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Dramatic masks
"The pit of a theatre is the one place where the tears of virtuous and wicked men alike are mingled."

Denis Diderot (1713-84),
French philosopher.

France's political position as the most powerful nation in Europe during the reign of Louis XIV was reflected in the preeminence French literature attained in the 17th century. This Golden Age literature still forms the foundation of French liberal education. The period showed a continuing trend toward the reinforcement of royal authority and, except at the end, of Catholic influence.

Sarah Bernhardt.
Sarah Bernhardt in costume,
circa 1860.
Photographer: Nadar
(Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)

In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu created the Académie Française with the aim of regulating language and literary expression. The conflict between two literary tendencies — one toward greater creative freedom, which modern critics call baroque, and the other toward an acceptance of literary rules — had been virtually resolved in favor of classicism by 1660. The components of this creed would be codified by Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, the founder of French literary criticism, in his Art of Poetry (1674; Eng. trans., 1683), in which reason, proportion, and harmony were defined as the outstanding literary values.

France's greatest dramatists emerged during this period. Pierre Corneille, whose tragic masterpiece The Cid (1637), dramatizing the conflict between duty and passion, remains unequaled in the grandeur of its conception, wrote over 30 plays, most of them, after 1634, in accordance with the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. He was surpassed in popularity and critical esteem only by Jean Racine, whose simpler style and more realistic characters and plot structures, as in Andromache (1667; Eng. trans., 1675) and Phaedra (1677; Eng. trans., 1776), reveal a world of ferocious passions beneath a veneer of elegant poetry.

In the comic arena, Molière, ranging from the farcical to the sharpest explorations of social, psychological, and metaphysical questions, created a body of plays that seem as fresh and pointed today as they were when first produced. His masterpieces were Tartuffe (1664; Eng. trans., 1670), The Misanthrope (1666; Eng. trans., 1709), and The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670; Eng. trans. c1673).

During the following century, the lively plays of Pierre de Marivaux inspired the term marivaudage, meaning the style in which the subtle psychological components of love and dalliance were portrayed by the playwright. Toward the end of the 18th century, Beaumarchais held the stage with his popular comedies The Barber of Seville (1775; Eng. trans., 1776) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784; Eng. trans., 1785), which also conveyed a subtly rebellious political message.

"The virtue of dress rehearsals is that they are a free show for a select group of artists and friends of the author, and where for one unique evening the audience is almost expurgated of idiots."

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), French playwright, author.

French theater in the 19th century was at first dominated by the romantic dramas of Victor Hugo, whose Hernani (1830; Eng. trans., 1830) liberated playwrights from the confining traditions of the past, and by those of Alexandre Dumas père. These were followed in popularity by the well-made plays of Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, and Alexandre Dumas fils, who also defended social theses.

Victor Hugo.
Victor Hugo, French Dramatist
(Feb. 26, 1802 - May 22, 1885)
© British Library

Perhaps more than any other form, French theater illustrates the profound literary revolution that has swept France since the days of Edmond Rostand's flamboyant Cyrano de Bergerac (1897; Eng. trans., 1937). The poetical plays of Jean Giraudoux, especially the astringent Madwoman of Chaillot (1945; Eng. trans., 1947), continued to appeal to postwar audiences, as did the productions of Jean Anouilh, some smiling, some ferocious.

But with Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1950; Eng. trans., 1958), an altogether new drama, called the theater of the absurd, came into being, marking a sharp break with the past. Samuel Beckett best exemplified both the strengths and limits of this theater in Waiting for Godot (1953; Eng. trans., 1954) and Endgame (1957; Eng. trans., 1958). In these two plays the sets, the characters, and language itself disintegrate into an awesome void. The plays of Jean Genet, such as The Balcony (1956; Eng. trans., 1958) and The Blacks (1958; Eng. trans., 1960), also aim at destruction, but in a fuller, more theatrical, sacramental way. Yet however baffling and depressing these productions are, there can be no doubt that they powerfully illuminate the underlying somber concerns of the present era. Above all, they testify to the ever-present originality and vitality of French literature and confirm its enviable avant-garde role.

Jean Boorsch, Professor of French, Emeritus, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Sources: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v.9.0.1

Bibliography: Geoffrey Brereton, A Short History of French Literature, 2d ed. (1976, out-of-print); L.F. Cazamian, A History of French Literature (1955; repr. 1967); Lester G. Crocker, ed., The Age of Enlightenment (1969); Martin Esslin, The Theater of the Absurd (1961; rev. ed. 2004); Wallace Fowlie, Dionysus in Paris: A Guide to Contemporary French Theater (1960); Grace Frank, The Medieval French Drama (1972); Jacques and June Guicharnaud, Modern French Theater, from Giraudoux to Beckett (1967). Fodor's Paris, Fodor's Travel Publications, a division of Random House Inc., New York. Frommer's Paris From $95 A Day, Haas Mroue, Wiley Publishing Inc., Hoboken, NJ. Fodor's Exploring Paris, Fodor's Travel Publications, New York. The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Robert Andrews, Columbia University Press 1993. Paris Tourist Office (web site).

Images: Cover of "Moliere: A Theatrical Life", from Books. Sarah Bernhardt in costume, circa 1860, by French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known by the pseudonym Nadar), from Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Victor Hugo, from the British Library. All Rights Reserved.


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