timocrates' victor, on the other to avenge her dead husband. "O duty, O vengeance, O bold oath!" she exclaims, "Did I engage heaven to serve my anger only to behold to my anxious heart hated Timocrates in loved Cleomenes?". She condones both, first to let him marry her daughter, then to have him killed, but Eriphile, desperate to avoid becoming "the minister of hate", requests Nicander to save Timocrates, though stopping short of promising to marry him. Nicander answers that he may yet serve her well. As the queen invites the couple to enter the temple to marry, the Cretes invade the city. She is forced to yield the crown, their entry being helped by Nicander, who recognizes in the noble Timocrates his rightful king. Thanks to Nicander, Timocrates becomes the king of Argos and Crete with Eriphile as his queen.


Ariadne despairs on discovering that Theseus has abandoned her, as portrayed by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), 1877

Time: Antiquity. Place: Naxos, Greece.

Text at ?

After helping Theseus kill the minotaur in Crete, Ariadne and he escaped from the wrath of King Minos, her father, to the isle of Naxos, welcomed and protected by King Oenarus. She expects marrying Theseus, but the man has for three months delayed the ceremony because of his growing love for her sister, Phaedra, as she loves him, but they are unwilling to declare their love until the king declares his own to Ariadne. Unaware of her sister's love, Ariadne proposes that Phaedra marry Theseus' friend, Pirithous. Theseus is unable to say whether he loves Ariadne, leaving Pirithous to suggest that she should heed the king's love, at which suggestion she grows very anxious of having a rival. She asks Phaedra to intercede with Theseus on her behalf, but her sister only half-heartedly attempts to do so. "Love like a tyrant disposes of his heart, and fate, stronger than gratitude, despite what he owes you, leads him to be false," Phaedra confesses. Pirithous once more presses the subject of King Oenarus' love if only to protect Ariadne from King Minos, but she cannot. "Without the one I love, alas, of what use is life?" Ariadne asks. She calls for Theseus and asks him what crime has she committed and specifies that for the service she has rendered only the heart can pay back. "I would like to give it to you," he says. "But this heart, in spite of me, lives under another empire...I hate my injustice but can do no more." On the subject of the king's love, she retorts: "Let everything perish if to you I must cease to be dear...Of the entire universe I wanted only you." To discover her rival's name, Ariadne promises the king to marry his choice after Theseus weds her rival. She also asks for Phaedra's help. "Should I sufficiently consent to everything rage offers as most bloody to avenge my outrage?" she asks. Armed with this knowledge, Theseus and Phaedra flee the court towards Athens. Ariadne discovers her rival's name too late. She asks Oenarus' help to pursue them, but then, in despair, falls on Pirithous' sword.